We’ve always been told that if we ever visit New Zealand, explore the North Island before venturing to the South. Advice taken! The North was spectacular so naturally we were very excited to start exploring the South Island!
We kicked off our South Island adventure by flying into Christchurch. First on the list was venturing into the city that’s still recovering from the earthquake that hit on the 22nd February 2011 at 12:51pm local time. It reached 6.3 on the Richter scale and caused widespread damage throughout the Canterbury region, killing 186 people.
Christchurch is a curious place, while there isn’t a lot to see/do in the way of typical sights, it’s terribly interesting to see how the city is recovering. I remember hearing briefly about the Christchurch earthquake back in the UK, but the news quickly moved onto something else. It’s only once you visit a place that it all become real. It was the same in Chile with the mining disaster, it didn’t mean as much to us until we visited the area.
In the centre of Christchurch they have an Earthquake Exhibition. It’s a small exhibit on New Zealand’s major earthquakes over the years, and there’s been a whole lot of them! Our favourite part of the exhibition was a film playing interviews and stories from people directly affected by the 2011 quake. It was terribly moving and definitely put a lump in your throat.
Blokarting at Velocity Karts was a bit of a wild card. We had accidentally booked our hire car a day earlier than we intended, so felt we ought to get some usage out of the extra day! As if by magic (or Michael’s Googling), we stumbled upon a Blokart track…
Blokarting is essentially a small sit-in buggy with a sail, wind powered and dead simple to get to grips with. It was super fun and something neither of us had done before. Before long we’d got the hang of it and were flying round the course. It’s not often Michael and I are able to reach the same speed, but this time I kept up! Michael now has a Blowkart on his list for things to buy when we get home!
From Christchurch we headed north to Kaikoura, another area affected by a recent earthquake. The drive up the coast was eye-opening as we saw huge landslides that are still being cleared from the road. Thankfully this earthquake happened in the dead of night and no one was hurt.
Wowzers, we woke up bright and early to get kitted out in our thick, warm wetsuits and were ready to set sail before sunrise. As the sun rose we could see dolphins jumping and somersaulting in the water up ahead! When in the middle of a huge pod, we jumped into the water and bloody hell it was cold! But we very quickly forgot about the cold when we put our head under the water to find we were completely surrounded by inquisitive little dusky dolphins. It was such an amazing experience to have wild dolphins choosing to engage with us, they clearly wanted to play. If you sang to them or dove down they were much more inquisitive and playful, hence my singing in the video above! ‘You shall have a fishy on a little dishy…’
Back on the boat we saw this weird eel thing thrashing about in the distance. For ages we couldn’t figure out what the heck this thing was. The captain soon announced it was a Thresher Shark and this was an incredibly rare sighting. I had never heard of a Thresher Shark until this point. The shark swam around the boat for about 10 minutes, constantly being harassed by the dolphins and whipping its tail in defence. At times it came incredibly close to the boat showing off just how big he was, a good few meters. A pretty cool start to the day I’d say!
The nice chap in the hostel had recommended visiting Golden Bay, but warned us of the colossal drive ‘up and over the mountain’, a very difficult and challenging drive. So we set out and… it was just a pleasant Sunday drive. These New Zealanders are all about the drama!
We got to Golden Bay and the weather wasn’t all that great, but a beach day is good regardless! The main highlight was getting super close to a small group of seal pups playing in the surf as the tides were changing. They’re super cute little furry creatures, very inquisitive and shy at the same time. We seemed to draw a bit of a crowd around the pups, at 5 people, mama seal wasn’t too impressed and got involved! She started lunging at us and bearing her teeth, needless to say we all retracted mighty fast…
We always seem to be drawn to kayaking wherever we go! Abel Tasman was no different. Ideally we’d have hired our own kayak and paddled up and down the coast exploring the little caves and deserted beaches. But we naively listened to the locals once again who advised us not to do it ourselves, as the current might take us out to sea and it is very dangerous. Well, we’ve never experienced such calm waters as around Abel Tasman…! Might have to start ignoring local Kiwi advice from here on out.
Another bright and early start, we began a 10km walk into the national park to a lovely secluded beach. Here we were to wait for our kayak trip (another group were doing the same trip in reverse and we were due to meet them at the half way point). It was a very beautiful walk, nice and shaded for the most part.
Pancake Rocks and Blowholes
The weather on this side of the island (west) wasn’t shaping up to be so great for the next few days. Our visit to Punakaiki pancake rocks and blowholes was a wet and windy affair. The rock formations here have layered up over many years to form these pillars of what look like a stack of pancakes. On top of this the waves have eroded the cliffs to form a network of caves and blowholes (when the tides right). Despite the weather and tide really not being on our side, it was still a beautiful place. Although, gutting that we didn’t get to see them in their full glory.
Franz Josef and Fox Glacier
Aaah the glaciers! The only way to get close to the glaciers and see them properly is by helicopter. Initially we’d hoped to heli-hike the Franz Josef Glacier, as we’ve never actually set foot on a glacier. But, due to weather conditions the helicopter was cancelled 2 days in a row. Obviously we wanted to do the trip, however, neither of us were too disappointed when it was cancelled! The trip was rather expensive and we did feel a little uneasy about the cost.
Instead we took a really beautiful walk up to a slightly unimpressive glacier. I feel a bit mean saying that, but we’ve seen our fair share of glaciers now and Franz Josef and Fox don’t make my top list! You also can’t really see them as the barriers are set so far back!!
Both glaciers are slowly retreating back into the valleys. It’s more than a little concerning when you walk past the signs that tell you 8 years ago the glacier was where you’re standing. Then you look up at it and can barely see it in the distance.
From Franz Josef we continued south to Wanaka, Queenstown’s quieter, understated brother.
Quad Biking in the Cardrona Valley
We spent our first day in Cardrona Valley quad biking. Back in the day the hillsides of Cardrona were filled with gold which brought many people to the area. These days they’re more desert-like and great for adventure sports.
It was a really nice day as we wound our way up the hillside, admiring the views and trying not to inhale too much dust. Honestly, the quad biking was a little dull – we weren’t allowed to go faster than snail’s pace, in case heaven forbid, something bad were to happen… Michael chose to ignore this rule and decided to have fun anyway, hanging back and then bombing up the hill to catch up. His naughty antics were caught by the instructor and he got a telling off!
It was still a really nice day and mostly enjoyable. Just once again, we felt a bit frustrated with the excessive health and safety limiting our fun… sigh!
The Via Ferrata around Wanaka was pretty cool, this time we were climbing up the side of a waterfall. The route snaked up the cliff-face crossing over the waterfalls with sketchy looking wire bridges. I was not a fan of these! Definitely felt much safer holding onto the solid rocks rather than hanging off the side of a wire bridge!
It’s funny doing an activity; sometimes you feel you’ve done it, no need to do it again. Other times it sparks something and all of a sudden you are planning another excursion. After this trip, we really want to go to the Dolomite’s for more Via Ferrata…
Downhill Mountain Biking
Obviously we weren’t going to stay in Queenstown and miss out on the legendary mountain biking in the area! This was the real deal… We hired full on fancy, heavy-duty Mondraker Downhill bikes with stupidly big suspension. Pushing bikes up the hill wasn’t an option so we got an uplift for the day (ski lift), we did it properly!
It took a lot of getting used to on my part, handling such a heavy bike on such vertical terrain was well outside my comfort zone. Michael was obviously straight into it putting me to shame! Within the first hour I’d had a good proper sulk, reset and manned up. It was time for me to point the bike down the hill and just go with it. Thankfully I was soon flying down the trails, not really thinking about the gradients and drops we were riding! This sure as hell was far more vertical than Rotorua or anything I have ever ridden!
It was so good to get out on a bike again. I miss my bikes terribly and worry my muscles are fading away! More than anything it was good to get out on our own, without a guide telling us what we can’t do! Yup, maybe we are still a little bitter about that quad biking malarkey!
We hummed and hawed for ages about taking a trip to Milford Sounds, not really a sound, actually a huge fjord. It is renowned for being a beautiful spot, but we struggled to find convincing photos of the area and travelling there is time consuming. But, we decided to go for it and booked a coach and cruise trip like the old ladies do. It was a really great way to see the place without having to worry about accidentally driving off the road!
It’s so difficult to describe the scale and beauty of the mountains at Milford Sounds. It’s all very bizarre how huge scale the world suddenly gets. I only realised the sheer scale and put it into perspective when I saw a cruise ship dwarfed by these monster cliff faces, or watched a plane or helicopter fly past as a spec on the mountainside. This was proper epic scenery!
The Aoraki MacKenzie Dark Sky Reserve, aka Lake Tekapo, is unanimously voted one of the best places in the world to stargaze. This was more of a treat for Michael to practise his night photography skills! I am as always, his willing assistant…
On the first night we headed to the Church of the Good Shepherd, quite an iconic spot for night photography. By day it is equally beautiful with gorgeous views over the lake. It turned out we’d had the same idea that night as the entire town of Lake Tekapo! It was HEAVING with people. Considering most people were there taking photos, it was incredible how many folk would obliviously walk into shot with head torches on.
Never mind that, the sky was INSANE. I’ve honestly never seen stars like this before, or ever seen the Milky Way so clearly. It was so beautiful and mesmerising.
The second night we decided to venture down to the lake in the hope it would be a little quieter. Thankfully we lucked out and were on our own, apart from the couple smoking weed…
Michael has had this ongoing issue with his camera (Nikon D750) not behaving properly. Basically, it doesn’t like the night sky! He gets a ‘lens flare’ which means the camera creates a great big red flare across the photo on any night photography. Very difficult to take a proper photo with this issue. Anyway, we decided to try and embrace this and took some daft photos! Looking forward to getting it fixed when we reach Australia!
Conclusion to NZ
For us, as travellers on a budget we found New Zealand a difficult place to explore. I am certain that if you lived in the country, you would find cheaper activities when you learn of all its hidden gems. But, as tourists we found ourselves herded down an expensive and excessively health and safety path which we weren’t bargaining on. It is sad, but it feels as though New Zealand is pushing out the backpackers in favour of your wealthier older tourists. Unfortunately, this just isn’t our scene and we craved some unhampered and unregulated freedom to enjoy the country.
Despite these criticisms we still had an awesome month here. New Zealand is such a beautiful and diverse country, there’s so much to see and explore outdoors as well as in the cities. The landscapes are colossal, think the Scottish Highlands on steroids and with tropical plants! Also, friendly doesn’t even begin to describe the people. There are a few spots we visited in New Zealand, which really made an impact on us and we will never forget. A great place to be a tourist on a two-week adventure!