Girls’ Roadtrip around New Zealand

Stacie Chan
11 min readApr 11, 2020

I’ll be riding shotgun underneath the hot sun

Feeling like a someone…

South of the equator, navigate it

Gotta hit the road, gotta hit the road…

“Shotgun” by George Ezra was the #1 repeated song on our road trip playlist around the South Island of New Zealand. Our epic playlist was rewarded with even more epic views, which made the hours on the road fly by. I’m typically not a road trip person — for me, it really is about the destination, not the journey. But when you have two badass chick friends who feel comfortable driving on either side of the road, and all I had to do was marvel out the car window, I could sign up for more road trips B)

I don’t have to emphatically convince anyone that New Zealand should be high up on their list of destinations to visit. But I will say, the country is best enjoyed by adrenaline junkies who want to stare fear in the face.

Bombs away!! (Bonus points for touching the water)

Highlights:

  1. Bungy jumping: I swore I’d never do this in my entire life, which is precisely why I had to do it at the birthplace of Bungy jumping
  2. Roadtripping: Long car rides typically make me nauseated, but with views as stunning as New Zealand’s, the unbelievable scenery made the hours pass by quickly
  3. Helicopter ride to Franz Josef glacier: we felt light as a feather as we delicately landed on this massive living block of ice

Bungy Jumping at Kawaru Bridge, Queenstown; 5 stars!!

In planning our trip to New Zealand, the three of us promised each other that we would bungy jump. The thought terrified me so much that nightmares plagued my sleep leading up to the trip. But hey, YOLO, right? So the deed had to be done. We signed up to jump off the Kawaru Bridge, the original birthplace of bungy jumping, which, at 44m high (144 ft) offered distractingly gorgeous views. The colors popped even more naturally than layering the Valencia Instagram filter over my vision. For the 30min that we waited our turn, I couldn’t lower my gaze to meet the raging river below us. My friends assuaged my fears by letting me jump first — there was no way I could watch them jump first, then follow suit.

When it was my turn to jump, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to throw up or pee my pants more. But I focused on the natural beauty around me as the genial man harnessed me up and asked me polite questions, to which I nervously responded with uneasy laughter. “Do you want to touch the water?” the operator asked. Go big or go home, baby. I nodded yes, and he carefully measured the length of the rope to ensure that my fingertips would graze the water as I plunged off the ledge. My ankles were imprisoned — I mean, strapped — together and I waddled over to the small wooden block, prepared to jump.

Striving for perfect form after jumping off the ledge

I took a deep breath, gritted my teeth into a forced smile, then raised my arms overhead. I willed my body to lean forward, then let gravity do the rest. As I swan-dived off the platform, the world around me froze in place, except for the scintillatingly blue water that pierced my consciousness as it edged closer and closer. And just as the weightlessness creeped into my gut, I plunged waist-deep into the water. The icy coolness took my breath away, and I whipped back into the air, hurling in every direction imaginable. I regained my senses, and the world was topsy turvy, a watercolor landscape of rich blues, deep greens, and earthy browns. My breath back, I hooted and hollered, grateful to be alive — and actually enjoyed myself! The experience was definitely the thrill of my life, and I would bungy jump again in a heartbeat.

Plunging into the Kawaru river is definitely one way to snap back into consciousness.

Paragliding in Queenstown, 4 stars

Comin’ in hot!

Jumping off high places tended to be a theme for our trip. In Queenstown, we rode the funicular to the highest point on the mountain. We then got strapped into a harness, and ran off the cliff, praying our parachute would catch a gust of wind. But after bungy jumping, paragliding seemed like child’s play, especially because an instructor jumped in tandem with us. It’s a surreal feeling, like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff and still cycling our feet as the ground gave way. We continued to pedal after takeoff, then realized we were completely suspended in air with the town hundreds of feet away from us.

The paraglide seat was completely supportive, so much so that it felt more like one of those simulator rides at Disneyland, but the spectacular views were actually real. The instructor asked if I wanted to shake things up, so he played puppet master with our parachute, pulling the left and right strings to zigzag and swirl through the air. That was fun for all of 60 seconds, then I started getting nauseated and opted instead to enjoy the views of the sea that seemed to go on till the end of the world.

Waterfall Cable Climb, 5 stars

In the charmingly quaint town of Wanaka, we went for a waterfall hike, while we were suspended by some measly cables. Before we could ascend the waterfall, we had to practice hooking and unhooking our 5 carabiners on a makeshift course so we could avoid tumbling to our death. Even in the practice round, I got flustered and messed up.. a lot. Thank goodness I looked somewhat capable of figuring my shit out when my life was truly on the line.

Look ma, no hands! (Thank you, carabiners, for your stability.)

The guide confidently reminded us that no one had ever died, or even been seriously injured on the trek, which brought me much comfort. The climb was definitely a physical (and mental) exercise, and we were rewarded with gorgeously expansive views of Wanaka. And after you got the hang of the carabiners, you could even try fun tricks like dangling off bridges!

And while you’re in Wanaka, make sure to visit #thatwanakatree. It’s a little bit of a walk around the lake, but a fun photo opp. #ididitfortheinsta

Photoshoot by the solitary tree in the middle of Lake Wanaka

Milford Sound is gorges, 4 stars

Pontificating about the meaning of life at the “8th Wonder of the World”

This “8th wonder of the world” is a must visit. The fjord is an astoundingly confusing mix of rainforest plus mountains that have an Avatar-like quality. Traveling in and out of Milford Sound is best by boat, which carried us so close to the stunning fjords that the tumbling waterfalls completely soaked us. There are endless mountain summits with rivers carving into the mountain like skiiers gliding down the slopes. Sailing towards each cliff or waterfall felt like we were encroaching on a completely new planet, with species unknown. But spotting playful seals and penguins reminded me that we were still on planet Earth.

Franz Josef glacier, 4 stars: (named after the dude who “discovered” the glacier), or Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere (The tears of Hine Hukatere) as the native Maori people called it)

New Zealand offers some of the most varied terrain. One day we’re sailing through fjords, then sweating on sweltering hikes, then we’re hiking on a glacier. Climate change has devastatingly caused the Franz Josef glacier to recede so dramatically that the only way to now reach the glacier is by helicopter.

Talk about door-to-door service: the helicopter landed us directly on the glacier.

The helicopter ride was actually my favorite part of the whole tour. Lifting from the helipad felt effortless, as if all the passengers weighed nothing. But the weightlessness made us susceptible to even the slightest gust of wind. And as we glided in and around the mountains, descending upon the strikingly blue glacier was breathtaking.

Hiking the glacier was an otherworldly adventure, with peaks and turns through crevasses and even tunnels. (If glacier hiking is your thing, I recommend also heading to Iceland’s Sólheimajökull glacier.) Despite the solid sturdiness of the ice, the guide reminded us that the glacier glides 20 inches every day, a vibrantly shifting organism. I naively asked if the tours and human activity negatively impacted the glacier, and he cheekily replied, “No, but flights from the US to New Zealand do.” Zing!

Attempt at starting a K-pop girl band on a glacier… then not taking ourselves seriously.

Glowworm Caves, 3 stars

Te Anau’s famous glowworm caves are also a must visit. We first descended into a cave where sensory deprivation soon hit. I got dizzy after a while with no reference points to focus on, but the blackness added to the mystique of the caves. We made our way through the damp cave to gondolas floating atop the cave’s lakes, where guides navigated us to the glowworms with a rope and pulley system. Suddenly we saw tiny, electric blue stars dotting the entire ceiling. The guide shined a light on a few, and the glow worms’ silk strands looked like curtains of glass crystal beads.

(Not pictured: delicate glow worm strands, since it was too dark to take photos)

Drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy, 4 stars

Glenorchy offers easy trails to hike and chase birds.

Glenorchy feels like Everytown, America… except in New Zealand. There’s a Trading Post and small cafes along the way where we grabbed an ice cream cone while sitting along picnic tables. The Mrs. Woolies Trading Post is the highlight of this town, which speaks volumes about the activity available here. I wouldn’t go out of your way to make a stop here, but if it’s convenient, it’s a nice afternoon well spent.

Roadside hugs are necessary to break up the drive and enjoy the scenery.

And, as with all of New Zealand, it offers beautiful trails to explore. We found a small 1.5 hour flat hike, which was quite pleasant. But I had a rude awakening in Glenorchy — a wicked sunburn. Anywhere else in the world, I usually have enough melanin in my skin to block the sun’s rays, but apparently, the ozone layer is much thinner in this part of the world.

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy alone might be worth it. I’m the worst roadtrip passenger as it’s nearly impossible for me to stay awake. But the views of the piercingly blue Lake Wakatipu kept me alert the entire time.

HIKES

Key Summit near Milford Sound, 5 stars: This was the most beautiful hike I’ve been on. As we ascended the mountain, we felt like we were on the top of the bottom of the world. Nothing looks good in pictures, because reality is far more beautiful than a panorama photo on your phone. There are stunning landscapes as far as your eyes can make out.

At the top of Key Summit taking in the crisp air and gusts of wind

Queenstown Tiki Trail Hike, 4 stars

Once we landed in Queenstown, we immediately hightailed it to a trail to get our hearts pumping. We chose the Tiki Trail Hike, which wound its way up the mountain in parallel with the Funicular/Gondola. The hike takes about 1.5 hours, but we heeded the man who gave us directions and said we looked fit, so we could finish the hike in about an hour. Challenge accepted!

Grace hightailing it up the mountain… while still looking adorbs

Blue Pools Hike, 4 stars

I didn’t know water could be this blue #nofilter

This isn’t so much a hike as an easy walk through a forest to view spectacularly blue pools. I half expected to see nymphs or other fictional woodland creatures bathing in the pools since they looked so fake. Bonus points: to get there, we had to cross over a slightly unstable swing bridge for some thrills.

Restaurants/eats:

New Zealand isn’t known for its spectacular culinary scene, but there are few stops that are worth visiting.

  • Drinking beers by the river: New Zealand does their craft beers right, and at a reasonable price. There’s a small creek that flows through Queenstown’s downtown, where you can picnic by the banks. At sunset, we grabbed a six-pack of beers and chilled by the river.
  • Fergberger: the Queenstown eatery was worth breaking my “no red meat” rule. These massive burgers are everything a burger should be: a juicy, perfectly medium-rare patty on a fluffy brioche bun with your choice of toppings. All three of us sat down, prepared to have leftovers, but subsequently demolished the entire burger that was the size of our heads. They also have a sister bakery next door where you can get freshly baked pastries. Do get the almond croissant :P
“No red meat” rules can be broken when the burger is this good.
  • Blue Kanu: there’s a delicious Hawaiian/fusion restaurant in Queenstown that was the closest thing to Asian food we had the whole trip. They have a great “Feed me” option, essentially a 4-course omekase of their most popular dishes for $65 AUD.
  • Vudu Cafe: this place has DA BEST, most indulgent brunch. We got the avocado toast, of course, plus a delicious kale salad (says the Californian), and a ginormous piece of carrot cake. Sit in the outdoor patio where you can people watch around the busy riverwalk, which often has aspiring musicians crooning their hearts out.
Vudu Cafe had every sinful dessert imaginable in super-size-me portions.
  • Big Fig Wanaka: reasonably priced yummy comfort food that had a good selection of veggie options. We definitely had not been getting our 4–5 servings of vegetables in the land of meat and carbs, so this was a welcome reprieve.

New Zealand feels like a treasure island at the end of the world. The remoteness adds to its mystical quality, where you can view the entire Milky Way in the late evening. Driving at nighttime in deafening silence enables you to absorb the velvety black sky dotted with streaks of twinkling stars. The sky looks like an artist took a palette of silver paint and carefully smeared streaks throughout the vast universe. The expansiveness simultaneously constricts your breath and inflates your senses. It’s worth taking a few moments to pull over on the side of the road, and stare up into the abyss as a reminder of how small we are.

There’s no better place to experience Mother Nature in all her glory than in New Zealand. Can’t wait to return someday and further explore the North Island.

Stunning pastel sunsets in New Zealand

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Stacie Chan

California girl gallivanting around the globe, writing about travel, food, life, and everything in between