South Island, New Zealand – WOW! One million lovely, friendly “kiwis” (New Zealanders) and over 16 million sheep inhabit this part of the country. We began our visit in the East Coast city of Christchurch, staying just long enough to get a good nights’ sleep and pick up our “campervan” (RV in American terms) and minivan before heading out for a 10-day road trip. Many people travel around New Zealand by car or camper, taking advantage of the breathtaking landscapes, outdoor adventure opportunities, adrenaline buzz options, and fabulous food and accommodation for travelers of all kinds throughout the country. The roads are akin to country lanes by U.S. standards, often winding over mountain passes or crossing glacial rivers. We passed stunning blue lakes, snow-capped peaks, endless stretches of farmland, and of course, thousands of sheep and cows along our journey.
Ron (Pepe) was our stalwart campervan driver, and Jeff led the way in the support vehicle (minivan), both men navigating the left lane driving and temperamental weather with grace. Schuyler often sat beside Pepe as co-pilot of the camper, and Blair was Jeff’s left hand gal (that is, sitting to his left as the drivers sit on the right in NZ), and the two cars communicated by walkie talkie. We all had trucker names: Ron was “Tough Tiger,” Schuyler was “Kooky Koala,” Blair was “Blondie,” Thayer was “Red Robin,” Zoe was “Zippy Zebra,” Meme was “Lady Di,” and Jeff was “Jazzy Jeff.” We soon became adept at communication terms like “roger that,” “10-4,” and “over and out.”
At night we stayed in NZ’s Top 10 Holiday Parks, a chain of fabulous campgrounds with varying degrees of accommodation (cabins, RV hook ups, tent sites etc.), kitchen and bathroom facilities, and playgrounds. Plentiful in both the North and South Islands, we became very familiar with Top 10s this month, and we were never disappointed when we pulled into a new town.
Here’s a little photo gallery of life on the road:
SOUTH ISLAND LOOP: Christchurch – Greymouth – Franz Josef – Haast – Wanaka – Queenstown – Timaru – Christchurch
There are so many different circuits around the South Island to choose from when road tripping, but with only 10 days to work with we stuck to the middle part of the island. While this meant missing out on world-famous Milford Sound (Middle Earth country) in the south, and the beautiful Marlborough region up north, it still allowed us to enjoy incredible geographical diversity along with some of the more child-friendly activities. Driving distances were manageable and we often spent more than one night in a particular town so that we weren’t on the road every single day. After our failed road trip attempt along Australia’s Great Ocean Road, we made every effort to keep our driving days relaxed and doable. This time, success!
Beginning in Christchurch on the East Coast, it took us about 3.5 hours of driving before we were already on the West Coast and settling into our first stop, Greymouth. The Top 10 park was right along the beach, and we had a great evening with a campfire along the rocky shores of the Tasman Sea.
Greymouth cropped up in the mid-1800s as a gold mining town and remains the West Coast’s largest city with 13,500 inhabitants. No, we did not forget a zero in that figure. The town has sort of a wild west feel to it, in part because its most popular attraction is a re-creation of an 1860’s gold mining town called Shantytown. With a steam train, saloon, hospital, jail, various shops, and do-it-yourself gold mining, you can imagine that we spent the good part of a day exploring. We were reminded of the living museum we enjoyed so much outside of Amsterdam, where we learned about life in a mid-1800’s Dutch fishing village. Only this was the rough and tumble world of outlaws and gold diggers, complete with gory tales of saloon brawls, saw mill injuries, and miners who mysteriously disappeared in the wilderness.
THAYER: The gold mining was so much fun. I got a lot of gold which they put in a teeny little bottle with water in it. I am still carrying it in my backpack. I had fun riding the steam train and playing on the playground too.
It’s safe to say that we all came away from our time in Shantytown with a much deeper understanding of the gold rush in New Zealand, and what life must have been like for those European and Chinese immigrants who came to try and make their fortunes. It’s also safe to say that none of us would have wished that lifestyle upon our worst enemies!
From Greymouth we headed south to the town of Franz Josef, where the incredible Franz Josef Glacier looms between the peaks of the snow-capped Southern Alps. On the way, we stopped briefly in the small town of Hokitika, known for it’s jade and skilled jade carvers. The Maori people, indigenous to New Zealand for over 500 years, believe strongly in the unique and powerful attributes of jade and have a strong history of carving. In Hokitika, we we able to watch some carvers at work and learn about the various symbols traditionally carved by the Maori. We picked up some special souvenirs as well!
So onward from here to Franz Josef. We pulled into this adorable little town, and Blair was amazed to see how much had changed here since her travels to the same area in 1998 – the town more bustling, the glacier far receded up the mountain! We enjoyed some local thermal pools that evening, and had a good sleep before our glacier visit the next morning.
The entire West Coast had been battling over a week straight of rain when we landed in Franz Josef, but thankfully on the morning of our visit to the glacier the clouds parted and we had a glorious hike to the closest safe viewing point.
Along the hike to the glacier, we stopped to explore the amazing waterfalls and rock formations. It was hard to tear the girls away from the streams and pools of crystal waters to keep walking!
SCHUYLER: Our hike to the glacier was amazing! There were beautiful water falls plummeting down into clear pools and small streams. Zoe, Thayer and I had so much fun feeling the soft sand and looking at all of the different rocks. The sand felt like silk and it had golden flecks in it, with a metallic gold hue that was very eye-catching. The pebbles on the river bed also had gold flecks in them and a metallic silver look to them. It was all very magical and seemed like something you would have a dream about. Most of all, I loved seeing a glacier in real life!
In the town of Franz Josef, we also explored the West Coast Wildlife Center which houses both a fantastic geological history of the area and a breeding facility for the rarest type of Kiwi bird in the world. The Kiwi species, native to New Zealand for 70 million years, is near extinction now and it’s almost impossible to see one in the wild. We got to see two hopping around their mock-nocturnal habitats at this center which was very exciting.
ZOE: At the wildlife center we also learned that Franz Josef glacier and the town below it get more rain per year than another place in the world! We suddenly felt really lucky to have seen it with blue skies. There were also some really cool exhibits about how glaciers are formed and about this history of this particular one.
The last item worth noting about our time in Franz Josef is that we serendipitously ran into a couple from Manchester, NH, friends of Ron and Diane, who are traveling around the world for a year with their backpacks. We knew that Susan and Gary were “somewhere in New Zealand,” but we somehow ended up having morning coffee at a cafe in town just as they pulled into the parking spot directly in front of our outdoor table. They had been waiting for 2 weeks to come to Franz Josef due to the terribly rainy weather, and we happened to pick the same exact day on which to explore the glacier. It was a wonderful reunion with friends from home and fellow travelers, and we shared news and travel stories and tips for over an hour together at the cafe. We were reminded that the universe works in the most wonderful ways!
From Franz Josef, we set our course toward Wanaka, an awesome lake-side town with boating the summer, skiing in the winter, and a very laid back, delightful vibe. To get there, we needed to cross Haast Pass, a winding mountain ascent and decent that is the only road in and out of Wanaka from the north. The town of Haast is a little speck on the map, but suddenly has quite a tourist population in the summer because the Haast Pass now closes at 6pm each evening and opens up at 7am in the morning due to rock slides that unfortunately caused the deaths of some tourists last fall. Although there were apparently signs in Franz Josef warning us of this change, we seemed to miss them, because we found ourselves stranded in Haast at dinner time. Thankfully, a well-situated Top 10 park had one spot left for us and we hunkered down for the night.
When we awoke and got on the road the next morning, we realized how lucky we were not to have driven the Haast Pass at night. For one, it was tortuous and much longer than we anticipated. Secondly, the views along the way were absolutely stunning, and we would have missed those the night before. Additionally, Blair chatted with a Swiss traveler while they shared a stovetop at dinner time in Haast who was hitch hiking around the South Island, and we picked him up the next day when we saw him thumbing alongside the road (much to the girls’ initial horror and ultimate delight!) After hitching around the S. Island herself in her 20’s and meeting some incredible people that way, Blair felt it was her duty to send that karma back around by giving Matt a ride. Plus, we all learned a lot about Switzerland along the drive!
Ok, this blog post is getting too long….must break here. Next post, Wanaka, Queenstown (any guesses on who did the bungy jumping?) and the completion of our South Island circuit – bye for now!