I feel a legitimate excuse for me not having visited New Zealand sooner, despite hearing consistently good things about it, is how ridiculously far away it is from anything. Even from Hong Kong, it was a 12 hour flight to Auckland, followed by another hour to get me to Christchurch on the South Island. It would be one hell of a slog to get there from Europe but, based on my two weeks in this extraordinary country, a slog that would be absolutely worthwhile.
I was plagued with a dilemma ahead of booking trip which I’m sure many visitors to New Zealand are familiar with – North or South Island? I could only get a couple of weeks off work and didn’t want to cram both in. I was also acutely aware that, due to how far away New Zealand is, it’d be unlikely I’d be getting back there any time soon. Both looked incredible but in the end I went for South Island. I’m not sure there’s a wrong decision here, it just depends what you want to see and do when you’re there. I’m also 99.9% certain one day I will go back and explore the North. I did briefly stop over in Auckland since this is where all of New Zealand’s long customs processes are carried out. New Zealand is very strict about what you can bring into the country, to the point that even muddy shoes and hiking trainers/boots should be declared. I definitely wouldn’t risk leaving a short amount of time between connecting flights as the queues can be quite long. The staff were all very friendly, though one man already didn’t seem too pleased I’d chosen to bypass North Island in favour of the South.
After passing through customs, it was a short 10 minute over to the domestic terminal where I jumped on a plane for the short hop over to Christchurch, South Island’s largest city. Despite this accolade, this is definitely no metropolis. It was incredibly quiet when I was there in winter, sometimes eerily so. The airport was efficient though and I was able to easily hop onto a bus outside the terminal to the centre. If you pay in cash, it’s NZ$8.50. Christchurch centre is pretty small so it’s likely the bus can drop you off near to where you want to go. I was staying in the brilliant Dorset House Backpackers, a lovely old house opposite to a huge park and with a great comfortable common area. This was particularly useful on the one day it absolutely chucked it down and the temperature refused to jump above 1°C.
Christchurch isn’t laden with sightseeing opportunities and, at the beginning of winter, it was incredibly quiet. However, in contrast to bustling Hong Kong, this added to its charm. It’s a laidback, friendly small city, with an abundance of cosy coffee shops and great restaurants – there are loads of different influences here. I sampled some great Mexican, Japanese and American food during my stay.
Other than that, Christchurch is also well-situated for some cool day trips or walks. Not too far from the central area is the coast, with a long, seemingly never-ending beach. On my first day in the city, I decided to head to New Brighton (which, funnily enough, shares its name with a small beach town close to where I’m from in the UK) for a traditional seaside jaunt. The yellow bus line heads to New Brighton from Christchurch’s main bus terminal or you can, as I did, embark on a longish walk to the coast. Hopefully you won’t get lost as I did and end up wandering aimlessly through industrial estates. Actually, the route is pretty simple since you can pretty much just keep following the Avon river which flows through the city. I only got lost because I tried deviating from that route. In hindsight, I probably should have just taken the bus and saved my walking for the beach. Even if you don’t go that far, a stroll along the river is worth doing on a nice day too.
New Brighton was pretty quiet since it was off-season but I was able to get my hands on a bag of chips and wander along the fantastic New Brighton pier to get an atmospheric view of the choppy waves. I also enjoyed walking along the Te Karoro Karoro Reserve, just behind the beach, for more great view. Again, other than the occasional dog walker, I barely saw anybody. As I say, the beach is absolutely huge so you can just keep walking for as long as you fancy, then head back towards the pier in order to get on a bus back.
After catastrophically miserable and wet weather the day after, I ventured out again a couple of days later to experience more of the amazing scenery around Christchurch. The Whakaraupō area is a scenic bay to the south of the city with some fantastic hiking trails. To get there, I took the Blue Line bus to Cashmere. Getting this bus requires a bit more attention though since some buses only go as far as the Princess Margaret Hospital, whilst others go all the way into Cashmere – it’s the buses going into Cashmere itself that you want to catch. I alighted the bus at the very end, close to Cashmere Hill, and headed along the Hary Ell Track, parallel to Dyers Pass Road. From here, I got some great views way off into the distance of snow-capped peaks.
It was around this time that the weather was also changing. When I’d left Christchurch that morning, it had been clear blue skies. Now grey clouds had rolled in and it was starting to rain. After walking some more, I ended up at the Sign of the Kiwi cafe which is an intersection for various hiking tracks. From here, I decided to follow Mitchell’s Track onto the Crater Rim Walkway, but there are a number of options depending on where/how far you want to go. The views along here across to the bay are really stunning, but I was a bit gutted that the clouds had rolled in. Regardless, I stopped to admire the views of the bay, then turned round and was shocked to see completely clear blue skies again behind me over Christchurch! Within half an hour, pretty much all the clouds had disappeared and it was a gorgeous day again. I’d heard New Zealand had interchangeable weather but had no idea it happened just so fast. And now, with clear water and a blue sky, the views were even more incredible. Plus I could now get a panoramic view across the hills (and the many sheep) over Christchurch itself.
The beauty of this hike is you can go as far as you want and then make your way back. There are so many trails weaving in and out of each other that there’s not really a set track – in fact many of the trails merge into each other anyway. I descended back down towards Christchurch past the sheep (I hadn’t seen sheep for years!), immensely satisfied with another amazing hike.
I was in two minds whether to visit New Zealand in winter as I’m not a massive fan of the cold and, knowing how unpredictable the weather could be, I was worried I’d be hindered. I was incredibly lucky with the weather overall throughout my trip and, following the relentless humidity of Hong Kong, there was something very refreshing about donning 3 layers and a waterproof and just blazing on regardless of the weather. The unpredictable weather is what makes New Zealand stunningly beautiful so it’s unwise to sit around waiting for the perfect weather day. The forecast for South Island was looking pretty pessimistic for the next week or so, though the reality turned out to be something very different indeed…