Solo road-tripping through New Zealand is one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life…
Long before I went to New Zealand, my first trip travelling solo had been to India. It had followed a messy break-up with a boyfriend. I planned to be away for a month – a year later I begrudgingly dragged myself back home. While at first I had been nervous and worried – would I feel lonely, would I be putting myself in danger? – I soon discovered that going solo was incredibly liberating, and I ended up extending my trip to south-east Asia. Travelling on my own not only helped me grow in confidence (a lot of which I’d lost towards the end of the relationship), it also taught me to take care of myself. Making new friends became an everyday activity that didn’t phase me.
Why New Zealand?
Since then I’ve travelled solo often and loved every minute of it. So for my next holiday I was after some adrenaline-pumping excitement. Backpacking friends had told me about New Zealand’s rolling green hills, active volcanoes, deep fjords and crystal blue lakes. This is a country that majors in every kind of high-octane sport from skiing and bungee-jumping to canyon swinging and skydiving. Kiwis also have a reputation for being very friendly. The perfect destination for a single girl traveller – so I booked myself in for two weeks of adventure.
And that’s exactly what I got! I arrived in Auckland on the North Island in the morning – in the afternoon I jet-skiied for the very first time. Slipping on my wetsuit and whizzing round the city’s Viaduct harbour was amazing. The guide also took me out to sea so I could gaze back at the Auckland skyline. With its famous Sky Tower and the extinct volcanoes that surrounded the city, Auckland is stunning.
They were pretty good up close too, as I discovered later. The buzzy marina was an excellent place to meet new people. Over a few drinks, I was given plenty of advice on what to see and do. One of the most important things I have learned while travelling alone is to trust your own intuition. If something doesn’t feel safe, then don’t do it. If it does, then go for it – but always be aware of your surroundings. The latter goes for your hotel too – I always try to arrive at my destination during the day because being able to see where you are helps keep you safe. If you do have to arrive at night, always pre-book your accommodation and if you don’t have a car, pre-book a taxi to get you there.
From the City to the fjords
Leaving Auckland, I decided to fly down to Queenstown on the South Island. From there I would drive my way up to the top of the island before crossing back onto the North Island and back to Auckland. Thanks to the direct and traffic-free highways, one of the easiest way to travel is by hire car using your UK driving licence. If you don’t have a license, city-link buses are well-priced and simple to book.
Queenstown is the closest town to Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s stunning fjords. To see the fjord I took a two-and-a-half hour boat trip. The views were stunning – lush greenery and plunging waterfalls that started in rugged snow-capped cliffs. There were dozens of New Zealand sea lions lazing on the rocks and Fairy penguins diving into the water.
The boat trip was a great way to meet people too. Amazing experiences make it easy to bond with those sharing them with you. Everyone was around my age and as we all had a passion for cocktails and beautiful places, we ended up having a drink together that evening.
Eating out as a solo traveller
The next day I hired a car and hit the road, heading up the west coast of the South Island to the Franz Josef glacier. The route took me through winding mountain ranges and across rivers. What should have been a four-hour drive took all day because I stopped to take so many photographs of the dreamy mountains and picturesque blue lakes. I ate lunch at the Kai Whakapai Café overlooking Lake Wanaka – the view was so beautiful I had a lump in my throat just to be there.
Meals can be daunting for single travellers. There’s no dodging that self-conscious nod you inevitably give when asked, ‘table for one?’ Still, when your table is surrounded by such beauty as I found in New Zealand, dining alone is something you quickly forget about.
As I keep a diary of my trips I tend to spend my meals jotting down the day’s highlights. For those who aren’t diary-keepers, meals are a good time to catch up with a newspaper, magazine or a good book. But as I have constantly discovered during my travels, when you’re experiencing new and amazing things you usually find like-minded people to have a meal with.
Hiking New Zealand’s famous glaciers
Arriving in the tiny town of Franz Josef I immediately signed up to visit the famous glacier of the same name. The steepest in the country, the ice is sliding down the mountain into the rainforested valley by as much as 200 metres per year. My hike on the glacier started with a five-minute helicopter transfer onto the ice. There I was given crampons and snow boots (but make sure you pack weather-proof clothing) and then my group of six followed our guide as he hacked his way through the ice to create paths for us to walk. He also took us through naturally formed blue ice tunnels, all of us on our hands and knees, literally pulling ourselves through the ice. It was unlike anything I, or the others, had ever seen and afterwards we all headed off to lunch together to talk about it.
Back at my hotel, the eco-lodge Waonui Forest Retreat, I booked in for a traditional Māori mirimiri and romirimi massage which is perfect for chilled glacier-hiking feet. It begins with a foot rub, the therapist reciting blessings over my feet, followed by a full-body massage for an hour. Bliss!
From there I checked in my hire car and jumped on a propeller plane up to the Art Deco city of Hawke’s Bay on the east coast of the North Island. This area has been christened New Zealand’s wine country. Naturally, I was prepared to try as much as was needed to get a full taste of the local grapes!
The Māori experience
I arrived as the city was celebrating the launch of the FAWK food festival and that night at the local seafood eatery Pacifica I met six fellow-writers in town to cover it. The following day we headed to the festival together. Here we sampled food prepared by top chefs such as tuna carpaccio, scallop and salmon stew. Each dish was matched with a selection of locally produced white and red wines.
Here we were also taught the traditional hongi (nose-touching) greeting by the local Māori tribe, Ngati Kahungunu. They prepared a traditional Food of the Chiefs feast for us. Seated at a huge table overlooking Hawke’s Bay’s rolling green hills, we enjoyed fresh crab meat and mashed sweet potatoes. I tried raw sea urchin, a Ngati Kahungunu delicacy, that was surprisingly delicious. The experience was personal and genuinely interesting. I much preferred it to the touristy Māori tours on offer at nearby Rotorua.
Rotorua is best known for its geysers and natural hot pools that are all geothermally heated. However, for me the town will always be remembered as the place where I did a tandem skydive from 15000ft. Most definitely the most exhilirating thing I have ever done.
Attached to the front of my instructor, Chris, when the plane door opened, we shuffled to the edge. I was almost hanging out of the plane. It was a feeling like no other – beneath me were clouds and I could see the bright blue lakes of Rotorua. The freefall at 200km/hr took one minute. Falling through the clouds was incredible, like falling through a mist. Then Chris launched the parachute and together we floated peacefully. This gave me plenty of time to take in the wonderful views. The ultimate adventure holiday!
Jet-skiing round Auckland harbour: Auckland Jet Boat Tours
Milford Sound boat trip: Real Journeys
Kai Whakapai Café: Cnr Ardmore & Helwick Sts, Wanaka.
Franz Josef glacier hike – Franz Josef Glacier Guides. The helicopter transfer and guided hike costs NZ$399 (£207).
Waonui Forest Retreat
Rotorua skydive – NZONE Rotorua
Return flights to Auckland [via Sydney] with Qantas start at £1181.15.