New Zealand - South Island
25 May 2013
Virginia and Dennis Johns
Sat May 4 We had numerous people tell us that we would like the South Island even better than the North so we got up early and headed out - no time to waste. The husband of one of Virginia's friends in Santa Barbara is a Kiwi and he had given us some suggested routes; we had followed many of them on the North Island and were very happy with those choices. So we once again took his suggestion and headed towards the east coast of the South Island. At Blenheim we stopped at the Tourist Information Center to stock up on south island maps and brochures. As a side note here - the country has lots of these centers and a wonderful set of free maps and guides to the holiday parks. They will also help with arrangements for tours. We used them frequently to get local information. In the parking lot of this center they were having their weekly Saturday market. There was a mixture of produce, crafts, and swap meet type items for sale. We immediately spotted a Rotary booth and stopped by to chat with the two gentlemen. They were selling wine barrels, kindling, and carpet squares as a fund raiser. We decided to head for Kaikoura to check on the whale watching tours as it was sperm whale season and that's one of the cetaceans we haven't seen. Along the way we saw our first snow-capped mountains - stunning. A bit further south we happened upon a wonderful site that wasn't mentioned in any of our guide books - Ohau Stream. Seal pups travel up stream to frolic at the base of a waterfall. They stay for several days until they get hungry when they return to the sea where mother awaits to feed them. Then they head back up stream. They are so cute and work very hard to scoot up and over the rocks. They have no fear of man and one nearly crawled over Virginia to reach the perch he was heading to. When they get to the falls they have a grand time; we saw them jumping really high out of the water - looked like small dolphins at times. It was a short but lovely walk back into the waterfall. If you are ever near this area, at this time of year - do stop. When we reached Kaikoura, it turned out that all but one whale-watching company had gone out of business and that remaining one was very high end, using helicopters and fancy boats - not our style, so we took a pass. We headed over to Seal Cove to watch the seals frolic in the sea and sun on the rocks. We headed southwest through more ranches - now mostly sheep and deer ranches - and spent that night at the Hanmer Springs holiday park. We decided it was time for a dinner out - well, 'take out' anyway- and we went in search of pizza and beer. It hit the spot.
Sun May 5 Hanmer Springs is a mountainous resort area and on Saturday morning there was a long line of people waiting to get into the Hot springs. The springs are captured and routed into swimming pools, waterslides, etc. It was a bit tempting since the weather was turning a bit cooler the further south we travelled, but we decided instead to spend a couple hours hiking the trails of the forest. They have quite a set of "tracks" of varying levels and they were getting used by hikers, runners, and cyclists. We enjoyed our hike there. It was a gorgeous area - see our gallery for some pics, including the bright orange mushrooms. We took the Lewis Pass over to Greymouth on the west coast. This was the only time we worried that we might run out of gas. We had been warned that we would hit some areas with no gas station for miles and New Zealand doesn't have all the signage we are used to in the US alerting you to the distance to the next station so we got in the habit of stopping frequently. This was the first time the tank got below half and we discovered that the meter was a bit whacky and suddenly jumped to near empty. Dennis took it a bit slower and coasted down all the hills and we made it with only fumes to spare.
A side note here about the roads in New Zealand: most of the roads are two lane highways. There are few stoplights; they use roundabouts. They have lots of rivers and thus lots of bridges to cross those rivers and with few exceptions the bridges are one lane. So the traffic on one side has the right of way and the other has to yield - it is clearly marked and yet we have yet to understand how they decide which lane has right of way, so you really need to pay attention so you don't take the right of way if it's not yours to take. It has the effect of slowing down traffic at these junctures (not sure if that is the main intention). The speed limit signs on curves seem to be very accurate, for lack of a better word. For example, when they said that the road was about to curve and to slow to 65 km (general speed is 80-100 km), that turned out to be the speed that we did indeed need to go in our van. In the US we find that the posted limits are often very conservative and so you get in the habit of always going a bit faster. Not so here. The only problem is you get used to seeing the signs and then you hit a curve that had no limiting sign but should have. We rarely got into a lot of traffic as we were travelling in the off-season. Also, there aren't a lot of billboards along the sides of the road. There is a whole series of signs related to driving safety (e.g., suggesting you stop and take a break if you are feeling drowsy and at some spots even offering a free cup of coffee); the Holiday Parks and tourist information centers have directional signs; a few commercial establishments have signs but they are very simple - usually carved wood with just text; no elaborate huge billboards with colored pictures and definitely no flashing lights. On the other hand there are directional, 'street' signs on the corner posts for churches, clubs, and public facilities that you won't see on US roads. Dennis was usually pretty beat by the end of the day of driving even though we never travelled that many miles each day as you might back home (i.e. 800+ to Tahoe from SB). He attributes his exhaustion to the condition of the New Zealand roads. Not only do most not have any shoulder to speak of, forcing you to really concentrate to stay in the center of you lane, they are also quite rough (as in 'washboard' even though they are paved, including the main highways). This might be a result of how they 'maintain' them regularly with tar and loose gravel layover.
Along the western coast we decided to stop in at an obvious tourist site, Shantytown. It was funky, but we enjoyed it. It represented a town established during the New Zealand Gold Rush; Dennis even panned for gold and came home with a small vial of gold flakes. We stayed that night at the Hokitika Shining Star holiday park. The wind was blowing a bit and the manager directed us to a site that he said would be somewhat protected from the winds. It was near the community kitchen, fortunately, as the winds kept increasing as the evening wore on. This kitchen was in a building that was like a big red sheet metal barn, but with only 3 sides. Fortunately, they had placed it so that the open side was away from the wind. We cooked dinner quickly and took it back to the van, bunking down for the night. The winds got up to 40-45 mph. The van shook wildly most of the night, but we still managed to get some sleep.
Mon May 6 By morning the wind had calmed down. Virginia announced that she was going shopping. Hokitika is noted for its New Zealand Greenstone, nephrite jade. She wanted to buy a jade pendant to add to her collection of remembrances and perhaps some souvenirs for others. And of course we needed to see the downtown main street as one of the travel guides mentioned that they were well known for their wide main street and the numerous speeding tickets written there. We had to wonder the effect that this comment in the travel book had on the town's speeding ticket revenue. There was a nice clock tower in the very tiny downtown area and the shops were deserted so Virginia got lots of service and had her prized possessions purchased in less than an hour. While Virginia was mining for jade, Dennis did a short walkabout and some minor re-provisioning. Off to the Southern Alps.
Further down the west coast, we took the 90 minute roundtrip walk to the Franz Josef Glacier. The path followed the river and was fairly level until near the end. We enjoyed the scenic view of this valley with the Southern Alps rising above us. There were numerous small waterfalls along the way - added bonus. We didn't take the tour out onto the glacier, but the trail took us to within several hundred feet of the glacier. A bit further down the road we took the 1 hour round trip walk to Fox Glacier. This one is smaller, but steeper, and the path ends just about 100 feet from the glacier. We needed our long sleeve shirts and sweat shirts, but it wasn't that cold on the hike to the glaciers. Ideally we would have spent the night at the Aspiring Holiday Park in Wanaka (highly recommended by a friend), but we left the glaciers too late and decided to stop in Haast. The holiday park was right on the beach. We took a walk in the dunes watching for the penguins that the sign warned us about but saw none. We were however treated to a gorgeous sunset that evening.
Tues May 7 We travelled to Queenstown. Along the way we stopped at Puzzle World. You could spend a lot of time there. We only did the Maze challenge, where you have to find your way through the maze to each of the four corners. We found them all, but have to admit that we got some help from one of the children for the first corner! It's a great place. There is a large room with tables set up with puzzles of all kinds where you can sit and play for as long as you like. They also have activities involving illusions - such as the tilted tower in the front of the place where you can take your picture from various points and make it look like you are lifting it up. Definitely touristy, but children especially would enjoy it. We enjoyed the scenery in that area which included a lot of snow-capped mountains. Around lunchtime we saw a sign for a short hike to some "Blue pools". A number of campervans were parked there having lunch so we decided to check it out. The hike involved walking across a suspension bridge that really wobbled and swayed as you traversed it (and even more if you have an adult child with you; wink, wink). The pools were lovely. It was a great lunch break. We spent the night in a holiday park in downtown Queenstown. We needed to do some provisioning so we went to the grocery store near the airport. As we drove into town toward our holiday park we noticed how the city appeared to be long and narrow, like the lake that it sits next to, Lake Wakatipu. We took a walk in the cool crisp evening air. When we got back to the campervan we fired up the space heater. The van provided a small space heater that could be used when we were plugged into power at the Holiday parks and we used it most nights on the South Island.
Wed May 8 Happy Birthday to Dennis' sister Judy! Brrrrrr - we woke to a very chilly morning with frost on everything. Time to head north! We had originally planned on going to Milford Sound and taking a boat ride out on the sound. We had heard reports from friends and family that had visited here that it was one of the things not to be missed. But, we were running out of time and also wanted to do some of the walks on the east side of the Southern Alps near Mt. Cook, so we decided to forgo Milford Sound and save it for some time when we come back during a warmer part of the year! The scenery continued to be stunning - finally had to stop at one point and get a picture of the snow-capped mountains reflected on a lake. There were sights like this around every bend. As we neared Mt. Cook there was snow on the ground - and snowballs flying (Dennis is a better aim so Virginia soon retreated to the safety of the van). We had fun guessing which of the mountain tops was Mt. Cook but when it finally came into view, it was obvious from the shape of the peak.
The walk up the east side of Mount Cook led us to another glacier, but this one has receded so much that it was not visible from the viewpoint at the path's end. From there we headed south for a bit to Omarama and then east out to Oamaru on the coast. Oamaru has the most lavish welcome sign we recall seeing. It included some of the limestone pillars that are a key feature of the architecture of this city. The travel guidebook described it as a ghost town of Victorian public buildings which have been left completely untouched and mostly unused. It was a bit incongruent with the local environment. This area is also known for blue penguins and rare yellow-eyed penguins, but we weren't there at the right time of the year to see them - disappointing. We stayed at a holiday park in Oamaru. The facilities that were right next to our assigned spot were closed, so Virginia had a bit of a walk in the cold air when she needed to get up in the middle of the night. But as that is the biggest complaint we had about any of these holiday parks, you can tell that we had a great camping experience in New Zealand.
Thu May 9 We arrived in Christchurch around 2pm. We had planned on keeping the van until later in the day and doing some sight-seeing in this town that was so devastated by an earthquake a few years back. But we had just gotten word that day that we had lost one of our dogs. Kiwi, had developed a brain tumor and had to be put to sleep. As we mentioned in an earlier post, the dogs were living at Garden Court, a senior residential community in downtown Santa Barbara. They were 'house' dogs, to be shared by all the residents. They got lots of attention. The residents adored them and provided a very loving environment. Even though we couldn't be there with her, she was surrounded by loving friends. Her litter sister Coco will miss her more than any of us - but she is now getting double the attention at Garden Court. Since we were feeling kind of low, we just dropped off the JUCY van and found a hotel near the airport. We had to get up early and catch a 4am taxi to the airport for our flight to Sydney the next day.