Kiwi Winter Wonderland

A few years ago my parents were invited for a private event at the residence of then New Zealand’s ambassador to Indonesia. As it coincided with my birthday, my parents were kind enough to bring me along. The ambassador and his team put together a great promotional presentation of New Zealand’s nature wonders and a luncheon featuring the country’s best dairy and winery products. I talked him into opening a Twitter account, he intrigued me of his homeland.

My trip didn’t materialize until this month, at the high of Southern Hemisphere’s wintertime. Having seen countless pictures of summertime New Zealand, my friends and I decided to see something else.

New Zealand’s winter feels like four seasons rolled into one. Green pastures, multi-colored autumnal foliage, blooming buds under bright sun, silent snowfalls—all of them happened in a day, or like that midmorning we drove across Canterbury, in an hour.

Many people had said not to bother visiting North Island, but I’m glad we didn’t heed it. Auckland is a charming urban city where we rented a modern flat in a centennial building on the famed Queen St., with vintage postbox by the lobby and a Yayoi Kusama lookalike across the courtyard. There were well-spent trips taken to Devonport, St. Helier’s and Mission Bay for a wintry-beach feel. The cherry was certainly Hobbiton, the vast Alexander family’s farm that was used to shoot Lord of the Ring trilogy and The Hobbits and is now preserved as a tourist destination with Peter Jackson reportedly still on board. I’d seen a few movie sets to appreciate the meticulous details and precise scaling shown in Hobbiton; worth all the awards they won and flying into North Island.

South Island indeed packed more adventures. Aside from pleasant drive for a few days, we enjoyed different experiences on scenic bus tours and Kiwi Rail’s Trans Alpine. Most bus drivers on scenic routes over South Island worked as a semi-guide, bringing information, anecdotes and wit into the hours-long journeys that could be rainy, like the day through Hokitika and Lake Wanaka, or snowy, like that morning to Fiordland National Park.

But the Trans Alpine was something else altogether. Trekked from Christchurch to Greymouth through Arthur’s Pass (737 masl), it offered breathtaking landscapes that were so versatile—from dreamy farms and bridges that mirrored Thomas Kinkade paintings to all-white terrain that might’ve been borrowed by Hallmark’s Christmas cards to foggy dark mountains that eerily reminded me of Mordor. The train featured an open carriage that I braved for several minutes to snap pictures and videos, shivering under my mohair coat as the temperature marked zero.

Low temperatures were the norm as we traveled further south, usually under 10C during the day and under 5C after dark– with a few nights under zero including one particularly stormy night in Queenstown when it hit -4 C and the heater at our rented lakeside townhouse went bust. We mostly just bulked up and soldiered on— wine tour in Central Otago under the rain, chilly boat cruise to chase Milford Sound waterfalls where the captain offered me his steering seat for a moment, and the windy horseback-riding in the idyllic Glenorchy where, I’m pleased to report, my ride Pressley was one of the 150 horses handpicked for Lord of the Ring. To ride a horse that has battled orcs in the valley that was the set of Isengard was definitely worth the stiff neck I suffered that evening.

It’s hard to fit a 2-week trip into a column, let alone pick a favorite, but as far as memories are concerned, glacier hiking and stargazing made the most. The helicopter ride to the mountain was nice, but the real adventure began when we landed at 0 C and started to explore Franz Josef Glacier for over an hour. Maneuvering in mandatory Goretex over-clothing, crampons and ski pole was a challenge on its own when beyond hiking straight up you must hike sideways on narrow patches, slide on your bum through curved corners and get on all four underneath glaciers so blue for they don’t get sun exposure year-round. I never liked hiking, but the very unique experience made me want to hike glaciers again.

The stargazing took place on another mountaintop near Lake Tekapo. I was drowned inside the mandatory Arctic-expedition-grade down-jackets that must’ve weighed 2 kgs as we stayed on the outdoor deck for one hour, listening to our astronomy guides. What turned out to be -7 C that night was worth the 90% sky clarity that enabled us to see countless stars with naked eye, not to mention Saturn, Jupiter, and Jupiter’s three moons under telescopes.

The land is beautiful, the people are friendly and helpful, the culture is colorful—it was heartwarming to see not only the indigenous Maoris were represented in many walks of life beyond the rugby’s haka, but that global migrant faces were tending to us along the way. I spent too much money this time on lamb, venison, Bluff oysters, wine and merino-possum, yet without a doubt there’ll be a second time.

Ka kite ano au i a koutou, New Zealand.

As published:

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