Extremely honoured for my second travel piece to appear on Singapore’s newspaper, TODAY, in a 3-page spread!

seeing-new-zealand-car TODAY paper seeing-new-zealand-car TODAY paper

AUCKLAND — The raw, untamed forces of nature. Droplets of dew that have frozen overnight, hanging under leaves and glistening in the morning sun. The crack of ice as I step on a frozen puddle. Hiking on a majestic glacier. These are just some of the fondest memories I have from my road trip in New Zealand.

Visiting New Zealand had always been something of a fantasy to me, as it can be a costly endeavour. Flights on a full-service airline from Singapore to New Zealand usually cost over S$1,000. For some, such a price alone may be prohibitive, considering that the airfare is but a single component of one’s holiday expenditure.

But travelling to New Zealand for less is possible, as I found out. Budget flights to Auckland can cost as little as under S$400 (one-way) from Singapore during off-peak periods, while renting a campervan for a road trip can be cheaper than a car. For example, during my trip there in May, the rental cost of a campervan for 10 days was S$500 total, shared with my three travel companions. Renting a campervan also meant substantial savings from accommodation and food, since we were living, cooking and sleeping in the van itself.

As with all road trips, there will be challenges. The distance between rest stops, the weather conditions and time are important factors, especially if you are on a strict schedule. During my trip, in May, the days were shorter and the nights longer as winter was approaching. That left us with limited driving hours, since most of the roads are not very well lit at night. That aside, New Zealand is a vast country with a low population density. It was an absolute pleasure being the only vehicle around, without a soul in sight, for miles — except for the sheep grazing on the green pastures in the distance.

Weather in New Zealand

Hiking Hooker Valley, Mount Cook, New Zealand

The skies in New Zealand tend to be cloudy in May, but after a storm, they are some of the most beautiful sights I have ever encountered. We saw the first rays of sunlight burst through the thick, gloomy clouds, fighting their way to Earth and illuminating everything in their path. At moments like these, we scrambled to set up our picnic tables and chairs outdoors, seizing the chance to soak in the sun.

As we were cruising up the higher altitudes of Mount Cook, I was deep in my midday slumber when I was awoken by my travel companions’ squeals. I looked out of the window, groggy with sleep, and asked: “Why is the fog so thick? Where are we?” I saw a sheet of white. Then, it struck me — it was snowing! We had not expected snow, since May is still technically autumn. It was a nice surprise.

New Sights at Every Turn

Driving in New Zealand is highly recommended for you to fully explore the islands. The terrain you drive on changes at every bend. We could be driving between grasslands one moment, and alongside cliffs the next. Yesterday, you could have been driving through a thick forest canopy, and the next day, you might be motoring beside a large lake. You could also find yourself driving towards rainbows, or meeting a herd of cows that greets your presence.

Various Food Options in New Zealand

Rent Campervan New Zealand Road trip

Eating our homecooked food in the campervan

We cooked most of our own meals in our campervan while on the road. We made several pit stops along the way to stock up on food and snacks. Soon enough, Pak’n’Save had become our favourite supermarket. You can find all sorts of food at this large chain. Whenever possible, we stocked up on at least three days’ worth of food, because the smaller towns tended to offer only the bare necessities, and were often also pricier.

We did, however, also take every opportunity to indulge in the local fare when we stopped at towns. There is a certain relief that comes from being in a town — civilisation and the presence of comfort food. Imagine the excitement we felt when we found the famous Queenstown burger joint, Fergburger! Even a burger was an indulgence — anything that was different from our regular diet of instant noodles, pasta or trail snacks were a welcome treat.

Eating out in New Zealand can be expensive. Regular meals at restaurants cost upwards of S$15. The cheapest meals are usually found at fast food outlets, and they cost about S$5 and up. A McDonald’s Sausage Egg McMuffin costs S$5, and so does a Subway Meatball sandwich. Alternatively, kebabs will cost you around S$10. Everything else — food markets included — can range from S$10-S$20.=

What to See and Do in New Zealand

Read: New Zealand South Island Attractions You Must See On Your Road Trip

Visiting Hobbiton, the film set of the Hobbit movies by Peter Jackson, hiking on a glacier, bungee jumping and skydiving are some of the must-do activities in New Zealand. As an adventurous spirit, these were at the top of my New Zealand bucket list.

Hobbiton in New Zealand

Hobbiton Movie Set Tour Lord of The Rings Matamata entr

Read: The Hobbit Behind The Scenes; Hobbiton Movie Set Tour at Matamata

In September 1998, film-maker Sir Peter Jackson “discovered” the Alexander farm near Matamata during an aerial search for filming sites for the Lord of the Rings movies. Construction of the site began in March 1999.

When the site was rebuilt for the Hobbit movie trilogy in 2009, the structures were made permanent. For instance, the oak tree that overlooks Bag End is made of artificial leaves brought in from Taiwan and wired onto the tree. The rest of the tree is made out of steel and silicone.

There are 39 hobbit holes at the site today. Painstaking efforts have been made to recreate the entire setting of this Hobbit town, including the cups, the seats, and the fireplace. Staff members at the tourist attraction also wear uniforms that resemble the clothing of Hobbits.

While doing the walking tour, I could imagine snippets of the movie being filmed there. The Hobbiton movie set is a glorious place to be in, with its lush green grass, perfectly manicured gardens, and Hobbit holes interspersed between. Almost 100 gardeners are on site daily to care for the gardens.

Today, the set is maintained to keep the magic of the movies alive, and it can be felt by anyone stepping on this land.

The Hobbiton tour includes walking through attractions such as the Party Tree; the Party Field; lead character Bilbo Baggins’ home, Bag End; the Watermill; and finally finishing at The Green Dragon (a cafe in the movies), where a complimentary cider is served.

Fox Glacier in New Zealand

Fox Glacier, New Zealand | Bel Around The World

Fox Glacier, New Zealand

Read: Fox Glacier, New Zealand; What's It Like Hiking On Ice?

If the idea of sitting in a helicopter and walking on ice does not keep you on the edge of your seat, what will?

After a weather check, our tour was confirmed to proceed. We headed to a shed to equip ourselves with waterproof jacket and pants, hiking boots and socks. We were then taken to a helicopter landing zone for a four-minute helicopter ride up to Fox Glacier. It was a moving experience for me, being so close to Mother Nature from a vantage point. I felt like I was in my own space capsule.

Over the course of the nearly three-hour tour, we went through, over, under, on and between the different ice formations at Fox Glacier. We drank from little pools of pure ice water. We watched ice melt and flow down the neve (refrozen snow). We climbed up and down the deep pockets of ice structures. If we kept still, we could even hear faint echoes from blocks of ice tipping into the deep, hollow spaces.

The icebergs are ever-changing. What you see now would differ in summer, and again change next winter. And because of global warming, the ice is melting rapidly. I learned a lot about the forces of nature through this tour, much more than any geography textbook has taught me.

Maori Tour in New Zealand

Maori cultural village, New Zealand | Bel Around The World

Maori cultural village, New Zealand | Bel Around The World

Read: Traditional Maori Village in Rotorua, New Zealand

At Whakarewarewa, there are guided tours and cultural performances daily where visitors can learn about the traditional Maori people’s culture and customs, including carving, weaving, kapa haka (group performance), whaikorero (oratorical performances) and moko (tattoo).

Upon arrival, the Maori people would first greet their guests with a hongi — the ceremonial rubbing of noses. A distinct feature of the Maori performance is their enlarged eyes and showing of their tongues, which is an expression to scare off evil spirits. The flexed muscles and guttural sounds they make are part of the haka (war dance) to intimidate these spirits.

Blackwater Rafting in New Zealand

The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company 1516 NZ Black Labyrinth Jumping

Read: Black Water Rafting in Waitomo, New Zealand

Waitomo in New Zealand is known for blackwater (cave) rafting, and it was also on our to-do list. Putting on a wetsuit, quite frankly, had to be the most challenging part of this adventure. The suit was thick and heavy, and took me a long time to put on.

Since the water in the cave does not get the sunlight, the water temperature is approximately 10 degrees. As we went blackwater rafting in winter, the waters were even colder. I marvel at the guides for being able to go through the blackwater rafting tours in the frigid waters not once, but many times a day.

We were first taken to a small stream to familiarise ourselves with our tubes, and jumped into the water with them to prepare ourselves for the real action in pitch darkness.

A large part of blackwater rafting involves balancing on rocks, as we made our way through the cave in total darkness, crawling under low-clearance spaces, and jumping backwards with our tubes down mini waterfalls. The highlight of the dark and moist cave was watching glow worms illuminate the entire area.

We were famished by the end of our session. The blackwater rafting tour, which took three hours, concluded with a long, hot shower, and hot soup and bagels.

I loved every minute of it.

Transport in New Zealand

Read: Driving In New Zealand The First Time?

Flight (Singapore to Auckland, Christchurch to Singapore): ~S$800 (Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand operate direct flights to Auckland and Christchurch)

Breakdown of Road Trip Cost in New Zealand

Read: Detailed Breakdown of My New Zealand Budget Trip; $2600 for 20 days!

Campervan rental (10 days): S$500

Petrol (272L, 1,623km): ~S$550


Hostel: ~S$22 per night

Camp sites (for parking our vehicles): ~S$20


Hobbiton: S$77

Blackwater rafting: S$135

Maori tour: S$34

Zorb: S$48

Spa: S$26

Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland: S$31

Fox Glacier: S$416

Milford Sound: S$9


Read: 20 Favourite New Zealand Instagram Shots To Swoon Over (& Where To Find Them!)

Catch the full story on TODAY’s website.

Read: New Zealand North Island Experiences To Check Off Your Bucketlist

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Thursday, 13 Jul 2017

Isabel Leong

Isabel Leong

An explorer at heart, the world is Isabel's playground. She enjoys seizing every moment exploring every hideout and doing the unimaginable, like bungee jumping in Phuket and couchsurfing in Europe. If she had wings, she’d definitely be soaring right now. Also a fitness trainer, if she’s not at the gym, you can find her doing yoga or rock climbing! Read more about her on belaroundtheworld.com/about.


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