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Driving Through Middle Earth (And New Zealand)

By Annual Adventure Adventure, Destinations, New Zealand, Oceania

New Zealand is one of the most sought-after destinations for Adventure Travel enthusiasts. Between its incredible landscapes and its reputation as the Extreme Sport Capital of the World, it’s no wonder it’s such a talked-about vacation spot. An extended New Zealand road trip from the Auckland to Queenstown is a fantastic way to experience this beautiful country and all it has to offer.

New Zealand Paradise
Beauty lurks around every bend.

A New Sight Around Every Corner

Every 30-45 minutes on the road in New Zealand, you’ll get the feeling that you’ve somehow driven into a new planet. The landscape varies from rolling green hills to towering, snow-capped mountains to a rocky, bubbling volcanic landscape in no time at all! It feels like the two small islands somehow hold every different type of landscape found on the planet. Where else on Earth can you find a glacier right in the middle of a rain forest?

Here’s how I tackled visiting New Zealand in 10 days on an amazing road trip.

Starting Your New Zealand Road Trip

The route most people take is to fly into Auckland and head south from there, which is what I would recommend as well. The topography gets more dramatic the farther south you go, so you’ll be driving into more and more incredible sights as you progress. Auckland is also a great starting point with many resources available.

Day 1: Hobbits, Glow Worms And Mystical Lands

Following a great dinner and comfortable night after grabbing you car in Auckland, head out early the next day towards Matamata, home of Hobbiton. Yes, it may be a bit touristy, but as a film buff I couldn’t resist the opportunity to step into the home of Bilbo and Frodo and see it for myself. If you’re a fan of the movies, I highly recommend you do the same!

Hobbiton Bag End
Party business only, please.
Hobbiton and Second Breakfast
View of the Shire
The rolling hills of The Shire.

It’s an easy 2 hour drive filled with rolling green hills and farmland to get to Matamata, and when you arrive for your pre-arranged tour (the only way to see the set) you can have a Hobbit’s favorite meal (Second Breakfast!) while you wait at the cafe for your tour bus to pick you up. After second breakfast, enjoy your tour of the set and head out towards your next magical experience:

The Waitomo Glowworm Caves

Coming from Matamata, drive about an hour and a half to Waitomo, a small town with a lot to offer. I had pre-arranged a glowworm cave tour that afternoon that offered both a trip through the glowworm caves as well as other cave networks in the area. It’s a fascinating area with caves splitting the land, large eels swimming in the rivers, Wetas (think prehistoric grasshoppers) lining the caves, and, of course, the stunning glowworms.

Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Milky Way or Glowworms?

After your tour, grab a meal in town and head to your lodging for the evening. There are some great Bed & Breakfasts in the area for a comfortable night and good hospitality.

Day 2: Hot Springs and Colored Pools

One Note about days 2 and 3 on this itinerary: I passed on Wellington to go to Rotorua and see what it had to offer. If you want to enjoy a unique city with a great social scene and food, I would recommend skipping Rotorua altogether and heading straight for Wellington, maybe even with a detour past Mt. Taranaki!

On To Rotorua

At your leisure, continue your New Zealand road trip by heading east towards Roto-Rooter Rotorua. You’ll know you’re getting close when you begin to smell the sulfur in the air, as Rotorua is a hotspot (literally!) for geothermal activity. Spend the day touring the mud pools in Wai o Tapu Thermal Wonderland and top it off with a dip in Waiotapu Stream, where geothermally heated water meets a cold stream. You can control your temperature by moving towards or away from the heat source!

Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland
The colorful pools of Wai o Tapu Thermal Wonderland.

Day 3: Alpine Slides And Heading South

Today you’ll be departing for the beautiful South Island of New Zealand, but start the morning by saying goodbye to the North properly: by careening down a mountain!

A View With A Side Of Adrenaline

Head up to Skyline Rotorua and take in the beautiful view from the top of the gondola ride. Then grab some tickets for the Alpine Slide, which is seriously addicting. Enjoy flying down the slide at probably not-so-safe speeds (you’ll catch some air if you do it right!) but be sure to slow down for the rubber barrier at the end if you don’t want a sore face!

Rotorua Alpine Slide
Help! I’m being chased by a ghost rider!
I Love You, North, But It’s Time To Move On

After you’ve had your fill of flying through the forest, take one last look at the North Island and head to the Rotorua Airport where you’ll be departing for Christchurch! Grab some lodgings for the evening and enjoy a delicious meal in Christchurch, then get ready for a scenic day tomorrow!

Day 4: Take The Train To Pancakes

The Tranz-Alpine Rail

Hello, South Island! No need to rent a car yet, you can make your way on foot or by taxi to the Christchurch Rail station on the west side of town. Hop aboard the 8:15 TraNZ-Alpine rail to Greymouth and enjoy New Zealand’s most scenic rail journey. You’ll notice many people on board who stay on at Greymouth just to take the round trip for the scenery! The train will weave through canyons and across rivers with some brief scenic stops as it heads towards the west side of the island.

Tranz-Alpine Railway View
One of the many spectacular views from the Tranz-Alpine Railway.
Pancakes For Your Eyes

When you arrive in Greymouth, grab your chariot for the Southern Island at your rental car company of choice and head north for a 45 minute detour towards Punakaiki, home of the Pancake Rocks. Walk around the pathway through the Pancake Rocks and watch in awe as the waves crash against the eroded limestone formations. Have a snack at the cafe across the street and hit the road again back south to your home base for the night, Franz Josef.

New Zealand Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
Suddenly I’m hungry for Second Breakfast…

Days 5 & 6: Glaciers Galore!

Franz Josef Glacier

From the town of Franz Josef you can see its namesake glacier off in the distance. You can drive to the Franz Josef Glacier car park and take the Glacier Valley or Sentinel Rock Walks (or both!) for great views of the glacier. If you’re feeling adventurous (and since you’re on this site, I know you are!) you can splurge on a heli-hike and take a helicopter straight to the top of the glacier! I had one booked myself but I was thwarted by an incoming cyclone (more on that later…).

Fox Glacier

Just as great and worth doing in addition to the Franz Josef Glacier is the Fox Glacier just 10 minutes down the road. From the parking lot take the Te Moeka o Tuawe Valley Walk across several streams and along the ice-filled river to a fantastic overlook of the Fox Glacier.

New Zealand Fox Glacier
The Fox Glacier, as seen from the end of the hiking trail.
Take A Dip & Warm Up

If you want to take a relaxing break, you can head to the Glacier Hot Pools and enjoy the naturally heated pools in a spa-like environment. Some heli-tours include a trip here in their package so take advantage of it and enjoy the warm water!

Check The Weather!

This probably isn’t the most common experience, but some of my plans were thrown out the window thanks to a Cyclone that blew through the area. Because of this I was unable to do the glacier heli-hike and ended up having to spend an entire day indoors with no electricity. I was barely even able to make it out of town the next day! The only roads out of town were blocked by fallen trees and street lights, and the only bridge that allowed access to Queenstown had several cables snapped! There’s not much you can do to prepare for this, so the moral of this story is to always have a plan B!

Franz Josef Cyclone
The guidebook didn’t mention this…

Day 7: The Big Leap

The Nevis Bungee Jump

Barring any natural disasters, continue your road trip towards Queenstown the next morning and get ready for some fun! I had pre-booked a 1 pm Nevis bungee jump with AJ Hackett and thankfully just barely made it in the nick of time.

Nevis Bungee Prep
Ready to rumble!
Go Big Or Go Home

You’ve come all the way to New Zealand and you’ve decided to Bungee Jump, so why not go all-in and do the big one? The Nevis Jump is a 134m drop and the biggest jump in New Zealand. If you’re feeling nervous, there are other jumps to do, but the Nevis was my first bungee jump ever and it’s a great intro to the sport!

Nevis Bungee Jump
Bombs Away!
Sweet Dreams

Enjoy your evening on the town in Queenstown and be sure to get some ice cream at Patagonia Chocolates, the best ice cream I had in all of New Zealand. Get some rest and get ready to hit the road again tomorrow!

Day 8: Milford Sound

The Waterfall Factory

Today you’ll be enjoying the sights of Milford Sound, located just west of Queenstown but requiring a 4 hour drive to get there. Don’t be dismayed by the increasing amounts of rain as you drive into Fjordland, that’s “Milford Weather” and if you get it you’ll be able to see its famous waterfalls in full force!

Milford Sound Waterfalls
There are dozens of waterfalls in every direction!
Get A Glacial Facial

Following your arrival in Milford Sound, check in to your lodgings (I splurged on an incredible Riverside Chalet) and spend the afternoon either hiking the paths in the area or taking a boat tour of the sound, the only way to get up close and personal with the waterfalls. You’ll even get the opportunity for a “Glacial Facial” by having a glacial waterfall rain down upon you! Be on the lookout for Fur Seals on the rocks near shore and enjoy the majesty of Milford Sound.

Milford Sound Glacial Facial
The Glacial Facial – not quite as soothing as it sounds.

Day 9: Just Another Day In Paradise

Riding Through Middle Earth

Head back towards Queenstown and either enjoy the city or, whether you’re an outdoors enthusiast or movie geek, book a horseback ride in Paradise, the site of many filming locations for he Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Peter Jackson himself paid to have it made into a protected area, so now only tour groups and film productions are allowed on the land. It’s well worth doing and probably the best horseback ride I’ve ever taken in my life!

New Zealand Paradise
Paradise certainly lives up to its name.

Day 10: Parting Ways With New Zealand

Alas, your New Zealand road trip has come to an end. Enjoy the morning in Queenstown or Wanaka and return your rental chariot on your way to the airport.

Do’s and Don’ts:

  • DO book your activities in advance! If you don’t you may risk not having a spot! This includes Hobbiton, Glowworm Caves, Tranz-alpine rail, the Nevis Bungee Jump, Milford Sound boat tour, Paradise Horseback Riding and rental cars.
  • DO prepare for rain at some point, especially at Milford Sound!
  • DO be sure to stop at any places that look interesting, you never know what surprises you might find!
  • DON’T plan too tight of a schedule, you never know what may come up and it’s good to have some wiggle room in your itinerary.
  • DON’T think this is the only 10 day schedule around, everyone has different priorities! I’m happy to answer any questions about the trip so feel free to leave a comment!

Resources:

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