A February 2001 trip
to South Island by sarah date
Quote: I had always thought I would do New Zealand "properly" – spending a few months traversing snowy mountains and immersing myself in Maori culture – but when an opportunity arose to spend just a week in the South Island, I jumped at the chance all the same.
Visit glaciers, fiords and sounds; go whale watching and wine tasting; decide for yourself if Christchurch feels English or not.
Tour companies offering coach trips to all the major places of interest abound to the point of overkill. Everywhere on the island I found myself driving behind lines of buses belching out diesel fumes – surely at odds with the pristine environment that New Zealand prides itself on.
During the summer months, cycling around the islands is a very popular mode of transport for the fit. I must have seen an average of 25 pairs of pannier-laden cyclists a day.
Lastly, if you don’t want to drive or walk to a sight, you will probably have an option to boat on it or fly over it.
The mountains behind Queenstown are crisscrossed in deforested gashes, ski runs that are much prettier when covered in snow and reached by a gondola leading steeply up the slope. For the non-athletic, this is where to come for a cocktail or meal while taking in the sunset hues on the Remarkable Mountains across Lake Wakatipu. And if you are so inclined, there is a mini luge course that loops around the après ski lodge that is open until early evening.
I had found accommodation through a helpful website www.queenstown.com that has prebooking for numerous establishments at a range of prices. The budget hotel I had chosen (Resort Lodge) was full but the management put me in touch with someone who they knew had an empty chalet. As a consequence I rattled around an enormous self-contained chalet with a view of the lake for NZ$55 a night, staying two nights.
Queenstown is one of the top spots for activities that raise the adrenalin levels – river rafting, jet boating, canyoning, bungy jumping, white water sledging, mountain biking, dirt biking – the list goes on. These pursuits are also costly and since I have done the bungy jumping thing and was broke, I took a relaxing walk along the lake instead, enjoying the crisp air and spectacular setting.
That evening I met up with some friends of a friend at the Red Rock Bar & Grill (on Upper Camp Street and with constant skiing and snowboarding videos in case you can’t get enough of it outside) who were cycling around both islands at the rate of 50 miles a day, and over a couple of local beers, I learnt a bit about their 3 month adventure and came away feeling more unfit than ever before.
Since I had a car, I decided that I would do the 3 hour trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound and see a bit of the New Zealand fiordland, even though I would have much preferred to spend more time in this area and investigate some of the less visited sounds, either by walking and camping on some of the long tracks that snake around this region or by taking a guided kayaking trip. The road from Te Anau, the closest township to Milford Sound, is two laned and clogged with smelly tour buses ferrying frightening numbers of tourists to the water’s edge, whereupon they generally embark on one of the large ferries that do laps around the fiord.
In the interest of time, I uncharacteristically joined a throng on a ferry for a fee of NZ$45 and settled back to be enthralled by nature. Waterfalls were coursing down lush steep mountainsides, dwindling from the lack of rain that day but still impressive, and Mitre Peak which dominates the fiord was clearly outlined. It is easy to understand the power of the glaciers that carved these lands into their current state and to imagine how sacred the features of land are to the native Maoris.
Milford Sound is also where the famous Milford Track ends, a four day walk that has to be booked ahead of time so the numbers on the track at any one time can be controlled (NZ$105 for adult permit, other add-ons available for a cost such as transport to the start and from the end). Pack for rain, I’ve been told.
Apparently I was phenomenally lucky on my visit because the sun was shining, I didn’t get bitten by a single sandfly, velvety fur seals were lounging on the rocks halfway down the fiord, and the whole experience was altogether fantastic.
The road out of Queenstown follows a jade green river and then crosses flat agricultural land with mountains always looming in the distance in all directions. Cyclists are a common sight as are hitchhikers, the latter being a very common and effective mode of getting around a country as small and safe as New Zealand.
Driving through the pass is dangerous, not really because the road twists and turns with hair-raising drops to one side and spires of mountains to the other, but because all of it is so breathtaking that you are forced to slow down, crane your head to look at the views and sometimes stop the car altogether in order to get out, breathe deeply and take a few pictures.
Then before you know it, you burst out onto the West Coast and are plunged into dense rainforest that looks so odd, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if a dinosaur wandered across the road. This is the wet side of the island, receiving almost constant rainfall from the westerly weather systems that hit it before moving inland. The coastline here is rugged and dramatic, home to myriad wildlife such as penguins, seals and migrating whales.
Continuing north on Route 6, I came to Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers, two of the most accessible glaciers in the world, their frozen tongues reaching for the sea. Years ago a friend had told me about a place where walls of ice meet thick rainforest and I knew that one day I would have to see it for myself. And here it was.
Short trails lead up to the heads of both glaciers where you can sit and contemplate the blue depths of rock and ice, willing it to move forward visibly, but it is also possible to take guided hikes onto the glaciers themselves or helicopter flights that allow you to get out and walk around on the blindingly white ice. And for the more daring or those in search of a complete view from above skydiving excursions can be arranged.
This was the only time that I endured rain on my trip and I had to spare a thought for all of the vintage car enthusiasts who I kept passing on the road. Dozens of fantastic old cars, mostly open-topped by design, puttering through such bizarre scenery lent a time warped feeling to the day.
That evening I arrived in Greymouth, imaginatively named in respect to its proximity to the mouth of the Grey River … and booked in at a bed & breakfast I found in the Lonely Planet guide, the Golden Coast Guesthouse – my cheapest stay at NZ$50 for the night. I went into town for a bit of exploring and after window shopping for jade (greenstone) and bone carved jewelry that is synonymous with New Zealand, I ended up walking along a deserted windswept beach. Smooth pebbles of quartz and greenstone were thickly scattered but in places, especially in the surf, the sand was black and flecked with gold, a reminder that this is gold country and Greymouth a former gold mining town.
Back into town, I had a mediocre pizza at Bonsai Pizzeria on Mackay Street and tried some of the local beer, Monleith’s, which was very nice indeed. And in the morning, I was presented with a lovely cooked breakfast by Gladys who runs the B&B and who told me lots of interesting facts about Greymouth, a subject she must have some authority on since she has lived there for her entire life.
Pancake Rocks are pillars of stacked limestone rock, aptly named, interspersed with blowholes which are best demonstrated when the tides are high. A short and pleasant walkway in among thick vegetation loops around the sights, providing lookout points at the right spots. The Rocks are a small part of the Paparoa National Park which includes a larger wilderness area inland with many walking tracks – information is available at the Visitor Centre on the main highway.
My next stop was Cape Foulwind, not only because I’m always drawn to places with curious names but also because I had read that a fur seal colony thrives there. And since it was summer, the colony was full of ridiculously cute, month old babies tumbling over each other and practicing their swimming techniques in a safe nursery pool. The noise and smell wafting up on the strong breeze were considerable to say the least.
With difficulty I tore myself away from the seals and headed inland through the mountainous Buller Gorge on my way to Nelson. Clear morning light shone through the trees and illuminated occasional stacks of pastel coloured bee boxes in the corners of grassy fields. Further on I passed through the Motueka Valley, a lush agricultural region growing hops, green tea, flowers and fruit such as apples and kiwi. The scenery lifted my spirits but I made the mistake of buying an enormous bottle of caramel flavoured milk on the way, and between that and the twisty road, felt quite queasy for most of the drive.
In Nelson I checked into the Sussex House which is a beautifully restored home with 4 rooms and a very sociable orange cat named Riley. I had spent the day walking a tiny part of the Abel Tasman Track which follows the coastline in the National Park of the same name. The sun was shining and I enjoyed myself immensely listening to birds and stopping off at a few of the bays to sit on the beach. I found a large purple squid pulsating at the water’s edge in Coquille Bay and tried to resuscitate it (without success) by returning it to the sea.
It is possible to do the entire trek over 3 or 4 days and stay in the huts provided or camp along the way for a small fee – book first as this is very popular during the summer. Another way to see the park is to hire a sea kayak in the township of Marahau where the track begins.
Nelson itself is pleasant town with pretty beaches and an artistic, food-loving community. In early February, a festival of local food and drink is held and many other events occur throughout the calendar.
Continuing north, I took the Queen Charlotte Drive which curves around the edge of the Marlborough Sounds between Havelock and Picton, giving views of white boats moored on the turquoise waters. Picton is where the ferry from the North Island docks. A wildfire was still smouldering on the hillsides just outside the town as I drove through, a result of the hot weather and dry conditions.
My destination that day was Blenheim, centre of the island’s best known winemaking region and when I arrived, an art and food market was in full swing. I bought some bone and greenstone carvings for presents from one vendor, who told me the stories behind the pieces I chose – a whale’s tail, a hook of New Zealand and an adze.
Afterward I set off to sample some of the wines, working from a list given to me by a local friend who had worked in the business. Daniel LeBrun for sparkling, Huia for beautiful whites (pinot gris, chardonnay), Cloudy Bay for its world reknowned sauvignon blanc, Vavasour because that was where my friend had been employed. In the hot sun, the vineyards laid out on the flat valley floor surrounded by golden rolling hills vividly reminded me of Napa County in California.
All of what I experienced in the north end of the island was thoroughly enjoyable and I absolutely intend to visit the region again. In the meantime, I occasionally drink a glass of fine white wine from there and relive a pleasant memory.
Besides lolling about in pools of various sizes and temperatures, you can partake in a number of robust outdoor activities here, ranging from nature walks and horse treks, from white water rafting and mountain biking to the ubiquitous bungy-jumping, and in winter there are snowfields in the area for skiing and other cold weather sports.
Just seeking serenity, I had my heart set on a massage after soaking but didn’t call far enough ahead of time in order to secure an appointment. However the weather was clear, sunny and warm – which is not often the case in New Zealand – and I felt fantastically refreshed by the experience.
Hamner Springs offers a range of accommodation options for all budgets and there are a selection of eateries in the village. My friends report that the Old Post Office which is now converted into a top restaurant was where they like to go for a special meal. I have every intention of visiting again and actually staying for a while, during which time I will be sure to sample the local menus.
On to Christchurch for a final day and night, I slept at a large and tidy B&B called Windsor Hotel which was conveniently located near downtown and the Botanical Gardens in Hagley Park. In the beautiful evening light, I strolled along the Avon River which winds somewhat confusingly through the park, and with weeping willows trailing into the water and punts tied up at boatsheds, I understood how one could be reminded of certain English towns.
There are plenty of pubs, cafés and restaurants representing a wide range of cuisines to cater to your food and watering needs. After a riverside beer, I ventured into South of the Border for some Tex-Mex, being inexplicably enticed by the thought of a burrito and was not disappointed. A lively crowd and spicy aromas filled the restaurant with warmth and I tucked into my dinner with a book for company.
The next morning was a Sunday and I happened upon a vintage car show, complete with drivers and passengers in period dress, running right past my hotel. Following the parade I ended up at the Arts Centre Galleria on Rolleston Avenue across from the Botanical Gardens where a crafts fair is held on the weekends. A labyrinth of shops display and sell good quality jewellry, woven goods and Maori carvings here and often it is possible to see the artisans at work.
Short on time, I stopped in at Cathedral Square to have a quick look at gothic Christ Church Cathedral before hopping on the very convenient and rapid airport bus (I had rid myself of the hire car the day before). Of course this visit came to an end far too quickly but I’m happy to have had a taste of New Zealand’s South Island and am prepared for a second trip!
"Eat crayfish" – that is the English translation from Maori of the word "kaikoura." Well, I didn’t do any eating of crustaceans but instead ventured out on a boat to view cetaceans, the other notable tourist activity offered here. And what a terrific decision that was.
At the Whale Watch headquarters situated obviously on the beach in the former rail station, I booked myself onto the last catamaran to go out that day (at 4:30). For the price of a ticket (NZ$95) you are given an opportunity to view a 20 minute video about the company, the whales found in the bay and safety information for the boat and while waiting, you can wander around the souvenir shop and café. Then everyone is piled onto a bus, in this case a rather ancient bus, and driven around the corner to the launch. Generally the boats take about 100 or so passengers but being the end of the day, my excursion only had 45 people which was great.
The guys running the ship gave us some history on the area including Maori legends as well as information about current scientific research being done on the whales and other sea creatures that live in the bay such as fur seals and the elusive giant squid. Usually, they said, the average number of whales spotted on an excursion was 1 – 2 but it always depended on luck.
Within 5 minutes of leaving shore, an adolescent male humpback whale lazily breached the surface sideways, straining the water for food. This was a coup since Kaikoura Bay is famous for its resident population of young male sperm whales and humpbacks are only spotted during migration. Being early February made this one’s presence special.
The sperm whales cruise these extremely deep waters for about 20 years until they are sexually mature bulls, at which time they head for the matriarchal pods that live near the equator in order to be chosen for mating. Because these males spend so much time in a relatively small area, researchers can easily identify individuals by marks and notches on their tail flukes and consequently monitor their behaviour. Sperm whales, the largest of the toothed whales, can dive down for up to two hours or more, searching for food. All sorts of things have been found in the stomachs of dead specimens, including a metal oil drum in one, but the whales’ favourite meal is squid.
Though it has never been photographed, marine biologists suspect the giant squid can reach sizes comparable to a bus and surely would put up a fight if attacked by a sperm whale. With a little imagination, it is easy to understand some of the early sailors’ tales of outrageous sea monster battles.
Our luck continued with the crew finding 5 individuals surfacing within a reachable, motorised boat distance from each other.
"Somebody brought their lucky spirits with them today!" said the captain.
The first sign of a whale coming up for air is of course the blow – a mist of spray that emerges from the blowhole at a 45 degree angle in the case of a sperm whale. Their long square heads seem to float on the water’s surface like enormous grey logs and as they build up their air intake in preparation for another lengthy dive, the wrinkled, barrel shaped body emerges for a moment. Then they take the plunge downward, heaving their massive flukes into the air in a farewell salute. At this point, the crew could identify each whale and told us their nicknames.
Apart from seeing these incredible and beautiful animals, we were treated to a large pod of dusky dolphins including many babies – miniature versions of the adults swimming like mad to keep up with their parents, a pungent fur seal colony also with young, and sea birds such as shearwaters, petrels and albatrosses with a 2 1/2-metre wingspan.
This experience was the highlight of my trip to the South Island and one that I would highly recommend if the weather permits.
london, san francisco, melbourne, United Kingdom