Our South Island vacation coincides with Easter and Anzac Day, two back-to-back long weekends and a school holiday, and that necessitated more itinerary decisions and prebooking than we’re used to. As it turned out, an overnight stay in Greymouth was kind of a bust and we could easily have driven a few more hours after Franz Josef Glacier to reduce the long drive time the next day. But it is what it is and we set out on our last little bit of territory along the west coast. Boy, did it deliver!
This is spectacular coastline where mountains meet the ocean and the power of the Tasman Sea is evident in the dramatic rock formations at every headland. It’s beautiful from land but completely inhospitable by sea so we’re happy to be touring in our little Yaris rather than on Escape Velocity. In the interest of time we originally thought to head inland on a more or less direct route to our next destination but friends on Facebook and our B&B host Mary reminded us to continue along the coast to Pancake Rocks, a geological wonder created in limestone through the millennia by pressure and erosion.
There are blowholes and powerful surges and you could spend hours watching the play of wind and water on rock. The sounds are as dramatic as the sights.
And then it was time to move on and we turned inland once again for another day of narrow switchback roads. Compared to the US the distances we cover each day are minuscule, but because the Kiwis refuse to destroy their gorgeous landscape by blasting through mountains to build straight roads, our drive time is slow and laborious (for the driver) as we veer left, then right, then left, then right, up and over every hill and dale. Actually, whenever I look over at Jack he’s got a bit of a smile going and I think he’s imagining piloting his old Porsche rather than the little Yaris. In any case, every minute of driving is beautiful with a stunning new vista around each curve.
After a while we stop taking photos because really, how many calendar-worthy photos of New Zealand can you sort through?
We arrived at our night’s accommodation late in the afternoon, a tiny cabin right on the beach just outside the boundary of Abel Tasman National Park. We had just enough time to unload the car and check out the channels on the Sky TV lineup before enjoying a sunset bottle of wine on the beach. It doesn’t get any better.
Today’s agenda seems simple enough on paper. However, Kiwis like to combine tourism with a spot of exercise and after the steep long trek up to Fox Glacier we were taking no chances. An early start seemed prudent. From the car park we could see Franz Josef Glacier off in the distance nestled between twin peaks and it looked like it hadn’t receded as much as Fox Glacier, which is good news.
The trek started through a beautiful forested path which tumbled down to a stark rock-strewn valley with stunning water falls showering down into a surprising full river of white water.
The closer we got the more blue ice we could see as if the glacier was lit from within, glowing with an otherworldly blue light. Once you’ve seen this you’ll never forget it. I know I never will.
Unusual signs began to pop-up as the second semi-permanent phase of the trek along the river bank established itself. More glowing blue ice could be seen as we crept closer toward the steeper meandering third section. In scenery this magnificent and at scale so huge, one seems so insignificant that it feels impossible for a human to walk up this valley to a glacier, as though you’d never get there, but get there we did. Unlike most of our adventures it’s not about the journey, it’s all about the allure, the pull of the blue ice.
We began to see tiny helicopters shuttling smart people with an “E” ticket up to the top of the glacier to touch time itself. Such is the draw of the blue ice.
You could while away hours in a kind of hypnotic trance staring up at it, but you won’t. Very cold air is funneling over the ice, down the valley right into your face. So you take your photos and head back down but every time you turn around to steal one last look you stumble on the rocks.
The trek back down seems to take forever but you eventually get there too. Reluctantly you start the car and drive away, sneaking peeks of the ice as you negotiate the circuitous road out.
We came down out of the mountains to the deep blue of the Tasman Sea and stopped at Hokitika beach which is chock full of a remarkable amount of driftwood. When we stopped for lunch we noticed every craftsman in town used the wood as their muse.
B&B’s are a bit of a crap shoot. In your mind’s eye (and the website photos) you’re seeing a cute little cottage on a hill, surrounded by a garden with a pergola. You could just as easily wind up with a gone-to-seed unheated creaky bungalow that smells like an old folks home. And what I think constitutes a hot home-cooked breakfast is open to interpretation. Mary met us at the door and we soon had our duffles lugged upstairs.
When asked what there was to do in Greymouth she gave a little shrug under her pink jumper (dear Escapees you can read that as sweater) and said most of her guests go down to walk on the flood wall or maybe take in a movie at the multiplex. We found the grey in Greymouth descriptive. On the way to the multiplex in town Marce noticed a tiny store that had Croc sandals and one of M’s grand quests was retired. While ringing up the full retail, on the exorbitantly priced plastic crocs I took the opportunity to ask the sales clerk what there was to do in town and after a long pause she shrugged and said maybe a stroll on the flood wall or a movie. At the multiplex we found the usual Kiwi fare, car chases, car crashes, car explosions, Vin Diesel with a half page of dialogue. Pass.
Walking towards what we thought would be the flood wall we came upon the town’s entire history painted on the wall of the local newspaper.
Up on the flood wall, basking in the golden setting sun, we found an interesting monument to Greymouth’s dead miners. Sobering. Some years were particularly deadly. Miners and floods, the connection escapes me. I didn’t have much more mileage left in me after two glacier treks in a row so we found a nice bar to soak…I mean celebrate another amazing day.
Today is one of those days we’ve been anticipating with high expectations. Like Milford Sound, our destinations are iconic in the South Island and the focus of much of the posters and brochures of the tourist bureau: the glaciers. Somehow we’ve both missed glaciers in our previous travels, and with global warming doing its best to melt away the remnants of the last ice age, we wanted to see what we could before the Southern Alps become beachfront property and Miami swims with the fishes. It will be a long day.
We left Wanaka early, reluctant to leave our spacious lodging. Our first stop was a throwaway, something called the Blue Pools, and only put on the itinerary because it was relatively close to the road and wouldn’t require the usual hour-long Kiwi waldlauf that characterizes many of the side trips we’ve experienced in NZ. A short walk from the car park brought us to a swing bridge.
A little bit further and we were delighted to find that the blue pools really are blue.
Another swing bridge gave us the reverse perspective and we saw why so many people were bent over the riverbank. They were building stone cairns, adding to the hundreds of cairns of varying heights and complexity, making a walk among them an exercise in caution and wonder.
We haven’t seen this many cairns since Block Island in 2012. The stones are so tactile, the process of building so addictive, and the desire to leave something of yourself behind so magnetic that we had a hard time dragging ourselves away. Jack noted that a cairn is so much better than carving your name in a tree or tagging the rocks. It doesn’t defile the place, and Mother Nature (or a park ranger) can easily return the beach to its original state.
We drove over the Haast Pass to the west coast and turned north toward the glaciers. It was slow going both in the mountains and along the coast and we didn’t reach Fox glacier until mid afternoon. By that time the sun had disappeared and the wind chill in the river valley was plummeting. We piled on extra thermal clothing and started the long trek over rocky ground toward the face of the glacier. We had lots of company but once again the scale of the landscape swallowed up busloads of tourists and we never felt either hindered or hindering.
It’s easy to envision that the glacier had once filled this whole valley and we would like to have seen some signage indicating where the glacier was at different times in the past to illustrate how quickly it’s receding. I need to write a letter to TPTB.
After miles of upping and downing on ankle-challenging terrain and crossing a dozen rivulets over well-placed flat boulders we finally saw the dirty face of the receding glacier. Because the rocks are so unstable and there are frequent rockfalls or “slips” we were stopped quite a distance from the ice, a disappointment after so long a difficult trek.
We took the obligatory selfie and started the long trek back after re-upping on Advil for Jack’s knee and my back, realizing it was absurd to think we could have done both glaciers in one day. Fortunately our night’s lodging was booked for the town closest to the second glacier so we reasoned that a glass of wine, a pizza and a good night’s sleep will put us right for Franz Josef in the morning, Inshallah.
We need to replace a few coffee mugs that have been broken or chipped over the years. Here we are in New Zealand, we reasoned, and a new mug is a good souvenir. This one instantly got snatched up, based as it is on the iconic Marilyn Monroe silkscreen series by Andy Warhol, who was from Pittsburgh.
By morning the wind had moderated and the tandem paragliders were out in full force. We watched as we packed up the car and planned our day’s drive, a relatively short run to Wanaka over our first mountain pass of the trip.
First we stopped at the quaint village of Arrowtown, looking exactly like any charming 19th century settlement in the Colorado Rockies. We’d read about a place that made bagels and cinnamon buns and that’s speaking our language so of course we made the short detour for brunch. We ate fresh toasted bagels and shared a plum and basil focaccia and Jack had a sticky bun. No wonder we pack on the pounds when we go on a road trip.
Just outside town we climbed the steep switchback road over the Crown Range with more spectacular long-distance views. It’s been a long time since our eyes could focus on such distances except for the horizon at sea and we paused frequently to drink it all in.
On the other side of the mountains we drove through sheep and dairy farms. Dairy and beef cows are gaining on the traditional sheep farming in New Zealand, so we saw far fewer sheep than we expected the whole time we were in the South Island. In fact I think we saw bigger sheep herds last year in the North Island than we did here.
Near Cardrona we stopped for the bra fence, an ever growing collection of over-the-shoulder boulder holders, most of which have been signed by the owner with date and national origin, and offered up for breast cancer awareness. We were happy to make a donation and of course Jack had to do his own research on type, color and size. No conclusions; more research required.
We ended the day in Wanaka, a smaller, quieter version of Queenstown with a similar roster of thrill rides and concessions. It was just a convenient overnight for us in preparation for a long day of mountain touring to come. Our lodging was our favorite of the whole trip, a huge self-contained unit with cathedral ceiling, a well-equipped kitchen, a comfy sectional sofa, a balcony with a mountain view and a big bathroom with a great shower. All that space is a luxury for boat-dwellers and we cooked dinner “at home” and spent the evening watching TV on the sofa.
It’s an easy and gorgeous drive from Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park, to Queenstown, the capital of adrenaline sports. We will not be bungy jumping, skydiving, paragliding, jet boating or any of the other high speed or high altitude adventures offered in nearly every storefront but we will appreciate the continued stunning beauty of this part of the world.
As we drove I noticed that the place names suddenly changed from Scottish to Irish, a phenomenon we see wherever Europeans emigrated to new territory, that they choose a place that feels like the home they left behind.
The drive reminds us that park boundaries are arbitrary and the landscape continues well beyond the exit sign. Once we entered the small town of Queenstown, jam-packed with young backpackers, families with small children and now us, we sought out a cozy pub where we could soak up the youthful energy and plan our day. Travelers at the Fiordland Lodge where we’d stayed in Te Anau suggested the luge, or at least the gondola to the top of the mountain. Once Jack heard “top of the mountain” he would not be denied.
We timed our ascent so we could see the town at magic hour. We watched as cyclists and lugers and paragliders all rode to various points on the mountain, then continued hiking up to the launch area where we waited and waited and waited to see the tandem paragliders launch. Then we heard a call that the flights were canceled because of too much wind over the water and we turned away disappointed, only to see one after the other solo pilots glide over the valley. We assumed the concession flights were canceled for patron safety but the individual experienced pilots took off anyway from another launch site we couldn’t see from our vantage point. They were beautiful to watch in the golden light.
On our walk back to our hostel I ran up a hillside to a small cemetery, as I often do. Most of the graves marked people born in Tipperary, confirming my earlier thought. “It’s a long way,” I said to Jack, and we went back to our cozy home for the night.
Fiordland National Park is New Zealand’s largest, and so beautiful it almost hurts. We visited only the top teeny little bit, the most touristed, most developed area, and yet the scale of the landscape diminishes the intrusion of humans to the point where we felt we were having a private spiritual experience despite the bus loads of other travelers.
You can drive all the way into the park to where the boat tours begin, about two hours, but our friends had said, “Relax, take the bus” and we’re glad we did. Appreciating the ever-changing perspective of moving through steep mountains on twisty roads requires your full attention and it was wonderful to have someone else do the driving. Our small van stopped often for short walks and photo ops, any one of which would have been reward enough for visiting this special place.
Our tour started early in the morning which meant despite it being Easter Sunday we were able to board an earlier tour boat than the after-lunch one usually filled to capacity with busloads that originate in Queenstown, further away. We were maybe at one quarter capacity, with plenty of space and a quiet group. We also opted for a longer cruise than the standard. Both tours make the same circuit, along one shore of the fjord, kiss the Tasman Sea, turn around and cruise back in along the other shore. We just took longer, stopping periodically to soak in the majesty of the place. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. Note the kayakers or boats for scale in several photos.
After our cruise we still had another two hours of driving through the park with more stops to walk or just breathe in the crisp mountain air and try to fit the scenery into the itty bitty camera lens. That effort was doomed to failure but the experience is burned into our memories and Fiordland earns a spot on our list of most beautiful places alongside Fatu Hiva and Hallstatt.
In the evening we went to the movie theatre in Te Anau and watched a 30-minute film of Fiordland photographed almost entirely from the air, since most of the park is otherwise inaccessible. The scale is nearly unimaginable and the variety of landscapes is breathtaking. The play of light on sea, sky and mountains is constantly changing; you could spend a lifetime here and every day would be different. Sadly though, we must move on.
Something was different when we awoke. It wasn’t raining. We hadn’t planned much for the day, beaten down as we were by the sodden weather and anticipating the cornerstone of our whirlwind South Island tour, Milford Sound, scheduled for the next day in Fiordland National Park. Before we left Invercargill we felt obliged to make the pilgrimage to E. Hayes, a massive hardware and housewares store with an impressive collection of classic Indian and other motorcycles and a few cars.
The signature piece is the World’s Fastest Indian, one of the replicas of an Indian Scout motorbike specially engineered to break the land speed record. The story of Burt Munro’s record attempt at the Bonneville Salt Flats is told in The World’s Fastest Indian, the movie the replicas were created for.
There are some wacky early ideas to motorize bicycles. Not sure about this one.
It was fun to see the bikes, but the sunshine was beckoning and we were keen to get on the road. We just let the road take us and stopped wherever the mood struck us to appreciate the expansive views and the dry weather.
Gemstone Beach had me digging through the high tide line for pretty rocks and wishing I had a tumbler to polish them.
There are plenty of suspension and swing bridges in New Zealand but this is the longest, built in 1899 with a wood deck.
We had a hard time staying in the car but eventually we could see the mountains of Fiordland and the rivers and lakes that carved the landscape.
We ended the day at our home for the next couple of nights, the Fiordland National Park Lodge, in a room with this view. For hill people who live at sea level these mountain scenes feed our souls. I can’t stop grinning.
Our wipers are still slapping the same tune, it’s just a different day. We thought that before leaving charming Dunedin we’d check out the town’s famous railway station. Built in 1903 with local blue stone, mosaic tile, and perfectly manicured gardens, it’s impressive but with all the fog, rain, and spray (FRS) you inevitably rush just to get back in a dry car.
Today featured our usual trifecta (FRS) plus, as an extra added bonus, miles and miles of unsealed, sloppy, washboard roads in Cyclone Cook’s pouring rain.
I can’t recommend traveling in this weather but we were determined to make it to New Zealand’s southernmost point whether we could see it or not. As it turns out, mostly not. First up was something called the petrified forest. I don’t know, you be the judge.
After a muddy slog, feeling like a rally driver, we reached an innocent-looking gravel car park with an all business looking gate posted with a sign that demanded to be kept closed. With no discernible path we quickly closed the gate and noticed a person far off in the FRS. This must be the place.
First order of business was dancing around all of the sheep dung, which was everywhere, and then avoiding a thousand pairs of starring eyes. I find this creepy. While buying my water-resistant jacket we had the foresight to pick up a tiny folding umbrella and when I deployed it I sensed a certain tension in the sheep. All over the field was evidence of inattentive footprints sliding through sheep shit patties. The sheep may look up but I’m looking down!
It seemed like years but like all treks, you get there eventually, maybe a little wiser but a lot wetter. Even in the rain at 46 degrees 40 minutes 40 seconds South, Slope Point is an awesome place and is as far south as you can go on South Island.
On the way to Bluff Point, I couldn’t tell you when, I noticed the little Yaris wasn’t bouncing and shuddering anymore. Pavement, it’s a beautiful thing. We found two Bluff Points, one apparently illegitimate but we don’t judge.
Invercargill finally hove into view and that’s where we sleep tonight. There are rumors for a dryer day tomorrow with Cyclone Cook moving off. One can only hope.
As you know, we are low-rent travelers. We eat cheap, sleep cheap and eschew expensive tours and concessions that don’t fit into our meager budget. Even in the Galapagos, despite complaints we’d heard that you can’t see anything without paying for tours, we managed to thoroughly enjoy three distinctly different islands largely on our own and only shelled out for a couple of inexpensive “taxi tours” and one long guided volcano hike in Isabella. We are living proof that you can see the world without breaking the bank.
That said, we knew when we came to the South Island we’d at least have to spring for a Milford Sound cruise, the only way to appreciate the world-famous fjord, and on the advice of friends on Full Circle we also wrung out of our pocketbook a guided wildlife tour to the Otago peninsula, home to royal albatross and small colonies of other rare and endangered wildlife. That was our planned activity for the day in Dunedin, a charming Scottish flavored city that deserves much more time than we were able to give it.
We spent time in the morning at a budget department store where I bought inexpensive wellies, an umbrella and disposable rain ponchos, and we augmented our road trip in-room meal kit of sporks and Aeropress coffeemaker by buying plastic cereal bowls and paper towels.
Our tour group included a quiet German couple, a young French family of four and an Englishman, and our guide was Dutch. We are so accustomed now to being the minority Americans that we almost feel exotic.
Our tour started with a quick drive by of Lanarch castle to pick up the French family, then a wet slog to the end of the Otago peninsula and the Royal Albatross Center where the rain stopped long enough for us to observe royal albatross in flight. They are magnificent, one of the two largest albatross species, with wingspans of three meters. As we watched two birds swoop and glide overhead, our guide Roel described their lifecycle, migration route and behavior. We could have watched for hours but we had more to see before dark.
The rain held off as we entered a private reserve and hiked down to the rocky beach where we could watch New Zealand fur seal mothers and pups from a small platform. We’d been up close and personal with sea lions in the Galapagos, as in they were on our boat, so this wasn’t the once-in-a-lifetime thrill for us that it was perhaps for the others, but Roel told us how these fur seals had been hunted to extinction from the mainland in the last century and are now making a comeback.
Again, we could have watched the young pups tussle and practice swimming for much longer but Roel wrangled us back up the cliff, across a soggy meadow and down a steep slope to a sand beach where we found ourselves at high tide.
That meant it wasn’t safe to walk along the beach because we’d be too close to the Hooker sea lions we came to see, so we followed Roel and picked our way through the moguls of grass-covered dunes. Hookers are the rarest of the five species of sea lions and native to New Zealand. They were hunted to extinction on the mainland hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans but like the fur seals they’re re-establishing small colonies on this coast, migrating from the subarctic islands. They are huge. Males can grow to nearly ten feet long and weigh almost half a ton. We saw mostly males and only one female. Roel said it was unusual to see a female; they usually stay with their pups. (Note that Roel, the New Zealander, is in shirt sleeves while the rest of us are in full cold-and-wet-weather kit.)
We continued picking our way through the dunes until we reached a small blind at the bottom of a steep slope where a few sheep grazed. Roel, with his practiced eye, pointed out two yellow-eyed penguins almost immediately, then three more on a farther slope. These are the rarest of all penguins and the largest living in temperate regions, nearly 2 feet tall. They are found only here in New Zealand, and they do not migrate, but rather go to sea every day to feed and return to roost in the bush in the late afternoon.
This highly protected colony consists of about 60 birds and we saw six. The last one swam in while we watched, and he struggled to clear the rocky ledge at the shoreline, which Roel said had shifted in the storms over the past week. Our camera is not up to this kind of photography but we were thrilled to see them, even as the rain started again in earnest.
Roel finally dragged us away, back across the dunes, up the slopes and across the meadow to the van.
It was a quiet ride back along the peninsula to town as we were all lost in our own thoughts. Jack and I urged our weary bones toward our hotel until the smell of a real wood fire lured us into a cozy pub where we shed our soggy outerwear and warmed up by the hearth with pizza and beer. Was the tour worth the hit to our bank account? Absolutely. As too many species struggle to survive, we feel privileged to have seen these rare creatures in their natural habitats.