4 Days of March in the South Island, Part I: New Zealand Photography


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Oceania » New Zealand » South Island
March 6th 2006
Published: August 5th 2006
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Southern Beech Forest(Nothofagus) Southern Beech Forest(Nothofagus) Southern Beech Forest(Nothofagus)

Rain from the previous night made things fresh.
Day 1- Wellington to Picton over the Ferry. Drive to St. Arnaud
Day 2- Alpine Hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park
Day 3- River Rafting the Buller River, Maruia Hot Springs
Day 4- Driving West Coast from Pancake Rocks to Fox Glacier


Day 1- Wellington felt strikingly like San Francisco. If I knew nothing about its long history of earthquakes, maritime climate or its lively arts scene- I would still feel the same way. The people I saw were either young professionals or students. Everyone was trendy and lots of people were on the streets, giving the feeling of being downtown in NYC or SF. The skyscrapers of Central Wellington are crammed in between steep hills and the ocean. The surrounding geography lends itself to this layout as well, causing Wellington to have the highest property prices in the country. As the areas suitable for house building are harder to come by and farther away from the city center, traffic congests freeways and the property prices skyrocket- compounding the traffic problems further as more commuters settle in cheaper areas to raise their families. I approached Wellington from the North, and passed through many of these suburbs. It had a
Relax Shelter from the DOCRelax Shelter from the DOCRelax Shelter from the DOC

I wondered is all these huts were really necessary until the blazing sun and relentless 30 mph wind had changed my mind. A quick siesta in the rustic comfort of sturdy wooden room with writings from all the travellers who had been there was very refreshing.
Bay Area or Seattle feel to it, as I passed from community to community separated by ocean, bay or hills. It was a magical day, and after purchasing my Ferry ticket I returned my car to Avis. For rental cars, they check in your car and have one waiting for you at the ferry terminal in Picton. Brilliant! the Ferry Boat was like a cruise ship- HUGE! 7 stories. It had a Bar with TV's and drunk Kiwi rugby players, surely the spot I would be if I was with my friends from college. It was a 4 hour ride, although the physical distance is only 60 miles. Strangely enough, Picton is actually farther north than Wellington, it just feels like you are going south.

Once you reach the South Island, the familiar face of forestry rears its ugly head. Unforested mature areas made the islands in the ocean bays look exactly like California. I cant say enough how familiar this made things feel! It's like for the last 10 years I invented this idea of New Zealand in my head, and then when I got here I feel like its home. The same thing happened with Chile, and
Ridge TrailRidge TrailRidge Trail

The hike out to 5500 foot Christie Ridge.
I think these familiar feelings are a product of me choosing landscapes so similar to home in Califoirnia. Regardless, it was spectacular. Steep forest ridges rise from the ocean, like the beginnings of a fjord in a Mediterranean blue sea. Picton was dryer, hotter and sunnier than anywhere else I had been in the North Island. Car pickup went smoothly, and I was in a hurry to get to St. Arnaud and see my first glimpse of the Southern Alps.

The drive over the hill to Blenheim was pleasant, I could feel the difference in the South Island already- far less people using the same infrastructure and land. Blenheim was a nice little town, the supermarket experience there was memorable! I'm like my friend Allison- one of my favorite things to do is go to a foreign countries supermarket. Bleheim is surrounded by vineyards for wine and orchards for fruit, ornamental birch trees and poplars as wind breaks. This is the one place in New Zealand where it felt most like the Central Valley Back home. Im trying to say it was a bit boring! Just kidding, I don't follow the "Agricultural Landscapes are Boring" school of thought. Blenheim is in the sunniest place in New Zealand, surrounded by mountains, next to an ocean and 1 hour from Alpine Lake and Glacial Valley hiking.

I realized I hadn't made a reservation for a motel yet. Since there is only 3-4 places to stay in the village St. Arnaud if you aren't camping at the park I made some calls. Fortunately mid May is not tourist season, and the lodge had a vacancy so I reserved 2 nights. The weather got cloudy as I drove to St. Arnaud, on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. By the time I was in the Beech Trees, it was wet and cold. But like being in Coastal Alaska, I knew this meant rivers, lakes and Treeline weren't far away. The room was nice, I repacked my bags, had some dinner and some beer. It was strange, here i was in the Southern Alps 6800 miles from home- but they were playing a Thievery Corporation CD I had as the background music in the lodge! They are one of my favorite groups, and I dont know anywhere in the the US I would hear downtempo trip hop and acid jazz in a nice Mountain
Buller River RaftingBuller River RaftingBuller River Rafting

The rapids weren't intense, but the scenery was world class.
Lodge!

When I retired into my room, I watched some local TV. It's a very curious thing to watch TV from another country, the entire programming is filled with local content, local style and regional concerns. I realized it stopped raining, and when I looked outside I saw a clear sky! Amazing, so I got my warm clothes on and hiked to the Lake, 1 km away. I had yet to see the southern sky from New Zealand, the north being too cloudy with warm rain. Once I got to the lake, it was glorious. The hundreds of wood planks on the Lake Rotoiti pier point due south, and the Southern Sky has thousands of stars that millions of people in the Northern Hemisphere go to their graves without seeing. I made a split image below of the view of Southern Sky, one with labels on the interesting parts and one without.

DAY 2- Today was hiking day! The hike was incredible. The trail was steep, hard, long and rewarding. The beauty of Nelson Lakes was unreal, magnified by the strange carpet like plants and fierce wind. I had an incredible time and wished I could spend a
Day 1-Wellington to St. ArnaudDay 1-Wellington to St. ArnaudDay 1-Wellington to St. Arnaud

Downtown Wellington, New Zealand's capitol. It felt a lot like San Francisco, being on the ocean, windy, cool, compact and modern.
week back country hiking. But that's when the wanderlust kicks in, telling me there are far too many incredible places far from here that are worth a visit. Regardless, the fields of Tussock Grass rhythmically waving in synch with the wind was a sight to see...

Two reservations I did make a week in advance was for river rafting the next day and a night at Maruia Hot Springs. I guess Maruia could be considered the least developed of the two big Hot Springs Resorts on the South Island(Hanmer Springs being the other). The Buller River is the fifth largest river in New Zealand, however it is New Zelands Largest Wild River. I signed up for an all day affair, 2, 3 hour trips on the upper and lower sections of the Buller River. Ultimate Descents was a great tour operation, the guides were cool and their experience was first class. The trip was a ton of fun, I met some Scottish couples and an Irish Soldier. The first trip was probably the best, more rapids, steep gorges and a big waterfall. there were kiwis gold panning as the area was a gold rush area back in the late 1800's. He said they pull in an oz of gold a week, by panning for fun on the weekends. One mine shaft off the river's edge diverted some water, I wondered where all the water went if it never filled up the hole?

The second trip was a much grander experience, the river was surrounded by steep and tall forested mountains. The river was wider and slower, alternating with huge bends and wide rocky rapids and side streams clean enough to drink. And drink we did! It was hot. We saw a wild goat that had hybridized with some other wild type of goat, it had some weird kiwi name and they guides were impressed to see one! The forest was thick and inviting.

Driving to Maruia springs couldn't have gone faster, but the scenery got steep and higher and once I got to the springs. Maruia Hot Springs is completely Japanese theme and very un-imposing on the landscape. After check in at 7pm I got a massage, finding out the therapist had one last appointment before 8pm closing came. It was a weird Japanese massage, complete with demure non-English speaking Japanese woman, weird clapping hands and feet techniques, and Japanese Music. I had a dinner of Deer and potatoes, a bottle of Sake and some beer. I soaked in the communal baths, a private room and the rock pools by the river. I went back at midnight to the rock pools, found no one and soaked under the southern sky for an hour in the 105 degree pool. It was magical.

DAY 4- The next day brought a long drive south through the West Coast Rainforests to Fanz Josef Glacier. I had planned to take a shorter route and bypass some of the most visited parts of the west coast, Pancake Rocks and the Punakaiki Coast as it was going to add several hours of sightseeing to the drive. But on the well heeded advice of the friendly Kiwi woman at Maruia Springs, I decided to go for it. I knew it was the right way to go as I quickly met up with the Buller River I had gotten to know so well the previous day. Following it to the ocean, the vegetation grew more lush, Nikau palm trees appeared and it got warmer. The lower Buller River carves quite a gorge as it meanders to its source, the Tasman Sea. The Northwest Coast was dramatic, forested mountains plunge into the ocean that is filled with sea stacks and kelp. Soon mesas of limestone appeared, turnouts for caves and overlooks were around every corner and tree ferns lined the road. "The Roaring 40's" of the Southern Hemisphere is in full effect here, dumping large amounts of rainfall from the west at between 40 and 50 degrees latitude south. This band of big Antarctic storms that come at regular intervals throught the year creates the lush forests and Glaciers of the West Coast of New Zealand, Chile and Argentina. The Pancake rocks were far more dramatic and far less touristy than I imagined. Here from the beach cliffs, you can see the bushline, the ocean, Limestone cliffs and the forest from one spot. Truly a magical place! Going further south was a long haul. Greymouth was my favorite town in New Zealand though, it felt a bit like a surfing town back in California, although the sunny and warm weather could have had something to do with that. Soon the rivers turned milky blue, the forest became thicker and the towns dissappeared. Then mountains came closer to the ocean, their 3000 foot cliffs imposing their presence over the land. When I saw the first turquoise river, I knew I was in Glacier Country! I couldn't help but smile, knowing what was behind the shroud of fog and mist that enveloped the coast. The last place in town was actually south of Franz Josef Village at Fox Village. Both glaciers are big entry points for hiking and sightseeing, but Fox is 20 minutes away and a lot less populated. I high tailed it to GIllespies Beach, a spot I had read about in local backpacking books as being one of the best wilderness beaches on the South Island. Arriving at sunset, I found only 2 people on the beach! It was a long beach, composed of rough stones and not sand. It was hard walking, but the hundreds of dead tree stumps washed on shore told me the ocean was even harder to travel through. I retired to my room for the night, wondering where the "Mt. Cook View" was... somewhere behind the mist and clouds? At 3 am I woke up, and found it right outside my huge bay window. I've never been so exhilirated and
Wellington  Ferry PassengersWellington  Ferry PassengersWellington Ferry Passengers

overs love, and we all grow old. People of our lives who's stories are never told.
happy at 3am before!

Getting back to the hotel well after dark, I had a bunch of beers and listened to the rain on the porch. I woke in the middle of the night, and couldn't believe what I was looking at through the huge bay window next to my overpriced bed- A full moon illuminating Mt. Cook! I signed up for another night the next morning, along with a helicopter and hiking tour of Franz Josef Glacier. The next 4 days would send to the tallest mountains in New Zealand, 4 glaciers, 6 lakes and all day canyoning adventure! One more entry left!




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Lumber Ship and Harvested HillsLumber Ship and Harvested Hills
Lumber Ship and Harvested Hills

The Monterey Pine(pinus radiata), grows faster in Central Chile and New Zealand faster than at home in California. A local told me the trees grow from sapling to 15 meter harvest height in 25 years.
North Island ForestryNorth Island Forestry
North Island Forestry

Because of all the pine trees, the coastline looked very familar to California. Pine forest covered cliffs and hills plunge into the sea.
Forest FireForest Fire
Forest Fire

Also, like back at home!
Ferry ViewFerry View
Ferry View

Entering Picton Harbor
Welcome to PictonWelcome to Picton
Welcome to Picton

As I drove by the town park I did a double take at the tree- the largest domestic Sequoia I've ever seen. Sequoias werent discovered until the late 1800's. 100 feet high in 150 years- almost a foot a year! It had a special plaque, there was another of the same size on the opposite side of the park. Testament to the greenhouse like weather of New Zealand.
Blenheim CloudsBlenheim Clouds
Blenheim Clouds

It was a gorgeous day. The fierce heat of the sunshine was only interrupted by brief periods of passing clouds. Weather called for rain? Actually this is the sunniest portion of New Zealand, the Marlborough Sound Region(North Tip of the North Island). This sunny and mild mediterranean feel give way to New Zealand's best vineyards and orchards- as well as sea kayaking and trekking.
Road from Blenheim2Road from Blenheim2
Road from Blenheim2

As the clouds drew stronger, the scenery became more dramatic. I passed grapevines and orchards, and a few pine plantations. I was eager to get to my reservation at Nelson Lakes before the sun went down.
Bushline has comeBushline has come
Bushline has come

By the time the Clouds and Wind overtook the Valley, so did the Forest and Rock. Fortunately the Rocks won, and I caught my first glimpse of Alpine South Island!
LichensLichens
Lichens

I realized I had not yet been able to see the Southern Sky in New Zealand, too bad it was drizzles. But at about 1130 pm, the rain stopped. It was only 1km to the lake pier, so I got my gear and left. Nobody was on the roads, not one car all the way there. I got my first taste of the Beech Rainforest that coats New Zealand like icing.
Southern SkySouthern Sky
Southern Sky

Once i got to the pier I saw it.. How glorious it was, and the lake even was open to the south. What did I see? The entirely foreign South Hemisphere late summer display of stars! I got out the star guide when I got home and drew in the coolest parts. An Arm of the Southern Cross points to the south pole. Barely visible, Proxima Centauri was found with much back and forth between the star guide and the sky. Eta Carinae is a star 100x larger than the sun that is about to erupt in a nova, its brightness has been increasing by a factor of five in the last 200 years.


17th May 2006

Amazing
I am so impressed with your pictures, travel descriptions, and the way you made it feel like I was there. You are very talented, Stephen. I wish I could travel with you sometime.
17th May 2006

Spot On
Janet is right, Stephen you do have a real gift. Your photography tells me you have the eye. Your narative is inviting as well. I feel like I'm there or at least want to go. Many thanks.
18th July 2006

Many thanks!
Thank you both so much for your kind words. I look forward to posting, and travelling, more!
3rd December 2007

As a homesick Kiwi living in California for the last 21 years, your travelogue Steven made feel strongly connected to New Zealand again. The photography is beautiful and you have captured that amazing New Zealand light, thanks Ed in Alameda, California.
3rd December 2007

trade me?
I wish I was a homesick Californian living in the South island! Thank you so much, compliments like yours are the best I could ever hope to receive...
4th August 2008

Hi from Blenheim
Hi there Steven, came across your blog while looking up an image of Beech. I am blessed to live in Blenheim (the boring place! lol). I'm a Kiwi, New to the South, and love the Place's you describe, the majistic sky at the lake I was lucky to experience, I have never seen so many stars, I am off there again soon to tramp and can't wait.
17th January 2009

Blenheim...
The more I reflect, the more I realize I would like nothing more than to settle down in Blenheim! One of the top 3 places with the most sunshine, less than an hours drive to the ocean and the alpine mountains, good wine... :) Boring? Perhaps. A fantastic place to live? YES!

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