The alarm was set for 3:45am.
At 3:46am we rolled out of bed, I threw my last couple of items into my suitcase and zipped it up ready to go.
By 3:59am, Maddie and I were in the car on route to the airport.
With it’s wild coastlines, towering mountains, crisp air and the fairy-tale-like forests, New Zealand’s charm is undeniable.
As the pilot announced that we were preparing for landing and to please fasten our seat belts, I glanced out the window to see the snow-capped mountains of the South Island. A clear reminder of why this place remains my favourite country on earth.
After landing, our first stop was to pick up our home on wheels that would be taking us across the island.
It had a little kitchen that came out of the boot, a double bed to fold down at night, a crackly speaker system, big windows, and just enough room for two twenty-something year old girls to live in.
Second stop was the grocery store where we picked up some rice, fruit and vegetables, pasta, drinking water, cereal, potatoes, hummus, rice crackers, pepitas and some treats.
Our plan was to travel throughout the South Island, not planning too far ahead, but seeing where the days and the weather took us.
One of the most wonderful things about travelling through New Zealand is that most of the South Island you can ‘freedom camp’ throughout. Basically meaning that you can park your self-contained vehicle for free in designated spots and you don’t have to worry about any of the check-in / check-out business. It leaves you with total freedom to decide where you want to stop and stay each night. Plus, it makes travelling much cheaper! Hooray!
If you’re thinking about doing this too, I’d recommend downloading the CamperMate app which will give you all the information you need ^__^
We spent our first night in a freedom camp just outside of Queenstown and the following morning ventured an hour down the road to one of my favourite spots in New Zealand, Lake Wanaka.
Looking 40 years into the future, I like to imagine myself having a lake house here with an overflowing veggie garden.
The following day we kicked off our first hike of the trip with scaling the famous Roys Peak.
Now, boy oh boy… why were we not warned…
Here I was thinking this would be a somewhat difficult, but mostly leisurely hike. How wrong my misinformed brain was.
We ended up climbing a mountain. I’m talking a BIG MOUNTAIN. The hiking track shoots directly up into the sky with no places to rest along the way. Are you feeling anxious reading this? You should be.
Long story short, 2.5 hours later we’re finally nearing the top of the peak. By this point I’m barefoot (which won’t come as a surprise to those that know me), but my hiking boots had given me the kind of blisters that would make any living creature cry.
So the shoes had come off, I’d befriended a French couple and some sheep, had taken 100,000 photos and was dreaming of the epic dinner that Maddie and I had planned to cook up that night as a congratulatory present to ourselves.
Fast forward another three hours and after enjoying the incredible view from the top, we’d finally returned to the base of the mountain.
I felt like someone whose ship had been lost out at sea for weeks and they’d finally made it back to land. I would have bent down to kiss the flat ground if my now-crippled body would have allowed me to.
That night we made a delicious pasta dinner in our little van kitchen and snuck into a caravan park at 9pm to use the hot showers.
We were freezing, exhausted, but deliriously happy.
We had planned to venture across to the West Coast of the island to experience the rugged coastline that I’d heard so much about. However, on arrival into Haast (the first town we reached on the West Coast) we discovered that this is the place I suspect people pick up their ideas for horror movie plot lines. I also don’t think the torrential rain and lightning that night was providing Haast with any extra charisma. So instead of following the original plan, we decided to head off in an entirely different direction.
We ventured back towards the East and were treated with the most beautiful sights imaginable.
Around the first of May was when the cold really kicked in. Going to bed we were shaking from the chilly wind that was lashing across the campsite. Our limbs were starting to not work correctly (fingers trying to open car doors was particularly hilarious). We unpacked our suitcases and put every item of clothing we owned on our bodies. Scarves, beanies, socks, everything went on. I vividly remember Maddie putting a big red wooly jumper up her legs as a third pair of pants. We curled up under our blanket and tried to get some sleep.
Unbeknown to us, we would wake up to snow covered mountains surrounding us in the morning.
Fast forward seven hours, we glance at each other out of our tired eyes that had maybe seen an hour of sleep all night.
“Wanna get a warm place to stay tonight?”
That day we were headed to Mt Cook where the temperature would be dropping even lower. We were on a mission to find a warm place for the night. By 10am we had checked into a little cabin lodge, treated ourselves to steaming hot showers to defrost our bodies, and made cup after cup of hot tea.
The sun streamed through the big glass windows and we both lay there like frozen lizards that hadn’t seen sun in months.
We spent the remainder of the day doing the local hikes and laughing about the previous night’s experience.
We were also very excited to cook dinner that night in a fully functioning kitchen. Our enjoyment of cooking dinners out the back of our van in freezing gale-force winds had quickly diminished.
That night we sat by the fire, roasted vegetables in the oven and couldn’t be more thankful for ending up here for the night. Finally warm and toasty.
The following morning we woke up to find a thick layer of ice covering every inch of our car. A clear reminder that we had made the right choice to stay in a warm place for the night.
That day was absolute perfection and we spent much of it running through the golden fields that surround Mt Cook.
The following week we drove through the mountains, went on long walks through forests, took hundreds of photos, woke up to freshly fallen snow, laughed until we had tears streaming down our faces, had Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes playing on repeat, snuck into more shower blocks, and had hours and hours of conversation, swapping story after story.
Our time living out of the van eventually came to an end. It was bitter sweet returning it to the vehicle depot. On one hand it was freezing at times and the fuel was expensive, but on the other hand it held so many new memories for us and took us to see some of the best sights of our lives.
For the remainder of our trip we would be staying in a quaint little apartment in Queenstown.
The apartment was owned by a beautiful French couple who’s fridge was overstocked with home-made jam (which I took a particular liking to). It felt so nice to have a warm place to come home to, and Maddie (being the incredible chef she is) cooked us up delicious dinners every night.
From helicopter rides, to cruises, to scenic flights, to watching the sunrise from 8,000 ft in a hot air balloon, the days in Queenstown were an absolute dream. Quite the contrast from our simple, rugged life in the van.
In the summer of 2016 when I first came to New Zealand, I visited Milford Sound in the middle of a huge storm. With the torrential rain creating hundreds of waterfalls that gushed down the fiord and surrounding mountains, it created an incredible sight, but somehow I’d never let go of the dream of one day seeing Milford Sound on a clear blue-sky day.
That day finally arrived and I took the most magical plane flight of my life from Queenstown to Milford Sound with the team at Air Milford. Their scenic flight takes you right up close to the snow covered mountains, across Lord Of The Rings territory, and then right over the top of Milford Sound itself. From the flight, you then head onto a cruise boat with Southern Discoveries that takes you on a blissful two hour ride through the fiord and out to the sea. As you can probably imagine, every fibre of my being was deliriously happy in this moment.
I could go on and on about this incredible day, but I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Whenever I was young and saw a helicopter fly overhead, I would continually stare at it until it disappeared into the distance, in awe at the thought of one day getting to ride in one myself.
Six year old Gabi would be very happy to know that on this particular day, her dream would finally come to fruition.
At 10am that Saturday, I hopped in the front seat of a helicopter bound for The Remarkables mountains with Heli Tours Queenstown. Just as happy and excited as I’m sure my six year old self would have been.
We landed on the peak of one of the mountains, jumped out onto the freshly fallen snow, grabbed large clumps of snow and were grinning from ear to ear.
Looking out over the incredible New Zealand landscape from such a high place is a moment that won’t soon be forgotten.
Our last morning in New Zealand was spent doing the sweetest thing imaginable. After spending week after week in each others company, it was quite fitting for Maddie and I to do the most romantic experience possible.
So at 6am on our final morning, we (and six newlywed couples) (which we felt slightly out of place amongst) hopped on board a hot air balloon to watch the sunrise from 8,000 ft in the air, followed by a champagne breakfast.
I’m not even going to try to find the right words that would do this morning justice, so once again I’ll let the photos do the talking.
New Zealand, thank you for being the most magical place on earth. My heart is full, camera memory card is full, and my smile is wider than ever.
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Photos and words by Gabi Mulder.
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Flight and tour recommendations here 🙂
Scenic flight to Milford Sound – http://www.airmilford.co.nz/
Cruise through Milford Sound – https://www.southerndiscoveries.co.nz/milford-sound/
Helicopter ride – http://www.helitours.co.nz/
Hot Air Balloon – https://www.ballooningnz.com/