As we’ve discovered this past year living on the road, there really is no need to go overseas when you live in a country as diverse as ours. Many of the most memorable places we’ve encountered are free, courtesy of Mother Nature. Here are some of them.
Lake Gunn, Milford Sound
Lake Gunn is one of the many stops on the way to Milford Sound from Te Anau. Modestly signposted, it lends no clues as to the wonders that lie within. This is truly the most magical, otherworldly place we have ever set foot on; completely untouched and unspoiled. It’s covered in lush, soft moss, the trees drip with pale, green tendrils, and trees even grow on other trees.
The walk to the lake takes an estimated 45 minutes, but we took twice as long, as we were having so much fun. Eventually, we arrived at the edge of Lake Gunn and it was worth every minute.
We had the whole lake to ourselves and the water was crystal clear and surprisingly warm as we paddled in it and took what seemed like a hundred photos.
I think that place will be etched in my memory forever. Before the end of the day, we had seen the Mirror Lakes, Mitre Peak, and all the ‘must-dos’ of Milford Sound, but to us, nothing compared to Lake Gunn and its magical fairy forest. It remains our hands-down favourite.
Tunnel Beach, Dunedin
This little spot, just seven kilometres out of Dunedin, is heralded as possibly the most romantic beach in New Zealand due to the story behind it.
Back in the 1870s, a politician named John Cargill commissioned the beach for his family and carved a tunnel right the way through the cliff, 150 stone steps and all, so that his wife could sunbathe in private, away from prying eyes.
From the start, it’s impressive, with panoramic views stretching miles out to sea from the top of the track. However, don’t be fooled.
The descent to the beach then entails navigating a long, winding, and steep track from the top down to the cliffs. This in itself can be quite tricky, especially during winter when the track can be wet and slippery.
To attempt Tunnel Beach, you need to be fit and well; definitely not recommended for small children or the elderly, as it takes a good hour of solid effort there and back. It’s important to note, too, that you can only get down to the beach at low tide, otherwise, the water comes up too far and you’d never make it through the tunnel.
Having giggled and half-stepped, half-slid our way down as far as the tunnel, I then had to steel myself to go through it. It’s pitch black and has been carved through the cliff, which is an incredible feat.
It’s a very narrow space, so beware if you’re a bit claustrophobic like me. However, after having gone to such efforts to get to the place, there was no way I was turning back. So I bolted my way down all 150 steps as quickly as I could and emerged onto the beach.
Although it was only half an hour past low tide, the water had already come in too fast for us to be able to explore the beach fully, and besides, to get onto the sand, you first have to scramble your way across a large stretch of unstable and slippery rocks. Not for the first time I thought that Mrs Cargill would have had to be one very game woman to go to such efforts just for a little sunbathing.
Once back out on the path, you can explore along the top of the cliffs and admire the breathtaking view at leisure. We climbed up as far as we safely could, until we stood looking out to sea, with the waves crashing on the little beach we had just come from below.
Is it really New Zealand’s most romantic beach? We think it’s more the story behind it that makes it so, but it’s still well worth the walk. As for the hike back up, it wasn’t that bad.
Mangapohue Natural bridge walk, Waitomo, King Country
Waitomo Caves is a hugely popular tourist area, and you can spend a fortune here if you don’t know what’s around. Not us, however. We stayed at Roselands, which is a family restaurant and working farm on top of a hill, overlooking the beautiful King Country. They let you use their facilities during opening hours and allow self-contained camping vehicles to park overnight for free.
The surroundings are beautiful. You can pat the friendly farm animals and even get a free glowworm show at night in the car park. What we love most, however, is their $10 ‘all you can eat’ dinner. It really is all you can eat, and their beef stew is out of this world. It’s a lovely relaxing place to camp, surrounded by native bush and birdsong.
Not wanting to spend the $200-plus it would cost us to visit Waitomo Caves, we jumped online to the DoC website and found a perfect no-cost alternative—Mangapohue Natural Bridge. It has earned its name due to the 17-metre high limestone arch, which spans across the Mangapohue Stream and is all that remains of an ancient cave system.
The track is excellent and follows a boardwalk through a limestone gorge, which takes you to the bridge. The bridge ‘ceiling’ is studded with stalactites and the view is incredible. As if this wasn’t enough, you then wander out across farmland to see 25 million year-old fossilised ‘oysters’. It has to be seen to be believed; we were absolutely blown away.
Combine this walk with the Piripiri Cave and stunning Marokopa Falls walks just a few minutes apart down the road and you’ve got yourself an awesome day of adventuring.
Five fantastic short walks
From flat to rolling and to seriously steep, New Zealand has many fantastic walks and tramps. Here are some more we can recommend. While most of them unfortunately don’t permit dogs, a majority of these are short enough for them to be safely left in the motorhome while their owners stretch their legs.
- New Chums Beach, Coromandel Peninsula. This stunning beach has been used in many a movie blockbuster, and when you get there, you’ll see why. Getting to the beach requires navigating a lengthy stretch of rocks before merging onto a bush track, where the view becomes even more amazing as you climb. The lower the tide, the better for easier crossing. NB: Dogs are prohibited here.
- Parakiwai/Wentworth Valleys, Coromandel Peninsula. Situated near the Motorhome Friendly town of Whangamata, these two enjoyable tramps are just a few kilometres apart and are also dog-friendly. The Parakiwai track takes around 3.5 hours return and is an easy walk through the riverside bush. Explore the old gold mining routes, cross the swing bridge, or have a cooling dip in one of the popular swimming holes. If you happen to be staying at the picturesque and dog-friendly Wentworth Valley DoC campground, be sure to hike your way from the campsite to Wentworth Falls—around 2.5 hours return.
- Mount Victoria, Wellington. This walk is not for the faint-hearted, but the view at the top is worth every gasp for air and aching muscle. The well-maintained track starts gently enough, before climbing up and up and just when you reach the top, there’s a bit more. Sit and catch your breath while you marvel at the incredible view across the capital. Dogs permitted on leads.
- Jack’s Blowhole, Catlins. Conveniently located to the side of Jack’s Bay, this delightful, if rather steep, short tramp takes you over hills, through farmland, and along the coastline until you reach a blowhole that incredibly is 200 metres out to sea. No dogs allowed.
- Te Anau—Kepler Track. This easy walk (doubles as a mountain bike track) starts from the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary and follows a leisurely path around the lake until you reach the control gate bridge at the start of the Kepler track. You might want to turn around here, or you’ll be walking for the next 60km!