We arrived on the glorious South Island via the Cook Straight, a stunning journey through the stretch that joins the north and South. We had our first taste of the dramatic scenery of the South that we’d heard so much about when we spied the long limbs of the Marlborough Sounds. These are the sunken valleys of the Tasman Sea, which according to Maori mythology, are the prows of the sunken war canoes of the mountain Aoraki.
We headed from the port town of Picton into Motueka so we could better explore the Tasman coast. The steep, wooded hills and small quiet bays of the sounds are sparsely populated, as access is difficult. Many of the small settlements and isolated houses are only accessible by boat, which is just why we decided to explore it with a Wilsons kayak tour from Kaiteriteri beach. We paddled up the coast toward the magnificent split Apple rock, a perfectly spherical boulder said to have been split down the middle by two warring Maori gods. On our paddles we saw the ‘rough-faced shag’ (also known as the king cormorant, but aren’t we all pleased we know both names!), a rare breed of seabird which is protected by the Department of Conservation. If you want to see lots of the coast, you should consider the boat trips, which can take you much further up the coast then you might go on a kayak.
We then started to make tracks down the meandering West Coast toward Charlestone. On our drive we stopped at Cape Foulwind, and being British I assumed we were in for a whiffy bay. Fortunately, we found out the origin of its name – it was so named by Cook for its strong winds which made landings difficult. The Cape is a haven for wildlife including native fur seals and penguins. With stunning panoramic coastal views it was a magical place to hike in the dusky hours.
The thing you’re told about New Zealand is that for its land mass (roughly the same as the UK), it has a population of only 4 million. But what does that mean in quantifiable terms? And can you really see the impact of this? In the North Island you could be forgiven for thinking there is a real hustle and bustle in the place, but in South Island the real drought of people suggested in these statistics becomes clear. The West Coast is one of the largest expanses of land but houses less than 1% of the population. It’s common to drive along and not see another car for 30 minutes, and the signs saying ‘no fuel for 100km’ aren’t kidding. But that remoteness, that freedom from people is exhilarating and magical. In an overpopulated world, to enjoy a view of glowworms or a colony of birds completely alone is something very special indeed.
After a stunning drive down the coastal highway, our next destination was Hokitika, the physical and spiritual home of New Zealand’s famous green jade. We had read about Hokitika Gorge, a river with a special swing bridge spanning its powder blue waters, so we trundled off to discover it. What we found was a mesmeric body of water, rippling with colours ranging from cloudy turquoise to milky white. It felt like we had wandered into a fairytale, which was only disrupted by a swarm of sandflies, bringing me on to my top New Zealand tip, always wear citronella!
A drive through the West Coast is full of parallels, which was especially evident as we left the leafy hills and sub tropical forests of the coastal road to head towards Franz Josef glacier. The Kiwis are spoilt for choice, with the equally stunning Fox Glacier nearby, but we elected to explore the larger of the two. Having heard so much about the beauty of the upper ices, we decided the best way to explore had to be a helicopter hike. We were prepped for the flight, lead out to the heli pad and taken up through the mountains and close to the ice ridges of the glacier. Then we landed straight on the ice, donned our crampons and started to climb. The ice itself was beautiful, with fast running water carving its way through the white ice (we took a sip too and it was utterly delicious!). Most spectacular were the deep ice caves, marbled in dark blue and often reaching depths of up to 40 metres. We were also able to see the glacier in action, seeing ice break from the ridge with a thunderous roll through the valley. It was raw natural power and we felt truly in awe of our surroundings.
The next morning, we eased the soreness from out muscles with a walk around the lovely Lake Matheson and a breakfast at its cafe with a view of the glorious Mount Cook emerging from the clouds (I always believe in the restorative powers of pain au chocolat). From there, we began the drive to Wanaka, a gorgeous lakeside town, surrounded by hills. Our stopover wasn’t long as there was a triathlon which had flooded (in Kiwi terms) the town with people, so we just took in the ambiance and headed for Queenstown early the next morning.
Queenstown is one of the biggest towns on the island; an adventurer’s paradise, it’s as beautiful as it is exhilarating. Whatever your adrenaline-seeking desire, you’re sure to find something to excite. One activity everybody should try is the Shotover jet boat, which thunders through narrow mountain passes and inches of water for a truly breathtaking ride – even the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge loved it on their recent tour!
Queenstown is known for bungee jumping, skydiving, paragliding, and, (gulp) canyon swinging. The latter is what we opted for, thinking it was a less extreme bungee – how wrong we were! The swing involves a 70 metre freefall followed by a 130kph swing across the canyon we had boated through the day before. Certainly not for the faint hearted, one go was more than enough for me! After our bone-shaking swing, we headed toward the sky gondola to see a different view of the city. The beauty of Queenstown is often overshadowed by the adrenaline activities, so taking time to see the tall ridges of the Remarkables mountains and the lake is certainly worthwhile. As is becoming a child again and going on the sky luge – essentially tobogganing with wheels on a downhill concrete track – completely unique and bonkers and so enjoyable.
From Queenstown, we were to travel to a place that seemed so mystical and isolated that it couldn’t possibly exist in in the modern world: Milford Sound. These ancient Fiordlands are only accessible through a stunning drive over mountain passes and single carriageway roads, 4 hours from Queenstown. Inconceivably vast, these ranges and waters run for miles from the heart of the mountains to the Tasman Sea. We opted to tour the area in two ways – first was kayaking on the basin for two hours to try and conceive the scale of the place, then we cruised it on a boat, allowing us to get far further, spotting seal colonies on our way. This is a truly magnificent area, and whatever time you can give to it, to explore it and learn about what makes it special will be truly unforgettable. Don’t forget to ask your guides about the Milford Sound moose either!
Accommodation is a little scarce in this area, so book your lodgings and activities well in advance. We stayed in a Riverview Chalet in Milford Sound Lodge, which was a magical experience. After uncharacteristic dry weather in the sounds, we were lucky enough to see the valleys come alive after a night of rainfall. The previously plain and rugged rock face visible from our sun terrace was transformed into a mirage of hundreds of little waterfalls, replenishing the river at their feet.
From Milford Sound we returned to Queenstown for a stopover, before driving on to one of New Zealand’s most famous beauty spots – Mount Cook or Aoraki, the highest peak of the Southern Alps. According to Maori legend, Aoraki was a young boy who, along with his three brothers, were the sons of Rakinui, the Sky Father. On their voyage around the Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, their canoe became stranded on a reef and tilted. Aoraki and his brothers climbed onto the top side of their canoe. However, the south wind froze them and turned them to stone. Their canoe became the Te Waka o Aoraki, the South Island, and their prows, the Marlborough Sounds. Aoraki, the tallest, became the highest peak, and his brothers created the Ka Tiritiri o te Moana, the Southern Alps.
Of all the views in New Zealand, the approach to Aoraki is one of the most iconic. You may never see a lake so pure and beautiful as Lake Pukaki, pictured at the start of this article. It is astonishingly blue and clear and I can’t think of a single view in the world that rivals it. The Mount Cook area has lots of different hikes for all fitness levels. We opted for the Hooker Valley Trail, but those with more time and inclination should try the Red Tarns walk, known for its beauty.
We reluctantly left Mount Cook, bound for another incredible beauty spot – Lake Tekapo. As well as a wonderful lake, the area is known for its family activities. Lots of people take dips in the crystalline waters or head to the hot pools of Tekapo Springs. The walk to Mount John Observatory is also worthwhile. It tests your fitness but the views are absolutely worth it – and can motivate yourself with the thought of the fabulous cafe at the top! After Tekapo we drove to Geraldine, a tiny town but one with amazing night skies. I have never seen a more perfect night sky – the Southern Cross shined as brightly as diamonds and we could make out the cloudy outlines of faraway galaxies.
From the relative seclusion and wilderness of the Southern Alps, we headed for the big city, Christchurch. This is perhaps the most ‘English’ of all the cities in New Zealand and it bears a lot of resemblance to towns in the home counties. Sadly, Christchurch is still struggling to come to terms with the devastating earthquake which tore through it in 2011, destroying and damaging many of its buildings, including the tower of its iconic Cathedral. We visited to see a friend teaching out there and made sure to take in the famous Botanic Gardens with a caterpillar tour, before exploring more of the city. Because we had a car, we decided to drive out to the charming town of Lyttelton, which has a glorious bay for swimming and lots of wonderful fish restaurants. If you have more time, get out to Akaroa, a stunning bay known for its marine wildlife.
From Christchurch we headed north, for what was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip. Kaikoura, a fishing town perched halfway between Picton and Christchurch, is a haven for wildlife as it sits next to a monumental oceanic shelf. This shelf channels nutrient dense water, attracting a plethora of sea birds, including the mighty albatross, super pods of dolphins, seal colonies, sperm whales and pods of orca. The beauty of animal interaction in New Zealand is that most of it is completely wild, and this was the case when we swam with a pod of gorgeous dusky dolphins. We were taken out on a boat for this natural interaction, where it was our job to be interesting and exciting to make the dolphins take an interest – not easy in a double wetsuit and flippers. We sang through our snorkels, and when a dolphin was close enough, the aim was to catch their eye and duck dive with them. No doubt the dolphins wondered who these ungainly black blobs were, but they did seem to find us interesting, effortlessly snaking between us to find a willing playmate. After the swimming was done, they escorted us back through the water, riding the bow waves of our little boat and showing us their prowess.
Our ride back to the shore was a quick one as the captain warned us of a looming Antarctic storm, whose progress we could see like a grey wall swallowing the coastline. We made it back before the worst of the wind and rushed off to hunker down in our cottage for the night.
The next day had another encounter with wildlife, this time an 18 metre long sperm whale. These incredible creatures are the apex predators in the area, hunting at depths of 2,250 metres for prey, it is the second deepest diving mammal in the world. We sped out by boat into the choppy surf, stopping at intervals to try and locate where our whale may come up for air. We spotted it at the surface as it went through the atmospheric changes and breathing processes it needs to be able to dive again for prey, waiting for the moment that that famous tail would emerge from the water to start its colossal dive. You may never find yourself in an area as magical as this for spotting wildlife, so it really is worth taking every opportunity you can to see it.
As we began our drive to the airport, my partner and I discussed what this trip had meant to us. What we felt we got out of it, how we understood the places we’d been and how we could even begin to process the beauty we had seen. How can you sum up such an incredible country? Probably with the feeling that you need to get back there as soon as possible after you’ve left. This is a place where the people are happy and friendly, so willing to share with you their experiences of the country they love. It is a country where you can enjoy all the conveniences of modern life, but still find nature in its most raw and beautiful state. In truth, its a slice of Eden that must be your next adventure.
If you think you’d like to follow a similar route to ours, here listed are each of our stops in order.
- Ferry from Wellington to Picton, overnight stay in Motueka nearby
- Motueka to Charleston, via Westport for supplies
- Charleston to Hokitika, via Pancake rocks
- Hokitika to Franz Josef Glacier
- Franz Josef to Wanaka
- Wanaka to Queenstown, over the Crown Range
- Queenstown to Manapouri (tiny village two hours from Mildford Sound if you don’t fancy the drive in one go)
- Manapouri to Milford Sound
- Milford Sound back to Queenstown
- Queenstown to Mount Cook – book accommodation early
- Mount Cook to Lake Tekapo to take advantage of Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve for star gazing
- Lake Tekapo to Geraldine
- Geraldine to Christchurch
- Christchurch to Kaikoura
- Kaikoura back to Christchurch to fly to Sydney!
Where we stayed:
Motueka: Accent House B&B – well appointed rooms with their own private terraces and a homely feel.
Charleston: Air BnB – we stayed with Donald and his dog called Dog on his farm. Very rough and ready, but in a wonderful setting with its own bank of glowworms.
Hokitika: Shining Star
Franz Josef Glacier – Mount
Wanaka: Another Air BnB, this time with Joy and Ian who provided us with a lovely private room and a continental breakfast for a reasonable price.
Queenstown: We had three nights in Queenstown, one was spent in the Islay Cottage B&B, a rather eccentric but charming B&B with stunning countryside views. The other spot was a Top
10 holiday park on the Shotover river just out of town, fairly basic but functional.
Mount Cook YHA – really well equipped and well placed for the Hooker Valley Trail Walk
Tekapo – We were just outside in the Top 10 Holiday Park in Fairlie.
Geraldine – A superb Air Bnb stay with Yanna and Steve in a lovely self-contained bungalow.
Kaikoura – Lobster Inn – a great little bolt-hole to experience life in this laid back town.