New Zealand Road Trip Part II: The South Island
Our first two-weeks in New Zealand were spent on the north island, and hopefully you read my last post and saw just how spectacular the country can be! But let me tell you, it just keeps getting better! I would argue that all those beautiful views, epic drives and adrenaline pumped activities just get magnified on the south island. This is Part 2 of our New Zealand road trip, and this is one is all about the south island! The south is where people tend to linger a little longer (ourselves included) and it’s easy to see why. It’s got your oceans, mountains, glaciers, fjords, hot springs and all the free-falling-bungee-jumping-helicopter-riding activities you could dream of. This is magical country and I can’t wait to go back and explore more.
It all started when we said goodbye to the north and hello to the south! The ferry left from Wellington and arrived in Picton. There’s not a heck of a lot to say about the ferry other than to book ahead (especially in high season) and it’s about three and a half hours. There’s not much to see until the last hour when you begin to pass through the islands and fjords of Marlborough sound, which is an amazing first taste of the south!
After arriving in Picton we found a cozy free campsite just out of town to relax for the evening. There was a miniature horse farm up the road, a deer farm across the street and a gorgeous sunset to finish the day; New Zealand is so full of odd and sweet surprises.
Abel Tasman National Park
We then began a fairly long drive on the Treasured Highway toward Abel Tasman National Park, passing small fishing towns, craggily cliffs and beautiful bays and beaches.
We stopped in the sea town of Havelock famously known for their green mussels, which were the largest mussels I have ever seen! We ate mussels just about every way you could cook them; grilled, steamed, fried, smoked, raw, chowdered and the oh so delicious grilled with garlic and panko crumbs. It was a mussel extravaganza! Did I mention this was our breakfast?
It felt like a really long drive to get to Totaranui, the campsite we planned to stay at in the park. The mountain passages seemed to go on forever with so many winding roads, elevation changes and very few opportunities to get gas and food. But it was the remoteness of getting there that made it special; it definitely felt like finding your own little slice of paradise. There is no shortage of hiking opportunities and the big half moon bay with its orange-graham cracker like sand will keep you occupied for hours. We hiked, enjoyed the sun, did yoga and relaxed. But my god, the sandflies were absolutely horrendous! No amount of bug lotions, layers or even bug screens seemed to keep them away!
We took our time leaving and stopped to kayak at Golden Bay where we were lucky enough to see penguins, shag colonies and an octopus-eating seal, which was so cool! We paddled around some of the small islands on the coast before heading inland to visit some caves. Not far from Golden Bay is the Rawhiti Cave, which was one of the highlights of my time at the park. It was a 2.2 km hike up, which was a cardio kick, but so worth it! Part of the roof collapsed making the cave more open, but the stalactites and stalagmites were incredible. The country is so full of little surprises off the beaten path.
We had some massive driving days leaving Abel Tasman and heading south along the west coast to Franz Josef. On route we checked out the famous Pancake Rocks and Blow Holes. The Pancake Rocks were formed after years of ocean pressure and tidal waves crashing against the limestone minerals creating these pancake-like layered rock formations. It was definitely cool, but it was also a bit of a tourist trap.
When we arrived in the small town of Franz Josef we almost immediately found ourselves in a skydiving centre. Then all of a sudden I was signing waivers and getting ready to jump in less than two hours. Whether I planned to do it in two hours or two days, I was going to anxiously worry until it happened. So, I let the booking girl coerce me into it.
Skydiving has got to be the coolest thing I have ever done. Apart from it being terrifying, exhilarating and a strangely cathartic experience, it is also known for being one of the most beautiful skydives in the country – you’ve got the Franz Josef Glacier, Mount Cook and the southern alps on one side, and the sparkling blue Tasman sea on the other. I jumped at 16,500 feet high and had a 60-second free fall. After jumping I thought for sure I would do it again in my life, but to be honest, I am not sure I could bring myself to do it again!
Bryan and I laugh because we both had very different experiences. Beforehand he felt fairly relaxed, yet after jumping he thought his heart was going to explode out of his chest. As for me, I was ready to poop my pants out of fear! But when it came time to jump I felt oddly calm and relaxed. The photos do not reflect either of these experiences; Bryan looks like he is having the time of his life and I look like I am having the worst time of my life. You can judge for yourself!
Perhaps I also forgot to mention that Franz Josef burned a hole in our pockets. It just had some really cool and really expensive ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ type activities, and they were worth it too. Sadly, because the Franz Josef glacier has receded so much, the only way to get on the ice and see it up close is via helicopter. The Helihike activity takes you on a helicopter ride and drops you off on the glacier to ‘hike’ for a couple hours. I use the word ‘hike’ very loosely as it was more like a short winding walk that was not strenuous in the slightest – but it was very cool, literally and figuratively! And as a nice perk a visit to their hot pools are also included in your ticket price.
On our last day in town we did the Franz Josef Glacier viewpoint hike up to the terminal face. We saw it from overhead, up close and from afar. It is sad to see its recession and global warming has no doubt had an impact on that. I definitely felt lucky to have had such varied and intimate contact with it; especially knowing it may very well no longer exist years down the road.
About a half-hour down the road is the Fox Glacier, which is smaller than the Franz Josef Glacier, but also offers a terminal face hike that is worth checking out. We did this short hike and checked out the local Lake Matheson also known as ‘Mirror Lake’. Check it out either first thing in the morning or at sunset for your chance at a shot of its still waters with the Alps backdrop– it is a great photo if the weather cooperates!
We spent the night at Gillespies Beach, a remote campsite right on the coast. The waves are violent but the beach is beautiful and there are some lovely hikes right from the site. We hiked to neighbouring Galloway beach, taking you along the coast, through grassy fields, across boardwalks into the forest and finally offers some seal spotting if you are lucky! We were lucky, but one of them snuck up on us, or perhaps we snuck up on him. We aren’t sure, but no one was very thrilled about it.
We continued heading along the west side heading south and really just passed through Queenstown. Not long after passing through we experienced our third of camper van woes and found ourselves stranded for almost two days in the tiny town of Lumsden. They had a grocery store and a Liquor Land, so at least there was that. With a nearly dead battery and a new alternator needed all we could do was sit tight. It forced us to slow down and chill out a bit, which probably wasn’t a bad thing, but at the time we were not particularly pleased.
There were some mishaps and mistakes with the rental company, but we managed to get things sorted enough to continue on with the trip. Sure we booted it to the next ‘major’ city on what little juice was left in the battery and broke down just 5km outside of town, but at least we were out of Lumsden! They gave us a rental car while the van got fixed and we continued on to Milford Sound.
Milford Sound really is insanely beautiful, but it is super tiny and there really isn’t anything there. Right in the Sound there is a ferry terminal, a ticket shop and café and one accommodation, which you can guess can be quite pricey! Most people just go in for their day activity or stay at one of the DOC campsites on route. It takes a couple hours to get in and there is only one way in and out by car, but it really is an amazing drive – half the fun and beauty is just getting there!
You pass huge mountains, beautiful valleys, gushing rivers and various hiking opportunities along the way. Stop outside the Homer Tunnel and you may get to meet the Kea, the troublemaker mountain parrot specific to the area. They are curious, playful and destructive, so watch your vehicle – they have a thing for removing weather stripping and wiper blades!
The good thing about Milford Sound is that whatever the weather you are in for a treat, and the activity to do there is the boat cruises. A day without rain may be more enjoyable, but apparently the wetter the better! Rain is the norm in Milford Sound and with the rain comes hundreds of temporary waterfalls throughout the fjords. We had a very wet day. It’s just best to commit to being wet and enjoy it, because to really see the views and the wildlife you have to be outside. We saw seals, fjord crested penguins, yellow-eyed penguins and dusky dolphins, so it was a real win for wildlife too.
We couldn’t find any local accommodation on such short notice, so we slept quite uncomfortably in the car at the most beautiful campsite! Mountains, bubbling creek, fresh wild flowers and even some sunshine to end our wet day.
From Milford Sound we started to make our way to the east coast and spent a bit of time passing through Dunedin. This coastal city is known for its sea lions, albatross, blue penguin and yellow-eyed penguin. We trekked down the sand dunes at Sandfly Beach and at least managed to see some sea lions, but man that was a brutal climb back up!
We spent some time touring and tasting at the local brewery Emersons and checked out the beautiful tunnel beach. We tried to spy some yellow-eyed penguins and after two-hours of waiting at Bushy Beach for them to come ashore, we only managed to see two in the VERY far distance – they looked like specks even with binoculars.
We took the east coast roads heading north and stopped in to check out the Moeracki Boulders. The Moeracki Boulders are these large perfectly circular boulders scattered along the beach; they are the weirdest thing! Aliens seem the most reasonable explanation to me, but apparently there is a scientific explanation for it.
We stopped in Oamaru, also known as ‘the home of steampunk,’ and it’s the oddest little town! Think victorian-gothic or victorian-science fiction, but I have a weird fascination with this type of thing, so I enjoyed it. The Steam Punk HQ is worth checking out with all its weird sculptures, contraptions and art pieces. It’s interactive too, so you can touch, play and really explore the space. The town is full of oddities, which you can also sense in the Victorian District and wandering out to see some of the large sculptures in town.
We headed back in land to experience the mountains again and spending time at Mount Cook National Park was definitely on the hit list. The views were unreal all the time. We could literally see snow-capped mountains right outside our door. We had planned for two days full of hiking, but the weather had other plans. Of course, in the mountain region weather can change very quickly and it can be very extreme. Our first day was pretty much spent hanging out in the van, as it was just torrential rain and wind all day long. I am not sure if I have ever experienced so much rain! Fortunately the visitor centre isn’t far and was known for being a bit of a museum, so we got to at least stretch our legs and get out of the van for a bit.
We hit the trails the next day nice and early to take advantage of the good weather, and we really did get some spectacular views! (Saaly Tarns Track 2200 ft climb).
The special thing about Lake Tekapo is that it is a night sky reserve and the stargazing is amazing! We did en evening tour at 11:45pm at the Mount John Observatory and loved it – the people working there are so passionate and they made the evening fun. They showed us various constellations and we got to use their fancy telescopes, the only crummy thing about it was how short it was – we didn’t want to leave! I have never seen stars like that before.
In November 2016 there were some massive earthquakes that impacted the south island, which also resulted in some landslides that essentially blocked off all major highway accesses to Kaikoura. The primary highway was still closed at that time, so we took the secondary route into what was a fairly quiet town. I really loved Kaikoura and was so happy that we decided to go, despite the extra time it took to get there. The main strip has lots of fun little stores, restaurants and ice cream shops, so definitely wander the strip and get some fish and chips. There are some great walks and hikes along the coast as well and TONS of opportunities to seal watch.
As a coastal town the major activities all take place on the water; whale watching, swimming with seals, swimming with dolphins and fishing.
Our first day we signed up for whale watching and took our chances at catching a glimpse of the elusive sperm whale, which are known to live in the area. We did manage to spot the same one twice. It’s not that I am unimpressed by the size and magnitude of this magical creature, but it really wasn’t that interesting. Sperm whales dive to the ocean floor to feed and can hold their breath for an hour at a time, before surfacing for about fifteen minutes before diving again. You are lucky if you see the top 10% of its head and maybe a tail on its dive down. Sperm whales are super cool looking, but you really don’t get a feel for that here. It was also a super rough day on the water. So it was a bit like fighting off seasickness for four hours and seeing a blowhole. Super cool animal, but I would probably just watch Blue Planet next time.
We then signed up to swim with wild seals and I was stoked for this! Of course, like many things, sometimes the IDEA of doing something is better then the reality. I have always had a decent fear of swimming in bodies of water, and while I love seals and they can be quite curious, I found myself feeling a little nervous in the water. We were given a thick full wet suit and snorkel gear and swam in various enclosed rock pools along the coast. Sometimes the seals were in the water, but often they were lazing about on rocks watching us and probably wondering ‘what are these strange humans doing?. Others in our group had some close interactive experiences, but more often then not I found I was swimming in circles and wondering what the heck could be under me in the murky water. It was an interesting experience, but next time I think I would swim with the dusky dolphins, apparently they get massive pods here and are known for being quite curious and interactive.
Our final day we went fishing, and oddly for me this may have been my favourite activity. Again, it was a bit of a rough day at sea, but I felt well until about the last half hour or so. Just about every line cast out brought up one or two fish at a time, mostly sea perch, but the odd blue cod and barracuda as well. We finished by checking some crayfish pots and got to take those home too! Considering we got two good meals out of what we caught it really was a cost effective activity!
The day we left Kaikoura was also the day the main highway going south to Christchurch opened. It was a beautiful coastal drive with clear waters, craggily rocks and seals littering the coastline. I just loved Kaikoura.
From Kaikoura we headed down the coast passed Christchurch to check out the Akaroa Peninsula. Camping became sparse around the cities and we found ourselves camping at fairgrounds, which were surprisingly spacious and well equipped. We would walk around the track in the evening and watch the sunset, then watch the riders practice in the morning over tea and coffee.
Akaroa is a sweet little coastal town with darling little shops, charming patios and countless opportunities for fish and chips. Boat activities are the thing to do here, but swimming with the world’s smallest dolphins, the hector dolphin, is a major attraction. This activity was quite pricey, but I was super keen to have some interactions with them in the wild. Because they are an endangered species there are strict rules on how and when to swim with them, and unfortunately they just weren’t too interested in us. At times they would be curious and swim up to the boat, but their interest feigned and it was more often then not just a boat ride around the peninsula.
Finally, it was time to say goodbye to the camper van. We had so much fun traveling around New Zealand with our little temporary home on wheels – it’s truly the best way to enjoy the country! I would highly recommend this method of travel and look forward to the next opportunity to rent (or maybe even buy) one of these in the future.
By the time we finished with New Zealand we had been away for five weeks and the adventure had only really begun. While I certainly felt like it wouldn’t be my last time visiting this beautiful country, I was also eager to keep exploring. Australia was next and I was ready for the sunshine and heat.
Stay tuned for the next chapter of our travels in Australia, starting with the east coast from Sydney to Cape Tribulation.