I’ve been referring to this trip as our “Epic Adventure,” and it’s lived up to that name. Almost a full month of travel between two spectacular countries has kept us busy and happy.
It was difficult to find much time to write a blog post on the trip. Every night, I kept to my tradition of writing in a travel journal, and while some entries were longer than others, I never failed to record our day’s adventure. Other times, I was too busy backing up photos or enjoying a sunset to sit and put all my thoughts in order for a post.
Our trip was divided into three sub-adventures. The south island of New Zealand, Australia, and the north island of New Zealand. The first part of the trip, in which we drove a camper van around the southern island, was by far my favorite. It was a little strange that our adventure peaked within the first ten days; Australia really never stood a chance in comparison to the south island.
We had a self contained camper van, which meant that we could free camp almost any where. We usually got a powered site every three days so that we could charge camera batteries and have a shower. We loaded up with as many groceries as could fit into our tiny pantry and refrigerator, and I cooked a majority of our meals on the small gas range. Every morning we had to fold up the bed, just to put it back together at night. It was a cozy little vehicle, the perfect blend of adventure and comfort, and I enjoyed how simple life was with just the basics.
Our itinerary was fairly fluid; it gave us a destination for each evening, but time for unplanned stops along the way. To decide what we wanted to see, we took a map of the south island and both marked our must see spots. Mine were mostly where I would have the best chance to see wildlife, but also included hiking and kayaking. Jared’s spots were chosen based on what photos he wanted to take during sunset or sunrise. Our chosen destinations matched up fairly well, and our route basically circumnavigated the island. We began and ended our journey in Christchurch, but otherwise spent very little time in cities. New Zealand’s south island has 10 national parks, and we visited 7 of them. That’s how we spent our time on the south island- ten days scouting picture sites, making spontaneous stops, and being in awe at the scenery around every bend.
Our favorite national park was Fiordlands on the southwest coast. Though we only visited the Milford Sound area, we were awestruck by the grandness of the place. I never thought I’d see vistas that could top the Himalayan peaks we hiked through this spring, but Fiordlands quickly became one of my favorite places on Earth. It’s often stated that there’s a reason Fiordlands is so green- it rains. A lot. It rained most of the time that we were in the park, but rather than dampen our spirits, the rain made us even more mesmerized by the hundreds of waterfalls that spilled off the cliffs and the mist that shrouded the clifftops. I was able to stand in one spot and count 26 falls just in front of me, not to mention the ones behind and scattered through the park. Fiords are created by glacier water that is making it’s way to the sea. We went on the customary cruise through Milford Sound out to the Tasman Sea. It was early morning and lightly raining, which made mist rise from falls around us. The photos don’t do the experience justice, and it was my favorite activity in Fiordlands, and not just because we saw a seal colony hanging out on the rocks. We took pictures at every sunrise and sunset* while we were there, and I loved one sunset that turned everything pink for the smallest sliver of time. In Fiordlands National Park, we also went on a hike to see a glacier lake. However, we hiked ourselves right into a cloud and could only catch glimpses of the lake through the haze. It was an nice hike with a gentle slope, and a good reminder that you can still enjoy an experience without the perfect photograph at the end.
* We were in for a few long days while we were exploring the southernmost tip of the south island. Jared wanted to get both sunrise and sunset pictures (and I wanted to experience it as well), but we were really far south. Really, really far south (46º latitude); more than we have ever been before. This means that sunset wasn’t happening until 9:27 pm, while sunrise was before 5:30 am. That might not be to bad until you think about how the light is still amazing until around an hour after sunset, and you need to drive to and be set up for pictures around an hour before sunrise. There were a few nights where we ate dinner at 10:30 and were setting our alarms for 4:30 the next morning.
Another favorite spot was at the northern tip of the island. We spent half a day kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park. In our kayak, we circled a rock island that was packed with seals. At this point in the trip, this was the closest I had been to them. I loved it! We could see younger seals, super fat seals, swimming seals, and seals with itches they just couldn’t scratch enough. We also saw the only two penguins on the trip swimming in the ocean! We have kayaked a fair amount during our travels, but usually in mangrove forests, rivers, or calm bays. Here we were in sea kayaks, complete with skirts, and the wind and waves made the trip a little more adventurous than I originally anticipated.
That evening we stayed at a campground on the northern edge of the island (near Farewell Spit) and hiked to the beach. Our hike included everything that I came to associate with New Zealand- sheep on green hills, wind, and solitude. We had the entire beach to ourselves (except for two wild boars that made us a little nervous on the way back to camp). We explored small caves that disappear during high tide, took pictures of the Archway Islands, and had the best sunset of the trip.
Making our way down the east coast, we free camped at a place called Paparoa Point. The gravel pull off is separated from the sea with large boulders that are home to a seal colony. At least two dozens seals surrounded us as we camped that night. We climbed the rocks to watch them play in the ocean and sleep on the shore. We had several who were sleeping a couple of yards from our campervan. We were able to watch them as we ate dinner, and I was happy to see that they were still there during breakfast the next morning. I never got tired of spotting a new one or watching them wiggle around. After observing them so much, I can understand how they have been compared to dogs. Lazy dogs. They all seemed to be plagued by incessant itchy spots. I think that is why the like the sharp rocks; it the only thing that can get through all that fat and grant some relief. I would watch one wiggle for five minutes and then he would just sigh and flop over. I was really tempted to go help out and give some belly rubs!
During the first two weeks of December, New Zealand’s lupins are in full bloom. We saw them along rivers and in valleys, but my favorite spot was just a field just off the road. It was our first day in the van, and we decided to stop when we saw the blooms. A Kiwi couple were there also, so I didn’t feel as bad about ducking under the electric fence and trespassing onto someone’s farm. This was the greatest collection of lupins that we saw the entire trip. Every color was represented, and the field was packed with color and the sweet scent.
Though we mostly went on small hikes or to overlooks, we did have a few excursions that we paid for. The cruise in Milford Sound, kayaking in Abel Tasman, Jared flying in a biplane, but my favorite activity was our whale watching cruise in Kaikoura. The company promotes that you have an 95% of seeing one whale, and if you don’t then you are refunded 80% of your purchase. I really, really, really wanted to see a whale. We set out on our tour, and I tried to not get my hopes up too high. We were searching for male Giant Sperm Whales who live in the cold water just off the continental shelf. Once the tour started we stopped a few times for tracking. This meant the tourists scanned the water for water spouts, and the Captain used a fancy sonar phone to listen for the whales’ call. The whales only stay on top of the water for about five minutes before diving down 1,000 meters for around an hour. I hoped that I could see one for just a moment before it disappeared again. I was delighted when a radio call came in from a research boat that there was a whale in the vicinity. Our boat went to the site, and there it was! A whale! It was actually slightly strange to look at the whale in the water. Every once in a while it would shoot up a spray of water, but otherwise, it just looked like a large floating log. Then, he flipped his tail into the air and dove into the depths! It was impressive, and I felt so blessed to have seen this part of nature. A few minutes later, we spotted another whale. Apparently, he had breached (jumped into the air) but we missed it because another passenger clearly did not have his sea legs under control. This whale did a little tail slap in the moment before he dove. Then! We could see another whale spraying water in the distance, and a closer one had just come to the surface. At this point, the cruise staff was just as excited and had their phones out for pictures. It was extremely unusual to see four whales in under two hours, plus our whales were doing some types of fancy moves that I couldn’t properly see or understand. We had to leave our fourth whale after a long wait. We thought he would dive down, but instead… he fell asleep.
We spent only one afternoon in Christchurch. It is still reeling from the 2011 earthquake. We visited the Re:Start Mall, where stores have sprung up in containers and rubble and construction are everywhere. We saw the old church, still in ruins. Our hotel manager told us that the historical society wants to rebuild it as it was, and the church members want a new building. Thus, for five years nothing has happened.
Other stops included Lake Tekapo, which has perfect turquoise water (see the featured image for this post). We saw the Fox Glacier, which has receded significantly in the past few years. We had never seen a glacier before, but this just looked like muddy snow, and we got drenched from the rain. One evening we stayed near the Nugget Point lighthouse. Jared took both sunrise and sunset pictures there, but I watched the coast and listened to the seals crying to each other. We saw the Moerkai boulders, which are odd, perfect spherical rocks in the ocean. We experienced some of the strongest wind I have ever been in; I watched seagulls get flipped around by the gusts and spent 15 minutes trying to unknot my hair. We saw a tree growing in the middle of a lake, hiked to multiple waterfalls, and had lunch at a winery. We saw thousands of sheep. We pulled off the road dozens of times to take pictures of the vistas before us. We defended the camper van from the world’s only alpine parrot. We experienced culture shock at being in a western nation, and felt at home to hear English. We had ten days and regretted that we didn’t have more. We were mesmerized by this country, and had one of the most relaxing, enjoyable vacations ever.
Next post: Australia!