New Zealand South Island Road Trip Pt.1

For years pictures of New Zealand’s South Island have had us yearning to hike it’s mountains, swim in it’s serene lakes, drive it’s winding roads and paddle through it’s jaw-dropping fjords. Our visit to New Zealand would not have been complete without a trip to this outdoor mecca.

Unfortunately the wild scenery we love is often accompanied by wild weather. The unpredictable, stormy weather and difficulty accessing the islands mountains and interior from the boat meant leaving Florence in the yard for a road trip around South Island.

The ferry trip from Wellington on the southern tip of North Island to Picton on South Island reinforced the reasons we were not sailing to South Island on Florence. 50 knots of wind in the Cook Strait made it difficult to stand up on the deck of the ferry let alone sail across in a small boat!

The wild weather continued when we arrived as the tail end of a tropical cyclone lashed the north and west coasts. The strong winds combined with a spring tide caused coastal flooding in Nelson, the Able Tasman national park and the closure of the west coast road. As we huddled in the van, cooking a warming soup and peering out of the rain lashed window we were reminded of our van trip to an equally wet and windy Scotland a few years ago.

As the morning forecast promised a short break in the wind and rain we set out hiking a section of the Queen Charlotte track which follows a peninsular in the Marlborough Sounds. The brief sunshine and stunning views gave us a small glimpse into some of the sights we would experience over the next month. It quickly became clear our vocabulary was not strong enough to give do the scenery justice and we would soon get bored of hearing ourselves say “wow”.

Marlborough Sounds from the Queen Charlotte Track

With the aftermath from the storm still causing chaos in Able Tasman and Nelson, we headed inland to Nelson Lakes. We were up early to hike mount Robert with spectacular views over the lake and surrounding hills. Afterwards we took a refreshing dip in the lake to cool off and clean up. The cheap/free campsites do not have showers but there is always a lake or river nearby. There is just no promise it will be warm.

Climbing Mount Robert
Mount Robert
Nelson Lakes

By now the West Coast road was open again but we could see some of the damage that had been caused with parts of the road collapsed and huge amounts of debris washed up.

This part of the west coast is famous for two things, Rain and Sand Flies. We were given a good dose of both and spent a couple of days playing cards in the van, and hopping out to see the sights when the weather permitted. We were glad we had purchased an extra umbrella at the start of the trip!

Sheltering in a sea cave
The West Coast
Making the most of a break in the weather and sandflies

Our trip up mount Robert had made us think carefully about what we wanted to see in South Island. We realised that after 18 months of sailing along various coastlines of the world we were hungry for something different. That something could be provided in spades by the peaks, waterfalls and glaciers of the southern Alps, that run like a spine down the South Island. So we made a left turn into Arthurs pass and the heart of the mountains.

Kea Mountain Parrot

The weather followed us and we spent a day sheltering from the horizontal torrential rain in a campsite cooking shelter. Whilst in the shelter we were invited to play cards with two Israeli guys, who were spending some time travelling after completing their compulsory military service. We are constantly learning about the world through the people we meet on our journey, who each give us an a small insight into countries far beyond just those that we visit.

Finally the weather let up and enabled us to climb Avalanche Peak, the highest track in Arthurs Pass. A hike well worth the wait.

Avalanche Peak
Avalanche Peak

As we huddled around the warmth of a fire in the campsite’s shelter that evening we heard of a cave you can scramble through, following the route of a stream for 0.5 km before you can exit through another entrance. The fact that this is available to the public, for free without stringent health and safety or the enforced use of a guide speaks volumes about New Zealand’s open and relaxed approach to the outdoor activities.

Having pulled on our wetsuits and tied our torches around our necks, all to strange looks from onlookers in the very sunny, very landlocked car park, we set off down the valley and into the stream at the entrance to the cave. Florence’s emergency search light bounced of the limestone cave walls creating an almost daylight glow as we waded through the icy stream.

Continuing on through the mountains to the Mt Cook National Park took us back to our school geography lessons as we worked to understand how such dramatic scenery had come to be there. With glaciers, U-shaped valleys, cloudy grey rock flour filled rivers and bright blue lakes surrounding us, it felt like we were walking through a 3D geography text book, only real and a million times more breathtaking.

Lake Tekapo
Lake Pukaki, the water really is that blue!
A very refreshing dip in Lake Pukaki

The Mount Cook National Park gave us some of the most beautiful scenery from our time in South Island. The New Zealand Department Of Conservation have done a fantastic job of making this area accessible to all, especially the Hooker Valley trail. A big car park which also doubles as the campsite, at the start of a carefully graded trail with bridges, boardwalks and steps makes it easy walking. However since it is accessible to all, ‘all’ seem to be there. Along with fellow campers and camper-vaners, coachload after coachload of tourists piled into the already busy car park, before setting off along the confined pathway through the huge valley. A feeling of claustrophobia started to overcome us, a strange feeling in such a wide open space. To get these pictures without the crowds required a lot of patience and some sprinting. Boat life has spoiled us, it has brought us to expect being able to visit beautiful places, without the usual crowds that come with them.

The Hooker Valley Track
Mount Cook National Park
Glacier lake at the end of the the Hooker Valley Track
The Hooker Valley Track
Mount Cook National Park

Our South Island road trip to be continued in part 2….


2 thoughts on “New Zealand South Island Road Trip Pt.1”

  1. Hi guys!
    Thank you so much for taking us “armchair travelers” on your amazing journey!
    We appreciate the stunning photos and interesting commentary.
    I hope you will be visiting Milford Sound?
    Take care, and may you continue to enjoy blue skies, fair winds and good health!

    Kind regards,

    South Africa


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