Travelling through New Zealand as a Solo Traveller - a Travel Blog
13 April 2019
Sometimes we keep postponing the things we really want to do, waiting for the perfect moment to arrive. Ever since I first came to Australia more than four years ago, I was keen to visit its neighbour, New Zealand: only a three hours’ flight away (by Australian standards, that’s nothing!) and famous for its scenery and unspoiled beauty. My friends kept asking me why I had still not done it, being so close. It is funny how distance becomes a relative thing: I never ask my UK friends why they have still not visited Russia, being only three or four hours away, but in Europe any flight longer than two hours is seen as rather tedious. In Australia, as a friend once told me, anything under ten hours is considered a short-haul flight.
A few weeks ago, with the end of my stay in the Southern Hemisphere sadly approaching, I finally did it, and I can honestly say: New Zealand did not disappoint. I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts on my experiences as a solo traveller on public transport, which might be useful for people in a similar position.
This was my first question to consider: should I do what most people do in New Zealand and hire a car to explore the more remote areas, or should I rely on public transport? I have not had a car for a few years now, and I was a little nervous, but in the end the decision was made for me when I could not find the paper counterpart to my driving licence anyway. I assume it is neatly packed away in one of the many removal boxes currently in storage in Scotland.
And so I started planning. I briefly considered joining an organised tour, but I am a very independent traveller, used to devising my own itineraries. Therefore the decision was easy. When I started planning, however, I noticed that it pays off to be organised and pro-active. Public transport is scarce: many Intercity buses and trains only run once a day; the Northern Explorer, which covers the length of the North Island between Wellington and Auckland, only once every two days. And some are suspended altogether during the winter months between May and September. Booking ahead and having an itinerary is therefore highly advisable. It is what I did, and it gave me peace of mind, whilst still allowing for flexibility.
I also found the perfect compromise between individual travel and organised trip by joining a few day tours to places that would have been hard or impossible to access by public transport. For a solo traveller, joining such day tours has the added advantage that you find some company and other people to talk to. Overall, however, even for a solo traveller, there is no shortage of spontaneous conversations with strangers: New Zealand attracts many individual travellers, and on my walks in particular I struck up conversations with many fellow walkers. New Zealand is a friendly place in serene surroundings, and it seems to rub off on those who visit.
The start to my journey boded well: a beautiful rainbow over the most spectacular mountain scenery greeted me on my approach to Queenstown. I took it as an omen and knew straightaway that this would be a great trip. I have since learned that Queenstown Airport is regularly voted amongst the top ten airports of the world for scenic beauty, and I am not surprised. If you fly to New Zealand, try to fly into Queenstown!
Now, Queenstown is stunningly beautiful, but it knows about it. This is reflected in the astronomical prices for nearly everything. For the accommodation I paid about four times more per night than in all the other places I stayed, and there are hefty prices to pay for the lovely things you can do: about $40 for the Skyline Gondola (a seven-minute ride), almost $70 for a cruise on Lake Wakatipu on the ‘Lady of the Lake’, the old steamship TSS Earnslaw.
Fortunately, walks are free, and there are beautiful tracks from Queenstown. I particularly liked the little hike to the Sunshine Bay, where you have the most beautiful views to Cecil Peak and Walter Peak and can see the sun set over the Remarkables, where some of the Mordor scenes for ‘Lord of the Rings’ were shot. The LOTR accompanies you everywhere: filming locations are to be found on both islands, and the locals are full of anecdotes about the making of the films. It was great fun having a bus driver on one of my tours talk about his time as stuntman for Sean Bean’s role as Boromir!
From Queenstown I joined a day tour to the Milford Sound. This is, of course, one of New Zealand’s most iconic locations, and famously called ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ by Rudyard Kipling. You have to be lucky to see it in sunshine: it rains most days of the year, and many a tourist has been disappointed to (not) see the mighty Mitre Peak and its neighbours covered in low cloud. I laughed about one of the tourist reviews on Trip Advisor, which gave the tour operator only one out of five stars because the views “were not like in the tourist brochures and it rained all the time.” Sadly these things happen – that’s nature for you! Happened to me when I set off from Launceston in Tasmania to see the beautiful Cradle Mountain, which hid from me all day. The clouds did not lift once.
Fortunately, we were lucky with the Milford Sound. It drizzled a little, and there was not much blue sky, but the views were clear, and the clouds added to the gloom that is part of the fascination. The waterfalls are spectacular, and having the cruise boat take you right underneath the mighty Stirling Falls is an unforgettable experience! It was also fantastic watching the wildlife: the seals lazing around on the rocks, and a whole pod of dolphins frolicking around our boat, diving underneath it and then suddenly popping their heads out. Probably one of the most peaceful and serene hours I spent in New Zealand.
Ironically, and still unfathomably, at the very same time when I enjoyed this stillness and serenity, a crazy psychopath and terrorist went on his shooting rampage in nearby Christchurch, taking fifty innocent lives. We only heard about it on our return to Queenstown, with the Milford Sound and much of the route there and back being without mobile reception. This horrific event cast its shadow, but at the same time it was also heartening to see how New Zealand dealt with it: with compassion and whole-hearted support for their Muslim community. The leadership of New Zealand’s young Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was admirable, combining genuine empathy with steely determination and decisiveness. Her speech, in which she condemned the notoriety-seeking terrorist to anonymity, was one of the most powerful political speeches I have heard in recent years, and it was great to see how New Zealand’s media followed suit and stopped mentioning his name, unlike media in other countries. If this becomes the norm rather than the exception, maybe it will reduce the number of copycat crimes of sociopaths trying to find fame in crime.
My next stop was Dunedin (I travelled there by regular Intercity bus): a beautiful city with unmistakeably Scottish heritage – complete with Scottish gift shop and Robert Burns monument! Unlike Queenstown, which feels very touristy, Dunedin felt like a real city, with its university and proper bookshops. I loved exploring it, and one of the highlights was an afternoon wildlife cruise to the Otago Peninsula. I decided on this spontaneously and booked it last minute with Monarch Wildlife Cruises. I looked forward to it and was really disappointed to receive a call after booking, saying that I could not be picked up because I was the only customer and that there was no bus available. Five minutes later, however, I received another call to say that one of the drivers was going to pick me up after all, giving me a private tour to the boat where I would join another group.
This was not the only time special concessions were made for me: New Zealanders are truly proud of their country and have a genuine love of sharing it with their guests, trying to show it to as many people as possible, even where there is little financial gain. The driver was lovely and accommodating, taking me round the Otago peninsula, explaining the history to me, stopping for photos, and then dropping me off at the boat for the actual wildlife cruise. It was another spectacular experience: cruising round Taiaroa Head, watching the majestic Royal Albatross in its only breeding habitat on land in the world, and seeing fur seals and gigantic sea lions close-up.
Another highlight was the train journey through the Taieri Gorge. Now, trains in New Zealand are an interesting affair! They do not really have the main purpose any longer of taking locals from A to B. Instead, they have become tourist attractions, taking you off the beaten track and allowing you to see views inaccessible by any other means of transport. The Taieri Gorge railway, for example, takes you deep into former gold rush country, through the gorge, over creeks and spectacular viaducts. The Coastal Pacific takes you from Christchurch via the beautiful Kaikoura coastline to Picton at the northern tip of the South Island. The Northern Explorer spans much of the length of the North Island, taking you from Wellington to Auckland in a slow ten-hour journey. All are very scenic, and I booked all three of them. Sadly, I could not fit the fourth one in: the Tranzalpine Express that takes you from Christchurch to Greymouth, from east to west, from the Pacific Ocean to the Tasman Sea, via Arthur’s Pass and through the mountainous terrain of the Southern Alps.
All these journeys used to be made all the more spectacular by having open viewing platforms where you can stand outside, have the wind ruffle your hair and take photos of the beautiful landscape. I absolutely loved doing this on the Taieri Gorge railway – an amazing experience that makes you feel like a 19th century traveller in the Wild West. Stepping on the platforms between carriages is a little hazardous, and you certainly need to be careful not to lean over the railing – especially when approaching a tunnel! - , but it adds to the adventure. Very sadly, just before I did the next journey (on the Coastal Pacific), Kiwi Rail succumbed to the Health and Safety red tape and closed its open viewing carriages on its trains – tourists, so they claimed, had behaved increasingly irresponsibly with their selfie sticks. I really hope that a solution will be found – these open carriages are the icing on the cake on this slow, old-fashioned, wonderful mode of transport!
From Dunedin I took the regular Intercity bus to Christchurch. I explored the city and had an interesting tour, taking us to the areas particularly affected by the 2011 earthquake. It was amazing to see the damage that had been done and the work that went into repairing it. Things are still not back to normal, but the people of Christchurch have shown remarkable patience and resilience. I loved the Cardboard Cathedral, built as transitory solution following the earthquake damage to Christchurch Cathedral, but now apparently staying permanently. The people of Christchurch have grown fond of this quirky structure, which is predominantly made of cardboard tubes.
From Christchurch I joined a day tour to Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, with the two lovely guides from Maossie Tours (husband and wife team Gary and Nicole), and only one fellow traveller. The two of us were very lucky to have such interesting tour guides in such an intimate environment: they were full of local knowledge and insights into the area. The road trip itself was amazing, past the glorious sparkling waters of Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki, but we also had generous stops and time for short invigorating walks in Mount Cook National Park. I certainly hope to be back there to do some of the amazing walks properly, such as the Hooker Valley Track, the climb to Mueller Hut or the Sealy Tarns. They all look spectacular. I had time to walk part of the Kea Point Track towards the Mueller Glacier, and up to Tasman Lake, a big glacial lake full of icebergs. It came into being as a result of the sad retreat of the Tasman Glacier, which melts at an alarming rate every year. The views are spectacular, but the environmental message is stark.
The contrast to the scenery in Milford Sound could hardly have been bigger: whilst the Milford Sound is imposing and almost menacing, with its steep rock faces and thundering waterfalls, the Mount Cook scenery is far more open and light. Of course this might also have to do with the stunning weather we had on the trip! The hills reminded me of the Swiss Alps and many family hiking holidays.
Talking of hiking: whilst you can do plenty of fantastic day walks from Mount Cook National Park, some of the most famous Great Walks elsewhere in New Zealand need to be booked in advance because they involve sleeping in huts with limited capacity. The iconic Milford Track, for example, must be absolutely stunning: a four day hike through rain forests, across creeks, underneath waterfalls, and crossing the Mackinnon Pass through alpine terrain, but when tickets go on sale for the following season, they sell out within hours, sometimes within minutes. You have a choice between walking individually, staying in very basic huts and carrying all your food, or joining a guided tour, staying in more luxurious accommodation and getting cooked meals for breakfast and dinner. (I think the price difference is approximately $300 vs. $3,000).
Doing this walk has become a status thing for tourists, with many New Zealanders feeling that is has lost its allure for them. As a keen walker and experienced long-distance hiker (I have walked the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way in Scotland, traversing the Scottish Highlands from Glasgow to Inverness), I would enjoy the challenge, but the logistics put me off. You can’t alter plans spontaneously depending on weather; you are only allowed to walk in one direction; you have to choose between ‘first-class’ and ‘second-class’ walking, and you have to cope with some annoying fellow travellers who are mainly keen to tick this walk and the obligatory Instagram photo off their ‘bucket list’ (how I hate this mindless expression!). For all those reasons, at the moment I feel more like returning to Mount Cook instead, or doing one of the other Great Walks during my next visit.
After my beautiful day in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, I embarked on the Coastal Pacific train journey to Picton. The trip was stunning, in particular the long stretch along the Kaikoura Coast, which was so severely impacted and altered as a consequence of the 2016 earthquake. The Coastal Pacific has only just reopened: it was out of action for two years following the earthquake which had damaged the track. Repairs are still being done. During my trip, the sun was shining, the water was turquoise and sparkling, and we even spotted dolphins and a whale from the train. If I were to make the journey again, I would interrupt it and spend a day in Kaikoura, maybe doing a whale watching cruise and/or doing the stunning 3-hour Kaikoura Peninsula walk. The fact that I had not factored in a stop at Kaikoura was the only regret I had during my New Zealand journey.
I knew little about Picton before I arrived – I mainly chose it as end point of the train journey and starting point of the journey to the North Island. But what a beautiful town it is! The busy marina, the sparkling waters of the Marlborough Sounds, the pretty harbour walks, the easy access to longer walks through the use of water taxis – it was such a contrast to the mountainous scenery of the previous days and felt like relaxing in a Mediterranean resort. I loved every minute of it, and I could not resist joining Marlborough Wine Tours for an afternoon visit to four vineyards complete with wine tasting – not for the faint-hearted! I had the company of a UK couple (who gallantly apologised for Brexit) and two Kiwi couples, and we had a great time sampling 22 wines, ranging from many Sauvignon Blancs, for which the region is famous, to various other white and red wines, even including Gewürztraminers. I used to run a wine tasting society in Scotland, so it was a great refresher doing a tasting with the professionals!
For those who love hiking but prefer gentle walks to mountainous terrain, Picton is a perfect base. It is also close to Nelson and to Abel Tasman National Park with its easy and accessible Coastal Walk, one of the Great Walks. I did not have time to go there though. Another reason to come back!
From Picton I had booked the Interislander Ferry to take me from the South to the North Island. This is a very affordable way to cross, and if you are lucky with the weather, an incredibly scenic one: it takes you through the Marlborough Sounds, then the Tory Channel, before crossing the Cook Strait. I spent all of the 3-hour journey on the outer deck: it got very cold but fortunately not stormy. I have been told that crossing the Cook Strait in turbulent weather is no joy for somebody suffering from motion sickness …
New Zealand’s capital Wellington is beautiful: I visited the Parliamentary Buildings (sadly the interior was closed to the public following the terror attack), enjoyed the excellent coffee culture, was almost blown away by the strong winds (there is no landmass between Wellington and Antarctica, so the South Wind is ferocious!), loved the short ride on the Cable Car and spent half a day in the very informative Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, learning about Maori culture, the Treaty of Waitangi and the ill-fated Gallipoli expedition from the viewpoint of New Zealand soldiers.
A highlight was the so-called Sealcoast Safari, a three-hour Landrover trip along the rugged south coast of Wellington where we drove through otherwise inaccessible private farmland and along the coast itself, down steep roads and over rocks and streams, to have muffins with the seals and admire Wellington’s answer to Pisa: the Leaning Lighthouse on Karori Rock. Our driver Billy did a sterling job, navigating the difficult terrain and steering us through the Devil’s Gate, all the while telling us tales about the making of the Lord of the Rings or the healing powers of the famous Manuka honey. It is a great half-day trip!
The Northern Explorer train then took me to Hamilton: not a spectacular city in its own right but a good base to explore the two final highlights of the North Island that I had chosen for my trip: the Hobbiton film set in Matamata, and the geothermal wonders of Rotorua. Having said this: I enjoyed walking along the mighty Waikato River in Hamilton and visiting the Waikato Museum on my final morning, which added a regional perspective to the things I had learned about the Maori and New Zealand’s involvement in Gallipoli during my visit to the Te Papa Museum.
Hobbiton was a must, predominantly because my nieces and nephew love the films. I had reservations: I thought it might all be rather tacky and touristy. Well, touristy it is, of course, but tacky it is not. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, even though it was the only rainy day I had in New Zealand. I took the regular Intercity bus to Matamata, then joined the tour from there (pre-booking is essential!), which involved a 20-minute bus ride to the Alexander Farm (still a working farm), a 1 ½ hour guided walk through Hobbiton, with plenty of opportunities for photo stops, and a final pint in the Green Dragon. It was really lovely to hear all the anecdotes surrounding the making of the film, learning that the whole set had originally been made of polystyrene and demolished after the LOTR films, then remade for the Hobbit films and this time made to last in more durable materials.
We saw Bilbo’s party field, Sandyman’s Mill and the little bridge. The set is lovingly presented with an enchanting attention to detail, including Hobbit laundry hanging out to dry on the washing line. The sheep of the Alexander Farm, so we were told, have a depressed look about them: they are still offended that they were relocated elsewhere for the duration of filming and replaced with the type of black-faced sheep described by Tolkien. Peter Jackson was a purist: he took no liberty with the original text, even if it meant causing hurt to the local livestock! Conversely, plenty of local human livestock was used for extras: we heard amusing tales of roundish, smallish grandparents who took their keen grandchildren to auditions and then got cast themselves as Hobbits. Some of these grandparents have still not been forgiven by their grandchildren!
On my final day I was lucky to be taken on a tour to Rotorua by local man Jim Archer. We had interesting conversations, and he took me to see the Buried Village of Te Wairoa, New Zealand’s answer to Pompeii. In 1886 this village and some surrounding ones had been buried by a sudden volcanic eruption of Mount Tarawera. Many lives were lost. The village had been a centre of early tourism: close to the famous Pink-and-White Terraces, which attracted visitors from far afield. Many Maori locals worked as guides for these tourists, and one of their elders had bemoaned the loss of their original way of life and predicted doom and gloom only a few days before the eruption. After the disaster, which buried not only the village, but also the terraces, he was blamed for it and shunned by his community.
It was also great to see the geothermal activities, the impressive geysers, steam holes and mud pools with their unpredictable eruptions: a very exciting spectacle, which led to Rotorua being the first tourist town in New Zealand. We also visited the Maori centre, seeing old crafts like carving and weaving in action, and I was treated to an authentic Maori Hangi meal. Jim is half Maori himself, so I had the benefit of hearing many authentic stories about Maori traditions and values.
Like the Australian indigenous population, Maori see themselves as custodians of the land rather than its owners, which led to conflict when European immigrants arrived. Unlike the Australian Aborigines, however, the Maori were settlers themselves rather than nomads, and they were more united through a reasonably common language, rather than divided by many different languages. This made them a force to be reckoned with and gave them more of a voice, and the Treaty of Waitangi (1840) tried to address land claims and questions of fairness and mutual obligations early on. Although the process was not plain sailing and some of these negotiations are still ongoing, the Maori and Pakeha (New Zealanders of European descent) are far more integrated, the bilingual signage in New Zealand seems authentic rather than tokenistic, and as a consequence New Zealand seems a more homogenous society.
Sadly my day in Rotorua concluded my time in New Zealand for the time being, as I flew back from Auckland to Sydney the following day. I hope to be back: plenty of walks still to be done, plenty of sights still to see. Maybe the most fascinating thing about New Zealand is the variety of scenery in such a small country: the rainforests of Fiordland, the mountains of the Southern Alps, the volcanic terrain on the North Island, the palm trees and vineyards of Marlborough, and the wildlife ranging from dolphins and whales to Kiwis and Keas, the only species of alpine parrots.
Just to summarise a few practical points for solo travellers and users of public transport:
Travelling solo is not a problem in this country. I have always felt safe, and I easily found company when I wanted it. Joining the odd day tour is a great compromise between solitude and conviviality.
Public transport: plan ahead. This option might be a little harder between May and September when some routes will close and some trains will stop operating. I travelled in March, at the tail end of the summer season and outside of school holidays, which was a great time to visit.
Advantages of public transport: you travel authentically, certainly in the Intercity buses which are also frequented by locals. The buses are reasonably cheap. You can enjoy the scenery without having to concentrate on the road. In the trains in particular, you are given headphones and informative commentary on the landscape as you travel through it.
Disadvantages: a car does, of course, give you added freedom in your planning. As you need to book most public transport ahead, you have less flexibility to make last-minute changes to your itinerary. You need to factor in more time for everything because most services are so infrequent. And trains operate on a narrow gauge and go slowly!
Overall: regardless of mode of transport, don’t underestimate distances! I made that mistake when first starting to plan my itinerary. With New Zealand sitting next to Australia on the map, it looks diminutive: you could be forgiven for thinking that you can just drive from one end to the next within a day. Even if you drive, you can’t go fast on the bendy single track roads – overall, there are only 360 km of dual carriage expressways or motorways in New Zealand. Actually, in some parts there are few roads, full stop. For example: the distance between Queenstown and Milford Sound, as the crow flies, is only about 70 km, but the drive takes four hours, because you have to travel south to Te Anau first, then up north again. From Dunedin to Christchurch was a 6-hour bus journey, and from Christchurch to Picton a 7-hour train journey. And I was still on the South Island!
On the North Island, the train from Wellington to Auckland takes 10 hours, and from there you can still travel further north by car to the Bay of Islands, which will take another three hours. But all these journeys are part of the experience. Don’t take domestic flights, unless you are in a hurry: taking it slowly means that you get a really good impression of Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud, and its scenic beauty.