Two weeks on NZ’s south island

It’s hard to know where to begin with our experience of New Zealand’s south island as our two weeks there were filled with so many ups and downs. We were travelling at the beginning of spring—shoulder season from a tourist perspective—so we knew the weather would be changeable. And changeable it was! This meant that two weeks in a campervan was a pretty damp experience, especially on the days when the heavens decided to open. We imagine it would be a lot more fun in the summertime when you can sit outside and soak up the beauty the island has to offer on a more consistent basis. On the perfect sunny days we did have, however, we really made the most of our time. That’s not to say we didn’t also make the most of the rainy days: At times the rain created a mystical atmosphere and moments that we won’t forget.

Anyway, I’ve tried to summarize what we got up to in our two weeks on the island in this post. We drove 1,755 miles over our two weeks on the south island—a decent feat considering we had a campervan that chugged along at a mind-blowing 50mph—so there’s a lot to fit into one blog (sorry!). 

Before I get onto that, though, I figured I should update you on how I’m feeling. As Alastair mentioned in the last blog, I started to feel really unwell on my birthday in Wellington. At first I had weird symptoms, such as feeling really sick but not actually getting sick, so I just brushed it off. A few days into the south island, however, I started getting other weird symptoms. For example, my neck and back started killing me beyond belief, but I blamed this on sleeping in a campervan with a bad pillow (I’m not usually the best with new beds!). Then a few days later I started feeling feverish on top of this, with horrible headaches, chills, and a lack of appetite in the evenings. In the end, I broke down crying because I just didn’t know what was going on with my body. This was also when it was cold, raining, and all I wanted was to be in a warm, cosy house instead of a damp, cold campervan! I started to think about the combination of symptoms and was worried I could have meningitis or something equally scary. At this point, Alastair said enough was enough and we drove straight to the nearest doctor to get me checked out.

Even the doctor found it hard to conclude what was wrong with me, but my blood results showed high levels of inflammation in my body, which usually indicates a nasty virus. The good news was that she felt confident that I didn’t have meningitis. Her thoughts were that the timing of the symptoms after our stay in Samoa probably meant it was a tropical virus of some sort, with Zika the most likely candidate. Slightly scared that I’d managed to catch something that had been in the news so much recently, but also relieved that it wasn’t something more menacing, I left the doctors with some antibiotics and peace of mind. We were very impressed with NZ’s healthcare systems after this: My doctor was so nice, caring, and extremely thorough. Long story short, I’m now feeling much better and it seems to have gone away fully.

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Here’s a breakdown of our South Island adventure:

1. Kaikoura

Our first stop was Kaikoura; a town that was dramatically affected by an earthquake in 2016. Its coastline was raised by six feet (two metres!) as a result. We enjoyed a couple walks to take in the beautiful Kaikoura mountain range reflected on its calm bay, with seals and birds around every corner. It was also a fishing haven for Alastair! The first couple nights in our campervan we had great weather, so we cooked outside, soaked up the atmosphere, and really enjoyed ourselves. I have never seen so many stars in my life than we did on the first night here; it was magical.

 

2. Mahau Sound/Marlborough area

We were dying to go to Abel Tasman area, but it literally did not stop raining the whole time we were in the north of the south island. There wasn’t much point heading that way in this downpour, so sadly had to skip it! Until next time… We enjoyed freedom camping on the shores of Mahau Sound in what felt like the middle of nowhere! 

 

3. Nelson Lakes (St. Arnaud/Lake Rotoiti)

The rain persisted here, but this turned out to be one of the most unforgettable places on our two-week trip. It’s definitely one of my favorite locations on the island. The lake looked incredible in the moody climate and we were virtually the only people there. It was so peaceful and honestly spectacular. Although when the rain had stopped the following morning, we discovered first hand the sandflies that plague campers in NZ…

 

4. Punakaiki

We stopped at these crazy rocks on our drive down the west coast. The weather was wet. Very wet. So, we pretty much just kept driving at this point of the trip. 

 

5. Franz Josef Glacier & Blue Pools walk

After a big drive the day before, we walked up to the Franz Josef glacier. Well, as close as we were allowed to get, which was about 700m away. It was crazy to see how much the glacier had diminished (this link takes you to a revealing timelapse) compared to a picture taken just a few years before. Don’t worry, though, Mr. Trump—global warming definitely isn’t real. It’s fake news. After this, we had an incredible drive through the mountains towards Wanaka, stopping at waterfalls, the beautiful Blue Pools walk, and a few other places. We almost ran out of fuel, too, but we juuuuust made it before our camper gave up. 

 

6. Wanaka

We had a couple good days of weather in Wanaka and really fell for this town. We spent the most time here than any other stop; partly because the town was lovely and the views were incredible, but also because this is where the Zika virus hit me hardest. We even took a day off exploring; chilling in a cafe so I could rest and going to the movies to see A Star is Born (we thought it was such a good movie) at the cutest local theatre in the evening. The weather also improved here and on one of the clearest days of our whole trip we climbed Isthmus Peak (still amazed I achieved this in my condition!). We fully intended on climbing Mt. Roy’s Peak (the most well known hike in this area), but it was closed for “lambing” for the entire month! Mt. Isthmus did not disappoint, though, as it had incredible 360 degree views of Lake Wanaka, Lake Hawea, and the surrounding mountains. The hike was tough as we climbed non-stop uphill from the lake to the summit for 4,543 feet (1385m). Our legs were numb when we reached the top, but the views were very much worth it. This was one of our favorite days!

 

7. Queenstown/Glenorchy

We had terrible (like, really terrible) weather driving through here and were so sad not to be able to see much of Glenorchy, which we were so looking forward to exploring. Queenstown was much bigger and touristy compared to Wanaka, but I could see how it is a wonderful place to soak up the beauty of New Zealand! It looks like an amazing base to go on hikes for days. 

 

8. Te Anau

Te Anau is the last town before you get on the road towards Milford Sound. The town itself is very charming on a big lake (south island’s largest, I think?) with beautiful mountains reflecting off it. When we woke up here, the mountains had all been covered by snow from the night before, which made the reflections even better! 

 

9. Milford Sound

Ah, the destination many people dream of visiting. It has always been on my bucket list and we were both so excited for this part of the trip. The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is out of this world; as a matter of fact, we’re convinced that the drive to Milford Sound is better than the actual destination! We (regrettably) did limited research before we went here and assumed Milford Sound was a town. We meant to book our campsite on the drive, but once you leave Te Anau, you won’t have cell service until you come back. Just so you know, Milford Sound is not a town, there is no where to stay (okay, one hotel that will be booked months in advance), you are not allowed to freedom camp anywhere close, and there is one paid campsite with limited spots available. After begging and pleading we got the last spot at the campsite (on our second attempt; we were told it was full on our first go), which was very lucky. If you are ever planning on going here, plan in advance!

 

We took an early boat through the sound (fjords) and the atmosphere was quite eerie! Clouds, rain (yep, more rain), massive cliffs (peaks, mountains!?) that had rain plummeting down them to create massive waterfalls everywhere you looked! Most people say the area is beautiful in the rain, but personally at this point I would’ve really liked to see it in the sun! Overall it was worth the trip there, but surprisingly not our favorite spot on the trip (let’s blame the weather shall we?).

 

10. Cromwell

One of my favorite things we discovered in New Zealand (thanks Sophie) was the ice cream. They make ice cream out of fresh fruit and it’s incredible. I had it for breakfast in Cromwell 🙂

 

11. Mount Cook (Lake Pukaki)

The Hooker Valley track is extremely busy, probably because it’s one of the easiest round-trip hikes you’ll find in the south island, but it is amazing. The views of Mt. Cook were out of this world and it has three fun swing bridges along the way! We had another great clear day here and I was so excited when we saw the view of Mt. Cook on Lake Pukaki: It was just perfect.

 

12. Lake Tekapo

We did a short hike up to Mt John Observatory near Lake Tekapo. We really enjoyed this as it was through a pine forest that smelled amazing and there were more stunning panoramas from the top. 

 

13. Timaru

Oh, another beautiful day here! Maybe it wasn’t so bad?! We had an impromptu stop at Timaru (ironically because the weather had got really bad near Mt. Cook) and camped near the beach where the smallest penguins in the world choose to live and nest! After sunset, you see the penguins arrive onshore after their daily trip out to sea to fish, and then waddle up to find their babies they’ve left in their nests. This was such a fun experience as we’d never seen penguins in the wild. As expected, they were adorable and very entertaining, so this was a big highlight of our trip (she says for the twentieth time)!

 

14. Back to Christchurch

On our last day in the campervan I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much rain (and I’ve lived in the UK for the past five years!!). It did not let up the entire day, it was freezing, and we had had it. We booked ourselves in a campsite where we could chill and cook somewhere inside, and read our books.

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So, our dream of exploring New Zealand came true and we believe we covered a lot of amazing spots. There is so much more to see, and I’m sure we missed a lot, but what we did see and experience was very impressive. The country has a population of 4.7m people, which is tiny (less than half the population of London!) and shows how much untouched, open space there is on offer. The people we met along the way were so friendly and talkative, and everyone seemed to know one another! One thing that sticks out from the experience is that all the drivers were aggressive and the over-taking culture was bizarre and somewhat dangerous. However, one thing you can depend on is a very good cup of coffee, no matter if you order it from a petrol station, a subway, or a cool café.

Thanks for the beautiful views New Zealand, we loved you!

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