The extremes of New Zealand
A road trip through the South Island
Ever since we visited the North Island in New Zealand, we have longed to go back and discover the South Island and all it’s famous landmarks. Once we picked up our camper van and started heading out on the road, we knew fairly soon that we would be in for a road trip treat of a life time!
Filed Under: New Zealand by Katrine March 19, 2013, 15:20
After saying our goodbyes to Asia and leaving all the hectic and colourful streets behind, we flew south east to New Zealand’s south island. We were looking forward to finally see this part of the kiwi islands since we had only visited the north island back when we lived in Australia.
We arrived in Christchurch at 2 am after a 27 hour flight nightmare with stopovers everywhere and with Katrine having food poisoning during the whole trip. A little goodbye present from Hanoi for sure. At this time we also found out that the airline had lost our baggage, so when we finally arrived at the cheap hotel in early morning all we had were the clothes we had travelled in. After a well longed for shower in the communal bathroom we fell asleep in the most comfortable beds we experienced in the last couple of months.
The next day we walked through Christchurch to get to the Wicked camper place to pick up our van. We had no idea just how destroyed the city centre was from the big 2010 earthquake and we were left in shock over the deserted wasteland, destroyed buildings and debris in the middle of the city. The shopping streets were gone and in its place we’re colourful containers servicing as temporary shops and cafes.
Once we found our way to Wicked we picked up our van “Vermin” that was to be our home for the next 3 weeks while exploring the country. It was a pretty rusty old van with enough room for two people to sleep in and it had a small sink with basic cooking and cutlery equipment and an eski for storing food. We made a rough plan on our route we were going to drive, starting clockwise from Christchurch and keeping mostly along the coast until we got back. That night we finally got our bags back from the airport, though we had to go and collect it ourselves at the airport. The next morning we were finally on our way!
We headed south along the coast enjoying very green meadows and fields with crops on our right and beautiful blue waves hitting cliffs on our left. The sky was so blue and the road so empty of traffic, it was a wonderful change to the smog filled and busy Asian roads. We truly enjoyed our freedom of driving where we wanted without being tied to bus or train schedules. We stopped at a camping site in Omaru, a medium sized seaside town, were we experienced some seriously heavy rainstorms stopping us from going to see the blue eyed penguin colony that apparently resided on a part of the beach outside town.
Hoping for better weather we continued south the next morning towards the Catlins national park. On the way we stopped briefly to look at the Moeraki boulders, a group of giant rock nodules that the erosion of the pounding waves on the beach had washed out from the sand stone like cliffs. It was beautiful sun shine again but once we passed the bigger city of Dunedin the clouds where getting darker. Since it was new years eve we knew we had to get to a camping site fairly early to have a chance to get a spot, so despite the looming weather we continued into the Catlins and found a lovely little camping park in New Haven on the waters edge. We managed a walk down to the windswept and beautifully long beach for a stroll before the tide got in, and once we got back to the site we had our first BBQ and shared some wine before the rain set in. Once the rain started it didn’t stop and at midnight Katrine went out getting soaking wet trying to spot the fireworks that somehow still was going off.
The next day it was still pouring and we decided to drive on instead of hanging around to see more things. We ended up driving towards Invercargill but by taking the scenic route stopping at the Purakauni falls, Cathedral cave and Curio Bay fossil forest where we spotted several blue eyed penguins as well! Invercargill was a very quiet town, but being New Years day we weren’t surprised and the following morning we continued our journey towards the famous southwest coast where the beautiful fjords and mountains are.
We drove in to Manapouri, a very small little town that is a great location for exploring the magnificent sounds of New Zealand. When we realised that doing the boat tours on the sounds was a pretty expensive adventure, we decided to choose Doubtful Sound for the cruise since that is the only one accessible by boat and bus only, while we could drive to Milford Sound ourselves. We parked our bohemian looking van in the local campground and to enjoy the rest of the day we rented a small boat taxi to cross the lake for a 3 hour trek through beautiful and wet rainforest! The next day we boarded the first boat that took us across the lake towards the stretch of inaccessible land except by boat that we needed to cross to get to Doubtful sound. We enjoyed the cruise despite rain clouds and a packed boat and the further out towards the open sea we got the more blue sky started to show. Some dolphins were giving us a bit of a show on a couple of occasions and seals were sunbathing among the enormous swells where the sound flowed out to the sea.
The next day we finally had sunshine and blue sky and we started our drive towards Milford Sound. Despite hearing rumours that it was a scenic route wee didn’t really realise just how beautiful the way there was! Snow capped steep mountains behind deep green meadows bursting with flowers in pinks, blue and yellow. Turquoise blue streams and mirror reflecting clear lakes, waterfalls everywhere and magnificent forests and roaring rivers. One can understand very easy why this landscape inspired movies like Lord of the Rings.
After the beautiful south west we headed towards Queenstown. The drive was scenic once again and Queenstown sure had a very picturesque location bordering the huge lake Wakatipu, but since this is also a tourist hotspot we found things very expensive. We stayed outside town in beautifully located campgrounds in Arthurs Point overlooking the mountain peeks. When we left we passed through wild west looking little gold rush town Arrowtown and continued through mountain passes and valleys towards Lake Tekapo in the centre of the island. Before we arrived at Lake Tekapo we made a stop at unbelievably minty greenblue lake Pukaki that was showing breaking waves the size of several meters! In the background on the other side of the impressive lake we saw several snow capped mountains from the Mount Cook range and the whole scene looked like something from a fantasy movie. Once we reach our destination we realised that lake Tekapo was equally iridescent with an almost glowing light when the sun hit the water.
During the evening the wind picked up even more and soon new rain clouds where on the horizon. Our tour to the Mount John observatory that we had looked forward to was cancelled and the next day we awoke to gale force winds and heavy rains. After checking the weather forecast for the next few days we saw that no matter where we went the bad weather would hit, so we decided to not waste time but to head towards the west coast and the glaciers we heard about there. This would prove to be the most difficult and scary drive during our whole trip so far.
We knew that bad weather could close roads around the west coast due to floorings and landslides, so we wanted to try and at least get there before something like that might happen. We thought that if we just could get through the Haast Pass we could just sit the weather out until we could continue up the coast. On our way the winds were so strong that the van went sideways on a number of occasions. The rain was at times so intense that it was like driving through thick fog with very little visibility. Once we started to get closer to the mountains on the Haast pass waterfalls where spurting out from the mountainsides and onto the road, rivers had crept up over the flat bits of road dragging rocks and debris with it. It was now getting dark as well and the rain showed no sign of stopping. When we finally reached Haast on the coast the hurricane strong windgusts brought thunder and lightning. It didnt help that the campground was on an open field next to a very swollen river but at this time we had no daylight left to try and get any further. Need less to say we started to get nervous about our safety. We then started seeing people turning into the camp ground that had to turn around and come back due to a landslide that had just buried the road behind us we knew that we had made the right ( or very wrong) decision to get to the West coast. Gosh we really did get through at the very last minute! Later that night the huge door to the old hangar shed on the campground flew off with a huge bang mixing with the hundreds of lightning bolts and thunder and wind pounding us all. No one got hurt but it scared us all.
Luckily the next morning was like a different day and things had calmed down. The rain had stopped, the wind had settled and we headed of north along the coast. Despite clouds and some minor drizzle we tried to see the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, but with security measures up we didn’t get any closer than 1500 metres which left us very disappointed. We ended the day at a pretty campground next to the sea next to the natural formation of the so called Pancake Rocks. They were in fact so lovely to see that we went back again the following morning before heading on north.
Towards the north we headed to the Golden Bay but once again the weather turned bad and we were left driving through rain and dark clouds. We didn’t have too many days left on our adventure so at is point we decided to head towards the Marlborough region to enjoy some wine instead of being disappointed with not seeing any of the supposedly stunning coast. We signed up for a bike and wine tour the following day which was great fun. We got a bike each, a winery map and then we headed out cycling through the tastings. Brilliant way of mixing fun and exercise.
Once we left Blenheim we followed the east coast back to Christchurch and we got to see an abundance of wild life, quite unexpectedly. Through the rain we saw hundreds of fur seals and we got up really close to a colony that lived next to a small parking lot. We also saw lots of Shags and other seabirds all frolicking on the coastline. We ended our trip with one night outside the city at Akaroa where we enjoyed some blue skies again and some picturesque ancient volcano remnants on our last day. When we said goodbye to Vermin that had served us well during our adventure, we concluded that a road trip through New Zealand’s south island was nothing less of an extreme adventure not for the faint hearted! Phew!
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