Woke up to a disappointingly cloudy day in Mt Cook village. So I lazed around in bed and had a long breakfast and early lunch before heading out. The lodging’s staff advised me that I should just venture out even though the weather forecast isn’t favourable because the elements tend to be very fickle-minded around here.
The plan was to do the Hooker Valley track (what a name right). I’ve been looking forward to this since I read about how easy and stunning the route is. I thought the 40 minute walk to the start of the track would be rather dreary and monotonous, it turned out to be a lovely journey because it weaved through some marvelous open plains. The air was chilly, the land and my mind were quiet, and I had all the time in the world to walk slowly.
That’s probably the first iceberg I’ve gotten close enough to observe its fascinating curvilinear forms. So I sat at a quiet spot along the lake’s rocky beach for about an hour just munching on my lunch and staring into space. I could’ve sat a lot longer, but a drizzle made an unwelcomed appearance.
And it rained all the way back to the start of the trail, and even more on my journey home. Being rained on for more than an hour taught me that wearing a woolen beret underneath a “waterproof” jacket’s hood is the best way to keep the head really dry. Tried and tested life hack!
While I was bummed out that I didn’t have the “perfect” Hooker Valley experience, I took comfort in the fact that I had one more full day to explore the other trails around Mt Cook. Little did I know that I’d be able to see this place in full glory the following afternoon.
So I went on a shorter walk at Governors Bush (this town sure likes innuendos) to buy some time, hoping that the mist would dissipate before I attempt the longer hikes.
But I tapped deep, deep, into my zen consciousness to remind myself that I was lucky to have already experienced so many wonderful things in New Zealand, and that I have to accept whatever the weather decides.
The clouds lifted within the next 30 minutes, and the surrounding lands emerged slowly to reveal its true magnificence.
This came into view when I took an unassuming corner. No clearly-marked directions for photo point ahead, no noisy tourists to indicate that it’s going to be a spectacular spot, no hype about it at all… It was just, BAM! I was really taken aback by its grandeur, and I stood at this spot for a long time just sweating, listening to my own breath, and trying to memorise everything about this place and moment.
And the views just got better and better from this point on…
The photo above sums up what I love most about New Zealand. Its rugged mountains, green hills, vast open spaces, and remoteness is utterly captivating. It’s rather surprising that there aren’t more tourists here because it’s really not hard to get here. Well, let’s hope it stays this way.
I sat here for some time as well, munching on an apple and some Shapes biscuits. Then spoke a bit with the lady in the picture, who said she really loved the peace and quiet here. Well, me too! And it was really tough trying to will myself to walk away from this piece of heaven, knowing that I won’t have something like this for a long, long time.
Now that the easy track is done, it’s time to conquer Sealy Tarns and its 2,200 steps.
It’s funny to reach a landing totally out of breath, sweaty, and unglam, and have strangers taking a break there smile or laugh at you because they were just like that a while ago.
The elevated views on this upward hike gave a new perspective to the same mountains and lakes I passed through the day before on the Hooker Valley track.
At this point, I was overwhelmingly in love with New Zealand, Planet Earth, our galaxy, and everything that made it possible for me to get to this point where I could witness the staggering beauty all around me.
I’ll close my epic trip on this high note. I was really lucky that the weather changed for the better on my last day in Mt Cook, and I got to see the best of this place. It has been an unforgettable 2 weeks tramping alone among some of the most astounding landscapes, and I really hope to come back and explore more of the South Island.
This country has spoilt me so much that I can’t imagine finding another destination where I can access such natural and remote lands with just my own two feet. But I’m utterly satisfied for now; my wanderlust properly soothed. It’s been four months since I returned, and I’m still basking in the afterglow of New Zealand’s magic.
Travelling around New Zealand without a car had been surprisingly easy so far, but the only time I kinda wished I had my own transport was the Mount Cook leg. I’d planned 3 nights there, and realised the day before I left Wanaka that there’s no supermarket there. The alpine town is made up of a handful of hotels and lodges with restaurants, and some simple convenience stores selling bare essentials such as milk, cheese, and some canned food. The nearest supermarket is a 45 minute drive away.
As much as I was excited about it being the most remote destination of my trip, it also meant that I had to pack 3 days worth of food that won’t go bad on my 5-hour coach journey there. So I ended up packing things like pasta, cereal, bananas, apples, biscuits, sausages, cheese, Indomie, and salads.
To be honest, I was really disappointed when I arrived at Mt Cook village. All I could see that cloudy afternoon was a couple of rather unremarkable mountains, and I was so bummed out that New Zealand’s tallest peak looked so drab. But I also didn’t realise how much low hanging clouds could alter the alpine landscape. Mt Cook was in fact completely covered in what I thought was just clouds in the sky.
I was really smitten, however, by how far and wide the plains stretched. I’ve never been to a land as vast and empty as this, and decided I should do some exploring on two wheels because these flat roads are just made for that!
This is where I stayed. Took a bed in a 4-bed dorm at Mt Cook Lodge & Motels (above) for NZ39/night. The ensuite bathroom even has a bathtub! Perfect to soothe tired muscles after long tramping days. Their bicycle rental is also really affordable, at $25 for 4 hours.
Every cell in my body was buzzing with a brand of euphoria that only nature can ignite. I was feeling a natural high stimulated by the silence, serenity, and sublimity of it all. It felt like a dream, where I’m the only person on this strange planet. I rode on and on, fueled by an unprecedented feeling of freedom and peace.
I followed the rudimentary map provided by my lodge and rode about 8km to the Tasmien Glacier, New Zealand’s longest glacier. It turned out to be a sad sight as the popular vantage point looked out to more rock than ice now due to its rapid melting in recent years.
All this majesty, just on my first day here! And I haven’t even gone hiking yet. By the time the day ended, I was sure that this is my favourite place on Earth.
More hikes and even more stunning views coming up during my next two days here!
There’s something magical about Wanaka. Compared to Queenstown, it’s much smaller and less touristy, but a whole lot more alluring. From my limited experience of New Zealand, I think this quiet lakeside town epitomizes what living in the South Island is like. Time passes a little slower here, people are more relaxed, and there’s nothing much to distract you from its pristine beauty.
I got here via a SGD19 coach ride from Queenstown, during which I was again astounded by South Island’s beauty. There’s just no end to its mountain ranges! We sped (yup, the drivers here are pretty confident) around some very curvy and scenic roads, and the 2-hour ride was almost too short for me to take it all in.
After a couple of gloomy days in Queenstown, I was so content to relish in the beautiful sunshine. I devoted a couple of hours just reading on a bench by the shore, listening to the lake lapping gently, and looking up occasionally to watch families with dogs stroll along calmly. It’s one of those moments during the trip where I could deliberately imprint what I saw, heard, and felt onto my mind, hoping that it’s etched deeply enough that I can easily transport myself back to this very moment easily in future.
While I felt relaxed this whole time, there were flashes of nervousness as I’ve booked an afternoon one-way flight. Yup, I’m going skydiving. I initially booked it in Queenstown, but due to bad weather, it got postponed multiple times on two consecutive days. So I gave up and hoped that my luck would be better in Wanaka. And seeing how clear the day was, I was sure I could finally jump. They can only confirm 30 minutes before your reserved slot as weather changes fast here, and they’ll only jump if the conditions are perfect.
Part of me wished I had my friends with me to get excited / nervous / silly with, but I’m also glad that I managed to egg myself on to just do it since I’m already in New Zealand. I went with Skydive Wanaka for a SGD552.6 package which included this video clip.
I was unexpectedly more exhilarated than jittery during the plane ride up, and I just kept smiling like an idiot, soaking up every second of the experience. I was seated near the plane’s transparent side door (out of which we later jumped), and could admire the arid, mountainous landscape surrounding Wanaka zooming out further and further like a Google Maps satellite view. The ride took about 10 minutes, and as soon as the side door was lifted, things escalated quickly. The Chinese girl next to me was already in jump position — which is having your entire body out of the plane while your tandem diver does one last check — and off they went!
Then I butt-shuffled over, and was hit with winds so forceful I could hardly keep my mouth closed. If you can disassociate the fact that jumping out of an airplane 12,000ft above ground with nothing but a small bagpack containing your life-saving parachute is totally illogical and insane, then you’d be able to enjoy just how fucking fun it is to hang over the edge! I was overwhelmed by the situation I found myself in: the plane’s propellers were deafening, the cold wind were blasting my nostrils, teeth, neck, and I was too busy processing things to realise what was going on. And the next second I tumbled out of the plane. We did a little somersault with my back to the ground, so I caught a passing glimpse of the airplane. Bye safety, and possibly, life as well.
The first second of free fall made my heart skip a beat — kinda like when you go down the stairs and nearly missed one. It was just a passing moment of fright. The rest of the fall felt like I was hovering over a massive fan. The drop was long enough for me to properly observe the 360-degree views and enjoy the adrenaline coursing through my limbs. Then the parachute was released, and a strong tug upwards signaled the start of our slow, cruisy float down to the field.
I wanted to do it all over again the moment I landed.
It’s an experience like no other, and I believe that EVERYONE will enjoy it. I don’t consider myself much of an adrenaline junkie, as I still hesitate with some theme park rides (I really dislike the massive drops on roller coasters). And the fact that I loved skydiving so much means that IT REALLY IS JUST PURE FUN!
After that crazy adventure, I spent the rest of the day doing really mundane things like grocery shopping (I cooked most meals to save money), talking to other solo female travelers, and taking an evening stroll to enjoy the sunset.
Day 2: Roys Peak
This is one of the most popular mid-level tracks to do in Wanaka, and I had to brace myself mentally as other tourists have warned me that it was a tough incline all the way to the summit. A couple of girls advised me to hitchhike to the start of the trail as it’s a 1-hour walk from the hostel, but I was determined to just walk since I enjoyed walking.
But about 20 minutes in, I was already tempted to stick my thumb out as it’s just not pleasant walking right next to the road. So I tried for the first time in my life to catch a ride. More than 10 cars whizzed past me and I felt the soreness of rejection. I waited for about 5 minutes before walking on. The road then curved into a quiet residential area, and I decided to try again since the cars had to slow down to make the turn. And it worked! An Indian lady stopped, and I felt so grateful. But after a couple of minutes, she got a call and apologised as she had to turn back to get something from a friend back in town. So I got out, tried flagging again, and boom, a van stopped within 2 minutes. This time it was a cheery local with about 4 hitchhiking hikers already on board. What a generous man he is, offering free rides for the poor and car-less.
The Roys Peak summit is marked by a white speck — a radio antenna — 1,578 meters up. It looked ridiculously far away, but I still started the hike in high spirits, happy to be amongst nature again. The clear day meant that the surrounding hills would be in full display, but I was a bit worried about how the high afternoon sun was going to test my endurance.
I started the trek with the young Japanese boy who hitchhiked with me in the same van, and the conversation flowed naturally as we covered the first few gentle kilometers up. I was already breaking out in sweat, and wishing that I had an umbrella to shield my face and neck from the sun. Unlike the previous hike I did in Queenstown, which ran through dense forests, this one offered no such shade.
Do I want to kill myself with a steeper incline to reach the summit quicker? Hell no. All I had was time, so I took the easy, longer route.
I didn’t take much pictures on the way up simply because every ounce of energy was spent putting one foot in front of the other. As the hike rolled into its 2.5-hour mark, I began to slow down, and didn’t think I would make it to the summit considering how tired I was already. But I just kept going, thinking to myself “baby steps, baby steps, baby steps”. I exercise regularly and played competitive sports before, but this was so much more challenging than anything I’ve pushed myself to do.
So very slowly and painfully, I inched my way towards the summit. At the 3-hour mark, it was starting to look like the end was nigh. The last kilometer was agonizing, and at the 4-hour mark, I finally arrived at the top! What a rush it was to have completed it. But this self-satisfaction was not why I chose to do this tough hike. It’s the views!
I have to admit that I had doubts halfway along the way as to whether the views would be worth it as stayed pretty much the all the way up. Still gorgeous, but didn’t change drastically throughout the ascend. But a whole new world opened up at the summit’s unobstructed viewpoint.
I spent about 2 hours up in the summit recuperating, relaxing, munching on apples and chocolate digestive biscuits, and chatting with fellow hikers. And I would’ve stayed longer if not for the blazing afternoon sun. Naturally, I stood out painfully as an Asian because I was the only practical one blocking the cancer-causing UV rays from my face with a fleece jacket.
The descent took me half the time, and I had enough energy to take and pose for photographs!
Day 3: A stroll along Lake Wanaka
Surprisingly, my body didn’t feel as battered as I expected the next morning. Probably because I knocked out at a toddler’s bed time and slept like a baby throughout. I was very pleased to have 1 more full day to enjoy the town’s peaceful serenity, and decided to devote the entire afternoon to a very long stroll along Lake Wanaka.
On my way towards the waters, I passed Kai Whakapai Cafe, which was bustling with locals enjoying their Saturday brunch. I was lured in by its wonderful coffee aroma, and after cooking sub-par meals for myself the past 2 days, I decided to take a seat inside to enjoy a nice brunch and some light reading. I really love being alone in a foreign land. Travelling solo heightens all my senses, and I enjoy how every single detail is interesting simply because it’s new to me. I managed to eavesdrop on other tourists who were complaining about a dodgy car rental company that forced them to pay an exorbitant amount of insurance before getting the car; get annoyed by the cafe’s backpacker staff talking and singing loudly to give the impression that they’re cool and funny; notice an event poster advertising a DJ party that started at 8pm and realise that everyone here functions on toddler time too.
After the very satisfying meal, I set off on a lakeside scenic route. I wanted to go see the Clutha river, and considered renting a bike to get there. But figured that it would take such a short time that I would have to think of other routes for the day. So why not walk?
Again, Wanaka’s scenery surprised me with its variety. To someone who doesn’t like nature, it probably feels like it’s just water and mountains the whole way. But I remembered how the path quietened down while the trees grew lusher by the minute as I left the town centre behind, before it gave way into the wide expanse of a rocky beach, and how a sharp turn away from the lake led me into the quiet banks of Clutha river. I probably wouldn’t have been able to internalise the landscape in such detail if I traveled on two or four wheels. Slow travel offers the power of quiet observation, something I fell in love with during my long solo walks.
Wanaka will always have a special place in my cold, cold heart.
New Zealand is a long way from Singapore — 10 hours if you fly direct. So I stopped over in Melbourne for a few days to eat my way around the hip city with Jules, who was so kind to host me. Then I hopped on another plane to Queenstown in New Zealand’s South Island.
After all the scuba diving and beautiful beaches last year, I started to miss the mountains terribly. And what better way to cure all that longing with 14 days of hiking and walking around some of the most scenic places in this part of the world. My urge to be high up in the hills overrode any inconveniences of having to do such a long trip alone. So after a couple days of light researching online, I booked all my flights, hostels, and connecting buses for Queenstown, Wanaka, Mount Cook, and Christchurch.
I flew budget all the way. Took the Singapore-Melbourne-Queenstown route there, and Christchurch-Melbourne-Singapore back. It cost me SGD927 in all.
I was enamored by this country even before touchdown! A surge of happiness washed over me the moment I caught sight of the endless ranges of mountains, and I just couldn’t stop grinning like an idiot. I remember thinking as I alighted the plane at the foot of The Remarkables with paragliders swooping above, that this is where I truly belong. (At least while on vacation.)
Located on the edge of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is a lovely little tourist town filled with all sorts of adventure activities and day trip operators, mainly western restaurants, a couple of supermarkets, and lots of lovely walking trails that lead you away from the “crowds” and into the surrounding forests. I thought it had a good amount of tourists when I arrived. But as I discovered along the way, it’s considered pretty busy for NZ. I wasn’t annoyed at all with anyone invading my space, as there was enough to go around. And it was easy to find quiet spots to yourself all around the lake.
First time on the luge ride! Should’ve paid the few dollars more to go for another round as first timers were only allowed on the slower track. But still, it was a good thrill.
Then I was lured by a quiet path that led into the woods. I followed it a bit before checking with an old couple walking out if it’s worth the wander, and they said that the woods clear up after a while and the view is great. So I trudged on. And BAM — look where it took me.
This is exactly why I love travelling without an itinerary. You never know what you might stumble upon! I certainly did not expect to have such beautiful expanses of mountains all to myself within a stone’s throw of a main tourist spot. No pain but a lot to gain!
Day 2: Milford Sound
I’ve heard a lot about this spot. And it’s probably images of this place that made me bucket list New Zealand some years back. But I soon learn that expectations are a pain in the ass. Especially when the weather often has many surprises up its sleeves here.
The day trip from Queenstown had a full 12-hour itinerary, mostly taken up by the long to and fro journey — 600km to be exact. Sounds like a drag? Didn’t felt like it at all with the stunning landscapes we passed through! The chirpy driver also entertained us with interesting trivia about New Zealand, such as how most native plants are evergreen (those species that had foilage which changed colours according to seasons are introduced by settlers much later).
He also explained how because the country broke off from the main continent before the evolution of mammals, many native birds have evolved to live mostly on ground level due to the lack of predators. And when immigrants brought mammals like cats with them, the felines hunted many native birds to extinction as they were easy prey just hanging around on the ground, oblivious to the new dangers. People always ruin everything right?
The driver tried keeping our hopes up even as the rain continued to drench the jetty when we arrived. It was pretty miserable, thinking of all the sunny postcards of Milford Sound as the cruise rode out into the fog. There were no fjords reflected in perfectly still waters, but there were some pretty incredible waterfalls thanks to the incessant drizzle! Strong winds also meant that there was a blizzard up on the open upper deck of the boat. I only braved it once for that selfie.
Day 3: Queenstown Hill
Woke up to another cloudy day. Bought some time while waiting for the sun to emerge with a hearty breakfast at the famous Fergburger. There’s always a crazy queue from lunchtime onwards, so I thought I’d better have it early. It tasted real good, especially after days of cooking simple meals for myself at the hostel. Food, as with everything else in Queenstown, is pricey. And as most of the restaurants didn’t look very exciting to someone who has been spoilt by the flavours of the Asian cuisine, I’d rather spend it on other things. This beef burger, with its juicy patty done just right, together with the freshly-cooked salty crispy fries, added up to SGD17. Not bad!
Felt super good and fuelled up for the Queenstown Hill walkway! The start of the trail is clearly marked and easily accessible from town, and while I was kinda wary about stepping into a secluded area, I soon bumped into the occasional walker.
I took my time to get up to the summit, and was rewarded with this incredible sight when I finally got there.
The clouds soon closed in, and the temperatures plummeted. One moment I was panting and sweating from the uphill climb, and the next, I was zipping up my fleece and putting on a third layer.
I arrived back in town just before the sun set, and decided to take a slow stroll around the lake to explore more of Queenstown. This pretty little town continued to amaze me as every corner I stumbled upon was picture-perfect.
Day 4: Arrowtown
Took a public bus out to Arrowtown, which I thought was a waste of time… It has one little main street consisting of shops selling things I don’t need, one museum, and a few restaurants offering food I’m not willing to pay that much for. It’s known for its autumn colours, but I arrived about three weeks too early. Thankfully, it had a nice little path along the river which I was happy to investigate.
I found myself once again happily among nature, this time away from the “bustle” of Queenstown. And I surprised myself with how much joy I was deriving from this simple walk. I was absolutely content and at peace with myself, with only the trickles of gentle river rapids and the quiet rustling of tree canopies to accompany me. It’s moments like these that remind me of how good my life is.
I think 4 days is a good amount of time to really enjoy Queenstown, although most travellers I’ve met have been there for weeks and months. Next stop: Wanaka.