• 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.

  • Road tripping the South Island: From penguin watching to cruising the Milford Sound

    We’ve just returned from two weeks campervanning around the stupidly beautiful South Island of New Zealand. That means you’re in for a treat: a week of travel posts!

    On our very first night, we camped by this not-so-little beauty just south of Christchurch: Lake Ellesmere.

    nz south island lake ellesmere nzmuse

    Then it was on southward through Canterbury, where almost every bridge we crossed brought pure, clear waters like these (I absolutely HAVE to do the Tongariro Crossing now). The Hobbit and Middle-earth lines we’re using to sell our nation are all a bit cheesy, but darn near impossible to refute.CANTERBURY WATER nzmuse

    Along the way, we stopped by the Moeraki boulders – freaky, almost perfectly spherical dark rocks that adorn this beach. It seems impossible that the cliffs beyond spawned them, and it seems they in fact formed on the sea floor originally, millions of years ago. Nature, you are the shiz.

    MOERAKI BOULDERS NZMUSEMOERAKI BOULDERS south island road trip campervanMOERAKI BOULDERS south island road trip campervanA haggard me by the boulders…

    But there’s also no shortage of other rocks to be discovered, all with the most interesting surfaces…

    MOERAKI BOULDERS OTHER ROCKS 4MOERAKI south island road trip campervanHollow rocks further out toward the sea (you can see my shoes peeping in from the corner where I’m standing)

    The beach is an easy couple of minutes’ walk from the carpark, and beautifully colourful in its own wild way. MOERAKI BEACH south island road trip campervanMOERAKI BEACH south island road trip campervan

    Before we hopped back into the camper, I made to head over to the two deer observing us from behind a fence (you can buy food to feed them with, too). If you are in the market for a deer feeder then Feed That Game has the best deer feeder reviews, so go check them out. But their unnerving gazes freaked me out a little too much, especially given what we’d witnessed earlier that day: a woman parked up by a deer farm, busy snapping a picture of the herd. EVERY SINGLE ANIMAL had turned her way and had its eyes trained firmly on her. It was ripe for a deer version of Black Sheep the movie, I tell ya – critters silently plotting to charge and attack.

    OTAGO south island road trip campervan

    As Canterbury melted into Otago the region was just spilling over with these thistle blooms.

    Driving into Dunedin was an experience. The wide, flat Canterbury roads gave way to steep and narrow twists; we had a lot of chuckles at kids pushing their bikes up hills, and marvelled at how toned you’d be if you walked anywhere regularly in that city. And while the South Island generally is home to a lot of older cars (the old style Civics, for example, I hadn’t seen in Auckland for a few years now) the clangers in Dunners probably took the cake.

    There wasn’t really anywhere handy to park in the centre, so we just cruised around the town through the Octagon, tried to get to the beach (and failed), before heading to our first campground. This one was right behind St Kilda, which I thought would be a good idea to venture to just as it got dark. I was walking back to the camper after having a shower, when I spotted the sign for the beach and followed it on a whim … through bushes, through a field, and by the time I got there the sun had set entirely. I couldn’t trace my original path, so walked all the way back to the road and just around to the campground entrance.

    Not only were the radio ads hugely entertaining the further south we went (ads about agri-engineering consultants and, er, effluent solutions), they also let me feel mighty smug.

    “It’s practically a crime that so many Kiwis never get out and see their own country” boomed one, before going on to explain how you could win a fishing trip to Kaikoura.

    “Well, hah! Look at us now,”  I sang out.

    Penguin spotting

    We skipped potential penguin-watching in Oamaru in favour of seeking them in the Catlins (the Catlin Coast straddles the bottom of the South Island and is home to a ton of sea life). NUGGET POINT CATLINS south island road trip campervanNUGGET POINT PLAQUE south island road trip campervanNUGGET POINT LOOKOUT CATLINS south island road trip campervan

    We reached Nugget Point in the early afternoon, went for a jaunt up to the lookout point, cooked lunch and then settled in for a nap (when I tried to physically turn the page of my e-book, I knew it was time to give in to my drooping eyelids).

    CAMPERVAN COOKING south island road trip campervan

    Then it was back down around the corner to the penguin lookout point about 4.30; the critters start coming in from a day out at sea in the late afternoon as evening falls. There’s a dark, dank, low building at the end of the trail that has lookout windows and information about the birds; we were soon joined by a European couple, and a few others trickled in later on.

    We didn’t see anything at all for about 15 minutes, but then a kindly old man who’d popped up and pointed out a very large, very still seal at the far end of the beach that we’d missed (thinking it was a log of driftwood) brought our attention to the first of the penguins toddling up on the beach!

    You can kind of see the penguin in this picture…PENGUINS in the CATLINS south island road trip campervan

    For the longest time, he was the only one ashore, and eventually hopped up into the grassy cliffs. That’s when we saw the other two surfing in, though that’s maybe putting it nicely. The penguins seemed to be more or less getting tossed around in the tides, and washing up roughly ashore, then shaking themselves off.

    CATLINS PENGUINS NZMUSE south island road trip campervan

    You’re restricted to viewing them from very far away as to not disturb their natural habitat; I cursed myself for not thinking to bring binoculars. YES – I actually own a pair, which was given to me on a yacht trip I was taken on earlier this year! I thought I’d never find a use for them, and I would, of course, have been wrong.

    You basically can’t freedom camp anywhere around here, but I did wonder if anyone was actually policing that. What if we’d stayed until dark to watch all the penguins come in, and then just stayed in the carpark?

    Road to Milford

    My guide book suggested leaving for the Milford Sound from Te Anau. That worked out well for us, starting from Christchurch, and winding down and around the coast. It’s two hours from Te Anau, and more like five from Queenstown, where most people leave from (and where we headed to straight afterwards).

    We paused by Lake Te Anau for a leisurely lunch…

    LAKE TE ANAU CAMPERVAN south island road trip campervanThe only thing the pictures can’t convey is just how loud the squalling of the wild ducks were, shattering the peace of an otherwise serene scene.LAKE TE ANAU south island road trip campervanLAKE TE ANAU JUMP

    September is apparently the height of the rainy season, but we had glorious dry weather the whole way (our guides in Milford told us it hadn’t rained for a few days, which is practically a drought in Milford – the wettest place in the country). The roads were empty and clear – as the woman from the Invercargill petrol station had told us, it was actually decently wide and smooth, though can no doubt turn treacherous in bad conditions. What we WEREN’T prepared for was the Homer Tunnel toward the end of the road. Pitch black, narrow and terrifying, it cuts under a mountain and emerges into a series of hairpin turns. >_<
    MIRROR LAKES MILFORD SOUND south island road trip campervan
    Along the way we stopped at the Mirror Lakes, which weren’t particularly reflective (as the rippled water demonstrates. It would have been neat to see the inverse sign reflected properly) and at a random waterfall. And as soon as we hit snow, T wanted to jump out and play in it – only everywhere that it was, there were signs forbidding stopping (“That would be TOO FUN, wouldn’t it?” he grumbled) due to avalanche danger.

    MILFORD WATERFALL south island road trip campervanMILFORD WATERFALL 2 south island road trip campervanMILFORD WATERFALL 3 south island road trip campervan

    It was actually slightly drizzly by the time we got to the sound itself, and I’ll admit, I was underwhelmed. Milford panoramas adorn every postcard out there, and reality on a somewhat overcast afternoon didn’t quite match up. Somehow it seemed so much smaller, so much narrower, in person. We got there late afternoon – too late for anything, really – and booked a cruise and kayak trip for the following morning.

    milford sound nzmuse south island road trip campervan

    Again, annoyingly, there was absolutely nowhere to park up and spend the night for free. There were lots of Department of Conservation campsites along the Milford Road, but none close to the far end – so we backtracked slightly to the lodge to find a legit campervan spot. It’s actually a mint place – we got a primo spot, one of two tucked quietly away into the bush (though it did mean we couldn’t open the doors or windows, because of the bugs) with lovely facilities, including magazines and board games in the lounge. We were right by the mountains, where the fog lay so low and ran for so long that I felt so utterly insignificant in comparison.

    MILFORD sound FOG south island road trip campervan

    The next day dawned clear and bright, and it turns out a cruise really is worth the money.

    This is Bowen Falls at the mouth of the sound inland – taller than Niagara Falls.

    BOWEN FALLS MILFORD SOUND south island road trip campervan

    The natural colours of the rockfaces blew my mind.

    MILFORD SOUND ROCKS south island road trip campervan

    See those green streaks? Copper, apparently.

    MILFORD SOUND ROCKS COPPER south island road trip campervan

    The boat pulled up right underneath these falls, and put out glasses on the deck to be filled. WE DRANK WATER FROM THOSE FALLS:

    MILFORD SOUND TWIN WATERFALLS south island road trip campervanMILFORD SOUND WATERFALL south island road trip campervanMILFORD SOUND WATERFALL RAINBOW south island road trip campervanMILFORD SOUND WATERFALL DRINK

    I kept my eyes peeled as we headed out toward the open water and the waves got choppier, splashing us and washing up over out shoes at times (even hard experience from standing on Auckland buses didn’t prepare me for the juddering) but no dolphins saw fit to join us :{. We did see seals on both sides of the sound, though, on the way in and out.

    MILFORD SOUND SEAL AND BIRD south island road trip campervan
    Toward the end, we jumped out at the deepwater observatory and got to see what lies below the surface of the water up close, before setting out on our one-hour kayak journey around that little cove/inlet with one other pair of tourists – two Hawaiian women who both work on cruise ships, one as an engineer and the other as a party planner. T enjoyed the kayaking; I didn’t so much, mainly because I tire fast and we didn’t see any wildlife. It’s a gamble, though – those things are never guaranteed. (For the more intrepid, another company does 5 hour kayak trips. My arms are falling off just contemplating it.)

    Milford is not a cheap destination. You could take tons of pictures along the route there, drive all the way to the end, take a few mediocre photos, and maybe do a little bit of trail exploring, I guess, but it’d be a real shame. And yes, even tramping the Milford Track costs. A lot. The Milford Track is one of the Great Walks of New Zealand, so you do have to plan well ahead if you want to do it, and shell out a bit of money (there is, however, an Air NZ competition on at the moment looking for a hardy type to undertake all 9 Great Walks).

    Next up: back to Queenstown!