New Zealand’s South Island: Amazing One Day, Awesome the Next…

Milford Sound from the Milford Mariner. Pic by me.

Milford Sound from the Milford Mariner. Pic by me.

Or what I did on my holiday…

First an apology.

I have been very lax in my postings over the last 10 days. I have been tripping through the South Island of New Zealand through places where wi-fi is at best expensive and at worst non-existent. We have even been in places where there is no mobile phone access (Milford Sound) or no ATMs (Lake Tekapo). Coincidentally, these have also been places where the stars fill the night sky and the scenery is dramatically awesome.

We have been in towns where the two collide- breath taking scenery and city mod cons (Queenstown) and towns which are purely stop over points to get us through to the next leg. We have had some yummy meals, some disappointing meals and some great wines. We have taken it slow, we have rushed, we have seen lots of sheep…which brings me to the next apology: this is not an astro related posting today. There will be time for these when the washing is done and the suitcases are away.

Nearly seven years ago my husband, daughter and I spent two weeks driving around the South Island of New Zealand. During that trip we covered many miles and went through a very expensive load of film canisters. Since that holiday I have crossed the Tasman at least once a year- mostly to go to Wellington for the WOW (World of Wearable Arts) Show, but also to do the occasionally mini North Island road trip. Up until last week I hadn’t been back to the South Island, so this was like a re-discovery.

What we saw and did…

Queenstown

Most people visit Queenstown for 2 reasons:

  • To ski or snow board or
  • To jump off things.

Actually, these are pretty much the same things! Queenstown is an adventure town (jet boats, bungy jumping, para gliding, luge, hangliding…), has plenty of shops (check out the art as well…), great food (I had a memorable oyster experience with Bluff oysters), wineries on the doorstep (Gibbston Valley Pinot Noir is pretty wonderful), lots of tramping tracks, and everything from backpacker to 5 star accommodation (make sure you stay on the lake- we stayed at the Novotel Lakeside). All that, plus the ever changing Lake Wakatipu and the remarkable Remarkables.

Pic by me.

Pic by me.

This trip we were there in Autumn and the colour was incredible. The countryside and local towns such as Arrowtown (an old gold mining town well worth a visit) were full of the golds and oranges of Autumn. To view it all from above in a helicopter was more than cool. To top it all off, a dump of snow on our last night changed everything yet again.

Queenstown. Pic by me.

Queenstown. Pic by me.

Milford Sound

Then it was off to Milford Sound. Unless you have the budget to fly (or the inclination to do the full day bus trip from Queenstown), this side trip will take two- three days out of your schedule. It is worth doing. Last time I was here we did a morning cruise, this time we did an overnight cruise which allows you to see a whole new side to the fjords.

And see them you must. The views from the shore are stupendous, but to actually get the whole drama and scale of the place, it must be seen from the water. Peaks that dwarf the largest of passenger liners and falls that are taller than Niagara. The fjord itself is so deep that scientists believe the water that first rushed in when the fjord was formed is still there.

Stanley Falls, Milford Sound. Pic by me.

Stanley Falls, Milford Sound. Pic by me.

At night the stars light the sky in a way they can’t do in the cities. We watched the Full Moon inch over Mitre Peak and light the sea. We watched seals, attracted by the fish which were in turn attracted by the lights of the boat, dive and swim around the boat at night. We saw Milford under (rare) blue skies and, the following day, under (the more common)moody grey. When it rains, I am told the peaks stream down with water.

Classic Milford Sound...pic by me.

Classic Milford Sound...pic by me.

Allow 4-5 hours to get there from Queenstown. Take the time to stop for photos- especially on the last leg between Te Anau and Milford Sound.

Te Anau Downs. Pic by me.

Te Anau Downs. Pic by me.

Mount Cook (Aoraki) and Lake Tekapo

Another place where a clear blue sky is a rarity and a sight to be treasured. Mount Cook, at 3764m, is New Zealand’s highest mountain. Permanently covered with snow and ice, from the sky (we did another helicopter ride) you can clearly see the glaciers tumbling down the sides.

In the clouds. Pic by me.

In the clouds. Pic by me.

Mount Cook Village, at the base of the mountain, caters for the tourists and provides a base for the many tramping tracks in the area- none of which we did…

Mount Cook Village right at the base of the mountain. Taken from the helicopter. Pic by me.

Mount Cook Village right at the base of the mountain. Taken from the helicopter. Pic by me.

We stayed at Lake Tekapo, just a little way up the road. Both Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki (at the base of Mount Cook) are an amazingly weird milky turquoise colour- apparently it is something to do with the silt in the glacial meltwater, or some other scientific reason.

Pic by me.

Pic by me.

The money shot here is the Church of the Good Shepherd (check out my post Weddings, Photos and Anything for more pics). Sunset adds a warm glow to the white rocks by the lake and the church itself, while sunrise gives a pretty cool look to the skies.

Sunrise at Lake Tekapo. Pic by me.

Sunrise at Lake Tekapo. Pic by me.

Oh, make sure you enjoy the road between Cromwell and Omarama (north of Queenstown on the Gold Country route). The road through Lindis Pass is pretty incredible. Check out my post Oh Just Stop It! for more pics.

Lindis Pass. Pic by me.

Lindis Pass. Pic by me.

At Lake Tekapo we stayed at Peppers Bluewater Resort.

Pic by me.

Pic by me.

Hanmer Springs, Kaikoura, Marlborough and Beyond

We took the long way with a bypass around Christchurch. This took us through some gorgeous pastoral country of the Canterbury Plains- very different to the stunning mountain scenery we had previously experienced- but no less lovely. The highlight of my day was lunch at Jo Seagars’ Cook School and Cafe in Oxford. I came away with another 2 cookbooks for my shelf…

Sheepies! Pic by me.

Sheepies! Pic by me.

Hanmer Springs is a spa town and well worth the investment of more than a single night. If we had another couple of nights, they would have been spent here. The shops are edgy and stylish, the spas are busy and the pools in winter are incredible. We saw it in all its golden autumnal glory. We stayed in a villa at Heritage Hanmer Springs.

The duck pond at Hanmer. View from our breakfast table. Pic by me.

The duck pond at Hanmer. View from our breakfast table. Pic by me.

Good Friday took us through to Kaikoura- another of my favourite towns. The beach here, with its’ black sand beach, is stunning. The main activities here are wildlife based- the whale, dolphin, seal and albatross tours are very popular. Again, it was a case of insufficient time.

Kaikoura. Pic by me.

Kaikoura. Pic by me.

Marlborough was closed for Good Friday, so the wineries were out of bounds and due to no accommodation in either Blenheim or Picton and a book stuff up (on my part) of amazing proportions, we spent the night at the Resort at Portage in the Marlborough Sounds. Accessible by water taxi (from Picton) or a 58kms run on a disgustingly spiralled road, it is a place worth more than an overnighter and a comfy spot after walking any of the tramping tracks on the Queen Charlotte track. Apparently at New Year it is a rite of passage of sorts to make the pilgrimage across the mountain… Hmmm….

Vines at Allan Scott Winery, Blenheim. They do a great pinot gris- pity we couldn't buy any! Pic by me.

Vines at Allan Scott Winery, Blenheim. They do a great pinot gris- pity we couldn't buy any! Pic by me.

Some Final Tips

If you are considering a tour of New Zealand, here are a few tips:

  • 100kms is not the same there as it is in Australia. Dual carriageways are almost non- existent and you are sharing the roads with camper vans, farm machinery, farm animals and a lot of bends. Work your distances out at an average speed of 60kms/hr and avoid disappointment.
  • The slower speeds mean a lot more time to look…at everything there is to look at.
  • Some towns are purely going to be stops- either to let you attack a difficult leg fresh the next morning or to allow you to spend more time at somewhere truly awesome the next day.
  • Few towns are by-passed. This is not a bad thing, just allow extra time.
  • Country NZ is not open 24/7. Make sure you have petrol, groceries and money.
  • The map is not lying. In many cases, there really is only one way in and out of places like Milford Sound and Mount Cook. Be prepared to backtrack…a lot…on the upside, this means you get to see things twice!
  • If you have limited time and want to see a lot, you will feel rushed. There is no question about it. Either concentrate on one area and intend to come back, or go for it and come back to explore where you really loved in more detail…or take extra annual leave- if you have both the budget and the days.
  • Take extra memory cards- trust me, you will need them.
Me being blown away on the InterIslander Ferry between Picton & Wellington.

Me being blown away on the InterIslander Ferry between Picton & Wellington.

 

The fine print:  any links are just because I liked the place. Any recommendations are just because I liked the place… your opinion may be different to mine. And yes, I have borrowed my title from Queensland Tourism…sort of…but it just fits so beautifully.