Find Your Zen Half an Hour from Campus
If you’re in exam mode and it seems like the walls are closing in on you, what you might need is a nice walk in the middle of nowhere. Somewhere far from the city, where you can just walk in the forest, lie in a stream and just breathe the fresh air...
Of course, ditching town completely and skipping out on your studies will probably lead to some bad exam results. Nonetheless, studies show that heading to natural areas and walking to de-stress is a scientifically proven way to improve your mental health and deal with stress in a healthy way.
Us Kiwis are lucky to have the opportunity to find a scenic retreat not far from the middle of town. That’s true in all of the major student cities, so we thought we’d go through the good spots in each centre where you can get out of the concrete jungle and find your own personal zen retreat - just half an hour from downtown.
Frolic in a waterfall just half an hour from Auckland
Most tracks in the Waitakere ranges have been closed since May last year to stop the spread of Kauri dieback disease, causing Aucklanders to lose one of their best options in terms of getting out into nature and finding their zen.
Thankfully, Auckland packs another beautiful, forested mountain range to the south of the city. Heading south from the CBD on State Highway 1, take the Beach Road exit and head left. Hunua Road will be on your right after a kilometer or so - this takes you all the way to the doorstep of the Hunua Ranges Regional Park.
You won’t be stuck for things to do while you’re there. There’s a couple of great half-day walks, the Cossey-Massey Loop and the Wairoa-Loop Track. They both depart from slightly different places, so check out the park map for all the details. Take time to appreciate the thriving native bush complete with Kauri trees - be sure to scrub your boots at the clean stations to avoid spreading dieback - cross streams, and enjoy spectacular views.
If you’re pressed for time, the magnificent Hunua Falls are just a 20 minute trip from the carpark. You might recognise them from your adventurous friends’ Instagram posts. You’ll get to see them from all angles, and even have a cheeky dip if the weather is warm enough!
Walk from downtown into the middle of the bush in Wellington
Wellington boasts the Town Belt, a ring of forested area around the central city, set aside over 100 years ago by forward-looking councillors who saw the need for peaceful getaway spots as the city developed.
Some of the belt has been developed, but a great deal of it still remains. One of the best parts is George Denton Park/Polhill Reserve (gee, don’t these double names roll off the tongue!). From the middle of town, head down Aro Street until you’re almost at Holloway road and you’ll see the park entrance on your left.
This park is near and dear to me - I can’t count the amount of times I’ve dealt with stress by just standing up, walking ten minutes there and losing myself in nature. There are enough tracks to get completely lost in, but one of the best is the loop track up to the Brooklyn wind turbine - it’s well signposted all the way up. You emerge from deep, native bush to see one of the best views of Wellington you can’t get from anywhere.
One of the reasons we go to parks is to come face to face with wildlife. Seeing animals reminds us of the greater ecological world we live in. This in turn helps us to relax and let go of our stress and anxiety. Thanks to the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary nearby, the park is full of native birds including saddlebacks, kaka, toutouwai (robins) and more.
Get pristine views on the Peninsula in Dunedin
Renowned as the location of the Royal Albatross Centre, with the only albatross colony on mainland New Zealand, the Otago Peninsula extends from Dunedin city and offers countless opportunities to relax in big sea-and-sky landscapes. Take the bridge from Portsmouth Drive and head along Portobello Road to get there, and from there use the DoC information to figure out exactly where you’re going.
These landscapes really give a sense of being far away from the city. While it’s partly because you can’t see the city from some parts of the peninsula, it’s also about how dramatic the scenery is. The sharp, rocky cliffs and peaks impart a sense of adventure, and what is better than the vast ocean for putting things in perspective?
There are walks to suit both short getaways and longer trips. A quick, easy walk is the one connecting Highcliff Road and Greenacres Street. It won’t take you much longer than 45 minutes, and it isn’t too tough to do. What it does have is spectacular views. For a bigger challenge, try the high point of the area, Mt Charles - just make sure you get permission from the landowner (this is common practise, and they won’t mind!).
Dramatic scenery is wonderful, but it’s sometimes the stimulation to your other senses that really gives you that feeling of being “out in nature”. The Otago Peninsula is that kind of place - the smell of the ocean, the feel of the rocks, the call of the birds. Those damn big birds - which, by the way, are totally worth a look if you’re in the area.
Connect to history and relax in nature in Christchurch
The spectacular Banks Peninsula is a nature lover’s dream, and it is right next to Christchurch city. The walk around the crater rim at Godley Head is one of the most dramatic,
offering the chance to see scenic vistas, take in the sea air and also check out historic World War II batteries.
Take Ferry Road all the way from downtown around the coast until you get to Sumner. From there it’s another 10 minute drive to Taylor’s Mistake beach. If you’re pressed for time, just exploring around the beach area can be a nice break in itself, but for major relaxation and invigoration, take the Godley Head loop track.
This trail rises around the rim of the harbour, giving sweeping ocean views. It’s also got DoC huts around the trail network, so you can stay overnight if you’re up for that - it’s a good place to spend anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days. The DoC brochure has all the details.
Engaging with history - from the WWII bunkers to the views of spots where people used to live in cave dwellings built into the hillside - is a powerful way to take our minds off the problems in front of us and remember that we’re part of something much bigger. Basically, it helps to deal with stress by putting things in perspective.
Of course, it’s better to go out to the peninsula than to sit in a museum. The gorgeous scenery is what really makes this place what it is. You can mountain bike, hike and surf all in the same place - so make your choice and enjoy a cathartic experience in Christchurch’s own nature playground.
Take the time to restore yourself
All of these trips only take a day, or even half. In the end, it’s well worth it, because by dealing with your stress in a healthy way and centering yourself again, you’ll be much more effective when you come back to your studies and you’ll approach your exams with a better mindset.
When escaping the city is a scientifically proven way to avoid bad exam grades, why wouldn’t you? These spots are only the tip of the iceberg. Each of the student cities is chock full of natural areas where you can go to breathe and find your own personal zen. We’ll see you there!
By Jack Buckley, Wellington