Earlier this year, if you can remember back to a world before Coronavirus and the lockdown (??), I was lucky enough to travel to Aotearoa, or New Zealand as most of us know it. I was totally blown away! The scenery, the people, the food, the ICE CREAM! Amazing! The landscape is off the chart on the epic scale. Everyone is so warm and friendly. It's really noticeable, especially compared to my usual London surroundings. Bus drivers, cafe staff, local residents, all were nothing but kind and helpful. You can understand where their chilled out nature and permanent smiles come from when they are surrounded by some of the world's most jaw dropping scenery. New Zealand manages to pack in a huge variety of habitat and landscape into its small islands. Beautiful deep golden sandy beaches, ice laden mountain tops, chalky blue lakes and rivers, thick luscious rainforest and more geological oddities than you can shake a stick at. Chuck in a load of whales, seals, an array of chatty birds, a few intriguing cosmopolitan cities and you will be hard pushed to find a more idillic country...
I flew into the country's capital city, Wellington. Located on the windy South Western tip of the North Island. Much of Wellington's historical waterfront and dockland warehouses have been converted into a promenade of restaurants, pubs and cafes. It's also the home to Kaffee Eis and my introduction to the surprisingly good NZ ice cream.! City highlights include the Wellington Cable Car from downtown to it's museum overlooking the city on Kelburn Hill next to the Botanical Gardens and Space Place Observatory; Long walks along the waterfront from the polical and business district in the Northern part of the city, to the eateries and shops on the historical Cuba Street and the hilly suburbs of Mount Victoria in the South with it's wooden houses packed onto the steep mountain slopes. There are lots of museums and galleries to see too, the Te Papa National Museum, exploring Maori culture and New Zealand's immigration history was facinating and well worth a half day trip. There is a plethora of pop up events happening all year round, with a range of independent food stalls, Wellington Lantern Festival, and a small Celtic festival happening within the short few days I stayed in the city.
After 3 days in Wellington I hopped on the ferry to Picton, the gateway to the natural splender of the South Island. From here on in we travelled by Campervan, the transport of choice for over 200,000 tourists a year visiting the islands. We wheeled our way anti-clockwise all the way from Picton to Kaikoura, almost full circle, some 3650km in total. There's an overwhelming number of hire companies to choose from. None are cheap, most are tiny, and the larger more comfy motorhomes will put a big hole in your bank balance. We ended going with Road Runner Rentals and a roomy 2-berth, comparatively affordable Mecedes Sprinter complete with shower, toilet and kitchen. If you have the time buying a 2nd hand camper and reselling after your trip will probaby end up being the most economical option. But with only 2.5 weeks left time was precious so hiring was our only reasonable option.
The first stop off was the beautifully remote French Pass, part of the sea-drowned valleys, islands and peninsulas of the Marlborough Sounds. A long meandering dusty dirt track flanked initially by thick jungle leads way to golden grasslands. Through the thick patchy fog-like clouds we catch tantalising glimpses of the idilic coves and bays, until suddenly all is clear as we arrive high above Camp Bay with views to D'Urville Island and the historically trecherous French Pass waters.
After a night at French Pass we head on towards Abel Tasman National Park and the golden beaches at Totaranui, not before a quick detour to Pelorus Bridge and the fantastic cafe for homemade pastries and coffee. The back roads towards Abel Tasman are stunning, with lush green farm land and mountain backdrops. Cute wooden farmhouses and vineyards sprawl over the vast expanse of green rolling hills. The weather isn't so kind to us, so the soft sands at Totaranui are only enjoyed for a night before jumping back into our wagon and we head South to the lakes of Rotaroa and Rotoiti. We set up camp at Rotoiti Lake amoung the woodland trees and moss covered earth, a magical elfin wonderland.
Onto the West Coast and our first stop is at the fantastic Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. I wondered over to this geological wonder a few times during our overnight stay at a nearby campsite. At first on a damp rainy afternoon, later as the clouds cleared for a beautiful, calming, dusty coloured sunset and finally the following morning in bright sunshine. There is a gentle walk around the rock formations with stunning views out to the Tasman Sea. A blowhole eroded between the thin layered rock periodically blows rainbow sprays when the tide is strong enough. There is a nice walk north along the beach to the Porarari River inlet with deposits of drift wood made by locals into tipi-like huts. The Punakaiki Cavern is on the way, an easily accessible cave with potential for glow worms.
Continuing South down the Franz Josef Highway we reach one of New Zealands sparkling jewels, Mount Cook National Park. It's home to the highest mountain in New Zealand, aka Aoraki, measuring a lofty 3,724 metres. Frequently shrouded in cloud, the first peep we get at this jagged peak is during a mid-morning flight with Air Safaris. For 50 minutes we circle the giant Aoraki and surrounding mountain range as well as Franz Josef, Fox and Tasman glaciers from the warmth and safety of a 7-seater GA8 aircraft. Even as part of a group these babies ain't cheap, but so worth it. The time whizzes by, so buy as long a flight as you can afford. There are a few helicopter flight companies available as well as the AirSafari airplanes, though the plane trips are generally a bit longer for a similar fee, however the helicopter flights can include a brief glacier landing. It's certainly worth booking in advance, and we were very lucky to be able to rock up and get a space the following day. You are very much at the beck and call of the weather though, and thick cloud can frequently prevent flights.
There is a whole world of gushing waterfalls, meandering rivers and pristine pools to explore around New Zealand. My first waterfall came in the form of Thunder Creek Falls (what a name!) and the Blue Pools in Aspiring National Park, a few hours drive further South. Gentle strolls through mature forests lead to these calming beauty spots with young sun worshipers jump off the Swing Bridge into the deep turquoise waters.
Our next stop is the resort town of Wanaka. 2 beautiful lakes sit to the North of Wanaka; Lake Hawea we pass en route and a short walk from the town you can watch the sun set behind Lake Wanaka. With dinner at good Indian restaurant called Ashraf's and a healthy breakfast the following morning at SoulFood, an organic groceries store and cafe.
A short drive further South we bypass the adventure sport capital, Queenstown, in favour of pretty Arrowtown, home to the best ice cream shop in the world. Patagonia Chocolates... there is a god! I implore you to go here or one of their other local cafes! The tasty treats sold here are off the chart. (dabs dribble running down chin in memory) Anyway.... Arrowtown feels like a restored film set from an American mining / spagetthi western movie, complete with wooden shops and saloon bars. Indeed it very much was a mining town, with gold discovered in 1862, leading to over 15000 miners settling in the area. Some of the these miner residents were Chinese immigrants and they created a separate village near the river, which remained settled until 1928. The remains of these basic dwellings are still standing today and are an interesting contrast to the tourist shops and restaurants in the main town.
Next stop Te Anau, the main entry point for Fiordland, a whooping 12.6 km sq National Park in the South West known for its a largely inaccessible, deep glacier carved fiords, waterfalls and dense rainforest. It reminds me a lot like Norway's coastline with its intricate sea inlets with cliff like mountains jutting straight out of the sea, with challenging weather to match. It rains more than 200 days a year depositing, in parts, a positively soggy 1200mm of precipitation. The two main tourist trips here are to Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, 2 of the slightly more accessible fjords. A heavy week of rain prior to our arrival had washed away the only road to Milford Sound, a reminder of the power of nature in these parts. We drove as far as we could and the scenery is truely spectacular with long grassy flood plains surrounded by peaks and a string of glassy lakes, ending in a long winding mountain road enveloped by rainforest. We make our way up to 'Pop's View Lookout' and the magical glimpses down the valley in between gusting clouds. The following day we are due on an overnight boat tour to Doubtful Sound aboard Tutoko II, a comfy, 11 guest, fully catered tourist adventure vessel. Doubtful Sound is absolutely spectacular, come rain or shine and preferably both. Blue skies and the warm sun rays offered a chance to kayak and dive off the top deck, while torrential downpours energised the plethora of waterfalls erupting off the surrounding mountain tops. There is a real magic seeing the sweeping grey clouds in a multitude of grey hues spill their heavy loads.
Returning to dry land we head to the South coast, setting up camp at the long black sand Gemstone Beach with the former Maori whaling lookout Monkey Island in view.
Continuing passed Invercargill we reach the Southern most point of the New Zealand's main islands, Slope Point. With the nearby stop off, Waipapa Point Lighthouse. A little further on, as we start to head up the East coast, Nugget Point Lighthouse stands at the end of a long path with ocassional views of the local seals below. All nice detours if you have time. One thing New Zealand does well is geological oddities, and next on our list is the 170 million old petrified forest at Curio Bay and the unsually large and round Moeraki Boulders, both unearthed by the abrasive sea waters. Moeraki Boulders sit half in the sand waiting to hatch like dinosaur eggs... I didn't get much time here, but a nice sunrise here is meant to be epic.
We stay in the local town of Oamaru, a coastal town with a beautifully grand historic buildings on the seafont. A Blue Penguin Colony with regular evening viewings can be found here, along with the fantastic Scotts Brewing Company restaurant/bar and the awesome selection of home brews.
From Moeraki we turn inland near Duntroon, stopping off at Elephant Rocks, a collection of huge, weathered limestone rocks looming over the landscape.
Back in the camper we venture to Tekapo, an area renowned for its dark night sky and stunning turquoise lake. You can clearly see the starry slash of the Mily Way and an impressive number of the Southern Hemisphere's constellations. The Dark Sky Project offer wonderful guided experiences to stargaze using their dedicated observatories and astronomical centre. Their tours start at the lakeside cafe and gift shop, which is worth a wonder weather you want to pay for the guided stargazing or not. On a clear night the number of stars you can see is really breathtaking, so if finances are tight you will still get a great view even without all the telescopes and guides. We stayed at the Lake Tekapo Camp & Holiday Park right by the lake, and had excellent views of the sky up on the hill.
Tekapo is expanding at a rapid rate, and understandably so. There are very beautiful parts to it, and one of the best is just over the river, with the footbridge and charming Church of the Good Shepherd. Both offer great photo opportunities with the lake and mountains behind.
From Tekapo we head further inland to see Mount Cook again, this time from the Eastern side. The wonderful drive passes Lake Pukaki, and leads to Mount Cook Village, housing the seasons mountaineers and walkers. We didn't have time to stay here, but the walking is out of this world, and is definitely on my bucket list for the next time I'm in NZ. There is a cute Old Mountaineer's Cafe serves a selection of tasty nibbles and some of the most epic views. The Mount Cook visitor centre/museum is facinating and sobering in equal measure. A long list of mountaineers have been lost in these parts, and the museum very effectively shows the effort and sacrifice some people will go to to conquer these frosty peaks, both historically and in more recent times.
The end of my trip looms as we speed passed Christchurch to Kaikoura, the epicentre of whale watching on the East coast. The coastal road is an awesome drive and we frequently spot sleeping seals and playful dolphins en route. The whale watching tours start from Kaikoura town, busing us to a nearby harbour to board a large tourist catamaran with top deck viewing platform. For about 2 hours we bob around watching whales nose dive for krill and dolphins surfing our vessel's bow wave. Back on shore we find one of the best spots of seafood, the Kaikoura Seafood BBQ Kiosk, a small roadside shack just out of town up the Fyffe Quay Road towards Point Kean Viewpoint. Highly recommened along with the neighbouring ice cream van. After lunch Point Kean sports an active seal colony and nice rocky coast to cliff walk to boot.
My 3 weeks are up and it's time to head home. I'm flying out of Christchurch, so we head back down South for a quick jaunt into town before take off. Christchurch is a really nice city. Very walkable with a nice range of historical buildings and gardens as well as modern shopping areas. Vast square blocks of the city remain empty after many of the buildings were brought down in 2016 after a devestating 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Trams squeek around the town on their steel lines with the old Spanish mission shops on New Regent Street and a cathedral made completely out of cardboard a highlight.