Lakes, mountains and seals: A perfect slice of New Zealand

‘It’s a great wine. I’d sit down and have a glass with you if I could.’

From the moment a smiling Air New Zealand flight attendant uttered those words and handed me a glass of crisp Sauvignon Blanc, I knew this was a place I was going to like.

As my three-hour flight from Sydney touched down in Wellington, I was greeted by blue skies and a Kiwi friend who would play tour guide for my four days on the North Island.

We hopped in the car and drove up Mount Victoria, for the first of endless picturesque views. Rolling green hills, covered in dense trees in shades of emerald, lime and grey, with scatterings of beautiful yellow flowers, coupled with Wellington’s glistening port and the promise of wilderness beyond.

I spent my first night in a small wooden 1930s beach house overlooking a calm harbour. The lights from across the bay flickered on the water and by morning I woke to see the sun rising from behind the hills.

We set off east to the Wairarapa region, in the south-eastern corner of the North Island – home to great wine and a large fur seal colony.

About one and a half hours outside of Wellington, we stopped in the small country town of Martinborough.

Since the area was discovered to have a great micro-climate for wine making 35 years ago, vineyards and tourism have become the town’s focus.

Its defining architectural feature is the grand colonial style Martinborough Hotel, built in 1992. You can just imagine local disputes being settled outside its doors, before it was painted bright white and turned into a swanky wedding venue.

A man played the drum on a street corner and tourists peered into the petite shop windows selling handmade ornaments, cards, and candles. My friend highlighted how all the streets are named after foreign cities – like Texas and Strasbourg Street. These were places visited by the town’s founder John Martin, who arrived in New Zealand from Ireland in 1841.

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We carried on to the coast, driving along the winding, dramatic roads to Cape Palliser, with the occasional metal barrier the only thing between crumbling rocks and Palliser Bay on one side and lush hills with bright purple and yellow flowers on the other.

We drove by a row of multi-coloured diggers (some with smiley faces painted on) attached to trailers that are used for pulling out fishing boats from the turbulent seas, in the small village of Ngawihi, before reaching a particularly striking set of rocks jutting out into the ocean.

As we moved closer on foot, I realised the attraction – those slick looking mounds were seals.

Walking past shrubs, big, black, beady eyes peered out at me. I was surrounded.

IMG_9730The larger seals stayed high on their self-proclaimed castle, peering down at visitors clutching cameras. Meanwhile, their little pups were scattered all over the place and showed off to the tourists – rolling onto their backs and flashing their orange-tanned bellies, or lifting a flipper in the air.

A small seal posed for my photo, turning its head to both sides before following me as I continued to climb the slippery rocks.

Pulling ourselves away from the playful colony, we embarked on the 250 steps up to Cape Palliser lighthouse. A traditional red and white structure built in 1897 that boasts great views over the unforgiving coastline known for seafaring disasters.

Then it was onto Lake Ferry and what seemed like further away from civilisation than I’d ever been. The phone reception cut out and the air became calm and quiet. Only the sound of locals on quad bikes bouncing along the lake’s grey-pebbled beach broke the peace.

IMG_9992We stayed at the Lake Ferry Hotel – the only drinking establishment for miles – and dined on homemade lamb burgers.

Situated on the shore of stunning Lake Onoke, the hotel opened in 1851 as a place for the local ferryman to sleep after a boat service began helping European settlers bring their sheep and cattle into the area. These days it’s popular with locals, tourists and even bikies who roar up for a quiet drink.

After a lazy start on day three and a stroll down to the fierce surf break that smashed one side of the deceptively fast flowing grey lake, we headed back to Wellington.

Along the way, we made a ‘pie pit-stop’ for a homemade sausage roll. I think it’s fair to say New Zealand is even prouder of its pies than Australia. We made another stop for a spot of fly fishing by a freshwater river in the blazing sunshine. No trouts were caught but it was a pleasant way to spend an hour.

My last day in Wellington, on Tuesday, featured a drive along its south coast, discovering wartime gun bunkers and firing points. The once essential vantage points, atop of hills overlooking the harbour, now lay abandoned and covered in colourful graffiti. Yes, there was the obligatory phallic drawing but there was also appropriately themed maritime designs, such as a large squid and a penguin.

I spent the afternoon meandering along Cuba Street with its eclectic mix of vintage shops, coffee houses and record stores, and visiting The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Reading about New Zealand’s geology, storms, and earthquakes and seeing the alien-like colossal squid was interesting – but my favourite attraction was filmmaker Peter Jackson’s Gallipoli: The Scale of our War exhibition.

The giant sculptures depicting men ravaged by war, proud courageous soldiers who witnessed so much horror, were captivating. The Lord of the Rings director had reimagined every tiny detail, from the fine hair on their arms to the beads of sweat on their foreheads, flies persistently landing on their skin and the sadness in their eyes.

On Wednesday it was time to go south – for part two of my Kiwi adventure.

Flying into New Zealand’s famous ski resort, I could see the dramatic shift in the landscape. Nestled amongst jagged brown mountains, still covered with the slightest dusting of snow at their peak, is Queenstown and the azure water of Lake Wakatipu.

It’s New Zealand’s longest lake at 80 kilometres and teams with chilly glacial water that changes hue from turquoise to dense blue, in bold contrast to the mountains, such as The Remarkables range, that surround it.

No amount of Google image searches could have prepared me for Queenstown’s jaw-dropping beauty. In fact, every photo I snapped on my iPhone left me disappointed that I couldn’t capture the scenery in a way that truly did it justice.

I’d arrived in the alpine resort town – otherwise known as the adventure sport capital of the world – in spring, but postcards perched on shop stands gave me a glimpse of how it would appear at the height of ski season, a veritable winter wonderland.

However, as someone who has never traversed a slope, I thought the bare brown mountains looked perfect with their alpine firs and different shades of greenery.

That first afternoon, I strolled around the Queenstown gardens along the edge of the lake. The pretty peninsula plays host to a forest frisbee course, ice-skating and tennis courts. I lost a few hours sitting by the lake, simply staring at the mountains, joined occasionally by delicate, friendly sparrow-like birds.

Everyone who I’d told I was visiting Queenstown had urged me to try a Fergburger. The casual hamburger joint has become somewhat internationally renowned since it opened in 2001. There are almost 30 burgers to choose from but I picked an unadventurous cheeseburger. Incredibly large, it was oozing with sauce and tasty but perhaps not ‘the best I’ve ever had’. For anyone needing to offload leftovers, there are always a dozen gluttonous seagulls and ducks ready to take food off your hands. But in a place like Queenstown, you need all the fuel you can get.

Eschewing the endless amount of terrifying, vomit-inducing options to throw yourself off a ledge or jump out of a plane, I decided to spend my four days hiking up hills alone.

I figured it was the best way to really see the landscape and to take time marvelling at the views rather than hurtling towards the ground the whole trip. Plus, I’m a wimp.

First off though, I booked onto a tour of Milford Sound.

The magical, mystical waterway is said to be one of film director James Cameron’s favourite places in New Zealand and an inspiration for his Avatar – the highest-grossing film of all time.

The five hour drive to Milford Sound is long but I never tired of staring out the window at the increasingly stunning view. Fiordland National Park, where Milford Sound is situated, is made up of the southern ranges of the Southern Alps, valleys with glistening glacial creeks and yellowing grass where lambs happily graze and bounce. Moss covered forest floors are the base point for ancient trees towering into the sky and green kakapo birds – the only flightless parrot in the world – interrogate you for food if you step off the coach.

Our eccentric driver warned us we were in avalanche country as we drew towards the Homer Tunnel that cuts through the mountains. I noted we were surrounded by crumbling grey rocks and boulders that had been dutifully cleared from the roads by a team dedicated to keeping the tourist track open.

The winding mountain road and tunnel took nearly 20 years to complete. Construction first began in 1935 by relief workers during the depression but when WWII broke out, the men were called up to fight and the ambitious project was put on hold.

The solid granite tunnel finally opened in 1954 after overcoming floods from snowmelt and a catastrophic avalanche in 1945.

But the reason people spent decades painstakingly laying the road to Milford Sound with wheelbarrows and pickaxes is clear – a place this beautiful has to be shared with the world.

The huge inlet, where seals, penguins, and dolphins live peacefully, is lined by mountain cliff faces and waterfalls – both the trickling and powerful kind – which pour into the deep glacial waters.

Our small boat took us up close to the falls, providing an unrivalled natural shower experience.

Around every bend was a new sight to behold and a grand backdrop behind.

An hour’s cruise took us to the edge of the ocean – 1,000 nautical miles from Brisbane, Australia.

On the way back down the sound, we pulled in close to a group of seals basking and barking in the sunshine on ‘seal rock’. They appeared like they had been perfectly placed there for our amusement.

Far away from everywhere, Milford Sound was more than worth the journey and is, without doubt, one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been.

After Thursday’s 10-hour coach round-trip, I spent the rest of my holiday on foot. Starting by hiking the friendly sounding Tiki Trail, which turned out to be a one and a half hour uphill battle.

It begins at the base of the Skyline Gondola and climbs to the summit of Bob’s Peak, where a well-placed cafe, luge ride, bungee jump, helicopter and paragliding station are on offer.

I climbed the steep, zig-zag walk through the pine forests and felt the burn but after soaking up the remarkable views of Queenstown from above I felt renewed to walk back down.

On arrival in town, I hired a bike for the last few hours of sunlight and powered along a gravel track alongside the lake.

Saturday morning, with a groggy head after sampling the resort’s abundant nightlife, including hidden bars packed with Brazilian, Canadian and French backpackers, I took on a long walk up Queenstown Hill.

The small 907 metre-high mountain is known by Maori as Te Tapu-nui – the mountain of intense sacredness. It felt special. Hidden in the large forest of douglas fir and larch trees were hundreds of slate-grey stones stacked delicately like pyramids by tourists and locals who had visited the beauty spot.

Hot and breathless, I reached the dusty summit and laid eyes on an another artistic creation: The Basket of Dreams sculpture by Caroline Robinson. Created to mark the millennium, the large artwork is placed in a spot with expansive views of Queenstown’s epic basin including Lake Wakatipu, Cecil Peak, and The Remarkables mountain range.

The sculpture’s inscription reads: ‘The baskets spiral of steel follows you inward to reflect, to draw inspiration from the mountains, lake and from those who are with you, outward to dream for the future.

‘Time flies, eternity awaits.’

My eight days in New Zealand did indeed fly by – but the memories made won’t be forgotten.

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