Wanaka, New Zealand
Sometimes, you have to climb a mountain or do a gnarly overnight hike in order to see something awe-inspiring and beautiful - not in New Zealand. The drive from Franz Josef to Wanaka is the best drive. If I were stuck in traffic on this route, it would actually be fantastic. If you are going to drive through one section of the South Island, this is one to do.
So, let’s talk about Haast. About halfway, you’ll see this milky turquoise water that’s iconic in NZ because of the glacier. We probably stopped every 15 minutes looking at the water from different angles. One time, I made Avery stop on the end of a bridge so I can run down the one-lane construction to take a photo. Cars passed and I stood on the edge. Worth it. Sometimes, words just won’t do when describing something so beautiful. En route to Wanaka, you’ll also pass Mount Aspiring. We didn’t get a chance to visit but our Aussie friends highly recommended it when they trekked. They said the valley images are even more grand than Franz Josef. So if you have time and you are willing to do a trek, do it at Mount Aspiring.
At the end of this beautiful journey, you end up in Lake Wanaka. We had rented a room through Airbnb hosted by a very cool couple, Joe and Jo (short for Joanne). Cute, huh? This was our first private room rental through Airbnb and it couldn’t have been better. I think the hosts’ hospitality and the location are the keys to a successful stay. We were just two blocks away from the water and the town. We were even able to rent their bikes for as long as we wanted. I will admit the food was a bit expensive in Lake Wanaka - I think a lot of New Zealanders from Queenstown come and stay here during their summers and winters as a getaway. The boujie crowds brings the boujie prices.
On a beautiful warm day, we decided to take the bikes out and ride them along the water. Joe suggested an easy, low-key route where we can catch beautiful views of the water - believe this is called Eely Point Track. I have a confession people: I haven’t been on a bike in years. Last time, I was on a bike was during a vineyard tour 5 years ago. Prior to that, it had been more than 12 years. Avery was aware of this but I don’t think he knew how shaky I was. Good thing we didn’t bike on our first date because he definitely wouldn’t have asked me out again. I’m not exaggerating. I was embarrassed. But I guess it’s really like what they say - because after 20 minutes, I was speeding ahead of Avery and doing minor off-roading moves that restored Avery’s love for me. And of course, we had to see the Wanaka Tree - a lone tree growing out of the lake, one of those most photographed images in New Zealand.
Wanaka is incredibly relaxing but I think the best part was meeting Joe and Jo. They are both New Zealand natives but Joe is Maori and Jo is Pakeha, also known as the European New Zealand native. They were also engaged and their wedding was actually only two weeks away. For a couple coming close to their wedding day, they were SO chill. I couldn’t believe that they were even allowing guests to stay basically right up until their wedding day. One afternoon, we sat with Joe and talked for hours about the Maori culture. Avery and I had visited some museum in New Zealand to learn about the culture but hearing it straight from a Maori is so much better.
On our final day, in the morning, Joe showed us the Haka, the traditional Maori dance and war cry. Originally, they were performed before going to war to intimidate their opponents. There are many variations of the Haka but in general, they all tell a similar story. The lyrics were composed by Te Rauparaha, a Maori warrior chief. He was running away from an enemy tribe, determine to kill him. Hiding in a pit with the help of a refugee tribe, he chanted these words quietly to himself, “Ka Mate, Ka Ora”. It means, “I Die, I Live!” His life was in danger and he had two outcomes: he was either going to die or live at the end. Luckily, the tribe didn’t find him. To celebrate, hhe came out of the pit and chanted the lyrics out loud.
Maori people are incredibly proud of their culture. Watching him perform the Haka with so much passion and love is incredibly moving. I also feel fairly confident to say that most Maori are very well informed about their culture. If you visit New Zealand and meet a Maori, take the time to learn about their culture. They will be very proud and happy to share everything they know.