The South Island
The spectacular Middle Earth of New Zealand
A thrill-seeker and outdoor enthusiast will never regret discovering what New Zealand has to offer. Dr. Jun Ruiz, a well-travelled gastroenterologist, writes about how New Zealand’s larger island—with all its stunning mountains, glaciers, and fiords, has got the world in awe.
NEW ZEALAND IS A breathtaking and incredibly beautiful country with its majestic snow-capped mountains, pristine lakes, cool glaciers, and stunning fiords providing the spectacular scenery. I had been dreaming to visit this gorgeous country for a lifetime, and I was ecstatic last year that a journey to this destination would be finally realized.
New Zealand is an archipelago of more than 700 islands in the south western portion of the Pacific Ocean. There are two main islands, the North Island and the South Island. Th e former is an island of mountain ranges, volcanic plateaus, and thermal areas. Th e latter has the majestic Southern Alps, glacial lakes, and the picturesque fiords.
New Zealand is a land of diverse and sensational landscapes. One doesn’t have to travel far to enjoy contrasting experiences. Th e Southern Alps is just hours away from a virgin rain forest, and the peaceful beach can only be minutes from a busy urban city. Every day is a different journey here.
New Zealand was first discovered by the Dutch and was named after the Dutch province of Zealand. Later, it became a British colony in 1840. Today, New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy.
THE SPOTLIGHT ON NEW ZEALAND BY THE LORD OF THE RINGS MOVIES
It is not surprising that New Zealand was chosen as the shooting location for the blockbuster film trilogies of “The Lord of the Rings” and “Th e Hobbit” that captivated the movie audiences worldwide. New Zealand native and director Peter Jackson chose to highlight the stunning landscape of this country as the perfect fantasy backdrop of the epic Middle Earth journey as envisioned by J.R.R. Tolkien. New Zealand would forever be associated with these successful films.
Any time between September to May are the most popular months for travellers to New Zealand, though the ski season brings visitors during the winter months (June to August). One word of advice for tourists: it can be very expensive to tour this country.
Auckland was our gateway to this exciting adventure. We toured the North Island first for five days and especially enjoyed the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata. This was built as the Shire where hobbits play and live in hobbit holes as featured in “The Lord of the Rings’ movies – truly a great cinematic adventure.
THE SPECTACULAR SCENERY OF CANTERBURY
From Auckland, we took a short flight to Christchurch – the gateway to South Island. We then left Christchurch and rode in our coach bus for four hours through the Canterbury Plains until we reach Tekapo by the early evening.
Just watching the spectacular scenery through the window was an awesome experience. Never had I seen such stunning landscape from my seat and just enjoyed the view
The road trip through the Canterbury Plains marks the beginning of where the breathtaking natural landscape of New Zealand mirrors the journey to the Middle Earth as described by Tolkien. In the South Island, you will feast your eyes on a variety of nature’s best creations from the towering snow-capped mountains of the Southern Alps, huge glaciers, pristine lakes, the lofty Remarkable Mountains, and the picturesque fiordlands of Milford Sound.
We spent the following day in the alpine wonderland of southern Canterbury enjoying the clear blue lakes, admiring the majestic mountains, exploring glaciers, and flying in this once in a lifetime helicopter ride close to New Zealand’s highest peak. This day would provide us with the best highlights of the trip, as these memories are forever imprinted in our minds.
We stopped at Lake Tekapo, which is one of the three beautiful glacial lakes of the Mackenzie Basin. The lovely sight of this turquoise lake is mesmerizing, as the pristine waters reflect the surrounding Alpine mountains on this clear day.
MOUNT COOK AND THE SOUTHERN ALPS
The majestic and snow-capped Southern Alps mountain range dominates the South Island and runs almost along the entire length of the island. The highest peak in New Zealand is the majestic Mount Cook / Aoraki that is located inside the Mount Cook National Park. It has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Mount Cook soars above the crest of the Alps at 3,754 m (12,316 feet). No trip to New Zealand is complete without seeing Mount Cook.
Taking a scenic flight over Mount Cook and the Southern Alps comes highly recommended and I strongly agree this is one of the most heavenly experiences one can ever have. You will experience stunning views of the Alpine peaks while flying without wings over these mighty mountains.
These scenic helicopter rides are very expensive and ranges from USD 235 to USD 620. I did not hesitate knowing that this would be an unforgettable adventure that couldn’t be measured with money. We got the Alpine Explorer package that features 35 minutes of flying close to the mountains revealing superb views of Mount Cook and its surrounding peaks.
Though flying over the alpine wonderland was amazing, the highlight was our alpine landing on the Tasman Glacier. To experience walking on this massive glacier that shaped the terrain of New Zealand for millions of years was such a supernatural experience. Standing in this beautiful mountain snow environment thousands of meters above sea level and playing in the snow was a glorious moment. This was truly a flight of a lifetime.
THE ADVENTURE CAPITAL OF NEW ZEALAND
After a day of enjoying the pristine lakes, flying over the Southern Alps, and a fantastic glacier landing, we headed to the Adventure Capital of New Zealand – Queenstown.
Queenstown is one of the most scenic and beautiful destinations in the world and the Southern Hemisphere’s premier alpine resort. It is located on the shore of Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by the stunning mountain range called The Remarkables. The lake was used as the location involving Lothlorien, home to the Lady of the Forest Galadriel and the Elves in the films.
The best vista of Queenstown and its surroundings can be seen from Bob’s Peak after taking the exciting Skyline gondola ride. At the top observation deck, you will be amazed by the breathtaking panoramic views of The Remarkables, Lake Wakatipu, and Queenstown.
Queenstown is famous all over the world for its adrenaline-rush activities all year round. The magnificent backdrop of the beautiful lakes, mountains, and rivers add to the wonderful experience. For those who enjoy extreme adventure, the options are numerous for thrill-seekers. The popular ones are bungee jumping, skydiving, paragliding, parasailing, white-water rafting, jetboating, and canyoning.
The extreme adventure I enjoyed the most in Queenstown was the unique and breathtaking Shotover jet boat ride through the dramatic and spectacular Shotover River canyons. The jet boats are propellerless powerboats designed to speed over four inchdeep swift-flowing waters down the narrow river gorges and jagged cliffs. To add to the excitement, the jet boat can execute sudden 360-degree spins to everyone’s delight. Just jump in, hold tight, and enjoy the power thrill.
THE MILFORD SOUND JOURNEY
Unfortunately, the most beautiful journey in New Zealand was not included in our scheduled itinerary. A few of my friends took extra time to experience the extraordinary beauty of Milford Sound.
Milford Sound is the jewel of the Fiordland National Park, approximately a five-hour drive from Queenstown. The road to Milford Sound is New Zealand’s most picturesque drive with its stunning scenery of lakeside rainforests, lofty mountains, canyons, crystal clear lakes, and cascading rivers, deservng for its World Heritage Highway status.
At Milford Sound, paradise awaits you. The fiords in New Zealand were carved out during the Ice Ages over millions of years, and are among the most spectacular in the world – rivalling those found in Norway. Milford Sound is a 16-km long fiord that ends at the Tasman Sea. It has been described as the “eighth wonder of the world”.
The best way to explore the grandeur of the Milford Sound’s scenery up close and personal is best appreciated by water. Several cruises travel through the fiord. From the spacious cruise boat with its large windows and spacious outdoor viewing decks, marvel at the sheer cliffs, snow-capped peaks, cascading waterfalls, deep blue water, and the awe-inspiring panoramas of the fiord. Enjoy the fresh crisp mountain air during the entire journey.
Standing majestically over the sound is the impressive conical-shaped Mitre Peak, named after the mitre headwear worn by Christian bishops. The mountain rises almost vertically straight up from the deep waters to a height of 1,692 m at its pinnacle. It is a breathtaking sight, being the world’s highest cliff and one of the country’s most photographed mountains.
The following day we flew back to Auckland and continued our trip back to Manila. These four spectacular and activity-packed days in the South Island were a lifelong dream came true. This journey made me realized that this gorgeous country fits the description perfectly of Tolkien’s mystical world of lofty mountains and hidden valleys where men, elves, dwarfs, and hobbits rule. In the case of New Zealand, spectacular things really do come in a small geographical package. TP