When I think about New Zealand, the first thing that comes to mind is the magnificent scenery portrayed in The Lord of the Rings movies. So not surprisingly, a week-long road trip through parts of the South Island felt like a journey into the Middle-earth. This was not a wildlife watching trip, as I was travelling with friends but New Zealand’s spectacular scenery more than compensated for the lack of wildlife spotting focus.
We travelled as a group of 4, all of us with different interests and different fitness levels. So we decided to rent a car and explore the South Island independently, staying overnight in towns that we visited. An alternative would be to explore New Zealand in a campervan.
We started the trip in Queenstown – a cute little town perched on the edge of Wakatipu glacial lake and fringed by the mountains of the Southern Alps. It has a buzzing atmosphere of an alpine village and a population of 1900 people – which is 100 people less than the occupancy of the World Square complex where I work in Sydney.
The first order of business for me was to check out Wakatipu lake and to see what water birds were around. As expected, there were some New Zealand scaups and Pacific Black Ducks around, as well as some Bkack-billed gulls and Pied Cormorants.
And then out of the water came a Great Crested grebe! I’ve been chasing these birds from Russia to Australia but could never get close enough to them. And here they were – practically in suburbia, two adults and two young. These birds have some amazing courtship dancing moves that they synchronize with each other while running on the surface of the water. Though I was a bit late for that.
We ended the day in the frozen interior of Below Zero Ice Bar, where everything is made of ice and the temperature is kept at a snippy -8°C. For more ideas about inexpensive things to do in town, check out this post about what you can do for $10 in Queenstown.
The following morning we headed to Glenorchy. It’s a small town set against a background of lush beech forest and rugged mountain ranges, 45 km from Queenstown. Glenorchy’s impressive scenery is quite popular with Hollywood filmmakers. Most notably, the area was used as a location for Isengard, Lothlorien and Amon Hen in the Lord of the Rings movies.
The road from Queenstown to Glenorchy is considered to be one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand, however, we were there on an overcast and rainy day and most of its spectacular scenery was hidden behind low-hanging clouds.
The road from Glenorchy to Paradise is supposed to be even more spectacular than the road from Queenstown, but the weather remained all doom and gloom. And it was a rather washed-out doom and gloom that didn’t add drama to the landscape but blended all the colours instead. We did, however, find some Paradise ducks, that could have given the town its name.
One thing I wanted to see in New Zealand, apart from the obvious landmarks, was the red beech forest – a cool and wet temperate rainforest with trees covered in a thick coat of moss. The Glenorchy to Paradise road travels through at least three patches of red beech forest. These beautiful areas were used as filming locations for Lothlorien in the Lord of the Rings.
Next stop: Milford Sound