Twelve thousand feet above the New Zealand countryside, I watched my friend Ashleigh disappear out the rear door of a plane. My stomach somersaulted, and I tugged again at the metal bolts connecting my harness to the skydiving instructor’s.
“Our turn,” he said, inching us toward the opening.
A split second later we were in free fall, and my panic dissipated as I took in glittering Lake Wanaka and the glacier-crusted peaks of the island’s Southern Alps.
Ashleigh and I had driven to Lake Wanaka from Christchurch, arriving at the airfield in our rented station wagon 20 minutes earlier and watching a brief safety video before being ushered onto the plane. Our plan was to cram as many bucket-list experiences as we could into a five-day stay on the country’s South Island, making a loop around its center, beginning and ending in Christchurch.
Though British in design and considered New Zealand’s most conservative city, Christchurch is strategically positioned within several hours of every adrenaline-pumping activity possible, including skydiving, bungee jumping, ice climbing, cave tubing and swimming with dolphins. The city offers mild, sunny weather; expansive parks and gardens; and a vibrant art scene — all of which helped it bounce back from the 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people and damaged much of the city.
After recovering from a red-eye flight from Sydney with a late start and a hearty brunch, we set out to explore Christchurch’s walkable downtown on a warm February morning. Cathedral Square, which serves as the city’s center, lost its Gothic Revival-style cathedral during the quake, but Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban designed a transitional Cardboard Cathedral — built from cardboard tubes and seating 700 people — that sits several blocks away.
A few blocks in the other direction we discovered the Botanic Gardens, shaded by enormous, prehistoric-looking trees and bursting with red and pink late-summer roses. With one-eighth of its land dedicated to parks and reserves, it’s easy to see the influence of the English green thumb in New Zealand’s Garden City.
The following day, we picked up our rental car from a friendly local family who had equipped it with a tent, sleeping bags, camping stove and cooler, and we set off on our first excursion out of the city: Mount Cook National Park — or as it was first known to the Māori people, Aoraki. A swath of the country’s tallest mountains that is more than one-third blanketed by glaciers, the park is home to 12,316-foot Mount Cook, whose Māori name means “cloud piercer.”
Though we initially felt nervous driving on the opposite side of the road (New Zealand follows the British system), we realized shortly after leaving Christchurch how little traffic we’d encounter. Apart from the occasional RV or flock of sheep, the two-lane highway was completely empty, allowing us to stop on the shoulder to photograph pastoral vistas, eat lunch and swim in the aquamarine water of Lake Tekapo.
The drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook National Park is only 200 miles, but after a slew of leisurely stops, we arrived late in the afternoon as dark, ominous clouds drifted over the mountains. As New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook has attracted alpinists — including the country’s most celebrated, Sir Edmund Hillary — since it was first summited in the 1800s. With limited time, we opted for an hour-long hike to Kea Point, where the panorama of green-and-black mountain faces ribboned by waterfalls was spectacular.
We awoke to a cold mist at the campground the next morning and packed in a hurry to ensure a timely arrival for our skydiving appointment at Lake Wanaka. Two hours southwest of Mount Cook, the town of Wanaka is slightly slower-paced than nearby Queenstown. But it’s still a major destination for outdoor thrills set against the backdrop of glacier-capped mountains and azure lakes. After returning to terra firma, we decided to push on through Mount Aspiring National Park on the island’s west side.
Leaving Lake Wanaka, the road began to climb, and lush green rainforest replaced the rolling farmland. Brief, heavy showers produced rainbows that peeked out from behind the mountains. At close to a million acres, Mount Aspiring is the country’s third-largest national park, and its roads only skirt the edges of its diverse terrain. Following the surging Haast River out of the park, we headed north along the coast to Fox Glacier.
Located on the west side of Mount Cook within Westland National Park, Fox Glacier and neighboring Franz Josef Glacier are the only glaciers outside of arctic regions that end just 1,000 feet above sea level. Though retreating for most of the past 100 years, Fox Glacier ends only 7.5 miles from the sea amid temperate rainforest. The 8-mile-long glacier proves one of the most accessible in the world, its terminal face just a short walk from Fox Glacier Village. It receives hundreds of visitors each day for helicopter tours, guided glacier walks and ice climbing.
The weather can be unpredictable, however, as we discovered when we awoke at the campground the next morning to a fine, steady rain. When we arrived at Fox Glacier Guiding for a group ice-climbing course, the guide told us everyone else had canceled, but we could still climb if we were interested. Not to be deterred from crossing “ice climbing” off our bucket list, we geared up with waterproof parkas, helmets and crampons and set off after him to the mouth of the glacier.
Fortunately, overcast weather brings out a glacier’s most beautiful colors, and we gaped at the aquamarine hues that seemed to glow from beneath the ice’s dirty surface. The guide pointed out dark crevasses and bottomless-looking holes as we walked — reasons that tourists are urged not to explore the glacier on their own. After a quick lesson in how to use our crampons and axes to drill into the ice, he set up a top rope and we began to climb, advancing like slow-moving stick insects with each swing of our axes into the glacier’s crust.
Sluggish and sore, we continued north along the coast the following day to the town of Hokitika, where we sprawled out on the windy beach and napped in the sunshine among the driftwood. In the afternoon, we turned inland on Highway 73 and passed through the South Island’s first national park, Arthur’s Pass. Initially constructed in the 1800s as a route to gold fields on the west coast, the tortuous road passes through dense rainforest before giving way to beech forest and alpine meadows.
Closing our loop around the island’s midsection, we continued on past Christchurch to the peninsula that juts into the Pacific east of the city. Within a harbor created by the collapse of an extinct volcano, the fishing village of Akaroa is populated with historic homes and sunny sidewalk cafés. It’s also home to Hector’s dolphins, a small, rare dolphin found only in New Zealand.
Drawn by the chance to swim with the dolphins, we donned thick rubber wetsuits and boarded a tour boat to scour the harbor for friendly cetaceans. After an hour fruitlessly scanning the water, we spotted a rounded gray dorsal fin beside the boat. Within seconds, the handful of tourists were shrieking and gasping in the frigid ocean, and the lone dolphin was nowhere to be found.
Our spirits buoyed by piping-hot fish and chips (and a partial refund for the dolphin swim), we turned back toward Christchurch to return the station wagon and board our flight home. We approached the city as the sun was setting, the last rays hitting the mountains to the west and casting their peaks in pink and gold.
Christchurch Info to Go
Christchurch International Airport is located six miles northwest of Cathedral Square; shuttle buses and taxis make the trip between the airport and the city center in about 20 minutes. Limited rail service exists between Christchurch and Greymouth or Picton from the Christchurch Railway Station. The InterCity bus service covers many of the South Island’s popular sights and major cities. Renting a car is the most convenient way to get around, but bear in mind that New Zealand follows the British driving system.
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