New Zealand's South Island. Where to begin? It's home to the hip college town of Dunedin, the mighty and mysterious fjordland, a (probably) magical rain forest up the west cost, and more Lord of the Rings filming locations than you can shake a stick at. We've long heard and read of the overwhelming beauty of the south island. What jumped out to me, though, was not just the ridiculously gorgeous landscapes (which they are) but how much diversity there is in them. Then to take it up a notch, they're all smashed into such a tiny place that you can actually get a pretty good feel for the place in a week...on a road trip in a 38 year old car armed with a new tent, a bag of picnic food and snacks, and not a cloud in the sky. It's hard to sum up something like this without either going completely overboard (I make no promises) or using bullet points, so in the spirit of tidiness I'll be using the latter. To the south!
Day 1 - Destination: Trotter's Gorge Campground • Blue skies all day. Fear of trucker's tan (burn) on my arm. The Pacific Ocean to our left. • Passed the 45° South latitude line. • Stopped an hour North of Dunedin for the night, allowing a little time on Day 2 to explore the city. • First night in the tent without a hitch. We splurged a little on this with the idea that by not buying too cheap of a tent we'd be able to bring it back to the States with us for future use.
Day 2 - Destination: Queen's Reach Campground, Te Anau • Woke to rain and quickly took packed up. Breakfast of hardboiled eggs and PB+J in the car and on to Dunedin. Pouring rain, mind you. • Picked up a new (old) cassette tape from the library sale to fill in the (very broad) gaps between radio reception in the car. A 90's mix of British bands (Just OK. Definitely not the best of 90's Brit rock, it turns out). • Bagpipe band parade through downtown means extra traffic, also extra fun. Pouring rain, still. Between the kilts and the weather it almost felt like being in Portree. • Rain and grey across the island as we headed west through Gore (World Capital of Brown Trout Fishing! Also New Zealand's Country Music Capital! Not just an American phenomenon, this pairing.), Lumsden, and on to Te Anau - the jump off point for much of the Fjordland trekking/camping/boat touring. • Got the tent sent up in the rain only to find two tears in the rain fly, shoddy seam taping all over, and a leak straight into the tent from the middle of one of the fly panels. Avoided leak drips while cooking and eating dinner (and cursing our "quality" tent) before packing everything away again. Sleeping in vintage cars has its advantages - namely that the seats almost fully recline, making for a nearly horizontal and only sort of bumpy surface. Also, it's dry.
Day 3 - Destination: Milford Sound and back to Queen's Reach Campground • Light rain and cloudy skies welcomed us with a cold hug. • Stopped in Te Anau for a coffee, which powered us onward through some of the aforementioned scenery and steadily improving weather. • First in line (there are traffic lights) for the Homer Tunnel, formerly the world's longest gravel-surfaced tunnel in the world, and still - by far - the creepiest tunnel I've ever been in. Steep, straight, and about a lane and a half wide. • Lunch and a little walking around the beginning of the Sound, debating an overpriced though guaranteed to be beautiful cruise. Opting to spend our last bits of tourism cash on the Waitomo Caves. Back the way we came, again first in for the tunnel. We shared the spot with a bicyclist, who soon was dubbed our personal hero. Our car doesn't have any problem coasting downhill, but she gives out a little on steep ascents, this one being no different, but also a lot easier than peddling ourselves through the dark. • Walked the short hike to Devil's Chasm - a spectacular gorge cut in the middle of the forest by waterfalls. The rocks have been smoothed down and drilled out yet the chasm remains so narrow you can barely see it exists in some places. Not something that can be captured too easily, if at all, on camera. • Sunshine! Dried out and repacked the tent for returning to the store, after it enjoyed a final dry out on top of the Triumph - at Queen's Reach, the mountains showing off in the distance.
Day 4 - Destination: Boundary Creek Campground via Queenstown and Wanaka • Morning sun while we made a cup of coffee and brushed our teeth near the entrance of the campground so as not to disturb too many other campers letting the engine warm up to the day. • Multiple viewpoint stops on the way to Queenstown through more spectacular scenery: rolling hillsides covered in sheep, tree breaks bent with the wind, jagged rocky peaks reflecting the dew and rain leftover, and a mighty river as deep blue as any I've seen. • Lunch at Fergburger in Queenstown on recommendation from our workstay friends from Germany. Absolutely worth the $20 for the deliciousness of the food as well as for the break from car picnics. • Explored the outdoor mall atmosphere of Queenstown and then Wanaka for the afternoon. Most of it, while really nice, feels a bit too nice. For those familiar with the reference, it felt a bit like Vail, Aspen, or Park City...a little too clean, a little too expensive, a little too put on, but also surrounded by intense natural beauty. • Up and over the Crown Range mountains (our Triumph triumphant) to the Boundary Creek campsite for the night; wind coming out of the gathering clouds, down off the mountains and across lake Wanaka to the stone and driftwood beach where we tried to hide the camp stove flames that heated our beans.
Day 5 - Destination: Gillespie's Beach, Fox Glacier • Rain in the morning, downpour all afternoon, rain in the evening. • Drove the people free roads to Haast in the west, greeting the Tasman Sea coast before noon. • Arrived in Fox Glacier with bad weather and worse forecasts, but decided to stay the night at Gillespie's Beach on the off chance that there'd be a break by morning. Lucked out with long enough in the afternoon to walk from the campsite to the beach for a little marveling at the gigantic waves of aquamarine water rolling in and hone our stone skipping abilities. Also were able to take a short walk to the gold dredging site just up from the campsite. Much of this central west coast area was once covered in gold and jade mining operations. • Amazing dense foliage of rainforest: ferns, tree ferns, cabbage trees, evergreens; all of it lush green and dripping with moss.
Day 6 - Destination: Greensborough Campground, Hokitika • WIN! Woke up to a spectacular sunrise over Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook (where Sir Edmund Hilary fine tuned his skills before summiting Everest), took that as a sign and hightailed it to Franz Josef Glacier. For those paying attention, that's a second glacier about 30km up the road, both of them just minutes from the coast. • Hiked through the rainforest, across the glacial flood plane, to the face of the glacier, then back again via a few waterfalls. ...All before the rain started up again. • To the quaint welcome of Hokitika, home to jade cutting studios and workshops, the sock museum, a nice little library, and our "food research" tasting of a (the local specialty) Whitebait patty sandwich. Not bad, despite being a bit plain and boasting a rather unappetizing name. • New Zealand, despite (or probably because of) being a younger country, has shown me more than just about any place else, the real actual firsthand benefits of vibrant city centers. While chains certainly exist (mostly of the grocery, gas, and financial variety), the local shops seem to still dominate, people frequent the area, and because of it, there seems to be a pretty tangible community and community personality. Growing up in small town America you hear a lot about "Main Street" but my personal experience has made that seem slightly more a nostalgic reminiscence than a current reality.
Day 7 - Destination: Kawatiri Campground, Murchison • Passed through Greymouth with a short stop at the library, the rain again preventing a bit of extra foot exploration that might have happened otherwise. • Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki. Arrived in time to catch high tide as well as a break in the rain (again!). Scientists don't really know why the rocks have formed the way they have. However, it's fairly obvious, when you see the way the waves pound the cliffs, why holes have been carved underground. When the force of those same waves needs an exit, it's also pretty amazing to see and hear the blowholes in action, releasing puffs of ocean into a fine mist. • Cape Foulwind, outside of Westport: This is the home of a seal colony, where, during our third lucky break in the rain for the day, we managed to catch the seal pups still testing out their swimming skills amongst the rocks and crashing waves while the elders watched. Actually I'm lying - the older seals were just sleeping. • Eastbound! Leaving the coast and the rainforest and entering another new, somewhat more familiar seeming climate and foliage while winding back and forth around and over hills and valleys. • INSANE SAND FLIES at Kawatiri Campsite - do not leave the vehicle. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
Day 8 - Destination: Nelson • Woke up and drove immediately so as to escape the sand flies before opening the doors to brush teeth, eat, or rearrange the car. Ten kilometers up the road? A nice hilltop campground windy enough to keep the flies at bay with two cars still sleeping peacefully. *sigh. • More winding roads, beautiful views, and sheep as we covered the last kilometers in to Nelson's nearly Mediterranean sun and coastline.