Land of the Long White Cloud: A South African’s guide to New Zealand

We’ve ogled at the dramatic landscapes in the Lord of the Rings films, watched the All Blacks incite fear through the Haka, and heard tales of this far-off land from friends or family who’ve immigrated. A journey to our Southern-Hemisphere neighbour may mean traversing the globe, but is a certainly one worth taking.

New Zealand has an impressive range of experiences awaiting its visitors. After two trips to visit my family in the the land of the Aotearoa, Maori for ‘long white cloud’, I’ve selected three of my top travel itineraries for each island.

New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Cloud

North Island

1. Wellington

The city is both the southern-most and windiest capital in the world and bears an uncanny resemblance to Cape Town. If you’ve just arrived in the country, fight the desire to give in to the jetlag and head out to explore the gorgeous city.

A great starting point is the Te Papa, the country’s national museum and free for all visitors. Next take the funicular up to the Botanical Gardens and walk your way back into town. The city’s trendy eateries and bars are bound to keep any foodie happy. If you’re keen for some views, the drive up Mount Victoria is highly recommended. My favourite hotel stays were the QT Wellington with its classy and eclectic styling, and the Ohtel for an intimate and luxe waterfront experience.

New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Cloud

2. Martinborough

Time to start the journey up north and the first stop over the Wairapa Mountains is Martinborough. Wine lovers will delight in this little town which is reminiscent of some of the villages you encounter on South Africa’s Route 62. It’s a quaint town with several little shops to explore – but want to know the most exciting part? The town’s 20-plus wineries are almost all within walking or cycling distance of the town centre, one of the only places in the world to offer this! Grab a bike and map from the Wine Merchant, and you’re set to go.

On the town square you’ll find the charming and characterful Martinborough Hotel, the oldest continuously operated hotel in New Zealand. Feel transported back in time with the Victorian-styled building, replete with wrap-around porch and ornate railings. The Union Square Bistro and Bar is the hotel’s in-house restaurant and is headed up by Michelin-awarded chef, Adam Newell. Life Enriched Holidays is a local edu-tourism company, which I highly rate for their immersive, educational and curated food and wine experiences.

New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Cloud

3. Rotorua

A few hours north and Rotorua hits your radar, a town most known for its deep Maori culture and geothermal activity. The Maori are the country’s first inhabitants, having arrived from Polynesia around 1300. Te Puia is a visitor centre with several tours and experiences that give insight into this ancient culture. You can also watch active geysers and try spotting New Zealand’s feathered namesake in the Kiwi House. For a guided tour of a Living Maori Village, visit Whakarewarewa. Also, put aside a few hours to relax in the thermal springs; we chose Waikite Valley, one of several options around town. 

It’s about time to meet the Kiwi bachs. They are New Zealand’s version of Airbnb, and you’ll find these holiday homes spread out across the country. They’re an affordable way of travelling around and you can find them through various websites. Our Rotorua bach was a delightful stay directly on the lake.

New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Cloud

South Island

1. Queenstown

After the cultural and foodie experiences of the North Island, it’s time to embrace the dramatic landscapes of the South Island. Queenstown is the attractive adventure capital of the South – before you even land the excitement starts as the plane navigates a narrow valley, landing just short of the town. This utterly charming village has a distinct Alpine feel; you’re bound to sense the allure as you wander the cobblestone streets. Take the cable car up the mountain for spellbinding views of the city and try out a famous Fergburger when you get back down to town.

The Sherwood is a wonderfully unique stay on the outskirts of town with a holistic philosophy that combines hospitality, community, creativity and sustainability. Their eatery is also one of only two hotel-associated restaurants in Cuisine Top 100, New Zealand’s guide to the country’s top restaurants. The hotel is the perfect home base from which to also explore the town’s adventure activities. These include: bungy jumping, jet boat rides, white-water rafting, river surfing, canyon swinging and much more.

New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Cloud

2. Milford Sound

Time to head South, and soon your jaws will drop. It’s as if the forces of nature have clashed for years and in this wild countryside you witness the results of their feuds. The elements still collide furiously with the landscape, so dress warmly and check ahead for road conditions; a visit in the warmer months is advisable. In good weather you can fly into Milford Sound, but you’d miss the spectacular drive in.

Milford Sound is a 12km fjord that winds its way towards the ocean, guarded by towering peaks and punctuated by waterfalls along route. Milford Lodge offers a range of accommodation options; you’re in for a treat if your budget allows for one of the riverside chalets, but you’ll probably be just as happy as we were renting a dormitory room. From the little harbour, Mitre Peak Cruises takes you on breathtaking journeys through the sound.

New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Cloud

3. Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

For a similarly impressive drive and destination, head three-hours north of Queenstown and you will enter Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, named after the country’s highest mountain. We unpacked at Glentanner Park Center where we stayed and then drove the final kilometers into the park. From here, take the Hooker Track (one likely to remain my most memorable hike ever) towards Mount Cook. Prepare to be in awe of another landscape fashioned by natural drama as you amble up the valley.

A Mount Cook experience is not complete without a helicopter flip. The Helicopter Line had my mother and I hanging onto the edge of our seats; I doubt I’ll ever feel the same thrill and adrenalin that coursed through my veins as we ducked and dived around the snow-covered peaks, including a mid-flight stop on a glacier.

New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Cloud

Travel Tips

  • Quantas provides direct flights from Joburg to Sydney, and from there to several Kiwi airports
  • Campervans are a popular way to tour the islands – you can also take them aboard the Interislander ferries connecting the islands from Wellington to Picton
  • Make sure you travel with insect repellent – the country has countless sand flies continuous out to bite and will leave you scratching for days
  • Eating out in New Zealand is very expensive, we self-catered for most of our travels – there are plenty local supermarkets to get what you need

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