After our 35 minute flight to Christchurch (it was cheaper than the bus) we headed to lucky rentals to pick up our van for 2 weeks. As lucky rentals are the cheapest campervan rental company in NZ, we were expecting our van to be basic at best! However we were pleasantly surprised, Donald (yes I named it) was excellent and much bigger than our previous van, we headed off extremely excited about what the next 2 weeks had in store.
After spending most of the afternoon in the supermarket collecting supplies, we were like kids in a sweet shop, we decided to head to Akaroa, an hour south of Christchurch. We managed to find a free campsite to stay for the evening and awoke to one of the most amazing views ever.
We spend the morning exploring Akaora, which was a beautiful French village next to the sea and then headed up a road called summit pass which is meant to have one of the nicest views of the region. I think the pictures tell you everything you need to know.
From there we headed north towards Kaikoura, apparently one of the best places in the country to swim with dusky dolphins. On arrival we decided to head to a car park overlooking the water with views of seals…they were everywhere. In the car park, lying under cars, on the beach, in the water, amazing.
We’d been told that the best time to swim with dolphins was in the morning but unfortunately for us the trip the following morning was booked up. The forecast for the day after wasn’t great so we decided to book onto the afternoon dolphin encounter and keep our fingers crossed.
We arrived at the centre the following day to the news that the morning group had been successful and they’d managed to find a large pod of dolphins to swim with. I was uncontrollably excited, this was something we’d both been talking about since arriving in New Zealand. Wetsuits on and ready to go we headed out on the boats in search of Dusky dolphins. 3 hours later we returned, tails between our legs and my bottom lip well and truly out. We saw the odd dolphin but nowhere near enough to swim with so we had no option but to return to land. The owner of the company even headed up in a plane searching for them, it just wasn’t to be our day. We did see a blue whale spouting out water though which was pretty cool. Later we found out that there were many Orca (Killer whales) in the area so the dolphins were probably scared off. Not to be deterred we decided to book on the early trip for the next day, we vowed not to leave Kaikora until we’d been swimming with dolphins! In an attempt to cheer ourselves up we decided to go and eat some seafood. We’d spotted a caravan at the side of the road the previous day boasting ‘world famous seafood’ it had to be good! Well, good wasn’t the word, it was amazing. We shared a seafood chowder, I had half a dozen scallops with rice and salad and Tom had crayfish, not bad for £5 each.
The next day we awoke to glorious blue skies and no wind whatsoever, perfect weather to swim with dolphins. We arrived at the centre to news that they had spotted a pod of dolphins earlier that morning so they were optimistic they could find them again. So off we went, and this time, much to our delight, we found them. In full wetsuits, booties, hoods, gloves, a snorkel and fins we plunged into the sea…then nearly drowned as it was 8 degrees and so cold it took your breath away! I was just thinking that it was unbearably cold and then a dolphin swam past me and suddenly I couldn’t feel the cold anymore. It was absolutely fantastic. We were told to hum and sing through our snorkels to attract the wild dolphins over and then swim in circles with them to maintain their interest. So that’s exactly what I did, squawked away through my snorkel and entertained the dolphins by swimming round and round. It was honestly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. Tom on the other hand was too busy trying not die of hyperthermia that he hardly saw any dolphins on the first swim, but thankfully we had another 3 goes so he agreed with me that it was out of this world.
We were on cloud nine by the time we got back to the centre so decided to once again head to the seafood caravan, well it’d be rude not to.
Once we’d come back down to earth we decided we’d start the journey up north towards Blenheim. We picked up some monkfish from the fishmongers to make Monkfish kebabs for tea (we are definitely the best fed backpackers in New Zealand) and headed off. Someone had mentioned that there was a place en-route called Ohau Stream that was well worth a stop. Seal pups swim upstream to the waterfall and stay in the safe environment for several days at a time whilst their mothers are out getting food. Just when we thought our day couldn’t get any better we arrived at this place and were blown away. Just standing there watching the young seals playing in the water was mesmerising.
We went to sleep that night next to the beach near Blenheim and both agreed that it had definitely been the best day ever!!!
The next day we decided to find out about the wine cycle tour. As usual we hadn’t planned anything so headed into the info centre in Blenheim to come up with a plan. 10 minutes later we were back in Donald armed with a map of all the best vineyards and a booking to stay in a hostel car park and hire bikes in a town nearby called Renwick. There were about 30 winerys in the area, and as they are all relatively close together you can ride around them. We probably visited about 10 plus a brewery, it was great fun. Most gave free tastings which was even better! We did end up buying an amazing bottle of sauvignon blanc from our favourite vineyard Allan Scott and Tom bought some beers from the brewery. By the end of the bike ride (which was actually quite tough because of the wind) we decided that maybe alcohol and exercise does mix. I did break a spoke on my bike on the way home…nothing to do with the wine of course!
The other big thing we wanted to do in the north of the South Island was go sea kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park. That was a bit of a trek from Blenheim and we needed to book the trip in advance so we decided to stop off at a place called Nelson on the way. On there we called in to Havelock, which is called the greenshell mussel capital of the world. Just look at the size of them!!!
After our mussel feast we continued on to Nelson and after a conversation with tourist information booked our sea-kayaking trip and also found out Nelson council allows you to sleep in their car parks for free as long as there is a toilet. Excellent, a free sleep, albeit in be middle of a town centre car park!! That evening there was a weird carnival going on with local school children and then a fair and music concert in the evening. It definitely beat sitting in the car park, but it was a bit odd.
The strangest thing was there was no alcohol served at the concert…it would never catch on in England. We hung around for a few minutes, then decided to head to the pub instead!
Our sea kayaking in Abel Tasman was out of this world. We decided to do the 2 day freedom kayaking which meant we self guided ourselves around the coastline and camped in one of the many designated sites along the route. We hired all our equipment from a kayak company and after a few hours of training headed off with a kayak full of sleeping bags and mats, a stove and tent, and of course food. The whole trip was brilliant, the weather was perfect, we stopped and ate our food on the beach and camped overlooking the turquoise waters at a place called Anchorage bay. It was so peaceful out at sea and we saw loads of different sea birds and seals.
I almost crashed the kayak into rocks at one point as I was guiding us through a tricky section of rocks and that was the moment a seal decided to bark at me from about 30cm away!!
After Abel Tasman we decided to head west with a view to getting back to Christchurch via Arthur’s pass, a road which runs through the southern alps. The views from up there are meant to be stunning. Our first stop on the west coast was Westport, which was nothing more than a stopover, plus the weather had taken a turn for the worst. We slept in the car park of a hostel and decided to go to the cinema for the first time on our trip. The cinema was brand new but because Westport was so small there was no-one else in there. We thought we had our own private viewing until a man walked in 10 minutes into the film and much to Tom’s annoyance and my amusement selected the seat pretty much next to him!!! There was a whole cinema of empty seats….but no, only that one would do. Having pretty much your own private screening definitely has its advantages….but also when the bottom drops out of your popcorn and there is no one else to blame…it also has it’s disadvantages! I spent 5 minutes after the film ended on my hands and knees scooping up popcorn…then made a sharp exit!
After a quick detour to see some more seals including loads of pups we headed for Greymouth, home of the Monteith brewery. I have sampled a lot of cider so far in New Zealand but Monteith’s is definitely the best so we were both keen to go on the popular brewery tour. The journey took us along the coast road which is rated one of the top 10 coast drives in the world. The weather had decided to stop blowing a gale too so the scenery was fantastic.
En-route we stopped off at Punakaiki where I’d read that columns of water shoot skyward from rocks that resemble giant stacks of pancakes! The horrible weather had actually made this far more enjoyable as the rough seas led to some spectacular sights.
After making and eating our food in the car-park (I still love how bemused other people are by this) we continued on to Greymouth and headed to the brewery for a tour. We managed to find a used car salesman’s car park which doubled as a campervan park (yes it was weird) and headed across the road to the brewery. The tour was actually good fun, the highlight being all the beer and cider we were allowed to sample!
Afterwards we headed into ‘town’ to seek out more drinking holes but quickly realised that Greymouth isn’t the place to stop if you want a large night out! Our pub crawl consisted of 2 pubs…..
The plan for the next day was to head over Arthur’s pass and spend the night in a campsite at Arthur’s pass township. However, we awoke to gale force winds and torrential rain, not the best weather to tackle a road through the southern alps!! After a conversation with the I-site we decided that it wasn’t worth it, we wouldn’t get to see anything and the weather wasn’t set to improve on the west coast for a week. So plan b was put in place, head to Hamner Springs instead and sit in the thermal pools…ok then!
Hamner springs is a pretty little town which is famous for it’s thermally heated spring water pools ranging from 28-42 degrees Celsius. We happily lazed around in there for the afternoon, it’s a hard life!
After Hamner we headed back to Christchurch, said goodbye to Donald and decided to spend a few nights in a hostel which used to be a jail! It was actually really cool as the layout was exactly the same as it used to be, thankfully they’d upgraded the beds though!
Christchurch was an interesting place but the effects of the earthquake in February 2011 were everywhere. The centre of the city was like a ghost town, windows still smashed, hardly any shops or restaurants open, it was as if people had just walked away after the quake hit and left things how they were. Obviously this wasn’t the case and many of the buildings had to be demolished because they were unsafe but as we hadn’t seen the city beforehand it was hard to imagine what it used to be like. It was really sad and felt a bit eerie walking around the centre. There were some positives though. They had made a shopping area out of shipping containers, there was a cathedral made of cardboard and loads of ‘pop-up’ cafe’s and bars.
Once out of jail we headed to Wanaka, which is on the way to Queenstown. I’d spoken to a girl in Wellington who’d said that it was a lovely place and we should spend a few days there. She really sold it to me, so I thought we’d stop and have a look. If the bus ride there was anything to go by then we were definitely going to love Wanaka. The scenery was breathtaking. Imagine the Lake District and Scotland but on a much bigger scale. We stopped for a food break at a place called Lake Tekapo and I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. Whenever you see adverts for New Zealand they always have snow capped mountains behind turquoise coloured lakes…that is exactly what was in front of us.
From then on the scenery just got better and better, which I didn’t think was possible. Every corner we turned there was an even bigger mountain and an even bluer lake, and then we arrived into Wanaka and I knew straight away we were going to love it.
We stayed in a hostel overlooking the lake with beautiful snow capped mountains in the background, plus we found a place selling pints for £1.75, there was nothing not to like about this place. The 2 nights we’d originally booked quickly turned into 5 and we settled into one of the most beautiful and relaxing places I’ve ever been. We both agreed that for everywhere we’ve been so far on our amazing trip, this is the first place we could actually imagine ourselves living.
We didn’t do much for the first few days, just walked around and stared at the scenery. We then thought we should do something so I suggested sky-diving!! I was desperate to do a skydive whilst in New Zealand and I couldn’t think of a more beautiful and spectacular place to do one. Also, the weather was fantastic, perfect conditions for throwing yourself out of a plane.
We booked on for the following morning and to our delight we awoke to blue skies. I was out of control with excitement. We arrived at the airport, had a safety briefing, changed into our jumpsuits, got introduced to our instructor and cameraman and then headed off to the plane, no messing about! The plane was pretty small and we were crammed in ready to leap. As we’d decided to jump from 15,000 feet we had to have oxygen masks on whilst we were climbing to the correct height. It was all so surreal but unbelievably exciting.
Even Tom didn’t look scared….well he didn’t go green like he did when we bungee jumped in Africa! Once at the correct height the doors were opened and Tom and his instructor were positioned over the door. It was so weird to just see him drop and disappear out of view, but by this point I just wanted to jump! My instructor and I shuffled over to the door with our cameraman and I was basically hovering over edge for about 5 seconds before he said ready and off we went. It’s hard to explain what it was like. We were free falling for one minute at 200 kilometres per hour but it honestly doesn’t feel like you’re falling. It’s almost like your flying through the air, albeit very cold air! Such an amazing experience and one neither of us will forget for a long time.
Whilst in Wanaka we also went to a cool little cinema called Paridiso where you sit on sofas rather than chairs and they bake cookies for the interval, (yes there was an interval) really cool.
We also decided to hire some mountain bikes and started cycling around the lake. We’d discussed the possibility of cycling around the whole lake, however, after consulting a map we saw that lake Wanaka covers an area of 192 km²….hhhmm maybe not! Instead we rode the 18km to Glendhu Bay along a testing mountain biking track. It was good fun but extremely hilly…the views made up for the hard work though!
On the way back much to my delight Tom spotted a couple of donkeys in a field and we headed over to stroke them. I decided that they looked hungry so fed them the 2 apples we’d been saving for the end of our bike ride! The perfect ending to a fantastic few days in Wanaka.
We were both really sad to say goodbye but also excited about heading to Queenstown. The South Island so far had exceeded all our expectations and we couldn’t wait to find out what Queenstown had in store for us!!