NZ South Island Road Trip Part 1: Picton to Queenstown


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March 17th 2014
Published: April 10th 2014
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Picton to Queenstown


Six months of living in New Zealand and I've only been to the South Island once, and just for a long weekend! Not to take anything away from the beautiful Mt. Cook National Park, but I definitely couldn't let that be my only South Island experience. Good thing I've got a bad ass road trip planned for when my mom comes to town. My friend Julia from DC will also be coming to New Zealand this week and joining us for the adventure. Nimarta will be joining us in Christchurch for the very end of this trip and her mom will be joining us in Queenstown for the second half of the trip. One big happy family.

Mom has already been exploring Wellington for a few days by the time Julia arrives late on a Friday night. After not much sleep we head out early on Saturday morning to take the 8:00 ferry from Wellington to Picton. We have Nimarta's car for the week. It's not cheap to take a car on the ferry to the South Island but it's cheaper than renting one for the week. After sitting on the loading dock for about an hour we finally board the ferry about 30 minutes late. There are two companies that cross the Cook Straight to Picton, South Island: Interislander and Bluebridge. We have chosen Bluebridge since it is $4 cheaper each way. It's a huge boat, the size of a small cruise ship. It can fit multiple freight trucks, a whole mess of cars, and tons of people. It's a big frikin' boat is what I'm trying to say. We are basically the last ones on the ferry so by the time we get upstairs all the comfortable seats are taken. We find a table in the cafe next to a group of Hell's Angel's bikers. Apparently Hell's Angel's has international chapters. Who knew!?

Crossing the Cook Straight is no short trip. It takes about three and a half hours from port to port. The last hour or so we float through Marlborough Sounds (http://lovemarlborough.co.nz/water/), a strikingly beautiful arpeggio with steep mountains and eclectic islands. We head out to the back of the boat to take in the sights and sounds (pun intended) as we coast into Picton. By noon we are back in the car waiting to be unloaded from the ferry. We will be back on this boat (or the other Bluebridge boat) next week when we head back to Wellington. But for now we have a week on the South Island!

After a quick lunch in Picton it's time to hit the road. The plan today is to drive a little bit around the Sounds and then head southwest to Nelson Lakes National Park before eventually ending up in Nelson, where we have a hotel for the night. Queen Charlotte Drive along the edge of the mainland in Marlborough Sounds might be the windiest road in the country. I love it. Every corner brings a new spectacular view. Plus driving on windy roads through the mountains is exciting. But we can't stay on this road forever, or we'll never get anywhere. It's too curvy for any speed. We reach the town of Havelock and turn south onto Highway 6. We have now entered wine country.

The Marlborough region of New Zealand is said to produce 80% of the country's wine. Turning west onto Highway 63, we quickly discover why. Every square inch of land is growing grapes. It's winery after winery as we drive down the highway. And there is no end in sight. How can there be this many wineries? Who is drinking all this wine!? A week from today we will be back in this region to sample wines in Blenheim and Renwick before heading back to Picton. But for now we are left just to wonder how many wineries and acres of grape trees are in this area. Finally, 30-40 miles down the road, we come to the foreseeable end of the wineries.

We turn off the road in the small township of Saint Arnaud and enter Nelson Lakes National Park. We are at Lake Rotoiti, one of the two large lakes that make up the park. The other, Lake Rotorua, is a bit further out of the way so we have decided just to come to Rotoiti and do a short hike along the banks of the lake. We stop by the visitor's center and decide to walk the Peninsula Trail. It's about 4:30 so we don't want to spend too long here. This walk should take about an hour and get us some exercise after spending most of the day in the car or on the ferry. We walk down to the shores of the lake and see some kids playing in the water. It's peaceful down here. It's quiet, almost too quiet. The sky is a clear and the mountains rise up from the lake on either side. You are never far from a beautiful sight on the South Island of New Zealand.

The walk on the shores of the lake is basically a walk through the woods, with a few breaks in the bush to head down to the water, which is clear as can be. There are little bugs buzzing around. In most places you have to worry about the mosquitoes, but here in New Zealand it's the sand flies that will bite you. These little bastards are so small you can't even see or feel them on you. Next thing you know you've got a bump swelling up the size of a nickel on your foot. If you didn't know better you'd say you got bit by a mosquito, because the bite looks the same. I've been in New Zealand long enough to know that there's nothing I can do to stop these little guys. They could care less about your 30% deet. I accept that I'll be destroyed by bug bites and move on, back to the visitor's center.

Back in the car, we head up to Nelson. We are actually staying in Richmond, though, about 15 minutes outside of Nelson. We reach the motel around 6:00. I go to check in and the owner personally shows us to our room, which has been upgraded for free to a one bedroom apartment. He then tells us to go out back and pick some fresh blackberries and grapes from the garden. What a place! We are excited at this new twist on motel rooms and eagerly go out back to pick as many berries and grapes as we can. They're not the ripest blackberries ever but hey, can't complain - free blackberries! (I'm less excited about the grapes...)

After settling into the room we head off to Nelson to briefly check out the city and get some dinner. It's a neat little city, though quite dead on a Saturday night. It's landscaped very well and has a certain charm. We eat at one of the many Thai restaurants downtown and it's pretty good, giving us probably the biggest portions I've ever seen at a Thai place. I'm satisfied. After dinner we decide not to explore Nelson any further and head back to the motel. Long day ahead of us tomorrow!

We are up pretty early Sunday, as we have about a three and half hour drive to Greymouth, the largest town on the west coast of the South Island (it's tiny). Julia and I have booked a 4 hour black water tubing adventure in some cave outside of Greymouth. Mom, not one for the water, has decided not to join us and do her own thing. We arrive in Greymouth in time for lunch at the Monteith's Brewery. Monteith's is one of the better breweries in New Zealand in my opinion. They make some good beers and they are affordable, i.e. not $12 a pint like most microbrews here. We each get a beer and a small lunch while we check out the brewery.

It's approaching the time for our adventure so we head over to Wild West Adventure Company (http://www.fun-nz.com/) for our orientation. Mom takes the car and heads off to check out Shantytown, an old town where they found a lot of gold back in the day. With Julia and I are two solo travelers - a young woman from China and an older gentleman from England. Our guide makes five. Small group. Our guide explains to us how cold the water in the cave is and that we have to wear wetsuits. But that's not all. underneath the wetsuits we have two layers of long underwear and thick wool socks. This is a seious getup. I'm terrified to think how cold this water must be. All suited up, we jump into the van for the drive to our tubing spot.

It's about a 30 minute drive and after passing two recently burned cars we reach the end of a gravel road. This is our destination. If this was a horror movie we would be dead in a matter of time. Luckily it's not a horror movie, but the location of a dark cave. We unload from the van and our guide leads us to a pile of black tubes the company keeps out here. We choose our tubes and follow the guide down a damp path through the rain forest. He says it's about a 20 minute walk and it's damn hot in these wetsuits. The walk can't end soon enough. We have rubber boots on. And it's a damn good thing we do because the path is muddy as hell. It's a tough walk but eventually we reach the edge of a ledge. We can't quite see down to the bottom but our guide tells us to toss our tubes down off the ledge. Apparently we will be heading down there, just a different way. We toss our tubes down and head on down a less steep route, eventually finding our tubes at the outside of a thin crevasse in the rocks. Looks like we will be hiking through this tiny slot in the rocks. It's an adventure but we reach the end of the crevasse without too much trouble and find ourselves on the edge of a slow moving river. This is where we will start our tubing. We toss our tubes in the river and hop in.

The water really isn't that cold. I wish I wasn't wearing this frikin' wet suit. The water in the Guadeloupe in central Texas is colder than this. And we don't have any beer! The river is wild though - not exactly the calm floating to drink beer river. We go through multiple rapids and under numerous waterfalls. It's been about a hour and we still haven't reached the cave. With every turn in the river I get my hopes up that we will soon be heading into a cave but it is not to be. Until finally our guide stops us and tells us to get out of the river. Apparently the cave doesn't exactly connect to this river. We climb a small hill and there it is. It looks dark down there. There is another small hill down to the water and we slide down like we are sledding into the water. I'm the first one to go and I hit the water with a thud. Now I know why we have the wet suits.

This water is infinitely colder than the river water. How it's not frozen I'm not sure (OK maybe it wasn't that cold but it was cold). The others follow me and we get situated back in our tubes ready to float into the cave. It's almost pitch black in the cave so we hold each other hands to feet. The water is almost still here, so floating is not really working. I'm at the front so I paddle a bit with my hands, the only part of my body exposed to the frigid water. Holy hell that is cold! The cave is narrow and I bump into the rocky sides again and again. At least I can use the cave walls to guide myself down the river. Eventaully we reach a spot where we can look up and see the little dots of blue.

I've seen glow worms before - up in Waitamo Caves on the North Island. I was in a boat that time, so this is a bit different, like I have more freedom. Glow worms can be found all over the world, but the ones we have in New Zealand are unique to this country (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arachnocampa_luminosa). They glow a neon blue color to attract prey. The glowing you see is in the larva form. Once they turn into flies they don't glow anymore, and only a live a few days, whereas they spend up to 12 months as larva. They cling to the roofs of caves and looks like blue stars in the sky to someone looking up. It's an incredible phenominon only found in a few remote places of the country. And we are right underneath them!

After a while of floating we have to get up and walk. The water is too low due to lack of rain. This is even more thrilling, though, as it is pitch black other than the guide's headlamp and I am taking each step just hoping something is below my feet. We reach a spot where a light shines in from above - a man-made entrance to the cave. We stop here and our guide busts out some hot chocolate. I was wondering what he had in that bag of his. The hot cup feels amazing on my hands, which are about to enter stage 1 of frostbite (not really). The chocolate is good, but all I want to do is hold the cup. After I finish I concede ownership of the hot cup and we head back towards the natural opening in the cave. Back in our tubes I can hardly feel my hands as I bounce along the cave walls to the entrance. Goodbye little glow-worms, I'm sure I'll see you again someday!

This concludes our glow worm black water tubing tour. We head back into Greymouth where mom is waiting for us. But first we get beer and muffins (everywhere down here seems to give you muffins) while we sit in the hot tub for a few minutes. It's a nice change after the ice cold cave water. We can't dwell for too long though. We still have about a 2-3 hour drive down to Franz Josef Glacier where we will be staying for two nights. Plus we've decided on the little town of Hokitika to stop at for dinner. We bid our guide farewell and hit the road.

It's only about a half hour to Hokitika... and on the way we decide on a pizza joint that is rated well in Julia's guidebook. We order a large and a medium pizza and sit outside to wait. It's a nice outdoor patio and the sun is setting over the ocean. So we wait. And we wait. And eventually we wonder why we are still waiting. How long does it take to cook a pizza? I finally go inside and ask what's taking so long and someone tells me that our pizza is next to be made. I say we've been here almost 45 minutes already, to which she says there is an hour wait for food. Apparently someone was supposed to tell me when we ordered. "No, no one told me," I say. "If I would have known that I would have gone somewhere else!" Well so much for getting to Franz Josef before dark.

The pizza finally comes after over an hour of waiting, and like all pizza's in New Zealand I am extremely disappointed. The only good pizza here is Hell Pizza (http://hellpizza.com/nz/). It was silly to think that this place would be good. I vow to never go to another pizza place here. Especially since these two pizzas set us back almost $50. Pizza just isn't the same here. We finish off the entire pizzas, though - we paid enough for them. After our mediocre dinner we get back on the road. It will be dark soon so we will be missing some good scenery. Damn you crappy pizza place for making us wait over an hour for your crappy pizza!

The sun sets over the Tasman Sea as we head south down Highway 6 into Westland National Park. It's pitch black now. Millions of stars are above us. The road is empty - I hardly ever have to turn off my high beams for passing cars. All is quiet until I turn a corner and all of a sudden there is something in the road. It's a creature. Small, and standing on two legs. I can't jam on the breaks, there is not enough time. The animal doesn't even make an attempt to move. It's all over in a millisecond. The car passes over the animal without hitting it. Luckily the animal avoided the tires and was small enough to fit under the car. I turn to my mom. Was that... was that a kiwi!?

The kiwi is the national bird of New Zealand. It's short, ugly, and flightless. Why New Zealanders are named after them I have yet to research, but the bird is basically the national symbol of New Zealand. They are extremely elusive - only coming out at night - and not very smart. They are grey or brown in color with a long beak. My mind flashes to the image of the animal in the road. Holy hell we just ran over a kiwi! Good thing we didn't hit it and it will live to see another day. It didn't even make an attempt to move out of the road. Yep, definitely a kiwi. At least I've seen one now.

After our nearly-killing-a-kiwi experience we are not on the road too much longer before we arrive in Franz Josef Glacier, a small township right outside of the glacier. We arrive in town around 10:00, exhausted from a long day. We check into our room and hit the sack. It's a clear night, stars galore. We can only hope it stays this clear tomorrow as we will be hiking on Fox Glacier!

Fox Glacier is one of the few glaciers in the world you can actually walk on. It's not open to any Joe Schmoe due to the danger involved in walking on a constantly moving giant block of ice, but you can book a guided walk with Fox Glacier Guiding (http://www.foxguides.co.nz/) for a typical New Zealand price of about $120. They basically have a monopoly on the glacier, but how often do you get to say you hiked on a glacier? The NPS doesn't let you near the glaciers in Alaska. This was the very first thing we booked three months ago when we made our plans.

I awake in the morning excited about hiking on the glacier. It's 7 AM but it's really dark in the room. That's interesting; it should be light by now. I step outside and the mystery is solved. The sky has fallen overnight. The clouds are no more than 100 meters in the air. Tops of mountains are out of the question - I can barely see the bases! Sunlight will not be shining through this thick cloud cover any time soon. What a disappointment after such a clear night. Oh well, mountains are never very cooperative with me. We are in a rain forest after all. We bundle up in cold weather gear and make the 30 minute drive down to Fox Glacier.

The clouds are no different down here when we check into our tour. There are 28 of us total, mostly a big Asian tour group. Ironically one of the guides is named Asia. She's from Poland. They put us into heavy work boots and hand us ice crampons as we load onto the bus. After a short drive we are in a huge valley at the base of Fox Glacier. It's fairly crowded here, as there is a hiking trail that leads to an overlook of the glacier. We break into two groups - the Asians go with Asia and we go with the Kiwi guide. I make a joke about this to Asia and she is not amused. It's "ah-zia" she says. Lighten up, Asia.

We are on the normal hiking trail for a while before we cross a barrier with signs warning us to go no further. Some people ignored the signs back in 2009 and were killed when a giant chunk of ice broke free from the glacier. They had to use bulldozers to recover their bodies. I feel good we are with the guiding company now, as the guide explains that they have to cancel the tours quite often when the glacier conditions are not suitable for walking. After not too long we reach the edge of the ice. It's a massive glacier that oddly recedes and expands, unlike most glaciers that just recede these days. The ice isn't as clean as you'd imagine, since rock and sediments are constantly falling on the surface of the glacier. From a distance it's hard to tell it's even a glacier, it's so brown. But up close I can see the white and blue ice I am about to walk on.

We latch our crampons onto our boots and we are ready to go. The company's guides and workers are constantly carving stairs into the glacier to make it safe to walk on. We follow our guide as he leads us onto the ice. It's thrilling to be walking on a glacier. I watch my step and follow the group as we climb further up the ice. Our guide stops a few times to talk to us, even spotting some Austrian mountain deer in the rocks above us. We hike around on the ice for about 30 minutes before coming to a stop at a deep crevasse. The ice here is so blue! It's like someone painted it. We take turns posing for pictures in the crevasse before heading back down the glacier to solid land.

All in all we spend about an hour on the glacier. I wish we could stay longer, but that one hour is exactly one hour more than I have ever spent on a glacier before, so I am satisfied. We hike back to the bus and head back to town, glacier tour over. After a quick lunch at a American wild west themed cafe we are back in the car. Before heading back up to Franz Josef we want to check out Lake Matheson, just a hop, skip and a jump away. On clear days the lake has a perfect view of Mt. Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand. We have no false hopes of seeing Cook today but we figure the lake is still worth checking out. We do a short hike around the lake to the Mt. Cook viewpoint. As expected we have a view of nothing but clouds. It's a nice walk through the dense rain forest though, a complete 180 from walking on a glacier a few minutes ago.

We arrive back in Franz Josef mid afternoon. Julia is tired so chooses to take a nap while mom and I go check our Franz Josef Glacier. Franz Josef Glacier is similar to Fox Glacier, but there are no hiking tours to it. The current state of the glacier does not allow for walking onto it. There is a way to walk on it, however. You can take a helicopter and be dropped down to it. Those tours are quite expensive. There is a hiking trail that leads to its base though, so we decide to do that. As we walk in the valley information signs tell us where the glacier was at certain points in time. It has receded quite a bit in the last 100 years. The valley where it once stood is just barren rock today. The glacier is still huge, but receding rapidly. A little blue sky shows through the clouds and we get a slight view of the top of the glacier. It looks like it would be magnificent on a clear day. But clear days are rare here so we'll just have to take what we can get. After walking around the valley for about an hour we head back to the hotel.

Julia and I decide we want to go check out the Glacier Hot Pools up the street. Mom stays at the hotel and we head over to the pools, which are just natural hot springs built into a fancy hot tub setting. There are three pools at different temperatures. It's not too crowded so we sit comfortably in the pools and relax. We've been on the move constantly this trip so it's nice to just sit in the hot water for a while. After an hour at the pools we head back to the hotel. We hit up the Speight's Landing Bar for dinner, a short walk from the hotel. It's got a good ambiance and the food is excellent. A good way to end the day. Tomorrow will be another long day on the road. Queenstown is a good 350 kilometers away on winding roads. We will be crossing the Southern Alps at one of only three locations on the whole island where a road crosses the mountain range. Should be a fun drive!

Tuesday morning begins cloudy, just like yesterday. I'm convinced that this glacier area is always covered in clouds in the mornings. Back on the road, we head south and reach the tiny town of Haast by mid-day. This is the last stop for almost 80 miles as we will be crossing the mountains so we grab a quick lunch. I get a whitebait fritter. Whitebait is a little tiny clear fish common in New Zealand. And when I say tiny I mean tiny. In order to get a meal out of them you'd probably have to eat about 500 fish. In order to make them into a meal restaurants put them in eggs, sort of like an omelette, they just call it a fritter. My fritter has about 15 whitebait fish and is half the size of the eggs I make every morning at home. Waste of $12. Still hungry, we hit the road again.

As we make our way through Haast Pass we enter Mount Aspiring National Park. It's a large park though, so we can't exactly see Mt. Aspiring, which is apparently the largest mountain in the country not in the group of mountains that contains Mt. Cook. The good news, however, is that the skies are clearing. We stop multiple times for pictures and by the time we reach the east side of the mountains the sky is blue! This is a welcome sight after nearly two days of clouds. And the amazing thing is we have left the rain forest and entered a desert-like terrain. It is very dry here on the east side of the mountains. There are even desert plants that look like yucca trees. Only in New Zealand can you see so many different ecosystems in one day of driving.

As we pass Lake Hawea I am in awe of the beauty of this island. We were literally walking on a glacier yesterday morning, hiking through a dense temperate rain forest yesterday afternoon, and now we are gazing upon a lake with cacti in the foreground and huge barren rock mountains in the background. We have gone from Glacier Bay, Alaska to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state to Palm Springs, California all in barely 24 hours. What's next, the great plains!?

Our first extended stop of the day is in Wanaka, a small town on the edge of a huge lake. We are not far from Queenstown now, but we want to do a little hike here before moving on. It's arid down here, like it hasn't rained in months. We decide to hike Wanaka Hill, about a 3 mile round trip loop hike to the top of a small mountain that overlooks the town. It's a steep climb and it's quite hot. Yesterday we were freezing on a giant block of ice. Now it's in the 80s and the sun is beating down on our heads. One extreme to the other. We manage to make it up the mountain with no trouble, though, and are rewarded with a great view of Wanaka, the lake, and the surrounding valleys. There is a not a cloud in the sky. Again, I'm just amazed at how different this area is than where I woke up this morning. The trail down the mountain goes around the other side and before we know it we are back at the car, ready to head to Queenstown.

It's a beautiful drive to Queenstown and we reach the "adventure capital of the world" around 6:00. We will be here for three nights, using it as our base for Fiordlands travel.

For the continuation of this story see NZ South Island Road Trip Part 2: Queenstown to Marlborough

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