‘Welcome to the most beautiful place in the world,’ our guide says as we enter Fiordland National Park, in the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island.
I have to admit, the scenery is pretty magical. All 13 of us fall silent as we gawp out of the bus window at the craggy hills towering around us with the sun shimmering on the golden grassy valleys below.
I’m half way through a two-week tour of the South Island with Wild Kiwi, which offers small group tours for 18 to 35 year olds, and Fjordland National Park is just one of the many jaw-dropping places we’ve stopped at so far.
A sunny view of Milford Sound on New Zealand’s South Island (Picture: Sadie Whitelocks)Other places which leave an impression include Abel Tasman National Park, where we spotted a colony of fur seals while kayaking in the sea, and Westland Tai Poutini National Park, home to world’s fastest retreating glacier, Franz Josef, and a quad biking course.
And then there’s Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, where we get up for a sunrise hike to sea New Zealand’s highest mountain glistening in the morning sun and stopped to meander around piercing blue lakes.
I also manage to hop on a helicopter tour while in Mount Cook, to get a bird’s eye view of the otherworldly landscape.
This is a pricey extra activity but well worth it.
Another spot that gets our cameras clicking is Castle Hill, which was used for the filming of the climactic battle scenes of the 2005 movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
We went sea kayaking while visiting Abel Tasman National Park (Picture: Sadie Whitelocks)There are tracks weaving through giant limestone rock formations and we climb up and around the imposing boulders like excitable children.
Our second week sees us journey down to Queenstown, where we take a day-trip to Fiordland National Park to see one of New Zealand’s most celebrated natural wonders, Milford Sound.
Luckily the weather is on our side – this region is one of the world’s wettest spots with an average rainfall of 6,412mm each year – and we take a cruise through the fjord with the sun illuminating lofty peaks and awe-inspiring waterfalls as we go.
Taking the excitement up a notch, while we’re in Queenstown there’s a mix of adrenaline-pumping activities to choose from.
We got up before sunrise to get a clear view of New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook (Picture: Sadie Whitelocks)The quaint town prides itself on being the ‘adventure capital of the world’ and it is where the first commercial bungie jumping operation was founded in 1988 by Alan John ‘A.J.’ Hackett.
While there, I stupidly decide to tackle my fear of jumping from heights with a leap from the world’s highest cliff jump.
The Shotover Canyon Swing sees me run and jump off a platform perched 109 metres over the famous Shotover River and experience a 60 metre vertical freefall.
I’m told off for swearing but to my amazement I conquer my worst nightmare.
I tackle my fear of jumping from heights with a Shotover Canyon Swing in Queenstown (Picture: Shotover Canyon Swing)A little less scary but still great fun is a very steep hike up Queenstown Hill, which rewards us with magnificent views, and an hour-long high-speed boat tour which has me hurtling along the Shotover and Kawarau Rivers.
Along with it being the perfect base camp for adventurists, Queenstown is also extremely fun when it comes to its nightlife.
There are dozens of bars and restaurants packed into a small area and the people here – mainly tourists – certainly know how to party.
We wind up our two-week Wild Kiwi tour heading back to where we started, at an airport hostel in the city of Christchurch.
Here I decide to visit the Akaroa, where I go on a boat tour and am lucky to spot the endangered Hector’s dolphin.
In Franz Josef there is a challenging quad biking course for those who dare (Picture: Sadie Whitelocks)If New Zealand has been on your radar for a while but you’re unsure how to tackle it – especially as a solo traveller – then I can’t recommend Wild Kiwi enough.
Along with action-packed itineraries, the company boasts a fleet of new Mercedes mini vans which are kitted out with USB charging points and WiFi so you can keep your friends, family and Instagram account up-to-date as you go.
Demonstrating the true power of nature in this part of the world – the outfall from the 2011 earthquake is still greatly evident in Christchurch – while I was visiting, there was very heavy rainfall which led to the main road and bridge running through Franz Josef being washed away.
I was impressed with how promptly and efficiently Wild Kiwi dealt with the natural disaster and our itinerary for the second week of the trip was rerouted.
This meant some long drive days, as we had to go back to where we started to get to our next port of call, but nevertheless, we didn’t miss out on too much.
A helicopter ride is a great way of soaking up the otherworldly scenery (Picture: Sadie Whitelocks)On the accommodation front, we checked into various hostels and inns along the way.
By the end I was glad to be out of a bunk bed but the spots we stayed in were clean and kitted out with all of the necessary amenities, from laundry stations to hot showers.
One of my favourite places we stayed at was the motel at Mount Cook, which boasted spectacular views of the snowy peak from the restaurant and there were hotel-style rooms with en suites.
The Absoloot hostel in Queenstown was another favourite with exceedingly snuggly duvets, a great central location and a kitchen with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over Lake Wakatipu.
One thing to note on the Wild Kiwi tour is that the groups overlap, as the Big South tour can be broken in two and some people choose just to do one week.
A mirror-like lake on the Lewis Pass, which the Wild Kiwi tour travels through (Picture: Sadie Whitelocks)When I joined, some people were on their final week and some were just joining like me but staying one week instead of the full duration. That can mean some groups can be a little cliquey but if you’re a sociable being, it should be easy to slot in.
I felt over the two weeks with Wild Kiwi I’d packed in so much stuff I didn’t know where to start.
I ventured back to the UK with my head stacked with wonderful memories and a squad of new friends.
Needless to say, the pages of my holiday book were left unturned.
What to pack for an epic New Zealand adventure
I visited New Zealand’s South Island in April at the end of the summer and the transition into autumn. Here are some of the essential items I packed which helped me navigate the changeable weather, with a mix of sunshine, rain and even frost!
Planning your own New Zealand adventure:
Wild Kiwi offers epic small group adventure tours for 18-35 year olds in New Zealand & Australia. The Big South trip starts from £1,284 (NZ$2,483) per person, which includes your tour, 13 nights accommodation, professional local guide, and breakfast every day. Optional activities are available at an additional cost. For more information, visit wildkiwi.com.
If staying on in Christchurch, take a day-trip to explore the area of Akaroa with Canterbury Trails. Recommended accommodation includes the Jucy Snooze hostel for those on a budget and The George for a more luxurious stay.
Regular flights with Air New Zealand run between London Heathrow and Christchurch, with transfers in Los Angeles and Auckland.
To use lounge facilities during extended stopovers, try PriorityPass.
(Top picture: Sadie Whitelocks)
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