Public holiday weekends always equate to road trips for us. Easter weekend in early autumn can tend to have iffy weather so this year we decided to hire a campervan and follow wherever the sunny skies take us.
Kaikōura, a small coastal town in the northeast of the south island had always been part of plan A for us, but after that we weren’t entirely certain where we would head next. Kaikōura and the surrounding area was devastated by the large 7.8 earthquake in early November 2016. In addition to the violent shaking and aftershocks, the area uplifted between 3 – 10 meters, creating new land areas above the sea. The coastal road connecting the town to the north and south had suffered such severe damage and was covered in debris from the slips that still plague the area today. The road was closed for over a year, essentially isolating the town. While there was access over a winding mountain road, the drive was long and difficult, keeping tourists away.
Today, driving access is only permitted during day light/working hours, 7:30AM – 7:30PM. The scale of construction operations is massive. We were impressed at the ease of travel despite years left of work left to do. Large containers line the hillside to protect drivers and workers from constant slips and rockfall as the new road directs people across the earthquake exposed land above the sea. It felt strange traveling below the old coastal road that was now several meters above.
Views of the slope stabilization from the water better exposed the scale of operations.
We had spent only 24 hours in Kaikōura during our first back in December of 2015. During this time, we swam with dolphins and were lucky to have spotted an orca not long before our swim.
Kaikōura is known for its wildlife, most particularly its large dolphin and sperm whale populations, the later being the one sea mammal we had yet to see there. The whale watch tour was a must for us on this trip. However, we spent our first day climbing Mt Fyffe (1602m), the highest mountain that rises behind the town. The trail up the mountain isn’t particularly interesting as most of it is along a fire road through pioneer and planted pine forest, but the views were absolutely spectacular. Beyond feeling the steep climb in your legs and lungs, as you look across the flat farm fields and Kaikōura Peninsula you get a sense of just how quickly the mountains rise above the area.
The profile may tell the story best.
Even on a holiday weekend, the trail has very few visitors so we enjoyed a summit lunch to ourselves.
Kaikōura is small tourist town, with a handful of restaurants and shops along its 800 meter long city center road. Murals highlight the local wildlife and pictures in damaged shop windows tell the story of the 2016 earthquake and recovery.
A crayfish meal is must while traveling to the area. Kaikōura means ‘to eat crayfish’ in te reo, the Māori language (kai = food, crayfish = kōura). Although many of the restaurants have it on their menu, the best place to get your crayfish meal is at a small food truck parked along the Kaikōura Peninsula. Eat at one of the many beachside picnic tables or take yours to go and find a quiet place on the beach. I am a sucker for any outlet that claims they are ‘world famous’.
The drive along the peninsula is lovely. You can clearly see the power of earth’s uplift as well. Visit the Fyffe House, the only historic house from the whaling days or take a walk along the coastline at the road’s ends where you will surely see a seal or two.
The shingle beach along Kaikōura’s coastline is a lovely place to relax during the day and catch the sunrise in the AM.
But by far the best part of trip was what we came for…the whales! As you can imagine, the whale watch tour is touristy. It involves safety briefings, a bus, a tour host, and many videos. However, once you are on the deck seeing a whale surface, it is as everyone else disappears and it is just you and the whales. It is incredible to see such a graceful beauty swim through the water, arching their back and flicking their tale as they dive down below. I cried with joy watching the two whales our boat found.
You are likely to see dolphins on this trip as well. The playful little duskies love jumping at the bow of the boat.
We spend a lot of our summer along NZ’s coastline so with the ‘coolerish’ weather rolling in, I was anxious to get back into the mountains. Our next stop on this trip was Arthur’s Pass National Park. Arthur’s Pass is a narrow mountain pass in the heart of the Kā Tiritiri o te Moana Southern Alps. The scree slopes in this area steeply rise above narrow gorges and wider braided river systems. We have spent quite a bit of time in this area in the winter, but this was our first non snowy visit which meant we could finally climb the avalanche prone, Avalanche Peak.
The drive to the Arthur’s Pass from the east takes you past Castle Hill and Bealey area. Castle Hill is a crazy collection of limestone rocks jutting out of the hillsides that look like remnants of an old rundown castle. There is a lovely Cave Stream hike through just what the name implies, a cave stream. Beyond that is Bealey, where you will find arguably the best views of the braided river valley in the area. Below are some pictures of these places from past trips. We were headed straight to camp on this journey so we left these stops off our itinerary this round.
There are pretty strict campervan rules in Aotearoa NZ, especially if you are traveling in tiny van without a toilet (as we were). In coastal towns we are generally confined to campgrounds, but the mountain regions offer more remote opportunities for non self-contained vehicles. We found a campground just off the main route to the pass where we had an amazing camp without a soul in sight. The view was spectacular.
The following morning we were off to hike Avalanche Peak (1833m), a super steep and exposed hike with panoramic views of the park’s surrounding peaks and glaciers. This is a day hike listed to take 8 hours, but can be done in 4 (even with a lunch break at the summit) if you are in good shape. However, it should be noted that this hike is super steep! It climbs 1100 meters in 2.5 kilometers so be prepared to climb tree roots, cross streams, and scramble on exposed rocky ridges for these views. The early part of the climb has views of the Devil’s punchbowl waterfall in gaps in the beech forest. As you rise above treeline, there are lovely views of the narrow valley road and streams.
The entire hike was stunning and we were rewarded with a kea pal at the summit.
I wasn’t really ready to leave the mountains, but weather was expected to roll in and since we had a campervan we felt obligated to be a little nomadic. This was a perfect opportunity to have a coast to coast adventure. Although this isn’t a very challenging task in tiny Aotearoa NZ, we had yet to do this on a single trip. We were off to Kawatiri Westport, a few hours northwest up the coast. We have returned to Kawatiri Westport many times before. I find it to be one of the most underrated places in NZ. It has beautiful beaches, sunsets, and cool geology, with a mountainous backdrop. The town isn’t over touristy and cafes have excellent food. The drive up to Kawatiri Westport along the west coast is always stunning.
Our night here was fairly uneventful. We were back to a campground, but it was directly across the street from the beach…can’t beat that location.
We came here for the sunset and despite the clouds that often form along the Tasman horizon, the sun still managed to fill the sky with color.
The ‘fall back’ time change meant an early sunset and a twinkle light campsite.
Marlborough & Ferry
Every south island campervan trip ends in the Marlborough wine country. Our journey there requires a drive through the Buller River Valley. The Buller River is one of Aotearoa NZ’s longest and this drive is one of my favorite interior drivers in the country.
As the drive continues past the mountains of Nelson Lakes and the clouds disappear, it is our cue that we are approaching the wine region, one of NZ’s sunniest areas. Predictable as always, we stop at Wairau River (mainly for the large outdoor sunny lawn) and Cloudy Bay (this one for the wine) Wineries and then it was off to the ferry.
A midday crossing meant that we were able to sit outside for the journey across the Cook Strait from Picton. Traveling through the Marlborough sounds is always lovely and calm.
But as you approach Windy Wellington, the journey looks a wee bit different.
Another end to an epic campervan trip in to Te Wai Pounamu South Island complete!