Our itinerary for New Zealand is another fine example of our haphazard planning. Having booked flights into Auckland and out of Christchurch comfortably in advance, we left it until the last minute to look at transport while actually in the country. As it turned out, it was actually cheaper to do the following:
- Spend a couple of days in Auckland
- Fly down to Christchurch and pick up a rental car
- Drive back up to Auckland to drop car off as a relocation (at least this would have been the plan had it not been for seismic interference)
- Fly BACK down to Christchurch to get our pre-booked onward flight
Learn from our mistakes, people, and go South-North. Still, it isn’t all bad as I can now use this opportunity to throw in a cheesy Hobbit-based post title. Due to the convoluted route we ended up taking, we have split the blog posts into North/South island rather than working chronologically, in the hopes that you don’t end up as confused as we were.
Because of this, we start our tale three days into our New Zealand adventure. We arrived in Christchurch and picked up our rental car (affectionately dubbed EEW), in which we would be spending a vast amount of time in over the next ten days. When planning back at home, I had been much more focused, and admittedly excited about the Asian stint of our adventure, thinking New Zealand and Australia would give us more of a ‘home away from home’, less authentic ‘travelling’ feel (I mean, I wouldn’t even be able to wear my new elephant trousers). However, somewhere across the hundreds of kilometres of empty roads, in which every turn granted us a fresh look at the majesty and wonder of the many different faces New Zealand has to offer, we fell head over heels in love.
Upon landing in Christchurch, we had something of a whistlestop tour around the town. Badly damaged by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake back in 2011, the after effects are still visible to this day, particularly at the Cathedral in the town centre. The locals have taken the damage in their stride, and it has almost become absorbed as part of the identity of the town, and the general atmosphere is one of optimism and close community. Like all towns in New Zealand, it has developed its own distinct personality, with skate parks and pop up eateries in abundance, surrounded by ship container-like buildings from which businesses operate.
After a quick meal and a walk through the Cardboard Cathedral, a temporary cathedral set up following the destruction of the Christchurch Cathedral, we were back in EEW to head down South to squeeze as much as possible into our three and a half weeks.
The roads in New Zealand seem never-ending, but are no means boring because of it. There is an abundance of wildlife to keep an eye out for (especially the birds which have a habit of spooking and flying directly at cars rather than away from them, something to be aware of!) and every so often you are rewarded with a great glimpse of the looming mountains way off in the distance. The land is rich, healthy and undisturbed in such a way that even I, not one for views by any stretch of the imagination, was transfixed.
Our final call for the day was the quiet, peaceful town of Timaru. We had tentatively set up a Couchsurfing profile with the thought that the best way to discover an area in a short space of time is with a local, and we’d really recommend it – although read those profiles carefully – there seems to be a disproportionate amount of nudists offering mutual massage if you aren’t selective! We reached out to Aaron (who had a blessedly normal profile) and he very kindly put us up for a couple of days. Aaron regaled us with some hilarious stories (and Crash Bandicoot!) and had great knowledge of the local area. He took us along the beach and showed us where the Penguins come in to nest and a surprisingly quaint local aviary, in which I spent an embarrassing amount of time chattering to completely disinterested birds, another recurring theme during our travels!
After a restful nights sleep we were back in the car for a day trip to Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook. I should note at this point that we had arrived in New Zealand in shorts and t-shirts, and promptly had to put every warm item of clothing we had on top of them. The weather was temperamental, and we had days of glorious sunshine, and days of gales and rain. This day had both, sneakily luring us into a false sense of security when we left the house, then chucking it down when we were three hours away and there was nothing we could do about it. Nevertheless, we were fortunate enough to see Lake Tekapo in relative sunshine and also quiet, and were rewarded with the tranquil view almost to ourselves. The real majesty of the landmarks of New Zealand lie as much in the respect the people have for their environment, as the place itself. Lake Tekapo is unassuming and awe-inspiring in its vast calmness, and the locals have allowed it to be exactly that. A small church and the Mackenzie Sheepdog statue are the only interruptions of the natural beauty, and they in their simplicity only add to the scene.
Dragging ourselves away from the view, we made for Mount Cook, with a couple of brief interludes at the equally scenic Lake Pukaki (Laketown in the Hobbit Trilogy, see pics above). By this time the weather was changing and the afternoon was getting on, so I grumpily vetoed a hike in the rain and instead we had a hot chocolate and a coffee looking out over the views. Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand and was used to depict the Lonely Mountain in the Hobbit Trilogy. Even through the rain and dying sunlight the mountain looms formidable over the village below. On our way back we couldn’t resist a quick stop back at Lake Tekapo to have a look at the stars – unfortunately the weather, and the churches sprinklers, had other plans so while the night sky was impressive I imagine it’s even better on a clear night.
We bade a fond farewell to Aaron the next morning and made for the Otago Peninsular, via Dunedin. We had a brief stop en route in a small town called Omaru. Though a tiny, classic town the locals had yet again put their own mark upon it, and there were steampunk style figures and animals dotted around the town, as well as a steampunk museum we were sorely tempted by! It was not what we expected at all and we were both charmed by the character of the town as we sat on a bench overlooking the sea and ate our lunch.
After much debate we decided to brave a caravan park to stay overnight and it was… Actually not bad! Having been jaded by the Inbetweeners we were unsure what to expect, but it was clean and cosy and the cheapest option by far. We arrived early evening and headed up to Blue Penguins Pukekura to see what we could see, however were put off by the not unsubstantial price to sit and watch the Penguins come in at dusk. We were a little disheartened by this, and this was only heightened by the fact that we couldn’t find anywhere open to eat – places in the quieter areas of New Zealand shut early, and it wasn’t the first or last time we were left roaming the streets trying to find the closest McDonalds or Dominos, in the hopes they at least would be open! Hangry and sleepy, we retired to the caravan park, utterly devoid of penguins.
Alex to the rescue! Come morning we popped Sandfly Bay into the sat nav, and off we went, to be rewarded with..
Sea lions!! Absolutely incredible, these gentle giants were lounging all the way down the stretch of the beach. As long as you respect their space they are completely disinterested in the humans toddling down their turf, and watching them bask and give themselves little sand baths in their natural environment was probably the highlight of my trip so far – I had such a goofy grin on that my face hurt the entire afternoon afterward!
As we were strolling down the sea lion’s beach, Alex’s keen eye caught something significantly smaller than the sea lions in the near distance. A lone penguin making a dash for it! More skittish than the sea lions, we had read a sign warning that if you were lucky enough to see a penguin, the best thing to do is stay still and out of sight, in case you spook it back into the water. We did exactly that, and peeking round a sandy corner we got to see him waddle up a sand bank to his nest – amazing!
Feeling like blossoming David Attenboroughs we eventually tore ourselves away and back to the car, over to Cromwell, which is a short drive from Queenstown. Here we made our second effort on Couchsurfing and met Chris – who is, in a word, a legend. A bit of an adrenaline junkie, he had amazing stories and suggestions, and made us feel right at home.
We got on really well with Chris, right up until he battered us both on the Luge! It was great fun rattling down the rickety slope and taking in the views in Queenstown, but it would have been nice to overtake him just once!
Queenstown was definitely the busiest place we had seen in the South Island, and has a great reputation for bars and nightlife. On top of this there are countless opportunities for extreme sports nearby; home to the original Bungee site, Kawarau Bridge, and also a hugely popular skydiving site. We had already decided to be sensible with our travelling budget and not partake, having both skydived before, however looking back I wish we had. Once you’re out of the plane and under the chute you have a while of just looking around you before you hit the ground, and I can’t think of any view that would be more perfect. Definitely on the to do list when we return.
Once again, with a little longer Queenstown is somewhere we would have loved to stay and explore further, but after a delicious Mexican at AmiGos in Cromwell with Chris and a couple of his mates (who also gave us great tips for our onwards travels, and, ironically, an account of their experiences of the Christchurch earthquake) we were once again packing up little EEW and off to our next destination, by way of a surprise detour. Alex somewhat unwisely, but very sweetly, catered to my nerd side and took us to Puzzling World, which was full of, well, puzzles, unsurprisingly. We had a race round the maze, which ended up in a sprint to the finish, heedless of the young children in the vicinity whom it was actually targeted at, and we attempted various puzzles for ages 10+ which we failed to complete. It was a lovely and random diversion on our trip, after which we made way to the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers.
The Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, 13km and 12km long respectively, are temperate maritime glaciers (thanks Google). We traversed a wooded pathway to reach the Fox glacier in the late afternoon as you can see above, before settling down for the night at Sir Cedrics Chateau, which was gorgeous and we would highly recommend. Again, a less budget conscious pair than us would be able to get a helicopter flight onto the Franz Josef glacier itself, but that was not to be, and so the following day we settled ourselves for a short hike down and round the bottom in our rain macs for a view up at the ice creeping its way down the mountain. Once more I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, but it was interesting to see the markers for where the ice used to reach down to, and its gradual retreat back up the mountain.
We made our way from here to the Te Nikau Retreat in Punakaiki, which is a quirky rainforest themed hostel with a cute mezzanine in the bunk rooms if you’re lucky enough to get a bed up there. We had a nutritious meal of Doritos and dips and after a good nights sleep we were off again, this time to see the pancake rocks in Punakaiki.
The pancake rocks are thus named because they are supposed to resemble a stack of pancakes. The limestone has formed over millions of years in layers one atop of the other, and earthquakes have forced the seabed above sea-level, where further weathering has led to the rock’s distinct appearance. The short walk is serene and the quiet is interrupted only by the impressive water spouts intermittently bursting through the blowholes.
Unfortunately, the weather was pretty grim and while we had a couple of ideas for stops on route including Hammer Springs, we ended up heading straight through the Lewis Pass and up to the pretty seaside town of Kaikoura. We had booked a couple of nights in Dusky Lodge, which was comfortable, homely and had great WiFi! Claire the manager very helpfully booked us on for a whale watching trip the following day, and we made out for a delicious meal of mussels for me, and fish and chips for Alex at The Whaler Bar and Restaurant, which we would really recommend if you ever find yourselves in Kaikoura.
It was with much excitement we headed down to Whale Watch Kaikoura for our trip. We spoke to one of the girls at the hostel who had been on a dolphin encounter the day previously and raved about it. They were lucky enough to swim with very inquisitive wild dolphins, so we had high hopes of seeing a couple of schools of dolphins at the very least.
We were in luck, after fighting through some very choppy seas the team on the boat were able to track a whale using their on-board sensor in the near distance. We rushed over, which was a little bit touch and go for myself and a couple of other queasy sailors, and were lucky enough to see a Sperm Whale! We watched, transfixed, as the serene giant spent a couple of minutes at the surface filling it’s lungs, before a magnificent display of it’s fluke as it dived back deep and out of sight. With that and a couple of schools of very attention seeking dolphins, we were feeling very spoilt on the way back, before the team on the ship announced a sudden detour, whale song had been identified close by.
The dolphins delightedly followed the boat as we picked up speed, and seemed almost to be trying to outdo each other with who could pull off the most extravagant leap out the water. When we approached and stopped at a respectable distance the dolphins charged right ahead, cavorting and jumping round the whale. It was a Southern Right Whale, numbers of which have been decimated by whaling over the years, and while the population is growing, there are still only between 7,500 and 12,500 (depending on which study you read) remaining worldwide. This was the first the crew had seen that year. It seemed to enjoy the company of the dolphins, playfully pectoral slapping as they leapt round it.
We could have stayed there all day, all thoughts of seasickness forgotten, as it seemed so could the Southern Right! Eventually, as we were running later and later, the crew reluctantly set sail for home and we were forced to leave the incredible sight behind. We were on an absolute high for the rest of our evening and it has become one of (many!) highlights of our trip. We were really pleased to see that the Whale Watching trips have been re-opened as of this year, so if you find yourself in Kaikoura it’s definitely worth checking out.
Our plans were to head to Nelson via Ohau Waterfall and do a bit of kayaking in Abel Tasman, before heading to the North Island from Picton. Unfortunately this wasn’t to be the case as we found ourselves stranded in Kaikoura due to the Earthquake, our account of which you can read here.
As a sidenote we were very pleased to read during our research that Whale Watching Tours began again on a reduced service at the start of this year, and that Dusky Lodge is open and accepting guests. We hope the businesses and livelihoods of the people in Kaikoura get back to normal as soon as possible, and the town is returned to it’s former glory. If you are heading to New Zealand do take the time to visit Kaikoura, its a genuinely lovely place to be and the support I’m sure would be much appreciated.
Words (and my photography skills) won’t do justice to the impossible landscapes and breathtaking views, and that’s before you even consider the people living within the country. We found New Zealand a place we both felt at home in, and with hindsight would have allowed ourselves a lot more time there if we could. We definitely have some unfinished business with New Zealand, and this will not be our only trip there – ski season 2017 anyone?!