The Spectacular South

The South Island of New Zealand never ceases to impress me. I love the scenery, the food, an occasional drop of wine and meeting friendly Kiwis everywhere I go. I have a couple of my good mates Farrel and Mark (Buzz and Chainsaw) along for company this time, and we’re travelling by motorbike, so we have to pack light. After a short flight across the ditch we arrive in Christchurch, with a plan to circumnavigate the bottom half of the South Island.

It’s an early start the next morning. Once I’ve loaded up my camera gear there’s just enough room for a few pairs of jocks and socks— lucky we are good mates. The weather is being kind, a trend that is going to continue over the next ten days. We head out across the Canterbury Plains. We travel across the plain’s flat, straight roads and it’s not long before we hit the mountains. Today’s destination is Lake Tekapo, 300kms from Christchurch. It’s a beautiful small town located at the base of the Southern Alps with Mount Dobson as a backdrop.

We are quick to unpack, grab the camera and head out to capture the beauty of this place. It’s getting close to sunset and the chance to get a shot of the very famous Church of the Good Shepherd is too good to resist. This historic church is perfectly placed on the edge of the lake with the mountains in the background. The warm afterglow of sunset makes for an ideal shot. The boys vote Chinese for dinner. Who would think you’d get world class Chinese in a country town in NZ?

After Tekapo we head for one of my favourite cities. Queenstown, the adventure capital of the Southern Hemisphere. It’s home to amazing food, fun and adventure. We ride across the plains for an hour and then turn off for a detour. Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, is a 57km detour off the main road and follows another breathtakingly beautiful lake. On a clear day the peak is visible, and today’s weather is perfect. The closer we get to the mountain, the more in awe we are. We are greeted by perfect blue skies, snow-capped mountains and calm conditions, a dream for a photographer.

The next few hours’ drive is through the dramatic Lindis Pass. It’s our first real encounter of true South Island mountain roads. This is one of the few places in the world where it’s a struggle to do the 100km speed limit. Now you have to remember that it’s three boys on hired motorbikes and a perfect mountain road, so when I said it’s a struggle, it doesn’t mean we didn’t give it a good crack. Our motto is: Ride it like you hired it!

The smile on my mates’ faces as we clear Lindis Pass and cruise into Queenstown sums up what life should be all about. A few mates enjoying the simple joys of a road trip— no emails or phone messages, not a care in the world, just man, machine and a whole lot of fun.

Whether you are the five-star type or happy to camp rough, Queenstown has it all. We get there late in the afternoon so it’s just enough time for a quick bite to eat at Fergburger, home of the most amazing burgers. We have to queue up, but it is well worth the wait – trust me.

Day three and we head to Milford Sound. It’s only about 60kms by air, but the drive through the mountains is 280kms and will take around five hours. This is one drive no one will complain about (unless you suffer from car sickness). The roads are twisty and the scenery stunning. A lot of people choose to stay overnight at Te Anau, as accommodation at Milford Sound is really expensive. We decide to splash out and stay at Milford, so I have the opportunity to photograph sunrise the next morning. 

After a pit stop at Te Anau, we start the final 100km into Milford Sound. It’s a unique environment with thousands of plant species. Native Conifers, Primeval Tree Ferns, Silver Beech, Rimu, Kahikatea and Totara Trees make this incredible area overflow with life. We wind up the mountains until we reach the Homer Tunnel. The tunnel is 1.2kms long and the gateway to Milford Sound. We exit the tunnel into spectacular, ominous clouds and as we wind down the mountain, the landscape expands. The ride down to the sound is an incredible experience and caps off one of the best drives ever. All we can say is, ‘Wow!’ We check-in to our room, which has an incredible floor to ceiling view of the mountains and the fjord. 

Despite my bad night’s sleep, sunrise the next morning more than makes up for it. We head out on one of the charter boats into the Sound—a must do activity. I have been here a few times before and it has always been overcast and grey. As the sun breaks through the clouds, Milford Sound comes alive with the golden-rose colour of morning. After many years of trying, I finally have my shot of majestic Milford. Totally satisfied, it’s now time to head back to Queenstown, our base for the next couple of days. It’s the perfect spot to explore the backcountry in the region and have a go at a few of the extreme adventure activities on offer.

The next morning we are in Vudu Café (a good spot for a great breakfast) discussing what activity we should take on. It appears one of the team has a distinct fear of heights. As expedition leader that’s my invitation to help him overcome it! I have never bungee jumped. As it turns out, my travelling companions have also never experienced the rush of bungee, so there’s no time like the present. In one corner I have Farrel, an overly enthusiastic mate keen for the rush, and in the other corner, Mark, a quivering wreck on the border of throwing up. Despite his reluctance (he never stood a chance) we pay our money and take the gondola ride to the top of the mountain. Just twenty minutes later we are standing on the edge of the platform, all harnessed up. The adrenaline is flowing, heart rate pumping and, as all good mates do, we send our terrified buddy first. He does the team proud. Showing no hesitation, he launches over the edge, quickly followed by the two of us. Some days it just feels great to remind yourself you are still alive, slightly crazy and young at heart. All three of us are on a high for the rest of the day.

Still euphoric the next morning, we head out to Paradise. Yes, there really is a place called Paradise, and it’s pretty special. It’s a chance for us to get into some real backcountry and give our off road bike skills a bit of a workout. A few river crossings and a couple of big moments later, we make it back to Glenorchy for lunch, a little cold and wet, but very happy. Glenorchy is a beautiful tiny town. Even if you don’t make it out to Paradise, make sure you visit Glenorchy. It makes for a memorable day trip from Queenstown. The next morning we farewell Queenstown and head for the West Coast. We stop at Wanaka, one of my favourite towns in New Zealand. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy breakfast in the sun with the most amazing view of the mountains and lake. It’s hard to think of a better way to start the day. It also gives us a chance to warm up after the ride across Cromwell Pass, where the temperature had dropped below zero – a bit chilly when you’re on a motorbike.

We finish another great breakfast and head across the mountains to our next destination, Fox Glacier. There is so much to see on this drive and we allow the whole day so we can stop and enjoy the spectacular scenery. Fox Glacier is a great overnight stop and a chance for an easy hike up to the glacier. However, it is alarming that it has significantly reduced in size since I last photographed it in 2011.

The next morning we are back on the road and enjoying the coast drive to Greymouth and then on to Hanmer Springs. The drive across to Hanmer is again through the mountains and the roads are incredible. We know we are getting towards the end of our trip so the boys are making the most of ideal conditions. We carve through the mountain passes like we are on a hire bike. Hanmer is an extremely popular weekend escape for Christchurch locals as it’s only a couple of hours away. Apart from the famous thermal springs there are so many things to do. If you are looking for a great weekend with the kids, a bit of adventure or a romantic weekend with that special someone then you have come to the right town, Hanmer Springs has it all. The trip is almost over as we start the run back to Christchurch.

We have decided to make a big day out of it and plan on riding out to Akaroa, about 75kms from Christchurch on Banks Peninsula. This is our last chance to get off road and see if our skills have improved in the past ten days. The gravel road climbs for a few kilometres towards the lighthouse before you are greeted by the most incredible view over the bay. It’s a great way to end a very special ten days. Like most trips, this is the moment where you feel a sense of satisfaction and great joy. It’s a time to reflect on what matters in life and a reminder that we should do this more often. I am sad to leave New Zealand, but happy to be heading home. It must be time to plan the next adventure.

Words from 4X4 Culture Magazine Issue 46