You always have to be grateful for experiences and opportunities you get in life. But sometimes you have to be that extra thankful. Recently we had one such an opportunity, traveling to New Zealand to photograph a wedding in Queenstown, and we decided to make full use of this once-in-a-lifetime trip to explore the South Island. New Zealand is renowned for it’s sweeping landscapes, but little did I really know just how incredibly stunning and diverse it is.
When coming face-to-face with the beautiful vistas it is easy to understand why New Zealand is a sought-after location for feature films – think The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. With very little infrastructure to spoil the beauty, this is raw nature in all its splendour. Personally I did not realise how much of the South Island landscape has been carved out by glaciers, nor did I expect dense rain forests on the West Coast. I was also amazed on all the tours how in tune they are with Earth – not just nature – and the history and impact of the climate. You really feel worlds removed from the hustle and bustle of city life and the ratrace, going back your roots almost.
When we starting planning our trip, we quickly realised that you need much more time than just two weeks to really spend quality time and explore everything the country has to offer. And that is even after we ruled out visiting the North Island as we knew we would not have enough time. However we still crammed in as much as possible into our adventure, driving 2,500km in twelve days. As New Zealand is known for its campervan holidays, we also decided this is the best way to explore and be mobile. However, we figured that if we are going to do this, we are going to do it properly. So we rented a 1966 T1 splitscreen VW Camper, which we nicknamed “Norman”. Norman was incredibly fun to drive, although the lack of power steering provided a proper workout on some of the hairpin bends 🙂 Join us on our journey…
DAY 1: ARRIVING IN CHRISTCHURCH
After a very tiresome and longwinded journey from Greece (via London, Singapore and Sydney), we arrived in the afternoon in Christchurch. We picked up Norman straight away and headed over to our hotel to freshen up. Driving Norman through the city centre was a bit daunting as he is an old man full of quirks you have to get used to, but we survived. To be honest we did not really spend much time exploring the city as we were totally exhausted and knew we had an early start the next day. So we headed around the corner to the closest restaurant we could find and then hit the sack to get some rest for the adventure ahead.
DAY 2: WHALE WATCHING IN KAIKOURA & DRIVING TO PICTON
Up bright and early, we started making your way north up the East Coast towards Kaikoura for our first stop. The whale watching has been a highlight on the itinerary I have been looking forward to, and it delivered above and beyond my expectations! Kaikoura is one of only a few places where you can see Sperm Whales all year round, because of the enormous underwater canyon. With our experienced tour guides and whale spotters on the boat, we were fairly guaranteed to spot a whale but it seemed that Lady Luck was favouring us – not one, not two but FIVE Sperm Whale sightings! And to top it all off we found ourselves amongst a pod with hundreds of Dusky Dolphins playing around the boat in the water. Unbelievable!
Leaving Kaikoura on a high of note, we drove up towards Picton where we were staying for the next two nights. As we stopped along the way to stretch our legs and enjoy the scenery, we unexpectedly stumbled across a couple of seals! Having made themselves quite comfortable on the rocks, they were lazy and sleepy and not bothered by our presence at all, allowing us to get up close and personal. We arrived in Picton just in time for dinner and drinks overlooking the water, before calling it a day.
DAY 3: WINE TASTING IN MARLBOROUGH
Early morning we were greeted by a big warm smile from Tricia of Marlborough Wine Tours – ready to start our day sampling the best the region has to offer. Stopping at six different farms we of course tried the world famous Sauvignon Blancs, but also a host of other varieties being grown in the region including some very tasty Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer. We also stopped off for a delicious lunch amongst the vineyards at Giesens, and ended the day at a chocolate factory. We also drove past the US listening post, where Spy Valley Wines derive their name from. Unfortunately I can’t let you taste the lovely wines with this blog post, but I will let you enjoy the photos from the vineyards 🙂
DAY 4: NELSON LAKES NATIONAL PARK, LAKE ROTOROA, UNDERWATER RAFTING & PANCAKE ROCKS
We had quite a long distance to drive, but nevertheless we squeezed in as much as possible. Leaving Picton we headed for the Nelson Lakes National Park – the road constantly criss-crossing the turquoise blue rivers. First stop along the route was Lake Rotoroa – with hardly any people around it was extremely serene and the perfect place for stretching legs and a morning coffee.
From the lake we drove straight through to Charleston on the West Coast where we had a four hour excursion in the incredible cave systems. The highlight of this was drifting on a tube, on a river in pitch black darkness staring at glow worms as they lit up the cave ceiling. Sadly I don’t have any photos of this incredible experience as they only allow waterproof cameras – and although I am normally happy to take the risk I still had to photograph a wedding a few days later. But I would highly recommend the cave rafting experience – it is a very strange sensation as it feels like you are out in the open looking at the stars, yet you are inside a cave. Incredible.
Leaving Charleston in a hurry, we drove directly to Punakaiki in order to reach the Pancake Rocks and blowholes before sunset. What an amazing sight! It was not high tide during our visit, which meant the blowholes were not fully active – but we still got to see a lot of action. The main attraction for me though was the limestone rock formations stacked in layer upon layer. The extensive erosion really makes you appreciate the strength of nature.
DAY 5: TRUMAN TRACK, HOKITIKA GORGE, LAKE MAPOURAKI & LAKE MATHESON
Another early morning, although we were greeted with less than favourable weather conditions this time. Heavy fog and mist was hanging low, limited the visibility, and the threat of rain was strong in the air. Nevertheless we headed down to the Truman Track just around the corner from Punakaiki. The short 30min track takes you down to a beach with beautiful limestone rocks creating a cove around it. Through these rocks there is also a small but beautiful little waterfall pouring onto the beach – sadly the fog made it near to impossible to grab a nice photo of it though.
Making our way back to the van, we hit the road driving further down the West Coast with Hokitika Gorge as our next stop. Initially I was worried that the cloud cover will prevent us from seeing the milky blue-green waters that the gorge is known for, but I had nothing to worry about. This is such a beautiful little gem along the rugged coastline and well worth a visit. Had it been a warm sunny day I would have loved to have a swim – although I hear the water is rather cold!
From the gorge we continued on your way towards Fox Glacier, enjoying pitstops along the way where we saw something interesting. Near Franz Joseph is Lake Mapouraki where I was really looking forward to SUP, however the activity was canceled due to the weather conditions. So instead we stopped beside the lake for a late lunch, enjoying the reflective qualities of the water. After checking in to our campsite for the night we stopped by Lake Matheson. The lake is famous for the amazing reflections its dark waters produces, and in particular for the fact that on a clear day it reflects Mount Cook. Unfortunately the cloud cover prevented us from seeing this iconic view, but c’est la vie!
DAY 6: FOX GLACIER
I don’t have words to describe this experience – probably one of the most amazing things I have ever done! Up early we headed over to the offices of Fox Guides where our day would start, with the cloudy weather putting a big question mark over whether or not we will be able to spend a lot of time on the glacier. But nonetheless we took off via helicopter (the only way to access the glacier) and landed on the slippery winter ice. Geared with crampons, ropes and an experienced guide we set out for our day of hiking and ice climbing. And by some miracle the clouds all cleared away, leaving us with a sunny blue sky for the majority of the day. It was incredible to witness how the sun changed the winter ice conditions by melting the top layer to create a more softer snowy look – and how it formed rivers channeling through the ice.
DAY 7: HAAST PASS, THUNDERCREEK FALLS, FANTAIL FALLS & BLUE POOLS WALK
DAY 8: QUEENSTOWN
DAY 9: WEDDING DAY
DAY 10: MIILFORD SOUND
DAY 11: MILFORD SOUND FLIGHT, LAKE PUKAKI & LAKE TEKAPO
DAY 12: MOUNT COOK & THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPERD