We planned a ten day trip to New Zealand’s South Island to coincide with Moondust standing safely on solid ground at the Norsand Boatyard in Whangarei. To save time we flew from North Island to Christchurch, halfway down the east coast of South Island, from where we rented a little car to explore its enchanting natural wonders.
We mostly stayed in the Top Ten Holiday Parks, which have a variety of accommodation options, and opted to share communal ablutions as well as cooking and dining facilities. We were pleasantly surprised by these neat and clean facilities and thoroughly enjoyed the cooking experience in ‘Master Chef’ type kitchens, with its chance to meet fellow travellers.
As expected the glaciers and Milford Sound on the west coast were the highlights of the trip, but South Island certainly has a lot more to offer!
Southern Alpine mountains
Heading west from Christchurch towards the Tasman Sea, we skirted the Southern Alpine Mountains, stopping for a short, chilly walk before a coffee stop in the quaint village of Arthur’s Pass. To me it was surprising to find Alpine mountains outside Europe and we were astounded by the number and size of rivers flowing west, many of whose valleys stretched across for kilometres. This is due to the west coast region getting plenty of relief rainfall, more than anywhere else in New Zealand; the average for this region being 3m, with one small area in the Southern Alps being deluged with an annual total of 12 metres!
As the roads are full of curves and often narrow to stop/go single lane bridges, driving on South Island is slow. Thus our first day turned out to be very long, especially since we took a detour to the Hokitika Gorge.
Franz Josef Glacier
The iconic Franz Josef Glacier totally overwhelmed me! From the general viewpoint we stood in awe of this frozen river, but were rather sad that we couldn’t get any closer. A helicopter ride to land on the glacier was way out of our budget…
Upon visiting the National Park office in town, Pete noticed a mapped hiking track that would take us to within 500m of its snout and as no rain was predicted for the following day, we decided to make the trek to Roberts Point.
Prior to the trip I had bought each of us a pair of warm boots, but clearly mine were designed more for beauty than endurance. On the way back I realised that my feet were getting wet and on inspection, saw that both heels had torn away from the uppers. To the amusement of passing hikers I secured them as best I could with the laces and made it back to the car.
On heading inland to Lake Te Anau, we passed unusual shrubland in a protected Wilderness Reserve. Unlike the lush Alpine area that we had been traversing, this is a harsh environment where freezing temperatures and stony, infertile soils has enabled the mix of hardy shrubs, mosses, lichens and herbs to resist invasion by other species for many millennia.
Following floods a few weeks prior to our trip, the road to Milford Sound was closed for general traffic. As we didn’t want to miss this most famous of natural wonder of South Island, we booked a guided day trip from Te Anau.
The two hour bus journey entertained us with beautiful scenery and we passed the 45⁰ South parallel, halfway between the equator and the pole, which is the most southerly point either of us have ever reached. The Fiordland National Park is New Zealand’s largest national park and boasts the greatest continuous area of native forest and its longest system of inland waterways.
With its dramatic cliffs that soar upward for 2000m and its waterways, both ground out by glacial action, it is no wonder that Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s most visited sites. It simply is breathtaking to cruise through this 16km long fiord which opens to the Tasman Sea.
Queenstown and turquoise lakes
Queenstown is also known as the adrenaline capital of South Island and we stopped at various points to watch the bungy jumpers and jetboaters.
I was very much looking forward to seeing the beautiful turquoise lakes below the Alpine Mountains and Lake Pukaki indeed proved mysterious, having the snow capped Mount Cook, the islands’ highest mountain, as backdrop. However as most of the mountain range was snow free, Lake Tekapo proved a bit of a disappointment at this time of year.
Our excursion of South Island gave us a very welcome break from the reality of boat work, but as we arrived in Auckland en-route to Whangarei, airport announcements advised passengers arriving from abroad they had to self-isolate for two weeks. A week later New Zealand went into lockdown in their fight against Corona, so we were very happy that we had taken the opportunity to see New Zealand’s splendid South Island when we did.
Like most of the Pacific islands, New Zealand has thus far come through the Corona pandemic relatively unscathed. The country was in lockdown for just over seven weeks and having had only 21 deaths and with less than 80 active cases presently, the lockdown is to be eased to level 2 this week, which means that the economy and domestic travel will largely go back to normal.
Since re-launching we have been anchored in the Hatea River, not far from the boatyard, waiting for boating restrictions to lift. With the first favourable winds we’ll head north again, back to the Bay of Islands, a good point from which to explore further north along the coast while we wait for the South Pacific islands north of us to re-open. Currently New Zealand, Australia and Fiji are negotiating a regional ‘travel bubble’, which, if that is successful, would enable us to continue our adventure!