Day One: The day was off to a great start! Our flight went smoothly (relatively speaking, since we hit a huge air pocket and nearly flew out of our seats at one point) and we were amped to unleash our excitement on our week-long winter camping extravaganza in one of the most beautiful countries in the world – NEW ZEALAND!
After landing in Christchurch in the South Island, we headed to our backpacker where we quickly unpacked, introduced ourselves to our two Taiwanese roomies, and set off to have some dinner. Of course we visit Pomeroy, a historically acclaimed pub near our hostel, where we enjoy live tunes and some of the tastiest beers we have had yet. We decided to get some rest and spent thirty minutes making faces and jokes from our two top bunks before actually giving into our fatigue.
For those who don’t know Christchurch is a city full of character and personality which was unfortunately subject to a massively violent earthquake just over a year ago. Walking around the city there is an eerie feel, striking a chord of resemblance in my mind of the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The main strip of the city center remains closed, labelled a red zone and guarded on some ends by military personnel. It is always a humbling experience to encounter what used to be a trendy and residential hub transformed into a ghost town. Despite their losses the people in Christchurch have noticeably made every attempt to bounce back, working around the clock to reconstruct the city. A mall call RE:start was put together creatively using large containers and housing fashionable clothes boutiques and authentic coffee houses.
The next morning we make our way to our campervan in Christchurch and head off due south for Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki. The drive started off looking like middle America – in other words no more entertaining than a high school biology lecture. The fields slowly rose into tree-covered mountains, and shortly after became towering snow-capped beauties engulfing our campervan and making us feel no more significant than a speck of sand on the beach. The Lakes were spectacular, with crystal clear fresh water so bright you could hardly tell where the water ended and the low-lying wispy cumulus clouds began.
Next stop is Queenstown, a hip and cozy ski town full of both modern luxuries and preserved historical architectures. We stopped in Queenstown and downed a delicious sampler of fresh brews at Seight’s, which has been open since 1897.
Since we had a cruise booked the next day we jumped back in our home-on-wheels and journeyed toward a place only the very fortunate get to see: Milford Sound. Situated just west of Queenstown on the West Coast of New Zealand, Milford Sound is known as The Eighth Wonder of the World.
In Maori, the language of the native people in New Zealand, Milford Sound is called “Piopiotahi.” Probably the most notable mention of this site is that they filmed much of the hit “Lord of the Rings” there.
It was discovered less than 200 years ago by a sealer traveling along the Fiordland coast – completely obscured from any passersby on the ocean at its mouth, it is easy to see why it was undiscovered for so long. The area is rich with natural resources and wildlife, surrounded by areas where Jade is found, and its pristine waters boast playful and rare species of dolphins, New Zealand Fur Seals, penguins and many sea birds.
Making the trip to Milford Sound is quite unique – there is one road in and one road out, and it is four hours from the nearest city, which is Queenstown.
We camped out in a remote patch of gravel in the middle of a mountain rainforest next to a rocky stream. Waking up in one degree weather was a first, and boy was it a task. After blasting the heat until we could feel the blood flowing again we drove to the visitor centre and prepared for a cruise through the beautiful Fiordland National Park to explore this wonder called Milford Sound.
We are two of only about 10 passengers since most people don’t prefer to drive four hours to get there at 9:45 am. We hop on, take advantage of the free brekky and get our camera ready.
In the first five minutes we spot dolphins playfully poking their fins out of the crystal clean water as we approach a rocky mountainside housing a glorious waterfall. The cruise infinite on through raw, untouched mounds of land which were formed by glaciers ages and ages ago – one glacier called Pembroke still partially exists and is visible from the boat. Valley after valley welcomes us with more beauty in the form of waterfalls and mossy cliffs lined with ferns.
We spot a pack of New Zealand Fur Seals resting on a collection of rocks and the captain pulls within feet of them so we can snap some great shots.
The best is yet to come, Stirling Falls, a lengthy 146 meter drop. Our captain pulls up so close to the falls we can feel the dew building up on our faces and clothes as we frantically take snapshots. The water hits several jagged rocks, jutting out in beautiful arches in every which direction and forming a beautiful canopy which truly appears fake to the human eye. I felt as if I were looking at a holographic image which was an illusion of the mind.
We head on to our next stop back in Queenstown, where we explore for a bit then decide to take a thrill ride up on The Skyline. We hop in a gondola which sweeps us up over the beautiful mountaneous countryside giving us an aerial view of the town. Once safely up at the top we hop on another less secure chair lift and ascend up to a track to experience what New Zealanders dub The Luge. To ride this exhilarating course you climb into a small sled-like vehicle with wheels and small handlebars. Controlling your speed by pulling the handlebars back, down the mountain you fly, dodging side rails (and in my case a goofy boy trying to take pictures of me) and zooming through tunnels until you reach the end of the track. The ride was exhilarating and a perfect way to experience a favorite local pastime.
We ambitiously jet up to a town called Wanaka, and find a cosy campsite to settle in for the night. We take a relaxing dip in the camp’s hot tub, where we meet several interesting characters, from an alcohol-induced Aussie to a Texan who has relocated to Australia to pursue a career in stand up comedy. The park is very accommodating, and we graciously take advantage of their heated community kitchen to make dinner and settle down to catch up on the olympics with a few beers. The next morning we venture out to visit Fox and Frans Josef Glaciers, but are a bit restricted by rainy weather. An hour and a half hike through a desolate valley and we are standing smack dab in front of a portion of the glacier, which is sandwiched between two mountains. Since it starts raining harder we opt to continue driving north toward Abel Tasman National Park.
Along the way we find a cosy freedom camping site (basically small parking lots designed for nomadic backpackers in campervans to rest for free – if you can cope without showering or a proper bathroom then it is a great option that saves you money) in a prime location. We situate ourselves in a grassy area literally feet from the ocean, and fall asleep to the soothing sounds of the waves then awake to the whispering wind beating against our van. Perhaps the best camping location I have ever visited, and certainly the most peaceful.
On the way to Abel Tasman we stop in Punakaiki, and are pleasantly surprised to find several natural beauties. We first stroll out to the coast to see their infamous Pancake Rocks, subject to weathering from the salt water and wind and changing shapes with each passing day. On the way to the Pancake Rocks we come upon several blowholes which are truly impressive. Most notable is the Chimney Pot, a naturally formed chimney-like tunnel which, when a wave hits in just the right way, fills rapidly with the seawater and spits a cloud of mist straight up into the sky, raining down on the rocks around it.
Our next adventure was…adventurous to say the least. We hear about limestone caves which are self explorable and of course decide to go check them out. We are warned that the hike requires some bush walking (whatever that is – maybe should have clarified this term in retrospect) but aren’t bothered and anxiously pack a lunch and hit the trail. About 45 minutes in we are following the designated track marked by orange triangles. The track is rough but manageable, involving very easy climbing and uphill navigation. We come to a creek and a sign that says TRACK with an arrow pointing to the right. Looking to the right it appears the trail continues on into the forest, and after it appears to be right according to my map I urge Max into the bushy hills once again. A few steps later we question whether this could possibly be the trail, since it is not as clearly laid out and is quite challenging even for us. Probably partially due to our subconscious sense for adventure, we both decide to use hanging vines on the side of the muddy and slick hillside to hoist ourselves up, assuring each other the trail will continue once we reach the top. Once we pull ourselves up it is apparent that if this is the trail, it hasn’t been travelled in a very long time. We find a bright orange plastic strip tied to a tree, and spot another just ahead. Not exactly the type of sign we had been following up to this point, but perhaps still marking the way to the caves? We look at each other questioningly and then mutually agree that we will rough it. After slipping up the muddy slopes and literally transforming into George and Jane of the jungle, we are startled to hear a loud and angry growl ahead of us. As we stand silently in the forest, completely engulfed by ferns, vines and trees and our clothes decorated with globs of wet brown mud, we are tempted into laughter. Though there is another orange strip visible through the thick vines ahead, we have been trekking for nearly two hours! Very reluctantly I decide we should head back, bearing in mind all of the dangerously slippery hills we would now need to descend. Fighting our way back through the lush greenery we eventually make it back to the shore of the river. Inspired by my close encounter with nature and our ability to laugh at our ridiculous mistakes, I paint my face with mud and surprise Max, who looks at me with bewilderment and amusement and snaps photos of his barbaric girlfriend.
I turn my back for two seconds and the side show continues when we realize that the trail actually continues on the other side of the river, where an orange sign signals the right way. Well that’s all great except the tide has risen and there is literally no way to cross! Max will build a bridge, an ingenious idea!! He proceeds to carry the trunk of a tree from aside the river and toss it full force into the river. As it lands uselessly inches from where we stand, we laugh hysterically and decide we will have to find another way.
The only option is to wade. Max takes his shoes and socks off as soon as I suggest the idea and steps cautiously into the water. Seconds later he retreats, yelping as the nearly freezing water sends pain through his feet. We once again reluctantly head back to the car. We may not have seen the bloody caves after all, but I must say we did everything in our power to try and had heaps of fun in the process. From bushwalking to tree climbing to attempting to build a bridge we made an A+ effort to get there.
On to Abel Tasman we drive, camping out at local campground to grab showers and make some much needed dinner. On the way out the next morning we pull out of our parking spot which is surrounded by orange trees and a field full of – random – llamas! We take a hike and after realizing how long it would actually take to hike into the massive park, which is only accessible by foot or water, we agree to head on to Nelson.
We are pleasantly greeted in Nelson by endless rolling hills full of wineries, fruit farms, and even hops fields! Nelson is reputed for being the microbrewing capital of New Zealand, boasting 13 breweries. I quickly stop at a visitor center and gather all information to take Max on a brewing extravaganza.
Like a kid in a candy store he has a sample platter at each brewery, which gives a small taste of each of the homemade specialties. After hitting three breweries I am craving a beer so we park our van for the night and walk to one more.
Early the next morning we wake up and set off for Kaikoura. Though we missed the bookings for the sea kayaking, we aren’t disappointed by our experience in the town, which is known for it’s active community of oceanic wildlife. As we drove along the road I spotted tons of black blobs on the rocky coast. I excitedly tell Max to pull over to have a closer look.
When we pull over onto the shoulder of the road I realize that all of the black blobs make up colonies of wild New Zealand fur seals, sunbathing on the jagged rocks. Literally our car is just feet away from them, and as we slam our doors shut they all raise their heads in curiosity. I am in amazement and animal-lovers heaven. After taking tons of pictures we head on to the next pull off point, where the seals are even lying on the grass beside the road. They don’t seem to like our presence, except one which particularly takes to Max. He edges closer to the blubbery creature, who blinks his enormous eyes and turns his head every which way posing for our pictures. They were no more than two feet from each other, and watching the interaction was truly amazing.
Kaikoura is a tropical wonder, and its coastline is full of lush mountains surrounded by a misty fog, extending out over its wavy and fluorescent waters. The road back to Christchurch winds around the base of the mountains and through tunnels carved into them. I drift off into a light sleep…
Bam! I wake up and when I finally get my bearings I realize we are about 30 minutes from Christchurch at none other but a brewery. Max downs a tasting tray of the hearty brews, which are organically and naturally made using fresh water from the wells of the brewery. I speed into town and we reach our van rental office where we drop off the keys and head back to our hostel for the night.
It is like heaven to have a shower and change into our last pairs of clean clothes. We are rudely awoken at 2:45am and hop our shuttle to the airport at 3:20am. Here we are flying back over the snow-capped mountains back to beautiful Melbs, with yet another crazy tell tale under our belts. In two days we will be relocating to Airlie Beach on Queensland, landing on a tropical island and taking a cruise to the beautiful town which seems to be a dream come true. We will reside there for the next four months until we head out on the real journey – back to reality. Stay tuned!