Published: June 4th 2009May 30th 2009
Our first glimpse of New Zealand was the spectacular sight of the Southern Alps from the airplane window as we flew over the South Island. It was like flying over a frozen world and, considering we were going to be driving around it, the views both frightened and excited us at the same time! We touched down in Christchurch on 2nd May and began our Kiwi adventure.
Christchurch is New Zealand's most English city and this influence can be clearly felt in the city centre with trams running down the streets, punts meandering down the Avon river and a large cathedral in the main sqaure. We were staying on Hereford Street, just across the road from the Arts Centre and our first introduction to New Zealand was the Sunday market held there. There were all kinds of stalls at the market from German hot dogs, Spanish churros and Thai food to fortune tellers, antique clothing and a group of Maori singers. Given that it was a lovely sunny Autumn afternoon, the market was buzzing with activity. The following day, we did a walking tour of the city which took us to the quirky designer shops on Sol square and
over to Cathedral Square where we climbed the cathedral spire for some great views of the city. After that, we walked along by the banks of the Avon river down to the Botanic Gardens where the gorgeous autumnal colours made us feel like it should be October instead of May! Next door to the Gardens is the Canterbury Museum, so we decided to pay a visit to see an exhibition on Antarctic exploration over the course of the last century. Amundsen featured of course, but so did Scott and Shackleton's expeditions and among the display pieces was a photo of Tom Crean
mending a sleeping bag while smoking a pipe. To finish off our day, we stopped off at the Dux de Lux microbrewery for a glass of local beer.
On our last day in Christchurch, we picked up our new campervan which will become home for the next 7 weeks as we travel around NZ. This one looks like an ice cream van! It's a converted Toyota Hi-Ace, but it has a shower & toilet, 4 gas rings, a grill, microwave, kettle, fridge and sink with hot water. Happy days! So, having stocked up on groceries and petrol,
on the rocks at Kaikoura Peninsula
we headed out of Christchurch to Akaroa in the Banks Peninsula.
The Banks Peninsula
The Banks Peninsula and its hills were formed by volcanic eruptions and the scenery as we rounded the mountains was beautiful. Akaroa is the peninsula's main harbour and is a former French settlement. In fact, the French actually bought the peninsula from the local Maori tribe in the early nineteenth century but just before the French settlers arrived, the British claimed it for themselves under the Treaty of Waitangi. So New Zealand could easily have become another French colony in the South Pacific. The French settled there regardless and to this day, Akaroa maintains a strong French character with many of its street names in French and local businesses flying the Red, White and Blue.
Leaving Akaroa, we decided to camp overnight at a small nearby harbour named Duvauchelle. However, just as we were approaching our camp ground, the oil indicator in the van flashed orange. About 1 minute later as we were entering the park, the oil indicator went red. And then, as we pulled into a site, the van conked out altogether! Turned out the van had leaked all its oil over
the last 3km. It had had an oil change the previous day and the mechanics hadn't put the nozzle on properly! Good job we weren't half way up a mountain... Anyway, a quick call to our rental provider and we were promised a new van would be delivered the next morning.
The Alpine Pacific Triangle
Having waved our old van off on the tow truck, we headed off in Ice Cream Van Mk II to explore the sights on the Alpine Pacific Triangle, starting with the Waipara Valley wine region. Our caravan park there was a lovely quaint place. Instead of onsite cabins, there were old railway carriages set on track and the kitchen was a converted railway station. The owner baked a loaf of fresh bread every morning which was left in the kitchen for all to enjoy and there were also fresh eggs at the chicken's convenience! We paid a visit to a local lavender farm and gift shop and then visited the Waipara Springs winery where we tasted a riesling along with two pinot noirs. The owner recognised our accents as being Irish and explained that Waipara Springs wines are exported to just two places in
New Zealand's first French settlement in the Banks Peninsula
Ireland; Belfast and Dublin. When Dee enquired further, it turned out that the Dublin stockist is none other than Redmonds of Ranelagh!! Small world...
Our next destination was the alpine village of Hanmer Springs. On the way, we passed by the Waiau Gorge and got our first glimpses of the magnificent snow-capped Southern Alps. Hanmer Springs is famous for its thermal pools and we enjoyed a soak in the outdoor rock and sulphur pools which varied in temperature from 28C to 42C. The mountain views from the hot tubs were the perfect backdrop!
From Hanmer Springs, we had been hoping to get over to the West Coast via the Lewis Pass. However, due to road snow warnings and forecasts of thunderstorms, we decided instead to head east to Kaikoura, the final point on the Alpine Pacific Triangle touring route. Kaikoura is a picturesque peninsula town famous for its wildlife. Due to its unique marine climate, whales are present year-round and there are also seals, dolphins and albatross amongst other seabirds. We went for a walk along the cliffs of the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway and saw oystercatchers and fur seals en route, along with beautiful views of the Kaikoura
mountain range. In the local supermarket, we bumped into a Canadian documentary-maker that we had met in the hot tubs at Hanmer Springs. He had been attempting to cycle his way around the South Island, but all was not going to plan and he was now hitching-hiking his way up to Picton to get the ferry to the North Island. As we were all heading the same direction, we offered to give him a lift to Blenheim 2 days later.
Blenheim is the gateway to the Marlborough Wine Region and we decided to visit the Nautilus Estate and Cloudy Bay wineries while there. At Nautilus Estate, we tasted some lovely pinot noirs and at Cloudy Bay's cellar door, it was all whites including chardonnay, riesling and sparkling wine. Having invested in a nice bottle of pinot noir, we decided to pamper ourselves with our first bit of red meat in 3 months so we picked up some steak at the local supermarket and the chef cooked up a tasty feast!
Leaving Blenheim, we continued north along the coast to nearby Picton, a pretty harbour at the head of the Marlborough Sounds. At the Edwin Fox Maritime
museum, we visited the last surviving ship that transported convicts to Oz and immigrants to NZ. While the ship itself is now in pretty poor condition, it was interesting to learn about its history over the last 150 years. From Picton, we drove along the Queen Charlotte Drive to Havelock and got some beautiful views of the inlets, headlands and beaches that make up the Marlborough Sounds. We would return to Picton later to get the ferry across the Cook Strait to the North Island, but before that we decided to head west of the Marlborough region to explore the Abel Tasman national park.
On the way to Abel Tasman, we stopped at Richmond just south of Nelson city as Dee's right eye was starting to flare up. A visit to the doctor later and she was wearing an attractive eye patch, which was bad news given that she's the sole driver of our little home on wheels! So, we were stranded in Richmond for a few days while it healed up. On the plus side though, the caravan park we stayed at had a bar and lots of pool tables which helped to preserve our sanity!
Once 20/20 vision was restored, we contined our journey to Marahau, the southern entrance to the Abel Tasman national park. Abel Tasman is New Zealand's smallest but most popular national park and it's not hard to see why. Even on the Autumn day we were there, it was beautiful with its golden sandy beaches, turquoise water and forest fringed coves. We took a scenic boat trip along the coastline from Marahau to Totaranui and visited Split Apple Rock and the seal colony at Tonga island on the way. We were also lucky enough to have a dolphin swim right alongside the boat and leap up out of the water for us! A fabulous experience and the closest either of us has ever come to a dolphin. We would have loved to have spent more time in Abel Tasman and tackled some of the Coast Track walks, but an impending storm convinced us it was time to move on.
The West Coast
We drove along the Buller Gorge Heritage highway to Murchison (scene of not one, but two earthquakes in 1929 and 1968) and out to Westport on the west coast. The West Coast is home to less than
1% of New Zealand's population, so it's quite normal to drive for 120km without passing a petrol station. It's notoriously wet, but we were lucky enough to get some gorgeous fine sunny days as we travelled.
From Westport, we headed south along the West Coast highway to visit the pancake rocks & blowholes at Punakaiki. These limestone formations are shaped like layers of thick pancakes and on a wild & windy day, the sea spurts up from the the blowholes and surges into the rock caverns. The day we visited was too calm to see the sea at its most powerful, but we enjoyed the views nonetheless. The stretch of road from Punakaiki to Greymouth winds its way alongside some stunning coastal scenery. In fact, Lonely Planet regard it as one of the world's 10 best coastal drives. On our journey, we saw some beautiful views of the Tasman sea cliffs to our right, while mini waterfalls flowed down steep mountain ranges on our left.
We also passed through some charming towns as we travelled further south, such as Ross (a former goldmining town), Hari Hari where we spent a night and Pukekura which has a population of
Punting on the Avon
Christchurch, New Zealand
just two! The fact that the Southern Alps divides the West Coast from the east makes these towns feel really remote, as there is only one road into or out of them.
The highlights of the West Coast are undoubtedly the glaciers. There are only 3 places on earth where glaciers come so close to the sea and New Zealand has two of them; Franz Josef and Fox (incidentally, the third one is the Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia, Argentina). These two giants originate high in the Southern Alps and are unique in that they terminate amongst temperate rainforest just 250 metres above sea level. Together, they form part of the South Westland world heritage area. We took a walk to the Sentinel Rock lookout point at Franz Josef for some impressive views of the glacier and then did the longer walk across the debris field to the terminal face for a closer look. After this taster, we were eager to get closer to the ice, so we booked ourselves onto a half-day ice trek on Fox glacier the following afternoon. After a 30 minute walk to the terminal face, we had a 3km vertical hike up
700 steps past 3 streams and 1 waterfall. All of this before we even got onto the ice!! Once at the glacier's edge, it was on with the crampons and off to explore. We saw some stunning ice features including numerous crevasses and an ice tunnel which we got to crawl through. Our guide even pointed out some wreckage of a plane that had crashed into the glacier several years ago! As if that wasn't enough, we then got to enjoy the sunset as it descended over the Tasman Sea, changing the colour of the ice from blue to tangerine. Being on the ice was an amazing experience, one that neither of us will forget and was definitely worth all of the 700 steps that it took to get there!!
Before leaving the township of Fox glacier, we paid a visit to Lake Matheson just 6km down the road. Lake Matheson was created by Fox glacier about 14,000 years ago and is nicknamed Mirror Lake because of the wonderful reflections of New Zealand's highest peaks in its waters. We were lucky enough to have a windstill and clear day when we visited and the reflections of Aoraki (Mount Cook)
Broken down van!
at Duvauchelle Holiday Park
and Mount Tasman were truly breathtaking.
After the glaciers, we had been hoping to get across the Haast Pass into Wanaka and drive on down to Queenstown. However, another Antartic cold snap was on the way, bringing the snow level down to near sea-level. Added to this, we were simply running out of time. So we reluctantly made the decision to head back up north and get the ferry to the North Island instead.
And so we leave the South Island only half-conquered. But, while we're disappointed not to have made it to Fiordland and Southland, we feel more than blessed to have seen the sights we did and to have dodged the snow and storms so successfully. Who knows - hopefully, some day we'll get an opportunity to come back and explore the places we missed!
There are more photos below