Writing about travel when you’re from New Zealand inevitably brings a request for advice on what to see in New Zealand. After all, surely you’d know your home country’s beautiful spots better than others right?
And despite having been to many of New Zealand’s gorgeous locations, I had to admit that I had yet to visit the widely-acclaimed best places to visit: Queenstown and Milford Sound.
I elected to rectify this and headed down for a long weekend. I had painstakingly accumulated enough Airpoints with Air New Zealand to get my accommodation paid for and jetted down to do as much as I could in two and a half days.
Flying into Queenstown is just as gorgeous as the videos make it seem. You descend through clouds to be greeted by a picture perfect vision of mountains surrounding a lake – very Swiss or Scandinavian.
A brief taxi ride into town later, I was checking into the Millennium Hotel, which boasts great views of the lake. My brother had given me a free upgrade card for any hotels in the Millennium range. Depending on availability of course! Feeling rather smug I asked at reception if I could redeem it.
The receptionist looked at me like I had two heads, and let me know that they were fully booked and so there were no upgraded rooms available. I nodded sagely as I considered that I had timed my trip for the period between Xmas and New Years, so that it wasn’t the most surprising of situations, and made my way toward my room which faced into a central courtyard rather than out over the crystal blue waters of the lake.
Still, I was here to get a flavour of the town, not to while away the time in a hotel room!
Out I went to the centre of town, to breathe in the heady excitement of the centrepiece of New Zealand tourism. A short walk down hill into town later, I enjoyed the evening sun (Southern Hemisphere, remember, so Xmas time is summer) as I strolled around the harbour.
I paused briefly to watch a guy piloting his drone, stepped aside and let a tour of segways rumble past, admired a dude paddle boarding on the water and generally enjoyed the sounds of people eating at the many lake-side restaurants.
On the way back I passed a burger place with a line which stretched out the door and along the pavement. I didn’t take note of the name of the place, but I thought I might pop back when it was less busy.
I had signed up for a combination ticket which consisted of a bungy jump, a jet boat ride, a helicopter ride and white water rafting. At $733 per person (was $500ish when I did it in 2013) it certainly isn’t cheap, but I figured since they picked you up, dropped you off and handled everything from showers to wetsuits, that I’d be in good hands.
Getting all four activities in one day would be incredibly efficient as well. My hotel was on the list of pickup spots but when I made further enquiries it turned out that the actual point of pickup was the bus stop out the front on the main road. Now that was something that could have gone very wrong! If I hadn’t asked I could have been happily sitting at reception in the hotel, waiting for some sort of bus pickup!
Having spent some time in tourism in Europe, I was now used to accurate pickup times, allocated seats and seamless service, so it took me a little while to reset my expectations back to New Zealand’s “She’ll be right” laidbackness.
The bus that pulled up didn’t go directly to all the activities, instead it took us into town where we were weighed (max weight for the bungy 127kg / 280lbs) and grouped up according to which ticket and activities we were doing.
Then we were put on various vans and mine set off towards the bungy jump over the Nevis river just before it meets the Kawarau river, about 30 minutes from town. While I had bought my ticket and wanted to do all the activities, I am not the best with heights, so for me it was good to do the bungy first to get it out of the way, but the 30 minute trip wasn’t long enough and my blood pressure was certainly rising the closer we got to the venue.
When we got there there was a log cabin full of branded mementoes beside the top of the hill and then a small hut suspended on cables out in the middle of the gorge, accessible via a tiny metal gondola.
We were split into smaller groups as the gondola could only take about six or seven of us, and delightfully the order of jumping was set by the weight of the jumpers. Lucky me – first!
To tell the truth I was very happy with this – the sooner it was over with the sooner I could actually enjoy myself. With no delay the efficient team were buzzing around and had me sitting on a metal armchair and strapped my legs together and put a harness on.
I then hobbled over to the other side of the hut where this time I sat in a leather armchair as the team busied themselves attaching the hobble on my legs to the actual bungy.
The bungy was a big thick cable of stretchiness – basically what would happen if someone got a thousand boxes of rubber bands, cut them all and then somehow braided them all together into one long thick heavy cable.
The chair was right beside the gaping hole that was the missing wall of the hut. The tiniest of platforms jutted out over the sheer drop and after I was attached to the bungy cord, I proceeded via the smallest steps possible to make my way towards this little platform. The steps were small because with the hobble I had very limited movement available, but as I got closer to the platform my brain was making them even smaller because there was nothing to hold onto and the sheer drop outside started to become more and more real.
My eyes darted around as I shuffled to the end of the platform and the attendant shuffled the bungy cord around so that it dangled off the endless of the hut. He looked up and said “there’ll be a little tug” and let go of the bungy. The join where the bungy attached dropped away over the edge and then stopped, tugging me forward towards the gaping chasm beneath me. I glared at him. I could have fallen!
He grinned back and, referring to the foreign tourists who had come across in the gondola with me, said “let’s show these guys how Kiwis fly”. Then he pointed out an overhead camera for me to make a quick smile (grimace really) and he counted down from three.
I’d love to say that as he hit zero I leapt gracefully off the platform and made a perfect, silent dive out over the river far below, but what happened was I threw myself off the platform in a half crouch and yelled (not screamed, I hasten to add) all the way down. Kiwis don’t fly.
Falling is quick! My mind flicked through various thoughts and seeing how vivid the experience was, I can still remember the exact thoughts as they happened.
I’m heading for that rock with a red mark on it. Is it blood? The bungy better start slowing me down soon, I’m getting close. There we go, slowing down now, am I going to stop in time. Yes!
The instructions in the hut had been after the jump you can either be pulled back up into the hut upside down or else you can pull a cord on your harness near your ankles which will disconnect the hobble at your feet, which in turn will make the attachment at your waist the connection for the the bungy and therefore you’ll be hoisted up in a seated position. After a couple of attempts I managed to pull the cord and “enjoyed” my hoist up.
There were two things that I took away from me after my bungy. One was the obvious relief. Me and heights don’t get on so it was an achievement for me to actually make it to the little diving board and to jump. Not everyone did it – the guy after me balked. All harnessed and ready to go, but at the last minute did not want to do it.
I chatted quietly with the guy running the show and said that I hoped it wasn’t because of my (manly) screams that put the other guy off. He put my fears to rest and said that frequently he’d get a group of tourists through and some of the group were really committed to doing the bungy, but that some buy the tickets because their mates were doing it, but when it comes to the crunch it’s not for them.
Wow I said – do they get a refund? He grinned and said “Nope, once that rope is on, no refunds”. He looked around and said that if I was a solo traveller, that I might as well head back to the log cabin on the cliff as it would help them cycle through more of the groups, so I thanked him and headed back.
The other thing I took away form the experience was the realness of it. It’s hard to explain, but think about this. In life we put filters up between ourselves and reality. Sometimes it’s the little white lies we tell ourselves or our loved ones, it could be the spin we put on things in our place of work. In the most obvious way it’s the Instagram filters people put on photos to make them look better.
These things were the opposite of the bungy. The bungy was real. The plummeting towards the river at the bottom of the ravine was real in a crispy “everything in focus and crystal clear” way that nothing else was.
Back on terra firma, I got three momentos: a free t-shirt saying that I had bungied over the Nevis River at 134 metres, a small section of the bungy so you could see how it was constructed, and a link to where I could download the video.
Being the first jumper back there was a distinct ratio imbalance between me and the staff and after they found that I worked for TripAdvisor I found myself surrounded by twelve staff asking me questions.
That lasted for about ten minutes and then the other jumpers started to return and they drifted off to do their jobs, and I jumped in the shuttle bus which was heading to the next of the Big Four activities: the Shotover Jet.
The Shotover Jet is an iconic experience which consists of a jet boat (huge V8 engine in a very light weight boat) whizzing along a very shallow river.
At a bend in the river, a jetty stuck out into the thin trickle of water. The jetty was a way from where the bus dropped me off and after picking up a life jacket I picked my way over the multitude of grey stones and waited in line for our ride.
Our guide stood on an elevated platform and briefed us on what to expect. Which was basically to keep everything tucked inside the boat. Should they run aground (humiliating for the driver), follow instructions and climb out so that they can reflate the boat. But pretty much keep everything inside the boat and don’t expect to be able to speak because once they got going there would be constant wind which would steal your words.
It was fun, the shallow draft of the boat threatened to run us aground but the driver obviously knew his way around the river and while we may have felt a few stones at times, there was never any danger of us really running aground.
That was until we rounded a bend and saw one of the other boats stopped on a bank. The driver immediately slowed and wryly grinned as he saw the passengers on the stranded boat moving simultaneously while still seated.
He saw me quizzically checking them out and told me that if the driver of the other boat could get himself floated by rocking off the bank then he wouldn’t suffer the indignation of having to have a tractor drive up and tow him off.
After we putted slowly past we saw that it seemed to work and as we gained speed and passed a bend in the river the last thing I heard were the cheers of the passengers in the other boat.
Over too soon, we got off the boat and headed to the large building nearby. This is where they stored the inflatable boats, provided showers and wetsuits for the white water rafting part of the day.
Yet another mini-bus would take us to the starting point of the activity. Maybe a dozen of us had elected to include a helicopter trip in our package, and we would go maybe halfway by bus and then the rest of the way by helicopter.
So! One of the staff loaded up a trailer with the blue and black inflatable boats, tying them securely with many ropes. We all got fitted with our wetsuits and jumped in a minibus to head up the river. The scenery was stunning and with the sun out, and the bungy behind me, I was really relaxed and enjoying the experience.
We turned off the main road after twenty minutes and parked in a non-descript clearing, halfway up the hill. Our driver gave us a briefing on what to do, what not to touch and how to behave in the chopper.
In the distance we heard the chopper coming in and soon after that it popped up from below the road level. We were already briefed on who would sit where and so made our way very efficiently into the helicopter, buckled in and got our headphones on. I was sitting behind the pilot, and he wasted no time at all taking off.
I think that the pilot wanted to make sure that we got our money’s worth – , dropping over hills and generally flicking us around and enjoying himself. All while I glared at the back of his head. I was glad I wasn’t the only one gripping the back of the seats in front!
Eventually we come to the clearing where we would name the the remainder of our party plus the inflatable boats and we replaced our headphones on the right hooks and made our way off the chopper.
We had a little wait for them to catch up, as well as the second half of the group who were choppered in, and then we all collected on the bank of the river and had our team briefing.
White Water Rafting
We were split up into groups and assigned to a skipper who would be in charge of our white water experience down the river. After the briefing we made our way into the after and headed out.
The initial part of the river required a little bit of paddling, steering and otherwise engagement, but then there was a nice section of river where we could just coast.
Our guide even suggested that we could swim if we wanted to, as we wouldn’t be needed in the boat for a little while. There was something very relaxing about floating down the river – the sun was out, there was minimal noise apart from other boats in the distance ahead and astern and the slap and splosh of the water against the boat.
Some people chatted quietly and some actually seemed uncomfortably warm in their wet-suits as the sun baked down. The water was cold but with the wet-suits very comfortable.
After about 20 minutes the guide suggested that everyone get back on the boat and we navigated another section of the river, the rock walls of the canyon uncomfortably close in parts and whizzing by showing the speed the river was travelling at.
Finally we ended up just upstream from a tunnel near the base hut where we had to cross the entire width of the river in order to make the entrance to the cave tunnel.
The river at that point was very wide and half of it went into the tunnel and half of it continued along parallel to the tunnel, joining up further downstream. We had pulled over to the left bank, out of the current while the boat-leader gave us a chat.
We all had to bend our backs and paddle madly across the river to the mouth of the tunnel because the current was very strong and if we couldn’t get over in time we would miss the mouth of the tunnel and be taken down the less fun way to where the branches of the river rejoined.
With a concerted effort we were able to make it across and drift the rest of the way in the dark as the bright spec of light got bigger and we were ejected from the cave in a little water fall which drenched us all and allowed us to casually end up on the shallow rocky beach just beside the hut where we had collected our wet-suits.
The showers were certainly appreciated after all that, and I enjoyed a tasty beverage as I sat and waited for the bus to take us back to into town.
I went past Fergs burgers again and seeing how this was late afternoon on a Saturday in the height of summer, it was absolutely heaving, the line again out the doors. Instead I went for a wander around the waterfront and found a restaurant with a table outside. A lovely steak on mash with a few veg later, I was heading home feeling like I had managed to squeeze as much as possible from my Saturday.
Milford Sound Day Trip
I had purposefully front loaded the trip with adrenaline activities on the Saturday, and planned a slower pace on the Sunday.
An early morning bus would pick me up and drive me to the Milford Sound where a boat would take us for a cruise on the Milford Sound, while for some a helicopter would take them back to Queenstown and for others (like me) the bus would return. A long day trip.
We stopped off at a few scenic photo opportunities on the way, briefed by our guide on how long we were waiting at each spot. My favourite was probably the Mirror Lakes, named for the clarity of the reflection.
Some of the scenery was visible directly from the bus itself, especially as we came up to the valley of the Hollyford River. Snow and the melt joined the rivers which carved their way through the rock making for a stop off at one rapids where you really couldn’t hear yourself think.
In the end we made our way through the Homer tunnel (one way and 1.2km/0. miles long) and out the other side to the lakeside jetty’s on the Milford Sound. Some fishing boats lay anchored but the majority of the craft were small tourist craft built to show visitors the sights.
It was quite stunning the way the mountains disappeared into the lake, and the waterfalls spotted around the sides never lost their grandeur. The wind out on the deck was quite amazing – even though the sun was out and it was a glorious day, the strength of the wind kept most of the people inside.
We made our along the Sound until we hit where the Sound met the Tasman Sea and then the boat did a U turn and headed back in. The skipper made sure to hug the other edge of the Sound this time and we got up close with some seals basking on the rocks.
The skipper also decided we should get up close and personal with one of the waterfalls, nosing the bow of the boat right up to the waterfall so everyone on the deck got wet. Good times!
Before too long our 90 minute cruise was over and we were back at the port. It was there that the people who had arranged a helicopter ride back split off from the rest of us and went over to the helipad, and the rest of us headed back to Queenstown via the same road we had come in on.
I really regretted not spending the extra money on the helicopter trip back because while the scenery had been stunning on the way to the Sound, by this time the light was failing and with the early start I just wanted to go to sleep.
There was apparently some issue with the direct route back to Queenstown also so we had to go the long way back which added even more time to our trip!
Milford Sound has two great maps showing the route from Queenstown to Milford Sound and the various locations on the Sound itself.
The good news was that upon my return to Queenstown there was no line for Ferg’s Burgers! So I was finally able to try what everybody raved about. And yes: a very nice burger.
The restaurant had some humourish decor and I was impressed with the range of offerings – electing to have the calamari as a side instead of fries, because that would be “healthier”.
By that stage I was happy with my weekend – I had done the Awesome Foursome, enjoyed the Sounds and knocked off a burger at Ferg’s – the only thing I hadn’t done was the gondola to the top of the hill and the luge track that was up there.
When I woke up on the last day the rain had come in and everything was wet and miserable. I was tempted to call it a day but there was nothing to do and I wasn’t flying out until the afternoon. So I got the hotel to look after my bags and headed out to the gondola anyway.
I was really glad that I did. The rain wasn’t heavy and eventually started to clear, but had scared away the tourists so that it was almost empty on top of the mountain. The gondola had passed a bungy jump station on the way up the mountain and though it wasn’t as high as the one that I had done I was still glad that I wouldn’t be leaping off.
Amusingly there was a fire risk indicator that, despite the damp, was firmly pointing to the Extreme level – more of an indication of the great weather we’d been having than the chances of sodden undergrowth going up in flames.
The rain stopped entirely by the time I reached the top of the mountain and the sky was hidden behind a low cover of cloud, obscuring the peaks of the nearby. The town below us looked positively lilliputian.
The luge had been closed while it had been raining, but not long after I arrived they decided the rain had stopped for long enough for them to reopen, and so I headed up the ski lift to the starting point.
Amusingly a luge made of jellybeans was at the top, and I marvelled at the obvious event that lead them to need a sign on the luge indicating that the jellybeans were not for consumption!
I went down the luge track a bunch of times and it was surprisingly fun, even for someone on their own – the thrill of speed and trying to stay on the track without hurtling into other people was enough to keep me occupied for a while and I didn’t regret getting six luge tickets.
Before long I had used them all up and decided to head back down the hill and make my way back to the airport. Walking back to the hotel I happened to pass Ferg’s yet again. Still a line out the door and along the footpath outside.