It was nearly Christmas time and there wasn’t a snowflake to be found. Yet, with my stay in Auckland at an end, I was on an plane, South Island-bound. Yes, whilst the increasing number of Christmas decorations were certainly increasing in shop windows, the holiday period was notably different in the southern hemisphere. To begin with, the aforementioned decorations were on the whole much more subdued than at home, with only a small number of people splashing their homes with lights and tinsel. This is because, on this side of the equator, Christmas falls amid the summer holidays. With the hotter weather, this is the time most Kiwi families go on holidays and the busy time leaves less attention to the cold-weather traditions imported from Europe. Nevertheless, despite the differences, I was interested in learning more about how the holiday was celebrated here as it was to be my first Christmas away from home. It is because of this that I was grateful that my cousin (who had immigrated to New Zealand some time ago) had invited me to spend the holiday with her in Christchurch as it meant that I wouldn’t be alone.

Christchurch (with a trip to Kaiteriteri)

Christchurch Tram

Landing in Christchurch, it quickly struck me how similar in appearance it was to my home in Suffolk. Ignoring for a moment the mountains rising on the horizon, the flat, rolling fields and wetlands could almost whisk me back home and I was soon welcomed in by my cousin. Having not seen her for around ten years, it was wonderful to catch up and become familiar with the family she had found in New Zealand. It was with her that I was to spend Christmas, but in the time leading up to it, I was happy to be guided around the city of Christchurch which is the largest city on the South Island and one of the most architecturally engaging (even for someone as humanities-oriented as me!) as a place with a foot in both the old and the new. I am, of course, referring to the earthquakes of 2011 which led to the city being rebuilt from the rubble and you can still see its effects so many years on. Whilst, in my opinion, the city was not the most aesthetically attractive destination on the South Island, I was nonetheless taken in by the wonderful old trams and the gorgeous landscape surrounding the city.

Kaiteriteri Beach

I was also very lucky to have been invited to join my cousin on the family camping holiday up to Kaiteriteri in the Tasman Region located at the top of South Island. It was an arduous seven-hour car journey that was worth the wait as it took me up to the exquisite beaches long talked-up by those around me. With powdery white sands and a sea that sparkled in the hot summer sun, it was the picture of a perfect beach holiday and I soaked up every minute.

Abel Tasman National Park

Although I should take a moment to mention the New Zealand sun as something to be watched out for… If you are visiting Australia or New Zealand, you will likely already be aware of the intensity of the sun. This is particularly obvious for places such as Australia which has become renown for its unrelenting heat and annual wildfires. However, just because the climate in New Zealand initially appears more temperate and encourages you to bask in the stunning weather, you should be prepared for the dangerous levels of UV. It was something I was warned about early on, as getting burned is all too easy and a factor-50 sun cream absolutely essential to protecting your skin in both the short and long-term. Not only can the UV cause rapid sunburns that catch you off guard, but New Zealand also has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world because of its exposure to such high levels of UV. As such, I was careful apply lotion as often as possible and, as long as you take care to apply it and stay in the shade as much as possible, there is no reason not to enjoy the scenery of the region. I was delighted to see Split Apple Rock and even walk part of the famous Abel Tasman coastline walk.

Views from our Boxing Day hike in Christchurch

Then it was back to Christchurch for Christmas and I found that most of the traditions echoed those I was familiar with back home albeit adapted for the weather. Instead of a hot Roast Dinner, there was a greater emphasis on cold meats and salads and a particular fondness for Pavlova and trifle. There were no crackers or Christmas Pudding to speak of, although my cousin and I made sure to make our own ‘Pigs in Blankets’ and Mince Pies as a small slice of home. The food was so good, I certainly appreciated the stunning hikes that populated Boxing Day and the final few days of December (including a hiking trail in the Christchurch Adventure Park which included a free chairlift ride back down!) I was so lucky to have been able to share the holiday with my cousin and her family on what could otherwise have been a day plagued by homesickness and found it difficult to leave for the rest of my trip by the time it was over. Nevertheless, there was still too much to see to stay and I was soon on another bus headed for the nearby Geraldine for my next Workaway placement.

Geraldine

Waihi Gorge

Geraldine is a small town in the Canterbury region of the South Island and it served well as more of a transitionary stop in my adventure as I readjusted to travel after so many weeks spent with my cousin. Whilst there was not a large amount of sights to see here compared to the other places I had been, the weather was faultless and I enjoyed multiple bicycle trips into town and, in particular, the long one I went on with a new friend to Peel Forest. This was perhaps the first instance I had made a genuine friend so far and was delighted to be shown around the woods and across the little bridges and bridleways of the area and we endeavoured to meet up again when I reached Dunedin where he was studying.

A lowland tōtara in Peel Forest (almost 3 metres wide!)

I was admittedly disappointed to find that my Workaway hosts in this instance were distinctly homophobic and I thought it appropriate to mention it here as, whilst most people I have encountered have been wonderful, this is not always the case. I was fortunate that this didn’t have a significant impact on my trip or stay as this attitude was not directed with any hostility at me, although it did cause considerable discomfort at times and it is just something to keep in mind when participating in similar schemes. Once again, I would like to emphasise that staying in contact with friends and family is important and I was able to move on without letting this bring me down.

Tekapo

After Geraldine, my stop off in Tekapo was more of a last-minute detour on my way to Queenstown more than anything, but I was certainly glad that I did it! Although there is not a lot to do in Tekapo, the panoramic views of the lake soaked up my entire day as I wandered along its bank. My mention of it here is partially an indulgence to show off the pictures I was able to capture on my phone, but I’m not guilty for it at all as it was well-worth the additional day. Moreover, the hostel was one of the cleanest I have been to and the girls in my room particularly friendly (one of whom I by chance sat next to on the bus on my way to Queenstown the following day!)

Queenstown

Queenstown Viewpoint

Queenstown: the adventure capital of the world. This was the place to go if you were seeking thrills and heart-stopping adventures. Bungy-jumping, sky diving, mountain biking, you name it. So, did I pluck up the courage to do any of those things… Not quite, but my time here was hardly wasted and I do not regret a single minute of it. For starters, I know I rave about the picturesque scenery of every location in New Zealand, but I would be comfortable in saying that Queenstown took the cake in every aspect. It was, by far, the place I could most easily get lost looking at the mountains and lake – which was a problem if I wanted to actually get out and do things! The hostel I was in was perfectly positioned to allow you to drink up the landscape (even if the kitchen wasn’t the cleanest and the room was once again cramped and smelt of body odour!) Nit-pickiness aside, I barely spent any time in my accommodation and my first point of call upon arrival was an early-start excursion to the famous Milford Sounds the following morning…

Fiordland National Park

Alongside Hobbiton, Milford Sound was one of my most anticipated trips of the summer and constituted the crescendo of my South Island tour. I boarded the tour bus which took us, with engaging and informative commentary from our driver, all the way to the Fiordland National Park. My nose was glued to the window from that point on. After a few stops along the way, including at Mirror Lake and Monkey Creek, and after passing by numerous waterfalls and rushing streams, we arrived. From here, we took a gentle cruise across the Sound, which, by the way, is technically not classifiable as a ‘Sound’. Formed by the erosion of glaciers, it is instead a fjord with a Sound being defined by being a river valley flooded by the sea. With the weather holding up beautifully (something I am told is especially untypical of Milford Sound), we glided past waterfalls, seals, and some of the best views I have ever laid eyes on. I am only disgruntled that my phone camera couldn’t capture a fragment of what I was seeing!

Milford Sound

The following day was to be an adrenaline-spiking ride on the ‘Shotover Jet’. Operating out of the river canyons, the high-speed jet experience takes you up to 90km/h over just 10cm of water through the narrow passages and bends of the river. We sliced past rocky outcrops and splashed turquoise water in 360 degree spins that lifted me out of my seat and I couldn’t get enough of it. Perhaps, I should have signed up for that sky dive… Regardless, my need for thrills was certainly wetted and I spent the residual energy climbing up to Bob’s Peak to look out over the city. As couldn’t find a Workaway placement in Queenstown, I was restricted by budget to spend only a few days in the rather expensive hostel. However, if I were to go back, I would certainly spend much longer as there was just so much to see and do! I can see why it is so popular!

Dunedin

Baldwin Street

Considering by adoration of Queenstown, it might surprise you to find that Queenstown wasn’t actually my favourite destination in New Zealand. That acclaim goes to Dunedin, a city a little further south on the east coast of the island and this is predominantly because of its perfect union between excitement, beauty, and cosiness. It had everything I was looking for on my trip without the distinct tourism atmosphere that accompanied Queenstown. My Workaway placement here was somewhat unique among the ones I did in New Zealand in that, instead of being the sole worker in a home, I was here one among eight in the same place. The older lady hosting us had an absolutely stunning home atop a hill that overlooked the coast (providing some impressive sunrises if you could get up early enough!). Its small size meant that I was sleeping on a camp bed in the basement alongside another girl and that there were two tents pitched in the steep garden and a van parked out front.

Lookout Point, Dunedin

Nevertheless, being surrounded by friendly faces from across the world, this gave the Workaway a real sense of community akin to a hostel albeit far more personal and cosy. This was only amplified as, over the course of the week, I came to know the people I was working with better and, as the only native English speaker, even adopted the casual role of English teacher. Together, we worked from eight until twelve o’clock to weed and trim the garden, transport cement, and build seating areas up and down the sharp incline. In exchange, we were given afternoons to explore the city and return to a family dinner together and it was certainly my favourite Workaway experience of the summer.

Sea lion on Sandfly Beach

I formed a particular friendship with the girl I was sharing a room with and it was with her and her friend that I was able to travel with them to see Tunnel Beach and Sandfly Beach. The latter of these trips actually unexpectedly served as one of my favourite excursions of all as it was here that we were to come face-to-face with a wild sealion as it dozed on the evening beach. Much larger in person that I would have expected, I was thrilled and nervous to see it lumber up the sand towards us. Needless to say, we were sure to keep our distance.

University of Otago

Of my other afternoon trips, I explored the local botanical gardens, both museums, the old train station, saw an albatross at the tip of Otago Peninsula, and climbed to the top of Baldwin Street (the steepest street in the world!). I was also able to meet back up with the friend I had made in Geraldine and had the privilege of being shown around the University of Otago where he was studying – the nineteenth century architecture of the buildings was especially easy on the eye!

Oamaru

Lookout Point, Oamaru

Following Queenstown and Dunedin, I considered the possibility that nothing on the rest of my trip would top the beauty and experiences of those places. However, I maintained high hopes going into Oamaru – a place famous for its Victorian and steam-punk sensibilities and its little blue penguins. It was also the place I was to spend my birthday. All considered, you can imagine my disappointment when I arrived at my final Workaway placement of the summer and couldn’t get along with the host. I will remain positive, because it was an otherwise delightful stop and the abrasions between us didn’t impact my work ethic or ability to explore the area. I mention it only to consolidate the message that sometimes not everything is perfect and rosy and not everyone you meet will be wonderful. However, the saving grace of the stop in Oamaru were the friends I made at the Workaway placement as there were two others also working here at the same time as me. The three of us hit it off very quickly and were soon enjoying and exploring the town together in our free time.

Steampunk HQ

The most distinctive features of the small town of Oamaru is its enduring Victorian buildings and aesthetically which is lovingly continued into the present day. The crux of this is the Victorian Precinct which has preserved its nineteenth century façade and has been populated with era-appropriate shops, museums, cafes, and experiences. It is on this street that I got to sit on and “ride” an authentic penny-farthing bicycle, browse an old bookshop, an odd curiosity shop filled with eyes, and travel back in time in the Whitestone Museum.

My birthday turned out to be a beautiful moment in time as my new friends and I immersed ourselves in the Steampunk HQ, hiked to Lookout Point, got ‘Real Fruit Ice-Cream’ (a New Zealand staple), checked out a local band, had a seafood dinner, and stayed up into the night to see seals and the world smallest penguins (also known as the ‘little’, ‘blue’, or ‘fairy’ penguins or by their Māori name kororā) return to their nests. Standing at around just 30cm, I cannot emphasise enough how adorable they looked as they emerged from the sea, waddled up the rocky coastline, and milled around the streets and roads of town. Also worth mentioning from my time here is the breath-taking bicycle ride through the countryside which was backdropped by rolling hills and a distant thunderstorm and which was completed by the double rainbow. Despite Oamaru’s small size, I would have quite happily spent another week there.

Picton (with a stopover in Christchurch)

Trig M” Track, Arthur’s Pass

With my final Workaway complete, it was time to make my way to Picton where I was to catch the ferry back to Wellington in time for the start of the new school year. First, however, I made a short stopover in Christchurch to see my cousin once more before I left the South Island. I mention it here to re-emphasise my fortune and gratefulness to have someone familiar so far away from home as it truly was a blessing. In the few days I was here, we went on one more hike together in the nearby Arthur’s Pass and made it to the top of the ‘Trig M Track’ whereafter we travelled to Pippa’s Lookout. Then, after a proper goodbye, it was on to Picton: a long bus trip away and my final destination of the summer.

View from “The Snout”, Picton

I finally arrived at the hostel to pleasantly find it to be the best one of all. Clean, friendly, with a good WIFI connection, and complete with a free breakfast, it far outpaced everywhere else I had been. My only disappointment in Picton came as a result of my poor planning as I waited too late to book the kayaking excursion I had wanted to. South Island, on the whole, was far less meticulously planned than the North Island and, whilst that did lead to more unexpectedly exciting surprises, I would still recommend booking certain activities far enough in advance. Picton, however, was so gorgeous that I wasn’t disappointed for long. The Tirohanga Track and the hike to The Snout were both as rewarding as they were stunning (and sweaty in the summer sun!) and I treated myself to a smoothie on the harbour front.

Back to Wellington…

Marlborough Sounds, as seen from the ferry

I will admit that, whilst I can honestly say I had the time of my life over the summer holidays, I was excited to return to Wellington. I acknowledged my love for Wellington when I left, but I don’t think I had really comprehended how much of a ‘home’ it had become for me over the months I had spent there. Aboard the ferry with the vague hopes of seeing dolphins, I found myself eagerly anticipating my return to the capital city and my flat and my university. The weather was sublime and the ferry crossing provided the perfect viewpoint from which to appreciate Marlborough Sounds and it wasn’t long before I disembarked in Wellington harbour and stepped foot back home. In a way, I was also looking forward to a familiar routine after nearly four months on the move, rarely spending longer than a week in any one place. The prospect of a new academic year, as I have mentioned in another blog entry, was something not to dread, but to anticipate.

It would be easy to state, after an incredible summer, that I had passed by the best moments of my year abroad. The places I saw, the people I met, it was all culminated in a spectacular journey the like of which I hope to recapture in the future at some point. However, I am over halfway through the year abroad now and am just as excited for this last chapter as I was for the first.

My Study Abroad Year: The Kiwi Summer Adventure (The South Island)

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