Planning a Trip to Middle Earth

Our Jucy Condo parked along Lake Hawea

Our Jucy Condo parked along Lake Hawea

My husband and I strive to take one “big” trip a year.  The two of us, for two weeks, taking on the world.  We recently decided to focus our upcoming travels around more adventurous destinations – while we’re still relatively young and unencumbered.  After batting around a few ideas, we settled on New Zealand, and specifically, the South Island, for this year’s journey.  To make it even more interesting, we traveled around the country by campervan, staying at various “holiday parks” along the way.

In planning our itinerary, we knew we wanted to take advantage of the country’s magnificent outdoors with some extended hiking and day trips.  With only two weeks, we also wanted to use our time wisely – see as much as possible but be able to enjoy the places we visited instead of running from town to town.

We develNZ 2oped a rather compact itinerary that allowed us to hit-up most of the island’s “must-see’s/do’s” at a fairly leisurely pace.  Traveling from Christchurch, weNZ 1 went west and then down the coast through the glacier towns, before heading over to Lake Wanaka and wine country in route to Queenstown. From Queenstown, we headed north through the central region to Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo, returning to Christchurch.

Our final itinerary was as follows:

  • Day 1 – Arrive in Christchurch
  • Day 2 – Drive to Franz Josef
  • Day 3 – Hike Fox Glacier
  • Day 4 – Drive to Lake Wanaka
  • Day 5 – Lake Wanaka
  • Day 6 – Lunch in wine country / Drive to Queenstown
  • Day 7 – Depart from Queenstown for Routeburn Track
  • Day 8 – Routeburn Track
  • Day 9 – Routeburn Track
  • Day 10 – Routeburn Track / Milford Sound Cruise / Return to Queenstown
  • Day 11 – Queenstown
  • Day 12 – Drive to Mt. Cook
  • Day 13 – Drive to Lake Tekapo
  • Day 14 – Depart Lake Tekapo / Fly out from Christchurch

Our longest day of driving was five hours, and we made frequent stops and saw beautiful scenery along the way.  We traveled in late March/early April, which was early autumn in New Zealand.  While we missed the lupins, the weather was warmer than we expected and we had very little rain.

Of course, we would have loved to stay longer and see more, but by maximizing our stay in areas catering to our interests, we were able to get the most out of our trip.

How do you plan your travels when time is limited?  If you have visited the South Island, how was your trip different from/similar to ours?

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Routeburn Track: Preparing for the Great Unknown

Along the Routeburn Track

Along the Routeburn Track

Our arrival in Queenstown also meant the departure for our four-day, three-night hike along the Routeburn Track was rapidly approaching.  This was not our first multi-day hike, but it was the first time we embarked on such a journey that required carrying our own clothing/toiletries, bedding and food.  While Derek bore the brunt of the load, I was completely intimidated by the prospect of scaling mountain passes while weighted down like a mule.  My anxiety spilled over the night before departure, but *spoiler alert* I’m proud to say that it was a momentary setback, as I soon discovered that I’m capable of much more than I thought and hiking with a full pack really isn’t that difficult.

Guided or Independent?

Before proceeding any further, I should mention that “roughing it” is not the only way to explore this beautiful place.  In fact, with Ultimate Hikes, trampers can turn the trek into a near-luxury experience.  Catered meals, hot showers and private accommodations are just a few of the creature comforts provided.  Such offerings do not come without a price, of course, and beyond the impact to one’s wallet is the impact on the experience.

The way in which a hike such as this is approached – whether guided or undertaken independently – will greatly shape the nature of the journey.  While I was a late convert to the ways of independence, I can unequivocally say that I wouldn’t do it any other way.  If you’re grappling with which option is right for you, I encourage you to read this account, written by a Kiwi who experienced similar anxieties.  I know it helped to make up my mind.

Lodging and Food

If tackling the track independently, you must make a reservation at the Department of Conservation lodges located along the route.  The lodges are staffed by a warden who welcomes hikers each evening.  Typical facilities include a gathering/dining area, kitchen, bathrooms and bunk rooms.  Kitchen facilities are limited to gas burners (bring a lighter or matches) and sinks.  Bathroom facilities include flushing toilets and sinks, but no showers.

While many trekkers relied on dehydrated and/or packaged food in an effort to lighten their loads, we decided to make some concessions for our stomachs.  The first night (which happened to be our wedding anniversary), we had spaghetti all’amatriciana, complete with a bottle of wine!  The second night we had curried chickpeas, and on the final night we made lentils with chopped vegetables.  Breakfast was simple and sparse – tea and oatmeal.  We brought cured meat, cheese and bread for lunch, as well as trail mix for snacking.

Transportation

Even when opting to go it alone, you will likely still need to arrange transportation.  The Routeburn Track is point-to-point, as opposed to a looped trail, and thus you begin and end at different points.  We used Kiwi Discovery for roundtrip transport.  The available transportation packages also include an option for tacking on a Milford Sound cruise at the beginning or end of the hike.  As Milford Sound was a must-see destination for us, this was a welcome offering, as we were able to avoid any needless back-and-forth to Queenstown between the hike and the cruise.  I was also pleased that Kiwi Discovery partnered with Mitre Peak Cruises, my preferred cruise operator.

Overall, we had a great experience with Kiwi Discovery, and I would recommend the service, with a couple of caveats.  On a positive note, we were able to rent sleeping bags and cooking utensils, and thus were able to avoid traveling with these items for the duration of our trip.  Staff members were also very responsive to my emails in the lead up to our journey.  My two criticisms can easily be rectified with advance planning, and I note that both are clearly covered on the website.  First is the matter of lunch on the last leg (for us, this was the pickup at the end of the Routeburn Track, transport to Milford Sound and back to Queenstown).  There is no possibility of purchasing lunch at the Milford Sound registration/check-in area if you have not ordered ahead, though there are vending machines.  We were either not provided with the opportunity to place an order or failed to do so.  Though if we failed, so did everyone in our group, as no one who traveled with us received lunch, either.  When booking transport on the website, I see now that an option for adding lunch is available – make sure to select this add-on!  Lastly, the return from Milford Sound to Queenstown goes a roundabout way through Te Anau.  This makes for quite a long ride (especially if you are starving), though we were treated to a movie.