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Islands away

Mithila Holla Nov 11 2017, 21:09 IST

New Zealand was one of those countries I always dreamt of visiting, and I was ecstatic to pursue my solo backpacking dream in the 'Land of Mountains, Fjords and Adventure' in the autumn season.

New Zealand is basically divided into two major islands - the North Island and the South Island. Both have a personality of their own. The North Island is known for its national parks, cosmopolitan cities and volcanic activities. It is more populous and busy in comparison to the South Island. The South Island, on the other hand, is renowned for its glaciers, lakes and mountains. It is also a hub for an array of adventure sports. With less than two weeks to spare, I decided to explore more of the South Island.

I took a domestic flight from Auckland to Queenstown. One of the best views of the country can be from your plane as you land at Queenstown Airport. I was left absolutely speechless while flying over the beautiful Southern Alps draped in autumn colours and pristine turquoise-coloured lakes. I just didn't want to land.

Falling for a town

Surrounded by the majestic Remarkables and framed by the serpentine coastal inlet of Lake Wakatipu, it is no surprise that Queenstown is boast-worthy. Although a small town, Queenstown has the vibes and the energy of a big city, and beams with pride as the 'Global Adventure Capital'.

When in Queenstown, you will never get tired of the adventure activities it has to offer. Bungee jumping, skydiving, white-water rafting and canyon swinging are a few to quench your adrenaline thirst. I had my first bungee experience at the Kawarau Bridge, which is incidentally the birthplace of bungee. I was insanely anxious and laughing hysterically out of nervousness standing on the edge of the bridge, and before I could blink, I jumped off the bridge by screaming with fear and joy. And as I hung there, upside down, I was glad that I was still alive to soak in the experience. That evening, I treated myself to a nice lip-smacking ice cream at Patagonia Chocolates and took a Gondola ride to get a beautiful view of the town in twilight.

Crashing at a backpacker's hostel was a great decision because it's right in the City Centre. Clubs, bars, restaurants and shops are easy to reach from here. Queenstown is also famous for its beautiful hikes. The Queenstown Hill Hike is a short and scenic trail that leads to stunning views of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables. The one thing that I missed doing in Queenstown was the gruelling Ben Lomond hike. The weather was unfavourable, and with my limited time in New Zealand, I had to skip this one and proceed to the next destination. When in Queenstown, don't miss to gorge on the world's best burgers at Fergburger. Be prepared to wait in a long queue, but the wait for this gastronomical delight is totally worth it.

Jumping off the bridge

Wanaka is the quaint sister of Queenstown. It is about a two-hour drive from Queenstown to Wanaka. I decided to do a tandem skydive at Wanaka in the morning slot. The weather was great with clear skies. And, as I jumped off the plane at 12,000 feet, I felt a strange tingling sensation in my stomach during the first 45 seconds of free fall. Skydiving is a high-risk activity with at least one fatality occurring every 1,000 dives. But once the parachute was open, my heart calmed down, and the view from above was beyond description.

The mountains, trees and lakes looked mesmerisingly beautiful. At that point, I could not thank god enough for this wonderful world and experience. I sailed down slowly with a beaming smile on my face and tears in my eyes.

For the next two hours, I sat by Lake Wanaka to completely embrace the sky diving experience with visuals playing back in my head over and over again. Framed by the stunning Southern Alps, a lonely tree has grown up to spread its wings just off shore at the south end of the ravishing Lake Wanaka. Known as the 'Lone tree of Wanaka', it is one of the most photographed trees in New Zealand.

I also took a walk around the Eely Point Recreational Reserve amidst New Zealand's fern trees. The freshness in the air and the golden-yellow leaves scattered on the shores made for a walk to remember.

The resplendent drive from Queenstown to Mt Cook is unforgettable. The scenery keeps changing every few minutes. This is really what sets New Zealand apart from the rest of the countries that I have travelled to. The country is blessed with many natural wonders such as volcanic mountains, snowy Southern Alps, fjords, lakes, glow-worm caves and stunning beaches. Every time you move from one town to another, there is so much more to explore, and so many new things to do.

Mt Cook Village is located in the spectacular Mount Cook National Park overlooking the stunning Alps. Soon after lunch, I headed out for a walk along the Hooker Valley track. This is one of the best day-walks in New Zealand that takes about 3-4 hours (return). The walking track starts near the Hermitage Hotel, heads up the Hooker Valley, and crosses three swing bridges to the terminus of the Hooker Glacier. Once you cross the first swing bridge, the view of Mt Cook dominates the track and you can also see a lot of icebergs floating on the Hooker river. It was extremely windy and cold during the walk, but I fed off from the stunning landscapes and scenery. It quite reminded me of the Himalayan region with its majestic mountains laced with green and yellow patches sprinkled with snow.

Climbers' delight

Aoraki/Mount Cook is named after English Captain James Cook who surveyed and circumnavigated the islands of New Zealand in 1770. Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand, standing at a height of 3,724 m (12,218 feet). The summit is sandwiched between the Tasman Glacier and the Hooker Glacier, and is one of the most sought-after challenges for mountain climbers. At the end of the Hooker Valley track, you can get an up-close view of Mount Cook.

I had to cancel my plans of walking on the Sealy Tarns track the next day owing to bad weather and non-stop rainfall. I spent some time at the Hermitage Hotel and also visited the Aoraki Visitor Centre, which has an excellent display of old photographs, trekking equipment used by summiteers in the 80s, flora, fauna and history.

As I boarded the bus the following day and set off towards Christchurch, from where I was set to depart to India, I reflected on my adventures and experiences in New Zealand.

With 150 km of walking and hiking over two weeks - with temperatures ranging from -2 to +21 degrees Celsius, mesmerising landscapes draped in autumn colours, bungee jumping, skydiving and hitchhiking (for the very first time), and loads of strangers who turned friends - solo backpacking in the land of fern trees, mountains, kiwis and sheep was one hell of an adventure. I must admit that I'm totally in love with this country.

Fact File

Getting there

Flights are cheaper and shorter from India to
Auckland than any other place in New Zealand. From Auckland, there are multiple domestic airlines that can take you to
Queenstown.

Go for the backpacker bus Stray Travels. There are many other hop-on-hop-off buses.

Accommodation

At Queenstown:
Basepackers Queenstown

At Mount Cook: Mount Cook Backpacker Lodge

Things to do

Bungee jumping, sky
diving, swings and other adventure activities offered by AJ Hackett Bungy.

Carry raincoat / umbrella as the weather is unpredictable in Queenstown.

Where to eat in Queenstown

Fergburger, Patagonia Chocolates, Bombay Palace Queenstown.

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