Tuesday 15 October 2019

'Travelling solo has never scared me' - My self-drive adventure of a lifetime in New Zealand

A solo drive on New Zealand's South Island takes Nadia El Ferdaoussi out of her comfort zone and into the wild...

Self-Drive: Nadia in New Zealand (composite)
Self-Drive: Nadia in New Zealand (composite)
A Banks Peninsula view from the car...
The remote shepherd's lodge...
Doubtful Sound. Photo: Nadia El Ferdaoussi
Morning at Doubtful Sound. Photo: Nadia El Ferdaoussi
The Cinema Suites
The scenic route: Sweeping views of Lake Manapouri
Nadia: pack high-factor sunscreen
Don't forget your hiking boots...

Nadia El Ferdaoussi

I'm halfway down an unpaved road in a vehicle that's more like a car emoji than the recommended four-wheel drive, sweat beads forming on my forehead.

I should've checked my itinerary instead of trusting Google Maps, so I stop mid-descent. The direction I've missed is there, in black and white: 'look out for the Pigeon Bay Road turn'. My clumsy efforts to turn the rental car around are interrupted by a dusty SUV cruising down the dirt road. The driver cranes his head out of the window, judging my pathetic attempt.

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"There's no turning back now," he shouts.

My only option? Crawl on, in second gear, with clammy hands.

A Banks Peninsula view from the car...
A Banks Peninsula view from the car...
The remote shepherd's lodge...

I'm en route to Annandale, a coastal farm escape on the Banks Peninsula near Christchurch. Until now, I thought I was getting the hang of my solo-drive on New Zealand's South Island - wondering why locals spoke so poorly about the roads (they'd clearly never driven over the Conor Pass). Since I picked up the rental, my confidence had made a massive leap. The initial dread of long drives (for a city girl like me) spent totally alone in a country on the opposite side of the planet, had eased. Travelling solo has never scared me and New Zealand is generally known as a safe destination.

And then... this wrong turn.

'Stay where the world can't find you.' That's Annandale's tagline, and it's easy to see why. When I eventually arrive at the gates, loosening my grip of the wheel, I'm transferred to my villa by 4x4. It's another 20 minutes from the lodge to solitary Shepherd's Cottage on the Pigeon Bay coastline, where I'll be sleeping.

Being the passenger for a change, I reach for my phone to snap a few photos of the views to send home... but there's no WiFi signal.

Annandale is a 4,000-acre estate with just four lodges for guests. Dinner is waiting in the fridge, ready to reheat and assemble, so I won't see another person until I'm collected tomorrow. I crack open a bottle of rosé. There's no TV, and the sign in front of me as I sit on the veranda reads, 'Beware of the Bull'. I'm afraid of the dark, but I know the resort is gated and completely safe. Come morning, I pat myself on the back for being so 'brave'. Now that it's done, I'd happily stay another night.

I need to continue my journey, however. There's a lot to do in New Zealand, and the FOMO can get overwhelming. That's one reason I arranged my travel with a tour operator, New Zealand in Depth, who asked what kind of stuff I like (wine, outdoor activities, outlandish accommodation) before curating my itinerary. Next up is a four-hour spin to Kaikoura, where I'll be staying in a treehouse.

How's the driving? All told, my trip takes me 1,000km from Blenheim to Manapouri, and my approach is to ease into it, giving myself extra time to pull over and take photos (New Zealand is impossibly scenic). Being a solo female traveller has its benefits; people have plied me with homemade treats for road trip snacks, I spend as long as I want in massive hotel baths, I can flirt with locals without competition - though admittedly, I could use a wing-woman - and I never have to share my food.

Beforehand, I worried about driving alone for hours on end, but I'm enjoying it now. Warm southern hemisphere air is coming in the window. The smell of salt water and lavender on the breeze is relaxing me.

Morning at Doubtful Sound. Photo: Nadia El Ferdaoussi
Morning at Doubtful Sound. Photo: Nadia El Ferdaoussi

In Kaikoura, I park at the entrance to Hapuku Lodge where my bags are whisked away and I'm ushered into what feels like a rich aunt's country home for coffee. The fire is burning and staff greet me like an old friend. My treehouse overlooks the Kaikoura Mountains to one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other (not to mention a hot tub and deer resting in the shade). For dinner, I sit at the chef's table, where I watch the preparation of lamb backstrap and crispy spinach with pickled green chilli, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, sesame seeds and coriander. I practically lick the plate clean.

Kaikoura is famous for its marine animals, and the next morning, I pull up at Encounter Kaikoura both excited and nervous about the prospect of swimming with dolphins in open water. "Strong swimmers only today," the girl at the desk says. She's asking if I'm sure I'll be able to return to the vessel unaided. I think so, I reply.

On the boat, I get talking to a German girl. She's doing this activity solo, but her travel buddy is waiting on dry land and she can't get over the fact that I'm completely on my own. It doesn't feel like a big deal, but I suppose it's not quite the norm. Yes, it would be nice to travel with a friend, to capture moments on camera together and have someone to share the funny stories with back home. But I'm proud to do this alone, and sometimes you can't wait for other people to fit in with your plans.

Trips like the dolphin encounter are great for making friends though - we're all, literally, in the same boat. The sea is rough, sick buckets are being utilised, but once we're in the water, in wetsuits, snorkelling gear and flippers, over 100 dusky dolphins curiously and playfully swim in circles around us. It's an itch list moment I can't quite believe I'm experiencing.

My trip is full of these moments, from star-gazing at Cabot Lodge in Manapouri, a place that feels like the end of the world just 170km south of Queensland, to spending the night on Southern Secret, one of the only boats allowed overnight in nearby Doubtful Sound. It's one of the most remote parts of Fiordland National Park, and my day is spent pulling up crayfish pots, fishing for blue cod, kayaking in the fjord and cruising past waterfalls. At night, there is total darkness and silence.

In Blenheim, I pass wineries bearing brands I see in my local supermarket back home. Staying in the Cinema Suites in Te Anau, a single suite above a cinema screen that's had its own wine and beer created for them, brings my trip to peak notions. I'm travelling alone, but bouncing between activities and weird and wonderful hotel rooms, I don't have time to get lonely. Any worries about driving have been replaced by satisfying journeys.

Though next time, perhaps I'll upgrade to a Jeep.

Driving Tips

The scenic route: Sweeping views of Lake Manapouri

Thankfully, driving is on the left in New Zealand. Allow extra time for photo stops, and for traffic due to roadworks after recent earthquakes (these can appear quite suddenly). Hide any valuables out of view, to prevent theft from the rental vehicle.

How to do it...

Cinema Suites.jpg
The Cinema Suites

Nadia travelled as a guest of Emirates (emirates.ie) and New Zealand in Depth (newzealand-indepth.co.uk), which creates bespoke itineraries based on budgets and preferences. A similar, 10-day trip including car hire, stays, half-board and several excursions starts from €5,380pp (ex flights).

Emirates flies from Dublin to Auckland via Dubai, from €1,284 in economy class or €4,683 in business (valid on select dates for sale to June 30). For more on New Zealand see newzealand.com.

Take 3: Packing tips

Don't forget your hiking boots...


Even if it doesn't feel hot, you'll burn easily in this part of the world, so be sure to pack a high-factor sunscreen.

Sun is strongest from September to April, between 10am and 4pm.

Rain & repellent

Similar to Ireland, you can expect multiple seasons of weather in any given day, so pack a raincoat. Insect repellent is also essential, especially for those pesky sand flies.

Shoes & shades

Bring good walking shoes or boots, even if driving - some of the best views are just a short hike away. Polarised sunglasses are essential to prevent glare while driving, too.

Read more:

Why every woman should travel solo at least once in their lives

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