Camping & Tramping Around the South Island

This time last year while I was still building houses and Madison was still opening studios but both were on the brink of quitting and running away, we found an alignment in the stars where her globetrotting trajectory crossed with my relocation to the edge of the world.

I distinctly recall driving between jobsites and talking with Madison about what life will be like when. When we no longer have careers and regenerating to-do lists. When we have time to explore interests. And the flip side, when we no longer have regular incomes or structure and the sense of security they provide.

We exchanged countless emails discussing the virtues of packing cubes, inspiring bloggers, and which travel insurance to buy. I loved having a soundboard to bounce ideas off, share my fears with, and above all, get out-of-my-mind excited with.

Our virtual conversations are so fresh in my mind that it’s hard to believe all the plans that seemed so long away have now transpired. (Don’t worry – we hatched another set of plans for another continent next year!)

The first plan to reunite took place in Spain last August. We traveled to Morocco together and then returned to Spain for La Tomatina festival followed by some R&R in Mallorca. Eat Pray Love-style, those two weeks can be summed up in three words: Hot Stinky Heaven.

Phase II was Madison venturing to New Zealand for almost two weeks of camping and tramping (kiwi for hiking) before the two of us jetted to Thailand for some eating, yoga, and diving.

After a couple days of recuperating from traveling for 24-hours to get here, Mads and I moseyed down to Queenstown to spend a week exploring the South Island. Flying with Madison is the best. She is physically incapable of staying awake on airplanes, something to do with the air – or so she claims, leaving you free to claim all her snacks.

Day One:

We spent an afternoon wandering around busy Queenstown in pursuit of a highly rated taco truck that eluded us. Instead we ate delicious Cuban food and took in the Rural Games from a safe distance.

The Games includes events like Gold Panning, Cowpat Tossing, Barrel Racing, Wood Chopping, and Gumboot Throwing (gumboots = rain boots). I can’t make this stuff up. We made it out of town just before the running of the sheep took over Main Street. For real.

Day Two:

Our first night was spent south of Queenstown, just outside Te Anau at a bare bones DOC campground. In the morning we tried out Madison’s new coffee sock (handy little device!) before heading down the road to cruise around Milford Sound.


It was about a 2-hour drive from our campsite to Milford Sound. The road literally ends at the fjord’s edge. (Here’s some fun trivia: technically, a fjord is created by glacial melt, which is not how Fjordland National Park where Milford Sound is located was created. But they’d already named the park before the discrepancy was widely known so it wasn’t changed).

Kings of the Sound

There are a couple ways to explore the Sound, on a kayak or a tour boat. We opted for the boat to see more of the area than we could physically explore on our own. Plus we got to hang out with the selfie kings.

The scenery is spellbinding. My mouth was agape the whole two hours. You just can’t believe a place like this exists. And of course pictures don’t do it justice.

On our way back up the road we pulled over to take some pictures during the golden hour, that magical time of day when everything is bathed in golden light. We had some fun with a giraffe costume I brought along. What? Doesn’t everyone travel with costumes?


Days 3-5:

We spent a couple nights in Wanaka and both instantly fell in love with the city. It’s the perfect blend of outdoorsy meets foodie scene and the average age was somewhere between 27-32. So far, it’s the only other place in NZ I want to live. Maybe someday…

My favorite place to wake up.


We finally got to the main event: tramping!


Our first tramp was to Rob Roy glacier. It was about a 4-hour round trip hike that led to the base of the glacier. We met John from Baltimore along the way. He let me see the glacier through his camera’s huge lens. It was pretty incredible; I need a better camera. And Madison captured this completely innocuous exchange in a way that just screams “stranger danger!” I swear he was a nice guy. Not at all creepy.


We had a snack at the top of the bottom. (Top of the hike. Bottom of the glacier) Took some pics and boogied back to the car.

On our way back to camp we came across something I thought was an urban legend. Or maybe a rural legend is more appropriate.

A lamb jam!


There were thousands of them! Blocking the road, kicking up dust, a cacophony of bleating.

The next day we set out to conquer Isthmus Peak. It was a long and great trek with views of two different lakes: Hawea and Wanaka. About 16 kilometers in total, it took us 7 hours.



The summit is a sneaky bastard. Just when you think it’s over, there are no more hills to climb, switchbacks to…switch, and the end is in sight you look right and see this ridge line.




What else does one do when completing an arduous journey? Eat and take lots of pictures, of course!


Day 6:

Making our way up the west coast, we spent a night in tiny Fox Glacier. There’s a path just off the highway that leads into the bush (kiwi for forest) where you can see glow worms attached to boulders and tree trunks at night. They continue to amaze me and are impossible to capture on camera. Madison was just as enthralled. I’m happy she shares my affinity for bioluminescent larvae.

The next day we attempted our most ambitious tramp of the trip: Mount Fox. It’s a 7.4km track that takes 8 hours and is recommended for advanced trampers. We’re used to American rating systems where you can safely assume warnings like this are exaggerated. But kiwis don’t mess around. When they say “fit, experienced, and properly equipped,” they mean it. Lesson learned.


I say attempt because we got about 3/4 of the way up and pulled the plug. On a clear day you can see Fox Glacier and the Southern Alps. We saw no such things.

The first 3 hours of the trek was spent scrambling tree root ladders. Completely vertical tree roots.

Walk 10 feet…Climb a ladder. Walk 10 feet…Climb a ladder. For 3 hours.

See the orange triangle? They marked the trail and without them you’d have zero idea where to go.


It was actually pretty fun for a while; a jungle gym in real life. But somewhere around the 2 hour mark it wasn’t fun anymore. My stair climbing muscles were sore.


Once we finally made it above the tree line we were eager for the view we’d been working our tails off to see.

This is what awaited us in all directions. Oh and we graduated from root ladders to muddy bog.

Fog you, bog!


The clouds weren’t going to lift and deliver stunning views of the Southern Alps or the glacier so there was no point in continuing. We inhaled a snack and commenced 3 hours of descending. Mount Fox: 1 – Jessica & Madison: 0.


We didn’t get the view we’d hoped for and the hike kicked our asses, but I’m glad we tried. Believe it or not, we didn’t whine very much during the hike. Our spirits were high because any day of hiking – even in crappy conditions – is better than not hiking.

Day 7:

Our last full day on the South Island was spent driving east through Arthur’s Pass to Christchurch. It was a beautiful stretch of road.


Once we arrived in Christchurch we located a texmex food truck and devoured the most amazing tacos I’ve had outside the US.


As luck would have it, my best kiwi friend Sara happened to be in Christchurch on a work trip and the three of us got together for dinner. I don’t have any pictures because we were too deep in conversation to commemorate the evening. It was a blasty blast.

The next morning we hopped a flight home to the North Island where we spent a couple days exploring Waiheke

and preparing for the next phase of our adventure: Thailand!

4 thoughts on “Camping & Tramping Around the South Island”

      1. You certainly are a special breed my fav niece. Another great story of fun and adventure for me to love and live thru you… keep going, I’m not tired yet and I’m sure you have other places to see. LYB BC


  1. You left out the part where we ditched hitch hikers on the side of a deserted dirt road….at dusk. And the time we adopted an Asian family in a crowded forest at night. Oh and how terrible I am at driving on the other side of the road (white knuckles, shallow breathing, mind numbingly slow driving (sorry)). And, oh yeah, when we mailed that nice lady’s letters and basically solved her decades long family feud with her astranged daughter. Beyond those very important parts of our adventure, well told.

    Miss you!!


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