Back in Auckland after two weeks travelling around the South Island of New Zealand. I’ve returned with over a thousand pictures, some tacky souvenirs, a new piercing, several dozen sandfly bites (per foot), and a new appreciation for daily showers and an extensive wardrobe beyond four outfits. I’ll just give a day by day synopsis of what myself and five other Americans got into. We rented two camper vans from the Wicked company. Both were equipped with necessary kitchen utensils, butane stove, a skipping prone CD player, and…. power steering! Our rough plans when leaving Auckland were to fly into Christchurch, do a drive around the perimeter of the South Island, and fly out of Christchurch exactly two weeks later. Very little was eliminated from that schedule as we finalized plans along the way.
Saturday April 9: Chch to Akaroa
All six of us caught a flight out of Auckland at 6:20a. We caught a shuttle to Wicked Campers where we picked up our graffiti-ed vans (one was “Bling” themed with the traditional graffiti style seen on buildings and the other was decorated by images of the band Kiss). It then seemed necessary to find a gas station as we were informed there was probably only a liter or two of fuel and we were expected to return the vans that way. After that, we went grocery shopping, made a rudimentary lunch, and started the drive to a scenic town named Akaroa. The drive there was beautiful and some of us got to try our hand at driving the “wrong way.” We got into Akaroa, took countless seaside pictures, got a simple dinner at a local restaurant, and parked in a park parking lot for the night.
Sunday April 10: Akaroa to Mt. Cook
The scene surrounding us this morning was breathtaking, but only the start of many more to come. We left Akaroa around 10a to make the six hour drive to the Mt. Cook region. I got to drive a good portion of the way and quite enjoyed myself. One of the big things I miss from home is the freedom of driving a car. Along the way, we made a few scenic stops to take pictures. Once in the Mt Cook area, we did a short hike to see a glacier lake (where Tasman Glacier used to be). From there, we found a campground (sans all amenities except sink and toilet) for the night and prepared a dinner of chicken nuggets in our van kitchen. These were enjoyed under a sky clear enough to see the Milky Way.
Monday April 11: Hike Mt. Cook (kinda)
A memorable day for me: my first major hike. I do not think I would recommend the Sealy Track onto the Mueller Hut all in one day for a first timer. It took us roughly six hours for the entire trip—which was very good time given the sign estimated 3.5 hours just to get up to the hut. There were a few wooden steps secured to the ground along the trail. After the midpoint, it was mostly gravel and traversing along that uphill meant two steps forward, slide one back (going down that was just a challenge to stay vertical). The last third of the way up was along boulders and making your own route roughly between the orange path markers. Needless to say the simple ham, cheese, and mustard sandwich I made myself that morning was the most scrumptious meal I’ve ever experienced when we took a break at the hut before heading back down. Very soon after completing the hike, we took off for Dunedin. After arriving a little before midnight, we were able to enjoy our first shower in a hostel.
Tuesday April 12: Dunedin, Part 1
First on the schedule was the 10a tour of Speight’s Brewery. It was well worth our time and money. The guide was knowledgeable, we were given historical facts and shown each step of the brewing process. Speight’s is known as the “Pride of the South,” and can be found in every bar in the South Island. I have no noticed it that much in the North Island and typically order Tui or Lion Red beers, so the samples following the tour were my first memorable taste of Speight’s. I personally would recommend their porter, dark malt ale. Has a strong chocolate/coffee taste to it. Following the tour, we stopped at the Nova Café in the town center (the Octagon) for a quick lunch before going to the 2p tour of Cadbury World. This tour was disappointing because none of the machines were running. Though we were provided with numerous free samples and a better understanding of the volume of chocolate produced by Cadbury (I might add, I was shocked to discover several members of my group had never tasted Cadbury before coming to NZ). Full of alcohol and chocolate, we were due to crash soon and began what would become a daily ritual of searching for a place to park for the night.
Wednesday April 13: Dunedin, Part 2
Unexpectedly so, this turned into one of the more memorable days of our two week journey. It started with waking up to one of the most still and reflective lakes I have ever seen. After some pictures, we began to attempt to plan our day with calls to local penguin and animal viewing tours. Those fell a bit above all of our price ranges, so half the group went to explore Larnach Castle and the half I was in just drove into town. Our adventures began with pursuing $5 ear piercings at the pharmacy in the Octagon. Following that, we enjoyed a delicious meal at a local burger place called Velvet Burger. I decided to try a chicken burger and not once regretted my decision. Shortly after, the whole group reconvened. We made a stop at Baldwin St, the world’s steepest street. From there, we went to check out Tunnel Beach. The weather conditions were not ideal as it was drizzling on and off and we didn’t reach the beach until shortly before dusk. It was a 20 minute walk down to the beach. The path was somewhat windy, but after the first bend, the entire beach came into view and it was absolutely breathtaking. The rock formations and crashing waves made it all feel surreal as we were constantly stopping to take pictures before the sun set.
We planned on just parking in the parking lot at the top of the beach this evening so that we could see the sunrise. After cooking and enjoying a simple soup dinner, some of us were playing cards in the Bling van. As we were sitting there, a car sped into the lot and abruptly stopped behind us. Lights turned on brights and reving the engine for a minute, the car than pulled forward and around and began to drive directly at our van. They stopped several meters away, flashing their lights and blaring electronic music. We decided to leave, but the car followed our vans down the road, weaving between us. We eventually made it to the town center and parked in a well lit area for the night. Thankfully, it was pouring the next morning so we just left Dunedin without missing a beautiful beach sunrise.
Thursday April 14: Te Anau, Fiordlands
We drove all morning from Dunedin towards the Fiordlands, straight across the south part of the island. It was gray and rainy almost the entire way, clearing up some when we stopped an hour outside our destination. In Te Anau, we found a four hour round trip hike along the Rainbow Reach path. It took us through a very green, mossy forest to a beach that looked into the Fiord. The scene was breathtaking and—yes, I’ll say it—just like something from “Lord of the Rings.” Here was just the beginning of a constant onslaught of sandflies in this region. We barely made it back before dark and went to a Holiday Park (super cheap campgrounds) for the night, indulging in our second shower of the trip.
Friday April 15: On to Milford Sound (Happy Birthday, Mom!)
We made the drive to Milford Sound (8th Wonder of the world) along the Milford Road. Along this road there are quite a few short paths to stop and hike, perhaps the longest being an hour round trip. Most took us into beautiful forests, some with a gorgeous view of waterfalls. The most boring path proved the most difficult to leave as one of our vans got stuck in the parking lot gravel, but some pushing and we were able to escape. Upon reaching the top of Milford Road in pitch dark, we parked by the closed visitors center, only to have the park ranger tell us overnight camping was not allowed. She was very nice though, realizing we were “inexperienced travelers” and allowed us to stay for $5 each. We grilled some shishkebabs, consumed a massive portion of the remaining Cadbury chocolate, and watched as the sky cleared for some star gazing.
Saturday April 16: More Milford/Fiord Action
Spent the morning on some more of the Milford Road tracks. The most remarkable one was the chasm. As my blogging skills are still below basic, I will just direct readers to my facebook album to see the beauty of this natural creation. The water in this area has cut out beautiful rock formations and it is just breathtaking. Words won’t do it justice. In the afternoon, we embarked on a guided kayak tour into the fiord. It was somewhat overcast and the water was choppy at points, but it was a nice ride. We saw a couple waterfalls but no seal spottings as we were promised. One very useful thing during the tour was a suggestion from our guide as to where to park for the night on our drive to Queenstown. He suggested on of the lookouts along the road into Queenstown, so there we parked for the evening.
Sunday April 17: Beginning Queenstown
We woke to the gorgeous mountains surrounding Queenstown. It was a short drive into town and the boys were soon off on their adventure of hang gliding while the girls enjoyed some window shopping and coffee in the downtown. We all reconvened for lunch at a place called Fergburger. It is a well known place and popular stop for locals and tourists alike. There is a fairly wide selection of burgers with various meats such as lamb, cod, venison, and the usual beef. Following lunch, we stopped to book some more activities at the iSite. Shortly before dusk, we all took a trip up the gondola to overlook the entire city as several in our group enjoyed a ride down the luge track. After, some of the group headed to the camp grounds while two of the guys went out for a bungee jump. Before checking out the night live, I had to take shower #3 of the trip. Some of us headed into town and found a bar full of other Americans we knew from school in Auckland. Before heading back to the campgrounds, we had some late night Fergburger.
Monday April 18: Around Queenstown
Early this morning, the same guys that went bungee jumping took on another adventure of jetboating. My van was picked as their mode of transportation. Waking early was not the worst part; that was waking to snow/freezing rain falling. Fortunately, none of that stuck and stopped by the guys’ return. After they finished, some of us went a café in town for brunch before heading out with our rental bikes. I’m pretty sure all but one of us had anywhere from limited to zero experience mountain biking (myself being on the latter half of that spectrum). Roughly ten minutes after learning what a gear really is and its purpose, I was flying down a gravel path, gripping any brake I could. We tried a couple paths and got to see some wonderful views over the lake and mountains. After returning the bikes, we had Ferg for dinner and drove to another look out to park for the evening.
Tuesday April 19: Departing Queenstown
Some of the group went sky diving this morning, one went hang gliding, and some were quite lucky to just sleep in. We all met at Ferg for one last meal there before heading to an area called Glenn Orchy. The drive was a bit longer than expected, it was raining upon arrival, and did not let up the whole hourish hike we did while there. It was beginning to get dark as we left and started the drive towards Fox Glacier. We reached the Fox area after midnight and were lucky to find a lookout where we could park.
Wednesday April 20: Hike a Glacier Day, no biggie
The morning was somewhat hectic as we rushed to get ready (put on layers, prepare lunches for hike, remove earrings that just weren’t working). We embarked on a day long guided hike over Fox Glacier. Most of the day, I was regretting not being a geology major with all the facts, definitions, and geological names being thrown around. It had just rained, so the glacier was showing a lot of blue colorings (along with the expected white). Our guides were carving steps for us along the way, we stopped halfway for lunch, and were able to venture into an ice cave. At the end of the day, after the hike, we threw together a quick dinner, called some campgrounds along the way, and took off in the direction of Abel Tasman. We stopped in Murchinson for the night at another Holiday Park.
Thursday April 21: Abel Tasman
After taking our last showers for the trip, we departed Murchinson and reached the Abel Tasman area around midday. We were just in time for one of the last water taxis out. It was a pleasant ride as the driver shared facts about the area, his quirky sense of humor, and stopped for us to get pictures of baby and momma seals. We hiked along the water for a few hours and were picked up by the water taxi at the end of the track. We left Abel Tasman and arrived in Kaikoura late that night where we found another lookout for parking.
Friday April 22: Last day, Kaikoura
As we all slowly emerged from our vans this morning, we were greeted by a gorgeous view of ocean, mountains, and the city below us. After taking this all in, we looked at each other and said, “So why the hell did we come here?”
Kaikoura is very well known for swimming with seals and dolphins. Unfortunately, several phone calls proved this would not be possible this time of year. We headed down to the iSite and explored our options. We created a game plan and set off for the local Animal Farm Park. After paying the discounted group price and getting some cups of feed, we played with ugly turkeys, biting fawn, disgustingly grotesque pigs, a randy but antisocial wallaby, vicious emus, pathetic llamas, and adorable ducks and ducklings. After giving out all the feed, we left to get a short tour of a two million year old sea cave. The guide was old enough to remember when a sea was still there and shared his wealth of knowledge with us (again, mostly wasted on a non-geo major). From there, we stopped at the Original “World Famous” Kaikoura Seafood BBQ stand for lunch. After some seafood chowder and other various fishy dishes, we drove a little further down along the water just to a local beach. It was low tide and the waves were crashing out on the larger rocks as the sun began to set. We then drove back up the coast to find a large seal colony. Another five minute drive north took us to a short path that went alongside a river and ended at a waterfall. The whole walk we could look over to the river and see baby seals playing together. The waterfall fell into a small pool where seals were jumping around and swimming. After an hour of constantly oohing and awing, we went back to Kaikoura’s downtown, with a short stop at a grocery store for supplies. We managed to get a fire going on the beach from the heaps of driftwood all over and cooked dinner and attempted s’mores (not something found in New Zealand). We watched the moon rise and turn from orange to bright white over the water. Stuffed with food and reeking of campfire, we got in our vans and headed in the direction of Christchurch, stopping after about an hour to sleep.
Saturday April 23: Back Home (Auckland)
We woke early to finish the drive to Christchurch. One stop was made to fill up our seemingly below empty tanks just enough to return the cars to Wicked with the needle hovering over empty. The flight back was rapid, finishing shortly after we enjoyed Richard Simmonds a second time for the in-flight instructions video. We were all delighted to hear the captain announce a balmy temperature of 20*C (70*F) in Auckland.