(This is part II of my New Zealand road trip entry. It covers the South Island of this picturesque country. For my north Island adventures, please see here)After the end of our sojourn on the North Island, we departed from windy Welli (Wellington is very Windy, hence the name!) via the Interislander – Kaitaki ferry, with our rental car on board. We had heard a lot about South Island and were looking forward to the second leg of our trip. The plan was to explore the West Coast and head back home from Christchurch.
Picton – Greymouth
The three and a half hour Interislander ferry ride takes one through Marlborough Sounds. The Marlborough Sounds are an extensive network of sea-drowned valleys at the north end of the South Island. The long sheltered inlets, clear waters and sandy bays give amazing vistas from the Ferry.
The Interislander ferry dropped us at its ending point, Picton around noon. We had a long ride ahead. Our plan was to reach Greymouth (a good 375 kms away on the West Coast!) the same day with some stops on the way. First stop was Blenheim (nothing much to see here), had lunch at the Dolce Cafe (good Pizzas), got the fuel tank filled and were off to our next stop, the scenic Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes National Park along National highway 63. The calmness of the water, surrounded by serene mountains, makes it a little secluded and hence, a good spot for relaxing your mind and soul. Caught a few folks testing their new boat in the lake.
Mid-way, between Westport and Greymouth, are the amazing Pancake rocks and Blow holes at Punakaiki, Paparoa National Park. The walk to the Pancake rocks and the Blow holes is around 20 mins walk from the parking on the main highway. The curious Lime stone formations were formed 30 million years ago from minute fragments of dead marine creatures and plants landed on the seabed about 2 km below the surface. Immense water pressure caused the fragments to solidify in hard and soft layers. Gradually, seismic action lifted the limestone above the seabed. Mildly acidic rain, wind and seawater sculpted the bizarre shapes. The place has a surreal feel to it, especially during sunset. We really enjoyed our time here with light rain and the sun setting in the background. It was poetic.
With this, we called it a day and were off to our stay in Taylorville-Greymouth.
Greymouth – Franz Josef
Next day, the plan was to get to Franz Josef glacier and do some trekking to the foot of the glacier. After having delicious Egg Benedict and Cappuccino at Freddy’s cafe in Greymouth, we left for Franz Josef glacier. While on the way to the glacier we took a small (80 km :)) detour to Arthur’s Pass (a mountain pass with a small township and a National Park). Mountain Pass is a route through a mountain range or over a ridge. Since many mountain ranges have presented formidable barriers to travel, passes have become important for trade, migration and cooperation. Arthur’s pass is a treat for your eyes especially, if you have ever wondered how civil engineering marvels look. The impressive Otira viaduct, 440 meter long, is built over a stretch of unstable land, replacing a narrow, winding, dangerous section of the road that was prone to avalanches, slips and closures.
While at the Viaduct lookout, we also encountered Kea – a native Kiwi land bird. They are rated as one of the most intelligent birds in the world. To survive in the harsh alpine environment, Kea have become inquisitive and nomadic social birds which can get very close to humans. These beautifully coloured alpine parrot species are facing a serious risk of extinction. Efforts are being made to protect them.
Next stop was – sunset point, Hokitita. It was cloudy and we made a small pit stop here. Then followed Lake Ianthe, another quick stop and we were on the way to Okarito lagoon. The lagoon is some 12 km off the main Franz Josef Highway. Was a very quiet place with a small boat/information house. We walked around the area for a while and then were off to Franz Josef town.
Franz Josef Glacier – Wanaka
Next day was our short 45 min trek to the base of Franz Josef Glacier. Seeing gigantic rivers at home (Yamuna, Ganga to name a couple), I had always fascinated over the origin of these brimming water bodies. These beautiful rivers provide life to millions and have so much history (and mythology) associated with them. Just the thought of standing close to the base of a glacier and watching a river originate, brought chills to my body. And here I was, watching the humongous glacier up close which made me realise how small an entity I am. It was an other worldly sight for me.
A short drive from Franz Josef town was Lake Matheson. The lake is famous for its reflected views of snow capped Mount Cook and Mount Tasman in its dark waters. But we were not in luck to see this pretty sight. It was cloudy and all we could see in the lake was clouds :). We did spend some time in the area, walking around and enjoying lunch at the Matheson cafe, overlooking Mount Cook and Mount Tasman.
And then, we were off to Wanaka. We went past Fox Galcier view point and made a quick stop at Lake Paringa. Caught a couple of old gentlemen relaxing by the lake with their radio. This sight of old gentlemen sitting on a bench, by a quite lake with their vintage radio, suddenly takes you back to a simpler time.
After lake Paringa, we stopped by Knight’s Point on the West Coast Highway, a scenic view point overlooking the rugged bay. Next stop was Fantail falls, a small hidden gem. The area surrounding the waterfall had a lot of man-made small towers made of rocks and stones. The rock bed full of these small towers looked magical, we also made a small tower of ours. This also reminded us of an indigenous (Indian) game called Pittu Garam, which we used to play when we very young.
The final pit stop on the way to our Wanaka residence was Lake Hawea, a beautiful spot indeed! Being in the midst of these mountains makes you feel like you are in a painting.
Next day we drove to the foot of Mount Aspiring. The drive into the reserve was very scenic, with a river flowing on one side of the road and beautiful mountains all around with Sheep and Cows sprinkled here and there. Each and every moment of your drive would feel like looking through a postcard. We drove on a two way gravel road for close to 45 minutes to the foot of Mount Aspiring. From the parking area, one can take a 4 hour trek to the base of Rob Roy Glacier but we skipped the hike, roamed around a bit and took the same route back.
We halted at Rippon Vineyard and Winery briefly on our way to the Wanaka Lake. We caught some amazing vistas from the vineyard and then spent a couple hours at the lake, enjoying a coffee, having lunch and playing with birds. The effervescence associated with Lake Wanaka makes it different from the other Lakes we have seen in this island. We ended the day overlooking the town Wanaka from the Monument Lookout.
After a good two days in Wanaka, we took off for Queenstown. On the way, we stopped at a little quaint Arrowtown. The town is about 30 minutes before Queenstown and is a must see (we ended up coming here twice). The town gives you such a relaxed feeling as if there is no place else that you want to be than Arrowtown at the present moment. We walked around and enjoyed ice-cream at Patagonia and decided to stop by again, time permitting.
Though New Zealand is beautiful in entirety, we were definitely realising that it was getting prettier as we were moving South. Next stop, beautiful (Beautiful would be an understatement!) Lake Hayes. We walked around the lake for a while and headed to our Airbnb booked Queenstown home.
After breaking some ice with our Kiwi hosts with the help of cricket (well, it was an India Vs Australia, Cricket World Cup 2015 semi-final and New Zealand was already through to the finals after a remarkable victory in the semi-finals over South Africa), we headed to the Queenstown city centre in the evening. We had heard a lot about Queenstown and were really looking forward to the next couple of days here. We spent sometime at the beautiful city centre alongside Lake Wakatipu, came back to watch the final leg of the match with our hosts, which India eventually lost to Australia. Our Kiwi hosts looked more disappointed with the loss, as New Zealand will have to now face Australia in the finals in Australia.
Next day, we were booked for a tour of Walter Peak farm via TSS Earnslaw, the 1912 vintage coal steamer that still operates on the waters of Lake Wakatipu. It was a short 45 minutes ride to the farm and when on the farm, we got to go around, watch the sheep shearing process and a demonstration of how farm dogs round up sheep so they down go off-path. It was a unique experience and we really enjoyed the BBQ lunch there.
The Middle Earth
After our TSS Earnslaw ride we were off to the North Western tip of Lake Wakatipu – Glenorchy (a lot of the scenes of The Lord of the Rings were shot here). The ride to Glenorchy runs alongside Lake Wakatipu and provides great views of the lake and the mountains alongside. The small town of Glenorchy has a host of amazing walking tracks starting here (Routeburn the best amongst them). We spent a couple of hours in the area, drove upto a Paradise, had a coffee at Glenorchy cafe.
Next day, we were off to Milford Sound, a fjord on the West Coast of New Zealand and the only one accessible by road. Geologically, a fjord or fiord is a long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created by glacial erosion.
Milford Sound is approx 300 km away from Queenstown and we were booked with Jucy Rentals. They picked us up very close to where we were staying. The journey takes around 3 hours and we made a couple of pit stops on the way.
We had heard a lot about Milford Sound but were a bit underwhelmed, may be it was the weather on the day or may be the beauty is really when you trek around Milford Sound. The world renowned Milford trek is a 4 day 53.5 km journey, book well in advance, only a handful of people are allowed on the track at any given day of the year.
We had a lazy start to the next day and decided to just get wrapped up in the touristy fervor of the city. We roamed around the wharf in the city and grabbed burgers for lunch at the world famous and must do Fergburger. Every Kiwi that we had met in Queenstown had recommended Fergburger – a local Burger shop (no chain). We enjoyed our burgers lakeside.
We decided to spend the afternoon at Bob’s Peak and took the Skyline Gondoda (cable car) up. Bob’s peak gives amazing views of the Queenstown city and Lake Wakatipu. We enjoyed the Luge ride and spent some time walking around the peak sipping coffee. The evening was spent watching the Cricket World Cup finals at The Pub on the Warf, a lot of Kiwi’s had gathered to watch and cheer New Zealand take on their arch rivals from across the Tasman. But in the end, it was Australia who won quite comprehensively, it was disappointing to see both India and New Zealand lose to Australia. Our Kiwi hosts were also very disappointed.
Queenstown – Mount Cook
With just two days left in our trip, we left Queenstown and headed to the base of Mount Cook via the Lindis Pass. Midway, we made a couple of quick stops at Lake Hayes and Arrowtown. I had mentioned earlier in the blog, we loved these places and had some time today, so we decided to drop by again.
Next brief stops were Cromwell and Lindis Pass. Clicked a few shots and were off to Mount Cook National Park.
After checking into YHA hostel at Mount Cook, we were off to a short trek through the Tasman Valley to the Tasman Glacier’s moraine wall and lake. Over the years, the Tasman Glacier has receded, leading to the formation of a lake at end of its moraine wall. You can easily spot broken pieces of icebergs floating in the lake (these can go very deep in the lake).
Mount Cook – Lake Tekapo
Mount Cook is the highest peak of New Zealand and we took the Hooker Valley track to the Hooker Lake, where there were amazing views of Aoraki/Mount Cook, Hooker Glacier and the Southern Alps . The track runs along the Hooker river and offers amazing scenery on the way.
After the four hour trek, we were off to Tekapo – a small township along Lake Tekapo. We were right in time to see the sun go down from the lake shores. Along the lake is probably the most scenic church in the world – Church of the Good Shepherd. A shot from the evening:
Lake Tekapo is renowned for its incredibly clear starry nights and resides inside the International Dark Sky Reserve. We had dinner and were back at the Church of the Good Shepherd to graze stars. A perfect end to a beautiful holiday. With this, our vacation was coming to an end.
In the past 21 days, we had travelled 4000 kms (slightly more than covering the entire length of India!), visited and captured some of the best sceneries in the world, watched Cricket World Cup live, visited friends, dined at the oldest winery of New Zealand, stayed with some amazing people, saw rivers originate and trekked some amazing valleys. The nature presented itself to us in many ways and we are grateful to have spent so much time visiting the breathtaking New Zealand. We were taking back memories with us which would last a lifetime! haere rā (Good bye in Maori)!