New Zealand – South Island
Roadtrip at the antipodes
My roadtrip on the New Zealand’s South Island started in Christchurch in mid-September. The capital of Canterbury has been hit hard by some earthquakes between 2010 and 2011, and the signs are still visible everywhere. There is no way without construction sites or orange cones, and in the few places from which they have disappeared you can easily recognize brand new houses and buildings.
The main attraction of the city is the Cathedral, whose front face is collapsed due to the recent earthquakes. The (few) other interesting things are all in the area: a beautiful and huge botanical garden, a free museum (really nice) and a gallery of contemporary art (which being contemporary is interesting, but not beautiful). In Christchurch there is also a beach, in New Brighton, very pretty.
The city is well served by dozens of bus lines, all departing from the central Bus Interchange. With the colorful Rechargeable Metrocard you can easily pay the ride as soon as you get on the bus, with a maximum daily cost of less than 10 NZ $, which if achieved it will make free all other rides for the rest of the day.
With my campervan I left Christchurch after three days and I went north, following the east coast of the island. The first stop was at the District of Kaikoura, where a winter weather has welcomed me, and the friend who traveled with me, with gray skies and landscapes. In summer it seems to be one of the most popular places for tourists, in September not at all.
Continuing driving north I reached Picton, a picturesque town situated between some fjords, famous only for being the port of arrival/departure of the ferry from/to Wellington and the North Island. Leaving the town, we drove westwards, crossing long mountain ranges full of hairpin bends to get to Nelson – on the north coast – one of the most beautiful cities in the South Island. Famous for the high number of sunny days in a year, with a long and beautiful beach, a combination that has made it one of the favourite destinations for tourists, backpackers and, of course, the New Zealanders who live there.
Nelson is also the best starting point to visit the Abel Tasman National Park, considered the most beautiful National Park in the entire country. If equipped with tents and sleeping bags you can take the entire five-day trek through it. Otherwise the only way to visit it is to be landed on a deserted beach by a boat, which is shuttle between the park and Marahau. Like us, for example: we landed in Torrent Bay (37 NZ $ each), and then we walked back (16 km, about 6 hours) to Marahau and our van. The park is amazing, with the path through the forest that suddenly emerges on white and deserted beaches.
Once left the Nelson area, three days later, we headed to the west coast, stopping quickly at the peaceful and isolated Lake Rotoroa. After that we reached Westport and the curious rock formations known as Pancake Rocks, in Punakaiki.
The warm northern weather faded as we descended the west coast, reaching the Hokitika Gorge first, whose waters have a particular gray-blue colour due to their glacial origin, and then the Glaciers area.
The two most famous and impressive glaciers of New Zealand are just a few kilometres away from each other, and they are the only ones at these latitudes that are so close to the sea. From north to south, the first one you meet is the Franz Josef Glacier, which stands “still” in the middle of two rock faces, showing off all its whites and blues. For safety reasons it is possible to get only 750 m far from the glacier but, if you are rich, you can walk on it – in another point, of course – after being deposited with helicopters. You can see dozens of those fluttering above the ice like mosquitoes all day long.
A little further south is the Fox Glacier, which is much uglier and dirtier, but with incredible landscapes all around. Both glaciers have retreated few CHILOMETRES in the last century, due to global warming, which exists, and has been created by mankind who release carbon dioxide through industries, engines and, above all, intensive livestock. At the Fox and Franz Josef parking lots there are signs with old pictures of the ice-level over the years, and their respective temperature graphs. That was impressive, especially because most of the people don’t give a shit about it.
Near the Fox, there is also a lake known as “Mirror Lake” because of its reflections, Lake Matheson. I’ve been there on a gloomy day, with rain and wind ruffling the water, and the mountains that should have been reflected were almost totally hidden by the clouds, so I’ve been unlucky.
However, seeing the photos of the place on sunny days, it is absolutely clear that it is only a tourist trap (it is far from the town of Fox but, of course, there is a large café with a gift shop). The “lake” is a simple pond (you can slowly walk the full loop in about an hour and a half), surrounded by tall weeds and with a couple of viewing points good only for your Instagram (if it’s sunny, obviously). The entire path is almost completely surrounded by the trees that surround the lake, so basically you’ll never walk following the coast of the lake or the water. Avoid it. There are (real) beautiful lakes further south.
Once I left the glaciers area, I continued drive south. A 262 km road took us to Wanaka, a small town south of the homonymous lake. The road runs along the Tasman Sea for a long stretch, up to Haast, and then continues through the Mount Aspiring National Park. The views along these 200 km are stunning.
Lake Wanaka, famous for the solitary tree that grows in the middle of its waters, just a few meters from the shore, is served by the small town with the same name and nothing else. Unfortunately, the weather did not allow us to climb the nearby Roys Peak, from where we could enjoy a breathtaking view of the entire lake. Do it, if you can.
The same evening we crossed the high snowy mountains following the road to Queenstown. The New Zealand’s “capital of skiing” is a very small town – about 12,000 people – but it seems huge. Probably because of the impressive amount of tourists that invade it, seven days a week and during all the year, with the result that the parking lots are almost impossible to find (the only free parking is near the city park) and the traffic is insane. Another example of super-tourism is Ferburger, a burger restaurant so famous (!) that people make a long line ending outside the shop. Half an hour to order, and half an hour to wait for the burger. A burger that costs an average of 13 NZ$ (just the hamburger, without chips or drinks). I know the prices because I was curious and I looked at their site. I did not enter, but I just laughed at the crowd passing by with my van.
After two days in the city, hosted by an incredibly good human being named Mark and his daughter Milly, through AirBnb (obviously in the city, or close to it, it’s not possible to camp for free), we headed to the enchanting and gloomy Milford Sound.
This is a huge fjord (probably the most famous place in New Zealand), four hour drive from the city where, to visit it, you can choose between a cruise on a ferry or a helicopter/airplane flight (Guess? This is for the rich). The 1:00 PM cruise is the busiest of tourists – and the most expensive, 89 NZ$ – because it is usually filled by tours that depart from Queestown with tourist buses. We had wisely camped at the nearest Lumdsen, and we’ve been able to book the 11:00 AM cruise (1h 45min. – 55 NZ $). Halfway down the road, however, an avalanche that fell in the previous days slowed us down by at least two hours, but the ship waited for us and the dozens of cars that were blocked with us. In winter it happens quite often.
The “cruise” in the fjord, however, was very beautiful, and it is perhaps more impressive to see the fjord with rain and clouds than on a sunny day. In any case, the cruise is the minimum you can do, if you decide to go all that long and winding (and beautiful) road to Milford Sound.
After another two nights spent at the nice rest area of Lumsden (the old man who take care of the place, with his dog, will keep you busy with stories and questions), we reached Invercargill, a city in the far south of the island, of which Mick Jagger once said “It’s the arsehole of the world“. What else can I add?
Just beyond the city is Curio Bay, where you can watch the penguins return to their nests every day, about an hour before sunset. After waiting for them all the rainy afternoon, we headed to the cliffs indicated, and finally, after an hour and a half hit by cold and wind, only one appeared. And far away from us. Then it got dark and we left.
From there you can only go north, so we did it the following day, driving along the east coast of the island. Beautiful is Nugget Point, a series of cliffs with a lighthouse on top of the highest one, a few kilometres south of Kaka Point.
After a day in Dunedin (in this case the pearl of wisdom is by Keith Richards: “It was Sunday, a wet Sunday in Dunedin in 1965. I don’t think you could find anything more depressing anywhere. Dunedin made Aberdeen seem like Las Vegas”), where the best point was, with no doubts, the incredible Tunnel Beach, I headed to Aoraki/Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand.
The road that cuts across the island from Dunedin to Twizel is definitely on the podium of the most beautiful roads that I have ever travelled, for the quality of its sublime landscapes.
Just after the expensive Twizel is Lake Pukaki, tinged with an intense blue and in which are perfectly reflected (here yes!) the mountain ranges that surround the lake. In the distance stands the double peak of Mount Cook, always snow-covered and shining with the sun. Around the mountain it is possible to take a few daily hikes, one of which leads to the Glacier Tasman Lake, a glacial lake where icebergs slowly float around.
A geographical area that stretches for tens of kilometres, and has its centre between the lakes Pukaki and Tekapo (this one is nothing exceptional, maybe because of the ugly homonymous town and the crazy amount of tourists), has been classified as one of the only ten Dark Sky Reserve in the world.
So, basically, from anywhere in this area – staying away from artificial light – you can see the Milky Way with your naked eye, and take magnificent shots.
We left the lakes area after three days to return to the east coast, and start the slow way back to Christchurch (good luck if you want to drive into town, and bring a few million NZ$ if you want to park an hour in the CBD), which I reached in mid-October.
During the last three days spent a few kilometres south of the city, we went to the last leg of the trip, the Banks Peninsula. This circular peninsula south of Christchurch was formed as a result of some volcanic eruptions 8 million years ago. A beautiful scenic road led me on top of the old craters and up to the top of the mountains, eventually descending into the picturesque French town (yes, French) of Akaroa.
Days: 29 (26 on the road)
Total fuel cost: 1,200.00 NZ$ (average 2.45 NZ$/l)
Click here to see the entire gallery of the South Island!