New Zealand's South Island: Adventures in Pure Paradise

New Zealand's South Island: Adventures in Pure Paradise

by Lauryn Axelrod, GoNOMAD Founder

Meeting a seal on New Zealand's South Island. photo: Lauryn Axelrod
Meeting a seal on New Zealand's South Island. photo: Lauryn Axelrod

If the North Island journey was focused on culture, geology and beaches, the South Island would be our outdoor adventure playground. Josh and I would spend the next two months working our way from top to bottom, hiking, kayaking, ice climbing, wildlife watching, and exploring all the diversity NZ's South Island has to offer.

Queen Charlotte Tramping

While we had taken several day hikes in the North Island, Josh and I were itching to do a few overnight tramps (hikes) in the south. Fortunately, one of the best and most kid-friendly hikes begins where the Cook Strait ferry from Wellington drops you off in Picton.

The Queen Charlotte Track is a relatively easy three-four day tramp that takes you through the lush bush-covered hills of the Queen Charlotte Sounds, stopping at night in hostels or homestays where there is a hot shower and, in some cases, a home-cooked meal. For younger families, there is even a second bonus: water taxis transport your big backpack from place to place so all you have to carry when you hike is a day pack and your lunch. It was the perfect first overnight tramp for us.

We began at Ship's Cove, Captain Cook's favorite spot on the island, and spent the next three days walking at a leisurely pace up and down the gentle hills, stopping to admire the views over the Queen Charlotte and Pelorus Sounds, playing with the mischievous Wekas who followed us along the path, watching rays swim in the clear waters at lunch breaks, and relishing in sunsets on the shores in the evenings.

We spent our evenings in hostels and homestays, all of which offered private beaches for a post-hike swim. One even prepared home-cooked dinners and packed lunches the next day, while another featured a dozen hammocks in which to lie and a treehouse hot tub spa in which to soak away our tired legs.

Of the many hikes we would do over the next weeks, the Queen Charlotte would remain our favorite, not just for the ease, but for the beauty of the track and the luxury of the soft beds and hot showers in the evenings.

Abel Tasman Touring

From the Sounds, we headed to the Able Tasman National Park for two days of kayak camping along the stunning beaches and warm waters of the Tasman Bay. While many travelers opt to walk the 51 km Great Walks Track, we chose to avoid the crowds (which at peak season can be enormous), and spend our time on the water. There were five of us on the trip. In our double kayaks, we put in at Marahau and spent the first day paddling up the coast, spotting seals and dolphins, enjoying the warm ocean and sun. It was a fairly leisurely paddle until we reached a section appropriately called "The Mad Mile."

I was glad that Josh was paddling with our able guide on that section, as there was no way the two of us could have gotten round the rough point alone. We stopped at several picturesque bays along the way, and at Observation Beach, got out to take a short hike to a viewpoint over the crystal clear waters and lush bush.

That evening, we pitched camp at Bark Bay, and exhausted, fell into a deep sleep in our tents to the sound of Tuis, Bellbirds and the gentle lapping of the sea.

The next morning, we headed out again, this time through the Tonga Island Marine Reserve area, searching for seal and sea bird colonies, and floating through hidden lagoons that could only be accessed at high tide. In the late afternoon, a water taxi retrieved us and our kayaks for the trip back to Marahau. We had no idea how far we had paddled until we saw that it took more than 45 minutes in a power boat to get back.

On Golden Bay

The next few days were spent working our way up the coast along the Golden Bay. From Motueka to Takaka and on up to Farewell Spit, the Golden Bay area is known both for its lush agriculture and its alternative lifestyle. We spent a day or two in and around Takaka, the main town of the region, climbing limestone outcroppings in The Grove Scenic Area, lying on the beaches of Pohara and Totaranui, visiting artisan shops and studios, and marveling at the colorful clear waters of the sacred Waikoropupu Springs.

From Takaka, we headed up toward Farewell Spit, the northernmost tip of the South Island, and a famous sea bird colony. Based at The Innlet, a remarkable backpacker's hostel only a few minutes drive from the Spit, we spent several days wandering the sand dunes, walking the wide, wild beaches, and spotting rare sea birds that fly all the way from Siberia to summer in New Zealand!

Though the option to go horseback riding on the beach was presented again, we chose to forego it for a day of rest at the magical Wharariki Beach, whose caves, rock formations and seal colony were enough entertainment.

Nelson Lakes

When it came time to leave the beaches, we headed inland to the Nelson Lakes National Park for a few days of tramping in the cool green mountain beech forests. Our hike along the shores of Lake Rotoroa was our first experience of New Zealand's backcountry hut system, in which hikers can stay in comfortable, if rustic, huts along trails throughout the country for a few dollars a night.

It was also our first experience with the famous New Zealand sandflies. Though primarily a West Coast nuisance, the sandflies found their way inland to the shores of the glacial lakes and made the evenings outside unbearable. However, there is an ingenious Kiwi sandfly repellent we had discovered: a mixture of Baby Oil and Dettol, a tea tree oil antiseptic that works like a charm.

At the higher elevations the sandflies disappeared and it was from the Angelus Hut, way up on the shores of an alpine lake, that we discovered the magic of New Zealand tramping. Surrounded by tall peaks, we watched the sunset in almost total peace and quiet. Now we were convinced that any time we could, we would get up into the mountains.

West Coast Wonders

From Nelson Lakes, we headed down the West Coast, stopping overnight in Punakaiki for a walk along a wild, windswept West Coast beach and to watch the waters of the Tasman Sea churn and boom through the Pancake Rocks at sunset. Then, it was on to the famous glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox, for a few days of ice climbing. The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers of New Zealand are remarkable for two things: they are the fastest moving glaciers in the world, and are easily accessible, laying at very low elevations only a few miles from the coast surrounded by rainforest.

More importantly, these glaciers provide one of the few opportunities in the world to climb through icy crevasses without having high alpine gear or experience. In fact, in summer, you can climb on the ice in shorts and a T-shirt!

We chose to climb the Franz Josef Glacier and early the next morning, we donned our ice climbing boots and specialized crampons, called Ice Talonz, grabbed our ice axes, and spent the next six hours in pure excitement as we traveled up over the glacier terminal face and onto the jagged fields of blue ice.

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We climbed through and over deep crevasses, slid down ice tunnels and around unusual formations like ice castles, and ate lunch in the glaring warmth of the sun reflected on the ice. By the end of the day, we were exhausted, but exhilarated. Sir Edmund Hillary had nothing on us, now! We were ready to conquer anything! Bring on the Southern Alps!

Route Burn

There are several Great Walks in New Zealand, most of which are centered around the foothills of the Southern Alps and in Fiordland. These are very popular hiking tracks known far and wide for their exceptional beauty. People come from all over the world just to walk the Kepler, the Milford, the Routeburn, the Abel Tasman, and so on. As a result, these tracks are exceptionally crowded.

In the summer peak hiking season, these walks and their hut passes must be booked far in advance. You must begin your hike on the day you have reserved, and end it on an assigned date, spending each night in a specific hut with a reserved bed. If you can't make it on that day, you forfeit your chance, and must try to reserve another time. It's a pain in the neck, really, but it keeps the tracks from getting so overcrowded they become dangerous or suffer too much environmental strain.

Josh and I wanted to do a Great Walk, and after investigating the various tracks available, we chose to reserve the Routeburn Track, a three-day hike that runs from Mt. Aspiring National Park through to Fiordland National Park, beginning on the 20th of February. In the weeks preceding the date, we had been steadily training to tackle the hike's challenges, including an exposed ridge saddle.

As the day approached, we became more and more excited. We made our way from the West Coast, down to Wanaka and on to Queenstown and Glenorchy (a big Lord of the Rings location area), where we would begin the hike. We packed our packs with thermals, hats, gloves and other gear, arranged our transportation to and from the track, bought food for the trail, and watched the weather reports, praying for clear days ahead.

But the New Zealand weather, upon which all rests, wasn't on our side. The day before we were to hike, the Department of Conservation was reporting high winds and possible snow, and on the 20th of February, we awoke to discover that 30 centimeters of snow had fallen on the tracks and more was coming. The tracks were closed. No one would be hiking today. The next available dates were more than a month away.

Queen Charlotte Sound. photo: Lauryn Axelrod.
Queen Charlotte Sound. photo: Lauryn Axelrod.

We were devastated. Though it was just as well that they closed the tracks -- we didn't have the gear or the skills for high alpine snow tramping -- we were still sorry that we wouldn't have the chance to experience one of New Zealand's Great Walks.

We nursed our sorrows in restaurant meals that day and made plans to move on to Te Anau and the Milford Sound. This time we checked the weather reports for the next few days. Fiordland would be beautiful: clear and sunny. Very rare, indeed, for a place that gets more than six meters of rain annually!

Milford Wander

We arrived in Te Anau the next morning and the foul weather of the previous day had left Fiordland the most stunning place: cloudless skies above clear blue lakes surrounded by snow-topped peaks and lush forest. We couldn't have asked for more perfect weather.

We had planned on spending several days in the Te Anau/Milford area and decided to begin our explorations with a boat trip across Lake Manapouri to see the Underground Power Station, which generates hydroelectricity from the rushing waters of Fiordland's lakes and sounds.

The boat ride across the lake was stunning, and the bus ride over the dramatic road that divides Lake Manapouri from Doubtful Sound was exciting, but Josh really enjoyed the power station itself and asked as many questions as he could about how hydroelectricity was generated here.

The next day, we headed out of Te Anau toward Milford Sound. The Milford Road is one of the most scenic and beautiful in the world, and we allowed ample time to take in a number of short hikes and sights. We stopped at The Mirror Lakes to see the snow-covered mountains reflected in the clear still waters, and then went to the Divide to begin our short tramp up the Routeburn Track to Key Summit.

As we hiked up the rainforest-clad hills in the clear, crisp day, we were sorry we didn't get the chance to do the whole track, but were thankful we got to experience even a portion of it. Now we knew why they called it a Great Walk.

At Key Summit, we threw snowballs at one another and relaxed over a picnic lunch surrounded by 360 degree views of the snow-covered mountain peaks. Then we walked through the interpretive alpine scenery trail, learning about the different plants that grow in the sub-alpine regions of New Zealand.

Back on the Milford Road, we stopped several more times to admire the valleys and waterfalls, the mountain parrots, called Keas, and the jagged peaks before descending through the tunnel to arrive at Milford Sound, one of the most dramatic and beautiful places in the country.

We had reserved a night on the Milford Wanderer, a small fiord cruise ship that would take us through the Sound past Mitre Peak to see waterfalls and seals, kayak around the entrance to the fiord, dine on excellent food, and sleep to the silence of the sound.

It was a fantastic evening.We passed more than a dozen waterfalls cascading down the steep mountainsides, watched seals and penguins frolicking in the cold waters, and kayaked in the sunset along small bays once favorite Maori spots for finding pounamu, or New Zealand jade stone.

That night, we dined on lamb and fresh pumpkin soup, roast vegetables, crisp salads and fresh baked desserts. It was the best meal we had had in months! Sated and tired, we fell asleep in our comfortable berths to the gentle movement of the water beneath us.

In the morning, we watched the sunrise turn the fiord pink and purple, and after breakfast, cruised further through the Sound. Josh and I disembarked to check out the underwater observatory in one of the bays.

The Milford Underwater Observatory is a unique structure: floating beneath the deep, cold waters, it provides visitors with the opportunity to see the astounding marine life of the Sounds. Normally, such deep water corals and fish would only be seen hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean, but because of the unique light-filtering waters of Milford Sound, these animals and plants can be seen only 20-30 feet from the top.

Ice climbing on Fox Glacier. photo: Lauryn Axelrod.
Ice climbing on Fox Glacier. photo: Lauryn Axelrod.

Josh was fascinated. Having just received his Junior PADI Scuba Certification in Thailand, he was hooked on the underwater world. If he could, he would have gone diving in Milford Sound (you can do it, but it's pretty cold!), but this was the next best thing: a rare chance to see things most recreational divers never see.

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Back on land, we drove once again out along Milford Road, stopping to see a few things we had missed on the way in, including deep gorges and broad rivers through golden fields, still finding it hard to stop being amazed at the awesome scenery around us. In Te Anau, we grabbed a quick lunch and some supplies, and headed still further south, toward the Catlins.

Catlins Capers

Josh and I spent the next five days meandering along the Southern Scenic Route through the Caitlins, stopping to see sea lions, penguins, and seals, and of course to take pictures at the southernmost tip of New Zealand.

The Catlins is a sparsely populated, wild, windy, remote part of the country. But it is also intensely beautiful and peaceful. Our first stop through the area was at Bluff, the supposedly southernmost point of the South Island. While Bluff has the reputation, it's actually not the southern tip, which is technically a small bay to the east. Still, it counted for our journey from "Cape Reinga to Bluff" and we posed for the obligatory photos beneath the signs pointing to Antarctica and other destinations.

The next day, we began our wildlife hunt in earnest, stopping at several beaches and coves where we had been told seals, sea lions, dolphins, and penguins congregated. At Porpoise Bay, we watched Hectors Dolphins, the smallest species of dolphin in the sea, frolicking and surfing in the waves close to shore. We wandered next door to Curio Bay where the intriguing remains of a petrified, prehistoric forest are visible at low-tide.

That night, we stopped at the small, alternative town of Papatowai, where we relaxed at a hilltop hostel overlooking rolling sheep meadows with the roaring ocean in the background. Papatowai is also the base for the beginning of the Top Track, a private 26 km tramp through the beach, farm and forest landscape of the Catlins. We considered doing the walk, as the accommodations include funky converted caravans and trolleybusses, but time was an issue.

The Lost Gypsy

We spent the next morning visiting with the Lost Gypsy, a local artist who makes inventive and humorous automata from found objects. We passed more than an hour in his converted gypsy wagon, admiring his creations and marveling at the things that seem to wash up on the shores of the South Island. Josh was riveted and spent the next several days in the back of the car thinking up automata of his own.

From Papatowai, we continued our journey along the coast. At Surat Bay we came upon more than a dozen HUGE Hooker's Sea Lions basking in the sun, posing for the camera, and growling fiercely at one another. Nugget Point is also a famous marine mammal sighting spot, but we didn't see much there. Instead, we headed up the coast past Dunedin to the Moeraki Boulders, another strange geological formation: big marble-like boulders that sit mysteriously in the sand on the beach. To us, they looked like ancient dinosaur eggs.

We found our way that night to another remote hostel, this one on a small beachfront farm near Oamaru. It was quiet and friendly and we spent the next day wandering on the wide empty beach, buying fresh produce from local farmers, and playing with the farmer's dog, Gus, as he went on his rounds to hunt rabbits.

That evening, we headed into town to visit two penguin colonies. The rare, yellow-eyed penguins come ashore before dusk at a beach just outside of Oamaru, and visitors can watch from a hide constructed on the cliffs above the beach. Sightings had been slim in the past several days, and we only saw one lonely penguin straggle his way to shore, waddle across the sand, and collapse in a deep sleep. But it was enough.

However, for real penguin watching, the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony is the nightly event. Just after dark, up to 100 little Blue Penguins, the smallest penguins in the sea, raft up just off shore and swim their way to the rocky coastline. From there, they climb out onto the rocks, dry and clean themselves, and then waddle up the beach to the breeding colony where their partners and babies wait outside their nests, calling for food.

The whole event takes more than an hour and while numbers are often predictable, on the night we went, the fog had rolled in and only about 10 brave penguins made it home for the day. Still, it was fascinating and funny to see, and we learned alot about penguin behavior and breeding habits.

Our Catlins adventure came to a close as we headed north through the Canterbury Plains near Christchurch. We had seen all kinds of wildlife and had a few days to relax among the serenity of the region. It would become one of our favorite areas of the country, as much for the nature, as for the nurture of open countryside, wild oceans, and funky towns.

Antarctic Adventure

Among other things, Christchurch is the base for many country's Antarctic operations, including the US. Antarctic Center, an international educational museum based at the airport, is a must-see for anyone interested in learning more about the coldest, driest, most remote place on the planet. That would be us. I had always fantasized about going to Antarctica, and being in New Zealand was as close as I would get on this trip.

Josh had also developed an interest in Terra Incognita, so we spent the entire morning at the Antarctic Center, learning about the history of Antarctic exploration, and the fascinating scientific experiments conducted by summer and over-winter teams from many different countries.

We got to ride in a Hagglund, or Antarctic all-terrain vehicle that can span crevasses and float in icy waters. We donned Antarctic woolies and played in the snow and ice in a special room. We even got to see videos and real live examples of some of the animals and plants that live in this most formidable of environments.

By the end of four hours, we were hooked. Given the chance, we would have been on the next C130 transport out of Christchurch, headed toward McMurdo Station. But, that journey would have to wait. Someday, we promised each other, we would see the Aurora Australis from the ice.

Je T'aime Akaroa

From Christchurch, we headed out to the Banks Peninsula for a few more days of wildlife and R&R. The Banks Peninsula is an ancient volcano, and its scenic bays are formed from the original volcanic craters. Known for quaint, French-flavored villages, the peninsula is a fave getaway for Christchurchers, but also makes for a good stop for weary travelers in search of peace and quiet and a good French meal!

We spent three nights in Le Bons Bay, a small beachfront village. We wandered the beach, collecting colorful paua (abalone) shells. We went out on a small boat to see dolphins and seals, and we ate delicious meals prepared by our friendly hosts at one of the most beautiful and relaxing hostels we had been in so far. From Le Bons Bay, we drove over the volcanic peak to Akaroa, the main town on the peninsula. Reminiscent of French seaside villages, pretty Akaroa has plenty to do.

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On any given day, you can stroll along the picturesque harbor, kayak through local seal colonies, hike in the hills beyond on the popular private Banks Peninsula Track, shop for souvenirs, local art works, and homemade fudge, dine in waterfront cafes on excellent, fresh seafood paired with fine local wines, or just wander through the historic village, learning about the history of the French settlers to the area.

You can also venture further out on a short hike and find yourself at the local Tree Crop Farm, where the vibrant hostess serves delicious fresh berry smoothies in a relaxing garden cottage covered floor to ceiling in humorous quotes!

We did all that and more, falling in love with Akaroa. On our last day, we moved to a horse ranch hostel just a short walk outside town. That afternoon, we went horseback riding high up into the hills. On our four-hour ride, we discovered lush, hidden valleys, dales and meadows that looked like Shire locations from Lord of the Rings.

From one vantage point we could see the entire bay, from Akaroa to Barry's Bay, known for popular gourmet cheeses and wines. It was a lovely way to end our coastal journey around the south of the South Island. From here, we would head inland again, to the majesty of Mt. Cook and the Southern Alps.

Climbing Mt. Cook

For many visitors and even locals, Mt. Cook is the top destination in New Zealand both for its spectacular beauty and for the challenges of tramping in the area. We were no different. Though it was a long drive from Christchurch through the high, dry plains of MacKenzie Country, it was worth it. We only hoped that the infamous New Zealand weather would cooperate once more.

We stopped briefly at Lake Tekapo to buy supplies and admire the turquoise blue lake and the historic stone church on its shore, then it was off past ice-blue Lake Pukaki to the base of Mt. Cook National Park.

We checked into the YHA hostel there, and the next morning, headed out bright and early beneath clear, blue skies for a day walk along the Hooker Valley Track. We couldn't have asked for better weather, and the views of Mt. Cook and the surrounding peaks were completely unobstructed.

The hike took us across the Hooker River on swing bridges, up along its shores, to the terminal lake at the foot of the Hooker Glacier just below Mt. Cook. En route, we stopped to play in streams and listen to avalanches tumbling down from the mountains around us. We rested with a picnic on the shores of the lake, watching icebergs float in the steely, gray water.

Lying on the rocky banks, looking up at Mt. Cook, we noticed how the sunlight glinted off the triangular ice-covered peak as if it were a crystal pyramid. Both of us talked about how someday, we would like to take a high alpine climbing course offered here at the park, so we could reach the summit of the spectacular mountain in front of us.

We had planned another hike up the Tasman Glacier for the next day, but nature had other ideas. When we woke, the clouds had moved in, obscuring the mountains, and threatening rain. Oh well, we thought, at least we had yesterday. So we packed up the car and headed out, promising each other we would come back another time, ready to climb!

Dolphins in Kaikoura From Mt. Cook, we headed back to the coast, and north again, en route to Kaikoura for a few days of more wildlife viewing. Kaikoura is a scenic, little town built around a deep, sweeping bay known as a favorite feeding ground for whales and Dusky Dolphins.

The big attractions here are whale watching trips, in which sightings of Sperm Whales are common, and dolphin swimming, in which visitors don thick wet suits, masks and snorkels, and jump into the ocean to swim with the colonies of acrobatic, Dusky Dolphins.

We chose to go on the dolphin swimming trip, as observers, not swimmers. Frankly, by the end of March, the water was just too cold for us, even in full wet suits. While we regretted not swimming with the frisky dolphins (those that did seemed to really enjoy it), we had a spectacular vantage point from the boat as more than 500 dolphins, jumped and twirled and twisted and flipped all around us!

Neither of us had ever seen so many dolphins before, and the Duskies are the most fun to watch. Unfortunately, catching their antics on film is hard; we got pictures of alot of splashes, instead of backflips, but we both enjoyed the trip.

Sound Escape

From Kaikoura, we headed back towards Nelson, where we stopped at the Montana World of Wearable Art and Collectible Cars. Unique to New Zealand, the museum showcases fantastic and creative wearable art costume creations made by local artists and displayed at an annual world famous extravaganza in September.

I spent an hour or so checking out the costumes, which ranged from full armor to fanciful flights of silk and taffeta, while Josh ogled at the collection of vintage cars housed in the same building. It was an inspiring break before heading back to the Marlborough Sounds for our last few days of serious R&R at Hopewell, a remote, beachfront hostel.

This would be the end of our journey together. While we had planned to travel onwards to Australia and Africa, Josh and I were both tired. We had stayed longer in New Zealand than originally planned, because we loved it here. We did a lot, saw a lot, had a lot of fun. But now, it was time to go home.

From Europe, through Asia, and from north to south in New Zealand, it had been a spectacular and diverse 10 months, and both Josh and I had learned so much. We spent our last night on the beach, reflecting and reminiscing about the good times, and the not so good times, the pleasures and the challenges, of traveling as mother and child.

Although we didn't get to every place we wanted to go, we made plans for another journey, sometime in the future. After all, the world is a big place, and we wanted to visit it all. Who knows, maybe it would be Antarctica? Chile? Africa? The next morning, we boarded the ferry across Cook Strait, and drove on up to Auckland where we said farewell to Middle Earth and headed home, promising to return someday. Soon.

Mount Taranaki in New Zealand
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