Both me and my partner-in-crime (husband) are the typical Type A’s — we like to plan things in advance. Life can become too mundane, especially when you are in New York in your 30’s. Work and social obligations consume you and whatever time is left of it, you are too tired or unmotivated to do anything. To combat this, he and I both function on a simple principal — take life one year at a time. And make sure you have at least 1 big thing to look forward to in a year. It gives meaning to those rare occasions when we are free and want to do something other than watch TV. So we plan a trip — a trip that has been on our bucket list for a long long time.
This time around, we decided to take the plunge and travel the farthest from home we have ever been — New Zealand was calling.
This island country is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. But what made this trip even more special was our experience of it. There is no other, better way to see this country than by road and what more can one ask, when you can be home and be on the road at the same time! We cooked, bathed, slept, played Uno and had endless conversations sometimes under the stars and sometimes on rainy afternoons in the middle of a rainforest. Our first ever RV experience across this country – a road trip to never forget!
Day 1: Christchurch
Our first stop in NZ, Christchurch, at first seemed like any other city but we were soon to discover its amazing soul. We spent our 1st day at an Air BnB in the heart of the city where we met our wonderful host, Radha, along with her 6 year old son, Ishaan and father. Together, they all made our experience better than we could have expected from a short stay. We felt at home and we highly recommend her place to anyone who is looking for a budget stay in the heart of this soulful city.
Christchurch has been struck by countless earthquakes, some of which have left it in ruins. But as we walked through it, we couldn’t help but notice the spirit of reconstruction, hope and art all around. Hagley park is the 3rd largest city center parks in the world (precedented by Central park in New York and Hyde Park in London) and transports you to a completely different world of green landscapes, beautiful birds and gorgeous blooming flowers. Our day ended at a charming café called Mumbaiwala in downtown Christchurch, where we immersed ourselves in familiar ambiance and delicious food.
Day 2: RV experience begins.
Destination for the night: Lake Tekapo
Distance driven: 275 kms (via inland scenic route)
Day 2 started early with taking a taxi to Wilderness Campervans where we would pick up our motorhome for the next 18 days. We were so excited, but nervous too. Never driven a vehicle larger than an SUV. Never driven such a large vehicle on a mountainous terrain of a country we have never been to. And it had been a while since we had driven on the other side of the road! (NZ follows the British rule of driving on the left side of the road). Despite all these odds stacked up against us, we went ahead and got introduced to our first ever RV experience. And boy, this was looking so good!
A quick grocery stop
So we knew for sure that our plan was to do freedom camping for as many nights as we can. After all, what’s the use of having a self-contained vehicle and a beautiful country that offers stunning locations for freedom campers? This basically meant that we would have to stock up on as much food as possible. So our next logical stop was the grocery super store where we picked up a ton of fruits, some bread, pasta, basic veggies, Milk, Yogurt, some Manuka Honey, Cheese and of course, some NZ wine! This was the biggest grocery bill we paid throughout our trip which came up to about NZD 100. Of course, this is not all the food we survived on. Since we Indians need our Indian food everywhere we go, we also had the famous ready-to-cook MTR meals and Instant Maggie noodles that we carried with us from New Jersey! Ok — now we felt confident to conquer the world. Our plan was to find a cute little freedom camping spot for the night, somewhere close to Lake Tekapo (about 3 hrs drive from Christchurch). And so we headed in that direction via a scenic inland route that took us through rolling green slopes sprinkled with cattle. The sun was shining bright and New Zealand’s wild beauty had already started to show us a few hints of what to expect in the days to come…
Lake Tekapo: The Darkest place on Earth
It was already close to sunset when we reached the skirting of Lake Tekapo region. It was a surreal change of scenery — barren mountains all around, no vegetation and a beautiful blue lake in the middle of it all. All this against a backdrop of snow-clad mountains surrounding us from all sides. Such immense, vast, open space around us — and the air was crisp and fresh. The most photographed spot of Lake Tekapo – The Good Shepherd Church looked even more spectacular against the gorgeous lake and the light of the setting sun. We took a walk down the path to the Mackenzie Sheep Dog Statue that looked so mysteriously at the almost full moon that night. Alas – our luck! The darkest place on earth was going to turn into a moonlit night in the wilderness. No stars but who needs those when the moon shines so bright!
Looking for a camping spot for the night was more challenging than we thought. The one that showed up on our app had a closed access. So we had to go look for another one and this was while racing the quickly dwindling daylight. We fortunately found another Wilderness RV that seemed to be looking for a spot for the night too. We finally found something down a gravel road and by the time we parked, the only light to guide us was the moonlight. This is when we met our first fellow traveler friends – a pair of Vietnamese father and son from Berlin. We shared some change to put in the honesty box, some beer, some notes and some chatter that night which happened to be their last one in their NZ adventure that started in the North Island 20 days ago! All this, while being totally oblivious to the beautiful surrounding we were going to wake up to the next day…
Day 3: Lake Pukaki and Hooker Valley Hike
Destination of the night: Queenstown
Distance driven: 256 kms (all scenic stuff)
Take the bluest blue you can imagine and then paint it on a canvas with snow mountains in the background. This is what Lake Pukaki looks like – for real. I am not sure what makes this lake so blue even on a cloudy day, perhaps the presence of certain minerals on the bed, but this has got to be the prettiest ‘blue’ I have ever seen. Just driving down the winding road that fringes this lake was a sheer treat to the eyes. Every turn was more spectacular than the last. And where did this road lead us? To another gravel road that headed towards one of the the most sought after hikes in South Island – the Hooker Valley Trail. They told us that if you can see the mountain from the visitor center at Lake Pukaki — then you know its worth the trip down that road. On cloudy days, there is no point going on that hike since you won’t really see much. Our luck — we could see the mountain from the visitor center and we got all excited about our first hike in New Zealand!
Hooker Valley and Mount Cook
‘They lied’. One thing that we learned a little too early in our trip to NZ is that never trust the weather. When we saw Mount Cook at the Visitor Center, it was partly cloudy. But we could still see the entire mountain and we thought it would clear up by the time we reach Hooker Valley. It kind of did too. But then by the time, we reached the end of the trail to the Hooker Glacier Lake, it was raining and it rained all the way on our return journey. So no, if you are looking for a nice, sunny hike — then make sure there is not a single cloud in the sky.
However, was the trip and the hike worth it? A 100 percent! 5 kms-return, easy stroll on a moderate gradation – you are in fact in the middle of a valley. Take a 360 panorama, and all you’ll see are high, snow clad mountains standing as guardians of this gorgeous valley. It was like we entered Mount Cook’s community with other friendly mountains all around. Every turn, every step opened up into a view more spectacular than the last. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the end of the trail, it started raining and the clouds were really low. But seeing a large piece of an iceberg floating in front of you in an Emerald Green Lake, is a sight to withhold even on a rainy afternoon. The hike was one of the best hikes I have ever walked on (and I have done my fare share of a few) and very very highly recommended to anyone who likes to make friends with mountains, a glacial lake and some super adventurous swing bridges!
Day 4: Queenstown and the road to Glenorchy
Destination of the night: Te Anau
Distance driven: 265 kms (We are now in the most scenic part of New Zealand. All scenic.)
Queenstown is known as the adventure and the party capital of New Zealand. So if you are an adventure junkie or a party animal, you would want to spend at least a couple days here. My husband is not one. So we decided to skip it, since this was a trip we made together and I wanted him to experience everything that I am experiencing too. So no bungi or sky diving for me this time around. But that’s not to say that Queenstown has nothing better to offer. We were on a road trip and one thing you don’t want to miss when in Queenstown is the 2 hour detour towards Glenorchy. One of the most used locations for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there is a reason why its so worth even if you are literally just driving down that road.
I might have seen so many postcard perfect spots on this road, that now I know where all those New Zealand imagery comes from. Bright green pasture lands sprinkled with sheep, sparkling blue Wakatipu Lake against the beautiful snow, clad mountains — and this is not a postcard. You are in it. It’s all around you. That’s Glenorchy on a beautiful sunny day. Don’t miss it.
Day 5, 6: Te Anau, Fjordland National Park, Milford Sound
Destination of Day 5: Milford Sound
Destination of Day 6: Catlins
Distance driven on Day 5: 118 kms (We are now in the most scenic part of New Zealand. All scenic.)
Finding a camping spot was a bit of a challenge last night. We had an afternoon cruise at Milford the next day so timing was key. After Glenorchy, we had to cover quite a lot of distance to find the last available freedom camping spot before Fjordland National Park begins. It was already dark by the time we reached Te Anau and to that last camping spot. We were tired, and honestly a bit relieved that we found a spot at all. It was not until the next morning when we woke up and stepped out of our RV, we realized that this spot might as well be the best spot that we would find for the rest of our trip. The Te Anau lake was the most calm water I had seen so close to the mountains. It was so silent that I could hear my own breath and I instantly found myself at peace and in deep meditation. I was overwhelmed. This was that spot, when I had tears in my eyes simply to realize that such beauty and serenity exists in this world, and that there’s still hope.
My husband arrived to the peace spot a bit after me and we realized this place was too pretty to be just an overnight camping pit-stop. So we went ahead and took some of those photos that have found a space on our walls, to keep the memory alive.
Leaving a piece of my heart there, we carried forward towards, perhaps the most touristy but also one of the most beautiful experiences in New Zealand – Fjordland National Park. Located on the extreme South Western corner of the South Island, there is only one road that ends at Milford Sound. We were to get to there by 3pm to take an overnight cruise since that was the best way for us to experience the sounds as it was too early in the season for the hiking trails to be open. But if you go there in summer, make sure to take some time to hike around the region. It is called the ‘Walking Capital of the world’ for a reason.
Ok – so one heads up. This is THE MOST TOURISTY SPOT in New Zealand. So don’t be surprised to see hoards of tourist buses on the meandering roads to Milford Sound. There are some spectacular spots on the way like the Mirror Lakes that will be flooded with tourists and some slightly off the route walking tracks such as Lake Marian Falls on Hollyford Road which is slightly off Milford Road. We also went further down Hollyford track to go see the Humboldt Falls. Apart from the pretty boat launch at the base of the falls, don’t bother driving down this ridiculously long gravel road only to find a disappointing waterfall that is too far to view.
No where else had I seen such high mountains in such close proximity and fjords all along the base of these mighty peaks, channels of flowing, calm water all pouring into the vast and turbulent Tasman Sea. Welcome to the prettiest corner of the world – Milford Sound. The road here was quite adventurous and scenic considering we were driving so close to the high snow clad mountains. There were remains of avalanches everywhere and driving through the Homer tunnel is an experience on its own. On a sunny day, its open and there’s continuous, strictly regulated traffic coming from both sides. On other not so sunny days, when rain/snow increase the chance of avalanches, they close down the tunnel blocking people on either sides. We were lucky, it was a sunny day when we reached Milford. The day after was rainy and cloudy but that made the experience even better inside the sounds!
Many people take day cruises at Milford and those are great too. But if you have the time and the budget to take an overnight cruise, don’t miss it. There’s only one tour operator that runs an overnight cruise in the sounds – Milford Mariner by Real Journeys. We decided to invest in this experience and I know this is a cruise to not forget.
The famous Miter Peak stood tall and clear in front of us on the day we arrived. It was nice and sunny and we took a small walk to take a closer look. The sound stood there in front of us welcoming, waiting to show us a good time. We were excited to get on board and start our journey on the Milford Mariner – a slightly less touristy, full board cruise that sails through colorful rainbow waterfalls and docks inside the sound for the night. Guarded by the tall Miter peak and all other snow clad mountains around, the rare, Crested Penguin and Seals float all around you while you kayak and explore the sound at your own pace. At night, you get to mingle with other travelers on board, perhaps take a drink up to the dock and watch the moonlit Miter Peak and then retire to the comfort of your own cabin.
Next morning for us, the clouds came around per their usual habit (apparently the annual rainfall in Milford Sound is about 252 in. which lends the sounds its title of being the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand). But as the on-board guide told us, the sound is even more beautiful when it rains. So we set sail toward the Tasman Sea through the dense, low clouds and gushing waterfalls. The Sea was, as expected, a bit rough – so after experiencing about 20 minutes of sailer life on the rough, open ocean, we headed back to our starting point. On our way back, we saw some more waterfalls and some seals taking a shower in the pouring rain. Man, at that point, I wished I was one of those seals. They get to live here, in this gorgeous little paradise of a corner and stay oblivious to all the damage us humans are doing to this planet. I really wished I was one of those seals..
Day 6: A detour to the South – Our Catlins Adventure
Destination for the night: Catlins
Distance driven: 317 kms (Longest detour we have ever taken!)
The most fun part of driving around in your home is that you can take it anywhere! Our original plan for this day was to drive directly towards Fox glacier (North of where we were). But the weather forecast showed rain around the glaciers. So instead we decided to take a detour towards the southern most tip of the South Island – The Catlins and Kaka Point. It was a long drive but the sun was shining and there was nothing stopping us.
Spotting Mr. Haiho
Since there was still time for sunset, we decided to head towards Kaka Point in hopes to spot the rare yellow eyed penguins. They come back to this coast after a long expedition in the ocean, every evening around 5pm to feed their younglings. It was apparently something not to miss especially if you are in that area, around that time. The coast was extremely windy but the sun was nice and bright and we weren’t complaining.
The penguins were really late to make their return. We waited for almost about 2 hours at the windy coast to spot at least 1 penguin and what we finally saw was not much of a spectacle since the penguins were quite far and there weren’t a whole bunch of them. Disappointed, we had to start heading back to find a spot to camp for the night. But as we were heading towards the car park, guess who we spotted! Mr. Haiho (Yellow Eyed penguin) who somehow lost his way and found himself in the car park, literally 10 steps away from us! This was pure luck since these creatures are known to be quite shy and skeptical of humans. He made the 300 km detour totally worth it.
An adventure & a lesson learnt
One thing you want to make sure heading down the southern coast of New Zealand is that your gas tank is full. The fuel levels were low and the sun was setting. We had to find a good camping spot for the night and also find a gas station somewhere on the way. How difficult could it be? Well, we didn’t know what lay ahead of us. The Catlins Forest Park is not only a dense forest but also features beautiful hilly, winding roads – something we would have loved if the odds weren’t so stacked up against us. We kept ‘rolling’ since the GPS showed a gas station just a few kms ahead of where we were. What we didn’t realize was a few kms on constant slopes and gradations don’t help the fuel situation. The reserve light was blinking when we finally made it to the ‘self-paying’ gas station. But it didn’t end there.
Now we are at a super remote location. The sun is down. And the self pay station won’t work. We tried 10 times, but it didn’t. Now we really were stuck. Just then, I saw a small opening behind the gas station — I followed the path and was half relieved to see that this was actually a camping spot too! So we were saved for the night. But we still needed gas. I walked into the camping area and found some young fellas. They all seemed friendly, so I went ahead and asked them if they could help our fuel situation. They instantly got up and walked out with me where my husband was still trying to figure out why the self-pay station won’t work. We eventually figured out that the machine won’t accept our ‘US credit cards’. Thank god for small mercies, we had some NZD currency with us and we asked one of the guys to use his local credit card while we pay him cash. He was hesitant but agreed instantly when I took out a $50 NZ bill.
Life was beautiful again. We called it a night. We woke up to just another beautiful location that reveled its full beauty the next morning.
Day 7: Exploring the Eastern Side of the South Island
Destination for the night: Cromwell
Distance driven: 386 kms
Another long driving day. Today’s plan was to drive up the east coast until we reach the Moeraki boulders and then head west again towards Wanaka. En route, we hiked up to see the spectacular Nugget Point lighthouse and quickly moved ahead to go see Baldwin Street in Dunedin – famed as the World’s steepest street. So we drove into a pretty busy city (or at least it felt that way since we were coming from a very remote location).
Next stop was the famous Moeraki Boulders which are known to be these giant rounded boulders on the sea coast. They are best viewed at low tide but since we didn’t have the luxury to wait for the tides to be low, what we saw were just these heads. It was a nice walk by the sea, so we didn’t mind it since all we were going to see for the next 2 days were glacial mountains. We had another couple of hours of drive ahead of us. So we decided to take a stop for the night at Cromwell, a small lake-side town surrounded by mountains.
The sun had quickly started to make its way down when we reached Cromwell. A windy, little town tucked in the middle of high snow covered mountains. The camping spot we got was perfect since it was right next to Lake Dunstan, surrounded by mountains.
Day 8: A lesson of ‘Fresh Fruit Ice Cream, An unforgettable hike, our dream town and a dreadful place for the night
Destination for the night: Haast Junction
Distance driven: 244 kms
It was not until over breakfast that we discovered that Cromwell was actually a gold mining town in the 1800s. But the gold ran out several years ago, after which the town became an extensive farming and fruit growing region. We were actually excited to learn that there were a whole bunch of vineyards and fruit orchards surrounding us. Of course, since this was only the start of the day and we had a long journey ahead of us, we skipped the wine tasting and settled on simply grabbing a fresh fruit ice-cream on our way out. Now, I had been hearing stories about New Zealand’s ice cream since much before I got here. So we were finally excited about the ice-cream tasting. We saw a lot of signs on our way here that said ‘Fresh Fruit Ice Cream’. So I was imagining ice cream that was freshly made with fruits. But when we got to Jone’s Fruit Stall–which by the way was the second most touristy spot we had been to in our trip (first being Milford Sound)–and ordered a fresh fruit ice cream, she literally gave us ready made vanilla ice cream with fresh fruits sprinkled on it! Ok. So that was ‘New Zealand’s famous ice cream’, I thought. And I made peace with it since it was a nice, warm day and they did have a beautiful garden/orchard in the backyard where I could sit and enjoy my fruit dose for the day. I was slightly disappointed but this was a lesson learned on words people use and what they could mean to different people. We said good bye to Cromwell, and started our journey back to Wanaka from where we would head towards Fox Glacier later that day.
This was our second trip to Wanaka in the last 8 days. We passed it earlier to go toward Milford sound and decided to explore it on our way to Fox glacier since we would have to pass it anyway. But the beauty of this tiny town in the middle of the mountains was not lost on us. When we got there the second time around, I was as impressed with it as I was the first time we passed it. I could definitely imagine living here. It’s a quaint lake-side town with beautiful homes and fresh air to breathe. And what sealed the deal for me was the presence of an Indian restaurant there! I definitely wasn’t expecting one here. We didn’t really stop there, but since the day was looking pretty good we decided to head towards another hike that was highly recommended – Rob Roys Glacier.
An unforgettable hike
Once you reach Wanaka, the GPS shows that the distance to the glacier car park is about an hour and a few minutes. That was perfect since the hike itself would be about 3 hrs long. So we set out on a seemingly clear, sunny day. What the GPS did not tell you, however, was half of that road is a gravel road. And about a quarter of it is inaccessible unless you are in a 4WD. We found that out when we reached a waterfall in the middle of the road. We stopped our RV right before the waterfall thinking this must be the beginning of the hike. We pulled over on the side and started putting on our hiking shoes. Just then, there was a knock on our RV door.
A kind looking young fellow appeared in front of our door and asked if we needed help crossing the waterfall. We were confused. We told him that we were planning to hike to the Rob Roys Glacier. “That’s great! We are going there as well. But that’s quite a drive from here. Are you planning to walk all this way?”, he said. We were confused at first but quickly learned that he and his girl friend were traveling in an RV too but left that behind in Wanaka and hired a 4WD to go to Rob Roys since that’s what they were told to do. We could clearly see why but somehow couldn’t understand how we missed that little piece of information. Anyway, the guy and his girlfriend were nice enough to offer us a ride to the glacier car park and said we could all hike together and come back. We hopped on into their car and off we went over waterfalls and really rugged terrain finally reaching a spot that actually did look like a car park. That was the base of the glacier from where we would start hiking.
The sun had disappeared and was replaced by some pretty intense rain clouds. We knew then that this was going to be an interesting (wet) hike with no guarantees of even seeing the glacier. But we went anyway. We didn’t come this far to go back. Besides, our riders were going up so we gathered some courage, layered up and set out.
As we walked through some more pastures, we realized that we completely underestimated how beautiful the valley becomes when it rains! Green pastures surrounded by slow clad mountains, waterfalls everywhere, a river flowing along the trail, swing bridges and the best part – there were a total of 4 people and a 100 sheep in this entire valley!
The hike up was a bit challenging as we were climbing up a mountain and what made it worse was the rain that made the trail quite slippery. But it was still quite well maintained and except for the occasional halts, it was quite spectacular to walk through a dense rainforest leading up to a clearing that gave us a faint view of a mighty glacier.
The hike had two destinations, the lower lookout and the upper lookout – but we did realize when we reached the lower lookout that, (a) I was super drenched and exhausted and, (b) The glacier was not visible enough for me to want to hike up another 1.5 kms. So we decided to turn around after spending a good, 15 minutes enjoying the rain in the middle of the mountains and the rainforest. Our hike back down was even more challenging since the slippery gradation made it hard for us to find our balance. But we got through it all thanks for the water proof, heavy duty hiking boots we both were wearing (Highly recommended even if it’s not raining). Our rain jackets kept us dry and warm. And in no time, we were back at the base.
We were drenched, we were exhausted and we didn’t make it to the upper lookout. But we were so happy that we did this. I still cannot get over how beautiful the valley was and in the process, we met some new people! Mountains just make people nicer and even though we all come from far away lands (they were coming from Australia), we all bonded on similar experiences.
Scary Haast: Our stop for the night
After the hike we just wanted to change into dry clothes and relax. But we did have an expensive heli-hike booked for the next day at Fox glacier and we had a lot of distance to cover before that. So we decided to drive for as long as the sun doesn’t set in the direction of Fox glacier. And then find some where on the way, where we could park and spend the night. That place happened to be Haast junction. The road to Haast went through the Haast pass, a world heritage corridor, that features a dense Westland rainforest full of waterfalls. We drove through that, halting at a few beautiful waterfalls on the way, but our ultimate goal was to get to the Haast junction before the sun sets. It started getting darker quicker than we thought since the forest around us was quite dense and it was still raining. But we did finally make it to the Haast junction before it got very dark, only to be a bit creeped out by our choice of location.
Our camping spot had a lot of permanent RV’s parked there (we later found out that those were owned by seasonal fishermen). It was like the final frontier since there was the vast open sea in front of us. So it was extremely windy and the lack of people (even though there were RV’s there), made us a little skeptical of this spot. But since it was dark and there wasn’t a camping spot for another few hours, we decided to lock up and stay put where we were. Later we even came to know that the spot was infested by sandflies! We spent the night in dread but we also passed out since we were so exhausted after a long, rainy day out in the mountains.
Day 9: The rain does it again!
Destination for the night: Greymouth
Distance driven: 316 kms kms
There were only a few things we planned before even getting on that plane to New Zealand. One of them was our heli-hike at the Fox Glacier. It was the most expensive and exciting activity that we were looking forward to. It was supposed to be a clear day, but the mountain weather can never be trusted. On Day 9, we set off early to get to Fox Glacier region on time for our booked hike. We did, however, doubt that it would happen since the clouds still loomed and up at the glacier, they would never take any tourists unless its a very clear day. We reached Fox glacier only to learn that our hike got cancelled. They do give you an option to do it another day. But we didn’t have enough time and we had to move on. So they gave us a full refund and suggested we do a smaller hike to the base of the glacier that starts a few kms from where we were. So we did that and quickly realized why the heli-hike got cancelled. Even from that viewpoint, which was at a much lower altitude, we could not see the glacier. The hike was great though and the valley was beautiful. But there were a million tourists there, so we went through this real quick and were on our way to Lake Matheson.
The beautiful rainforest and Lake Matheson
If you google Lake Matheson, you will see some picture perfect reflection images that makes this lake so popular. A great photo op, this lake turns into a natural mirror at a certain time of the day (dusk and dawn) – provided its a clear and non-windy day. We were not that lucky, since we reached there in the afternoon and it wasn’t exactly a clear day. But the sun did eventually come out which made the hike around it much better. One thing that Lake Matheson is less known for is the beautiful rainforest that surrounds it. The trail options simply consist of parts of this long loop that goes around the lake. We did the entire loop and I think it was as good as strolling in a garden thats filled up with moss and trees growing out of every crevice and a crystal clear, pristine lake that lies in the middle of it all. I absolutely loved it.
Another camping spot adventure
By the time, we left from Lake Matheson, it was already around 5pm. We still had to drive to Greymouth where we planned to camp for the night. It was another 3 hours drive from where we were. Still, we were safely able to get there before the sun set and found a perfect freedom camping spot by the sea, right by the city of Greymouth. We were so amazed at the perfect view, that we totally ignored how rundown the city of Greymouth actually felt. After sunset, we were about to get started on our dinner prep when someone knocked on the door of our RV. My husband rolled down the window to speak to a fellow RV traveler who was parked next to us. He seemed a bit worried when he informed us that after reading some reviews on the Campers NZ App, he had decided to find another camping spot. The reviews mentioned that this spot had a history of mugging and robberies, especially for RVs since RV tourists are the most vulnerable with all their valuables in their car. He was with his wife and kids and didn’t feel too safe there. So he was nice enough to let us know. By now, it was completely dark and there were not a whole lot of freedom camping spots in the vicinity. We would probably have to drive about half hour to get to the closest paid camping ground. So that’s what we did, though it wasn’t that easy to drive in the dark, especially since there were no real street lights. We finally found a paid spot to spend the night in – one of the 2 that we used in 18 nights! The fun part was, that it had hot showers and laundry service. So for all it was worth, a hot shower the next morning was what I paid for! And so came to end, another adventurous day in the South Island.
Day 10: Cutting across the Island: From an obscure low-tide beach, Punakaiki to Kaikoura in a torrential downpour
Destination for the night: East Coast
Distance driven: 435 kms
Our day started very early (6am) when we decided to go for a hike to Motukeikei Beach – an obscure low tide beach rarely ever visited by many tourists. I assume that’s because it requires you to time yourself well (so you don’t get stuck at the beach when the tides are high!) and the fact that it has very little signage and absolutely no where to park your vehicle except for pulling it over on the side of a winding highway. It was anybody’s guess when we decided to leave our vehicle on the side of the road that seemed like the easiest climb down on to the beach. I was a bit weary leaving our vehicle so exposed on the road (more so due to our experience the previous night), but we took the leap of faith, locked up and climbed down the unmarked rocks that led us to the beach. Once we were on the beach, it was an easy walk on the shore to get to the most scenic part of the beach. You know, what its like when you go to a super commercial spot and you see so many tourists, you wish you chose a better, more remote area to explore? Now, when we couldn’t see any humans close by, I have to admit, it was a bit eerie. We kept walking about a mile on the beach when we reached these massive rocks that were lined by millions of mussels. The rock formations were so surreal and untouched that I truly felt like an explorer. It was like the bottom of the ocean rose to the surface and we could see what lies beneath! We even spotted a tiny star-fish snuggled between the slimy, slippery rocks that the ocean exposed. This one definitely went down my ‘Best walks of the world’ list, not just because it was so beautiful but also for the little adventure that we had getting there. Highly recommended!
After this hike, we went back to our camping spot to take a hot shower (!!!) and then be on our way to our next destination – Punkaiki (Also known as Pancake Rocks).
Punakaiki was the exact opposite of Motukeikei – touristy and heavily crowded. But that didn’t take away from the beauty and the absolute ruggedness of this shore. We were told to go there during high tide to see the spectacle of the blow holes. But of course, it wasn’t possible since we would have to wait another 8 hours for that. I could only imagine how they might be since they were already so loud and aggressive when the tide was not that high! The rough ocean for as far as the eyes can see and the mysterious, pancake rock formations on the shore. We didn’t spend a lot of time there, but it was still worth every minute of the visit.
The Detour – from North to the East
One thing you cannot trust about New Zealand is the weather. Even though it was a cloudy day, it was soon turning into a storm like weather. It had already started to rain en route and it was going to be raining heavily in the Abel Tasman area (Extreme North of South Island) which is where we were planning to head next. Looking at the weather, we took a quick decision to skip Abel Tasman all together and keep it for a summer visit sometime, hopefully in the future and head back East towards Kaikoura (Extreme East corner which we had missed). This meant cutting across the island and adding a few more hours to our driving time. We didn’t mind since the weather seemed to get better as we drove East. On the way, we came across an unexpected region called the Nelson Lakes National Park. We decided to check it out since it would be a nice break from all the driving. It surely was one of the less visited, gorgeous regions that ended up leading us to this beautiful lake called Lake Rototoiti. The lake had a small forest net to it that was apparently one of the good and rare places to spot kiwis in the wild! Unfortunately, Kiwis are nocturnal and very very shy animals. So spotting them in the wild means taking a night safari which we had no time for. We did however, enjoy the walk by the lake, spotted a bunch of really long eels just floating around the shore and a beautiful black swan that was curious and close enough for us to take a postcard snap!
Miscalculation or bad luck?
By the time we left the Nelson Lakes region, it was already nearing sun set and we still had another 3 hours drive ahead of us. Out of no where came these big, black clouds that reminded us that we are now in the mountains and the weather is changing rapidly. By the time we hit the East Coast and reached Blenheim, it had already started to rain. The rain turned into a torrential thunderstorm by the time we started our journey south on the East Coast towards Kaikoura. It was already dark and driving in the downpour was getting more and more difficult. Worse still was the fact that we were driving on a single-lane highway with a mountain on one side the vast ocean on the other. Finding a camping spot in these conditions was challenging but in the end we somehow got to a place where we felt safe enough to park for the night. The drive left us both exhausted, and we were happy to finally end the day.
Day 11: Seals, wine and a delayed ferry ride
Destination for the night: Whenuanui Bay
Distance driven: 196 kms
This is was officially our last day on the South Island. Our ferry to the North Island was from Picton at around 4pm, which was about 2 hours drive from where we were. So we had enough time to go see some seals and also check out the world-famous Marlborough wine region, known mostly for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. With this in mind, we stepped out of our RV for a stretch and realized (like all other mornings in New Zealand), the spot that we parked in for the night in the pouring rain, was literally next to the shore and the scenery around us was immaculate.
We took some time to take in the beauty of this landscape and started our journey up to the Ohau Stream Walk to see some baby seals. We parked right next to the road and saw a bunch of seals lounging on the rocks, drying out after a swim in the rain. We spent some time watching and observing these magnificent creatures, fighting for their spot on the rocks and tending to their pups.
We were a little crunched on time, so after spending about 20 minutes observing these amazing creatures, we decided to bypass the walk into the baby seal waterfall area and move forward towards the Marlborough region which was a slight detour from our route to Picton. We were headed to the Wairau Valley.
This valley was a picture perfect definition of what a wine country should look like. It is also considered to be the sunniest place in South Island, making it ideal for wine harvesting. Countless, beautiful vineyards with a backdrop of snow clad mountains – just a drive in this region was worth every minute of that detour. The sun decided to come out and it turned into a beautiful spring day perfect for some wine tasting. We did a quick google search and found the famous Geisen Wine tasting room and restaurant located very much within the Wairau valley. We got there and immediately helped ourselves to some limited edition Geisen Brothers Sauvignon Blanc and purchased some to take back home. Geisen is widely available all over the world but certain editions were exclusively sold here. The other amazing feature of this little tasting room was its little backyard restaurant where we decided to have our lunch. The restaurant set up reminded me A bit of a small road side cafe in Spain and the view of the neighboring vineyards made this a perfect set up for our last lunch in South Island.
After a perfect lunch, we headed towards Picton where we would board the Inter Islander Ferry to Wellington through the Marlborough Sounds. Unfortunately, when we got there, we found out that our ferry had to be cancelled due to thunderstorms nearby and they had to reschedule us on the ferry that was to leave next day at 9am. This meant spending another day (& night) in the South Island. We weren’t complaining! Since there wasn’t a whole lot of time we had before sunset and then in the morning, we couldn’t venture away too far. So we simply decided to spend the night some place where we get a nice view of the sounds. A twisty, winding mountain road led us to Whenuanui Bay where we would spend our last night in South Island. We opened a bottle of wine, and finally sat down to celebrate the last 10 days and raised a toast to the next 7 days that lay ahead of us in a different, yet beautiful landscape of the North Island where more adventures awaited us. (Read all about our 7 days in the North Island in my next blog post.)