01-January 2011

Car tour of South Island, New Zealand

We did a 2 week whirlwind tour of the South Island in our "new to us" van. On the trip, we crossed the 46 degrees South parrellel, mind you it was in the car. But it was very cool knowing that we started our trip in July 2008 at 46 degrees North.

The following map shows the route that we took: We started in Nelson, went down the West Coast, took the ferry to Steward Island, then back up the East coast to Nelson.

Day 1 Nelson to Westport

The west coast aka Westland or what we called it was “Wetland” as it was constantly raining. Our first stop was the Buller Gorge swingbridge and Comet Line flying fox. I got over my fear of heights with these two activities. The Buller Gorge Swingbridge is New Zealand’s longest swingbridge (110m long and 17m high) above the rushing waters of the Buller River. There was a very short loop walk across the famous White Creek Faultline, epicentre of the 1929 Murchison earthquake where the ground was instantly thrust up 4.5 metres (15 feet).

We decided to try to find a motel for tonight but there was absolutely no accommodation in Westport – they were all booked with like-minded tourists.

We saw a sign on the side of the road for camp sites so we just turned off and pitched our tent where there is camping and a German run pizzeria and beer garden. The German pizzeria, Jack’s Gasthof turned out to be a very popular spot and was packed later in the evening.

The weather forecast was predicting lots of rain and it was accurate, it poured all night long. The ground was already soaked so we found a site that was a little higher and we put our tent up under a tree and even though we could hear the rain outside we didn’t get wet. The sand fleas (aka black flies) seem to thrive in this weather so we didn’t stick around at all in the morning.

Day 2 – Westport to Okarito

Stopped at Punakaiki a small settlement beside the rugged Paparoa National Park. Punakaiki is famous for it Pancake Rocks and blowholes (the kids thought we were going to eat pancakes, they were mildly disappointed). Through a layering-weathering process called stylobedding, the Dolomite point limestone has formed into what looks like piles of thick pancakes. It was a wet and windy day when we went and it looked really wild.

We were told that the road to Greymouth (our next destination) was closed because of flooding and rock falls along the road. The road to Nelson was closed too for the same reason. Basically we were stuck in the middle. So after going to the cafe and having a coffee, we decided to go ahead anyways and see how it is. There were three areas of the road that were flooded out. Fortunatley, they were letting only vans, and 4x4's through. The first puddle was not so bad and we laughed, "we can do this, why are they making such a big deal of this?"

The second washout was about 300 metres past the first one and was nothing to laught about. We waited on the side of the road to watch other vans go through first! Some vehicles got stuck in the middle and some good samaritans towed them out, we didn't want that to happen to us. After we watched for a while, we decided to go for it and we made it!!! Yeah for the Blue Dolphin (what we call our van as there is a dolphin decal on the front). Homes and businesses along the side of the road were completely flooded out.

After we passed Greymouth, we got stuck in a third road block because of flooding. People's homes are surrounded by water. It is very sad to see this. I can only imagine what people in Queenstown, and Brisbane, Australia are going through.

We stopped at Okarito Campground for the night. If anyone is planning a trip around the South Island of New Zealand, make sure you bring warm clothes and rain clothes. Even though it is summer, the weather is very damp and cold. Bringing fleece pants, a winter hat, rain pants, socks and closed in shoes is not out of the question. If only I had known!!!!

Day 3 – Okarito to Mount Aspiring National Park

There was no lounging at the campground this morning, the sand fleas are brutal!! We packed up as quickly as possible and are on the road again. We stopped in the village of Franz Josef and saw a movie called "Flowing West - The Movie". It was like an imax movie - A helicopter takes you soaring across the Alps, hovering above the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. Shows the mystical rain forests and follows the water flow as it descends to the Tasman Sea. This put us in the mood to see the glacier ourselves but not from a helicopter. The hike to the base of the Franz Josef Glacier was wonderful, the weather has turned sunny and clear and we had a spectaular view. You can only hike as far as the base as in February 2007 two tourists were injured after being hit by falling ice when they ventured too close. You can take a guided tour to get onto the ice if you so desire.

We drove over two suspension bridges and the 737 metre long Haast Bridge the longest single lane bridge in New Zealand. One thing to be aware of when driving in New Zealand, 1. you are on the left side!; 2. there are one lane bridges every few kilometres which slows you down alot plus you need to realize that it is only ONE lane; and 3. there are a ton of camper vans on the road in the summer. I've never seen so many in my life.

We were thinking about going to see the Fox Glacier as well but the access road was flooded out however we did manage to find a viewpoint to have a look. The first campground at Lake Paringa was flooded out as well so we drove on another 50 kilometres to a Department of Conservation campsite in Mount Aspiring National Park.

Day 4 – Mount Aspiring National Park to Queenstown

The sand fleas were even worse in the morning. We packed up as fast as possible without even a coffee. The first stop was at the Blue Pools . Like a lot of hikes in NZ, there was a carefully maintained gravel path and boardwalks that wind through a native silver beech forest and lead to a swing bridge strung high above the Makarora River. There were brilliant views back to to the mountains of the Main Divide.

The track continues into the forest to a series of crystal clear pools that have been carve dout of the rocks by centuries of erosion. The glacier-fed water in these deep pools is the colour of deep azure blue, and so clear that you can see right to the bottom.

We said goodbye to the west coast as we travelled along the Haast River and traversed the scenic Haast Pass (563 m) and Mount Aspiring National Park – The van didn’t like this pass too much but we made it.

Now we are in the region of Otago and the weather has turned nice. It was an absolute beautiful drive today as we drove past Lake Wanaka travellrd through to “The Neck’ to Lake Hawea. We stopped at a place called Puzzling World where there was this terrific maze. You had to go through it and get to all four corners that were coloured red, blue, yellow and green, then you had to make it back out again. We even added an extra challenge: the kids vs the adults! It was alot of fun, and by the end I think we probably walked about 6 kilometres. There were also illusion rooms and puzzles to play with at the cafe.

This area is known for its stone fruit and vineyards. There were lots of places on the side of the road to stop for cherries, plums, peaches and apricots. Yum. We also had to stop at one vineyard, the one we chose was called Pelegrino Winery and it was very good.

We stopped at the historic 1880 Kawarau Suspension Bridge which was the world’s first commercial bungy site in 1988. We saw a man jumping off the 43 metre structure – he survived and was brought back to land by a rescue dingy. You’ll never see me doing anything like that! I could barely watch.

We drove through the rugged Kawarau Gorge to Queensland. Because it is New Years Eve we had a very different time finding a spot and prices are at an all time high. We paid $76.00 at the Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park for a tent site and apparently we got the last one! We are squished in her like sardines.

Day 5 – Queenstown

Queenstown markets itself as the “Global Adventure Capital”, so what that really means is that you are going to spend all your money doing sports that last less than 5 minutes! We took the Skyline gondola up the mountain where we spent the day. There were stunning views of Queenstown and the Remarkables mountain range. We all did some luge rides which were really fun and even scenic.

We splurged at the buffet at the restaurant on top of the mountain and had a really good feast, walked some of it off on a short hike. We watched people doing the bungee jump and the sky swing. We even did the zip cording (which was quite lame) before going back down the gondola. By the time we got back , the kids were too tired and didn’t want to go out at night to see the fireworks so we just went to bed. Happy New Year!

Day 6 – Queenstown to Lake Monowai

We drove the Southern Scenic Route highway to Fiordland National Park and stayed at a rustic Department of Conservation campground on Lake Monowai, what a difference from Queensland!

One disturbing fact about New Zealand is that it has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. One would never think that considering the weather but if you don’t wear a hat and sunscreen you will for sure get some sun which is not good. You really need to be careful about this.

Unfortunately, the zipper on our tent broke on both sides and the bugs are still brutal. There are some mosquitoes but mostly they are black flies, well at least they don’t carry disease.

Day 7 Lake Monowai to Bluff

Continuing along the Southern Scenic Route, it is very beautiful.

Stopped at the Clifton Suspension bridge to have a look. The construction started in 1898 and the bridge was opened in 1899 when it replaced the punt used by early sheep stations. The day we went the bridge was closed to pedestrians for repairs. We drove through Tuatapere, all these New Zealand towns seem to have mottos Tuataperes claim to fame is “The Sausage Capital of New Zealand”

“From Cape Reinga to Bluff” – we’ve seen it all!! Well not really but we are getting a really good feel for this country. Bluff is the oldest European town in New Zealand having been settled continuously since 1824. We did some short walks, went up to Bluff Hill for a remarkable panoramic view—it was blowing over 50 knots at the time, we were nearly knocked over.

The Bluff Maritime Museum was really great, it documents the development of Bluff’s oyster, whaling, mutton, birding, port and ferry industries. It also has a tug boat out in the yard that the kids played on for a long time and didn't want to leave.