I was supposed to be gallivanting around Europe. I had booked an epic 6 week trip taking me through Singapore to Germany and on to Scotland to see my family, before taking a road trip up the west coast of Norway. I was one of the millions of people to have overseas trips canned because of COVID. In August 2020, it was then 2 years since I’d seen my family, and I had no idea when I’d see them again next. The 6 week leave from work was pointless so I cancelled 4 weeks of it, and left myself the last 2 in mid-September, figuring I’d take a wee spring roadie around New Zealand.
The final week of winter was a mixed bag weather-wise with gorgeous blue sky days with a winter chill in the air, followed by grey days, or a hint of warmth. I spent the last weekend of August walking around the city. Christchurch is not everyone’s cup of tea, and some visitors still fail to see beyond the earthquake scars that are still present on some city streets, but I love it here, and I enjoy a good wander around the place on a regular basis. I used the Avon river as a route finder, following its course past Margaret Mahy playground, and finding I had the giant swing all to myself. In my opinion swings have no age limit, and I’ll happily have a go at seeing how high I can get if I see a vacant one on a lazy day.
Spring is my favourite season to visit the city’s botanic gardens. The garden city had been ignoring the fact that it was winter for quite a few weeks by this point, with the daffodil lawns next to the hospital in full bloom even in August. It was warm enough to walk around in a t-shirt and I took a seat on the mosaic chair for a bit before returning to the flowers. The first of the cherry blossoms had bloomed, although the main event was still weeks away. Away from the gardens, the city felt a little empty but just a week later, it was buzzing, and with a DJ playing on the balcony at Riverside Market, I had that excited feeling that comes with the turn of the season, and the thrill of the impending months of spring and summer ahead.
The trees were still bare, but the buildings on the Terrace were colourful, and reflected in the gently flowing water of the Avon river. It’s a popular spot to sit and eat lunch, on the steps down to the river where the eels wait for some scraps, and a myriad of water fowl paddle around. Cutting across the city centre, I took a wander around some of the sculptures in the east frame of the city. Some large spray cans formed a canvas for some changing artwork, and a large rusty-looking jagged spire sticks up towards the blue sky, framed by the Port Hills. The flatness of the city centre makes it the perfect place to explore on foot or bike.
After a morning of work, I set off north the next weekend, for the winding drive to Kaikoura. The mountains of the Kaikoura Range were snow-capped, framing the bay and the town itself, so I headed to the lookout at the top of the peninsula hill to take it all in from a slight vantage point. I wasn’t staying here though, it was just a handy place to stretch my legs after a few hours of driving. With the late start in the afternoon, I didn’t stay long as I still had a few hours of driving ahead of me.
But as I continued on the winding road north from there, my car lost power on an uphill bend. Thankfully it was only brief, and no warning lights came on, but further along the road it happened again. This really wasn’t the kind of road to lose power on, as there’s so many hills and bends to negotiate between the coast and Picton, my destination. Most of the time it was driving fine though, and as I arrived in Picton in darkness on a Saturday night, I tried to allay any concerns, and focused on settling into my accommodation. It was a very basic hostel and a quiet one at that with no international travellers, but I was happy to be joined by a cat that looked so similar to my own.
It was a beautiful sunny Sunday when I awoke, and my car was behaving itself as I drove out to Waikawa Bay. The marina was full of boats swaying gently with the ebb of the water. The mountainous ridge where the Queen Charlotte track hides sat across the water of the Queen Charlotte Sound. A little further around the coast is Karaka Point where a short walk from the car park leads down a small spit to a flight of steps down to a small beach. The views here are incredible. New Zealand is full of stunning landscapes, and the Marlborough Sounds is one of my favourite scenic regions. The sea within the sounds was so calm, and there were rolling green hillsides in all directions.
From the top of the stairs to the beach, I spotted a New Zealand fur seal gliding through the water nearby. It had a large linear gash on its lower back that I’m convinced was a propeller injury from a boat. It was full skin thickness, exposing raw red flesh underneath, and it looked relatively fresh. The seal appeared to be swimming normally despite this wound but it was sad to see, and I’m sure it would be in a lot of pain with an exposed wound like that. One of many examples of the harmful outcomes from human and wildlife interactions. It stayed out in the water as I watched it now from the beach, cruising up and down the coast as I followed the stony beach round the headland onto the rocks. I spotted another fur seal cruising in the water, and a little off shore, some small sea birds were fluttering and diving for food.
It was so peaceful, and I’ve no idea how long I stood on those rocks for, but when I turned back around the headland, I found the injured fur seal had hauled out right by the base of the steps. It put its mouth on its wound, and I knew it needed to rest, but it was blocking my exit, and I couldn’t leave it alone without first disturbing it. Unfortunately it took off back into the water as I approached and I was quick to exit the beach in the hope it would come back out again. I savoured the views as I headed back to my car, returning to Waikawa Bay for a walk around the foreshore. Now there were many locals out enjoying the place, but it was still so peaceful, and I stayed here before heading back to Picton for brunch, which I ate out while watching the inter-island ferries come and go.
I always feel like I’m on a grand adventure if I have to fly or sail somewhere. I checked in for the lunchtime sailing on the Bluebridge ferry, and counted down till boarding, eager to set sail. The crossing from Picton to Wellington is one of the most beautiful ferry crossings I’ve ever done, in particular the hour and a half that it takes to sail between Picton and the Cook Strait. It was not only calm, but it was a semi-blue sky with just some thin clouds to blur the sun a little, and I was certainly going to spend the entire time out on the deck admiring the view. The first few times I sailed the Cook Strait, I’d taken the Interislander ferries, but the last couple of times I’ve taken the Bluebridge, due to the convenience of their sailing times for my needs. They’re very different ships, and on the Bluebridge ferry the outdoor passenger deck looks down over the vehicle deck, and on that particular sailing there was a truck loaded with sheep among the cargo trucks.
The inter-island ferries seem like utter behemoths compared to the little boats that ploughed the waters within the sound. Being a Sunday, there were lots of private sail boats out and about, and every now and again a water taxi or fishing boat whizzed by, all utterly dwarfed by the ferry, and all having to contend with the wake the ferry created behind it as it cruised slowly by. It was cold out on deck, and I needed gloves and a windbreak, but there was no way I was going inside with the scenery as beautiful as this. From the blue water, to the rolling green hills in every direction, there’s just nothing like it. Then as the ferry snakes through the sounds, and a gap finally becomes visible in the distance, the North Island suddenly comes in to view and the Cook Strait becomes broader and broader.
The North Island looks so tangible from this point, and yet it takes a full hour to cross it. I’ve had one rough crossing in the past, otherwise mostly I’ve been lucky with the weather on the trip over. This time round there was a strong cross wind and a bit of chop, but the limited spray meant I could still stay out on deck. The blue sky had all gone though, and the cloud overhead turned the water a steely grey colour. As we headed east towards the entrance to Wellington harbour, I could see the snow-capped mountains of the northern end of the Kaikoura Range poking up above the north coast of the South Island.
From the green hills of the Marlborough Sounds, the urban sprawl that appears on entering Wellington harbour is such a contrast. Again a myriad of boats moved around us, and city life framed the coast as we sailed round Miramar Peninsula and deeper into the harbour. The office buildings and the sky scrapers of the country’s small capital city grew larger as we crept towards our berth. Everywhere you looked there were signs of movement and life despite the greyness of the day. I stayed on deck till the last possible minute when drivers were called down to the car deck to ready to disembark. The car deck was mostly empty with only a handful of trucks and cars, so once the ramp was down I didn’t need to wait too long before I was signalled to move forward and head off.
But there was to be no lingering in the capital as I still had some distance to travel to reach my bed for the night. I was soon out of the city and in new territory for me, heading north-east around the back of the bay and up into the Hutt Valley. I had a two-hour drive that led me up into the winding hilly road that crosses Remutaka Hill. There’s so many hiking and biking trails around here, and I would have loved to have stopped and explored some of them, but it was well into the evening, and the light was getting low.
I’d never been to the Wairarapa region before, and turning off the main highway, I soon found myself deep in rural Wairarapa, seeing fewer and fewer cars as I eventually hit the south coast as the sun readied to set. I don’t like driving unfamiliar roads in the dark, but the Cape Palliser road wasn’t exactly a place to get lost. However, the sea came right up to the road in places, and with a slight wind buffeting from offshore, it felt wild as I passed the final kilometres. There was no one to greet me as I arrived at my cabin in the middle of nowhere, part of a small camping ground that was mostly empty. I settled in for the night as the place was shrouded in darkness, until it was almost pitch black outside. The sea was somewhere nearby, but it was no longer visible. With a coastal chill in the air, I could only hope for dry weather the next day.