January 16, 2019
Growing up in Australia, I’ve always felt a healthy rivalry towards New Zealand. Aussies are raised on jokes that poke fun at our neighbours to the east, and we’re competitive about almost everything, especially sport… except rugby. As any realistic Australian will tell you, “Yeah nah, the Kiwis have us beat there.”
Of course, there’s no genuine hostility. Australians spend just as much time in Queenstown and Wanaka, New Zealand’s adventure capitals, as they do in Whistler and Banff. And after spending two weeks driving around the South Island myself, I’ll admit that when it comes to rugged mountains, alpine hiking trails and outdoor adventures, New Zealand once again has got us beat.
Do you have New Zealand on your travel radar? If you’re heading there from Canada, there’s plenty to do that makes the flight definitely worth it:
1. Explore a national park
There are 13 national parks spread across New Zealand’s North and South islands – that’s more than 30,000 square kilometres of wilderness to explore. And each park offers something unique. Abel Tasman National Park is filled with beaches and coves, so a multi-day kayaking adventure is the best way to do it justice. Mount Aspiring National park, on the other hand, is known for its hiking trails and heli-skiing.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, located between Queenstown and Christchurch, is another must-visit. Home to the tallest mountain in New Zealand, this park was used by Sir Edmund Hillary as a training ground before he scaled Mount Everest, and is a great warm up for anyone with plans to hike to Everest Base Camp. There are also many low-key hikes in the park, including the relatively flat Hooker Valley Track, which takes you 5km up the Hooker River to a glacial lake.
2. Kayak with dolphins
Located west of Queenstown, Fiordland National Park – which includes the famous Milford Sound – gives you the chance to spend time with New Zealand’s marine life. Go out with a guide or rent a kayak and paddle on clear waters with views of glaciers, waterfalls and the iconic Mitre Peak. If you’re lucky, you might even see a pod of curious dolphins.
3. Walk the (great) walk
There are nine “Great Walks” in New Zealand, ranging from 32km to 145km in length. The trails are located across both the North and South Islands, but two of the most popular ones, the Milford Track (53.5km) and the Routeburn Track (32km), can be found just outside of Queenstown. Both hikes have all kinds of alpine views, including waterfalls, deep valleys and rugged peaks. And a bonus: New Zealand lacks the bears of Canada and the snakes of Australia, so you can sleep well under the stars without worrying what the rustling sounds are outside at night.
4. Climb a glacier
Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier are remnants of the ice age that carved out New Zealand’s mountains and valleys. Depending on your timeframe and budget, there are two ways to experience them: you can either follow gentle walking tracks to viewing platforms, or you can ride a helicopter to the top of the glacier and actually set foot on the ice. Either way, a visit to these natural wonders is an absolute must.
5. Cycle from summit to shore
Linking the Southern Alps to the Pacific Ocean, the epic Alps 2 Ocean (A2O) Cycle Trail is the longest bike route in New Zealand. The trail begins at Aoraki/Mount Cook and takes keen cyclists past great lakes, glacier-carved valleys and a handful of wineries. While the full trail takes anywhere from four to eight days to complete, you can cycle just one section of the A2O to get a taste of what it’s like.
6. Visit Middle-earth
One of the best ways to see the setting of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is to walk the world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This 19.4km hike takes you past Mount Ngauruhoe, an active volcano that you’ll recognize as Mordor’s Mount Doom. The Department of Conservation has asked that hikers not retrace Frodo’s footsteps to the summit though – the peak is considered sacred, so be sure to stick to the trail.
7. Take a giant leap
Queenstown and Wanaka offer countless ways to get your heart racing. In fact, the world’s first permanent commercial bungee site opened near Queenstown in 1988, which means bungee jumping is on most visitors’ to-do lists. If leaping off a bridge doesn’t appeal to you though, there are plenty of other options, like whitewater rafting, jet boating, skydiving, heli-skiing and paragliding.
Packing tips for New Zealand
Given the variety of activities you can do in New Zealand, use this travel checklist to make sure you’ve got the essentials. Once that’s covered, I suggest you add these items to your bag:
- A good pair of hiking boots and a daypack are essential for any New Zealand trip.
- Planning on taking your camera or phone out in the kayak? You’ll need a dry bag.
- It can get chilly on the glaciers, so be sure to pack a warm puffy jacket.
- Even in summer, the nights are cool in the alpine regions. Bring some quality base layers to make it easy to adapt to changing temps.