New Zealand: Fjords, Stargazing and Christchurch

I had a magical three nights in Queenstown with one day at Milford Sound. The town is very much set up for tourists and is built for ski season as well as summer walkers. It is a small but pretty place with great bars, excellent food (as well as Fergburger, Devil Burger is also mouth watering). It has mountains galore and the views from the top of them, over the lakes, are stunning.

Beautiful Queenstown

Milford Sound

I had heard a lot about Milford Sound as a world famous beauty spot. It is the most visited place in New Zealand, thanks to Rudyard Kipling, who called it the eighth Wonder of the World, so I was keen to see it for myself.

Strictly speaking it is a fjord, not a sound, created by glaciers over hundreds of thousands of years and lies in the more accurately named, Fjordland National Park. It is a huge expanse of water, with skyscraper waterfalls cascading from hanging valleys, with vivid green temperate rainforest carpeting the mountainsides.

Bec, Meg and I booked the day trip Milford Sound Explorer with Kiwi Experience. The journey included some beautiful stops, like the reflective lakes and temperate rainforest and takes twelve hours in total, with two hours at Milford Sound for a boat tour.

Temperate rainforest wonderland
Reflective lakes


Waterfall watching

Sadly, Milford Sound marked my last night in Queenstown and after saying heartfelt goodbyes to Joe, Meg and Bec, I joined a new bus heading for Lake Tekapo via stunning views of Mount Cook.

Mount Cook’s snow-capped peaks in the top left!

Tekapo was very beautiful and I was lucky once again to have a perfectly clear night for stargazing. The lake is part of UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, but even in daylight its pearly blue water amazingly contrasts with the yellow grasslands surrounding it. We climbed Roundhill, a winter ski run, to get 360 degree views of the lake and countryside.

View from the top of Roundhill
Photo credit to Marguerite Walley for this starry shot over the lake

Christchurch  – A City in Recovery

Heading into Christchurch, my thoughts turned to what I knew about the 2011 earthquake, and whether any of the damage would still be visible. Sadly, I quickly found out the city has still not fully recovered. On an open top bus tour through the city, our guide revealed that the 6.3 level earthquake which only lasted 10 seconds, caused widespread damage including the collapse of buildings and the loss of 181 lives. The earthquake was so devastating because of its shallowness to the surface under the city, which had also been hit a year earlier by a 7.1 earthquake. The 2011 earthquake was felt across the whole island. Sustained damage was done to Christchurch and its suburbs with some neighbourhoods suffering 80% building loss due to collapse and demolition. Across the city 10,000 homes needed to be demolished while 100,000 were damaged. With no homes, no businesses and pressured public services like schools and hospitals, many residents of New Zealand’s previously second largest city, moved away and have not returned.

Extensive damage still visible to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament – shipping containers are used to prop up the sides of the building


There is a growing art scene in the city as artists have tried to bring the city back to life through sculpture,  murals and graffiti

Five years on and the city is still recovering. Everywhere you look there are boarded up buildings, propped up with steel supports and surrounded by high metal barriers. Gravel car parks dot the CBD where high-rise buildings once stood. Scaffolding and temporary pop-up buildings dominate the urban landscape. The total rebuild cost is estimated to be in the region of $45 billion and some economists believe it will take between 50-100 years for New Zealand to fully recover.

One memorial to the victims of the natural disaster particularly stood out for me. It was made up of 181 a white seats to commemorate every individual, one chair for each person, donated by their families. The site is incredibly moving. By visualising people sitting on those chairs, rather than simply a number made it very personal and powerful. The addition of baby car chairs, to school chairs for the students, office chairs and wheelchairs for the elderly, show the indiscriminate nature of the tragedy.

Christchurch earthquake memorial – a chair for every lost life

The city is still experiencing aftershocks with the most recent occurring two weeks before I arrived. Having witnessed the power of nature all throughout New Zealand, in the creation of the country’s deep lakes, high mountains, glacier-carved valleys and dormant volcanoes, it was a powerful reminder of how destructive natural forces can be. As well as creating this landscape, it can also be destroyed and changed forever – all in a matter of seconds. Something that residents here will never forget.

My Kiwi Experience ‘Sheepdog’ pass finished in Christchurch, but I had my heart set on one more activity, swimming with wild dolphins…New Zealand: Swimming with Wild Dolphins


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