As a big fan of Jokulsarlon – an incredible glacier-filled lagoon in Iceland – I had high hopes for Tasman Lake in Mount Cook National Park. The Tasman Glacier calves directly into the lake, and I’d seen some photos that make it look a lot like Jokulsarlon. As soon as Marie and I reached the main viewpoint, however, it was clear that our timing was off. The lake was almost entirely glacier-free, which must be common in late summer.
From Mount Cook we drove to Queenstown, billed as New Zealand’s “adventure capital.” We took a pass on skydiving, bungee jumping, and jet boats, so our experience was less than adventurous. The most interesting adrenaline-free attraction recommended by our guidebook was an underwater observatory at the edge of Lake Wakatipu, but after a quick look at a bunch of big fish we wished we’d spent our $10 on more Choco Cones at McDonald’s.
A four-hour drive from Queenstown took us to Milford Sound, poster child for New Zealand’s tourism board. Sheer rock walls rose into the clouds on all sides of the narrow fiord, and thanks to recent rains a scattering of thin waterfalls dropped from dizzying heights. It was genuinely stunning.
Before sunset the water level dropped and we wandered far out onto the tidal flat. The busloads of tourists who’d arrived that day for boat trips were gone, and as darkness fell we had the extraordinary landscape almost entirely to ourselves.
We were lucky enough to find a campervan site right in Milford Sound that evening. I hoped for good sunrise light, but heavy rain was falling when we woke up. We took one last look at the fiord under a flat gray sky and then drove back to Queenstown.
The next day we finally cut over to the east coast of the South Island. I wanted to photograph the round boulders at Moeraki Beach before we dropped off our van in Christchurch. As we checked into our campground at Hampden Beach, right next to Moeraki, the receptionist told us about colonies of yellow-eyed penguins and fur seals at the nearby Katiki Point Lighthouse, and we jumped at the chance to see some wildlife. Before the trip I hadn’t realized that a small bat is the largest land mammal indigenous to New Zealand, and on our hikes I missed the possibility of spotting the big animals you can see in other countries.
While driving away from the lighthouse something small moving along the side of the road caught our eye. We stopped for a closer look and realized it was a hedgehog, the first I’d ever seen in the wild. Apparently the British colonists brought hedgehogs to New Zealand to remind them of home and help control garden pests.
We arrived at Moeraki Beach to find – of course – a horde of other photographers lined up to shoot the boulders at sunset. Sandflies attacked in force and Marie retreated to our van as I tried to get a decent photo without being devoured or dunking my camera in the surf. So many sandflies swarmed my camera that they kept landing on my lens and ruining my shots.
Back at Moeraki Beach before dawn I tried again to get good photos, but heavy cloud cover all but blocked the sunrise. Marie played it smart by skipping sunrise in favor of another hour of sleep.
From Moeraki it would only take a few more hours of driving to reach Christchurch and return our struggling campervan. The Loopabout – as Marie named it – was producing more strange noises, but this was the home stretch and we began to believe we might make it.
On a highway twenty miles outside of Christchurch the van’s faint whirring sound suddenly changed to a deep clanking. Ten seconds later the engine died completely. Ah, we were so close! I pulled over to the shoulder and tried to start it back up. The engine wouldn’t even turn over. The Loopabout would take us no farther.
“I hope the rental place lets it retire,” Marie said, making a good point. The Loopabout wasn’t having fun anymore. If it had been an animal the humane thing would have been to put it down. Quality of life was gone.
Marie reached the rental company on her phone, and they told us to call a tow truck. A couple hours later the tow truck driver dropped me, Marie, and the Loopabout off in Christchurch.
The rental company employees laughed good-naturedly as we pulled up. “Well, we almost made it,” I told them.
We spent that night in Christchurch, which – still getting itself back together after a powerful earthquake in November of last year – felt more like a construction site than a city. The following afternoon we said goodbye to New Zealand and began the long trip back to California.
New Zealand gets a lot of well-deserved hype for its natural beauty. I know better than to think of beauty as a competition, but I couldn’t stop myself from making comparisons to countries like the United States, Canada, Chile, and Iceland. Yellowstone, for example, blows away Rotorua. The Harding Ice Field in Alaska is more impressive than any glacier we saw in New Zealand. The landscape at Banff National Park is more dramatic than Milford Sound. Day hikes at Torres del Paine top the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Jokulsarlon is more magical than Tasman Lake.
What impressed me most about New Zealand is that the entire country is beautiful. Marie and I drove almost the full length of both islands, and I don’t remember passing through any stretch of scenery that wasn’t pretty. New Zealand’s highlights may not be quite as stratospheric as some other places, but pound-for-pound I’d rank it right up there with the most beautiful countries in the world.