After all the driving from the previous day, we only had to drive a couple of kilometres to our next campsite (Q Box Motorhome Park), which was closer to the centre of Queenstown. We walked into town and spent some time looking around the shops before heading to the well known and very popular Fergburger for lunch. Despite this being a relatively quiet season, the queue extended down the street past neighbouring shops, but the burgers were worth the wait!
Following lunch we headed up the hill to the foot of the Queenstown Skyline, and took the gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak, This has great views over Queenstown and also a luge track, which was great fun. We also spent some time in the botanical gardens.
We had dinner at the Atlas Beer Cafe, a tiny pub well known for its good food (as well as its local craft beers). Then we stopped at Little Blackwood, for a cocktail and some live music. We also met Jo here, a friend of Kate’s who has been living and working in Queenstown for the last six months. She showed us a few more drinking establishments (World Bar and Surreal Bar), though we did have to do a 40 minute round trip back to the campervan to get our passports, which is apparently the only ID allowed in Queenstown (even if you are 35!)
Despite our long drive the previous day, we still had another two hours of driving to reach Milford Sound. The route, however, was particularly beautiful, even by New Zealand’s high standards! We also had our first glimpse of snow, along with a lot of rain as expected in fjord land.
The best way to see Milford Sound is by boat, so we booked a cruise with Mitre Peak Cruises. We were lucky to visit during the quiet season. The cruises tend to be criticised for being too touristy, but we had only a handful of people on our boat. No doubt the rain also put a lot of people off, though apparently this is one of the best times to visit. Not only does the rain bring all of the waterfalls to life, it also makes the mountains seem more majestic. As well as the breathtaking scenery, we also saw plenty of seals and, very briefly, a couple of penguins.
We then reversed the route we had driven in the morning, passing back through Mossman and arriving in Queenstown by the evening. We stayed overnight in the Frankton Rotary car park, a free campsite just outside the town.
The next place on our list was Milford Sound. Although it is less than 200km south of Franz Josef, there is a mountain in the way (Mount Aspiring). This more than doubles our journey, meaning the whole day was spent driving! We briefly stopped in Wanaka and then near Cadrona for lunch. This also took us past Bradrona, a very large and peculiar display of bras in support of the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation.
We eventually stopped for the night at the Mossburn Country Park, just east of Te Anau, which is the gateway to Milford Sound.
We left the campervan park early and continued south into the glacier region, where there are two main glaciers in the area – Franz Josef and Fox. Both have receded significantly in recent times making access difficult without a helicopter.
We had booked the Ice Explorer tour with Franz Josef Glacier Guides, which included a helicopter transfer onto the glacier, followed by a two hour guided hike across the ice. Our group was fully kitted out with boots, crampons and waterproofs and then headed to the helipad for our flight where there was a constant stream of helicopters ferrying people to and from the ice.
Once we had landed we started our trek across the ice, which was an amazing experience. Our guide carefully checked the path each step of the way, redirecting streams and breaking away loose portions of ice. Even though the glacier has shrunk so much, it is still vast and contains a variety of interesting formations. Towards the end of our hike dark clouds started forming closely followed by rain that was set to continue for the next few days, so we were lucky to fit this in!
Back on unfrozen ground we had an opportunity to use the local hot pools, before finding a free campsite at Doherty Creek, just south of Franz Josef, to stay for the night.
We started our day with a short walk in the national park, up to a waterfall known as the Devil’s Punchbowl. Then it was back on the road again heading west.
Our first stop on the west coast was at Punakaki, made famous by its ‘pancake rocks’. These are rock formations that have been deposited in very distinct layers which look like a stack of pancakes. There are also some blow holes and generally nice coastline.
In the afternoon we continued south to Hokitika, a small coastal town. We parked up at the STOP Campervan Park and then walked through the town and along the beach to Sunset Point just in time for sunset! After a lovely dinner at Fat Pipi’s Pizza (which had been recommended to us) we walked slightly out of town to a glow worm dell. We did manage to see a lot of glow worms, but didn’t stay too long due to the large congregation of people fumbling through the woods with their torches.
We were up early for our 8:30 checkin at Encounter Kaikoura, a company specialising in wildlife tours. As well as hopefully spotting some Dusky Dolphin we hoped to actually swim with them in the wild. Although an encounter can never be guaranteed our guides certainly seemed confident, and the group was kitted out with wetsuits, fins and snorkel in preparation. The introductory video explained how to encourage the dolphins to play – from making dolphin-like noises to diving down under the water.
After a short bus ride we boarded our boat and headed out into the South Pacific Ocean. Within five minutes we had spotted a pod of Hector Dolphin and spent some time watching them swim around the boat. Unfortunately we couldn’t swim with them though as they are less open to human interaction than the Dusky. Encounter Kaikoura certainly go to great lengths to locate the pods; well before our trip started there were spotters up in the surrounding mountains using binoculars to scan the vast ocean. News soon came through that, unusually, none had been seen so far. Whilst we searched one area by boat, a plane was sent up to search the wider area. In the meantime we saw plenty of other wildlife – mainly seal and albatross, and a fight between the two over some food! However, after over an hour of searching there was no sign of the Dusky Dolphin. An announcement was made that 80% of our ticket cost would be refunded, and we started heading back to shore.
It can’t have been more than a minute later when a large pod of Dusky Dolphin appeared from nowhere right next to the boat. Just another minute later we’d all donned our fins, masks and snorkels and were joining them in the water! There were dolphins everywhere, probably over 50 total, and we spent the next 20 minutes or so trying to keep them as interested in us as much as we were in them! After a while, when the majority had moved on, we were recalled to the boat to catch up with them and have a second swim. Overall it was an amazing and unique experience.
Having completed our main objective for the east coast we left Kaikoura for Arthur’s Pass – a scenic route across to the west coast. We camped overnight at the Klondyke Corner campsite within the Arthur’s Pass national park.
In the morning we drove from Hamner Springs to Kaikoura, which is north of Christchurch on the east coast. Our main reason for visiting the town was to hopefully see some dolphins, but first we spent the afternoon looking around the shops and walking along the bay with the snow-capped mountains stretching into the distance.
We checked in to the Alpine-Pacific Holiday Park for the night, which gave us the chance to try yet another hot pool (this time just 10 metres from our campervan!).
Murchison is a small and relatively quiet town next to the Buller River. Our main reason for stopping here was to experience the Buller Gorge jet boat – after a lot of research it seems to be the best value, longest and possibly most scenic jet boat rides in New Zealand. A long swing bridge over the gorge took us to the launch site where a group of four of us boarded the boat. Our guide/captain described the boat as more of an F1 car on the water, and he wasn’t wrong! Reaching speeds of over 80kph within a few seconds we jetted up and down the river, with a few sharp turns and spins thrown in for good measure. At top speed the boat is able to travel in just four inches of water, so we also glided over some shallow rocks and rapids.
As we drove on towards the east coast, we stopped for a more leisurely evening in Hamner Springs. After checking in at the Alpine Holiday Apartments & Campground and cooking dinner we headed into town to the Spa Pools complex, where we spent a relaxing two hours trying out the various hot pools.
We had planned to spend the day exploring Golden Bay, an area of coastline just north of the Abel Tasman national park, starting with a drive along the full length of the bay from Takaka to Puponga. We then took a number of short walks along the northern coastline – to Wharariki Beach, Cape Farewell, Pillar Point and the start of Farewell Spit, a narrow piece of wetland stretching out 35km into the Tasman Sea. The whole area offers amazing views in pretty much every direction!
Having reached the most northerly point of the south island, we started our long journey south, stopping briefly in Takaka to stock up on food. After around three hours of driving we reached Murchison and camped overnight in the Maruia Falls car park.
We got up early this morning and drove the short distance to Kaiteri, where we had booked a boat trip with Abel Tasman Sea Shuttles into the national park. The park spans 51km of coastline and has a well marked walking route throughout though, other than at the start and end, the only access to the route is by boat. Unfortunately time would not allow us to walk the whole route but we chose one section of it starting at Medlands Beach, where the boat dropped us off after quite a rough ride!
The walk itself (about 12km) was very varied – from steep climbs through the forest to slightly wetter sections across sand that can only be crossed close to low tide. We stopped for a packed lunch and then took a slight detour inland to Cleopatra’s Pool, a waterfall and rock pool with a natural water slide. The boat picked us up from Anchorage beach mid-afternoon and took us back to Kaiteri.
We drove a bit further north to Takaka and then stopped for dinner, camping overnight at the Waitapu River Bridge campsite.
We decided to spend a day in Nelson, apparently one of the most ‘liveable’ cities in New Zealand. We started by walking along the river and then up a very steep hill to the central point of New Zealand, coincidently exactly halfway through our time here! On the way back down we walked past the site of the very first rugby game in New Zealand.
We had a nice lunch at Columbus Coffee in Morrison Square and spent some time looking around the market and local shops. We also visited Christ Church Cathedral before getting back on the road and heading northwest towards the Abel Tasman national park, where we plan to spend our next day. We camped overnight at the Abel Tasman Marahau Beach Camp just south of the national park.