The South Island of New Zealand is renowned for its snow-capped mountains, glaciers, picturesque fiords, broad plains and temperate rainforests. To nature lovers like us, it seemed an obvious choice when making a decision on where we wanted to spend our time on our trip to New Zealand.
Te Waipounamu is the official name of the South Island, which is Maori for “the greenstone waters”. It is the larger of the two major islands of New Zealand (making it the 12th largest island in the world) and the Southern Alps, home to 3,724m-high Aoraki/Mt. Cook, forms the backbone that runs along its entire length.
There is plenty of information online with recommendation on what to cover and what not to miss on a road trip of varying lengths. After countless hours researching, the tentative itinerary that emerged had us focusing on the southwest part of the South Island, a mountainous area of ridges and fiords, which has in its entirety been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site. The area incorporates several national parks (Fiordland, Mount Aspiring and Mount Cook), and is the most pristine wilderness in New Zealand. The reason for the WHS designation - It hosts the best surviving illustration of ancient Gondwanan wildlife, much of which is rare and unique to the area.
There would be a lot of driving involved on a trip like this and another decision point was whether to rent a regular sedan and stay in hotels or rent a campervan and be more flexible and self-sufficient. Travel blogs and forums were unanimous in declaring that renting a campervan was the best way to see New Zealand. Also the Holiday Park system (to cater to campervans) is well organized and mobile apps make it convenient to find their location and availability. So we opted for the smallest available campervan, a Jucy Cabana (in bright green and purple), that was to be our home for the duration of the trip.
Day 1 - Pickup campervan at Christchurch airport. Drive to Mount Cook visiting Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki enroute
Day 2 - Hike at Hooker Valley Track hike. Short hike to Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier lookout. Drive to Cromwell.
Day 3 - State Highway 6 from Cromwell to Queenstown via historic Arrowtown. Queenstown - Glenorchy scenic drive along Lake Wakatipu. Continue south to Te Anau
Day 4 - Visit Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. Drive Milford Highway from Te Anau to Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park. Milford Sound Cruise
Day 5- Key Summit half day hike. Lake Gunn Nature Walk. Drive to Te Anau.
Day 6- Fiordland National Park Visitor Center. Queenstown Botanic Gardens. Drive over Crown Range to Wanaka
Day 7- Puzzling World. Lavendar Farm. Lake Wanaka. Lake Hawea. Drive to Haast over Haast Pass visiting Blue Pools enroute
Day 8- Drive north from Haast. Ship Creek. Kahikatea Swamp Forest Walk. Knights Point lookout. Munro Beach. Franz Josef Glacier.
Day 9- Lake Matheson. Cook Flat Road and Fox Glacier Lookout. Hokitika Beach
Day 10 - Hokitika Gorge. Punakaki Pancake Rocks. Tauranga Bay. Nelson
Day 11- Havelock. Queen Charlotte Drive. Picton. Kaikoura, Marlborough wineries. Kaikoura
Day 12 - Kaikoura Peninsula. Christchurch Botanic Garden. Christchurc city walking tour
We arrived in Christchurch on a late flight from Sydney and the first order of business next morning was to pick up the Campervan. Once the paperwork was completed, a staff member gave a detailed walkthrough of the amenities; where we could stow our bags, how we would convert the rear compartment into sleeping quarters at night, how to fill the water tank etc. The rear ‘trunk’ section of camper van was fitted with a compact fridge, a mini sink, a propane stove and a cubby that contained basic cooking and serving utensils. After a brief stop at a nearby ‘Countdown’ to stock up on a few essentials, snacks and convenience meals for the coming days, we were off!
Lake Tekapo is around 230km/3 hours drive south of Christchurch. The first half heading south on Hwy 1 was pretty flat but after the turnoff on Hwy 79, it was followed by rolling hills going west and the excitement of the first sighting of the snow-capped Southern Alps kept our fingers busy with the camera which would have been missing our touch for the first 3 hours, knowing how trigger happy we are.
Lake Tekapo is an idyllic alpine lake at the foot of Mt. John known best for its intense milky-turquoise colour. The glaciers in the headwaters of the lake grind rocks into a fine dust on their journey down and the resulting particulate, called “rock-flour,” is suspended in the water and causes the magnificent turquoise. The amazing color of the lake set against the backdrop of snow-capped peaks makes Lake Tekapo an extraordinarily dramatic landscape.
At the south-end of the Lake Tekapo, in a township of the same name, is the beautiful and iconic Church of the Good Shepherd, where the altar window frames a perfect view of the Southern Alps beyond the lake. The church was built in 1935 for the pioneer families of the Mackenzie district and is still used as a place of worship.
Nearby is the ”Sheepdog monument" - a bronze statue sculpted to recognize the district's debt to the sheepdog "without the help of which the grazing of the mountainous country would be impossible.'' In the 19th century, Scottish shepherds came to work on the pastoral runs of the eastern South Island. The high country could not have been farmed successfully without the border collies they brought with them.
Surrounded by mountains and far from the glare of city lights, Lake Tekapo is one of the best places in the Southern Hemisphere to see the night sky and is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. Unfortunately our plans called for getting several more miles to cover by that evening, so we had to give night sky viewing opportunity a miss.
We continued west on Hwy 8 through to the south shore of Lake Pukaki, the largest of the alpine lakes in the area. It is fed at its northern end by the braided Tasman River which has its source in the Hooker and Tasman Glaciers. The intense blue waters of ribbon-like Lake Pukaki is framed against the surrounding high mountain peaks with New Zealand's highest peak, Aoraki/Mt, Cook dominating its northern end. But with low clouds blanketing the entire region that afternoon, we were left to imagine what the view would be like on a clear day.
The Mt. Cook Road going north to the Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park is a very scenic drive following the length of Lake Pukaki along its western shores. There are a number of overlooks along this road with excellent photo opportunities. While the unreal blue of the lake and its setting surrounded by high peaks are a photographer’s dream, the sunlight playing hide-and-seek behind the clouds, made capturing the grandeur of the landscape challenging. Regardless our eyes feasted on this iconic New Zealand landscape to our hearts content.
The road ends in the Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park but we first checked-in at Glentanner Holiday Park and assured ourselves of a spot before continuing north. This was our first experience finding a spot for the campervan and we did not want to be too blase about it.. A light drizzle set in on the drive up to Mt. Cook that turned into heavy rain by the time we got to Mt. Cook Village.
We used the time to visit Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Museum that adjoins the Heritage Hotel. The museum is both a tribute to New Zealand’s best explorer/ ambassador and it also showcases the mountaineering history of of the Aoraki/Mt. Cook region. Mt. Cook may not have the altitude to compete with the world’s tallest mountains, but its terrain provided Sir Hillary with the early experience that was eventually put to good use in overcoming the challenges posed by the world’s highest mountain. With darkness setting in we retreated to Gelentanner for the night with plans to come back and explore the next morning.
Clocks moved forward an hour overnight across NZ and spring was officially ushered in. It was a cold and cloudy morning at Glentanner campsite but it did little to dampen our spirits. We were quickly ready to get out and save some daylight! We found various models of Jucy campervans (with varying configuration of kitchen and sleeping arrangements) parked throughout the property with a few others from competing rentals mixed in. After some opportunistic birdwatching within the holiday park we were were on Mt. Cook Road again heading north.
The Mt. Cook Road hugs the western edge of the Tasman river valley which is essentially the terminal moraine of the Tasman glacier; the glacier is located at its northern end. The road eventually branches into the smaller Hooker valley where Mt. Cook Village and the Aoraki/Mt. Cook Visitor Center are located. What seemed like intermittent rain when we left Glentanner gradually turned into persistent rain as we approached the visitor center. We entered it with some uncertainty about our hiking plans for the morning. We had little expectation of being able to view NZ’s highest peak under these conditions, but were hoping at least to hike some distance if not the entire Hooker Valley Track, the most popular hiking track in the park.
This visitor center is beautifully designed and has excellent information on the local flora and fauna as well as some of the history of the region. The rangers have up-to-date information on the condition of all the nearby hiking trails and despite the wet forecast, the ranger suggested that the Hooker Valley Track would still be rewarding if we were amply protected from the cold and blustery conditions.
The trailhead for the track is at White Horse Hill Campground at the end of Hooker Valley Road, 2.5 kilometers from Mt. Cook Village. The 11-kilometer round trip track ends at the edge of Hooker Lake, where icebergs that were set adrift from Hooker Glacier glide across the water. Despite being buffeted by rain and wind on a completely exposed trail, the combination of well graded paths, boardwalks and the 3 suspension bridges, not to mention the gorgeous mountain scenery, it was not a particularly challenging hike. Also a few spur sections along the way open up to expansive views of Muller lake and Hooker lake framed by steep mountain ridges. Alas, with the low clouds hanging on we were denied views of dominant Mt. Cook itself!
A tapered final ascent leads to a gap in the glacial moraine which brings into view the edge of Hooker Lake. At the end of the trail above the side of the lake is an overlook and a few picnic tables. It would have been a great place to spend some time and watch icebergs on a sunny day, but the conditions being what they were, we descended to the lake to get an eye-level view of the icebergs.
On our way back we stopped at the Alpine Memorial, a stone structure dedicated to all those who have lost their lives pursuing adventures in the area. The interesting colors of a pair of very cooperative Paradise Shelducks kept us busy for a while on our return to the parking lot.
Our second short hike for the day was to the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier lookout. The 27 km Tasman glacier is the longest in New Zealand and the lookout is perched high up on the moraine wall, so the path is mostly rock cut stairs. Midway through there a platform and you can see the “blue lakes”. In the 1800s, these lakes were fed by turquoise glacial meltwater that accounted for their blue color. The glacier has since receded, so they are mainly fed with rainwater now that supports green algae, making them a blue-green color now. From the overlook There are good views of the lower Tasman Glacier, its terminal wall, the lake, icebergs and the mountains at the head of the valley.
A hot Morrocan bean soup (heated on the handy-dandy stove in our mobile kitchen) restored some warmth to our bodies before we made our way back down Mt. Cook road towards Glentanner. A pair of Paradise Shelducks (possibly the same pair that hitched a ride on our vans from the White Horse Hill Campground parking lot?) The weather improved enough that a faint rainbow with an arch bridging the entire Tasman river valley appeared as if to bid goodbye.
Driving alongside Lake Pukaki again, the colors looked much more spectacular this afternoon compared to our way in the previous day and we were ‘forced’ to make several stops to enjoy the light and shadow show orchestrated by passing overhead clouds.
Taking our leave from the lakes, we continued on State Highway 8 past the tiny town of Twizel and crossing over from the Canterbury region to the Otago region. The road takes you over the dramatic Lindis Pass that connects the Omarama valley in the north to the Lindis Valley in the south. It is an alpine area of tall, tussock-covered mountains with is a designated Scenic Reserve. The stark landscape is dramatic and we enjoyed the views from an overlook that is a short walk from the main road. The road then descends steeply and winds its way through Lindis Valley before depositing one outside Tarras where the road meets the tree-lined Clutha River eventually leading to the town of Cromwell, our destination for the day. For a brief few minutes, the setting sun descended below the cloud line bathing the landscape with an ethereal golden hue.
The next morning, we headed west from Cromwell on State Hwy 6 towards Queenstown, a resort town on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. We made a brief detour to historic Arrowtown, once a thriving gold mining town. Gold was found in the Arrow River in 1862, and a township of a thousand miners soon sprang up. At the high point of the gold rush, there was a steady influx of European and Chinese migrants and the population of Arrowtown rose to over 7,000. The Arrowtown Chinese Settlement is partly reconstructed site serving as a memorial to Central Otago's Chinese settlers and is a heritage listed walking trail. When we visited, coaches of Chinese tourists were touring the site as well, which seemed rather apt.
We rejoined State Hwy 8 that soon brought us to the shores of Lake Wakatipu on the outskirts of Queenstown. The city boasts the largest range of adventure sports in the southern hemisphere and is the self-proclaimed ‘Adventure Capital of the World’! That coupled with a reputation for a decent nightlife scene, makes it an undeniable tourist magnet and the streets were abuzz with people, something we had not seen since our arrival in the country.
The town is built around an inlet called Queenstown Bay on Lake Wakatipu, a long, thin, Z-shaped lake formed by glacial processes. With the snowy peaks of the aptly named Remarkables mountain range towering behind it, it is set in one of the most spectacular locations a city could hope for.
After driving along the Frankton Arm of the small bay, we managed to find parking close to the waterfront and what would be considered the business district / tourist hub and briefly explored the nearby streets. The waterfront is just a short stroll from all the downtown action and has a small beach and is also the launching point for a number of adventure activities. When we were ready to head out, we picked out a couple of interesting looking items from a Malaysian Hawker and Roll outlet so we could enjoy it at a quieter picnic spot later.
From Queenstown, the Glenorchy- Queenstown road skirts the scenic shoreline of Lake Wakatipu en route to a beautiful little town named Glenorchy, 47km away. There are a number of designated overlooks to pull out and and admire the crystal clear waters with the jagged mountain range background. A picnic lunch of the fare we brought from town had us thinking we should have got more and we resolved to stop there again on our way back.
Glenorchy is located on the northern end of the lake and we parked close to the wharf and took time to look around the lakefront which has amazing views of the surrounding mountain ranges. A historic red barn chronicling the history of the area was the focus of many a visitor’s photograph. In a small sand spit jutting into the lake, a music/dance video shooting was in progress. This was not surprising given the location, but it was quite interesting how the three dancers managed to keep up their moves in their wispy costumes, barely protected from the elements!
We retraced our route back to Queenstown and Hwy 6 junction at Frankton. The highway crosses the Karawu river; the historic Krawu bridge is the world Home Of Bungy Jumping, where it all began. The road then runs alongside the shores of the entire length of the southern arm of the Z shaped Wakatipu throwing more scenic views and photo opportunities our way. Prominent among the named lookouts is the Devil’s Staircase lookout point that is on a promontory allowing for 180 degree views.
With the lake completely behind us, we stopped at the small town of Garston, a staging post between Queenstown and Te Anau, our destination for the day. It claims to be “the most inland settlement in New Zealand” and made for a pleasant stopover and stretch. Beyond Garston the drive is largely through farmland and pastures dotted with grazing sheep, New Zealand’s famous and most numerous denizens.
It was evening when we pulled into Te Anau, a small town on the eastern shore of Lake Te Anau which is the largest lake on the South Island. But even before we settled on where we would put up for the night, we made a beeline to the lakefront for a quick peek before darkness fell.
We woke to brilliant sunshine which augured well for the day. If we were forced to pick just one such day for the entire NZ trip, we would have picked this one to see the magnificent Milford Sound. Before heading out on the Milford Sound Road, we had an important place to check out within town. Located just a stone’s throw from where we had stayed the night was an excellent opportunity to see some of NZ’s rarest birds; species that would be otherwise difficult to track down on a limited time and without a local expert.
The Te Anau Bird Sanctuary provides shelter to a variety of native birds that have either been injured and are unable to fend for themselves, or are part of a captive breeding and release program. On that cold but crisp morning, we had the whole place to ourselves as we meandered past the enclosures to catch sight of the rare flightless Takahē, a pair of South Island kākās and a whole bunch of Antipodes Island Parakeets.
Takahē are the world’s largest rail, a family of ground dwelling birds with short wings, large feet and long toes. In prehistoric times, when gigantic moa roamed the forests and grasslands, they were found throughout NZ. But by the beginning of the 19th century they were feared extinct. A small number were rediscovered in Murchinson mountains in Fiordland in 1948. Still endangered with a total population of only around 300 birds, they are now the focus of a huge conservation effort. Murchinson Mountains are home to the last wild population of approximately 130. Like many NZ birds, they are ill-equipped to deal with introduced creators such as stoats, which eat their eggs and young and attach the adults. It was a real treat to be able to see them here, even if they are not in the wild.
In the grassy lawn areas, chaffinches and fantails tried (successfully) to distract us while a Little Shag sunning itself on a rock was unconcerned by the Paradise Shelducks that glided past.
Occupying a vast tract of mountainous terrain in the south-west corner of South Island, Fiordland is counted among the breathtakingly stunning landscapes on the planet. The region is dominated by the steep sides of the snow-capped Southern Alps, deep lakes and numerous fiords - steep, U-shaped glacier-carved valleys now flooded but the sea. On the sides of the fiords, the incessantly plummeting waterfalls send their accumulated rainwater out to sea.
Due to the steep terrain and year-round rainfall supporting dense vegetation, the interior of the Fiordland region is largely inaccessible. As a result it was never subjected to any other kind of development activities or logging and consequently Fiordland contains by far the greatest extent of unmodified vegetation in New Zealand and significant populations of endemic plants and threatened animals, in some cases the only remaining wild populations.
The town of Te Anau is the ‘gateway to the fiords’ and the Milford Road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is an unforgettable 240 km (144 miles) drive into the heart of Fiordland National Park, a journey that is just as scenically impressive as the destination itself. It crosses the Main Divide of the Southern Alps reaching 940 meters (3,083 feet) above sea level and passes through expansive valleys, alongside pristine lakes and rivers and dense forests.
From Te Anau, Milford Road curves along the shores of the lake, to Te Anau Downs, once home to the earliest European settlement in the area. It is the main starting point for the Milford Track, one of New Zealand’s iconic hikes and marks the entrance to Fiordland National Park. A short distance ahead is the glacier carved Eglinton Valley, one of only a few road-accessible valleys in the whole of Fiordland National Park. The flat floor of the valley is covered in eye-catching golden tussock grass that contrasts with the steep rocky mountains around it. Several areas in the Eglinton Valley were locations in the Lord of the Rings movies, in particular the Eglinton mountains which represented the Misty Mountains in the Fellowship of the Ring. So, this is a very popular photo stop for those visitors who feel a kinship to the Fellowship (not us, who were happy to take it as it came!)
Further ahead are the beautiful Mirror Lakes, named for the way they reflect their surrounding scenery. The Mirror Lakes were created when the Eglinton River shifted its course long ago, leaving two river bends behind to form what is known as ‘oxbow’ lakes. While it would call for a perfectly calm day to make a crisp reflection the Earl Mountain range in the water, we were quite taken in by the scenery and scaup and other ducks that cruised the lake.
Driving past ‘The Divide’, our next stop was a roadside lookout with views of Hollyford Valley framed by towering peaks. This is where we spotted our first Kea, an iconic bird of New Zealand and the only true alpine parrot in the world. The Kea, found only in the South Island of New Zealand, is a large olive-green parrot that flashes teal-blue and reddish-orange when it takes flight. They are clever, curious and mischievous birds that are skilled with their beaks and claws. They are notorious for attacking the rubber trim and side-mirrors of cars and the first one we saw was living up to its reputation going nuts pecking at our car. Unlike other parrot species, they were unafraid of the proximity of camera wielding humans.
Nearby Monkey Creek is a glacier-fed spring within the Hollyford Valley and is another popular photo stop to capture the truly awe-inspiring mountain scenery.
Before 1954 one would not have been able to go much further that this as solid rock would have been in the way. In 1954, Homer Tunnel, a 1.2 km long tunnel was opened after 19 years of construction and made it possible to get to Milford Sound by road. It is a very narrow tunnel with one way traffic system controlled by lights. Having passed through the tunnel the sight of the steep, winding road leading down through the Cleddau Valley is breathtaking. The imposing granite mountain sides, skirted by native forest lower down, form an awe-inspiring landscape. On its final stretch to Milford Sound, the road flattens out, crosses the Cleddau River and several historic bridges.
We had made a campervan site reservation at the Milford Sound Lodge for the night and having registered our presence, we hurried to be in time for the piece-de-resistance, the Milford Sound cruise.
The unmistakable profile of Mitre Peak greeted us as we walked towards the marina which was the departure point for ferries operated by a few different companies. Milford Sound is one of those bucket list places that totally lives up to the hype. The grandeur of the towering peaks and tumbling waterfalls on a bright sunny day cannot be overstated. We really hit the jackpot with the weather and learned that having clear skies was not such a common occurrence. The skipper provided informative commentary about the geology and history of the area. He pointed out several scenic highlights and called out wildlife that could be spotted. For those who were interested in the full waterfall experience, the boat was nosed in right under the Stirling Falls with adequate warning about getting seriously wet. We caught sight of several seals lounging and frolicking among the rocks at the waters’ edge.
Back from the cruise, we continued to enjoy the beauty of Milford Sound from a couple of short coastal nature walks. Unlike the day-trippers that had to drive all the way back to Te Anau (and the signs on the road were hurrying them with flashing reminders that the tunnel closes at 5 pm!), we did not have far to go that evening so were able to fully enjoy the area in a relaxed manner. This also meant that we could take as long as we wanted to chase and photograph the Tui, an intriguing iridescent vocal bird with a distinctive white throat tuft. It is not inconceivable that between the two of us we hold the world record for the number of Tui photos and videos taken in any given half hour!
Having exhausted all possible angles one can photograph a Tui, we retraced some distance on the Milford Road to something that we had bypassed on our way in (so we would not be late to the Milford Sound cruise). The Chasm, as the name suggests, is a deep ravine with the raging Claddau River thundering through rocks that have been ‘sculpted’ over centuries into marvelous swirling patterns and smothered-out basins. A short well-maintained trail through tranquil native forest leads leads one over footbridges where you can watch the white water gushing down below frequently disappearing through the rock. We wrapped up the momentous day chasing more birds all the way back to Milford Sound Lodge.
With fresh snow falling overnight at the higher elevations along the Milford Road, the drive back south through the Homer Tunnel was even more spectacular than on the way in. The entrance to the Homer Tunnel was dwarfed below the towering snow covered mountains and as we drove through his magical landscape there was no option but to leave the video recording rolling throughout this stretch. We had already visited several highlights on Milford Road our way in, but there were a few we had bypassed in the interest of time and we planned cover these our way back.
New Zealand's Great Walks are premier ‘tramping’ tracks that pass through diverse and spectacular scenery. There are 10 such tracks developed and maintained by the Department of Conservation of which Routeburn Track and the Milford Track are very popular and both located in Fiordland National Park. Most great walks of New Zealand are one-way, multi-day affairs requiring advance planning and preparation. Since that was not on our agenda, we decided to do a roundtrip hike of the most accessible section of the Routeburn leading up to Key Summit and back.
The trailhead for the Routeburn track and Key Summit starts from “The Divide”, located directly off of the Milford Road. The track is well graded and while the initial section passes through pleasant forest with limited views, there was plenty of interesting bird activity along the way. After a gradual climb to an intersection, the Key Summit Track veers above the Routeburn. The smooth track heads uphill via a series of moderate switchbacks. As the trail emerges from the forest, there were outstanding views down the Hollyford Valley. A light rain set in but did not deter our resolve to get to the summit. We merely added some layers and soldiered on as the rain became snowfall at the higher elevations.
At the summit, the trail leads to a mostly-flat nature loop that meanders on the high summit ridge. Boardwalks have been thoughtfully laid out that take you past beautiful tarns and low alpine vegetation so as enable a 360 degree view but keep damage to the environment to a minimum. We were above the tree line at this point and had wonderful panoramic views of the Humboldt and Darren mountains, all blanketed in white.
Returning on the same trail, a pair of New Zealand pigeons decided to test our patience and technical skills with the camera by positioning themselves behind dense foliage and directly overhead. But we are not ones to give up easily and despite challenging angles needed and at the risk of developing a crick in the neck, we persisted until we got a few decent shots of the un-cooperative birds.
We took approximately 3 hours to complete the 4.7 mile out and back trail. A warm, welcome meal was quickly whipped up in our mobile kitchen before we continued our drive south.
We drove past Lake Gunn to the trailhead for the Lake Gunn Nature Walk, a delightful short loop track through a tranquil beech forest where most of the trees were smothered by bright green moss. Throughout the walk we could hear several birds calling and besides the ubiquitous fantails we were lucky to spot a shy New Zealand Kaka (a large species of parrot, now endangered) perched on a branch just a few feet away. Having seen a captive one at the Bird Sanctuary the previous day, we were happy to spot one in the wild. The guide of a passing tour group asked us what we were looking at and on hearing the word Kaka, he promptly summoned his entire group to take a look at “our” Kaka.
Continuing south to Te Anua, we made final stop at a road marker “Latitude 45 degrees South”, a photo-op we could not possibly pass on!
Back in town, we caught the 6 pm screening of “Ata Whenua – Shadowland” at the Fiordland Cinema. Most of the footage in this 32-minute video of the Fiordland wilderness has been filmed from a helicopter across extremes of terrain, climate and season. As the camera pans over icy mountain passes and drops down massive waterfalls, it provides an exhilarating bird’s eye view of this utterly spectacular and awe-inspiring landscape.
When planning a visit to a national park these days, there is no dearth of information online about the geography, the historical context, wildlife and everything else that makes it special or worth visiting. Despite that, visiting the official visitor center of a national or state park is something we actively seek out and make time for as they often have very informative and thoughtfully designed exhibits, special films about the area and rangers who are happy to answer questions. On all these parameters the Fiordland National Park Visitor Center did not disappoint. There were beautifully produced maps identifying every sound and mountain range that makes up the incredible terrain of this national park. Exhibits on the geological plates, the weather system, the flora and fauna kept us engrossed. Special exhibits about the endangered bird populations, specifically the Kiwi, Kakapo, Blue Duck and the Fiordland Penguins, explained in great detail their feeding and breeding habits, how they are being closely monitored, and the ongoing conservation efforts to protect them for the future.
After an edifying hour at the visitor center we emerged outdoors for a walk along the beautiful lakefront framed spectacularly by the Kepler and Murchinson Mountains. Lake Te Anau is said to be the largest freshwater body in the whole of Australasia. The lake extends 65 km with three finger like fiords spreading from its western shores. The town of Te Anau lies nestled on its edge with an attractive beach and lakefront walks. Song Thrushes hopped around on the grass looking for worms. The call of the Eurasian Blackbird filled the air. A pair of courting Paradise Shelducks glid hither and thither on the serene waters sharing space with a Little Shag. It was just perfect!
Soon it was time to tear ourselves away and retrace our way back towards Queenstown. The distant Takitimu Mountain range kept us company as we drove past The Key. With only wispy clouds above against clear blue skies, conditions were perfect to try and capture the quintessential New Zealand image of green pastures dotted with grazing sheep and their newborn.
As we approached Queenstown, we decided to make the short detour into town for a couple of reasons. First we wanted to visit the famed botanic garden that is located just minutes from the center of town and more importantly we were looking forward to a repeat meal at Hawker & Roll which we had patronized on our way in!
While it was a little early in the spring for flowers, the landscaped gardens were beautiful and there were tranquil paths winding through native shrubbery, rose gardens and a wide variety of trees. Significant among them were some giant sequoias, a towering Douglas fir, towering oaks and the always strange looking araucarias.
Walking through the gardens, we made our way to the Wakatipu lakefront which was bustling with tourists, street performers and vendors, all enjoying the sun. We wrapped up our Queenstown sightseeing with a satisfying lunch at Hawker and Roll (which lived up to our expectations).
There are two driving routes to get from Queenstown to Wanaka; a longer but less challenging drive via Cromwell which required partially retracing the way we had taken to get to Queenstown, and a shorter, more direct but steep and windy route over the Crown Range. No points for guessing which one we took. Heading north from the junction to Arrowtown, there are areas to pull over for views looking over Wakatipu basin and Queenstown. We enjoyed viewing the full approach and landing of a small commercial jet at Queenstown airport. About half way and a number of hairpin turns later you arrive at Cardrona. The historic Cardrona hotel was established in 1863 during the heydays of gold mining in this part of the country.
We also visited the Cardrona Distillery, a small craft distillery nestled in the valley that produces traditional handmade spirits from malted barley. While we did not take one of their tours, we were lucky to meet with host who was well versed in the distilling processes she was great in guiding us through tasting a variety of spirits (mostly whisky) and liqueurs that were on offer.
On impulse, we stopped at a tiny and tidy store to purchase a snack and were rewarded with some unique flavors of Kapiti Ice Cream - Fig and Honey, Black Doris Plum and Creme Fraiche! We hope to find the Black Doris Plum flavor again some year in the future!
Wanaka is a resort town at the southern end of its namesake lake, which is also New Zealand's fourth-largest lake. It is the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park, a wilderness of glaciers, beech forests and alpine lakes. It is smaller and less commercialized than Queenstown and attracts both the adventure lovers and relaxation-minded travelers.
As with many other lakeside towns in New Zealand, the waterfront has a nice walking trail and there is a compact beach for people to spread out in. With crystal-clear waters framed by snow capped mountains, it is a great place to linger and enjoy the view. On a short walk along the trail, we were additionally entertained by birds both on the lake (Paradise Shelducks and little Shags sunning themselves) and out (Blackbirds, Fantails).
Suddenly we noticed a partially submerged solitary tree set against the southern alps. It seemed to be attracting a lot of attention on account of its dramatic setting. Known as the “lone tree of lake Wanaka”, we later learned that it is one of the most photographed trees in all of New Zealand (#ThatWanakaTree). There was certainly something poignant about its location and setting and we joined in the paparazzi action.
According to the guidebooks there are several incredible hikes that start from or near Wanaka. Two of them are universally highlighted as particularly beautiful with breathtaking views: Roy’s Peak and Isthmus Peak. We had made plans to climb Roys Peak but were informed at the visitor center that the trail was closed between 1st of October through 10 November for the lambing season! So instead we ventured west out on Mt. Aspiring Road to Glendhu Bay, a place to enjoy more wide views and beautiful reflections in the serene waters from the lakeside trail.
We returned to Wanaka headed southeast on Hwy 6 to Red Bridge. Built in 1914 this historic single lane bridge spans the swift flowing Clutha River and is a designated landmark. For the first time on this trip we were underwhelmed, but took the obligatory respectful photos of the unimpressive looking bridge. For a change of pace and scenery, we visited the Wanaka Lavender Farm, a local Wanaka attraction that is located just off the highway. It is a family run operation and the farm consists of 10 acres of lavender fields that is open to the public. In addition to the lavender farms, there are farm animals including pigs, alpacas, sheep and chickens for the younger guests to visit. In a shop on location there are a multitude of lavender and home products made on site in addition to lavender themed gift and souvenirs.
Another local attraction at Wanaka is “Puzzling world” (Photos) a complex of optical illusions, puzzling rooms and also (they claim) the world's first 3-D maze. We were not very sure on what to expect when arrived, but it turned out to be a wonderful world of science based weirdness and spent the next couple of hours totally engrossed.
At the entrance is the Leaning Tower of Wanaka, a tower that is seemingly impossibly balanced on one corner, making the whole structure lean at an angle of 53 degrees to the ground. The SculptIllusion Gallery includes a large illusion room that contains “impossible objects”, perspective paintings and “reversible figures”. The Optical illusion rooms are a set of rooms built at a 15 degree angle, containing illusions such as water apparently flowing uphill and people sliding upwards. The “Hall of Following Faces" contains spot-lit hollow mask illusions on the walls, where the gaze follows you as you move through the room. Every interior wall space is covered with something that tickles the brain including Interesting ambigrams and Escher-esque paintings of impossible constructions. (The photos in the accompanying album may help illuminate what is being described). To our delight, we saw that many of these paintings (that blurred the boundary between two worlds) were by Rob Gonsalves (1959-2017), an artist whose works we had first encountered in Cambria, CA some 20 years ago.
Last but not the least, we retreated back to our childhood for a while and took up the 3D maze challenge. The outdoor maze requires one to get 4 separate turrets located at each corner before getting out. We started out together but split up early and worked separately on meeting the challenge. It was both challenging and fun, something that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
Drive to Haast via Haast Pass
One thing about road-tripping in New Zealand is there are no boring drives. None. From curvy coastline roads to mountain framed passes, there is an abundance of scenic drives on offer. And the drive from Wanaka to Haast via the Haast Pass, a route that was traditionally a pathway for Maori journeying west in search of pounamu (greenstone or jade), is no exception. In fact it makes it to many a “top scenic drives” list. It features bright blue lakes, several waterfalls and plenty of mountain vistas (sadly reading about all these lakes and mountains is probably tiring you out!), and we were excited to be making it to the West Coast of the country for the first time on this trip.
The first notable section of this drive takes you past Lake Hawea, also north-south oriented and roughly parallel to Lake Wanaka. The basins that are filled by Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka were gouged out by glaciers of the same name. Two arms of the glaciers joined at a narrow piece of land forming a saddle called The Neck. It has an overlook from where it is possible to note the 65m difference in lake height. After leaving behind Lake Hawea, the road skirts Lake Wanaka for a short time until Makarora, which is the starting point for a number of trails into Mount Aspiring National Park.
One of the most impressive sights along the Haast Pass is the area known as the Blue Pools. It is where Makarora and Blue rivers meet, and contains some of the clearest, bluest water. A short hike through the forest and a couple of swing bridges bring you to a section of the river where glacier-fed water is an unnatural shade of blue. The pools might appear inviting, but said to be icy even on the hottest summer day.
Haast Pass is 563m above sea-level and is the lowest crossing point over the Southern Alps. Soon we were up and over the Haast Pass, and our next stop was another another short trail from the road to the beautiful 23-meter Fantail Falls where it drops into the crystal clear Haast river.
Further beyond is the more impressive and much higher Thunder Creek Falls, also accessible via a short trail through the forest. Since the retreat of glacier ice in this area, the Haast River has cut a canyon the height of the waterfall and Thunder Creek, a small tributary of the Haast river drains a short narrow valley.
There were a few other overlooks and waterfalls beyond this point, but it was getting late in the evening and a steady drizzle had set in by this point, so prudence dictated that we set course directly for the town of Haast.
So we kept driving as we passed the “Gates of Haast”, a sheer gorge with its huge boulders considered the most challenging section of the Haast Highway.
The Haast region covers over 2500 kilometers and is so spectacular and remote that in 1990 it was included as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, giving international recognition as a location of significant natural value to The South West New Zealand World Heritage Area.
The Haast area comprises small settlements including Haast township, Haast Junction and Haast Beach. But exploring the area would have to wait until the next day. Haast Junction is a quite a small settlement we checked out a few options before we registered in to Haast River Motels & Holiday Park. It had a plush, cosy common area where we could warm ourselves up and wind down the day with some wine and artisanal cheese that we had picked up at the Gibbston valley Cheesery. The drizzle kept up well into the night (one of the downsides to a basic campervan - night walks in the rain to the facilities), but we hoped for clearer skies next morning.
Haast is famous for its dramatic landscapes. Situated on the western edge of Mount Aspiring National Park, in the heart of a world heritage area, UNESCO has compared it to the Grand Canyon and Great Barrier Reef as a significant natural treasure. Because of its location, there is a wealth of outdoor activities including jet-boating, fly fishing and deep sea fishing, hunting and scenic helicopter flights in Haast.
We visited the Haast Department of Conservation Visitor Information Centre to make enquiries about sights and walks on the West Coast road and ended up spending a long time wandering around the extensive and well laid out displays explaining all about the geology, geography, history, flora, fauna and culture of the region. With wall-to-wall regional information, it was a worthwhile first stop before hitting the road north on Haast Highway to Franz Josef.
Along the coastal road approximately 15 kms north is Ship Creek with access to the stunning coastline and the trailhead for two interesting short loop walks. At the trailhead is a lookout tower with 360 degree views. The Dune Lake Walk follows the rugged coast sand dunes before heading into a dense coastal forest of stunted, windswept trees. There are spectacular views of the southern coastline along the way. There is also a reed and sedge lined dune lake where we were able to spot some ducks and a black swan.
The Kahikatea Swamp Forest Walk follows the slow-flowing Ship Creek Tauparikaka. As the name suggests, the lush forest is located within an ancient swamp forest and it gives a glimpse back in time to what much of the West Coast may have looked like prior to human settlement. On this delightful boardwalk trail through a fully shaded forest, you walk past several excellent specimens of New Zealand’s tallest tree, the Kahikatea (white pine). As we completed this trail, a few tomtits competed for our attention through elaborate singing and flitting between branches.
Another 10km north is Knights Point Lookout, an overlook located at an elevated section of the road. From here there are wonderful views of the rugged coastline, small rocky islands and the Tasman sea. To the south is Arnott Point, a resting area for New Zealand fur seals and occasionally elephant seals. It was some distance away and we were thankful for the binoculars and zoom camera that allowed us to get a closer look at the seals lounging on the beach.
Beyond Knights Point the Haast highway briefly veers off the coast towards Lake Moeraki and at the junction with the lake is a trailhead to Munro Beach, an opportunity to see the world’s rarest penguin, the Fiordland Crested Penguin. Between August and November, the crested penguin nest in this area and may be seen in the surf or crossing the beach to their nest site. Evidently the best times to catch sight of them is either very early in the morning or late afternoon. It was the middle of the day when we got there, but we did not want to completely discount our chances and decided to do the 4.7km return hike through coastal forest to the remote Monro Beach.
The trail is splendid for anyone who likes rainforest, birds and bird song. The many ferns and trees native to New Zealand were dripping water after the recent rains. Small creeks crisscrossed the gently rolling trail that had few steep sections. The beach itself is a nice isolated place and we enjoyed the view of the swell and the strong surf. We had it almost completely to ourselves, the only company we had were the dark misshapen rocks jutting out of the water. We scanned beach and the surf for awhile for the rare penguins but alas we were not lucky. At this time of the day, all of them were likely out fishing at sea. It would be a long wait for us to see them on their return. While it was too bad we didn't see the penguins, the rainforest, the birds and the beach were more than worth the effort.
The Haast Highway rejoins the coast at Bruce Bay for more ocean views before turning inland again and the foot stayed on the gas for almost 3 hours (possibly the longest we went without clicking our cameras since our first day!) until we reached the junction for Fox Glacier, the first of two famous glaciers in the area (the other being the Franz Josef glacier).
Fox Glacier has been famous for decades as one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. That changed when 3 storms in as many months dislodged the side of the mountain in early 2019. We had learned at the visitor center in the morning that the access road to the glacier was closed indefinitely. A recent engineering report commissioned by the Department of Conservation concluded that there was no practical engineering solution to stem more landslides and enable road access to be re-established. So the only practical alternative to see Fox Glacier up close is to take a helicopter tour (weather permitting). Or remain content with a distant viewing from a point several km away at Lake Matheson.
There were some clouds and rain was forecast for the coming days and besides we had experienced flightseeing from a helicopter at Talkeetna, Alaska. We decided we would do the hike to the neighboring Franz Josef glacier instead. But before heading there we took a short detour on Cook Flat road towards Lake Matheson (more on that later) which has a direct line of sight to Mt. Cook, Mt. Tasman and Fox glacier. From the access road to the lake we could see that doing the lake circuit trail that afternoon was not going to be satisfactory. The tall, snowy peaks barely jutted out from behind moving clouds, providing only a tantalizing glimpses at what we had come to see. We resolved to return next morning if the skies would be clearer and proceeded north to the town of Franz Josef.
A short drive out of town takes you to the glacier track trailhead. The 5.4 km , ~1.5 hrs return hike brings you fairly close to the terminal face of the Franz Josef glacier. For those with less time or motivation, a slightly distant but just as clear view of the glacier is visible after the first 15 minutes of walking through the forested trail.
Continuing from the end of the forest walk, the path is over a dry riverbed (there are markers) with rough rocks and boulders.. On one side of the riverbed is the Trident Falls which had a modest amount of water trickling down.The main trail leads to a point close to the terminal face of the glacier and the final section of track to the safety barriers includes a short climb to the viewing area. The Franz Josef Glacier is currently 12 km long and terminates 19 km from the Tasman Sea. The glacier is less than 300 metres above sea level. When the German explorer, Julius von Haast discovered the glacier in 1865, the glacier would have extended almost out to the Tasman sea. He named the glacier after his Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria
While the place has as stark beauty to it, there are signs warning that the glacier is constantly moving and ice and rocks fall from the terminal face without warning. Creeks may rise up to a meter in even moderate rain and water levels rise in as little as 15 minutes. Initially wispy clouds constantly rolled over the face of the glacier blocking the view. They eventually cleared up but the contrast of bright sun hitting the ice high above coupled with the much darker terminal moraine in the shadow beneath it made photographing the glacier a distinct challenge. As the sun dipped behind the mountains, the entire riverbed was in deep shadow but we could not resist constantly looking back at the glacier until it was visible no more.
We woke up at Franz Josef Top 10 Holiday Park to a bright cloudless sky, perfect conditions for our planned return to Matheson Lake. We retraced our route for a few kilometers south to Fox Glacier and the turnoff to Cook Flat Road and immediately knew that this was the best decision we could have made that morning!
The road offered panoramic views of the mountain range with clear view of Fox glacier and Mount Tasman towering to its right. Further right was the elusive sight of Mt. Cook, a sight that had eluded us when we were much closer to it at Mt. Cook National Park. We were elated and kept driving as the viewing angle just got better and better! A short distance away, on the turnoff into Gillespies Beach Road is a spot marked on maps as Fox Glacier Lookout. With the greenest of green pastures in the foreground, one could behold the entire mountain range and the fox glacier in a single panoramic frame (in the literal sense - a giant rectangular frame has been erected to aid those who are unable to frame their photos!) It was one of the best places to admire the beauty of glacier country. This place is clearly a hidden gem since few visitors seem to come down this road.
The bucolic surroundings was made even more scenic by yellow-wattled lapwings feeding on the ground, barn swallows perched on fence wires and sheep and cows grazing in the green pastures.
We saw some exceedingly heavy cows nearby, fattened no doubt by the abundance of nutritious grass. A couple of alpha male bulls locked eyes with us, perhaps trying to intimidate us. We took as a sign that they were not too pleased with our presence in their territory, so we decided to clear out and leave them to graze in peace.
The nearby Lake Matheson was formed some 14,000 years ago when the glacier retreated leaving a depression in the ground which later filled with water. It is said to be one of the most photographed lakes in NZ because on a clear day you can see a perfect reflection of the mountain range including Mt. Cook and Mt Tasman in its waters. A gentle 4 km track loops around the lake with lookouts and viewing platforms and it makes for a great short walk.
It is about a 45 minute walk through the ancient native forest to get to the first of a few reflection viewing spots along the track. The forest is damp and dense with tall trees towering above. We could hear the occasional chirp but it was difficult to spot any birds in the dense foliage. The forest cleared temporarily and there was a pontoon out on the lake with mountains coming into view.
The dark brown waters of the lake - the result of organic matter leached from the vegetation of the forest floor - have excellent reflective properties. But the slightest of ripples caused by a gentle breeze meant that reflections were not going to be crisp . Leaving the pontoon the trail re-enters the the forest lead up slightly to its highest point and the next viewing point. It is just a small clearing in the forest, just wide enough to frame the mountains and the lake. Though the tops of the peaks were obscured slightly by passing clouds, it made for a picture perfect view. The track headed back down some steps to the lakes edge for the final lookout - a wide wooden deck. A few gray ducks quietly swam past. The reflection of branches of some tall trees along the edge juxtaposed with plants sticking out above the lake surface and some completely submerged but clearly visible made up for our own ‘Three Worlds’ photo-opportunities. It was a nice place to linger here and take in the peaceful surroundings.
Back on Franz Josef highway we stopped in the small town of Whataroa. It is the starting point for White Heron Sanctuary tours and takes visitors to New Zealand’s one and only White Heron nesting site. While it was the right season for the tour, we had arrived too late in the day for the current days tour.
The official website for the town of Hokitika calls itself a “cool little town” and it was at the right driving distance we planned for the day. The Shining Star holiday park where we decided to stay was located right by the beach so gave us an opportunity to relax on the beach in our camping chairs.
Just before sunset, we made our way to the public beach area called the Sunset Point that seemed like a popular hangout. A quaint driftwood sculpture spelling out the name ‘Hokitika’ framed against the setting sun and made for a nice picture. We got ourselves a delicious Thai meal from a nearby food truck and enjoyed it as daylight faded over the Tasman Sea.
When total darkness fell, we visited the nearby Hokitika Glowworm Dell. It was just minutes’ walk from the road, and is a small leafy canyon that is home to splendid glow worm displays.
Hokitika Gorge Scenic Reserve is 33 km south (and inland) of Hokitika. We arrived there early and it seemed we were among the first visitors that braved the cold and rain that morning.
All bundled up, we traversed a well-maintained track through dense hardwood forest and it brought us to the first viewing platform. From here we could look down to the stunning Hokitika Gorge and out to the lush farmland around. The Hokitika River is fed by glaciers and has a baby blue hue because of the mixed in ‘glacial flour’. Beyond the viewing platform, a curving boardwalk leads to a magnificent swing bridge from which are excellent views of the Hokitika River as it makes its way through the rock sided Hokitika Gorge. The boardwalk continues beyond the the swing bridge and through the bush to another viewing platform with views of the gorge upstream of the bridge.
We retraced the route back to the junction of Highway 6 in Hokita and headed north on the West Coast Road towards Greymouth. It was a busy town and the largest town in New Zealand we had seen in days! And we just drove straight past without stopping!
About an hour-and-half north of Hokitika is one of the most famous landmarks on the West Coast, Punakaiki or “Pancake Rocks”. It is located on a promontory known as Dolomite Point and is managed by the Department of Conservation. We were greeted at the parking lot by several really attractive Silver Gulls also known as Red-billed Gulls. They are the most common gull on the New Zealand coast. With the bright red lipstick, eyeliner and matching nail-polish, they are among the most beautiful birds of New Zealand.
Across from the parking lot, a loop track winds through native rainforest and coastal vegetation close to view the rugged coastline where one can see the interesting ‘Pancake’ formations. They are essentially limestone and were formed 30 million years ago from minute fragments of dead marine creatures and plants landed on the seabed about 2 km below the surface. Immense water pressure caused the fragments to solidify in hard and soft layers. Gradually seismic action lifted the limestone above the seabed and mildly acidic rain, wind and seawater sculpted into stacks resembling pancakes layered on top of each other.
The weathering action has also resulted in the creation of surge pools and blowholes, the latter most active at high tide. When there is a heavy sea swell, saltwater is pushed at great force through holes in the limestone rock, which exit as a wall of fine spray, reaching many meters in height. There are many lookouts along the paved walking track to view these ‘pancake’ formations and blow holes along with beautiful views of the coast and mountains.
Luckily for us, our visit coincided with the nesting season of the White-fronted Tern that nest on these rock stacks from October to January. We were thrilled to see a large and busy tern colony at such close quarters - we had terns squawking noisily all around us, flying hither and thither, diving for fish, feeding their young and some even stealing their neighbors catch. We witnessed gulls mating, an oystercatcher playing in the surf and cormorants sunning themselves.
Beyond Punakaiki, Highway 6 North hugs the coastline going past several pristine beaches. There are several nice promontories where one can pull over and enjoy the view. A few km from Charleston, a minor, nondescript looking ‘Wilson’s Lead Road’ cuts through rolling, open farmland towards Cape Foulwind and the Tauranga Bay seal colony, which is one of the most accessible seal colonies on the West Coast.
On an impulse, we decided to take the detour before heading to Nelson, our destination for the night. The name Foulwind was given by the English explorer Captain Cook who was less than impressed with the wind which prevented him from landing here. From the car park at Tauranga Bay, an easy 10-minute track leads to viewing platforms over a year-round fur seal colony below. The short walk has spectacular views of the ocean and the rugged shoreline.
There are well designed interpretive panels along the way that provide information on the activity in the colony and the seals' breeding cycle, as well as historical information about the sealing industry that once existed in New Zealand. In addition to some lazy adult seals lounging on the rocks, there were a few pups in the nursery pools. Evidently the population in the colony would grow in the coming months.
A side track leads to Cape Foulwind lighthouse, but given that we had a long drive to Nelson ahead of us, we decided to give it a pass. A weka was pottering in the parking lot which we chased around for a while. As it turned out, this was a place of exceptional beauty and we were happy that we had decided to take this detour.
As we left Cape Foulwind, it was time to say goodbye to the West Coast and start heading inland on Hwy 6 toward Nelson.
Our original tentative plan had us traversing the Arthur Pass from Greymouth back to Christchurch a day before our flight out. But based on how things worked out, we had a couple of extra days to spare which gave us the option of making it all the way to Nelson and returning via the Marlborough region, a great decision in hindsight.
Nelson is located on the Tasman Bay in the region of south island commonly referred to as the “Top of the South”. It was established in 1841, and is the oldest city in the South Island and the second-oldest settled city in New Zealand. It is the economic and cultural centre for the region renowned for its stunning natural landscapes and diverse geography including everything from long golden beaches to untouched forests and rugged mountains. It is also the base to visit the Abel Tasman National Park and the Abel Tasman Coast Track (one of NZ's Great Walks)
Before we headed out of Nelson, we went on a short walk through the center of town. In Trafalgar Square is Christ Church Cathedral - a historic and often photographed Nelson landmark. It is a stately gray marble edifice with a 35 m tall steeple that sits on the top of a hill. The hill itself is a veritable botanical garden with exotic trees and beautiful flowering shrubs.
Going east on State Highway 6 from Nelson, we briefly enjoyed views of the Tasman Sea before the road swerved inland crossing into the Marlborough Region. The region covers the north-eastern corner of the South Island and its northern part is mostly hill country. Geographically its most notable feature - the Marlborough Sounds - a series of hills separated by valleys drowned since the last ice age. It is an awe-inspiring mash-up of land and sea with dense forest and pond-like water alternating with regularity. Marlborough is also New Zealand’s most important wine region by far, but more on that later.
After about an hour of rolling and winding roads with turns sharp corners around Whangamoa Hill we reached Havelock, a small town at the head of Pelorus Sound one of the Marlborough Sounds. It serves as the centre for New Zealand’s green-lipped mussel industry and the waterfront has an attractive marina with 340 berths for fishing vessels and boats of all sizes.
From Havelock, a 35 km coastal road named Queen Charlotte Drive provides a shorter but very winding road to Picton. Fringed with native forest on one side and the sea on the other, it is among the many picturesque scenic drives (is there a NZ drive that is not picturesque, we had to ask ourselves) in the country. There are pullouts enroute to stop and enjoy the scenery. As the road leaves Havelock, it climbs steeply up the hills overlooking the Pelorus Sound.
Our first stop was at Cullen Point Lookout where a relatively short uphill hike leads to the top of an overlook for outstanding views of Mahau Sound as well as the Kaituna and Pelorus estuaries. There are also great views of Havelock town on the opposite side. A second, longer trail goes downhill almost to the sea and loops back to the parking lot. We also caught sight of a family of California Quails in the low grass which added to our excitement.
The road descends through the area of Linkwater where it passes along a low saddle, traversing five kilometres of land between the head of Pelorus Sound and the head of Queen Charlotte Sound. To achieve the same thing by boat involves traveling more than a 100 kilometres out to the open sea and back in again!
Further along the Queen Charlotte Drive, we pulled over at Grove Arm jetty where a large number of Black-billed gulls were furiously diving for fish. There was a lot a clamor and drama as they noisily flew back and forth competing with Kelp Gulls for the best fishing opportunities. A few boat bobbed around in the water, some with shags perched on them. Black swans lazily swan at a distance. The road continues to wind past numerous sleepy bays before finally climbing up to the headland that leads into the seaside town of Picton. It is a slow and winding drive, that is made even slower due to the stops that yield spectacular views. While it may seem a little perverse to try to see the Marlborough Sounds by car instead of being out on a boat, it is well worth the effort as the views of turquoise bays are magical.
Picton, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound is a busy port town, the southern terminus of the Cook Strait ferries which are an integral part of New Zealand’s main trunk road and rail routes. A convenient overlook along the road descending into town affords a panoramic view of the harbor. Two massive ships were at their berths - a Bluebridge Cook Strait ferry and an Inter-island Cook Strait ferry. The Bluebridge was in the process of being loaded, we saw several big-rig trucks driving in to be transported. Picton railway station is located just outside the harbor.
Built around a very sheltered harbor, the town of Picton has an attractive seafront dotted with cafés, restaurants and an amusement area presumably to keep children occupied as families wait for the ferry. From Picton we started on our southward journey on State Highway 1 (which incidentally starts from Picton and runs the length of the island all the way to Invercargill at the bottom of the island). We were now squarely in wine country. With 26,000 hectares of Vineyards, this dry, sunny region is home to more than 150 wineries and around 50 exclusive cellar doors and produces more than three-quarters of all of New Zealand’s wine. It is particularly famous for its zesty white wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape variety.
We had picked up a Vineyards map at the visitor center in Picton and traversed some minor roads in the area. One is spoilt for choice when it comes to wine tasting and vineyard tours. Our choice, Hunter’s Vines, was set in a beautiful garden and the knowledgeable and lovely hostess was determined to ensure that we had a great experience. Another nice spot was the Vines Village, Marlborough which sits in the middle of miles of vineyards and offers dining options and beer/ wine tasting in pleasant surroundings. After a satisfactory meal and convinced that we had got a satisfactory taste of the Marlborough wine region, we continued past Blenheim on SH1 which soon becomes a scenic coastal road.
About an hour and 100 kilometers south of Blenheim is Oahu Point Fur Seal Colony. From a viewing platform close to the road, one can see a large number of fur seals laying around and doing their thing. There were also a number of nesting pairs of Australian Pied Cormorants which had convenient built their nests in natural cavities in the rocks. With the sun dropping low on the western horizon, we tore ourselves from watching the antics of seals and continue to Kaikoura, a half hour drive further south.
This long stretch of road on the eastern side of South Island seems to have been greatly affected by the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Our drive was constantly interrupted by one-way sections where construction equipment was busy making repairs.
The seaside settlement of Kaikōura is located on a rocky peninsula, protruding from lush farmland beneath the mountains. It is a great place for nature lovers to visit - the complex marine system off the peninsula provides an abundantly rich habitat for marine mammals like seals, whales and dolphins. And with around 150 species of bird recorded, both seabirds offshore and in the native forests, it is also one of the country’s top birding destinations.
We only had one morning to spend in the area and headed to Point Kean that is at the very tip of the peninsula, home to a fur seal colony and the starting point for the Kaikoura Peninsula Walk.
Even as we arrived at the parking lot, we found seals that had climbed up from their rocky homes up to the boardwalk and in front of parked cars. They seemed unconcerned with all the attention being heaped on them at such close quarters though the more considerate visitors decided to give them their space and kept a distance. The less considerate ones got as close to the seals as possible and tried to get someone to picture themselves in the same frame as the indifferent animal.
From Point Kean there are two tracks. The first one is at sea-level over the white, weathered, uneven rocks; it winds in and out of coves and takes you up close to the seal colony and tide pools. The latter is along the top of the cliffs with amazing views of the peninsula, the bays and the mountains while also providing the opportunity to look down at the seal and nesting bird colonies. We instinctively chose the latter.
A paved walkway leads steeply up until you reach the Clifftop Walk and the Point Kean lookout. This platform, designed in the shape of a waka, affords a sweeping view of both the sea and the mountains. Interpretation panels provide stories of the land, the sea and the people who lived here. Beyond the lookout platform, we followed the track along the clifftop towards Whalers Bay viewpoint and were rewarded with superb views of rugged cliff formations, tidal platforms and the Seaward Kaikōura Range.
An interpretation panel on this section of the walkway explains that, hundreds of years ago, the peninsula was forested with many species of native New Zealand trees and plants. Most of this vegetation was removed during successive waves of human development, leaving small, remnant outcrops of hardy shrubs and plants clinging to the steep cliff faces. Out to sea, were thousands of seabirds diving and feeding frantically on small fish (possibly herded to the surface by bigger fish or dolphins). From this elevated height we had great views of lounging seals, walkers and fishing boats. Our ears perked up at every birdcall in the low shrubs around and we took our time to track them down and view them.
Alongside the NZ Fur Seal rookery, during spring and summer, the peninsula is also the location of the South Island’s largest Red-billed Gull colony. We were in the right place and right time for this event - looking directly down at thousands of noisy, nesting gulls is indeed a spectacular sight! Few places in the world can boast of such natural beauty as those offered by land and sea in Kaikōura and we count this among the most spectacular and delightful walks anywhere in the world.
We did not have enough time to complete the entire 12km loop so we retraced out path back down to the parking lot. In the trees around, several New Zealand Bellbirds entertained us with their melodious songs that seemed akin to that of the American Robin. Hedge Sparrows advertised their presence with squeaky calls and tried to distract us from the Bellbirds. And soon some European Finches with their distinct red masks caught our attention and kept our fingers busy with the camera!
We finally tore ourselves from Kaikoura, if the opportunity to return to this country presents itself, it would be on the list of places to return to with more time allotted. The distance between Kaikoura and Christchurch is just under 200kms and we were due to return our rental campervan before 5pm . So we had to plan the intervening hours so as to optimize use of the vehicle. Back to the big city and its international airport!
Christchurch has earned the moniker of “Garden City and its Botanic Gardens is one of the most popular and well-loved attractions. It is located a short distance from the center of the city. We lunched at the indoor-outdoor Ilex cafe at the visitor center that offers a relaxing dining experience with a focus on locally sourced ingredients.
The landscaped gardens themselves were a delight to spend time in. Despite it being very early spring, it was a beautiful place for a stroll among magnificent old trees and their fine collection of exotic and local plants of New Zealand. We walked on the pathway that runs parallel to the Avon River (it also forms the boundary of the Gardens) and encountered several New Zealand Scaup and a female Gray Duck leading her large brood through the rushing waters.
After we checked into our hotel (at the heart of the city) and returned the campervan at the airport rental, we rode the bus back into the city. As we neared the city center and caught sight of the striking Victoria Clock Tower on Victoria Street, we let ourselves off the bus. We were now free to explore the city on foot for the rest of the evening.
In February 2011, Christchurch was badly damaged by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, which killed 185 people and injured several thousand. The epicenter of the earthquake was just 10 kilometers south-east of Christchurch's central business district. Not all buildings that were damaged have been rebuilt and you still see evidence of damage everywhere in the city.
Victoria Street has a sprinkling of public art installations and there is an app that can be used for a self-guided tour. The newly renovated Christchurch Town is located at Victoria Square on the banks of the Avon River. Beside a statue of a young Queen Victoria, there is another of Captain James Cook who explored the coast and was the first to stake claim for Great Britain.
The 2011 earthquake severely damaged the stately Christchurch Cathedral and is still in a wrecked state. Along with several other damaged buildings, it serves as a visual reminder of the event as you walk through the CBD though there are some heritage buildings that have been restored like the Isaac Theater Royal just south of Victoria Square. The adjacent pedestrianized New Regent Street has quaint buildings with Spanish Mission architecture, a distinctive pastel color scheme and by some accounts is considered the “most beautiful street in New Zealand”. The earthquake resulted in Christchurch losing some of its population, leaving Wellington to grab the honor of being NZ’s second most populous city.
Off Latimer square, a wide park with walkways, is the Cardboard Cathedral (aka Transitional Cathedral), now the seat of the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch in place of the earthquake damaged Christchurch Cathedral. Before wrapping up our tour, we walked an additional block to the south, to the corner of Cashel St and Madras St, simply to record V’s presence at what is probably the southernmost reference in the world to the name of his first hometown!