It’s practically an existential crisis when a writer runs out of adjectives, and I just about did that on the month-long camping trip Eric and I took around the North and South Islands of New Zealand in February. “Oh, this is beautiful/gorgeous/spectacular/breathtaking!” I exclaimed, as one staggering vista after another appeared around each bend in the road. Eric wasn’t exactly silent; he just didn’t bother with adjectives at all. “Wow,” he kept saying. “Look at that! Wow!”

Our general route—feel free to pause and get out your map—took us south to Auckland, Tongariro National Park and Wellington, where we caught the car ferry to the South Island. Here we followed the east coast to Kaikoura, Christchurch, Oamaru, Dunedin and Invercargill, the southernmost point of our trip. Then up the west coast to Milford Sound, Queenstown, Greymouth and Abel Tasman National Park. Back across to Wellington on the ferry, we visited Napier, Lake Taupo and Hamilton before heading home to Corroboree on the hard in Whangarei. And all the while, I searched for adjectives to convey not just what we saw but how we felt as the landscapes unfolded before us. Then I found it, the one perfect word to describe our reaction to what we were seeing, hearing, sensing and absorbing. Here it is:

GOBSMACKED: overwhelmed with wonder, surprise or shock. A mainly British slang term that combines the northern English and Scottish slang term gob, mouth, with the verb smack. It suggests the speaker is utterly astonished or astounded.

And so we were. We snapped so many photographs that selecting the fraction to include here has been almost as hard as finding that perfect adjective. Having done my best, now I’ll let the pictures, with brief intros, speak for themselves.

Tongariro National Park, located in the heart of the North Island, is one of thirteen national parks in New Zealand and a designated World Heritage area. It covers 307 square miles, has three active volcanos, and year-round snowcaps on some of the mountains. If the cone-shaped peak behind Eric looks familiar, that’s because it stood in for Mt. Doom in The Lord of the Rings. We took a short hike to one of the waterfalls and got a bit silly.

The Marlborough district at the northeastern tip of the South Island has the perfect climate for vineyards and hop farms. The vineyards in particular stretch for miles. The hops are grown on tepee-shaped trellises with a center pole and horizontal lines to support the vines. The pole can be raised or lowered to accommodate growth and ease of harvesting.

Vineyard with wind generators

When it comes to seacoasts, it’s a good thing the New Zealand coastal roads have so many scenic turnouts or we might have driven over a cliff while taking photographs and gawking. Though the weather on the South Island was often overcast, the scenery was magnificent nonetheless.

South Island, west coast, near Te Anau
Overlooking Queenstown after a cable car ride to the mountaintop
South Island, west coast, near Greymouth
South Island, northwest coast

To get up close and personal with albatrosses and petrels we took a boat tour off Kaikoura. To see little blue penguins come ashore to their burrows on the Otago Peninsula  meant standing in lashing wind on a cold, rainy night. Both locations are on the east coast of the South Island

Geothermal activity comes close to the surface in many places. At Craters of the Moon, near Lake Taupo in the central North Island, we walked among the sulphurous steam vents and bubbling craters. Further north near Rotorua and hidden away in a forest, Kerosene Creek doesn’t smell nearly as bad as it sounds, and the 90°F water temperature is utterly soothing. 

Craters of the Moon
Craters of the Moon
Kerosene Creek

A must-see on any visit to New Zealand is Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. One of the wettest places on earth, Milford Sound gets some 252” of rain a year. The more rain, the more waterfalls pouring down the cliffs. A boat tour is the only way to experience the fiord.

Departure point for Milford Sound tours

On the hike to Fox Glacier, midway up the west coast of the South Island, signs at intervals show how far the glacier has both advanced and receded over the years. As you can imagine, it has receded significantly overall. We were unable to do the hike at neighboring Franz Josef Glacier the following day due to heavy rainfall, and the day after that the road was closed due to a landslide. At this writing, heavy rains have washed out the state highway bridge between the two glaciers.

That’s me in the purple jacket on the trail to the glacier
The dirty white patch behind us is Fox Glacier. This is the closest you are allowed to approach.

Of course, we did much more on our camping trip than revel in the landscape. We also had a heap of fun, living in our van, meeting people on the road, and happening upon excellent museums, peaceful public gardens, picturesque architecture, quirky attractions and intriguing historical sites—more on all that in the next post.

But what I think makes New Zealand truly special is that although it is a relatively small country in terms of landmass—103,500 square miles, the size of Colorado—this place has it all: volcanos, glaciers, hot springs, mountains, meadows, vineyards, palm trees, forests, hiking, skiing, sailing, surfing, beaches, wetlands, cliffs, lakes and waterfalls.

Come to New Zealand yourself and be gobsmacked.

An apt sign for two crazy old people