In February 2018, I got to experience the wheelchair accessible adventure of a lifetime — a 9-day road trip across New Zealand, from Auckland to Christchurch! For this trip, I enlisted the help of Roger and Annette at Accessible New Zealand. They put together the perfect itinerary for me based on my interests and budget, and what follows is one of the most amazing travel experiences of my life.
My Kiwi adventure began in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city located in the northwest of the country’s North Island. My flight from Los Angeles arrived in the late morning, so Roger and I got into sightseeing right away. Auckland is based around two large harbors, and has several scenic (and volcanic) islands nearby. In the city center, the iconic Sky Tower has views of Viaduct Harbour, which is full of superyachts and lined with bars and cafes. Auckland Domain, the city’s oldest park, is based around an extinct volcano and home to the formal Wintergardens. Near Downtown, Mission Bay Beach has a lovely seaside promenade.
There are several awesome wheelchair accessible things to do in Auckland, but first we started with a beautiful drive along the scenic coast to admire the cliffs and tree-dotted parks. Next, we went to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The Museum tells the story of New Zealand, its place in the Pacific and its people. The Museum is a war memorial for the province of Auckland and holds one of New Zealand’s top three heritage libraries. It has pre-eminent Māori and Pacific collections, significant natural history resources and major social and military history collections, as well as decorative arts and pictorial collections. I also got to see my first Haka performance!
Next was dinner at Sky Tower, an observatory that reminded me of the CN Tower in Toronto. The views from the Orbit 360º revolving restaurant were spectacular, and so was the food!
The next morning, we started with an Auckland Harbor Cruise, which made several stops on its clockwise path around the Harbor. The view of the skyline was gorgeous, and we even saw people bungee jumping from underneath the Harbor Bridge!
After the cruise, we stopped at the Sea Life Aquarium. It’s home to New Zealand’s only sub-Antarctic penguins (YAY!) and offers a myriad of opportunities to get up close and personal with incredible marine life from the Pacific and Southern oceans.
Auckland to Rotarua
On Day 3, we hit the road towards Rotorua. First, we drove through the beautiful Waitakere Ranges Park to reach what surely must be the most beautiful place on earth — Piha Beach. It’s not wheelchair accessible, but the beach is very wide with hard-packed sand; it’s possible a manual chair might manage. My drone served as my mobile eyes, and brought me some of the most stunning imagery I think I’ve ever captured.
From Piha Beach, we drove about four hours through scenic rolling hills and low mountains to the city of Rotorua. On the way, we stopped at the Kaimai Cheese Company, which makes several different kinds of delicious cheeses (I tried at least six) on the premises. I proceeded to have the most amazing camembert and cranberry sandwich on ciabatta bread of my life!
Afterwards, we made a beeline for Rotorua, which you can literally smell from miles away. The area is renowned for its geothermal activity (which makes it smell like rotten eggs) and Maori culture. In Te Puia’s Whakarewarewa Valley, there are bubbling mud pools and the 30 meter-tall Pohutu Geyser, which erupts many times daily. It’s also home to a living Maori village and the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, with traditional wood carving and weaving schools.
We first visited the geothermal park in the Valley, which was almost like a miniature Yellowstone, with all the steam and bubbling mud pools. The park was almost completely paved and wheelchair accessible, with only a few steep or unpaved/rocky spots. I even got to see the elusive kiwi bird in a habitat designed to let you see them in the dark! Right next to the park is the Institute, where I watched carefully selected Maori apprentices carving wood into traditional totems and artworks.
That evening was wet, but didn’t prevent me from thoroughly enjoying a few hours at a traditional Maori village. I learned how they prepare meals with traditional foods, how they carve large canoes, and the meaning of their intricate tattoos. I also got to watch my second ritual Haka performance, which was even better than the first one!
Rotorua to Wellington
Day 4 was a long one, but very scenic. It’s also the day that I began my love affair with blown glass. Just south of Rotorua, Roger took me to the Lava Glass studio and gallery. I got to watch how glassblowers made these delicate and stunning works of art, and while I wasn’t allowed to take photos in the gallery and store, I can tell you it’s some of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to Murano in Venice).
Our next stop was Huka Falls, a very short drive from the studio. The Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest river, moves north from Lake Taupō between banks 100 meters apart. Just before the Huka Falls, it enters a shallow ravine of hard volcanic rock. The effect is nature’s large-scale equivalent of a fire hose feeding into a very fine nozzle. The previously quiet waters roar great speed along the ravine before bursting out over Huka Falls to crash into the turbulent pool 11 meters below. An accessible foot bridge right at the top of the falls puts you in a prime position to get up close and witness the powerful display of water blasting by.
It’s a 5-hour drive from Huka Falls to Wellington, and while we didn’t have time to explore New Zealand’s VERY windy capital, Roger took me on an amazing driving tour along the city’s entire coast. We even drove by the notorious Wellington airport. Descents so bumpy it feels like you’re falling down stairs, landings aborted at the last minute, passengers applauding the pilot after a particularly rocky flight, white knuckles, sweaty palms … it’s all part of flying into one of the world’s windiest airports.
Wellington to Nelson
I woke up on Day 5 with no small amount of trepidation. First, we had to cross the infamous Cook Strait by ferry to get to the South Island. But the potentially rough ride (it ended up being fine) was overshadowed by Cyclone Gita heading straight for us. Whatever was left of it was two days out, so I knew ferry service would be available for us. I was more concerned about the driving over the next two days.
We made the relatively quick crossing pretty smoothly, and I thoroughly enjoyed the jaw-dropping views entering the fjord-like Marlborough Sound to dock in Picton.
We walked/rolled through the charming harbor town for a little while before visiting the beautiful Queens Gardens in Nelson down the coast. Queens Gardens formally opened in 1892 to celebrate the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It was designed around the residual part of the Maitai River called the Eel Pond – a food gathering place for the Maori. The design and flora selection are inspired by an intimate, Victorian garden.
That evening we were originally scheduled to visit a glow worm field, as well as a wheelchair accessible treetop bridge the next morning on Day 6. The weather caused us to scuttle those plans, but I was okay with it in the name of safety.
With many assurances from Roger, we hit the road for Hokitika, an area known for its fine and unique river jade. I wasn’t driving, but I was stressed out anyway from the sideways rain and high winds Gita was throwing at us along the coastal portion of our drive. It was pretty cool to see the waves crashing against the North Island cliffs, and we made it safely to Hokitika without incident.
The weather once we arrived was pretty poor. It was raining, windy, and chilly. I was able to do some shopping and buy some river jade souvenirs, but I was definitely ready to call it a day.
Hokitika to Christchurch
Day 7 predictably started out wet, as Cyclone Gita had split in two while traveling over the South Island’s formidable mountain ranges. We had to divert from our original route through Arthur’s Pass because some roads had been washed out, and we had to be mindful of reports of flooding near Christchurch. The drive took longer than originally anticipated, but I got to see some of New Zealand’s most beautiful scenery yet.
On the way, we passed over the Otira Viaduct, where got up close and personal with Kea parrots. I swear, these are the comedians and entertainers of the bird community. They absolutely love people, and the attention they get from them. Within minutes of parking at the lookout, we had at least five parrots all over Roger’s car. However, we couldn’t stay long because Keas LOVE to pick at rubber seals around car windows and doors, as well as wiper blades. Given the weather that day, we definitely needed those intact!
By the time we pulled into Christchurch, the weather had significantly improved. The central city is filled with cutting-edge architecture alongside some of the oldest buildings in New Zealand. The Avon River intersects the city, bringing a natural landscape to the urban environment. Christchurch is the basecamp for South Island exploration, with the Banks Peninsula within reach, as well as the stunning Southern Alps and famed Canterbury Plains.
We arrived in time for me to make a quick visit to the Canterbury Museum, Where I got to learn about the natural history of Canterbury, the people who made their homes in the area and their connection to Antarctica. The Māori galleries display treasures and tools from the region’s first people. The Christchurch Street and Victorian Museum recreate the nineteenth-century city.
Driving around Christchurch, it was clear that the city was still recovering from the devastating 2011 6.3-magnitude earthquake that killed 185 people and destroyed or damaged over 170,000 buildings. Recovery has been slow due to insurance issues and red tape, as well as ongoing tectonic activity that doesn’t exactly have a pause button. Another major earthquake hit in 2016, and more are sure to follow.
Day 8 was to be my last full day in New Zealand, and I was more than a little excited. I was going to explore the mountains by helicopter! But first, I would get to see my favorite animal on earth at the fully accessible International Antarctic Center. The Centre opened in 1992 with a vision to create a visitor centre showcasing why Christchurch is an important gateway for Antarctic science programs. It’s also the only specialized Antarctic attraction in the world. It provides a fun, interactive and informative way to learn about life on one of the most hostile continents in the world.
Clearly, seeing the penguins was my favorite part. However, I also got to see and pet real expedition sled dogs! The Centre has this “fun” chamber that simulates Antarctic conditions for several minutes (temperature AND wind, and I was totally okay with it not being accessible.
My best experience in New Zealand, however, was my last. With some physical assistance, I was able to go up with Christchurch Helicopters and fly for two hours over some of the most breathtaking scenery you can imagine, including filming locations for Lord of the Rings films.
On the way back to the helipad, we even saw a sheep traffic jam on a rural road in the Canterbury Plains! That flight was the best send-off New Zealand could give me before my flight to Singapore the next day.
Know Before You Go
Accessible New Zealand selected all of my hotel rooms for me, all of which they had personally inspected. Each of my rooms had a roll-in shower, and while the degree of true accessibility varied, I was able to sleep and bathe in each comfortably. Not every hotel had air conditioning, so if this is a priority, make sure you mention it during the planning process.
Since I was traveling alone and can transfer into a lower vehicle, I did not use one of their wheelchair accessible vans for my tour to save some money (and free up the van for another client who really needed it). Roger got very very good at taking apart my scooter and putting it back together in record time! However, for power wheelchair users who definitely need a van with a lift, they do have one available.
Whether in New Zealand can vary, so regardless of the time of year, make sure you bring plenty of layers. As my experience with Cyclone Gita shows, be ready for the unexpected! This also means that some flexibility in your itinerary might be necessary, especially since you will be driving a considerable distance.
New Zealanders, more commonly known as Kiwis, are some of the kindest, funniest, and friendliest people I’ve ever met. They freely embrace and use the Maori culture and language regardless of their background, and it’s fun to learn it as well. The pronunciation can be challenging, but by the time you leave, you will be saying Kia Ora (“hello” or “cheers”) to everyone!
Roger was the best tour guide I could ask for. Some of our driving stretches were long, and while physically I can handle that, not everyone can. Make sure you let him or Annette know if you are uncomfortable or what your needs are for bathroom breaks or rest or snacks along the way so they can work that into your itinerary.