“what is life, but a grand adventure”
My partner and I dreamed of campervanning around Aotearoa NZ for years, but we always put it off due to the distance and cost. With our move here in 2015, we finally made this two week journey over Christmas/New Years, getting a wee glimpse of Te Wai Pounamu South Island. I should note, that the following wouldn’t serve as an ideal itinerary as it misses two of my favorite places, most of Fiordland National Park (we had already done a trip here) and the West Coast (we were saving this for its own separate trip, because it is just that amazing). Also, while we had a few set destinations, we didn’t have a hard itinerary so we made some odd deviations. That flexibility is one of the many great things about traveling by campervan.
We started our journey in Picton, arriving as passengers on the Interislander Ferry, a roughly four hour journey from our home in Welly.
We picked up our campervan from a local resident who was renting his personal van. This was our home for most nights along the trip and we had so many great memories in it.
Southward bound, we headed to Kaikoura, a wild and scenic place on the east coast, not far from Picton (at the time, ~2.5 hours). Kaikoura translates to ‘kai’ = food, ‘koura’ = crayfish in Māori. We took our time enjoying this scenic driving past rock formations, crashing waves, and sea lions. I am really glad we had an opportunity to experience this place prior to the November 2016 earthquake that damaged the coastal road access from the north. The road is expected to open that the end of 2017, just in time for the tourist season.
The next day we were up early to swim with hundreds of dusky dolphins with the Dolphin Experience. About ten of us boarded a small boat and jumped in the water with the dolphins as they whizzed effortlessly past us, briefly stopping to play. I was a little bit nervous about the impact on the dolphins with 10 humans dropping in on their swim, but they seemed to enjoy the play time and continued to perform for us once we boarded the boat. The dusky dolphins live only in the southern hemisphere and prefer the cool inshore currents, which make these playful creatures visible from the shoreline.
Prior to jumping in the dolphins, we had a visit from a much larger sea mammal, the orca.
While the entire operation leading up to the boat was incredibly ‘touristy’, once we were in the water we were completely immersed in the experience, unaware of the 8 other people swimming nearby us.
Christchurch and The Banks Peninsula
The next day we were off to the city, Christchurch, NZ’s third largest city. The city remains still badly damaged from a pair of devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, for which 185 people lost their lives. Despite the damage, the city was filled with holiday energy. We enjoyed the street art, pop up installations, and restart container area, all critical to the City’s recovery. My favorite tactical urbanist piece in the city is the Dance-o-Mat. An old washer where you can connect your phone to play music through speakers and dance under a disco ball. I of course played Christmas music…tis the season.
We wanted to have a quiet night on the coast so we headed to Akoroa on the Banks Peninsula. This little town is filled with French restaurants, flags, and signs in the French language. The French initially thought they had an agreement with local iwi to settle the area, only to return to find it had already been designated a British sovereignty. Apparently the french stuck around for a while regardless of the land’s status.
Oamaru and Moeraki
We woke to Christmas Eve and we were off to enjoy a lazy holiday on the Otago Peninsula, NZ’s wildlife capital. On our way south we stopped to check out the steampunk town of Oamaru and the Moeraki Boulders. I am not sure where all of my Oamaru pictures disappeared to, below is all I have saved? The town is worth the stop if you have the time.
The Moeraki Boulders are large spherical boulders that according to Māori legend are remains of eel baskets, calabashes, and kumara from sailing waka wreck. The boulders were filled with tourists endlessly posing for pictures, yet I somehow managed to snap a few shots without them sans people. Miracles!
Otago Peninsula and Dunedin
We couldn’t wait to check out the Otago Peninsula, our second volcanic peninsula of the trip (Banks Peninsula is too). We headed straight to the Sandymount track on the south coast of the peninsula. This track leads you through paddocks to two dramatic viewpoints, the shear cliffs of the Chasm and Lovers Leap and eventually to the large white sand dunes of Sandfly Bay. If your timing is right you may be able to spot a yellow-eyed penguin along this bay. We would eventually learn that our yellow-eyed penguin timing was never right, so we settled for a fur seal instead.
We enjoyed a beautiful Christmas Eve evening at the Allan’s Beach. This beach is popular with residents and you can pretty much guarantee a fur seal spotting here. The sun made its first appearance just as two fur seals came to play at the beach edge. The light, the wildness, the holiday made for a special evening.
It was now Christmas morning, what were we to do? A picnic on another beach of course…Victory Beach on the Papanui Inlet. This beach is the longest (3.5 km) on the peninsula and is home to the wreck of the SS Victory ship that sunk off the shores in 1861. We could see some of the ship’s remnants in the distance, but an angry oyster catcher wouldn’t let us pass as she protected her nest. We settled for the view from afar to make momma happy.
In order to get to the beach, there is short hike through the wetland and dune country of the Okia Reserve. This area is appropriately called the Pyramids, because it is made of perfectly geometric basalt volcanic columns. We spent the afternoon here, relaxing in the white sand and watching sea lions play in the surf.
We spent our last evening at Pilots Beach waiting to spot the hundreds of little blue penguins kororā that come to shore at dusk to roost or feed their chicks after a day at sea. This area is now protected, with access through the Royal Albatross Centre requiring a $30 fee. While waiting for the penguins to arrive we enjoyed a lovely sunset and spotted a few albatross. Suddenly, right on time, huge groups of these little penguins were swimming to shore in what is known as ‘rafts’ and scurried up the beach to their cliff-face burrows for the evening. They are the cutest little things!
Morning came quickly and we had to say goodbye to the wild Otago Peninsula…but not to beaches. We had one more on our list, Tunnel Beach. This beach, just south of Dunedin is reachable by a short walk along dramatic sea-carve sandstone cliffs and rock arches. If you look closely at the rock, you will find shell fragments and fossils. There is a small carved out passage to the the beach, make sure to time this with the tides. Today they were holding life saving classes on the beach.
Onward south to the Catlins, a rural area of temperate rainforests and rugged coastlines. This area is popular with surfers and if timed correctly, your best chance to spot a yellow-eyed penguin. Strike three for us on the penguin front, maybe one day! This area is off the beaten path, so you won’t see many tourists headed this way. Some highlights for us were Nugget Point, Curio Bay/Petrified Forest, the southernmost point on the island, and the Lost Gypsy Cafe.
Southernmost Point & Curio Bay
Mount Aspiring National Park and Wanaka
We loved our east and south coast journey, but I was desperate for mountains at this point so we made an unplanned detour to Aspiring National Park and Wanaka the next day. Our first hike is arguably the most well traveled, a fairly easy 4 hour return to Rob Roy Glacier. This hike comes complete with bright blue glacial streams, swing bridges (a New Zealand classic), 600 ft waterfalls, snowfields, and of course the Rob Roy Glacier. Don’t let the snow and ice fool you, it can be VERY hot here. We enjoyed a much needed dip in Lake Wanaka upon our return.
Up early and on to Roy’s Peak, a bun burning 16km round trip hike. I would describe this as the WORST hike with the BEST summit views. Imagine walking a wide gravel path up a treeless mountain in hot summer temperatures with not a single cloud in the sky…not my favorite. Every miserable step was so worth the reward with spectacular views of Lake Wanaka and the Southern Alps. The joy of reaching the top!
We tore down the mountain in our running shoes to make it to our scenic flight over Aoraki Mount Cook, its many glaciers, and the West Coast Glaciers, Fox and Franz Joseph. The terminus of Fox and Franz can be seen from the west coast. The four glaciers around Aoraki Mount Cook, the Tasman, Mueller, Murchenson, and Hooker Glaciers terminate in lakes within Aoraki Mount Cook National Park in the Mackenzie Basin. In 1980, a glacier inventory of NZ revealed that there were 3,155 glaciers with an area of at least one hectare (2.5 acres). This coverage is significantly less today due to climate change, with highly noticeable retreat each year.
I really don’t like flying, yet somehow I can’t resist seeing dramatic landscapes from above, especially one that takes me past a mountain I would eventually become obsessed with. We have returned to Aoraki Mount Cook several times, one of those times will be covered later in this post.
The following day we would start our partial hike along the Routeburn track, one of the most popular Great Walks in NZ. This hike is the ultimate alpine adventure, spanning 132 km between locations near Glenorchy and TeAnu. The track leads you through meadows, reflective tarns, and up dramatic valley overlooks. Unfortunately, because of our last minute planning we couldn’t hike through as all of the huts and campsites, except for the two bunks we scored at the Routeburn Flat Hut, were booked. This hut is only 6.5 km from the start at Routeburn Shelter near Glenorchy so we had quite a bit of hiking to do to reach the Harris Saddle Tarahaka Whakatipu, the highest point on the track, and return to our hut (21 km total due to a few side trips).
This side of the saddle is stunning, winding through beech forest along the Routeburn River, past the Bridal Veil Waterfall and Routeburn Falls Cascade with views of the Humboldt Mountains. At the saddle, there are dramatic views of the Darren Mountains. Here you can find a short, but steep side track up to Conical Hill, where the views grow even more dramatic. On a clear day, you can see Milford Sound from here.
Routeburn Shelter to Harris Saddle
This was a big day of hiking so we took many opportunities to cool down and relax on the way down to our hut.
Dart River Boating
We returned to Glenorchy the next morning and were looking forward to a few days of rest. Our first activity, was jet boating (an iconic NZ experience) the Dart River. These little speed boats skim the surface of the water, powering through braided rivers and narrow river gorges. It started to drizzle this morning, but it didn’t matter as you get absolutely soaked when you ride in a jet boat.
Adventures in Queenstown
We treated ourselves to two nights in an rental home with a spa tub for a wild New Year’s Holiday in Queenstown. We would spend the next two days here jumping out of and off of things…it is the Queenstown thing to do!
First up, Skydiving from 15,000 ft with NZone. I have to admit, I was a little bit scared of this. The last time we tried booking a leap with them, it was cancelled due to wind and I remember feeling a little relieved. However, with the exception of the first moment we barreled out of the plane and my heart sank to my stomach, the experience was relaxing and I LOVED it!
The rest of the day we spent catching up with one of my highschool friend’s that we first spotted at NZone and watching New Years Eve fireworks from the town park.
The next day, we would leap from Shotover Canyon, a 60m free fall and 200m swing with speeds reaching 150 kph. Pretty awesome, but not nearly as fun as the skydive.
Aoraki Mount Cook
With our Queenstown leaping missions complete, we were ready for some hiking again. We headed, north to Aoraki Mount Cook, NZ’s tallest mountain at 3,724 m. This is where Sir Edmund Hillary developed many of his climbing skills before tackling Everest. The drive to the park leads you along the brightest blue water of Lake Pukaki with distant views of Aoraki Mount Cook.
We wouldn’t be doing any dangerous technical hiking this trip, just a simple little day hike through Hooker Valley to the terminus of Hooker Glacier. This 5km hike, the most popular in the park, takes you through alpine vegetation, over swing bridges and glacial streams, exposing views of the Mueller Glacier, before arriving at a glacial lake where the Hooker Glacier heaves large ice blocks that float in the lake. As you walk along this track you can hear large ice blocks cracking and small avalanches in the mountains that form the valley walls.
They say that Aoraki Mount Cook is the crown jewel of the Southern Alps…I can certainly see why.
That evening we enjoyed a beautiful sunset in the park. While we were hiking, rescuers had recovered the bodies of two experienced climbers that had perished in the park days before. The sunset that evening was a beautiful tribute to their lives. Aoraki Mount Cook National Park still remains my absolute favorite place in New Zealand. Dangerously beautiful, this landscape is so alive, evolving every moment to remind us of the power and fragility of the world around us.
Castle Hill & Arthurs Pass
We were headed over Arthurs Pass with some serious rain threatening for the first time on this trip. Our first stop was the ancient limestone formations at Castle Hill, part of the Kura Tawhiti Conservation Area. These rocks where once underwater and have been eroding over the last 30-40 million years. Today, they are a popular place for bouldering or simply walking amongst these the odd arrangement of stones. These pictures simply don’t capture how unique these formations truly are.
Below is Brian’s favorite rock…he thought it was a sign from the aliens.
Reluctantly we then headed to the Cave Stream, a 362 meter long cave located near Castle Hill. When I say reluctantly, I only mean me. I don’t like tight spaces, I don’t even like sleeping in a bottom bunk bed. I was also a bit worried to enter a cave with a stream running through it when rain was on its way. We did it anyways, maybe I was peer pressured, I can’t really remember. I have to say, the cave was pretty cool. You walk along the stream that shifts between ankle deep and waste deep water through narrow winding corridors. However, 362 meters underground felt like forever as we started to hear the water growing louder and feel it moving faster with no sign of an exit. Alas, we scrambled up some slick rock to a tiny exit. I don’t think I need to hike through any more narrow caves again.
After the cave, we thought about some quick hikes in Arthurs Pass, but the rain was falling hard and we were getting tired. We settled for a meal by a warm fire and a quick pull off for a picture of the clouds rising through this narrow pass.
Arthurs Pass is quite an engineering feet, with viaducts, rock shelters and waterfalls redirected through chutes in order to connect the West Coast and Canterbury Regions. We would return here the following winter to explore this area, but on this day we decided to pass through. We had planned to head to Nelson Lakes for a few more mountain hikes before returning home. But even after a good night’s sleep, it seemed that our constant go-go-go trip was catching up with us. We decided to find a place to kick back and relax for our last two days of trip instead. We decided that there was no better place to say goodbye to Te Wai Pounamu, than Farewell Spit up in the northwest corner of the island.
The drive to Farewell Spit is a long one. Only one windy road over a hill leads to the spit that forms the west shoreline of Golden Bay. The road passes through the hippy town of Takaka that swells with tourists in the summer. We made a few pit stops in this area before heading the spit. The first was a little hike to Rawhiti Cave. Thankfully, this cave could be enjoyed from the entrance, no claustrophobic passages were necessary. Rawhiti Cave is nationally significant because of the diverse twilight-zone flora at the entrance. This was another one of those terrible hikes to an amazing destination. The hike was probably only 20 minute to reach the cave entrance, but it was a muggy and buggy mud slick hike. We were drenched with sweat by the time we reached the cave that graciously cooled us right down.
We made a lunch stop at the Mussel Inn (I forgot to take pictures), a cute little restaurant famous for its craft beer, fresh mussels and live music. We only enjoyed the beer as the local mussel collectors were off on some much needed R and R. I can’t remember what we ate instead, but I do remember it was a yummy meal.
Onto Farewell Spit, a 35 km thin slice of land reaching from the northwest corner of the island. The spit is a bird sanctuary and wetland of international importance and therefore strictly protected, with only 4km accessible to the general public. You can book a tour bus that will take you to the end, but we were happy to explore the windswept dunes that were accessible to us on foot. The light was such that it made the contrast between the blue sky and white sand so extreme. We played and laughed with so much joy through these dunes, eventually reaching the Tasman Sea.
We spent our last night at a campsite, not far from here. It was the only one in the immediate area and we were thankful to have snagged one of the last remaining spots. Although we were more than week removed from Christmas, our little tree still lit up our evenings.
After a quick hike to Wharariki Beach on the West Coast and a flat white back at the spit, we were headed home.
Home via Marlborough
No trip to this part of the south island would be complete without a meal and glass of wine at Wairau River Wines Cellar Door. I really don’t know about quality of the food and wine here, we always arrive starving and desperate to eat and this is one of the only vineyards still serving food past 2PM. It has become a ritual to stop here whenever we are in the Marlborough area.
Soon we were back to where it all began. This was a trip of a lifetime for us. It was filled with so much beauty, so much adventure, and so much love. We are always dreaming of our next trip to Te Wai Pounamu South Island.