trip report: Australia & New Zealand final impressions, New Zealand top 5, & budget, January 2020

“Do I go somewhere new or do I go somewhere I love?” is a common question among travellers. I have friends that have hike the same 200 mile trail (the John Muir Trail) more than ten times and I also have friends looking to rack up the country count. I was able to do a little bit of both over the course of 3 weeks. Explore down under, down under and return to the mountains of New Zealand. 


This is the final entry of our Australia and New Zealand trip series. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below.


click to expand
1 planning & research
2 trip report: getting in to Cairns, Australia
3 trip report: diving the Great Barrier Reef
4 trip report: Sydney & travel to New Zealand
5 trip report: diving Milford Sound & Queenstown
6 trip report: Rees-Dart Track in Mt. Aspiring National Park
7 trip report: Mueller Hut in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
8 trip report: Tasman Glacier viewpoint, Christchurch, & getting out
9 final impressions, top 5, & budget
      9.1 final impressions
            9.1.1 Australia & the Great Barrier Reefs
            9.1.2 New Zealand
            9.1.3 New Zealand top 5 hike
         Rees-Dart Track
         Tongariro Crossing with Mount Ngauruhoe Summit
         Mueller Hut Route
         West Matukituki Valley
         Routeburn Track
         bonus non-hike: Milford Sound
      9.2 budget

final impressions

During my three week trip, we ended up spending roughly a week in Australia and another 2 weeks in New Zealand. We decided on this ratio to give Mark, who was traveling with me for the first 2 weeks, equal time at both locations. 


Also for this trip, our activities were also split. For half of our trip, travel2walk became travel2dive as we visited stayed on a liveaboard to dive the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and then dove Milford Sound in New Zealand for a different perspective than the typical visitor. In all, I dove 17 times in the Great Barrier Reef and another 2 times in Milford Sound, bringing my career dive count to 55.


After that, we resumed our regularly scheduled programming for the rest of our trip by hiking the Rees-Dart Track in Mount Aspiring National Park and then the Mueller Hut Route in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Our counting numbers include 61.5 miles (99.1 km) of trails hiked with estimated 14,656 ft. (4645 m) elevation gain. 


My impressions here for Australia is very limited and very specific to one activity of diving while my impressions of New Zealand is a summation of multiple trips and weeks. In the end, my perspective of both are insufficient to paint you the whole picture of both places. I can tell you that my experience was sufficient enough for me to want to return and experience more. As such my impressions below is also geared toward my future ideas for both.

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Australia & the Great Barrier Reef

While in Australia, most of our travel was on the liveaboard Ocean Quest out of Cairns in the northeast state of Queensland. This was the first time I’ve stayed on a liveaboard and I enjoyed it greatly and something I will look forward to in future diving excursions. 

Our dives were limited, however, to only 2 of the many reefs in the Great Barrier Reef, Norman and Saxon reef.

While I enjoyed these reefs, they weren’t the most interesting diving experiences I’ve had leading me to rate the experience as a 3 (see our detailed impressions). This meant that I wouldn’t chose to return for the sole purpose of diving these two specific reefs and I’d rather explore other areas instead. For instance, we heard great things from a fellow diver about the SS Yongala (wikipedia, Scuba Diver Life) near Townsville further south. 

In regards to future trip ideas, there so many hiking (or bushwalking) opportunities I haven’t even begun to look into, especially the many coastal walks and the mountainous regions in Tasmania (see The Hiking Life list of trip reports, Best Hike’s list, Walkopedia, Great Walks of Australia – Even if we return for future diving adventures near Cairns, I’d hope to venture out to the many mountains that I saw from the air the next time around (near Cairns – Buzzfeed, Great Walks in Queensland –, Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk – Queensland Parks 7 forests). 


New Zealand

This was our second visit to the Island of New Zealand, the first being at the end of 2016. After this second trip, I can assure you that we’ll be back again in the future. My conclusion from my previous visit was that while the aesthetics may fall short in comparison to Patagonia and the Canadian Rockies, the relaxed culture and people really makes up for it. Having seen more of this time around, I am doubting the former statement a bit. Specifically, the vast glacier carved grassy flats in the valleys we saw on the Rees-Dart Track pleasantly surprised me and really emphasized the unique geography here.


Secondly, the alpine routes higher up brought up close to the snow covered peaks and major icefields hidden among them. Chasing big ice is among my favorites on a hike and those are the reason Patagonia and Canadian Rockies are among the top regions for me and it was exciting knowing those do exist also in New Zealand. I’m going to have to look into mountaineering and more advanced tracks next time around.

All I’ve talked about so far doesn’t including the coastal hikes such as the Abel Tasman (DOC) or the many volcanically active mountains of the North Island, such as Tongariro Crossing that we visited previously. These are just a couple of the Great Walks (DOC) here, majority of which I still look forward to doing. The diversity of tramping in New Zealand is indeed so great that my advice to other travelers we met along the way was you can’t see it all in one trip, so just enjoy a few with plans to come back. With some many options (see Hiking Life, Best Hike, New Zealand Mountain Safety Council, Walkopedia, In a Faraway Land), it’s also easy to just pick whatever is available the next time I’m back.


New Zealand top 5 hikes (I’ve done)

With the completion of our second trip, I’ve done enough hikes to make a top 5 list. Of course the caveat is that I’ve still only walked a tiny portion of the trails found of New Zealand. As you’ll see with my personal view/experience rating on these hikes, the difference between my top ranked and my fifth ranked pretty much has the same score. So they are really all interchangeable.

1) Rees-Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park

  • detailed report
  • type: point to point
  • distance: 53.7 miles (86.5 km)
  • elevation change: 10,850 ft (3,307 m) ascent & 11,240 ft (3,426 m) descent
  • time: 5 days (24:59 hours moving)
  • location: Mt. Aspiring National Park, near Glenorchy, South Island, New Zealand
  • view/experience rating: 4

If there was one hike that captures the feel of the South Island terrain of New Zealand, I feel the Rees Dart track captures it. This includes following 2 glacial carved valleys, over mountain passes, and getting up and close with the Dart Glacier spewing down an icefield on our way up to the Cascade Saddle. The truly unique aspect here specific to New Zealand were the open grassy flats tucked in between the sharp mountain ridges.

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2) Tongariro Crossing with Mount Ngauruhoe Summit, Tongariro National Park

view from Mt. Ngauruhoe looking south at Mt. Ruapehu and the Upper and Lower Tama Lakes
  • detailed report
  • type: point to point
  • distance: est. 14.9 miles
  • elevation change: est. 5525 ft ascent and 6739 ft descend
  • time: est. 9 hours
  • location: Tongariro National Park, near Turangi, North Island, New Zealand
  • view/experience rating: 3.5 for just the crossing, 4.5 for Mt. Ngauruhoe summit 

It’s no doubt the views from Tongariro Crossing and Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom in Lord of the Rings) are world class. The colors of red, black, and yellow contrasts so well with the teal, green, and blues of the lakes. For purely aesthetics, this hike takes 1st place. However as part of these worldly hikes, it’s expected that you won’t have the place to yourself. That typically is fine, but the sheer number of visitors, the lack of specific limitations or infrastructure really took away from this hike (the reason for my 0.5 rating deduction). With many many novice hikers going everywhere off trail and trampling over everything, especially between the Red Crater to the Emerald Lakes, what I felt was the a lack of respect for the terrain and the beauty rather than the aesthetic itself. 

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3) Mueller Hut Route, Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

  • detailed report
  • type: in & out
  • distance: 6.35 miles (10.2 km)
  • elevation change: 3,550 ft (1,082 m)
  • time: 2 days (4:42 hours moving)
  • location: Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, near Twizel, South Island, New Zealand
  • view/experience rating: 4 

We felt like we were on top of the world as we were surrounded by the massive Mount Sefton motif and Aoraki / Mount Cook. During the evening a flock of Kea circled us and it was the stars shining bright at night. Not to mention we fell asleep to the cracking and groaning of the many glaciers around us. It was among the most scenic campsites I’ve ever stayed at and for once, I hiked to camp rather than camp to see cool stuff. 

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4) West Matukituki Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park

view along the Cascade Saddle route toward Mt. Aspiring & the West Matukituki Valley
  • detailed report
  • type: basecamp
  • distance: various dependent on hiking options (we hiked 32.4 mi)
  • elevation change: various (9493 ft)
  • time: various (4 days & 3 nights)
  • location: Mt. Aspiring National Park, near Wanaka, South Island, New Zealand
  • view/experience rating: 4 

West Matukituki Valley one of the many glacier carved valleys in Mt. Aspiring National Park named for the peak at the end of the valley. While there, we were based out of Aspiring Hut and did three separate day hikes that provided us with views of glaciers, streams, canyons, and the valley itself. Our day hikes were out to Rob Roy Glacier, Liverpool Hut, and a portion of the Cascade Saddle Route. The latter is the same Cascade Saddle Route we took up from the Rees Dart Track, but from the other side. 

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5) Routeburn Track, Fiordland National Park & Mount Aspiring National Park

16_12_NZ_routeburn-100000view from Conical Hill down the Hollyford Valley out toward Lake McKerrow/Whakatipu Waitai, Martins Bay, and the Tasman Sea

  • detailed report
  • special designation: Great Walk
  • type: point to point
  • distance: 24.4 miles (official distance is 33km)
  • elevation change: 6023 ft ascend and 5793 ft descend
  • time: 2-3 days (14 hours moving)
  • location: Fiordland National Park & Mt. Aspiring National Park, between Glenorchy & Te Anau, South Island, New Zealand
  • view/experience rating: 4 

The views on the Routeburn had a little bit of everything that captures the geological feature of New Zealand but also more accessible since it is a Great Walk, which begin as a great marketing strategy and in my opinion means better maintained and more accessible for novice hikers. However, that distinction also means the cost to stay at the huts and the campgrounds are now more expensive for foreign visitors to help pay for conservation projects (DOC). Across the short hike, it seemed like there were always something to see including the rushing teal Routeburn River, the wide open Routeburn Flats, Conical Hill with its view of the Hollyford valley all the way to the ocean, the trail high above the Hollyford valley, the mirror still Lake MacKenzie in the morning. 

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bonus non-hiking activity – Milford Sound

Above the water, Milford Sound provides from world class aesthetics and the views here may be better during a moody and rainy day than a blue bird one. This was the case during our first visit as the recent rain meant more waterfalls cascading down the sides of the mountain. It is enough to overcome the seemingly tourist trap of the large tour boats. So our new experience with Descend Diving affirmed and added on to that since we were now in a smaller boat with the freedom of cruising to better vantage points at the discretion of our boat captain. It was also fun to chase the dolphin pods. Below the water, the diving experience was unlike any I’ve had during my diving career to this point. The combination of the low light and the eerie Black Coral created an haunting feeling. Even through the low visibility due to the recent rains, we were able to see a couple sharks, lobster (crayfish), and several different species of fish. It was indeed an unique experience.

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The total out of pocket cost for we paid was USD$4,026.22 for 25 days when I was traveling and the 9 days Meg was traveling. During the 15 days when Mark and I were traveling together, we split the costs that we shared. Full itemized costs of the trip is listed below.

The greatest cost of our trip was the activities, specifically our liveaboard and diving on the Great Barrier Reef, Milford Sound diving, and rafting the Shotover near Queenstown. I am pretty happy with paying for all these activities. Our liveaboard included food and housing for several days as well making USD$631.20 base price for the 4 day and 3 night pretty efficient in terms of overall spending. Diving at Milford Sound is the most expensive diving at USD$231.64 for 2 dives, however, it was also the most unique and had the most specialized equipment for cold water. Lastly we paid USD$132.54 for a couple hours of white water rafting of the Shotover River, which is roughly the typical cost of white water rafting. One activity that had minimal cost was hiking (just shuttling transportation fee, hut fees, and food), which is actually the big reason how are able to travel and keep costs low typically. Anyways, the main takeaway is that there were a lot of tour options along our travels in both Australia and New Zealand that can make the cost of the trip expand quickly, however you can mitigate that by just going for a long walk.  

If you are looking for another category that can project to have a lower cost is actually the amount spent on food. We ate very well including frequenting many restaurants. The mains that I did save on food was having hotel status such as Hilton through my AMEX card (my referral link, see Frequent Miler review) that provided us with very nice breakfasts and my Priority Pass (via credit card, see details at Dr of Credit) that provided us we free meals while traveling through airports. 

A benefit of returning to a place is knowing what to expect in terms of logistics. Such information made the decision to just renting a vehicle and drive around the island rather than just relying on public transportation an easy choice. From a cost perspective, it pretty much evens out when traveling with multiple people since the bus and shuttle prices are typically pretty expensive. But the main aspect is the freedom afforded both in terms of getting to the places you want to visit and being able to camp or just sleep in the car along the way for cheap lodging. This is especially true if you are comfortable with the vanlife in a standard SUV, with is cheaper than renting a built out van. 


The cost that surprised me the most of how low our housing cost were for the course of my 25 days. Of course, I was only responsible for a portion of the cost when Mark and I shared a hotel room. Additionally some of the housing cost are actually accounted for in other categories, such as transportation as we purposely rented a SUV and spent multiple nights sleeping in it and the liveaboard that included housing. 

While we saved plenty of money by using the miles and award fare sales to travel to and back from the otherside of the world, our gambit of traveling to Australia, which had more award space, ended equalizing our flight costs overall. Specifically, the flight costs between Australia and New Zealand around the New Years was very costly at USD$474.55 one way per ticket (I was only responsible for 1 ticket as Meg flew directly to New Zealand). However, spending USD$853.22 out of pocket and USD$1559.06 equivalent of points (Alaska Miles at USD$0.013 each, Chase Ultimate Points transferred to United Miles at USD$0.015 each, American Airline Miles at USD$0.013 each, & Southwest Points at USD$0.014 each) for 2 round trip tickets (for Meg & myself) is still pretty good overall when a typical roundtrip to New Zealand run greater than USD$1,500. I’m not even counting my Business Class segment to get there. 

itemized costs:


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8 thoughts on “trip report: Australia & New Zealand final impressions, New Zealand top 5, & budget, January 2020

    1. Thanks! The images are easy to take when the mountain of New Zealand is the subject. Hopefully it will inspire others to get out there, when we can all travel again. Have you been out there before?

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