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.