Category Archives: South Island

Facing the Nevis: Queenstown

After a few weeks of what felt like endless toil in Dunedin, Hicksy and I decided to take a trip to Queenstown for some much needed shuteye. Not the kind of shuteye, however, that one expeiences when wrapped in a cosy duvet, safe from the world. The kind of shuteye I’m talking about is of the squeezing-one-eyes-shut-because-reality-is-too-darn-scary-to-be-looked-at variety. 

Known as the Adventure Capital of the World, Queenstown feels like it has everything. You can skydive, ski, snowboard, race luges, bungy jump, jet boat, hang-glide, white-water raft or even go on a 4-wheeler Lord of the Rings tour if it takes your fancy. If there’s an extreme activity you can think of, you can almost be sure it exists in Queenstown. If chucking yourself off/down/under things isn’t your thing, then despair not my feeble friends, for there are cruises, wine tours, walks and a variety of other activities for the more serene soul, many of which we enjoyed with my parents on the Great South Island Road Trip.

As our trip was in Summer, we weren’t able to ski the surrounding mountains, so we looked for some other way to get our adrenaline on. Activities can get expensive, so we looked at combo deals, which ended up saving us a fortune. We went for the Awesome Foursome combo, which cost NZ$600 each. This is a package that gives you a bungee jump, whitewater rafting, a helicopter ride and a jet-boat ride all in one day. Some may call it a quick way to a coronary, I call it a fantastic cure for a hangover and the most effective cure of all was the Nevis.

The Nevis Bungy

Queenstown  has three bungy jumps available, all run by AJ Hackett. The bungee in our deal was The Nevis, and at 134m it is New Zealand’s highest bungee jump.

The Nevis Bungy Jump is, hands-down, the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Beforehand, I thought it would be a breeze (so to speak). Nothing to it, you jump, you’re safe, rationally speaking there’s nothing to be afraid of. A lovely opportunity to take in the view and all that.

The problem is, fear doesn’t listen to rational thinking. Try telling your racing heart and churning stomach that there’s nothing to be afraid of as you shuffle to the edge of a rickety cable car and stare at the 134m abyss below.

SKRIK!

On the way up: Look at how happy and confidernt we aren't.

The jump-site is only accessible by 4-wheel drive up a private mountain road, and then once you’re at the top you jump in order of weight, from heaviest to lightest. Being the only female jumper in a pack of big strong men (Hicksy not included – he jumped after me), this meant that I was almost at the end of the queue.

Watching people plummet one-by-one into the canyon before me did nothing for my nerves, and by the time it was my turn I was in a bit of a fear-induced coma. They strapped on the elastic band (because essentially, that’s what it is), told me to wave to the camera, and then (and I’m 99% sure of this) Blondie from the czech republic pushed me to my doom. I had all kinds of clever things to shout out as I gracefully glided through the air, but in reality there was nothing graceful about my 8.3 second descent, and the only sound that came out of my mouth was a guttural, blood-curdling scream. As far as scenery goes, the only thing I took in was huge gulps of air, and possibly a fly.

Not So Much Fly, As Plummet

Jumping Jacs

And why doesn’t anybody tell you about the bounce?! It’s like doing the whole jump all over again!

This was not the fun, ‘wheeeeee’ kind of scary that one feels on a roller-coaster ride. This was not a ‘thrill.’ This was fear, real fear. It felt like it lasted forever! As they winched me back up to the rickety cable car I felt the adrenaline kick in just in time to watch Hicksy take his turn. I must admit, he was a bit more fearless. A bit more graceful. Or perhaps just a lot better at pretending that me.

Have a look at our videos and decide for yourself:

Me:

And Hicksy the Graceful:

In parting I would also like to add that I was not afraid of heights before this jump. I now am. Something about knowing how it feels to nosedive 134 meters makes me a little wary of all that empty air. Perhaps skydiving will be different…

Eek!

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Life in an Empty Cathedral

I remember Burto, who guided us through the rainforest in Milford Sound, once describing New Zealand as an empty cathedral when it comes to wildlife, and more specifically, bird life. While the towering mountains and dense rainforests are impressive and almost overwhelming at times, even more overwhelming is their silence.

How did it get this way? How did a country, once bursting with a variety of unique birds become such a deserted one? The answer is simple – before people got here, the birds became accustomed to living in a practically predator-free environment. Then along came man, who brought rats, cats, dogs and the dreaded possum. Birds like the giant Moa, the Kiwi and the Takahe weren’t used to having to defend themselves and were, one could say, sitting ducks. The Moa is now extinct. So is the Haast Eagle. There are only 200 Takahe left.

Despite this, every now and then you stumble upon a hidden pocket of native flora and fauna, where the air is alive with a variety of calls and songs, from the R2D2 mechanical melody of the Tui to the sad, mournful call of the Kokako. These are my top 3 places, sanctuaries dedicated to bringing these birds back:

Stewart Island anchors more than Maui’s canoe. It anchors in its rocks, rivers, and rugged shores and in its garnishment of plants and animals, the hope of generations unborn that places like this will always exist.

Neville Peat 1992

The ferry trip across the Forveaux Strait to Stewart Island might as well be a time-machine taking you back to the past. Some locals told us that they had moved there for a simpler life, one where nature is appreciated and time seems to slow down. There is one grocery store that doubles as a post office. There are no banks. There are no shopping centers. It has a deep family history, and it takes years for someone to be considered a local. One man told us that although he had lived on Stewart Island for seven years, and was still considered an outsider. 85% of the island is dedicated as the Rakiura National Park, which is something that those who live and work on the island take great pride in.

Stewart Island Main Road

We spent our first day on Stewart Island exploring, wandering down to the water where we spotted kingfishers perched on old wooden fishing boats. We climbed the hill to observation rock, a quick but steep walk just out of the center of ‘town’ which gives you a panoramic view of the surrounding inlet and bays. From there, there is a fun and easy walk along the coast, following a path through the rainforest alongside the bay. It was on this walk that I first experienced New Zealand native bird life.

I have never been terribly interested in birds, in fact I’m not sure many people are anymore. My eyes are rubbish so I have always battled to see them properly, and to be honest, I never really gave birds much thought. Hicksy, however, is far more ornithologically inclined, his father is passionate about birds and Hicksy has inherited his enthusiasm. I think that it was on Stewart Island that I first got excited about birds. And I believe that it takes a special kind of place to ignite that interest.

The coastal rainforest is full of all kinds of Native NZ birds. There are tuis, with their dual voiceboxes making a cacophony of cracks, clicks, cackles and wheezes. There are fantails, who flit around your head searching for insects. There are bellbirds with their beautiful melodic songs. As you walk, you will also notice trap after trap, set to catch the rats and possums that feast on these endangered birds and their eggs. The New Zealand government has spent millions on ridding parts of their country of rodents and pests brought here by early explorers.

Thanks to this dedication, Ulva Island, a short water taxi trip from Stewart Island, is completely pest and rodent free. It’ll take you about an hour to wander around Ulva, although you could probably stretch this out a bit more. We took 4 hours! If you’re new to birds, I would recommend one of the guided walks. The guides are passionate and friendly, with a plethora of knowledge of all things flora and fauna, and will thrill you with stories of the first explorers of the island as well as the cultural ties it has to the Maori tribes. With them, you won’t miss out on anything.

Ulva Island

If it’s kiwis you’re looking for, then a tramping trip across or around Stewart Island is probably your best bet. There are a number of hikes you can do, that take from hours to days. We did a 4 hour (which took us 6) tramp from Freshwater River to Mason Bay.

wellies are a good idea

Mason Bay has the highest concentration of kiwi than anywhere else in NZ, so your chances of spotting one are good. The walk is an easy flat one, although it has been known to get quite muddy. We opted for wellies rather than hiking boots and were very glad we did when we found ourselves knee deep in sludgy mud! We arrived at the dock huts, which you will need to book in advance, at around dusk. We could already hear the kiwis starting to call and set of on a hopeful search.

Despite the high concentration of kiwis, we saw none that night. After being taunted by their calls we returned to the hut around 2am, frustrated, tired and disappointed. After an interesting night, we rose early the next morning and began the trek back to Golden Bay. At 7am the sun was already out and we had just about given up on seeing a kiwi. Anyone in New Zealand will tell you, however, that it’s only when you give up that they come out. All of a sudden, about 10 meters away from us, a kiwi appeared alongside the path, stretched its neck and walked across to forage in the foliage next to us. We were frozen in excitement and joy! We had finally seen our Kiwi! We reached Golden Bay exhausted, but satisfied. Stewart Island had lived up to its expectations.

Tiritiri Matangi is a predator-free island sanctuary located 30km east of central Auckland. 120 years of farming stripped the island of 94% of its native bush, so from 1984 to 1994, volunteers planted between 250 000 and 300 000 trees. In conjunction with this planting, all rats, possums and other predators were booted from the island and a number of endangered birds and reptiles were introduced. The island holds a special place for us because in 1988 Hicksy’s parents planted a tree for him there, to celebrate his first birthday.

23 years later, we decided to see if we could find that tree! Armed with an “X-marks the spot” map that Hicksy’s dad emailed us, we took the 1.5hr ferry ride to Tiri. It was cold and windy intitially, but in typical NZ style, the skies soon cleared and the day became crisp and bright. We opted for a guided walk with one of the volunteer guides, which was short and easy walking for unfit me. All guides on Tiri are volunteers, which speaks mountains for their dedication.

Along the way we saw some of the best views of birds that we have seen in New Zealand. Sugar-water feeding stands set up around the island mean that you can sit and watch rare stitch birds, tuis, NI saddlebacks,  bellbirds and whiteheads all hopping and flying within arm’s reach as they enjoy their sugary drink. You’re also able to get up close and personal with the takahe, one of the world’s rarest speicies that looks like the pukeko’s rugby-playing cousin.

While we didn’t find Hicksy’s specific tree (there were over 300 000 to look at!) we found one of the same species in roughly the right area, which was good enough for us. The real joy of the day was the proximity that I could get to the birds, which meant that my rubbish eyes could pick up all the intricate details of their feathers, and I could also get some decent pictures.

One of them's my tree! Maybe.

Tiritiri is a magical place, just the abundance and concentration of birds that have been on the brink of extinction really lifted my spirits. I also love how close it is to the city, an hour and a half on a boat and you feel like you’re in another world! Our guide, Stu (who takes an icy dip in the sea every time he visits Tiri) said that he felt like whatever was happening in the world, whatever stresses he was facing in his life, it only took him one trip to Tiri to remember that all’s not lost yet.

Waipoua Forest and the adjoining forests of Matarauna and Waima make up the largest native forest in Northland New Zealand. Just a 3 hour drive from Auckland, this is another accessible haven of native NZ wildlife, and most prominently, the kiwi.

The abundance of kiwis is almost overshadowed by the giant, magnificent kauri trees that tower above you and make you forget why you came in the first place. I have seen some big trees but daaaaaaamn! Once exploited, these trees are now protected in another outstanding effort by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. The trees also hold a special spiritual and cultural significance, for example the largest tree is known as Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest. In Maori cosmology, Tane is the son of Ranginui the sky father and Papatuanuku, the earth mother. Tane is said to have torn his parents apart, breaking their primal embrace, to bring light, space and air and allowing life to flourish. The tree is 51.5 meters tall with a trunk girth of 13.8 meters. That’s a big tree.

We arrived at the Top 10 backpackers in the Waipoua Forest at about 9pm, having driven there straight after work. The owners were welcoming and helpful, telling us that kiwi had been spotted just the night before. They lent us their red-light torch and a map and we set off on the track through the forest. On average, the circuit track takes about an hour to complete, although as usual, we took our time. It’s a very easy walk, most of it is along a deck to protect the delicate Kauri roots. What will hit you the most is the darkness, with the torch turned off it is a very disorientating, engulfing blackness. A bit like stepping into a jar of Vegemite.

Hicksy navigates the darkness

Again we were tormented with the screeches of the kiwis, trying our best to creep along the track as quietly as possible. In hindsight, I would have worn less squeaky shoes. We had a few close brushes with kiwis, hearing them in the bushes near us but not being able to see them. The walk is exciting, the darkness and the eeriness of the forest, and being surrounded by such massive trees makes it quite an adventure. There are also a few areas where you can see glow worms, weird little lights dangling from the rocks and overturned kauri stumps.

The track is well sign-posted with information about the trees, birds and bugs, and after a while we came to a little box with a button that said “press.” We pressed, and nothing happened. Then all of a sudden, a great deep voice boomed “KIA ORA,” sending Hicksy and I screaming about a mile into the air. “Well, that’s it for kiwis,” we thought after the voice had finished telling us the story of the tree behind it. We headed back to camp, once again disappointed.

And just as we reached the end of the track, just as we’d given up all hope, guess what we saw. There, next to the toilets, about 5 meters in front of us, rummaging around, was a kiwi. Cue more frozen smiles of excitement! The sighting was brief, the kiwi wandered into a little shrub garden next to the ladies loo, but we hung around and listened to it for a little while longer. Our 100% kiwi-spotting success rate was still intact!

While searching for the kiwis allows you to experience the kauri forest in a completely different way, in its all-encompassing darkness, it is still worth having a look during the day. We had a wander around the following morning and it was amazing how different everything looked and felt. The trees really are magnificent in their size and history. Some are thousands of years old. There’s not much other birdlife, but it doesn’t really matter as there is still plenty that will take your breath away.

Tree hug!

All three of these places are special in their own ways. Tiri and Waipoua are wonderful day trips from Auckland, a great way to get out of the city and experience ‘real’ New Zealand. Stewart Island is more of a weekend trip and you really do feel the seclusion and remoteness of the island. What thrilled me most is the almost fairy-tale way in which dedicated conservation efforts have brought birds back from the brink of extinction. I suppose it’s the way it is with kiwi spotting – just when you’re about to give up, the birds come out and surprise you.

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The Great South Island Road Trip

In April, after a great deal of persuasion, my parents decided us to visit us in New Zealand. It was up to us to plan a road trip of the South Island that included as many of the best bits as possible, and squeeze it all into 10 days. We decided that the best way to do this would be to hire a campervan, plot an approximate route, and take it from there. We didn’t want every minute planned out, we wanted to be able to take our time and stay at a place for a little longer if we loved it. At the same time, we also knew that there were some specific activities that we wanted to do, and we would have to book them in advance. So after a lot of emails, guidebooks and conversations with helpful Southlanders, we finally came up with a basic plan for the South Island road trip of a lifetime. What followed was 10 days of pure Kiwi experiences, a trip that finally convinced my dad that New Zealand is not just sheep, mountains and rings.

Scroll to the bottom of the page to see an interactive route map of our trip, or click here to see a bigger version.

The Trip

First Stop: Dunedin

My parents arrived in Dunedin in the evening, after a long drive down from Christchurch. Exhausted, they were keen to get some rest. I had taken the liberty of booking a room at a small backpackers near the center of town. I assumed that they would be happy with “no frills” accommodation, and enjoy roughing it as Hicksy and I had been doing ourselves. This was a big mistake. The backpackers that I had booked was by no means the worst I have ever seen, but it was… minimalist. The bathrooms were communal and the place was small, old and smelly. Still, Mama Kirk put on a brave face and hoisted her luggage up the narrow creaky stairs and into her room. We heard giggles coming from outside the window, and discovered a hot-tub full of girls in the garden below. Papa Kirk didn’t think the accommodation was so bad. Mom clearly wasn’t happy though, and when she pulled back the covers to discover a family of fleas camping in the bed, it was the last straw. They were booked in to a hotel less than an hour later.

The 'Rents

Mama Kirk and Papa Kirk (happier without the fleas)

The next day we showed my folks the best that Dunedin had to offer. We did a tour of the Speights Brewery (our second), and drove along the peninsula to the Albatross Colony, before heading out for supper. The Speights tour was outstanding, and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Dunedin! Don’t bother with the Cadbury’s tour though, it’s highly overrated and is little more than a long walk to the gift shop.

Otago Peninsula

The Peninsula

Next Stop: Te Anau & Doubtful Sound

The next morning we all piled in to the campervan and began the 3hr drive to Te Anau. The trip had finally started! The Camper, while being a 5-sleeper, was cosy and rattled like mad when we were driving. We soon got used to it, our reflexes improving as we dodged/caught the falling books/dishes/laptops as they burst out of the cupboards. We arrived in Te Anau in the late afternoon, plugged the camper into the campsite and set off to explore the lake. Kiwi campsites are outstanding, they’re clean, well maintained and have everything you could possibly need. That night we barbequed under the stars and slept relatively soundly despite the snoring of Papa Kirk.

The following morning we were up at sparrow’s fart to catch a boat across Lake Manapouri followed by a bus over the Wilmot Pass to Doubtful Sound. The journey to the sound really makes it clear just how remote you are, it was quite exciting! Once we got to Doubtful Sound we boarded the Fiordland Navigator for an overnight cruise along the length of the sound.

Getting ready to go kayaking

Hicksy geared up to kayak

This was comfortably one of the best things we’ve done in New Zealand. It was absolutely incredible! The first day was very wet and windy creating dramatic waterfalls that cascaded down every surface available. We had a great time messing around in single-man kayaks in the drizzle, working up a substantial appetite.

I need to take a moment her to tell you about the dinner. First off, it was Hicksy’s favourite food: Buffet. And not just any old buffet, but roast lamb, beef, chicken, veggies…. an array of salads and sauces and sides….it was heaven. And I haven’t even started on the desert buffet!

The next morning we woke to clear blue skies, still water and breathtaking views. We were wowed further when a front blew in creating a rainbow right across the sound. I will always remember the overwhelming peace that I felt, standing on deck, cup of hot chocolate in hand, engulfed by the silence of the sound.

We slowly made our way back to the docking station and started the long journey back to Te Anau (which was a much more interesting trip now that the rain had cleared!).

Go to doubtful sound slideshow

Next Stop: Milford Sound

We then headed to Milford Sound where we were greeted by more clear skies! I know I’m harping on about the weather, but it really is quite unusual for the area, which gets about 6,813 mm of rain a year. The journey to Milford is an experience in itself, with beautiful scenery and short walks as well as an interesting drive through the Homer Tunnel. We plugged the camper into another campsite and got an early night. What luxury this was in comparison to the last time Hicksy and I came to Milford Sound! No 3 nights of sleeping in our tiny Ford Festiva while rain thunders down relentlessly outside, oh no! This was bliss! Well, if bliss includes swarms of sandflies anyway.

The next morning Dad, Hicksy and I paddled twin kayaks the entire length of the sound, while Mom opted for the scenic cruise. It took us a leisurely 5 hours to paddle the 25km to the Tasman Sea, taking in albatrosses, sea lions (or seals? I never can tell) and going through waterfalls along the way. We went with Roscos Kayaks and I would recommend them in a heartbeat. Our guide, Burto, was brilliant. He was full of knowledge, great fun and didn’t mind Hicksy’s half-hearted paddling in their twin kayak. We got back to the campsite for what we thought would be a relaxing afternoon, but soon discovered that we had to be in Queenstown the next day for a wine tour. Back to the camper!

milford sound slideshow

Next Stop: Queenstown

So back to the camper we rushed, and off to Queenstown we rode!  The next morning we were picked up by Appellation Central Wine Tours, for a private tour of the Central Otago wine region. Now, I’m not much of a wine drinker, but this was superb. The guide really knew his stuff, and could answer all of Dad’s questions about tannins and vines and other winey things. And Dad is a wine snob connoisseur.

Great Fermentations

Grape Fermentations

The vineyards were also beautiful, in fact Queenstown was beautiful, picturesque in its Autumn colours. We had another day in Qtown, so we filled it with jet boating, luging and me demolishing Hicksy at mini-golf. We also treated ourselves to the famous Bluff oysters, which were de-licious and introduced Mom and Dad to the legendary Ferg Burgers! We didn’t do any of the super-extreme activities as Hicksy and I had already done them on a previous visit (which will be blogged about at some point) and Mom and Dad weren’t really interested in chucking themselves off a cliff while attached to an elastic band.

From Queenstown we headed to Wanaka. We went through Arrowtown, gorgeous with its wide streets under a leafy canopy of oranges, reds and browns. As it was Hicksy’s birthday we made a slight detour to the Rob Roy Glacier, a small hike that he’d been wanting to do for a while. Dad’s Achilles tendon was giving him trouble (he’d snapped it skiing) so Mom, Hicksy and I climbed to the glacier. Well, it was more of a steep walk than a climb I suppose. It’s a fantastic hike to do, with a great deal of variety in scenery and exciting rockfall-risk areas where signs warned us against stopping for fear of being squished. Glacial water is delicious too.

Rob Roy Slideshow

Next Stop: The Glaciers

We now entered the final stages of the trip: the drive up the West Coast to the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers.

This was an interesting drive, going from the awesome views at Lake Hawea and Blue Pools and continuing into Pukekura, population: 2. The two people who live in Pukekura are Pete and Justine, who run the Puke Pub where one can sample the supposedly delicious Possum Pies. Even Hicksy didn’t try those. They also have a bizarre museum out back, where you can see real possums (future pies?), eels and other weird stuff. We wandered around the museum for a while, until it got a bit creepy and we moved on to the glaciers.

At this point the weather finally started to turn, hitting us with the wind and rain that is more typical of the dense rainforesty area. We got to the glaciers in the late afternoon and decided to treat ourselves to a relaxing evening in the thermal pools.

The next day Hicksy woke up early to explore the Fox Glacier, and later on we went with Mom to the Franz Joseph. I would have loved to have done a glacier hike or helicoptered over them, but unfortunately time and weather were against us so we had to make do with the walk to the base. I’m not sure we got to experience it in all it’s glory, but it was still an awe-inspiring sight.

Lake Hawea

Lake Hawea

Final Stop: Christchurch

Time was rapidly running out. We drove up the West Coast, crossed the famous Arthur’s Pass and finally arrived in Christchurch, where we stayed at our final campsite. My parents said it had been one of their best holidays ever, which was a relief, as I had hoped they would fall in love with New Zealand as I had. I was amazed at how well we all got along, 4 adults in a confined space initially seemed mad. It’s hard not to be permanently happy though, when every day your breath is taken away by the beauty of your surroundings.

We had our last delicious meal of steak and mussels before Mom and Dad flew home, we boarded our bus, and it was back to beans on toast for Hicksy and I.

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The Route:

Click on the blue arrows for details.

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