I’m warning you, this post will be a long one—but wow. Wow! What a two week break it has been. Throw together some mountains, beaches, glaciers, sunsets, a rock fetching dog, friendly strangers, amazing cake, guitar playing Argentineans, campsites on the side of the road, an artificial earthquake, and four great friends and you got my trip to the South Island of New Zealand!
My break began with a bang with the All-Blacks vs. Australia rugby match in Wellington. We had great seats; literally four rows from the field. The game play itself was pretty intense, but the Haka—a war chant Maori warriors used to do before battle—was the coolest part. The All-Blacks ended up winning the game, but I have to admit, it doesn’t beat going to a Wisconsin Badgers football game. Still a great experience nonetheless.
The next day we took a ferry from Wellington across to a town called Picton in the South Island. Our ferry had to weave through the Marlborough Sounds, which is a collection of bays and islands that branch out from the top of the South Island. It was a very beautiful welcoming.
Once on the South Island, we headed west and stopped at a place called the Riverside Cafe. This cafe was part of the Riverside Community, an agricultural based community that grows all their own food and lives as much as possible off the grid. Their cafe was really cool—I would recommend anyone passing through the area to stop in and enjoy a cup of coffee or chai.
For the night we decided to go “freedom camping”. This means camping where ever you find a good patch of grass to lay down your tents. In New Zealand anywhere is pretty much fair game, as long as it’s not private property and doesn’t have a ‘No Camping’ sign by it. For the majority of our trip we freedom camped; some in beautiful locations… and some not so beautiful. It was a fun experience just driving down the road at night and looking off to the side searching for what could be a place to sleep.
After our first night of camping we ventured into the Abel Tasman National Park to do some hiking. This area is know for its abundant sunshine and beaches—and it did not disappoint! The hiking trails wove us through lush green forests and had ocean views around every turn. We decided to stop at one beach and take a quick swim in the ocean before turning around and hiking back to our car.
Our plan for the next day was to start heading south and make it to the west coast of the South Island to hit up some of its attractions. On the way we drove through orchards and vineyards and even stopped at an honesty box, which offered bags of apples and kiwis for only $2 each.
We made our first stop at the Franz Joseph Glacier. A short hike led us up to a lookout and gave us some decent views of the glacier. Our next stop was a place called Lake Matheson, know for being one of those mirror lakes where you can’t tell which side is the water. This place ended up being one of my favor of the trip. Just the walk up to the lake gave us spectacular views of the two tallest peaks in New Zealand; Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman. And the lake, mountain, tree combination… wow! I’ve never seen such beautiful scenery! Our final stop of the day was another glacier called Fox Glacier. Like the Franz Joseph, a short hike led us to a lookout point and pretty good views of the glacier. Two glaciers in one day—not bad if you ask me.
Our next day was filled with just as amazing sights. From the coast we made our way inland and stopped at the Blue Pools of Haast Pass. This was a place where a glacier fed stream flowed into a larger river. Like the name suggests, the water here is incredibly blue and so clear. You can see all the way to the bottom of the pools, and they are fairly deep. It was a very unique sight to see.
We continued our drive into the Southern Alps—the ridge of mountains that extend down the length of the South Island. Here the road started to hug the lakes in the area and with the mountains in the background it gave us gorgeous views all the way to the town of Wanaka. This was one of the coolest towns I’ve ever been to. It’s situated right on Lake Wanaka and surrounded by mountains on all sides. We hung out at a cafe in the early afternoon and then decided to hike the Rocky Mountain Track which was in the area. The track was pretty much uphill the entire way, but it was definitely worth the climb. The top had 360 degree views of mountains and lakes… such a great combo. We stayed up there until the sun set below the mountain peaks and then hiked back down and freedom camped for the night.
The next morning we woke up to a nice surprise. Since we chose our campsite in the dark the night before, we had no idea what the surroundings looked like. But once the sun was out, we realized we were sleeping next to a beautiful river with mountains all around us. Our campsite was not too far from our destination of the day either; the Rob Roy Glacier Track. This hike began in a grassy valley with grazing cows and then climbed through forests until the trail ended at a huge wall of mountains. It was a tiring hike so when we drove back to Wanaka we decided to stay in a hostel. This hostel was full of international travelers—when cooking in the kitchen I could hear so many different accents and languages floating around. We were all extremely tired from the day though so we didn’t socialize too much. However, the other residents were still full of energy so I fell asleep to what sounded like a mariachi band in the other room as some Argentineans jammed out on the guitar.
For the following day we set our sights on the Mt. Cook Village, which is located close to New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mt. Cook. On the way we drove past Lake Pukaki. At a roadside lookout we got out and got great views of Mt. Cook and were impressed by the color of the water. It was even a lighter shade of blue than the sky! While we were taking pictures, a couple in a van pulled up next to us and said they were having car troubles and wondering if we could help them out. We told them we weren’t too car savvy considering we had our own car troubles a couple days before. They were very nice people; the girl was from France and the guy was from India and they were working in the city of Christchurch. We wished them the best of luck with their car and then drove into Mt. Cook Village.
It was late afternoon so we decided to do a short hike that advertised lakes and glaciers. I was disappointed to find that the so called “lakes” were the size of ponds, but upon closer look they were actually pretty cool. The water was so clear that when I turned my camera upside down and took a picture, the reflection of the mountains in the water could have passed for the real thing. The glacier was also picturesque with the snow-capped mountains in the background. When nightfall came we freedom camped in the best spot of the trip. Like our previous site, it was next to a river with mountains all around us, but every few often we would hear a sound like thunder as huge blocks of ice and snow created mini avalanches on a distant mountain. That, combined with a clear night where the Milky Way stretched across the whole sky, made for a memorable night.
In the morning we once again woke up not believing we had slept in such an awesome location. Our campsite was right next to the hiking trail we wanted to do for the day, the Hooker Valley Track. Out of all the hikes I’ve done so far, this one was my favorite. The trail led up to the base of Mt. Cook, but we had to cross several swing bridges to get there. At the base of Mt. Cook there was a glacial lake that had floating blocks of ice in it. It was interesting to see because it wasn’t too hot outside, but the water was still freezing! During the hike we even ran into the couple from the day before with the car troubles. We were glad to see they got their car fixed and were enjoying their time together. After eating lunch by the lake we hiked back to our car and was able to catch the sunset by the nearby Lake Tekapo.
The following morning we woke up to grey skies and rain showers. Not being very happy campers, we quickly packed up our tents and drove through Arthur’s Pass. I’ve heard that Arthur’s Pass is supposed to be a really beautiful area, but it was cloudy and snowing so we drove right through. We did make one stop to fill up on gas and saw some Keas! These are popular birds here in New Zealand known for being mischievous by stealing peoples’ food and small items. They also look like parrots, which makes it strange to see them in a snowy, mountainous climate.
Once out of the mountains we reached the west coast once again. We had some time to kill because our bus tickets back to Murchison were the next day so we spent the afternoon at a local spot called Motukiekie Beach. This beach had very cool looking rock features popping out of the ocean. We spent our time walking up and down the beach and then were surprised when a dog came running up to us. We learned that her name was Honey and that she loved to play fetch with a round rock she found. It doesn’t seem as amazing as glaciers and mountains, but we thought it was pretty cool!
After Honey ran back to her owner, the sun was just starting to set. We all took a seat and watched as the sun dipped below the horizon and the sky took on shades of orange, red, and pink. Once it got dark we followed our usual routine of searching for a campsite at night. We eventually found one and went to bed, but then in the middle of the night we woke up to a loud, thundering noise and felt the ground shaking. At the time I thought we were experiencing an earthquake, but it turned out that our campsite was about 20 feet from a railroad track and we were just experiencing the passing of a train. It gave us a good laugh in the morning.
Around noon we made our way back up to Picton. On the way though we stopped at Lake Rotoiti which had a sweet little dock and nice views of the mountains. Since our ferry back to the North Island didn’t leave until the next day, when we got to Picton we spent the day exploring the town and local beaches and then camped one last time for the night.
For the final day of the trip we boarded the ferry and said goodbye to the South Island as we sailed to Wellington and then finished the drive back to Massey. I have no doubt that I will be back to the South Island to continue exploring all its wonders. Overall it was an amazing trip, but at the end of it I was physically and mentally drained and ready to get back to school. In no way was this a two week “break”. It was an adventure full of ups and downs, full of the unexpected, and full of amazing people and places I will never forget.