2020 was supposed to be another big year of travel for me, with a four-week Europe trip in August and September including Iceland, the top country on my bucket list of places to go. Safe to say, COVID-19 tore these plans to shreds and there’s no certainty on whether any international travel will be possible this year at all. So I thought I’d look back and blog about one of my most memorable overseas holidays, a solo car trip in New Zealand.
I travelled by myself plenty of times, but this was the one and only time I did a week-long car trip all by myself. I’d never have dared to go driving solo around Australian outback for a week, but with New Zealand being nicely compact in comparison I felt much more confident. I was also already familiar with the Land of the Long White Cloud, having done a two-week organised coach trip around the North and South islands a few years prior (loved the country, but wouldn’t do another big coach tour again). This time, I flew into Christchurch and spent seven days doing a loop around the South Island, which for my money boasts more majestic scenery than its northern brother. Can’t beat those mountains!
I do love travelling with a company, but there’s also something special about travelling all by yourself and being fully immersed in the experience and the natural beauty without having to divide your attention. Leaving out the staff at the motels, stores and eateries, I barely exchanged a word with a single person in a week. It’s perhaps not the way to live your life, but as a short break, I thought it was rather fabulous.
The car I hired was decent enough, but to my dismay its music playing capabilities only went as far as the cassette tape player. So my first stop was a K-Mart store where I purchased the cheapest portable CD player available that I could leave behind at the end of my trip. There’s nothing like blasting your favourite music while driving around epic landscapes, though changing the CDs was a tricky process requiring utmost care.
I was incredibly lucky with the sunny weather on my second day as I headed down towards Lake Tekapo, and the first sight of the beautiful turquoise blue colour of the lake took my breath away. Forget the overrated Church of the Good Shepherd and the doggie statue, it’s all about the lake. Then I thought I might as well head over to the Mount Cook National Park past Lake Pukaki, for a brief stroll.
The next day, I drove down further south, and encountered a surreal sight: the sky above looked like it was cleaved into halves, the one behind me with nice clear blue sky, and the one in front of me with a mass of low-hanging grey clouds. The miserable grey weather continued all the way to Moeraki Boulders Beach, scattered with strange spherical stones that give it its name, but cleared up again as I reached Queenstown.
I abandoned my car for a day, as I went on a day trip to the majestic Milford Sound. It would have been nice to see it in sunny weather, but cruising its spectacular fjords is an amazing experience no matter what.
As I headed out of Queenstown, I stopped at the scenic lookout just outside the city, when a bike rider pointed out to me that I had a flat tyre. Not possessing any mechanical skills, I had to rely on the kindness of strangers; luckily a van with a holidaying family stopped at my frantic waving, and the father replaced my tyre. It was a lovely reminder that the world is full of kind people who’ll take time to help you out.
I stopped at a few scenic spots that day, but my favourite was this near-empty and nicely monochromatic rocky beach, with the many piles of stones left behind by the travellers as a sort of anonymous “I was there” signature. I never had an urge to pile up the stones, or carve my name into a rock or tree for posterity, but I can understand the impulse.
The next day I went to see the distinctive and striking Pancake Rocks on the West Coast, and then it was back to Christchurch via the stunning scenery of Arthur’s Pass. I was kicking myself for not bringing the Lord of the Rings trilogy soundtracks with me, they would have been the perfect musical accompaniment for these rugged open spaces.
I had some time to spend in Christchurch before my plane back to Melbourne, strolling along Avon River and stumbling on an exhibition of funky old cars. At the airport, I bought a jar of Manuka honey, before realising that honey actually does qualify as a liquid and I’ve already checked in my luggage. So no delicious Manuka honey for me.
I went to New Zealand once again five years later, to see more of the North Island, but I’d love another trip around the South Island. It’s highly likely that New Zealand is going to be the first country open for travel to Australians, so who knows. All hail the Trans-Tasman bubble!