B: Almost three months have passed since we journeyed across the Cook Straight and ventured into the South Island of New Zealand. Although time has gotten away from us, the incredible memories remain; surrounded by sea lions, the panoramic perfection of Bealey Spur, glacier gazing on the beach, and dolphins dancing at sunrise in Milford. The South Island is one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever been. Its wealth of natural beauty literally brought tears to our eyes. “It’s like walking into a screensaver,” said my friend Walter. The descriptions are limiting and the pictures can’t say enough. You’ll just have to see it for yourself…
Our itinerary was packed with hikes as we tramped through Middle Earth, camping along the way. From the ferry port in Picton, we drove southeast through the Queen Charlotte Sound to Kaikoura. As we got closer, the coastline became rocky with an increasing number of seals sleeping on the shore. We did a coastal walk around the Kaikoura peninsula the next day, admiring the geology and thriving sea life. As we were deep in conversation and looking only at the rocks beneath our feet, all of a sudden there was a loud roar warning us we had wandered too close to a sleeping sea lion! When we took stock of our location, they were suddenly all around us, camouflaged on the rocks. It’s important not to get between a sea lion and the water otherwise they feel threatened. Luckily we made it back unscathed, but those blubberous beasts can move surprisingly fast!
Next we headed back north and over west to Abel Tasman National Park. We hiked 13km in to Anchorage Bay and camped. The coastal walk provided countless views of golden sand meeting the glistening sea. This hike was especially challenging because we had to bring all of our food and camping gear on our backs!
We really got a taste for the wonder of the West Coast on our way south to Greymouth. The scenery was simply stunning and it was difficult not to stop every few minutes for pictures. Of course, we had to stop at Punakaki to see the pancake rocks, a geological phenomenon. The pancake rocks have been made through a layering-weathering process known as stylobedding. The Dolomite Point limestone has formed into what looks like stacks of pancakes. When the tide is right, the sea surges into caverns and bursts through blowholes!
Greymouth was…well…grey. We did one decent hike on the Point Elizabeth Walkway, but the view wasn’t too clear. The highlight for me was visiting…BLAKETOWN!! Complete with Blake Street and Blaketown School, I totally felt like Mayor!
Then came the most unbelievable territory as we drove east, inland towards Arthur’s Pass. There are a handful of hikes to do in the area, but we chose the Bealey Spur track. Encompassed by snow-capped mountains within alpine brush, the view was spectacular. Easily the best hike of the South Island. The mountains left our jaws dropped on our way back through Arthur’s Pass. It seemed like any time we started driving again, we immediately wanted to stop and admire our surroundings, filled with gratitude for today’s reality.
G: After the hike, while searching for a place known as Castle Hill, we stopped at Cave Stream Scenic Reserve to find directions. We were strongly urged by some locals in the parking lot that we had to do the cave walk here. Trudging 600 meters in ice-cold water, at times up to our hips, in a dark and creepy cave was not my idea of fun. But after a tiny nervous breakdown 🙂 I accepted this new challenge (face your fears, right?!). It wasn’t all that terrible (Blake loved it!), but let’s just say that I was pretty happy when we reached the small opening of daylight again.
Luckily, we found Castle Hill next and played amongst the massive rock formations in the late afternoon sun. A place that the Maori hold dear and the Dalai Lama claims as the most spiritual place in all of NZ, one could really feel the gravity of this place. Organic boulders of different shapes and sizes spread across acres, reaching for the sky with incredible views in all directions, it felt like a spiritual playground for adults. I could have spent hours there climbing the boulders and nestling into a perfect seat to take a meditation break as the sun beamed down.
Next, it was off to Franz Josef Glacier. The 45-minute walk to view the glacier took us through a valley of waterfalls spilling over massive vertical slabs of slate complete with lush vegetation. On the way, markers identified where the glacier used to reach, which gave a harsh reminder of how much ice has melted in recent decades. We got to within 500 meters of the terminal face, which was enough to truly feel the magnitude of this colossal block of ice.
Then, we stopped to freedom-camp at Gillespie’s Beach! The most amazing part wasn’t that it was free, but the spectacular view. We gazed to the left and saw Fox Glacier nestled in the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, and then to the right over the vast ocean stretching out to the horizon as the sun was setting. It was a good thing we set up our tent early because the campers kept rolling in and we were eventually packed in like sardines. As we finished up our dinner, we sat on the beach to watch the sunset, awestruck at the beauty in all directions.
We slept like babies under the stars, until 5:45am when we heard scratching at our tent. Soon after, a subsequent deflating of the mattress confirmed an unwelcomed surprised. I decided to get up to check out the area since there was no way I could get back to sleep. At first, I noticed a bird that looked like a parrot, and later while watching the sun rise, a local confirmed it was the Kea, an alpine parrot! I hadn’t seen the signs for it, but Blake mentioned there being indications not to feed these pesky birds, which gnaw like they are constantly teething.
After a bit of patchwork, we took a quick stroll around Lake Matheson in the clear and sunny morning. Then, we drove to Fox Glacier, which was our favorite between the two we visited. On our walk through the majestic valley to the glacier we caught a glimpse of large ice formations breaking off and flowing down the rising river at a rapid speed. We were able to get a lot closer to the terminal face and could see people on their glacier tours—something I would definitely like to come back to do. Larger sheets of white ice up against jagged peaks of turquoise-blue on the inner ice-walls created an incredible view. It reminded me of the Rockies back home, but somehow much more grand and magnificent.
We drove the coast for a bit longer before turning inland towards Wanaka—a cozy lake-town, nestled in the mountains. We had a day to unwind with mild weather, so we hiked up to get a better view of the city. The next day’s rains cancelled our plans for a longer, more challenging hike, so we took the opportunity to walk through town, go on a shorter hike, and make another delicious meal at the campground.
B: Then it was time for the infamous Milford Sound. Hailed by many visitors as the greatest place in New Zealand, it certainly had a reputation to live up to. We stopped in Te Anau briefly and booked a sunrise kayaking trip on the sound. We were told we had to drive to Milford that day because the Te Anau/Milford Highway doesn’t open until 7am each morning. The 90km trip took nearly 2.5hrs because of the curvy narrow lanes and amazing photo opportunities. This highway as rated as one of the top ten drives in the world!
Milford is the tiniest of towns where the only residents are those guiding tourists (through the sound or to their rooms). We awoke before dawn and slid into our two-person kayak as the sun began to color the sky. Our group of eight had the place to ourselves, engulfed by the towering rock faces while floating on water still as glass. We paddled past playing sea lions and through a waterfall taller than Niagra, but the absolute highlight was the dolphin pod that celebrated our presence. They swirled around us underwater and surfaced for air several feet away! There were even a few sea lions that were playing and pretending to be dolphins. We were amazed at the opportunity to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat while sitting on the water in a kayak. Apparently it’s quite rare to see dolphins in Milford as they only swim into the sound once every few weeks. We paddled all the way out to the Tasman Sea, about 20km, in perfect weather with brilliant sights. Even our guide said it ranked as one of the top three trips she’s made. Certainly at the top for us! Fun fact: Milford is technically a fjord, not a sound, which is why the NZ gov’t renamed the area “Fjordland”, but couldn’t get people to stop referring to it as “Milford Sound”.
Since we started at sunrise, we were back to the campsite early and decided to do a hike to Lake Marian on the way out of Milford. It took about 90 minutes of tramping until the trail opened up to a beautiful glacier lake resting between rocky peaks.
Our last stop was to the adventure capital of Queenstown. I expected a large city similar to Auckland, but it’s actually just a small, quaint town with lots of adventure sports nearby. The drive here was, again, amazing, and we were fortunate to have sunny, clear weather. We did a hike to the top of Bob’s Peak, instead of riding the gondola, where we got a clear view of the Remarkables and the rest of Queenstown. This is a fun town with lots to do for young thrill-seekers with deep pockets (not us!). Coincidentally, we ran into a guy we had met in Laos (Scrub) as he was now working in town!
We would’ve liked to have stayed longer, but our money was running low and the car was due back. The South Island is truly incredible and we can’t wait to return. We said good-bye to our 3-week driving tour and ventured back into the world of WWOOFing. We made plans to stay with the Guyton’s in their food forest on the southern coast of the south island, in a little place called Riverton, 3 hours south from Queenstown.