This is the third post in the Travel Highlights series sharing some of the most enduring highlights of all our travels.

We tried to remember all the road trips we’ve done together. In Italy we drove from Pisa to an agriturismo near San Gimignano and did day-trips to explore Tuscany. We rented cars in Sweden several times while visiting family. We did a three-day trip from Barcelona to Nerja on the Costa del Sol and back again. And there have been several trips in Australia over the years – Western Australia, the Blue Mountains, the Great Ocean Road, Mullumbimby. We spent six days exploring Cyprus, and nearly three weeks in Turkey from Izmir to the Mediterranean to Pamukkale and back to Izmir.

But for road-tripping fabulousness the two absolute standouts are New Zealand and Australia’s Top End. There were several things that helped us relax, mostly a language that we’re fluent in, road signs and rules that are familiar, gas petrol stations that are also familiar, excellent infrastructure, and good roads. All this made driving so much more fun, even if we didn’t know where we were going. We had double GPS in Turkey; with the car and again on the phone. Neither was infallible. We had GPS in New Zealand and it worked perfectly. In Australia’s Top End there are so few roads GPS is not needed. You barely need a map.

New Zealand has to be one of the most ravishing countries in the world. Day after day we drove or hiked through beauty, from mountainscapes to lush beaches to surreal thermal fields to some of the strangest rock formations ever. We also saw some pretty unique birds, and jaw-dropping creativity from the people. New Zealand has it all. Trip planning was easy, hostels clean and welcoming, travelling a pleasure. The GPS gave us a sense of freedom. We’d drive where our senses pulled us, and then, when we were ready we’d let the disembodied voice lead us home.

Australia’s Northern Territory is a largely empty desert. There are two seasons: the wet and the dry. We arrived at the end of the wet season and the country was lush with the recent rains. Perhaps because I’m Australian I felt a connection to the land even though I was raised in a southern city and had never been to this part of the country. Like New Zealand it is stunningly beautiful and there is an endless exaltation of unique birdlife. Add to that the wildlife: rock wallabies, kangaroos, crocodiles, pythons, fruit bats. And an ancient empty landscape that goes on forever: red earth, blue sky, shrieking green grasses. The power of this place knocks you senseless.

New Zealand 20 Feb-27 Mar 2015
We begin in Christchurch.

Christchurch moves me to tears. It had been four years since a major earthquake had shattered the city. There is a massive amount of construction going on. New ideas spring like flowers from the wreckage. The most striking project is Re-START, a downtown pedestrian mall built from shipping containers.

A day trip from Christchurch to Banks Peninsula and the garden of the Giant’s House.

It’s a garden inhabited by an unfailingly optimistic array of huge figures, charming and playful. It is also a most serious outpouring from a gifted artist; a masterwork of Josie Martin that just happens to be a large group of tiled figures spread throughout a hillside garden, breathtaking in its scope.

After Christchurch, determined to get to notoriously rainy Milford Sound on a sunny day, we high-tail it to Queenstown. A day-trip to the Sound rewards us with impeccable weather, spectacular scenery,

and a glimpse of this beautiful Kea.

Next a cruise on nearby Lake Te Anau and a visit to some glowworm caves:

We climb into the boat; and then all the lights go out; impenetrable darkness. Slowly the boat moves and we see them. We are in a wonderland where, in the blackness, we see stars, so close I feel I can almost touch them. There are hundreds of them. The boat glides back and forth. I sit in dazed silence. Darkness. Silence. Magic fairy lights.

Then from Queenstown to Dunedin to do a lot of forward planning and take a day-trip to the extraordinary Moeraki Boulders on Koekohe Beach.

Lumps of sediment bound together by mineral cement that took four million years to grow in a pile of mud about sixty million years ago. Eventually they were exposed by erosion and rolled down to the sea. And there they sit, ancient motionless marbles, the plaything of tourists.

Another day-trip, this one to Otago Peninsula to see albatross

and unusual anti-social yellow-eyed penguins.

From Dunedin we drive to Wanaka where we instantly feel as if we’re back in Canada in the Okanagan Valley so alike are the two places.

A day-trip from Wanaka has us hiking the Rocky Mountain Summit Track in Mt Aspiring National Park.

It is raining. After two weeks this is the first day of real rain. This is also the day we drive from Wanaka to Franz Josef across the Haast Pass with its renowned spectacular scenery, and it’s raining. Not just raining. Bucketing down. I am grumpy and disappointed. After a little venting I get over it, which leaves me free to enjoy the day as it is. Suddenly the journey seems more exciting. The road is narrow and winding, frequently with high rock walls on one side and a sheer drop on the other. There are single-lane bridges to be negotiated. We see the remains of some serious rockslides. We see torrential waterfalls. We are right inside the clouds, and the rain comes so hard the windshield wipers are of little use. We are reminded of the fragility of life. We travel slowly. We have no reason to stop.

A couple of day-trips in Franz Josef take us up to the glacier of the same name, and out to Callery Gorge where a young wild chamois buck comes out of the forest, stands for a moment in the middle of the path staring at us, then disappears again into the forest. It feels like magic.

We drive north to Greymouth, getting a glimpse of Mt Cook along the way.

Next day we visit the truly unique Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki.

Just as interesting is a group of Wekas, a native New Zealand flightless wood hen, apparently rarely seen in broad daylight. At Punakaiki we are greeted by several of them.

We continue north to Abel Tasman National Park for more hiking, then head to Picton for the ferry to Wellington on the North Island, arriving in time for the night market.

From Wellington we drive to Ohakune where we climb Mt Ruapehu.

It is rough unforgiving volcanic terrain. Mount Ngauruhoe, the closest volcano to be seen from the top, is the famed Mount Doom of The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, a perfect location for the dreaded evil centre of the story. Even seeing it from a distance I feel the power of the landscape: so barren and merciless.

Of course we then have to go to Hobbiton to see the heart of the story, which we do from Taupo, our next stop.

Another day-trip from Taupo, set on the shores of a huge lake of the same name,

takes us to New Zealand’s breathtaking thermal fields near Rotorua.

Tripadvisor describes it as one of the twenty surreal places you need to see to believe. We are immediately aware of the restlessness of the earth beneath us. It is a wonderland at once dazzling and mysterious. Everywhere we walk we can hear the constant sound of boiling liquid, as if there is a huge soup bubbling away on the stove, but eerily it is the Earth beneath us that is boiling.

We are standing by the barrier waiting and waiting. After a slow start it suddenly goes. With a giant whoosh it explodes higher and higher into the sky, as high as thirty metres. It goes on and on, a giant natural fountain of boiling water and steam.

From Taupo we do a very fast trip to Auckland for one night to catch the World of Wearable Art exhibition, one of the most extraordinary exhibitions I’ve seen anywhere.

By this time we realize we’re running out of time. Oh New Zealand, it’s only two small islands we think. Five weeks should be plenty. Wrong. We have to choose between Coromandel Peninsula and the Bay of Islands. Coromandel wins. We base in Whitianga and do day-trips hiking to Cathedral Cove,

New Chums Beach, and Hot Water Beach. We also take the slow route across the peninsula – 22 kilometres of narrow winding gravel road – to the town of Coromandel and the Driving Creek Railway.

Barry Brickell’s love of trains led him to decide he “must build the most beautiful mountain narrow gauge railway in the world.” Over three decades it slowly expanded. The track has horseshoe spirals and switchbacks, it changes direction five times as it zigzags up the hill, and there are ten bridges, three tunnels, and a double-deck viaduct. What a vision!

From Whitianga it’s a quick dash back to Auckland and the end of our road trip around Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud. The whole adventure felt kind of epic, and like a huge gift; easy and joyous and full of beauty. New Zealand has a big heart.

Australia’s Top End 13-29 April 2015
We begin in Darwin and drive to the village of Jabiru in Kakadu National Park where we stay for six days. Our day trips include: hiking to Gubarra Pools alone and wondering about crocs as we wade through water on the track; hiking to Motor Car Falls and plunge pool with our new friends Mathilde and Viviane;

Photo by Mathilde Giry

climbing the escarpment for sunset;

taking the Yellow Water sunrise cruise

where we were are treated to an abundance of birdlife;

taking an Australian Aboriginal tour on the East Alligator River;

and doing a self-guided tour to three of the thousands of ancient Aboriginal art sites in the area.

On the seventh day we drive to Katherine with a stop at Pine Creek.

Driving south from Kakadu National Park we have reached the small town of Pine Creek and it’s time for a break. Getting out of the car we immediately hear it: a continuous kind of screeching squealing noise. What is that? A fleeting thought that it’s birds is quickly dismissed. Following the noise across the road we look up into one of the trees and our jaws drop. The tree is jam-packed with bats! And the tree next to it, and the one next to that. Hundreds of squealing fruit bats.

We continue on to the town of Katharine. From Katherine we do a day trip to the glorious warm springs at Mataranka and Bitter Springs.

We are greeted with a natural fairyland: a river of sparkling emerald thermal water surrounded by a pretty forest of gums and palms, sunlight flickering through the leaves, dragonflies dancing on water lilies.

Next day a cruise through Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park.

Returning from our cruise we stop for coffee where the honeyeaters have long ago figured out that this is a great place to cadge a meal. There are at least half a dozen of them flying around, on the alert for a safe moment to grab an abandoned crumb or get their greedy beaks into my coffee cream.

From Katherine we drive to Rum Jungle near the town of Batchelor in Litchfield National Park.

The Litchfield we discover is all monsoon rainforests, flowing water, plunge pools, waterfalls, hiking and swimming. Greenant Creek to Tjaetaba Falls; a climb up over the top of Wangi Falls; a hike alongside Florence Creek to Florence Falls; Buley Rock Pools, a seemingly endless cascade of river and deep pools stepped down one after the other. It’s a liquid kaleidoscope of red rocks, green forest, blue sky and rippling waters.

At Florence Falls, just as interesting to me as the plunge pool and falls, is this monitor lizard fishing for dinner.

Finally we return to Darwin. From Darwin we go to the bird-lovers paradise of Fogg Dam,

and take a cruise on the Adelaide River to see jumping crocodiles!

This part of Australia is full of wonder, hot, harsh, empty. The land is rugged and imposing; it bears down on you with an ancient force, but it feels as if you’re somehow also granted freedom in this vast unsettled place. Only the Aboriginal people truly know it. The rest of us are lucky if we get to visit, and get even a hint of the understanding and love they have for it. I feel changed by it, as if some ancient respect that had been dormant crept into my bones. It was one of the best road trips ever.

Next post: Canberra’s street art festival

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.