Last you saw me, I was driving on the left side of the road, wipers going full blast while trying to make a right.
The radio in our rental car is blasting Born in the USA and other such American tunes thanks to a Kiwi station’s Fourth of July homage. Ironically, we were trying to find some local music only to be thwarted by Springsteen.
This will be one of the last times the radio will pick up a frequency.
Our route to Queenstown would take us by Geraldine, where we stopped for some coffee and cheese, and Lake Tekapo.
What followed was hours of stunning scenery.
At one point, after we passed Lake Tekapo, I asked Courtney to play some Sigur Ros, because it seemed like the only music that could do the landscape any justice.
Although Queenstown was our goal, we were also open to the idea of staying anywhere along the way if we saw something we were interested in exploring further. But these are just miles and miles of beautiful, wild terrain with a few small (I can’t even call them villages) houses scattered along the way. We continued to Queenstown, where we had no real goal other than eating at Fergburger.
Queenstown is really a resort town catering to adventure seekers. You can ride Jetboats, bungee jump, snowboard and more extreme sports. At some unlikely juncture in my life, I might be convinced to pay hundreds of dollars to have some hippie shove me off the side of a bridge, but that day has not yet dawned.
For some unexplainable reason, we decided to stay at the Nomads chain of hostels. A cursory glance at their website and reviews would’ve told us that unless we were 19-year-old frat dudes, this was not a good choice.
After I did SEA Semester, I realized that the cultural disconnect between me and people from developed countries is vast in its small details. Young people from developed countries seem to constantly go out of their way to have vacations where they purposely rough it in a hostel, or in some jungle with their camping — you know, for the sake of ‘adventure’ — whereas people from countries like Panama look for small luxuries when they vacation. We may live a more uncomfortable every day life for the reward of a few days at a resort with a raging air conditioning unit and a pool.
So with that in mind, while I’m all for hostels (and we stayed mostly at hostels while in New Zealand), my general thoughts about hosteling is: meh, I’d rather not. Of course there’s the financial side of it, which I appreciate, particularly for solo travelers. But if you’re traveling with one or more people, hostels are not always cheaper than a budget hotel room. This Nomads place was not that cheap, and you have to pay for towels, internet and anything else extra. Walk out the doors of the room and the place is a bizarre mixture of nightclub (music blasting through the intercom) and an airport (the front desks pages people thorough the same intercom).
With Fergburger you must be prepared to order your food, go grab a drink somewhere else, and then come back an hour and a half later to pick up your burger. Don’t plan to eat there. The place is so small you almost certainly will not find a place to sit, and even if you do, it’s so chaotic that I don’t see why anyone would want to sit there. There’s a little park across the street where we sat down and ate. The burgers were indeed excellent.
The next day we had breakfast at Vudu Cafe, which turned out to be very good, and one of the few times we went out for breakfast. For the rest of the trip, we tended to make something in our lodging’s kitchen facilities.
After breakfast, Courtney, who is always in search of places where she can ‘soak’, led the way to Onseen Hot Pools in Arthurs Point. Essentially, these are private hot pool rooms, with this view:
You can soak for an hour in hot water, relax and watch the Jetboats go by. Before we departed Queenstown, we went by Patagonia Chocolates for a hot beverage.
Te Anau and Doubtful Sound
One thing we realized quickly was that the front desks of most hotels or hostels do not stay open late. Particularly in smaller New Zealand towns, front desks will close as early as 7 p.m. If you call the hostel in advance, or make a reservations, staff can make arrangements for you to check yourself in, or someone will wait for a bit. Unless you purposefully plan to sleep in your car, I would make sure to think ahead even by a few hours, instead of just strolling into a town at midnight and expecting to find a place to stay.
New Zealand has these handy places called i-Sites, which are kiosks for tourists to get information, make hotel reservations, book tours and more. While still in Queenstown, we stopped by an i-Site and made a reservation at the Lakeview Holiday Park in Te Anau, a small town farther south of Queenstown, and close to Milford and Doubtful Sounds. We had an overnight cruise of Doubtful Sound departing the next morning, so we wanted to be in town for the early pick-up time.
Here’s our route to Te Anau:
These Holiday Parks are essentially where people in camper vans stop for the night, but you can also rent small rooms with a single bed each, in these huge, long buildings with shared bathrooms. We happened to be the only two people in one of the buildings, so we were fairly confident we had walked into the beginnings of a horror movie. The high winds, rain, cold and general silent darkness of a small town didn’t help matters. The installations were nice with a good kitchen and social area. Each room had heaters, and that worked great, but the bathrooms apparently had no heating. If they did, it was no match for the wide-open windows that would not shut. Little did I know Kiwis are renowned for their freezing-cold living arrangements. No matter, it was a step up from Nomads because at the very least, it had free WiFi. We made dinner from provisions we got in Queenstown, had a little local wine, and relaxed.
The overnight cruise we did is run by Fiordland Expeditions. They are a small, family-owned operator, unlike that other big, corporate tourist mill, Real Journeys. We first communicated with Mandy over email, and she offered to pick us up in Te Anau. She also asked if we had any dietary restrictions so they could arrange a menu around those. We contacted her a day in advance to let her know where we would be staying the night. Actually, the lady at the i-Site in Queenstown knew Mandy, and called her for us.
Mandy picked us up, and drove us to catch the boat across Lake Manapouri. Also in the car, Dave, who would be our crew for the weekend. It’s a bit of a trip to get to Doubtful Sound itself. You have to cross Lake Manapouri, which takes about an hour, then drive another hour (maybe less) through Wilmot Pass.
Dave drove us through Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove, where we met the Tutoko II and our skipper Richard. As it turned out, Courtney and I were the only two guests that weekend. This is why Fiordland Expeditions is awesome: instead of canceling the trip, which, honestly, would’ve been understandable, they upgraded us to a better cabin, and provided a jaw-dropping experience. In terms of service, they gave us some of the best meals we had in the entire trip. Mandy even sent along some homemade ‘banoffee’ muffins (banana with a toffee filling) that were so good, I really should’ve asked her for the recipe.
So here we are, on a private two-day cruise of Doubtful Sound, enjoying countless waterfalls, stunning scenery, warm beverages, homemade food and champagne. Then Richard finds a good spot, suits up and goes diving for lobsters. Apparently, the diving is spectacular so if you are an experienced diver, tell them in advanced and they may be able to arrange for some extra equipment. Don’t take my word for it though, make sure to contact them, as it’s up to their discretion in overnight cruises. You can also charter the boat and crew for days or weeks, as apparently many groups do specifically for diving.
Doubtful Sound is really a fiord, which is a glacier-carved inlet. These cliffs have no shore, so our boat could go right up to the side and get water from the waterfalls. We saw perhaps two other boats the entire time we were there, and that feeling of remoteness combined with the sheer magnitude of the sound, is nothing but surreal.
At dinner time, we ate lobsters, fresh fish, an incredible dessert that I simply could not finish, I was so full. Dave and Richard also shared a bottle of wine with us, which was once again going above and beyond. They generally do not provide any alcohol besides champagne at the start of the cruise, but since we were the only two passengers, and shamefully forgot to bring any booze, they took pity on us.
The next morning, we had ‘first’ breakfast (cereal and such), and then a heavier ‘second’ breakfast (meats, eggs, etc.). Rain and choppy waters meant Richard had to look around for a good, calm place for us to kayak. I appreciate his determination, even after we had given up. He found a place he was happy with, and we paddled right up the cliffs, got water from one of the many waterfalls and enjoyed the moment.
When the cruise was over, Dave drove us back up Wilmot Pass and we rode the boat back across Lake Manapouri. Mandy was there once again to drive us to Te Anau.
Even though the Holiday Park was decent, we decided we wanted less desolate accommodations, so we hopped over to the YHA Te Anau. It was a very nice hostel, with a good kitchen and a more laid-back vibe. No one was going rogue with an intercom. We grabbed some drinks during Happy Hour at the Black Dog Bar inside the Fiordland Cinema. For such a small town, this bar was pretty hip, nicely decorated and with a warm fireplace. The beers were great, and we chatted to a local couple that owned a farm. They recommend a place for dinner, and sure enough we would run into them later at the restaurant. Te Anau is very, very small, and once night falls, it’s unlikely to find much to do besides go to the cinema attached to the bar. The night in these towns is so quiet, it’s almost unsettling. Having an extra afternoon in Te Anau was a great way to finish our Doubtful Sound trip, and the only regret is I wish we had a longer cruise.
One of my best memories is getting to know Dave and Richard, the locals who live in, and love, the Fiordlands. Office jobs were not for them, and they went about making careers that constantly place then in the stunning backdrop of Doubtful Sound. Perhaps they grow tired of hearing tourists sigh at the greatness of such a job, so when I told Richard that I wish I had a job like this, he said “what’s stopping you?”.
And in a world marred with excuses about why we don’t live the life we want, my response is saddest in its reflection of who I have become, and of what I have stopped trying to achieve.
Nothing. Nothing is stopping me.
And on that note, here’s a cheesy, low-quality video compilation from our trip to Doubtful Sound.
I thought I would get to the glaciers in this post, but they’ll have to wait till next time. Stay tuned!