Road tripping the South Island, part 3: Glaciers, pancake rocks and charter fishing

Last month T and I campervanned around the South Island. Here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Today: the final leg of our journey, from the West Coast back to Canterbury.

In which we nearly get stuck in quicksand (slight exaggeration mine)

“I don’t think we should go on those rocks,” I said, as we pulled into an off-road track somewhere south of Fox Glacier, looking for somewhere to park up for the night. We’d just circled a small grassy clearing off the highway down behind some bush, where previous visitors had left the remains of a fire, and T was heading directly onto the pebbled embankment of the river just below.

“Rocks are better than sand,” he responded, and steered us toward the far end of the ‘beach’.

“Oh, shit.”

We’d found sand.

Let me pause here to impart a warning. Couples! Cautious ones: be more assertive. Headstrong ones: listen to your other half, for the love of God. Over the years you’d think T had learned to pay attention to my instincts (ignoring my suggestions also led him to not bring a rain jacket or any footwear aside from running shoes, and he dearly regretted not having jandals or a waterproof outer along the trip.

Next thing you know, we are quite literally spinning our wheels and going nowhere. There were no expletives strong enough. “The most epic fuckup of my life”, as T put it, didn’t even begin to cover it, although we had no idea just how bad it was going to get.

We tried going backwards, and forwards. I tried pushing from the front (it was a manual and I don’t really drive manual, and most certainly not while stuck in sand) which, as you can imagine, had less than negligible effect. We sunk in deeper. We tried to dig out the sand from around the back wheels. T had some crackpot idea about using towels, which thankfully we didn’t do. He brought out the snow chains, took one look at them, had a half-hearted go at starting to drape on one set, then scrapped that idea. We dug out more sand, collected some branches from around the beach, and placed them below the tyres in an attempt to smooth liftoff. No bueno.

With the aroma of clutch permeating our nostrils and the sound of the gunning engine still ringing in our ears, the rain decided to join the party (the clouds had been threatening to open up all day). In a random twist, a small white lamb had emerged near the track where we’d come down from and was baa-ing furiously in our direction.

Full disclosure: I totally failed on that commandment of marriage – always being a team – throughout. Not the best portent for the future. I at least kept my thoughts to myself, but they were ugly ones.

T walked out to the road to get help, while I hunched over in the driver’s seat. Probably less than 10 minutes later, 4WD slowly made its way down toward me and the campervan, then stopping and turning around. I couldn’t see if T was in the vehicle, but about the same time I saw him reappear around the corner, trudging back alone and dejected. Definitely a no.

Thankfully, the 4WD didn’t drive off. T flagged it down, and a couple of minutes later, one of the biggest men I’d ever seen jumped out of the cab and made his way over with a towing cord. Our saviours were here: two true-blue Southlanders (or West Coasters, I suppose) and one of their sons, all clad in Swanndri and gumboots. They could have stepped straight off the pages of Footrot Flats.

I have never been so embarrassed – nor so pleased – to see human life. These upstanding gentlemen promptly took over the whole enterprise – the driving of the van, the pulling by the Hilux, the stamping down of loose sand. It took a handful of tries, amid the cold and the insistent ambient drizzle, but eventually they dragged our camper backwards all the way to the track, and back up the track itself to the road. F-ing stupid JAFAs, no doubt, is what our angel farmers were thinking.

“That’s the last time I listen to you!” I said to T, weak-kneed with relief and gratitude.

“Oh come now, don’t be rash,” smiled the smaller man, the driver of the Hilux. “The man’s always right, even when he’s wrong.”

They’d spotted us while coming across a bridge ahead, from which the whole of the riverbank was visible, and blessedly decided to see what was going on. He honestly hadn’t thought we would be able to get out, he said, and recounted both a previous instance where they’d towed out another campervan, and one where they’d tried and failed. It cost in the area of $3,000 to get a towie from Fox Glacier, apparently. After hearing that, the impossibility of thanking them sufficiently really made itself felt. I’m sceptical that our rental coverage would include towing us out of surprise sand, and I hadn’t checked our travel insurance clauses to see if they included towing.

“Ah, you’d do it for anyone else,” the large, gruff man said, clapping T into a crushing handshake. “I’ve got a fair idea what this means to you.”

“This man deserves a DB!” cried the other, brandishing his own beer, encased in a blue holder. Heh.

And with a few last words of wisdom (“Franz Josef glacier? It’s shit” / “Check your brakes, tyres, lights”) we were off, and so were they, presumably off to the pub to tell tales about the hapless northerners they’d just encountered.

Welcome to glacier country

By the time we chugged into Fox Glacier proper, it was truly miserable. The West Coast lived up to its reputation, slamming us with the only wet weather days we encountered along the whole way (I hate to think that we might literally have been flooded out within hours if we hadn’t made it out of that river beach, with all the waterways swelling and rising fast). To start off with, though, it wasn’t too terrible, and in fact, it kind of added to the atmosphere. Walking toward Fox Glacier in the cold and rain somehow seemed fitting.

It’s an easy enough walk, though conditions are highly changeable. We didn’t go all the way to the end; you’re only allowed up to 200m away from the glacier face for safety reasons, and we had a pretty good view from where we were and didn’t see much point in getting just a bit closer. There are tours that take you onto the ice, though – for a pretty penny. What seemed most incredible to me were the two signs along the road winding toward Fox Glacier, marking the points at which many years ago the glacier had extended to. Think of how much the ice has moved/melted since, and the rough rocks it’s carved its way through that now litter the gorge.

And thus ended our glacier encounter. I wanted to do the one-hour Lake Matheson walk (apparently the most photographed lake in New Zealand) but the weather was downright awful by then and it was getting toward dusk anyway. We headed up toward Franz Josef glacier and spent the night just out of town, getting an early start in more blustery conditions the next day and getting the heck out of town (I stopped by the St James church just off the highway before the village, as it’s meant to give good views of Franz Josef, but it wasn’t open at 8.50am).

Of blowholes and pancake rocks

PANCAKE ROCKS campervan road trip south island nzmuseThe ‘pancake rocks’ at Punakaiki are one of our most famous natural landmarks, and for good reason. They really are mindblowing: scientists haven’t quite figured out why the rocks formed in such thin layers (giving them the pancake moniker, as they resemble stacks of breakfast noms, except in charcoal). Sometime in the future some of the rocks will disappear, reclaimed by the power of the ocean.

PANCaKE ROCKS BLOWHOLE campervan road trip south island nzmuse


Check the tides and be sure to go at high tide to witness the blowhole effect. The waves swish through the channels as they come in, and whoosh up through the holes to form little geysers. It’s a well-marked area straight off the highway and a 20-minute walk around the trail.

bird feeding pancake rocks carpark

This little birdie wandered up to us in the carpark (and another one had come up to us as we first entered the walking trail)

Bonus: birds! I’m pretty sure these were weka. We fed this critter here (T christened him Simon) with some bread crumbs, but when I brought out some corn chips for us to snack on, the little chap eyed up the bag and T deduced what it really liked. Simon was so accustomed to people that he even came up and ate out of our hands. Coupled with the extra bread it hauled away into the bush, I think he was well set up for a few days.

On the Kaikoura waters

kaikoura sunset campervan road trip south island nzmuse

Kaikoura – where sea and sky blur in one glorious natural palette

Kaikoura is all about the coast, and there’s a brisk trade done in whale and dolphin watching tours. Truth be told, though, if you were planning on doing a fishing charter, that is in fact probably your best shot at seeing wildlife – the sightseeing charters disturb the water more and actually can’t get as close as you might think anyway. We didn’t have the best luck on our road trip (in Milford we only saw some sleepy seals and caught a glimpse of a penguin diving under) and in Kaikoura we again saw seals sunning themselves, as well as some mean birds.

The morning of T’s birthday we hopped on the Fish Kaikoura boat, along with three young guys from Melbourne, and set out to catch some fish and draw up crayfish pots. The glassy water … the mountain rising seemingly out of the cloud as you speed away from shore … it’s so pure and so breathtaking.

KAIKOURA MOUNTAINS AND WATER campervan road trip south island nzmuse

As soon as we stopped (I want to say ‘parked up’ but that’s not the terminology, is it?) an albatross came swooping in, wings spread, gunning right for us. And before long, birdie was joined by a whole gang, floating casually around the boat, waiting for an in.KAIKOURA ALBATROSS campervan road trip south island nzmuseKAIKOURA ALBATROSS campervan road trip south island nzmuse

It was stupidly easy to get bites. We were fishing right on the edge of an underwater canyon, before the ledge drops off. As soon as you put your line down, you’d catch something, and begin the arduous process of reeling it in. Skipper Mark filleted each fish as we went, and tossed the remains out to the waiting albatross, who’d all scrap fiercely for the spoils. Watching an albatross take off with its lunch, wings flared and literally running on water as it scrambles away to take off, never got old. A massive wandering albatross made a cameo, too – so huge its wings fold into three parts – as did some little mirror-backed petrels.

Sadly, I got horrendously seasick after about 15 minutes of standing still (still being relative, of course, as even while anchored on the open sea there is plenty of rocking about. I’ve been on plenty of ferries and the like, and never had any trouble, at least while in constant motion). I had to retreat to a seat and do my very best not to upchuck while T manned both our rods and outdid the Aussies singlehandedly. I held on right throughout, all the way back to the crayfish pots, when we pulled them up to harvest our one cray each … until right at the very end, literally about five minutes before we finished up and headed back in. Kaikoura Bay, I am sincerely sorry for polluting you with my peanut buttery stomach contents. MPFGHHHH is all I have to say about that.

KAIKOURA FISHING CHARTER campervan road trip south island nzmuse

Nonetheless, our 2kg of fish fed us well, as did our two massive crays. As we didn’t have a particularly large pot, Mark offered us the option of taking two frozen, pre-cooked crays from the day before, which worked out nicely. SO. MUCH. FLESH.

Back to the Garden City

We finished where we started, back in Christchurch. The day we landed and picked up our camper was pretty low key. There was some driving around getting a feel for the place; a jaunt out to Sumner and some rubbernecking at the destruction out by the cliffs; and a wee incident at McDonald’s that ended with us deciding against going through the drive thru as we were borderline on the height restriction (you read that right, McDonald’s. Judge away. I actually have a secret penchant for Big Macs, and their lunch deals are good value and filling).

This time around, we parked up outside T’s friend’s house and based ourselves there from Friday night to Sunday morning, just relaxing. (Apparently we slept through a couple of minor quakes and didn’t feel them.) We cooked up the fish in beer batter, napped, watched movies, and used his shower, really only venturing out to Hagley Park for a wee stroll. IT IS HUGE. I have never seen such an enormous public park, especially not in the middle of a city. It has botanic gardens, sports fields, even a freaking golf course.

All around, Christchurch actually has a shit ton of parks and reserves. Pity about the drivers. I’m sorry, but there is no way around it. Aucklanders are dodgy, but Cantabrians are even worse. The absolute lack of right-turn arrows on traffic lights doesn’t help. Who thought it was a good idea to leave drivers to their own devices when looking to cross as many as three lane of oncoming traffic?

On the bright side, kudos Christchurch for having rubbish bins, recycling bins AND organic waste bins as well (let’s face it, composting all food scraps is a reach for most of us). And of course, it’s still a beautiful place, battered though it is. I’m deeply sad that I never saw it before the earthquakes. We saw so many gothic old facades crumbling and fenced off. In our brief spin around Hagley Park we saw a couple of public buildings that had been closed down since and not reopened. The devastated CBD is full of empty parking lots, springing up on empty sites.

As the genial man who drove us back to the airport to catch our flight home said, you can never get the full effect on TV.

“It’s good you came down and saw it for yourself,” he told us.

Whew! Anything else you’d like to know? I can’t imagine how labour-intensive full time travel blogging is; just putting these recaps together took hours, to say nothing of the bandwidth/storage you’d need for all your images.

7 thoughts on “Road tripping the South Island, part 3: Glaciers, pancake rocks and charter fishing

  • Reply Sense October 10, 2012 at 23:04

    There’s a naturalist in you yet. Are you sure you didn’t miss your calling? 🙂

    South Islanders are the best! As you know, they are SO HELPFUL. Did I tell you about the time one lovely family man let me and my friends stay the night in his and his family’s house when all the hostels in Wanaka were full and we couldn’t afford a hotel?? THE. BEST.

    yep, those are wekas.

    you didn’t miss anything at Lake Matheson. it takes forever to get out there and conditions have to be ABSOLUTELY PERFECT for you to see a reflection of Mt Cook in the water. Most people go at the butt crack of dawn.

    these posts were great! you have awesome stories to tell and amazing pictures, glad you had an epic time!! makes me want to go back…(almost. 🙂 the SI is too much driving for me.)

    p.s. my interview was postponed til next week! something about some other deadline moving up unexpectedly.

    • Reply eemusings October 13, 2012 at 10:02

      Aw, what darlings – no wonder Wanaka is so firmly on your favourites list.

      All the more time to prepare for the interview then!

  • Reply plantingourpennies October 11, 2012 at 01:13

    The pancake rocks look amazing! They remind me vaguely of the giant’s causeway in N Ireland.

  • Reply Lesley October 11, 2012 at 09:08

    Your trip sounds and looks like it was awesome and I’m inspired to stop being lazy and post some pics and things about my own trip 🙂 Oh, and congrats on the updated blog!

  • Reply insomniaclabrat October 11, 2012 at 15:36

    Your pictures are amazing! (all 3 parts, I’m just catching up)

    I…am also guilty of not keeping that marriage commandment (in my head) when we’re in stressful situations, like when we got in a car accident in the middle of the night. I think it’s human nature! As long as we aren’t in stressful situations most of the time, I figure those few weak days are not that important.

  • Reply Gina October 13, 2012 at 20:32

    Been married 10 near perfect years and I never ever would’ve kept my mouth shut over something like that. But then we also get over things pretty quickly so it doesn’t fester or poison the rest of the day! Have really enjoyed reading this series, we want to do the South Island with our 2 children. Debating between a campervan and a cabin – getting stuck in a camper with 2 children if its raining, would be awful! But there are so many places to see!

    • Reply eemusings October 14, 2012 at 10:41

      The way I see it, verbalising all those ugly thoughts would have absolutely no good effect. He knew how badly he screwed up and he felt bad enough about it. Energy was better focused on finding a solution rather than screaming and abusive blame-slinging.

      We saw a LOT of families with kids in campers along the way! Some of the larger ones, I think, have sleeping compartments above the camper for kids so they’re tucked away. And you can always book a cabin at a campground if you need a little bit more space than just parking up in a campervan spot.

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