Stories from the South Island
Surprising people is immense fun; the looks on people’s faces when you turn up unannounced or the shocked silence on the phone when you call to say you are not far away makes up for the days and months of keeping a secret and covering your tracks. In 2012, I managed to keep a trip back to Scotland a secret from my family and friends for 10 months. I was immensely proud of myself for managing 10 months of keeping in touch with people without a single lie coming out of my mouth, all the while tactfully dodging the truth about my plans. I also spent a week in February 2012 pretending to my partner that I was going to be in Wellington, when in fact I was booked on the ferry to Picton and had a romantic weekend booked for us in Kaikoura.
The sailing across the Cook Strait couldn’t have been more perfect. Notorious for some foul weather and rough seas, the day I crossed the sea was as flat and calm as glass, and it shimmered under the early morning sun that gleamed with pride from a clear blue sky. Over an hour of the crossing is spent sailing through the beautiful and majestic Queen Charlotte Sound, made up of multiple islands nestled amongst the finger-like peninsulas on the north coast of the South Island. I spent the whole sailing standing on the top deck breathing it all in. Picton nestles quaintly into one of the deepest parts of the Sound, and from here I transferred to the Coastal Pacific train, part of the Tranz Scenic rail network. The first thing that struck me on the journey south was how brown the South Island was compared to the North. Trees were being felled for large stretches of the early parts of the track, and the landscape was of brown rolling hills rather than the greenery I had been accustomed to up till now. By the time Blenheim was reached, green pastures and mountains in the distance had started to appear, and this was more like the South Island that I had been expecting, and have come to love.
Cutting past pink salt pans, a sight I never expected to see in New Zealand, the tracks cut to the east coast and took us south on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, waves rolling gently at our side in the sunshine. The Kaikoura ranges shot up to the right of the train, towering above us, and New Zealand fur seals sunbathed on the rocks on our left, ignoring the passing train. At 3.15pm on such a beautiful day, the train pulled into Kaikoura and I stepped off, ready to embrace something new. After a day of silence, I finally made the phone call to my stunned partner to tell him where I was, and after he got over the shock and realisation, he jumped in his car and made the 2.5hr drive north from Christchurch to meet me.
What the town lacks in size, the location makes up in grandeur. Sitting out on a peninsula, it sits at the base of the Kaikoura ranges, and is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Not far off shore is the Hikurangi Trench, an immense sea trench reaching depths of >3000m, which brings an abundance of marine life and an ecosystem that supports one of the largest creatures on earth: the sperm whale. As an avid cetacean enthusiast, I take great passion from getting out to sea to watch whales and dolphins frolicking and surviving in the world’s oceans. We took a flight from the nearby airport which headed off the coast in search of sperm whales. Spending most of their lives feeding at great depths, they spend only 15mins at the surface re-oxygenating their blood in between dives. It took a bit of time, but eventually we found one, and it was fantastic to get an aerial view of a mammal that I am used to seeing from sea-level. It was beautiful, and we circled above it until it arched its tail and dived to the depths in search of giant squid.
The following day, we opted for the sea safari. The weather was squally, and there was a high level sea sickness warning. Determined to get closer than the plane had allowed, we opted to go ahead with the trip. I normally have a pretty iron stomach out at sea, having spent months in South Africa doing regular trips out to watch whales, and various sailings in all sorts of weather, but stupidly I doubted myself on that day. Shovelling a herbal sea sickness remedy and some ginger candy down my throat, I almost immediately felt a burning sensation in my throat. This escalated when we got on the boat and headed out to sea, and it wasn’t long before I was throwing up. We stopped to watch some dusky dolphins, and 3 sperm whales, but I could only stand so much in between curling up on the deck and filling sick bag after sick bag. It was not the whale watching trip I had imagined.
Walking from the town of Kaikoura round the peninsula, takes you to a carpark from which New Zealand fur seals can be seen everywhere you look. The peninsula walk itself is lovely, following the coast round to the south side of the peninsula and back into town. If you know where to go in New Zealand, the fur seals can be found in abundance on both the east and west coasts.
Another favourite place of mine is the French town of Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula. A 1.5hr drive out of Christchurch, the road winds round then over the rim of what used to be a volcano, until the remains of the volcanic crater, now filled by the sea is visible, and within this lies the beautiful Akaroa. It is a small settlement, but like Kaikoura, it has the draw of wildlife. Reached either by 4×4 over the hills, or on a harbour cruise, there is another colony of fur seals just outside of the harbour entrance. The real draw here though is the Hector’s dolphins. Found only in New Zealand’s waters, they are one of the smallest cetacean species in the world, and unfortunately, they are endangered. On a sunny day, the water around Akaroa is so clear, that it is easy to watch these little dolphins even when they are below the surface, and they are always a joy to behold. On my second trip out on a harbour cruise, I even saw a little blue penguin out fishing.
I will always have a slight soft spot for Timaru because I spent a few months there working, but most people would drive through it without giving it a second glance. The beachfront at Caroline Bay with the park behind has been lovingly maintained, and I spent many an hour wandering through here and the coastline around. Further south, the next big tourist draw is Oamaru. It has a few pretty old-fashioned buildings, but for me it held 2 draws: the large blue penguin colony that lives nearby, and as a base to see the Moeraki boulders. In the not-too distant past, the blue penguins came ashore every night to burrow into the hillside by the sea, on the edge of town. Many penguins were killed by drivers and dogs, as they negotiated the road, the railway line, and anybody who came along at the same time. As a result, an area was artificially created to allow the penguins to get to burrows without having to risk crossing traffic, and also to keep nosy people from scaring them. So as a result, you now have to pay to see them come ashore, but it is worth it. My partner and I were there in the dead of winter, and we sat on a viewing stand in the cold dark of an early night, the slipway from the sea illuminated by infra-red light, allowing us to see the penguins, but keeping us in the dark to them. After a bit of a wait, a single penguin negotiated the waves and came running up the slipway only to come across a fur seal that was asleep on the grass. The fur seal didn’t move, and the penguin slipped past and headed towards a burrow. Shortly after, a ‘raft’ of 6 penguins appeared. They hustled each other up the slipway, but this time at the top, the fur seal moved and sent them scattering, 2 towards the burrows, and the other 4 back down the slipway. It was amusing to watch them renegotiate the route back up again, taking small steps then pausing, looking at each other and nudging each other. It was as if they were daring each other to go first. They spent about 10 minutes with this game before eventually they made a run for it. This time the fur seal didn’t bother itself, and they all made it into the burrow area.
Immediately south of Oamaru is a beach where the rare yellow-eyed penguin comes ashore. We had been told to go at sunset to see them come in and sunrise to see them leave. We headed to the lookout and waited and waited and waited. After nearly an hour, not a single penguin had appeared so we headed off. The next morning, we headed out a little late, and met a local who reported that the penguins had arrived shortly after we left. We proceeded back to the lookout and sat for a while, but the sun was already quite up by this point, and we left having seen none.
About 40 mins south of Oamaru is the Moeraki boulders, a natural phenomenon of wave erosion on the local mudstone that exposes near-spherical rocks that then appear to march towards the ocean where they break apart. No two visits to the beach are the same as the structures change shape and form as time and sea break them down. The beach is littered with them, and it was bizarre to wander along and see a newly emerging one appearing out of the cliff. Some were small like footballs, and others were as big as a person, and those that had cracked like an egg were big enough to climb into.
Dunedin is referred to as the Edinburgh of the South; having been to both cities, I have no idea why. It is supposed to have an overwhelming Scottish influence, but aside from 1 restaurant that served whisky and haggis, I can’t say that I saw a lot of that influence myself. Nor was I ever aware of a lot of Scottish people living there, although there are a few Scottish surnames hanging around in New Zealand as a whole. I personally can’t say anything exciting about the city itself. My Scottish friend recently emigrated to Dunedin from Aberdeen, and she seems happy there, but I was not overly fussed with the city myself. What I do love about Dunedin though, is its location, because the Otago Peninsula is just beautiful. Following the coast road round inlets of perfectly still water, beside rolling hills, takes you eventually to Taiaroa head at the tip of the peninsula where the only mainland place in the world to view Royal Albatross is. When I visited in winter, there were several fluffy white chicks being catered to by their parents who came soaring in from the Pacific Ocean beyond.
In the lowering mid-winter sunshine, I headed onwards around the peninsula to Larnach Castle. Heralded as New Zealand’s only castle, it is more like a mansion, but it sits atop a ridge of the Otago Peninsula and commands a stunning view from both the gardens and the rooftop view point. At the southern edge of Dunedin is the suburb of St Clair which commands a view out onto the wilds of the Pacific Ocean and has a beautiful stretch of beach to wander along, as well as some good cafes that are always crammed full of people. Even on a cold winter’s day, I loved pounding the beach, my hair whipped around my face as I breathed in the sea air.
Leaving Dunedin train station is an old-fashioned steam train that travels through the Otago countryside and up the Taieri Gorge. Across viaducts and through tunnels we travelled through some beautiful countryside. In winter it is a 4hr return trip, but the summer offers excursions which allow the train ride to link up to the start of the Otago rail trail, a 150km bike trail cutting an arc through the central Otago landscape. Having regained a love of cycling (something which I used to live for growing up but as an adult had become the stuff of annual jaunts whilst on holiday) since living in Christchurch, I am looking forward to riding the rail trail in the summer of 2014.
Queenstown is generally famous the world over for its adrenalin inducing activities and for Fergberger. I remember laughing when my partner insisted that I had to go there on my first trip to the town in 2012, but on arrival I was astounded by the lengthy queue out the door every day, be it lunch time or dinner time. Soon realising that there was no quiet time there, I joined the masses and quickly became a devotee. Anybody who has eaten there knows that there is no burger like it anywhere else in the world. They are hands-down the most scrumptious meal-in-a-bun that you will ever eat. Another favourite eatery was Patagonia. Having travelled in Patagonia a few years previously, I knew just how decadent ice cream was from that part of the world, so I needed no persuasion to visit this ice-cream parlour-come-coffee shop. Several days of my trip included a fergburger for main course and some delicious Patagonia ice cream for dessert.
Short of eating an extra few inches onto my waistline, I was keen to see what Queenstown was all about. The day I arrived in early March 2012 it was 28oC and the small beach on the shore of Lake Wakatipu was packed. 2 days later I awoke to snow on the ground – I couldn’t believe the transformation. Lake Wakatipu is a long, sinuous lake stretching for 80 km. Getting out on a boat cruise barely covered a tiny patch of this lake, heading from the harbour in the town centre, and round Queenstown gardens before heading up the Frankton Arm of the lake towards the Kawarau Rd bridge. Overlooking the town itself is a number of hills and mountains. The most visited is Bob’s Peak which is accessible by hiking trail and by gondola. I accidentally picked the mountain bike trail to hike up and was quickly yelled at to get out the way. The route was so steep that the bikes were zooming towards me at immense speed and I was in danger of causing an accident. Hiding my blushes, I headed on up the steep slog to the viewpoint at the top of the Gondola. It wasn’t the sunniest of days but the visibility was still great and the view over the lake towards the Remarkables Mountain range was spectacular. Never one for taking the easy route down, I had signed up for the zipline experience to ride 6 flying foxes back down to the town. This was as much splurging as I could afford at this point in time, and it was worth every penny. Each ride we got to try a different maneuver such as riding upside down or flipping positions and it was a new way to experience the forest, feet above my head and staring straight down at the leaf litter below me as the trees whizzed past my ears. Queen’s Hill is also a rewarding hike starting in the back streets of town. The summit offers an alternate view of the lake, but unfortunately, the heavens opened when I reached the top, and the cloud cover came down obscuring a lot of my view.
In winter, Queenstown is all about skiing. The surrounding mountain ranges look pretty in glistening white, and there’s plenty of choice. Within easy driving distance is Coronet Peak, the Remarkables and Cardrona. In July 2013, my partner and I spent a long weekend in Queenstown enjoying the food and the mulled wine which was served almost everywhere. The weather was not in our favour, and the propeller plane we flew down on nearly wasn’t able to land as the clouds were so closed in. With lots of rain, we experienced the indoor life that the town has to offer. The Fear Factory is a new haunted house that has opened up on Shotover Street. In pitch black, you follow a maze of red lights whilst things grab at you from the darkness or leap out at you in a flash of light. The Caddyshack Mini Golf near the Gondola was also a surprise delight. We stumbled across it by chance, but it was full of 18 holes of electronically controlled fun. Embracing the cold weather theme, we spent some time in 1 of Queenstown’s two Ice Bars, Below Zero. Maintained at a chilly -8oC, we enjoyed cocktails out of an ice glass surrounded by ice sculptures. In one of the few gaps in the weather, we managed the scenic drive round Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, a cute little village at the head of the lake. The views were stunning even in the low cloud, so it will be somewhere to head back to in the warmer months.
To this day, Wanaka remains one of my favourite parts of New Zealand. Like the more developed and commercialised Queenstown, it is nestled on the shore of a large lake, but Wanaka offers everything I love: peace and quiet, fewer people, less commercialism, and reams of hiking trails in every perceivable direction. I spent several days here after my time in Queenstown, in March 2012, and the weather was generally perfect. I hiked east round the lake one day, taking in the ever-changing vista of water and mountains, up one of the rivers towards Albert Town, and then back to Wanaka via Mt Iron for an impressive panorama of the town and the surrounding countryside. The following day I hiked west to Glendhu Bay where my hand was savaged by a portaloo (a scar that I still bare to this day!) but I was rewarded with my first glimpse of the glacier streaming down from Mt Aspiring. The weather turned on the long walk home, and I limped soaking into a Greek restaurant in town for a tasty dinner and some well-deserved wine. Having imbibed a little too much wine, I took a slight detour on the way back to the hostel to climb a tree as the sun set.
My favourite hike in Wanaka, headed west round the lake as the day before, but detoured half-way to head up the impressive Roy’s Peak. It was a hard and steady slog, winding zig-zagged up a rather steep incline. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the hike was very popular. From quite early on, the view was stunning. The higher I climbed, the more of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountain ranges I could see. The lake has several islands within it, and every where I looked was a disappearing expanse of greenness. The view from the top trumped it all though. Nearly the full extent of the lake was visible, with Mt Aspiring in one direction, and a stream of mountains in many others. The town of Wanaka itself looked tiny, and even Mt Iron which I had hiked a couple of days before was easily dwarfed. I ate my lunch amongst a cluster of other hikers sharing the summit, and I got great joy from an up close and personal encounter with a couple of falcons who flitted about the summit mobbing each other. On my final day in Wanaka, I opted for the water’s view of the place, taking one of the excursions out to one of the islands on the lake. The area reminded me so much of Cairngorm National Park in my home country of Scotland, and its grandeur took my breath away.
The MacKenzie District will always be a special place for my partner and I. In winter 2012, we headed inland to take up a deal at the Hermitage hotel in Mount Cook Village. Like a little alpine village in Europe, it is nestled in a valley surrounded by towering mountains including New Zealand’s highest: Mount Cook, or Aoraki in Maori. There was plenty of snow as we travelled up the west bank of Lake Pukaki and the village itself was white, with plenty of snow to tramp through and skid on as we negotiated the surrounds of our hotel. The hotel was fantastic, and our ‘cheap’ room included a balcony view overlooking the village and the behemoth of Mt Cook across the valley.
The unfortunate effect of the snow was that a lot of the local tours were cancelled as some of the roads disappearing through the valley were classed as treacherous. The only thing still running was a glacier flight. Mt Cook village sits nestled on the eastern valley of the Southern Alps. Directly west of there sits the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers in all their icy glory. We opted for the cheaper flight which took us on an aerial view around the glaciers, but when we got to the airfield, due to numbers, we got upgraded to the longer tour which encompassed the same scenic flight but included a snow landing on the ice field at the top of the glacier. From the airfield, we headed up and over the Tasman Glacier with its lake, and headed towards the ridgeline of the alps. The sun shone for us and sparkled on the glistening snow behind us, and we gawked at the view towards the peak of Mt Cook, and the west coast beyond. The plane circled above Franz Josef glacier before heading up Fox glacier’s ice field to land on the powder. First out the plane was a petite woman and her feet disappeared to her ankles in the snow. My partner got out next, expecting a similar experience, only for him to disappear down to his knees. I fared little better, and we laughed at each others’ struggles to negotiate the snow, and ‘walk’ about the ice field. The sun beat down on us from above, but it was the middle of winter, and with the altitude we were both freezing, neither of us having dressed for the occasion.
Lake Tekapo neighbours Lake Pukaki in the MacKenzie District, and we spent a few nights there over Easter 2013. The relatively new Spa Pools were a delight to soak in of an evening, enjoying the delightfully warm (though crowded) pools in the fading light. At the top of Mt John behind the Spa Pools is the Mt John Observatory. The whole region around this observatory has been declared an International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only 4 in the world. The light pollution is so low here, that it is an excellent place to go stargazing, and the Milky Way is often visible above the township. We took a guided tour to the observatory with Earth & Sky and the guides were so passionate. It was amazing to see Saturn’s rings through the telescope, as well as Jupiter and an amazing close up of the moon.
Within a reasonable drive from my home in Christchurch is Hanmer Springs. The main reason for visiting here are the amazing geothermal pools. I could sit in these pools for hours, happily becoming a prune, and there are varying pools of varying temperatures to satisfy the relaxation needs of adults, whilst a water park area serves the kids. Attached to the pools is a Spa offering massages and private hot pools. Aside from several trips to the hot pools, on our last visit, my partner and I opted to go on a quad biking adventure out of town. On the drive into Hanmer Springs is a bungee jump centre, and they also offer quad biking through the nearby river valley. Having driven quads before from my younger days as a milkmaid, I started off confident, keeping up with our guide. Unfortunately, within 20 minutes, I took an embankment too quickly and drove head-first into a tree. I did my best impression of Superman over the handlebars, and the tyre of the quad was punctured on a branch. My pride was just as hurt as my limbs were, and I sported some amazing bruises for several weeks after as well as an injured wrist that still gives me problems nearly 6 months later. On the day though, after my quad bike was replaced, I continued with the ride, albeit at a much more timid pace.
The Tranz Alpine train runs from Christchurch to Greymouth via Arthur’s Pass and Lake Brunner. Part of the Tranz Scenic rail network, we took the ride west in July 2012, hoping to see some snow on the mountains. We had previously driven to Arthur’s Pass and enjoyed a walk through the trees to a beautiful waterfall, but this time we could sit back and enjoy the scenery. The train speeds across the flat of the Canterbury Plains before snaking through the Southern Alps through river valleys, gorges and through tunnels in the mountains. Passing the side of Lake Brunner, it continues west towards Greymouth. It was a beautiful trip, and we spent the weekend at Greymouth before heading home on the train. There are so many beautiful vistas from the train, but even the road from the west coast is spectacular. Driving along side glacier-fed rivers, and rolling hills, and across a viaduct, this is the land of Kea, mountain parrots unique to New Zealand. They are cheeky and bold birds, that will chew attachments to vehicles if given half a chance. Resembling a scene from the Lord of the Rings movies, Castle Hill is a boulder-strewn hillside that is worth a wander around. Not far from there is Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, a cave system that is open for unguided, at-your-own-risk exploring. The day we visited we had come unprepared, not knowing of its existence, but now the owner of a wetsuit, I intend to get back here one day and go caving.
The north-west corner of the South Island is a mass of National Parks, and the countryside and coastline are overwhelming beautiful. In January 2013, I spent my summer holidays road-tripping from Abel Tasman National Park down the west coast. Spending several nights in Kaiteriteri on the edge of the National Park, it was an easy boat trip from the beach up the coast to a variety of bays to allow exploring such a beautiful area. The sea was blue, and home to New Zealand fur seals, and the land was lush with thick vegetation. The first bay, Halfmoon Bay, was home to Split Apple Rock, the most photographed piece of rock in the National Park. We hiked from Torrent Bay to Apple Tree Bay as well as from Tonga Bay to Bark Bay, both sections of a multi-day hike. From Bark Bay we kayaked south to Anchorage, negotiating strong winds to make it back in time for the ferry back to Kaiteriteri. It was an amazing few days, and I loved it there. Along the coast is Golden Bay and Fairwell Spit, a large sand bar projecting north into the Cook Strait. It is infamous as a common stranding zone for whales that get disorientated and stuck on the expansive sand flat.
It was blowing such a gale and pouring with such rain, that we did not spend long in Nelson. Cutting from the north coast to the west coast meant heading deep inland across hills and through reams of farmland and forest, eventually linking up with the Buller river and following its course to Westport. The whole drive was in torrential rain, so we didn’t stop much, managing a zipline across the swollen river in a brief lull in the otherwise incessant rain. There isn’t a lot to Westport, it is an old town that housed gold and coal miners, but on the western edge of Buller Bay is Cape Foulwind where there is a colony of New Zealand Fur Seals. The day we visited there were lots of seal pups on the rocks below the viewing area, and the males were making lots of noise and throwing their weight about.
For most of the drive south to Greymouth, SH 6 hugs the stunning coastline. The Tasman Sea is rough and unforgiving, the coastline scattered with weather-beaten cliffs and rocks, and dotted with stretches of beautiful sandy beaches. The mountains rose to our left, including those that supported Fox glacier, and the vegetation was thick. Tropical plants vied with temperate plants near sea level, and the only breaks in the tree line were where rivers coursed through. The surprise for me though, was Pancake Rocks, so called because of their resemblance to stacks of pancakes. These limestone formations are most evident near Punakaiki, and in several areas the erosion from the sea underneath has created caverns which become blowholes when wave conditions are right. It was a blisteringly hot day when we were there, but I could have happily spent a lot of time here ogling this unique coastline.
From Greymouth, we headed further south to Hokitika at the mouth of the Hokitika river. Another township founded due to gold mining, it is famous now for its jade, with multiple shops catering to this market. South of here, we drove to the newly opened tree top walk. Having gone on one in Victoria, Australia, we went there with high expectations. We were mainly disappointed with the exorbitant entry price, but something just seemed lacking compared to the one in Australia that we had done the year before. Having said that, it was a nice viewpoint east towards the Southern Alps. To the east of Hokitika towards the mountains, was the Hokitika Gorge. Here, the river is fed from the glaciers and mountains above, and on a sunny day, the waters are a deep aquamarine. Unfortunately, after days of heavy rain, the river resembled more of a milk bath, with immense quantities of silt having been washed downstream. It was still a great sight, but I can only imagine how beautiful it would look in all its glory.
After nearly 18 months in this country, I have explored so much. However, there is still so much to see. Milford and Doubtful Sounds are two big draws that have so far eluded me, mainly due to their distance and relative inaccessibility. Also due to time and planning constraints, I am yet to hike any of the Great Walks, something which I hope to rectify over the next few summers. The lesser-visited island of Stewart Island is also a place I long to visit too. My New Zealand adventures are a work in progress…