New Zealand is a country on so many people’s ‘must visit’ list, but biting the bullet and actually booking a trip there can feel like a huge step.
However, when I magically managed to wangle three weeks off work, I decided it would be rude not to, which is how I ended up visiting the country with my boyfriend Sam back in 2014.
You’ll be unsurprised to hear that it was absolutely amazing – few people return from NZ feeling anything other than impressed.
It was also the perfect location for a holiday if you’re the type of person who likes to do things while they’re away – not just look at things! Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy lying on the beach and visiting cultural sites, but I have to say my favourite trips are the ones where there are plenty of activities to keep me occupied. Here are a few of my favourites from New Zealand…
1. WHITE WATER RAFTING IN THE BULLER RIVER
New Zealand is renowned for its white water rafting. If you visit, it’s basically compulsory to return with a snap of yourself battling the country’s rapids (or, more accurately, hiding in the bottom of the boat trying not to fall out).
White water rafting courses are divided up by grades 1-5 according to their danger and difficulty levels – one being the easiest, and five the hardest. Our original plan was to try rafting in New Zealand’s adventure capital, Queenstown, but annoyingly we discovered our insurance only covered us up to grade three rapids. and I had too many visions of ending up in some NZ hospital with a broken leg to risk it.
Instead, we ended up rafting on the Buller River with Wild Rivers Rafting, which cost $160 per person, and it was brilliant! Our guide Marty had an excellent white beard and a suitably mischievous glint in his eye, but even though he loved teasing us about falling out, you could tell he was a safe pair of hands. We also shared the boat with a nice older couple from London.
The rafting itself was so much fun. I think if it didn’t sound quite so Famous Five, then ‘thrilling’ would be the word – exhilaration, terror and a whole lot of getting soaked! I did feel a bit sorry for the lady in our boat who somehow ended up half dangling in the water with every rapid, but she was remarkably chipper about the whole thing and managed to successfully cling on for dear life until the end.
A few people have said to me that they’d be too scared to try white water rafting, but honestly, it’s so much fun, and, if you’re really freaking out, you do have the option of choosing a low grade river .
2. SWIMMING WITH DOLPHINS IN KAIKOURA
Without a doubt one of the best things we did in New Zealand was swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura.
It’s not the naff, Sea World kind of swimming with dolphins, where you get into a pool and some poor captive animal is forced to play with you in return for its daily fish.
In fact, the dolphins in Kailkoura are completely wild, and you have to go a fair way out into the ocean to find them. Feeding the animals is forbidden, as this could make them tame, so instead you have to wait for the dolphins to find you, which they inevitably do because these mammals are such curious creatures.
Our trip started at the frankly UNGODLY hour of 5.30am, which meant waking up in our camper van while it was still dark and freezing cold, and heading down to the bay. We paid our $170, were wet-suitted and flippered up, then taken out into the ocean on a boat, ready to snorkel around looking for dolphins.
Hilariously, one of the best ways to attract them is to squeak and squeal, as the animals like high-pitched noises. So basically there was about 15 of us swimming around in various directions, shrieking into our snorkels, trying to make interesting dolphin entertainment. And then suddenly – they were there! All these wild dolphins zipping around us, sticking their beaks up close to our faces for a good look and performing excitable flips in the air.
Honestly they are so friendly and intelligent, it felt like a real privilege to get to swim around with these guys for half an hour. On the way back to shore, they swam and played around our boat, which was amazing to watch from the front of the vessel, even if I did feel a bit sorry for poor Sam who was vomming in the back!!
3. TOBOGANNING IN QUEENSTOWN
If you are into activities that are silly, bordering on the ridiculous, then you’ve come to the right place with this one.
The background story: when we were in Queenstown we decided to have a quiet day, and ride up on a cable car to the top of the hill overlooking the town. The ride up itself was so steep that it felt like a bit of an extreme sport (although literally nothing on the hair-raising experience that is catching the creaky old lift to the top of the Eiffel Tour – I’m still not over that!)
Anyway, once we got to the top of the Skyline we spent a while admiring the views like proper grown ups, before it got to the point where we could no longer ignore the fact that YES there was a whopping great toboggan course running around the viewpoint, and YES we did want to have a go.
So we paid about 12 dollars each, picked a helmet (me extra small my pea head), and made our way to the top. The toboggan (or Luge) had a very simple operating system which seemed to rely mainly on gravity, so basically we were going downhill on a tray on wheels. Turns out this is basically the most fun activity ever, particularly when you add in an element of competition and plenty of twists, turns and tunnels to go through. In fact it was so hilarious we ended up having several rides, AND buying the photo!
4. CYCLING IN ARROWTOWN
After eating far too many Fergburgers in Queenstown, we decided our next pitstop should be slightly healthier, so a bike ride starting in nearby Arrowtown seemed ideal.
We hired bikes from a friendly bloke at Arrowtown Bike Hire, and embarked on the 14km River Bridges Track. This started off with us cycling along the riverbank under a canopy of trees, before reaching open farmland. The highlight was definitely cycling over the suspension bridges – an excellent photo opportunity if ever there was one.
Eventually we reached the A.J. Hackett bungee jump – the oldest in the world – where we watched a few brave/crazy people jump off.
Now, full disclosure: I didn’t do a bungee jump in New Zealand. I know that makes me a complete wrongun because EVERYONE who goes to NZ does a jump, but honestly I don’t think I would find any element of the experience enjoyable whatsoever. Falling from a great height at great speed just isn’t my jam, but pootling along the river bank on a bike for the day – ideal.
5. KAYAKING IN MILFORD SOUND
Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist destinations, but when we got there I was struck mainly by the fjord’s calmness and serenity.
It’s definitely best admired from the water, and while you can choose to take a zero-effort-required cruise, we instead opted to roll up our sleeves and join the Go Orange kayaking tour for $150.
It was the first time I’d ever tried kayaking, and what an amazing location to give it a go! As well as the dramatic scenery, we saw penguins chilling on the rocks, huge waterfalls and vertical cliffs. While we stopped for lunch on a lovely secluded beach, our guide told us all about the history of the place (it was named after a Welsh guy – get in!) and the wildlife that resides there.
For the final section of the four hour trip, the guide joined all our boats together and sailed us back to shore, which was a welcome but of relief as kayaking is surprisingly knackering! Definitely the best way to see Milford Sound though.
6. WALKING IN LAKE TEKAPO
With parents like mine, I’ve done a lot of walks in my time, but few of them have come with the reward of a view this stunning.
The 3-hour circular walk from Lake Tekapo takes you up to the top of Mount John, from which you have breathtaking views across the Mackenzie Basin flats and nearby mountains. Obviously there’s a lot of uphill sections but nothing horrendously difficult, and you get to reward yourself with a cake in the cafe at the top (does anyone else ever wonder how they get all the food up to these places?!)
Even more excitingly, when you get back down you can treat yourself again by luxuriating in the Lake Tekapo Springs – beautiful outdoor pools overlooking the Lake, which range in temperature to a maximum of 40 degrees. Cosy.
7. CAVING IN WAITOMO
Simply the phrase ‘potholing’ gives me nightmares – along with bungee jumping, the idea of squeezing myself through rocks into enclosed spaces is truly horrifying.
This meant that the prospect of walking through a whole bunch of caves at Te Anau in order to reach the legendary glow worm caves was mildly panic-inducing, but, just as I manned up and got over my fish phobia to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef, I knew this was another moment where I had to get over my fear.
Well, I’m so glad I did, because the caves were incredible.
First you get kitted out – it made me look very much like a minion.
Because we chose a tour that involved ‘black water tubing’, we were also carrying giant rubber rings around with us the whole time, which proved to be quite cumbersome when we entered the caves and realised there were some very narrow passages to pass through.
I also hadn’t anticipated quite how far we were going into the cave network – after about an hour I was feeling rather antsy, but when we came upon the beautiful stalactite and stalagmite crystal formations, I forgot all about my nervousness. Wowzers.
The most amazing moment though, came after we’d jumped into our rubber rings and were floating down a river inside the cave, looking up at the dark ceiling. Suddenly as we turned a corner there were thousands of bright, shimmering lights on the cave’s roof, like a whole galaxy of stars – the glow worms! It was all just insanely magical and I had one of those ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE HOW AWESOME TRAVELLING IS’ moments as I gazed up at them.
Finally at the end of the indoor lagoon, you pop out onto a river. Naturally, I was the one person who managed to float down the section which we were SPECIFICALLY instructed to avoid, which basically meant I got to do white water rafting again but this time in a rubber ring. Love to live on the edge, me.
Overall, New Zealand is a fantastic place to visit if you want to try a few new sports or combine your existing passions – hiking, swimming, cycling – with some truly amazing scenes. And toboggan fans – you are in for a treat.