Kia ora to New Zealand’s South Island

I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve travelled in New Zealand. I start the trip with this stunning hike up Rocky Mountain near Wanaka on the South Island.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Rocky Mountain Hike, Wanaka, New Zealand

I can’t believe it’s my first time travelling in New Zealand. It’s not just that it’s so close to my hometown, Sydney, that I wonder why I’ve never come sooner.

But now that I finally see it for myself, I realise what I’ve been missing all these years.

Perhaps it’s always this way – the places that are nearby always go into that category of ‘later, when I’m older’. But I suspect there’s another reason why I’ve put off New Zealand.

I guess I always just thought of it as a mini Australia. Same language, same culture… same high prices. Why, if I already have everything in Australia and I’m not even exploring that properly, would I spend time travelling around somewhere else that is so similar.

How silly I have been.

Rocky Mountain Hike, Wanaka, New Zealand

My first real experience of New Zealand is in Wanaka, a town in the middle of the South Island. After flying into Christchurch, I drive straight down to Wanaka, taking most of the day to get there with just a couple of quick stops, including here at Lake Tekapo:

Rocky Mountain Hike, Wanaka, New Zealand

Even on the drive, the different landscapes of the country are already so impressive. There seems to be so much space, such endless horizons, eternal rises and falls in altitude. Mountains and waterways, dense forests and open plains. Maybe New Zealand isn’t as small as I had always thought.

But it’s arriving in Wanaka that the last of my breath is taken away. Could this be one of the prettiest places in the world?

The town sits on the edge of a vast lake, with mountains in the distance, protecting the last of the snow at their peaks. It’s almost summer and the temperature is quite warm but you can feel enough of a chill in the air to explain the white tops.

Rocky Mountain Hike, Wanaka, New Zealand

I want to explore the surroundings and see a bit more of these landscape for myself. Sitting in one of the cafes or bars by the waterfront – where I imagine hundreds of skiers find their respite in snow season evenings – is supremely pleasant this time of year.

I need to move my legs, though, and feel that clean fresh air all around me.

Rocky Mountain Hike, Wanaka, New Zealand

There are a few good hikes in the area and the walk up to Rob Roy Glacier in Mount Aspiring National Park is really tempting but there’s quite a long unsealed road to get there and the weather is looking a bit ominous – it’s probably best not to risk getting stuck.

Instead, I head out to walk to the top of Rocky Mountain. It takes about 30 minutes to drive from Wanaka to the start of the trek and then it’s about a two hour walk.

Rocky Mountain Hike, Wanaka, New Zealand

One of the nice things about this walk is that you go up one side of the mountain and then come down the other, so you get different views the whole time. And speaking of views – wow!

Rocky Mountain Hike, Wanaka, New Zealand
Rocky Mountain Hike, Wanaka, New Zealand

On the way up, the vista spreading out below me is of Lake Wanaka, bright blue and fresh. A couple of little islands break up the water and the coastline winds around so that green intersects at various points.

On the way down, I get a full frontal view of the mountains I had seen earlier from the town. Now they’re a bit closer, they seem more vivid, more defined. I can almost feel them.

I can also see the rain coming in and heading straight for them and am pleased I’m not stuck up near Rob Roy Glacier.

Rocky Mountain Hike, Wanaka, New Zealand
Rocky Mountain Hike, Wanaka, New Zealand

From the top of Rocky Mountain, with the 360 degree view of the area, I was able to see a beach where a river met the lake so I head there before returning to town.

As it turns out, the water is far too cold for a swim – I guess it’s coming direct from a glacier or the snow. But it’s so nice to lie on the sand, skim some stones on the water, and enjoy the tranquility.

Rocky Mountain Hike, Wanaka, New Zealand

In just one small area, there are so many examples of natural beauty – mountains, lakes, rivers, forest.

Imagine how much more there is out there in the country. No wonder New Zealand is not nearly as small as I thought it was.

Rocky Mountain Hike, Wanaka, New Zealand

For me, this trip is relatively short (less than a week) but I manage to get to a few different places on the South Island. Keep an eye on the blog because I’ll be sharing a few more of my experiences in the coming weeks.

For accommodation, I suggest the Alpine Motel in Wanaka.

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