Why December is not the best month to visit New Zealand

Garbage bins standing out in the water at Lake Wanaka, with the snow capped Southern Alps behind

We all know that even the best laid plans go wrong.

I’m not the lay on a beach and relax kind of traveller. I take the attitude that you may only get the chance to visit a place once, and you should suck in the experience while you can. I generally build my trips around particular destinations and book the accommodation and things I particularly want to do, while leaving room for spontaneous activities as I go.

No matter how prepared or well planned you are, if you travel enough it is just a statistical truth that sooner or later a trip is going to go wrong.

I had a good run really.

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Adventures and Misadventures in New Zealand

New Zealand, December 2019. My second trip to New Zealand and my first to the South Island. December seems on face value a great time to visit New Zealand, beat the rush of family travel when school holidays starts, Summers kicked in and the weather should be lovely and ripe for enjoying the waves!

Yeah maybe not so much.

At this point please note that I absolutely love New Zealand and can’t wait to travel there again. This is also intended to be somewhat tongue in cheek and aimed to show that you can make the best out of a situation that doesn’t go how you expected.

 

It all started with a plane

Until writing this I had actually forgotten that I nearly missed my flight out of Sydney by somehow ending up at the wrong gate. I have no idea how that happened, but I was having a merry old time chatting away with a cute guy until they announced that boarding was commencing for Chile. My Merrell hiking shoes were put to an entirely different test that day!

Things went smoothly enough upon my arrival into Christchurch. I was here for just one night and booked on the Tranz-Pacific train up the coast to visit an old friend from school in Blenheim the next morning. My Uber to my hotel was more than I’d expected but otherwise my room was spacious and comfortable, I wandered into town, saw some sights, checked out the street art, got some food and grabbed some provisions for my train ride the next morning which I was super excited about.

 

Then there was the Tranz-Pacific train

Image taken from within the open carriage of the Tranz Pacific train. The engine is seen winding through the hills pulling the train behind it

The next morning I was packed and ready in front of reception for my next adventure to begin. I’d booked this particular motel for its inclusion of a ride to the station.

Soon enough I had taken my appointed seat and waited for departure.

And waited, and waited, and waited. The novelty of riding a train, featuring open air carriages, twisting its way along the Pacific coastline was suddenly seeming not such a swell one. I only had a small window of time in Blenheim with my friend and was disappointed to have it being eaten into.

As the hours went by messaging my friend with updates on the status, it transpired that there had sadly been a fatality on the line ahead and the train was unable to proceed just yet. We were told that it would be departing at some point, just not when. A family sitting across the aisle from me said they would hire a car if the train didn’t leave, and as they were going to Picton which was beyond Blenheim they would be able to give me a lift. It started to seem like that contingency may become a reality.

It was somewhere between 2.5 and 3 hours later that we pulled out of the station. And it definitely was a fabulous ride along the coast and a thrill to be able to take photos in the open air while in transit!

The open carriage on the Tranz Pacific train features glassless windows to enable travellers to have an unobstructed view of the journey
The Tranz Pacific train features an open carriage where photographers flock to capture the NZ Coastline
The Pacific ocean and the New Zealand coastline stretching behind it as captured from the Tranz Pacific
The Pacific ocean and the NZ coastline captured from the open carriage of the Tranz Pacific
 

 

A not so Seal Swim Kaikoura

The Pacific ocean meeting the New Zealand coastline at Kaikoura

I spent a lovely couple of nights with my friend in the Marlborough region and while the weather wasn’t grand, we made the most of it. He dropped me off at Blenheim to pick up my rental car and kick off the road trip with the drive to Christchurch. I had planned my packing and the drive around arriving in Kaikoura for a swim with seals, which I had no idea I wanted to do until naturally I saw that you could do it. Despite the chill in the air I was really excited to experience it.

Naturally, that was my first cancellation. Shortly after picking up my car they contacted me and advised that the ocean conditions weren’t suitable to conduct the tour today. They promised to contact me if anything changed in the intervening hours, but they weren’t optimistic.

I head for Kaikoura anyway since I still wanted to break up the drive to Christchurch, and figured I could at least swing by and check out the Kaikoura seal colony since it seemed I couldn’t actually swim with them.

The seal colony wasn’t hard to find. You can park at the car park at half moon bay or alternatively find a spot along the coastline and follow it up on foot. You wont have to look too hard! Parts of the path will enable you to get quite close to where the seals are probably resting. And its a beautiful stretch of coastline so its worth the walk regardless!

You’ll see plenty of seals resting on the rocks or playing in the water, and since the path is above the rocks you’ll be able to get quite close without interfering with them.

Group of seals on rocks at Kaikoura New Zealand

An inidvidual seal which has just emerged from the water poses on a rock at Kaikoura New Zealand

 

The up side to being in Kaikoura in December is that your chances are pretty good of seeing plenty of these little guys.

A New Zealand Fur Seal pup beside its mother on the rocks at Kaikoura

While you’re in Kaikoura, don’t miss your chance to try the seafood. It’s renowned for it!

A half lobster, chips and salad in Kaikoura. Kaikoura is known for its seafood.

After Kaikoura, other than driving taking longer than planned and running later than expected, things seemed to be going largely to plan. Well for the next two nights anyway!

 

Te Anau Glowworms

After a night in Christchurch and Dunedin, my next stop was in Te Anau. I’d chosen here for a couple of reasons, one of which as the launch point for a trip to Milford Sound the next morning. The other was for a famous Glowworm caving trip, which again I was very excited about.

As I approached Te Anau the drizzle was constant, and when I arrived to check in the hostel they asked what my plans were. They told me the Glowworm trips for that night were cancelled as the cave had been flooded with all the rain and offered me the phone to call and confirm. They also weren’t confident I’d be making it through to Milford Sound the next day either as it was often closed due to wet weather.

I ended up heading out in search of a couple of nearby Lord of the Rings locations and heading to bed to shake an impending migraine.

The next morning everything was still wet, but at least for the moment it seemed to have stopped raining.

Rainbow in Te Anau stretching over fields with mountain ranges in the background

I checked the road status and it appeared that at least for the time being, the one road down to Milford Sound was indeed open. If you’re driving in New Zealand keep an eye on the site for the NZ Transport Agency for up to date information on road closures and conditions.

Now Milford Sound is pretty much the wettest place in New Zealand, so realistically you are almost guaranteed to get rain. On the other hand it does add to the atmosphere though!

As with a few other places in New Zealand, there is one road down to Milford Sound. Now while you can absolutely hop on a tour and be driven down there, it also happens to be one of the most spectacular drives I’ve ever done and its one you’ll want to stop along the way to ogle at the scenery so I would recommend self-driving if you can. The road takes you down through mountains which means rain inevitably ends up on the road. I saw first hand the diligence they apply to road maintenance, with crews on many of the bends or particularly wet parts of the road monitoring the conditions.

Water running down a cliff face on the road to Milford Sound on New Zealan's South Island
Water running down the cliff towards the road on the drive to Milford Sound
Now I was lucky on the day of my trip to Milford Sound. Despite the likelihood of running into problems I was able to get in and out with no issues and had a great Milford Sound cruise. It was my next stop that my travel plans would require some serious adjustments.

 

When its raining in Queenstown

Now I know so far this probably seems like mostly a painful inconvenience, but it gets worse!

I spent three nights in Queenstown, the longest stay in a location for the whole of the trip. There were times I was squeezing in activities in the breaks in the weather, while others I just had to find and embrace the things to do in Queenstown when it rains.

Meanwhile, the stairs leading down to Lake Wakatipu were underwater and the lake was mere inches from overflowing.

Queenstowns Lake Wakatipu mere inches from overflowing in December 2019

Along the edge of the lake the stores were closed and sandbagged ready.

Sandbagged stores along the waterfront of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown

The next destination on my planned route was the Franz Josef Glacier, via the Haast Pass, before carrying on to Greymouth and then crossing the Canterbury plains back to Christchurch for my flight home. I had one final night unplanned and was tossing up whether I spent it on the plains and doing some hiking, or whether I returned to Christchurch to be ready for my flight the following afternoon.

Remember how I mentioned there are a few places in New Zealand where there is just one road. Well the road between Queenstown and Franz Josef is another example. I’d now learned of the importance of checking the status of roads, and discovered the morning after I arrived in Queenstown that the road was closed. It wasn’t flooded, instead all the water had caused a landslide which was now covering the road! Not only that but the status of the road from Franz Josef was shaky too, pardon the pun.

I checked the road status regularly, hoping for a miracle. None arrived. Instead I was faced with having to cancel the next leg of my trip, and find a new way back to Christchurch.

Even now looking back it surprises me how chill I was about all of this, given I tend to like things going according to a plan and I was now having to throw out the plan.

There wasn’t just a new route to find, there was accommodation to find along a new route, and cancelling tours and accommodation which had been both booked and paid for, and attempting to get these refunded.

 

Car trouble in Glenorchy

A few people had mentioned Wanaka as being worth the visit. It was along an inland route and only a little over an hour from Queenstown, so it also afforded me the opportunity to drive around Lake Wakatipu out to Glenorchy, a really stunning drive which I would not have had the time to do if I had been driving to Franz Josef as planned. By now the weather had largely cleared and it was a fabulous day for the picturesque route.

Clouds reflecting on the surface of Lake Wakatipu on the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy

And the view from Glenorchy is just as stunning!

Snow-capped mountains bordering Lake Wakatipu on the road from Queenstown to Glenorchy

Someone who had been driving behind me for a while approached me in town to tell me that there was a piece of my car hanging down. Now I’ve had a few rentals in my time and this was a first for me! Thinking that was all I needed I rang the rental company (and I have no hesitation recommending Apex rentals by the way) and they asked me to send them photos so that they could assess. So here I was lying on my stomach in a carpark in Glenorchy photographing the undercarriage of my car! After seeing the photos the company called me back and said the mechanic had reviewed my photos and it was nothing to worry about, it was just a protective cover that had come loose and I was good to proceed. I became acutely aware of a scraping noise from under the car after that, realising that I’d actually been hearing it for a while.

Part of an engine cover hanging down from my rental car and scraping on the road

 

By the way, its a long drive between fuel stations so best top up before leaving Queenstown if you’re running low!

 

A flooded Wanaka

Wanaka is famous for its lake and a particular willow tree which grows out of it that has become quite the instagram sensation.

Unfortunately for me, it was a little more underwater than normal. While the waters had receded the streets and shore alongside the lake were still flooded and closed.

Flooding still present in the streets at Wanaka

I couldn’t get anywhere near the tree from town so I drove out of town to try and walk down from the other side.

As you can see, no lovely snow-capped Southern Alps instagram shot for me!

The Wanaka tree far more submerged in water than normal

But I got them with some bins instead!

Garbage bins standing out in the water at Lake Wanaka, with the snow capped Southern Alps behind

And the usually lakeside tourist centre, was now a mid-lake tourist centre.

The usually lakefront tourist centre in Wanaka waterlogged and out in the Lake

Despite this, I did have a really fun day in Wanaka before heading to my next stop, and I had fortunately been able to get a credit for my Franz Josef accommodation which I could use for accommodation in Wanaka.

 

Twilight in Twizel

Understandably, I was bitterly disappointed about missing what would have been my first helicopter flight with a landing on the Franz Josef Glacier. My best friends husband suggested I try for Mount Cook instead and I was able to secure a flight for my second last morning. It would leave no room for a reschedule if it was cancelled.

Now accommodation in Mount Cook is pretty pricey unless you’re camping, which I didn’t have the equipment to do, so I booked in Twizel for the night which was less than an hours drive from Mount Cook.

Twizel is one of the world’s best locations for stargazing and is part of the Aoraki International Dark-Sky reserve. Of course, one of the best things about travelling New Zealand in the summer is the length of the daylight hours, and its still not super dark at 10pm. So be prepared for a late one if you head here for the stars in December. I did have a look, but since I had an early start the next morning I didn’t wait up for the show.

 

A Glacier Landing

I spent the night in backpacker style accommodation so had to trot off down the hall to use the shared showers. Upon returning to my room afterwards the lock to my room was jammed and given reception didn’t open for at least another hour I was mildly paniced that I was going to be missing my flight. Thank goodness I’d taken clothes down to the bathroom so I wasn’t standing in the hall frantically trying to get into my room wrapped only in a towel!

I was just starting to plan how I could break into the room through the window I had left ajar due to the lack of air-conditioning, a potentially painful feat given its elevation from the ground, when like that pivotal moment in a horror film it swung open in front of me and I once again had access to my things. I was careful not to latch the door while I finished my packing and when I checked out and told them of the lock difficulty he told me it happened all the time.

The drive from Twizel to Mount Cook is yet another example of the spectacular journeys available in New Zealand. Leave some time to stop by Lake Pukaki as you go. This pristine lake is fed by glacial waters and is truly a sight to behold!

Reflections of sky, clouds and mountains reflected on the surface of Lake Pukaki in New Zealand

 

It was a perfect day for flying when I reached the Aerodrome, and for once lady luck was on my side. Since I had been the only booking for their shorter flight, I had been upgraded to a longer flight for no extra charge. Since it was my first time on a helicopter the other passengers were kind enough to give me the window seat so I had pole position as we flew through the clouds past the top of New Zealand’s highest mountain, and landed on the Tasman Glacier, the largest on the South Island. I got to see the Franz Josef Glacier from a distance in the air.

You can check out footage of the flight below;

This was honestly one of the best experiences of my life and definitely a highlight of my trip to the South Island, despite everything that went wrong along the way! I would not hesitate to recommend a trip with Inflite Helicopters to anyone visiting the South Island!

Me standing in front of the helicopter which has just flown me to the top of the Tasman Glacier

 

Back in Christchurch

After all the mishaps along the way, I decided I was best off spending my final night on the South Island in the same city as the airport to minimise the chances that anything else could go wrong!

When I returned my car at the airport they told me people had been stranded in Franz Josef with no electricity for days, and were abandoning their cars there to hire helicopter flights out. So while I was disappointed to miss part of my trip, I was probably the lucky one for not making it there! And it’s just another excuse to go back!

But probably not in December…

 

Tips for dealing with last minute changes

  1. It can be to your advantage to have tours booked through one provider so it’s just one company to deal with. I had booked almost everything through Get Your Guide as an agent and they were amazing at processing all my cancellations and getting refunds issued to me super quickly, which was great considering I had to be paying for alternative arrangements. They have tours all over the world.
  2. Check the cancellation policies on your accommodation. I got caught out here because I was too close to the date of the stay to be able to cancel, however booking through an accommodation agent can help here too. I appealed to them to waive the cancellation policy due to the unavoidable natural disaster. They liaised with the hotel for me, the hotel agreed to the cancellation and while they wouldn’t return the funds, they did put a credit on my account and I was able to apply this to the new accommodation I had to book.
  3. Double-check your bookings! In the flurry of activity of re-planning the last days of my trip at short notice it completely slipped my mind to cancel my accommodation in Greymouth until hours before I was due to arrive. This ended up being the only thing I was out of pocket on, and since it had been my own fault anyway I was happy to wear that one.
  4. Google is your friend. Having easy access to an internet enabled device will just make your life easier all round. Pick up a local SIM if your plan doesn’t cover the region.
  5. Disrupted plans can be stressful, but try to embrace the opportunity for adventures you wouldn’t have otherwise had. Missing out on something is an excuse to go back!

 

I had a lot of fun writing this and reminiscing about the mishaps on the way and I hope you enjoyed it too! If you did please share!

Tales of Adventure and Misadventure on New Zealands South Island, or why you really shouldn't travel to New Zealand in December!

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4 thoughts on “Why December is not the best month to visit New Zealand”

  1. Great post, thanks for sharing all your experiences! I’m sorry to read that some things didn’t go to plan, but your photos are still beautiful! I was in New Zealand in October 2019 and it was really cold and rainy, but the scenery was still beautiful.

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