As a third European winter approached I was eager to escape the cold days and dust off my summer crop tops hiding in the back of my closet. Australia seemed like an obvious option, however I wanted to venture a little further out into unknown territory. I pictured my southern hemisphere summer to consist of warm sunny days, mountains, beaches and a LOT of adventure... so New Zealand seemed like the perfect option. For me, New Zealand had always been 'next door' to my home in Brisbane, but now grown up and living my life in Europe I realised how much I yearned to explore more of this small but vast country.
After a few short but sweet three weeks back in Australia catching up with old friends, I headed over the ditch to start my adventure with Stray New Zealand. For those whom who are unfamiliar, Stray is a company aimed towards young travellers looking for a fun, convenient way to travel around and offer both hop on hop off bus passes and tours around New Zealand, Australia and Asia. An avid lover of backpacking, Stray offered everything I was looking for in my condensed 3 weeks around the South Island. I decided to go with the Ron hop on hop off pass, which included all the hotspots of the South Island as well as some more 'off the beaten track' stop offs. My adventure began just after Christmas with a flight from Brisbane to Wellington and then the Interislander ferry to Picton, the first stop on my trip.
Picton was the first stop on my Stray tour. It's a little quaint town in the north of the South Island and is used mainly as a ferry stop between the straight. Picton was small but felt very homely, with large rolling mountains surrounding the town and the most picturesque view into the Marlborough Sounds. I stayed in this sweet little hostel called the YHA Villa, which felt super homely and was where I was introduced to my first group of Stray friends who were also hopping on the bus on New Year's Eve. I spent my time in Picton walking around and explore the walks around the Sounds.
Nelson is one of Stray's optional hop on hop off stops, which is where I decided to spend my New Year's. My cousins live in Nelson so I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to hang out and see what the city had to offer. I stayed in The Palace, which was right in the centre of the city, perfect for wandering around (the beds were ridiculously comfortable and the kitchen had a plethora of spices to cook with, which I always appreciate). I spent a lot of my time at Tahunanui beach, which was a bit of a trek to get to on foot, but was the perfect way to cool off from the hot days.
Marahau was the next stop on my trip. Just a short hour drive away, with a stop off for groceries along the way, we arrived just in time for the most magical sunset. It was nice to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city and spend our time exploring what the Abel Tasman has to offer. We stayed at The Barn, which had the option of letting you stay in Yurts, which are pretty much fancy tents. My full day at the Abel Tasman was among my favourite from the Stray tour. I spent the morning hiking along the coast which took approximately 3 hours before finally being greeted at Anchorage Bay with vibrant blue water and perfectly clear skies.
PUNAKAIKI PANCAKE ROCKS
The Punakaiki Pancake Rocks were a quick afternoon stop off for us on the way to Franz Josef. These rocks are among the phenomena that scientists still can't explain the creation of. All that is known is they are made from limestone, formed under the sea 35 million years ago. However how they formed into their 'pancake' type layers still remains a mystery.
As we neared the infamous Franz Josef, the Heaven's decided to open up and the Stray bus battled through the pelting rain until our arrival at The Rainforest, our home for the next two nights. Along with our Stray bus, two Contiki buses and a Wild Kiwi tour were also staying at the hostel... on a Saturday night. We all crowded to the bar along with flocks of locals and as the dozens of people from the buses flooded in, it was a wild night to say the least. If you're lucky enough to score some good weather when you're in Franz, I would highly recommend doing one of the optional activities such as kayaking, the heli hike, or even just a walking tour of the glacier. If you get caught in the rain like me, hiking in the rain or checking out the glow worm caves is a must (definitely bring or invest in a rain jacket for the west coast of the South Island).
Another little stop off on one of our drives was to one of the many mirror lakes in the South Island. While we weren't so lucky with the wind and clouds, on a good day the mountains perfectly reflect in the still water which, I've heard, is absolutely magical. However, even with the wind and clouds the walk was absolutely beautiful and the lighting through the trees made me drool a little.
THE BLUE POOLS
The thing I really liked about Stray was that it wasn't just 'getting from A to B', Apples, my driver for the majority of my trip, often let us stop for photo stops, short little walks and grocery shops, and the blue pools were no exception. We stopped off here for an hour or so and all dipped our feet into the icy cold water before watching some of the (braver) boys jump from the suspension bridge 15 metres or so into the freezing waters.
Roy's Peak was an obvious must do when we arrived in Wanaka, however we deliberated for hours whether we were going to venture to the peak at sunrise or sunset. Sunrise seemed like the obvious choice, however the 2am wake up and uphill battle in the freezing cold and pitch black didn't really seem too appealing for the four of us. So, sunset it was. We hitchhiked to the base of the trek, which was only about 10 minutes from the centre of Wanaka. We arrived at around 4pm and started the hike. It was unbelievably hot and none of us had packed nearly enough water, nor did we anticipate how hard it was actually going to be. The hike took around 4 hours to the top, with a lot of snack and 'wow' breaks as we took in the views on the way up.
We arrived at the summit a little after 8 and had our makeshift dinner consisting of hummus and carrots gawking at the insane views. I was surprised to find that there was nearly no one up there with us, as I had heard how insanely busy it can get in the mornings. After dinner I left the girls for a little bit and found my own private outcrop where I sat by myself and enjoyed the stillness of it all. It was here where I had to change into my 'instagram outfit' for my summit photos. Once the sun started to set I swapped out my skirt and crop for my very sweaty shirt and exercise top, not the most fashionable but it got super chilly super fast up the top of the peak.
PACKING LIST FOR ROY'S PEAK
1. 2 - 3 litres of water (trust me, you will need it)
3. Jacket/thermals for sunrise/sunset
5. Camera (duh)
After our long day hiking Roy's Peak, we thought our next day would be a little more relaxing with a 'walk' at Rob Roy's Glacier. We ended up getting a ride to the start of the trail before realising that while everyone we had asked said it was going to be an 'easy stroll' it turned out to be another hike. While it was nowhere near as hard as Roy's Peak, we were all so sore from the day before. The views made up for our tiredness and the hike was absolutely beautiful. The weather went through about 4 seasons within half a day and as we were walking back to the car park ended up getting a little shower from the rain and a blow-dry from the wind.
1. ROY'S PEAK
Although one of the most difficult hikes I've ever done, the views were among the most amazing I think I've seen in my life. It was a moment of pure magic and was worth the 3 hour uphill battle
2. ROB ROY'S GLACIER
It is a really beautiful hike and is a good way to spend a spare day. It's definitely not as hard as Roy's Peak, so is perfect if you don't want to work out too much.
3. BURRITO CRAFT
Okay if you're a fan of Mexican food you need to check out the Burrito Craft food van across the road from the Matterhorn South hostel. They were pretty cheap, ridiculously tasty and SUPER filling.
I knew Queenstown was going to be an obvious highlight for me while I was travelling the South Island and boy, I was right. We arrived in the mid afternoon and I lugged my things from Base Backpackers up the road to Adventure Q2, possibly my favourite hostel ever. The electric vibes of Queenstown seem to pulsate through the city from the rowdy bars, to the buskers on the street, to the shop assistants cracking some quality banter with me. It had it all and I was transfixed with excitement.
WHAT TO DO IN QUEENSTOWN
1. FERG BURGER
The food scene in Queenstown was absolutely unreal. From the famous Ferg Burger to sushi to Mexican, it's hard not to spend your hard earned cash on a long list of delicious food. Ferg Burger is one (if not the most) famous food joints in Queenstown and hype is REAL. Everyone you talk to will mention it and if you're looking for something for dinner, hit it up! Be prepared for a long line though, some people say they've waited over an hour.
Looking for some desert? Patagonia is another famous food joint and provides a plethora of different ice cream and sorbets. There is also one in Wanaka too incase you don't make it to Queenstown.
If you're a dance lover and looking for a place to boogie after some drinks, Winnies is a great option for some partying.
4. ADVENTURE Q2 HOSTEL
Without a doubt, probably the BEST hostel I've ever stayed in all over the world. They offer free go pros, sports equipment, bikes, a clean kitchen (always appreciated), different themed nights (scavenger hunts, quiz nights, pub-crawls).
5. ADRENALINE JUNKIES
Queenstown is famous for a long list of adrenaline based activities from bungee jumping, skydiving, canyon swinging, jet boat riding, paragliding, and pretty much everything else you can imagine.
Although I had already been to Milford Sounds a few years ago, I was looking forward to my return immensely. Everything seemed so ambient as the clouds loomed and the fresh downpour had reactivated Milford's countless waterfalls around every corner. The Real Journeys cruise through the sounds was one of my favourite experiences with Stray and although I got drenched under one of the waterfalls, the scenery and views made up for it.
Gunns Camp took us back to the basics. With no signal, no wifi, the showers heated with fires and gas stoves we all had a much-needed detox from the outside world. Sometimes travelling isn't super glamorous all of the time, but that's part of the fun. I love the adventure and I think if you're not pushing your boundaries and making yourself uncomfortable, it's time to get out of your comfort zone.
After our night at Gunns Camp we headed even further south to Invercargill. Half of us hopped on the ferry to Stewart Island while the other half of us stayed in the city at Tuatara Lodge. Unlike a lot of the other stops on the trip, Invercargill doesn't haven't as much going on, which was actually a nice chance to have a little time out. Some of the guys on my bus and I all chilled out at the hostel watching Ja'mie (an Australian comedy series). Sometimes it's good to have some time out while you're travelling and our day of vegging out was much needed.
WHAT TO DO IN INVERCARGILL
1. KIM'S SUNSHINE SUSHI
If you're a sushi fan I recommend hitting up Kim's for some AMAZING food. They make everything fresh and for super cheap, damn sign me up!
There was a long list of favourites for me on the tour, however I think Mount Cook takes the cake. As we neared the National Park, long stretches of vibrant, blue water followed us along as we drove and the ridges of mountains loomed in front of us. We had the most perfect weather and spirits in the bus were high. After dropping our stuff off at the hostel, Apples (our Stray driver) dropped us off at the carpark of the Hooker Valley trail for us to go explore. The trail followed a milky coloured glacier river and we spent a little over an hour walking to our final destination which was the glacier lake situated at the foot of Mount Cook. The sun was beaming down as we all hung out and enjoyed one of the most surreal views I have ever seen. Huge chunks of ice floated on the surface as some of us jumped in to the freezing water. The next morning I woke up just before dawn and ventured down the road from my hostel to get a second closer look at the mountains and glacier. It was still and quiet as I walked and after spending so much time with everyone, it was nice to have this precious moment to myself. As the sun rose shades of pink and orange reflected off the white ice and the sky continued to transform as I walked.
WHAT TO DO IN MOUNT COOK
1. HOOKER VALLEY TRACK
It's a super easy, beautiful walk which leads you to a glacier lake at the base of Mount Cook. You can swim in the lake if you're brave enough and the entire walk is absolutely beautiful.
My visit to Tekapo was short, around an hour to be exact. I would have absolutely loved to stay overnight in this beautiful stop off, however with my time constraints, that wasn't an option. If you have a spare night, I would highly recommend staying in Tekapo to go for swims in the lake and (hopefully) spot some lupins that bloom in the summer months.
Next stop, Peel Forest. Much like Gunn's Camp, we went back to the basics with limited service and the majority of us just enjoying each other's company. A lot of the group had ended up travelling together for at least a week so we had all become close. Apples cooked the group a BBQ and we all sat outside enjoying the outdoors. Our stay at Peel Forest was short, but among one of my favourite nights. We were staying in 9 bed dorms where there were 3 bunks stacked on top of each other instead of two (they were wooden and attached to the walls don't worry). I was luckily not on the top bunk.
Christchurch was the next stop and I was excited to come back to this beautiful city. When I was younger I had actually lived in Christchurch and hadn't been back since the earthquakes. My memory of the city was faint so walking around exploring what the city had to offer was a nice reminder and connection to my childhood. Unfortunately I only had a brief 16 hours in Christchurch because of my flight back to Nelson, so I rushed around the city trying to see as much as I could.
WHAT TO DO IN CHRISTCHURCH
1. BOTANICAL GARDENS
Flowers will forever be one of my favourite things in the world, and if you are looking for something to do with your afternoon or if you're on a budget, hanging out at the gardens is always a good idea.
2. FAT EDDIE'S
If you're looking for a bar to hit up, Fat Eddie's is a great stop off for some drinks and some great jazzy vibes, it's on the pricey side but I think it is so worth it.
Kaikoura was the last stop on my tour with Stray and I was pretty sad to be leaving that big orange bus. Much like Christchurch, I didn't have a lot of time left to enjoy and explore Kaikoura. For those of you who will have more time in this cute little town, I recommend paying for dolphin swimming or whale watching, which I heard were both beyond amazing.
After three weeks of adventuring the South Island, I can easily say my adventure with Stray was among one of my favourite trips to date. New Zealand has so much to see and do, and if you're looking for a fun way to explore this unreal part of New Zealand, Stray is a great way to meet people and get around conveniently (it's also perfect if you're a first time backpacker and a little nervous). Summer or winter, the South Island is an adventure and a half and everyone should scoot over the ditch to check it out for themselves!