New Zealand

TOP 5 THINGS TO DO IN THE MACKENZIE DISTRICT

New Zealand is probably the most beautiful country in the world (I’m only a little biased). If you’ve been, you know, and if you haven’t, you’ve undoubtedly seen the wonders New Zealand has to offer in some of your favourite movies. Lord of the Rings? Yeah, that was filmed here (minus the castles – New Zealand is a little low on the ground on those). Mission Impossible? Tom Cruise flies his helicopter in the South Island, did ya know?

NEW ZEALAND’S MACKENZIE DISTRICT

Speaking of films, I was fortunate (ish) to spend a month working on a Disney film in the Mackenzie District last year. Though I was working 80-hour weeks and only had four days off, I managed to do a lot of exploring. From soaking in hot tubs under star-strewn skies and hiking in Aoraki National Park, to taking to the sky in a glider plane, the Mackenzie District has lot to offer the intrepid traveller. Dive straight into this guide to discover the top things to do in the Mackenzie District and start planning your New Zealand adventure today!

Girl sits by Lake Pukaki, Mackenzie District
Adventures at Lake Pukaki, Mackenzie District

1. DO A GLIDER FLIGHT

Glide Omarama is a family-run gliding school and one of the top attractions in the Mackenzie District. Students come from all over the world to glide amidst the remarkable scenery of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. If you’re not keen on flying the plane yourself you can opt to do a glider trial flight ranging in length from 30 minutes to 5 hours.

I did a 60-minute flight, and honestly, it was a lot less adrenaline-fuelled than I would have thought. After being dragged along a bumpy paddock by an actual plane (with an engine), our little glider took to the skies in search of thermal waves and wind pockets. 15 minutes later we reached a point where the glider wouldn’t plummet out of the sky, and the actual plane (with an engine) let us go. We were off, soaring across the sky and holding tight for dear life (just me; the pilot knew what she was doing).

Glider flight in Omarama, Mackenzie District
Wing of a glider plane above mountains
Flying a glider above the mountains in Omarama

Once I started to realise we weren’t going to die the glider flight was… relaxing? Floating over turquoise lakes, the peculiar Clay Cliffs and the mountain ranges below, with no engine sound, and actually, no noise at all, I felt an unexpected sense of peace.

The glider flights are expensive, ranging from $368 NZD for a 30-minute flight to $1655 NZD for a 5-hour flight (though you can check Bookme for cheaper deals). Still, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and if you do it anywhere, do it in the Mackenzie District.

2. VISIT LAKE TEKAPO

In the South Island a lot of visitors will go to Queenstown, Wanaka and maybe Milford Sound, but if they do make it to the Mackenzie District they’ll head to Tekapo. The pretty township faces north across the spectacular turquoise lake to the peaks of the Southern Alps. Wondering how Lake Tekapo gets its intense colour? It comes from fine rock-flour (ground by glaciers) suspended in the water.

One of the most iconic images of Tekapo and a popular photo spot, the Church of the Good Shepherd is located on the shores of the lake with a picture-perfect view of the Alps behind it. It was first established in 1935 for the pioneer families of the Mackenzie District and today the tiny church is still used for church services and weddings. For the best photos (without the crowds) visit early in the morning or at night for a long exposure shot of the church against the night sky.

Church of the Good Shepherd, Mackenzie District
Church of the Good Shepherd, Tekapo

Lupin Flowers of Tekapo

Each November and December visitors (and Instagrammers) are delighted by the huge fields of lupins emerging along the shores of Lake Tekapo. The lupin flowers range from cool whites and lavenders to rich purples and pinks, and set against the turquoise hues of the lake and dramatic scenery they really are a photographer’s dream.

Church of the Good Shepherd with lupin flowers
Photo by Peter Hammer on Unsplash
Lupin flowers, Tekapo
Photo by Delphine Ducaruge on Unsplash

3. SOAK IN A HUT TUB

Omarama is a tiny town world-famous for one thing; it’s glider flights. If engine-less planes aren’t your thing check out Hot Tubs Omarama for a slightly more relaxing activity. Hot Tubs Omarama offer a range of private tubs, each filled with clean, chemical-free mountain water and stoked by a wood fire. You can rent a tub for 1.5 hours, and honestly, soaking in the tub while surrounded by the Omarama landscape was just what I needed after working an 80-hour week (though it could sooth those road trip aches, too). Go at sunset to watch the sky slowly darken and the spectacular Mackenzie stars come out.

Prices vary depending on how many people you have but an 8 person tub costs between $37-$56 NZD per person.

Another great hot pool option in the Mackenzie District is Tekapo Springs. While not quite as luxe as Hot Tubs Omarama, Tekapo Springs still makes for a relaxing day out. Each of the pools at Tekapo Springs is shaped in honour of the Mackenzie District’s lakes; Ohau, Pukaki, and Tekapo, and the surrounding views of Lake Tekapo, the mountain ranges and the pine forest are incredibly dreamy. Adult entrance to Tekapo Springs is $27 NZD.

4. WALK THE HOOKER VALLEY TRACK, AORAKI NATIONAL PARK

Ok, this isn’t strictly in the Mackenzie District, but you can’t visit the South Island and not take the opportunity to visit Aoraki National Park. Home to New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Aoraki National Park is fantastically scenic and filled with many great day hikes. Even the drive out to the park is one of the prettiest drives in the country.

One of the most popular day hikes in Aoraki National Park is the Hooker Valley Track. It’s a 10km walk over fairly flat terrain making it suitable for people with low fitness levels. The walk takes you through open tussock and wide valleys, across three swing bridges and along the Hooker River, before ending with an amazing view of the iceberg-strewn Hooker Lake and the Southern Alps. You probably should go for a hike while in the South Island and the Hooker Valley Track is a great option.

I went in October and the weather was still cool and very windy, so make sure to wear layers and bring a warm hat. You should also take sunscreen, wear appropriate footwear and make sure to carry enough water with you.

Road to Mt Cook, New Zealand
Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

5. GO STARGAZING

Did you know one of the world’s best stargazing opportunities is in New Zealand’s Mackenzie District? In 2012 the 4300sq km area was declared the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. It’s the only dark sky reserve in the Southern Hemisphere (there are just 8 in the world), and with light pollution strictly controlled stargazing experiences here are unmissable.

There are numerous companies offering stargazing experiences in the Mackenzie District. Big Sky Stargazing offer hour-long experiences viewing the night sky with the naked eye, binoculars and astronomy telescopes in Mount Cook Village. In Tekapo Dark Sky Project provide astro-tourism experiences at the Mount John Observatory. In Twizel, Lakeland Explorer offers a 2-hour night sky tour that caters for small groups.

Or, you can do like I did and simply take a blanket outside to watch the stars. Either way you’re sure to see the constellations like you’ve never seen them before.

Dark Sky Reserve, Mackenzie District
Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

Step off the tourist trail into the Mackenzie District

If you’re planning a trip to New Zealand then you’ve likely already got the South Island on your bucket list, am I right? And you should; New Zealand’s South Island is stunning and any trip here is guaranteed to be an adventure.

But friend, step a little off the tourist trail to the Mackenzie District and you’ll be rewarded with unique experiences and incredible scenery. From the spectacular stars of the night sky reserve to the dramatic peaks of the Southern Alps, New Zealand is probably the most beautiful country in the world (I’m only a little biased). Whether you choose to soak in the landscapes while soaking in a hot tub, floating through the sky in a glider or hiking through Aoraki National Park, I’m pretty sure you’re going to fall in love with this little corner of the world.

Photo by Tobias Keller on Unsplash

Eat: New Zealand does well when it comes to food, and though small, the towns of the Mackenzie District manage to serve up some pretty decent fare. In Twizel head to HYDRO Café for a cute café with a great menu and delicious-looking cabinet food (if it’s sunny you can sit outside). Also in Twizel the Razza Bar offers surprisingly tasty burgers at an affordable price. In Omarama you should stop off at Boots and Jandals for some good kiwi tucker and an extensive selection of beers and ciders.

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