New Zealand South Island: Blue Fjords, red Lakes and white Nights.

May 4, 2024

New Zealand, sights, South Island, Fiordland National Park, diverse landscape
Fjords with tropical trees and sand - that's New Zealand

Do you remember what it was like when you came home from a party, disco, or other hell, with your head under your arm, your eyes on fire and your ears buzzing? I found out that you don't have to go partying to feel this way. You can just fly to New Zealand.

Twelve hours from Frankfurt to Singapore, a two-hour layover, and then another ten hours from Singapore to Christchurch. We boarded the plane sometime late on March 31, beamed through a wormhole of eleven time zones and came back to daylight on the other side of the world on April 2. In the morning, of course, so that you don't get the idea that you can finally sleep.


I feel like one of those wooden puppets whose limbs are tense from pulled strings, but completely collapse when you press a button. Looking out the airplane window, I see colorful autumn leaves. Weren’t the trees just starting their springtime budding when we took off? Jeez, have we been in the air that long? Joking, of course. New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, where the seasons are diametrically opposed to those in the northern hemisphere. At least I still seem to know what “diametrically” means.


Shortly afterwards, we are in the car and happily driving on the left-hand side of the road to the end of New Zealand’s South Island. Come with us to the forests of hanging moss in Fiordland National Park, to red lakes, to disappearing glaciers and to a place where the Milky Way shines like a sea of glitter. And then there's that thing with the windshield wiper...

Driving on the left in New Zealand - running gags forever

New Zealand, rental car, driving on the left side, driving in New Zealand, South Island
What's the steering wheel doing on the left side?

Like a sixty-year-old eagle owl, I crouch behind the steering wheel of our rental car with cramped eagle owl hands and jet lag. “Tight left, wide right,” I mutter, trying to impress upon myself how I should turn. Oh no! Suddenly there's a traffic circle with two lanes. Huiii, clockwise in... aaaaah, how do I get out of this now, quick turn signal... aaaah, why is the windshield wiper suddenly coming on now?!


“Are you okay?” asks my boyfriend, strangely gripping tightly to his door handle.

“Absolutely!” I answer, laughing hysterically as cold sweat begins to form fine ice crystals on the back of my neck and blood suddenly begins to rush to my head.

I look alternately at the turn signal and windshield wiper levers. Don't tell me they've switched those as well? Yup. They have.


For the next few hours, we continue to wipe the windshield as we merrily drive around corners, (guess what happend when it started to rain...). In the evening, we finally arrive in Queenstown, some 300 miles to the south, our composure now largely restored. You get used to driving on the left. Really. I managed that in Ireland almost ten years ago, and now I am doing it again. Wink-blink.

Milford Sound - Norway in the Tropics

Fiordland National Park, New Zealand National Parks, sights in New Zealand, mountains, fjords
Stunning views along the highway to Milford Sound at Fiordland National Park

Queenstown is known as an adventure town. Rafting, zipline, parasailing, etc. As we've already done these things elsewhere, we skip it and drive a little further to the town of Te Anau, a gateway to Fiordland National Park. I am excited.


The Park’s most famous fjord is called Milford Sound. I’m thinking we will take a boat into a gorge where someone will blow a horn and create a loud, echoing sound. Or maybe I've just been to Königssee in Bavaria too often, where someone with a trumpet can conjure up a sevenfold echo bouncing off the various rock faces.


Anyway, during the bus ride to the sound, I discover that “sound” is a geographic term meaning a long ocean inlet. There are no trumpets nor fanfare. I'm glad I didn't ask anyone out loud.

We drive for almost two hours from Te Anau to the remote spot where Milford Sound Fjord is located.

Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealans roadtrip, fjords, sights South Island New Zealand
Milford Sound - majestic like Norway in the tropics

Through blue valleys, grassy plains, a large tunnel, a huge rocky valley, and past turquoise rivers and mirror lakes. Woooah. The journey alone was worth it.


A small ferry then takes us out onto Milford Sound. It's best to get there early to avoid the midday busloads from Queenstown. Busloads mean lots of people and I can't cope with that. Lots of kiwis, on the other hand, would be okay, but we didn't see any.

The entire gorge looks as if Norway was transported overnight into the tropics due to tectonic plate movement. Like Norway, massive gray rocks protrude vertically from the dark water. Unlike Norway, ferns, grasses, lianas, mosses, and trees sprout from the walls. Totally surreal.

At the end of the boat ride, we cruise very close to one of the waterfalls cascading off the cliff edge. “Sarah, you gotta come real close!” shouts my boyfriend. Then he, and the deck, disappear in a cloud of spray.

Key Summit with Ghosts

Key Summit, hiking New Zealad, Fiordland National Park, hiking trails, New Zealand South Island, age gap, Sarah Bauer
A place like paradise - Key Summit

The next day, we just have to go hiking in this incredible landscape. We decide on the trail to Key Summit. Summit assault - ha!


“There's also a trail called Knob Flats,” I tell my boyfriend. “I bet it's really flat. Perfect for seniors!”

He gives me a dirty look. As he drives on toward the trail, he casually asks, “Do you know which of us has the car keys, and how far it is to walk back to our flat?”


Reaching the trailhead, we soon begin to climb through a forest with moss dripping from the trees and rocks. It looks tropical again, but the temperature is freezing cold. I put on my gloves. Is it fall here or what? Uh, wait a moment... yes.


Shortly afterwards, we ascend above the tree line and suddenly the sun begins to beat down on us. In New Zealand, people sunburn very easily because the clear air and the overlying hole in the ozone layer do not filter the out dangerous UV light. I pepper my face with a ton of sun cream. “My ghostly friend,” my boyfriend comments as he observes my overly thick white skin. Never mind, maybe there's still snow on the summit, then I can disguise myself and secretly steal the car keys.

We do not find snow at the top. But there is a sumptuous little mountain lake with a perfect reflection. It's so picturesque that I have the feeling that someone has hung up a photo wallpaper and it's not real at all.

Mount Cook and the disappearing Glacier

Red Tarns, hiking trails Mount Cook National Park, tarns, lakes, hiking trails, New Zealand sights, mountains
Red Tarns at Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

A few days later, we are at Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.


“WoooaHoHa!” I shout as we approach the massive mountain in the evening light. That's Māori language and it means holy shit, it's beautiful! Joking, of course. But with its unique shape, isolation, and its 12,218-foot elevation, Mount Cook stands out not only as the highest mountain in New Zealand but also as distinctive and awesome in appearance as the Matterhorn in Switzerland.


Numerous hiking trails in the area lead to lakes of all colors: red, green, blue, opalescent, and more. The next morning, we groan up endless steps to the Red Tarns. The red ponds don't actually have red water, but they are covered in red seaweed. Mount Cook towers in the background. Otherwise, it wouldn't be surreal and beautiful enough.

Tasman Glacier, Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand, glacier melting, climate change
Tasman glacier and where it used to be in 1990

New Zealand is not only composed of beauty that seems almost extraterrestrial, but it is also a harsh reminder of what we are about to lose.


Shortly after we descend from the tarns, we look out toward the Tasman Glacier in the sizzling sunlight. Although the lake at the end of the glacier appears as a beautiful silky blue, I can also see the long, black stone wall along which the glacier once ran and but has now permanently disappeared due to global warming.

I initially think that the glacier must have taken a long time to melt to that point and had been like this since perhaps 1850. When I read the scientific signage, it changes my mind: it was there until 1990, a year before I was born. At that time there was no lake, just glacial ice. In the short time I've been alive, a mile and a half of the glacial arm has disappeared. I begin to think about my best friend's daughter who is one-and-a-half years old. I think of all the things she will never get to see. How quickly it is happening. While we are watching. Phew.

The darkest sky, the brightest stars

Dark Sky Reserve Mount Cook, Milky Way, star gazing New Zealand, Southern Cross, night sky
Starry sky over Mount Cook National Park

As we step out of our cabin that evening, I remember that the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. Due to its remoteness from all other land masses, New Zealand has very clear and therefore very dark skies. Mount Cook is one of the best areas in the world to see stars.


As we look up into the sky, I have to look twice to find a dark patch of sky among the billions of white stars. It's not the first time I've seen the Milky Way, but here it is nearly blinding. An almost unbelievable number of stars hover above our heads, as if someone had overturned a load of wind-borne glitter. In the middle of it all is the Southern Cross constellation. I've always wanted to see it—and here it is. It's amazing to think how sailors discovered countries like New Zealand by sailing via sun, stars, and wind, not really knowing what to expect. After taking a few photos, I put away my headlamp, camera, and cell phone and simply lay down on a large rock and look upwards. In moments like these, you don't need technology or even words. You just gaze skyward and enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the universe.

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