A funny thing happens when you leave everything behind and take off around the globe. Regardless of how much money you save before leaving, when you pack up all your belongings into boxes and put them in storage (or leave them at your parent’s house like we did. Thanks again guys!) you essentially become homeless, for lack of a better word, and when push comes to shove will sleep wherever you have to; park benches, beaches, bus terminals and random couches have served us well. We ended our last post by saying that we woke up refreshed and ready to go after the night in Franz Josef. Truth be told, the evening soak in the spa wasn’t the only reason we woke up feeling good. We had intended to spend the night sleeping in the back of our Subaru because it was too cold for the tent, but the mountains surrounding the glaciers made the temperatures too chilling for even that to be feasible. The holiday park office was closed for the night meaning no possibility of upgrading to a cabin, so we sorted out our options and went with plan c: sleeping in the TV lounge. The little boy watching cartoons was less than pleased about us interrupting his late-night private screening of Looney Toons and quickly exited with a scowl. A soft sofa in a heated room beats a cold stiff car any day, and in a matter of minutes we fell fast asleep. We slept so well that our alarm clock didn’t wake us; the holiday park manager did. He was there bright and early, “goo’day ladies and gentlemen. It’s time to get up now. Let’s go. Guests will be waking soon, and this isn’t a sleeping room as I’m sure you’re well aware.” He was actually quite jovial about the whole thing, but we couldn’t help but feel a bit like bums being brushed from the sidewalk. In our defense, we had paid for a campsite (making us guests too) and the TV room didn’t have any closing hours posted. Anyway, we got a good night’s sleep in a safe cozy place and after some breakfast and coffee were ready to hit the highway and get our road trip back underway.
The west coast of New Zealand’s south island is the most remote place in the entire country. The crowds that cluster around the famous glaciers dissipate as you move north along the coast. Tall mountains, thick forests and rocky coasts made development of this region quite difficult. The towns are all very small and are few and far between, but like most of the island, the landscape is astonishing. We spent the morning hiking near Okarito Lagoon.
The nature reserves in this area are home to the endangered Kiwi bird from which New Zealanders get their nickname. Millennia ago, when the islands split from the ancient continent of ‘Gondwana’ land mammals and other predators had not yet evolved in the region making it a paradise for an endless array of bird species. Over time many of these birds, like the Kiwi, developed strange appearances and lost their ability to fly and became ground dwellers, but the arrival of humans and introduction of non-native species by European settlers has taken a devastating toll on many of these birds. On a lighter note, the Kiwis aren’t the only strange inhabitants of the area; isolation seems to have resulted in some very peculiar human residents as well. It is a bit tough to explain, but the citizens of the west coast definitely dance to the beat of their own drum. Something along the lines of the Beverly Hillbillies meets Jerry Springer show.
After our brief jaunt along the west coast, we made our way to the northwest coast of the south island to New Zealand’s smallest national park, Abel Tasman. Although small, it certainly stands up to its competition. It is home to one of the country’s Great Walks, called the Coast Track, which is a 51km long trail that runs along the edge of the national park with incredible ocean views. We spent a few days camping on the beach and going on day walks along the Coast Track. The orange/red sand beaches, thick forests of fern trees and warmer rain-less weather made us think this is the place to be in New Zealand.
We got peeled out of the paradise that is Abel Tasman because of one of Amy’s big brothers, Aaron. Although not the most logical route, last week we drove straight through back to Christchurch, where we began our New Zealand adventure. Aaron is on his second year working with the U.S. Antarctic Program as a cook at the South Pole station and was being deployed from Christchurch. Naturally, we wanted to stop through town to see him! It was a fun two nights catching up over a couple of beers. He even let us be stowaways in his hotel room, adding to our list of unique places to rest our heads for the night. Although we’ve meet up with quite a few friends during our RTW trip, this was the first time we had seen any family in the past 9 months and it really felt good.
While Aaron was at training sessions, we made a day trip out to the Banks Peninsula, another amazing land formation in this country. The peninsula used to be a volcanic island but attached itself to the mainland after millions of years of erosion (check out a map, it’s pretty interesting). The town of Akaroa is situated on Akaroa Harbor which is the epicenter of the peninsula. From there, fingers jut out creating several bays. We took as many back roads as possible that day, putting ourselves in a few precarious situations on extremely narrow gravel roads. Amy even got chased down by a mama sheep while trying to photograph its two black lambs. Overall, it was one of our favorite scenic drives in New Zealand so far.
After saying farewell to Aaron and wishing him luck in Antarctic captivity for the next four months, we drove north to Kaikoura. While checking into a holiday park for the night, the receptionist asked if we were in town for the horse race. “What horse race?” we said. She informed us that it was the one day of the year when the local horse track got used for the Kaikoura Cup. Having never been to a proper horse race, we jumped on the opportunity. The sun was out, and so was the entire town of Kaikoura. It was a blast. There wasn’t the pomp and circumstance that comes with races like the Kentucky Derby, but the excitement, big hats and celebratory drinking were all there.
Kaikoura is known for its seals, and we definitely got our fix while in town. The day after the horse race we set out to hike around the Kaikoura Peninsula, an 18km endeavor that took a bit longer than we’d anticipated, but was well worth the trip. We would say that as a rule of thumb, when visiting New Zealand, check out every peninsula you can. The views of the snow-capped mountains juxtaposed with the turquoise blue ocean were stunning, not to mention the incredibly adorable fur seals that lounge on the coastal rocks. The next day, on our trip out of town, we stopped at a trail head that was suggested to us by our Kiwi neighbor, Steve, at the holiday park. We took a short walk up to a waterfall and had one of the most marvelous wildlife encounters we’ve ever experienced. There were 14 fur seal pups playing and lounging in the pool of the waterfall. Apparently their moms lead them upstream and leave them for protection while they are out to hunt. The sight of tourists gawking over the seal pups was almost as entertaining to watch (click here to see a video we took of the seals).
We continued to make our way north along the ‘Classic NZ Wine Route’ until we reached Blenheim. The Marlborough region is world renowned for sauvignon blanc production, and Blenheim is the center of the action. We had our eye on a free campsite along the Wairau River, but first took our time wine tasting our way through the area. Neither of us are huge white wine drinkers, but if we had to choose one varietal, sauv blanc would be it. The crisp, grassiness of the NZ brands are beautiful. We, of course, had to stop at the famous Cloudy Bay for some tasting, and we were also happily surprised by a few other wine makers that we’d not heard of: Hans Herzog, Staete Landt & Yealands.
After we hit our 5 winery limit for the day we began to make our way to the campsite. Unfortunately, after about 30km of country roads, we came to a 4WD-only section that our Subaru just wouldn’t have made. While trying to decide on a new game plan, Mike noticed a sign that said ‘Pine Valley Hut.’ A hut? Way out here? We were curious so decided to hike the 40 minute trail in to see what it was all about. Maybe it was all the wine we’d tasted, maybe the sunny weather had gotten to our heads, but what we found was a gem of a place. We knew right away that we had to hike back out to grab our gear. It was such an awesome hut that we decided to stay for two nights. It had been quite a while since we’d gone two entire days without seeing another sole. It was a fun time making fires, swimming in the river, and hiking.
Thus far, our New Zealand road trip has proven to be a real treat. While hitting the highway daily sometimes make us feel a bit like vagabonds, every day away from home makes us realize that we all share one world. After nearly a year since moving out of our apartment, we have become accustomed to calling whatever hostel bed, campsite, hotel room, apartment or couch our home. It is funny how many times we will be tired from a day of exploring and say, “let’s go back home.” We know that one day in the not so distant future we will be heading home for real, but for now we are thrilled to be continuing this once in a lifetime expedition.