Dates: 24 – 31 October, 2018
Flight path: DC – LA – Brisbane – Christchurch (about 21 hours of flying combined)
Places visited: Christchurch, Queenstown, Greymouth, Lake Tekapo, Fiordland National Park, Milford South (all on the South Island)
Budget: $1.2K for plane tickets; about $2.2K total
Day 1: Arriving in Christchurch
Approaching Brisbane, on the east coast of Australia.
Now entering New Zealand air space.
I caught the purple line bus at Christchurch airport and took it to their “downtown” area, if you can call it that–Christchurch had a surprisingly small town vibe, with all of its strip mall-like infrastructure and one-story buildings. There was no subway system, and the bus system was rather skeletal. It didn’t seem terribly touristy, at least not this time of year. It was still early spring in the southern hemisphere and temperatures were still in the 50s, with wind chills.
I stayed at Hotel Breakfree on Cashel in Christchurch. This was a small windowless double with the bathroom pushed right up against the bed, but I am used to tiny hotel rooms wherever I go, so it was comfortable enough. The location was fantastic: only 2 blocks from the central bus terminal, which is always my highest priority.
I left my hotel and walked (about 20 minutes) to Christchurch Botanical Gardens–an incredibly beautiful, vast garden that awed me! The photos don’t do it justice.
It was around 6pm when I made my way back to the hotel. (I found that in New Zealand the daylight hours are longer; the sun rises before 6:30am and sets at 8:30pm.) I recognized that I was physically hungry, but I had no appetite due to jet lag. I stopped in a Fresh Choice supermarket and grabbed a bottle of lemonade, a carton of grape tomatoes, and a packet of sliced cantaloupe, which were the only things I could stomach. I also grabbed a random huge bottle of bright orange-colored liquid which I assumed was tangerine juice or something… it turned out to be a bizarre concoction of carrot, ginger, turmeric, and other things! The taste was strange at first but then grew on me.
Day 2: Scenic train from coast to coast
The next morning I got up early to make my way to the train station, after having breakfast at the hotel. I had to take a bus, then walk about 0.7 miles, which was annoying because usually you’d expect the central bus terminal and the train station to be in the same place, but at least it was already bright out so not too bad. I had pre-booked a seat on the TranzAlpine scenic train to Greymouth and was pleased to find that I had been randomly assigned a window seat. The train was packed but most people kept getting up to go to the viewing car.
I had pre-ordered a veggie lasagne so when it was nearly noon I went to the dining car and asked the staff to heat it up.
It was nice to have my reusable utensils handy for this whole trip and also my glass bottle (containing the aforementioned carrot/ginger/turmeric juice). The experience of eating by myself in a dining car while majestic mountains and greenery and sheep whooshed by on both sides was a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. After finishing lunch, I went to the viewing car to see whether I could get any good pictures without glass in the way. It was so windy, I felt like I was being slapped in the face repeatedly and quickly exited the car.
This was one of the stops, interestingly at a lake called Moana. I kind of wish I had gotten off here instead of Greymouth; the people here appeared to be serving up home-cooked meals and also looked really nice.
Anyway, we got to Greymouth at 1. There wasn’t much to see, as it’s a quiet small town with only sleepy locals and tourist buses. I just walked along the river for a bit before heading back to the train.
On the way back, I was assigned a window seat on the same side of the train, which meant I got to see the OTHER side that I hadn’t been able to see in the morning.
Day 3: Bus from Christchurch to Queenstown
Usually I hate the idea of road trips, but hey, it’s New Zealand! I figured the bus would be both a budget-friendly and fun way to traverse the South Island. I turned out to be right: the InterCity bus was comfortable, not crowded, and a great way to see the country.
Before leaving Christchurch, I grabbed a super early breakfast at a restaurant called Unknown Chapter near my hotel. (The nice thing about jet lag is: at least you’re wide awake and not hating yourself at 6:30am.) My jet lag was still pretty bad, and the only thing I could manage to really eat and hold down was breakfast, so I would load up on proteins for breakfast and hope it got me through the rest of the day. I devoured a huge plate of bacon, mushrooms, hash browns, sausage, toast, and eggs benedict.
The bus driver was a sardonic man who provided us with snarky commentary throughout the trip, which I did not expect (can you imagine a Greyhound driver narrating your trip like a Big Bus tour guide?). His sense of humor was dry and dark. At one point he explained that we were now passing through a town with a lot of government buildings, adding, “if you feel the bus swerving from time to time, that’s just me trying to control the population of bureaucrats.” This was right after the series of bombs targeting Democratic politicians and the Pittsburgh shooting, so I shuddered and tried to remind myself that the political climate in New Zealand was probably a lot less crazy than what we had going on at home, so they could afford to make jokes like this.
Around lunchtime, we stopped at Lake Tekapo, which reminded me of Namtso, a divine azure lake in Tibet I visited in 2016. I still had no appetite so I skipped lunch and just walked along the shores of the lake.
We finally reached Queenstown, a lakeside resort town and British and Aussie backpacker heaven, at around 4:30pm. It was raining and cold, and I remember being panicked and frustrated; I couldn’t find my hotel, even though it was supposed to be only a block from the bus stop, and Queenstown had the most pedestrian-UNfriendly streets I had ever seen anywhere. There were no walk lights for most of the intersections so you were resigned to darting across streets whenever you saw an opening between cars. I was stressed out because of the rain, because I was dragging a suitcase, and because I kept forgetting which side of the road cars drive on in this country. Luckily I managed to find my hotel after what seemed like an eternity.
I stayed at the Queenstown Jucy Snooze hostel. My queen room was twice as expensive as my double room in Christchurch, but the hotel was new (as in it had opened just earlier this year) and it came with a brilliant view of the mountain and an endless string of gondolas going up and down.
I had a balcony, but it was too cold to sit outside. It was also cold in the room; there was no central air, just a small portable radiator. I dialed it way up and dragged it next to my bed so that I wouldn’t freeze while sleeping.
After checking in, I walked around Queenstown a bit. It REALLY is a very small town; there’s not much sightseeing, just opportunities to do fun adventurous things like snowboarding and skydiving, which I’m too much of a scaredy cat to do. I popped into a nearby Thai restaurant and ate a big dinner of peanut sauce-dipped chicken satay and pineapple fried rice, then left and walked around Lake Wakatipu. There was a garden here too, much smaller than the one in Christchurch but also cute.
Day 4: To Milford Sound and back
I had booked an affordable all-day tour of Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park, so the next morning I wolfed down a quick McDonald’s breakfast while it was still dark out and got picked up across the street from my hotel. It was a minivan of–I counted–14 Aussies, myself, and the Kiwi tour guide! It’s always weird being the only solo traveler (and the only American, and the only Asian person) in a group, but people were nice and struck up conversations with me first. I only got one of those “BUT WERE YOU BORN IN AMERICA?!?!” questions.
We stopped at Te Anau for restrooms and snacks, which the guide would be the last place we’d get cell service, and he was right! It was frustrating at first navigating parts of New Zealand with no WiFi for hours at a time, but I learned to enjoy it and just let the mind unplug. Which was not easy, considering all my pent-up anxiety about the (then) upcoming midterm elections.
There were several stops throughout Fiordland National Park where the driver let us out to take pictures. I loved this educational sign about a bat as it captures exactly how I look at 3pm on Fridays.
Milford Sound itself was actually kind of underwhelming. I think I was expecting glaciers or something, but it was just a middle-of-the-road cruise weaving through a couple of mountains. We were on a giant cruise boat with tons of loud tourists, which gave me a headache.
We got back to Queenstown at 7:30 in the evening. I was finally starting to get my appetite back, so I went to a random Malaysian street food shop and it was SURPRISINGLY GOOD. Out of curiosity, I asked for something called a “karma cola” and it tasted almost just like regular coke (just with a hint of medicinal quality); turns out it’s an ethical cola alternative that directly benefits local farmers in Sierra Leone. I wish it were available here, but looks like the company is only in NZ for the moment.
Day 5: Back to Christchurch
I am pleased to say that as I grow older, I know my limits better and better… and I knew ahead of time that I would not have stomached another day-long bus trip back to Christchurch. So I booked a flight from Queenstown back to Christchurch with Air NZ that was both cheap and short.
I was back in Christchurch by around 1, and it was raining HARD, which made my 15-minute trek to my hotel absolutely miserable. By the time I arrived (I was staying at another Jucy Snooze), I was drenched. The front desk staff graciously let me check in early, and I went into my room, took off my jeans, and hung them in front of the AC so that they could dry off faster. I was exhausted and wanted to sleep, but I had already booked two tours at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, and I had to take two buses to get there. So I only laid my head down and rested for a little before I set out again.
Luckily it had stopped raining by then, so the first thing I did upon getting to the Reserve was grab a hot cup of chai latte at the coffee shop and clasp my cold hands around it.
And also do some deer-watching.
I spent a lot of time being chased by hungry ducklings as their mother stood by and watched.
Willowbank was beautiful and calm. I saw ostriches, wallabies, etc.
Feeding the kea with spoonfuls of honey. We were warned that the birds would try to jump on us, and yet I still screamed “my hat!” and clutched at it when one landed on my shoulder. We also got to see some kiwi birds, but no photos were allowed, as they live in a special dark nighttime-like habitat and we had to be very, very quiet. I didn’t think they were too impressive, but it’s clear they’re a big deal in NZ, at least to the conservation community. (We learned that 95% of baby kiwis die in the wild, nooo.)
Then we were treated to Ko Tane, a local Maori arts performance. Here they are welcoming us into their “village” set….
I loved seeing the haka in person.
Later, when I was browsing the gift shop, I saw a fridge magnet of the All Blacks doing the haka and couldn’t help but laugh and buy it. I also got a sturdy New Zealand-themed tote bag, a tea cloth, a necklace for my mom, an espresso cup for my dad, and some gummy treats for my brother. Other than an artsy postcard I got at the Christchurch Botanical Gardens and a manuka honey and kelp soap bar I bought in Queenstown (smells SO good), these were the only souvenirs I bought in New Zealand. I had imagined that I would get some nice merino wool sweaters or something, but I never saw anything worth spending money on.
Last photo leaving NZ. Beautiful snow-capped mountains.
This trip ended on a weird note. Just before the flight from Christchurch to Brisbane, I had learned that Louis Cha, one of my favorite authors, and someone whose writings had been a huge and illuminating comfort to me as a child, had died. I thought the news were sad, but not tragic; he had lived to be 94. But afterwards, when we were in the air and the Qantas crew had begun serving breakfast, I had my first ever claustrophobia-related panic attack. I was in the window seat, and all three people in our row had had our tray tables down. This was in addition to the dining cart being right behind us, AND in addition to us being really close to the bathroom and there being a long line of people in the aisle.
I suddenly just lost it. I tapped the guy next to me on the shoulder and apologized and told him I had to get out, even though it was a rude thing to do since he and the aisle seat guy already had their breakfasts on their tray tables. I walked up and down the aisle, anxious and strained. There were too many people in the aisle, so I hid in that small space in the back where the flight crew usually hangs out. I started crying uncontrollably. The aisle seat guy, a nice old man, came by and offered me his eye drops. I was worried that sharing eye drops might lead to pinkeye, so I took the bottle and pretended to drop something in, just to be polite.
After they had finished their meals, I felt okay enough to get back into my seat, but I was still upset. I sat in my window seat and wept. I realized that I wasn’t just crying for the author and my childhood: all the bad feelings I had managed to compartmentalize, pack away, bottle up–about the state of politics, about the Supreme Court, about the midterms–were coming out in one big explosion. And I needed to cry. It was healthy.
(I lied and told a flight attendant that my grandpa had died, though, just so I didn’t seem crazy.)
- I love New Zealand. I know it’s impossible for foreigners now, but I want to buy a farm in a mountain valley and shear sheep for a living. Either way, I want to come back.
- New Zealand is even more beautiful than Lord of the Rings.
- I love Qantas. Their food is amazing. Their service is amazing. And they have these cute little fabric packets on international flights containing sleep masks, ear plugs, etc. I took both of the packets I received on this trip home with me.
- When will I ever be rich enough to fly business class???