As a massive Tolkien fan, I really couldn’t resist the urge any longer and in 2018 booked my trip to New Zealand for February 2019!
This wasn’t exactly a fully planned trip and that’s exactly how I wanted it to be. I wanted to just drive and if I liked the look of somewhere I’d stay or I’d continue if I didn’t fancy it. I spent a long time researching the different areas used for filming and how practical it was going to be to fit this all in in the time I had. I decided to book 3 weeks. My plan was to fly into Auckland, stay 3 nights then fly down to Christchurch, hire a car and off I go! Obviously as soon as my flights were booked, I confirmed my day trip to the Hobbiton film set in Matamata – quite possibly one of the most incredible experiences of my life, I’m not going to lie!
After the longest flights of my life and 6 hours of reading and playing solitaire in Melbourne airport, I finally arrived! Just me, my carry-on bag and my giant hold-all for 3 weeks. Hello, New Zealand!!
I’d arranged a shuttle transfer from the airport to my hotel in the city and as soon as my head hit the pillow, it was quite literally ‘lights out’.
I’d decided to have a full ‘free day’ after I landed to experience as much of Auckland as I could before heading to Hobbiton the following morning. None of my free day was planned out, I just took it as it came. I started out by heading for the Auckland SkyTower to get an idea of exactly where I was. Queens Wharf and the old Ferry Building are beautiful and the SkyTower gives you a 360 degree view of the city… plus there’s a bungy jump and Sky Walk. Bungy jumping was high up on my bucket list and as New Zealand is so well known for its’ bungy jumping, this was definitely the country I was going to do it in. I heavily deliberated jumping on that first day (as well as somewhere else along the way) but decided against it. I knew I’d need my money for the rest of my trip and I really did have my heart set on Queenstown and the AJ Hackett Bungy. To make the most of the one day I had, I decided to book onto one of the Auckland sightseeing tour bus route which left from the bottom of the SkyTower. It all had to be pre-booked so I grabbed a coffee, sat in the sun and waited for my confirmation email to come through. I really enjoy sightseeing bus tours – I feel they’re a great way of seeing a lot if you’re a bit pushed for time. They usually have a running commentary on board as well so you know where you are and what you’re supposed to be looking at. I find it best to stay onboard for a whole circle and then get off at places that sounded interesting – but hey, that’s just me! The route I chose to do took us across to Mission Bay and Bastion Point, past the SEA LIFE Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium and back through the city. Once you hit Mission Bay, turn around and take a look at the Auckland city skyline – beautiful. I’ll admit I spent longer at the Aquarium than any adult without kids in tow probably should but hey, there’s penguins, turtles and sharks which are always a win for me and some really cool historical exhibitions and galleries.
Day 2 – HOBBITON! I can’t even describe how excited I was about this without doing a happy-dance! I’d pre-booked a full day ‘Hobbiton & Waitomo Glow Worm Caves’ tour through Expedia so I knew there was a lot to pack in which meant an early start. Since I’d been to to SkyTower the previous day, I’d sussed out where the bus depot was for my morning departure. Auckland to Matamata is about a 2 hour drive and the countryside along the way has some interesting history (and terrible in some parts) related to various tribes and wars from long ago and this was all conveyed to those who weren’t asleep by our bus driver. First stop once we reached Matamata was a huge gift/coffee shop where the tour had to register before taking the Hobbiton Tour bus to the film set – there’s no unauthorised vehicles at all, it’s solely the film set shuttle buses that take groups in and out. Naturally, I bought gifts for myself and for my brother who is also a big fan. Before you get on the shuttle bus, each group is assigned a guide (there’s no wandering off on your own around the set) and a short walk to the set itself. The moment I walked through the opening in the walls and into Hobbiton is something I will never, ever forget – it’s incredible. I think I did actually stand still with my mouth open just taking it all in. The entire set is just amazing and walking round, our guide described some of the camera tricks used in filming which explained why there were some Hobbit holes which were much bigger than others (forced perspective) and how they actually created the set along with a bit about the history from its’ initial creation solely for filming to how it is today as a visitors attraction. As we were taken round, I fully geeked out and answered (ALL) the questions the guide asked about characters, locations etc – I’m not ashamed, I was so proud of myself! At the top of the hill, overlooking the rest of Hobbiton and the Party Tree is Bag End. It’s been created in such incredible detail from the ‘No Admission’ sign on the gate to the famous green door. There’s actually nothing inside and you’re not technically allowed to go up to the door but there was one Hobbit hole on set that you actually could stand inside the doorway of (though again, it’s empty). Down the hill past Sam’s house, over the bridge by the watermill into the Green Dragon for lunch and a quick look around the on-site gift shop before leaving Hobbiton and Matamata behind.
The glow worm caves were a very unique experience and something else I’ve never done before. You’re surrounded by complete darkness except for a spotlight at the front of the boat which is pulled along on a rope by the guide. There’s no photography so as not to disrupt the glow worms but the whole cavern roof is lit up in an almost turquoise green glow by what looks like thousands of tiny spot lights. Needless to say, by the time we got back to Auckland I was done for the day!
Day 3 marked the beginning of my South Island adventure. Back onto my pre-booked shuttle bus, off to the airport then hello Christchurch & hello rental car! I’d initially got a great deal on car hire through a comparison site and had confirmed a car similar in size to the Ford Fiesta that I drive in the UK. When I got to the depot, there had been a mix up somewhere and all they had were bigger cars. I ended up driving off (at no extra charge) in a Ford Falcon, which is a bit like a Vauxhall Insignia in terms of size which was perfect considering I used to have one. It gave me much more space and was actually a very fortunate mistake.
I’d decided to rent an AirBnB in Oxford, not too far outside Christchurch. It was on a dairy farm and I loved it so much I booked it for another couple on nights at the end of my trip as well. The first night, the sky was so clear that I dragged the hammock (yes, hammock!) out of the living room and into the back yard so that I could lie and look up at the stars. I checked ‘See a shooting star’ and ‘See the Milkyway’ off my bucket list that night!
Next stop, Hanmer Springs which was about 90 miles or so from Oxford. It’s a small hot springs town and everything in the town itself is pretty much focused around this. Since I was only here for a night, I checked into my motel, had a look about and visited the hot springs the following morning before I drove to Kaikoura. The hot springs are actually a great way to just chill out for a few hours. There are slides as well which you do have to pay a bit extra for (which, of course, I did – who doesn’t love a water slide?!) and the thermal pools are all slight different, containing different combinations of minerals.
Now, Kaikoura is something else! I mean, wow! The drive over the hills from Hanmer Springs is stunning and coming down the hill and into Kaikoura itself was beautiful. I drove up to the viewpoint at Point Kean as soon as I got there so that I could look out over the bay and just take it in. Kaikoura was really badly affected by the earthquake a few years ago and is still recovering. The sea is still a very murky green colour in places which means that the silt hasn’t settled yet (or so I was told by one of the locals). I hadn’t booked ahead which for this particular town and in hindsight I maybe should have. Every single motel, hotel, B&B, you name it was full. I drove up and down the main street seeing only ‘No Vacancy’ signs and I really did start to wonder if I’d have to either sleep in the car to give Kaikoura a pass. Thankfully, and for absolutely no reason at all, I decided to turn round and drive through just once more and amazingly, a motel which was full on my last lap of town had just had a room become available. I paid a LOT for one night which was all they could offer – just over $200NZD which was the equivalent of about £100GBP for room only – but I wanted to stay so badly that I wasn’t going to turn it down! Kaikoura is known for its’ abundant wildlife and whale population. The rock platforms usually host colonies of fur seals but during my stay they’d decided to make themselves scarse!
My motel was directly opposite the beach and the sliding patio doors opened up right onto the street. This meant I could grab some locally sourced fish and chips, a couple of bottles of cider and head down to the sand, which is exactly what I did.
Though I’d gone whale watching in Canada a few years ago, I thought it might be nice to book onto one of the Kaikoura tours if there was availability when I turned up. It wasn’t meant to be as they were booked solid for the day and the waiting area was packed. Not the end of the world though so I waved Kaikoura goodbye and headed further up the coast.
I’d read about Picton when I’d initially been researching areas to visit and knew it was the port town for the ferries across Cook Strait to Wellington and is in close proximity to the Marlborough wine region. This was to be my destination for the day. Kaikoura to Picton is only about a 2 hour drive and the coastal road is beautiful. One of the main issues I discovered about travelling solo and driving is that it’s near enough impossible to take photos! I ended up having my GoPro (bought especially for my trip) attached to the dashboard so I could record and take photos as I went. Also, New Zealand has a distinct lack of laybys and stopping areas! To get to Picton, I had to drive through Blenheim with its many, many wineries. Being a solo driver, wineries and driving was a no-go so I had to resort to buying a bottle of something local once I got settled in Picton. Once again, no pre-planning here and it was so busy! The tourist information office ended up being my last hope for staying here. Eventually, I did manage to get what can only have been the last room in town and which I certainly paid a good bit for (again the best part of £100). For the location alone it was worth it, though I knew by this point that after 2 nights in a row of forking out for rooms, I’d need to start watching what I spent. Picton is a really cute little town and has the most stunning waterfront and coastal views out over the Strait. The marina is home to everything from everyday sailing boats to full blown yachts…and sting-ray.
Again, I only had one night here so made the most of it – dinner at a great restaurant called Oxleys overlooking the marina with the most amazing mussels I’ve ever had, washed down with a few glasses of Marlborough wine. Next morning after a quick dip, it was back on the road. I knew I wanted to stop in Nelson for the sole purpose of visiting the Jens Hansen jewellers who created the jewellery that featured in the Lord of the Rings films. En-route to Nelson, I passed over the Pelorus River which was where the barrel scene was filmed for The Hobbit. I didn’t even realise where I was at the time but as I drove over the bridge, I looked out my window and knew immediately. I actually turned the car around and headed for the carpark I’d passed a minute earlier and realised there were other people swimming and jumping from the rocks so I did a quick costume change and did the same before getting back in the car and continuing on! I didn’t fancy staying in Nelson itself so continued round the coast to Tahunanui where a got a room a short walk from the beach. This was the first Valentines Day in years where Jamie and I hadn’t at least woken up together so it was a bit surreal to be on the other side of the world from him. With the time difference and him working in a bar with unsociable hours, I ended up having to leave him a voicemail telling him I missed him and went and sat on the beach on my own watching the lights and the sunset.
I visited the jewellers the following morning. Copies of the jewellery are available to buy and I already knew what I wanted – The One Ring! I’d researched the different styles on their website before leaving the UK and had factored the cost into my travel money, I’m now the very proud owner of a replica size and weight ring but in silver, rather than gold. Their displays are amazing, showing the originals and the props they made for the films. One very cool item being a giant version of the Ring which was used to film forced perspective shots.
Instead of carrying on round the coast, I cut cross country to towards Westport on the West Coast. It was still early and after driving through, decided just to keep going and see where I ended up. The West Coast is completely different to the East – much more tropical and wet. I ended up staying at a backpackers in Barrytown after stopping off to see the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. Barrytown ended up being the perfect place to stop – I met a family staying a few rooms down from me who had a jet ski attached to their truck. We got talking over dinner and a few games of pool and they invited me jet skiing with them and their friends the next day at Lake Brunner. Jet skiing was also way up on the bucket list so that got ticked off, along with the mental note to never get so badly sunburnt ever again. I’m not joking when I say the next day I was lobster red all over, blistered, incredibly sore and I’ve never used as much after-sun in my entire life. Driving for the next few days was done in bare feet cause I couldn’t even wear flip flops, let alone Converse! On this occasion, thank God for automatics!
Day 8 on South Island meant Franz Josef Glacier. After stopping off in Greymouth for more after-sun, I was through Hokitika and well on my way. I ended up getting a dormitory for 4 to myself at the Rainforest Resort for a great price, managed to get my feet into my Converse and headed to the Glacier car park. The walk from the car park to the glacier (as close as you can get to it by foot anyway) was a good 40 minutes or so and the change in the landscape is astonishing. You can see clearly where the glacier has carved its way through the rock and just how much its receded. It really does give you a better understanding of what a force of nature a glacier really is but how much climate change is responsible for its current condition. To get any closer to the glacier itself, you need to go by helicopter which I didn’t have either the time or the money to do.
Fox Glacier looks to be in a better condition but I only saw it from the view point car park en-route to Queenstown.
Today was a trek! Franz Josef Glacier to Queenstown is a good 5 hour drive or so. Through Haast and partly through Mount Aspiring National Park, down past Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka, I stopped at Puzzling World to break up the journey and spent an hour or so getting lost in their maze. I did manage to get to each corner but had to use the emergency exit to get out or I’d still be there now. Through Cardrona, past Arrowtown (both areas had scenes filmed here but I was pushing it to stop again) and towards Queenstown. Queenstown was completely different from everywhere else I’d stayed. I was recommended to book accommodation in advance both here and in Te Anau because it was still summer and it was busy – no kidding! There were no parking spaces free outside the aparthotel I’d booked and the carpark backed right out onto the main road through town. I remember driving round and round to try to find somewhere else to park. The hotel whose carpark I kept using to turn around must have thought I was nuts! Eventually I got a parking pass from the aparthotel for the multi-storey carpark behind which they use as their overflow. Although I’d only been wearing shorts and t-shirts up to that point, having a washing machine and dryer for the first time since Barrytown was brilliant!
If anyone finds themselves in Queenstown, I highly recommend Fat Badger Pizza. The most weird and wonderful choices and the loaded fries – wow! I ended up taking pizza home for breakfast! The next morning I bit the bullet and as I sat having coffee overlooking Lake Wakatipu I booked my bungy jump at AJ Hackett Ledge Bungy & Swing for later that afternoon. After years of saying I was going to do it and being warned against it by my mum because I’d injured my back when I was younger, I ignored it all and in true Carina-fashion, I did it anyway! Holy s**t! I have a video taken by one of the staff and I’m pretty sure you could hear my scream in town! Definitely the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done, but so proud of myself for doing it…and mum, my back was fine! My GoPro survived it too and I got a great video (plus a fairly unflattering photo) of the whole thing.
As you’re waiting your turn, you watch everyone else jumping. Lots of different styles from backflips, swan dives and running leaps. I went off backwards though I don’t know if I thought this was going to make it better. It’s such a strange and terrifying feeling to step back enough to have your heels hanging over the edge and then being asked “are you ready?”, to which my answer at that point was “NO!”. You’re given a little shove, gravity does the rest and although you scream (which you will) you know that you’re going to be fine and bounce back up in a couple of seconds. It was incredible and the view as you’re being hoisted back up is amazing. The Remarkables are a beautiful mountain range that runs along Queenstown and were used for aerial shots in the films along with a lot of other locations in the Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu area.
Bungy jump accomplished and checked off the bucket list, it was a case of grabbing some lunch and then back in the car and onto Te Anau. It started pouring almost as soon as I left Queenstown and it didn’t stop. No exploring Te Anau in the rain! My main reason for heading to Te Anau was to see where some of the Fangorn Forest scenes were filmed but when I set out the next morning, the road I needed to drive down to get there was closed – just my luck. Better weather that morning though so back in the car and through the Lindis Pass to Tekapo. Again, this was another area that I was recommended to pre-book and I’m so glad I did. I got an amazing deal on an apartment at Peppers Blue Water Resort right opposite the shores of Lake Tekapo. What a location! On the way to Tekapo, Twizel was where the Pelennor Field scenes were filmed and passing by Lake Pukaki, you can see Mount Cook (Aoraki) in the distance at the far end of the lake. The water is the most incredible shade of glacial blue which doesn’t even look real…glacial waters turned out to be glacially cold too! Tekapo has a Dark Sky Project and it’s where you find the Church of the Good Shephard and the stunning lupins that you see in all the photos.
Driving back to Oxford, I couldn’t help thinking about the amazing places I’d been to and the hundreds of photos I had to make sure I didn’t forget either. At the same time as I’d booked my flights and my Hobbiton tour, I’d also put down a deposit for a tattoo in Christchurch – another to add to my collection – which was why I’d booked the AirBnB for the extra nights. I knew I wanted something to represent my time in New Zealand so went for a Maori-styled fern which we specially designed around myself, my family and my life. It’s very special and means a lot to me.
My last night in Oxford was spent at Electric Avenue music festival in Christchurch. It’s not my type of music at all but it was a completely spur of the moment, ‘oh, what the hell’ kind of decision. I’d seen it advertised when I was in town getting my tattoo done the day before and found there were still tickets. I wanted to do something on my last night in New Zealand, not just sit in the house so I went…and it was actually really good fun! I knew nobody but it didn’t even matter. I ended up having to park about half a mile from the venue because of how busy the city was and walk in with the crowds. When I was in Auckland I’d seen green electric ‘Lime’ scooters but didn’t know how to unlock them. I saw them parked up on my way to the festival and noticed people who were getting them so they showed me what to do – me and scooters do not go well together but they looked fun. Well, I started off slowly and it was fine but then I got a little over-confident and a bit throttle-happy! I didn’t quite go over the bars but it wouldn’t have been far off I don’t think but I, in my denim jacket, dress and converse, well and truly came off that scooter in surprisingly graceful style (so I was told). I scratched and bruised my knee, took a bit of a knock to my pride and probably flashed someone but I don’t care, I had an amazing last night and it’s a funny story to tell.
The drive back to the airport was a weird one and on dropping off the car, I knew it really was time to go home. I made it to Melbourne for my connecting flight but each time a gate was called for a flight going to anywhere in New Zealand, I wanted to get up and get on it.
Thinking back, I would have liked another night in Kaikoura, enough time to stop off in a couple of filming location areas around Queenstown (Arrowtown, Glenorchy, Cardrona) and go on one of the Wakatipu steamer trips up the Lake. I’d give Te Anau a miss and head for the Sounds instead, which I knew before starting that I wasn’t going to have time to do. The hiking routes around Mount Cook look amazing so they would be on the list for future things to do as well…though next time I’d go with Jamie, or Jamie AND my brother and make it a family trip.
A lot of people have asked me why I went alone. The reason I didn’t go with Jamie was that as much as he’ll watch ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ with me, he isn’t a real ‘fan’. A lot of the shots in the films are CGI and where I know what I’m looking at when I look at an open field or a river, for him I felt it would have been a wasted and unnecessarily expensive journey for what he would get out of it. I felt I would need to sacrifice things I wanted to see for things that weren’t Lord of the Rings-related so that he’d have fun too and, maybe selfishly, I didn’t want to do that.
It did result in arguments and a bit of silent treatment when I said that I wanted to go alone but I hope now he understands that it was important for me to do it by myself.
6 months after I got back, I posted a flashback photo on my Instagram with the caption:
“5 flights, 21 days, 13 towns/cities, Hobbiton, 1 car, 1 holdall, 1 hot springs, One Ring, 1 jet ski, 2 glaciers, 1 bungy jump, 1 tattoo, 1 music festival, lakes, mountains, rivers, beaches, 1 electric scooter accident, numerous bruises, the worst sunburn of my life & 1360 miles of road”.
I think that sums up my adventure pretty damn well.
Find out how I accidently got into solo travel by reading “Good Morning, Vietnam!”