Nearly everyone I spoke to said “Just you wait”. To be honest I didn’t believe it. I was so blown away by the landscapes and scenery of the north island as well as everything else going on there, I simply couldn’t fathom anything more spectacular.
I was wrong. I should have waited. I was blown away once more. Then again, and again, and again.
When you hit the South Island, you’re greeted by a Jurassic park like experience almost immediately, sailing through what feels like an archipelago of ancient spiky islands jutting out the sea. Hats off to the captain of the massive transport ship, the route through the sea to Picton around these islands looks tightly squeezed, and requires pinpoint accuracy I’m sure, and is made even more fun when the weather isn’t on your side (as it wasn’t when we sailed).
As with many places, New Zealand feels like a totally different place when the weather is bad, but here it seems almost multiplied. The place is so beautiful in the sun, but can seriously feel like a moment from a horror film when it’s bad, especially when tackling the windy dark roads (throw in a couple of sharp cliff edge drops around the mountains too and you’re definitely in a horror movie)! That’s what we endured the night we arrived in an attempt to make it to Nelson straight away off the boat, but due to conditions we had to opt for parking up at a rugby field instead. Unfortunately this end of the world feeling occurred a few times, the weather wasn’t always on our side, resulting in cancelled sky dives, and poor skies meaning star gazing in the dark sky reserve wasn’t possible 😡
The Towns and Cities
One thing I didn’t expect here was how the towns and cities varied so much, and I definitely didn’t expect the huge level of Scottish influence into everything. This is far more commonplace down south towards Dunedin, but certainly permeates through most places we stopped. Nelson was a great place to start our southern adventure, a small town with a big attitude, we spent the morning enjoying the wonderful Saturday market, stocking up on all the seasonal produce we could before heading out to explore. As the craft beer capital of the island, this wasn’t particularly onerous 😜. The thing that got me about Nelson was the architecture; this was one thing we’d really have to get used to though. The whole town felt like something out of an American movie from the 50s purely down to the design of the town. Not only does it utilise a grid system and the buildings all follow that old school design, but it’s SO QUIET! I have been shocked in New Zealand how quiet the roads seem, but in cities it’s exactly the same. To put into context, I live near a town in the UK called Colchester and a little village called Dedham. Dedham is a tourist trap in the summer, and has genuinely taken me longer to drive through than it has some cities here! This has been a real surprise and treat for me, as the areas we’ve visited still feel totally alive, just without the stress of congestion. Keyword=BLISS!
Whilst I say there’s primarily a strong Scottish influence here around the more built up areas, I must stress each area has a very distinct look and feel. Dunedin for example, was uber Scottish! This University city felt like driving into Edinburgh with the somewhat gothic buildings, the names of the streets, and the ever so slightly Scottish sounding locals (I later found out Dunedin is the only area in NZ with accent variance apparently). The BEST thing abot Dunedin though is the rugby. We managed to get to a super rugby match, a pretty special battle between the local Highlanders and the arch Christchurch rivals, the Crusaders. The match was one of the best I’ve seen live without a shadow of a doubt. The pace of play was staggering, as was the general quality of play. To top it off, we ended up with the match ball, which we had to sneakily stash away when exiting the stadium 🙄.
Conversely, places like Greymouth on the West coast, or Invercargill on the South coast both oozed industrial; because of this they seemed quite harsh and cold. As with many places around the globe, the demise of fossil fuel industries often leaves places feeling somewhat stagnated. This is certainly the impression I got of these two towns, and in others that once thrived from gold mining it honestly felt like time just stopped (a prime example being Arrowtown, near Queenstown). Nothing seemed to be going on, or really on offer. The “hub” that’s so commonplace around Western towns didn’t seem to exist so we never really found the soul of these places. In invercargill, we both felt like outsiders in a very ‘interesting’ community, so immediately left. It definitely felt a little bit like this…
Thankfully, not everywhere was like this. You couldn’t be further from our invercargill experience when you hit Queenstown, obviously renowned for being a place to do ridiculous things like bungee jump and skydive, but there’s so much more to it than that. The area itself is truly stunning! Sat on a massive (and I mean massive) lake, the area feels like a beachside community where everyone is out to have the time of their lives. What I really loved about this city were the views of the mountains and the drives around the area (oh and Fergburger). Yes, there was loads of fun things to do, but for me the scenery was the true winner. We were very lucky to stay with an old friend from back home, his family and housemates, which gave us a good taste of life here. Something sadly I picked up on rather quickly we’re the strains people we’re under due to the ever so apparent gentrification of the area. As demand for property continues to increase, as does the price, those who live and work in queenstown (probably on minimum wage) are slowly priced out of the area. Without this huge workforce powering the machine that is queenstown tourism I’m not sure the whole system will function (and there ain’t exactly much around that’s for sure)! Only time will tell, but I expect the bubble will burst soon enough.
To be honest there are places of equal beauty that are very much up and coming near Queenstown, for example, Wanaka. If you ever get a chance to visit this area, Wanaka should be a must see. It’s a beautiful and modern lakeside town, with a great atmosphere and generally a very cool vibe. We were sadly only here for a day but were lucky enough to stay on a vineyard, who i have to say made the best Pinot noir I had in New Zealand! Highly recommend a stop off here if you get he chance.
Our whole New Zealand experience was pebbled with experienced like this. There are too many places to mention for sure, and you don’t travel to New Zealand for the towns and cities; as the title suggests, you travel here for the sights.
It’s safe to say I’ve found myself saying wow more than ever. The title of this blog isn’t an exaggeration, there have honestly been times where I’m stunned by what’s in front of me, we’ve turned a corner, and I’m stunned even more! You just can’t fathom what you’re seeing here unless you’ve experienced it yourself. The South Island in particular is covered with these gargantuan mountain ranges that tower above you on both sides. What makes it even more impressive though is how rural everything still is. The South Island is vast, you can easily drive for a few hours and not see another living soul (apart from livestock obviously). There were genuinely areas where I don’t think I saw a house for 100k, and our tom tom was saying things like “in 255km, turn right”. Perhaps what’s even more impressive is it’s been preserved so nicely, and the shared values of conservation run through the entire kiwi culture. Because of this, everything is kept beautiful!
As with the north island, my experience of New Zealand has shown me many new natural wonders. The big thing in the north was the geothermal activity, but down south it was the mountain ranges and glaciers and fjords that took your breath away. This place really is such a unique wonder; we literally went from exploring Milford sound in all its beauty on one day, and no more than 5 days later we were seeing the glaciers of Franz Josef and Fox.
One thing that really is quite distressing though is the amount of receding that’s occurred over the past 50 or so years, yet another example of the devastation we’re enforcing on this planet. A week later, we were at the base of mount cook, the highest point in New Zealand seeing more glaciers, including areas breaking off and running down the glacial river;so sad.
As with anything really, there’s always got to be a negative. New Zealand is obviously no stranger to seismic activity, as has been clearly evidenced by some pretty monstrous earthquakes over the past decade. Kelly and I decided we needed to see the damage done and support the impacted communities so decided to finish up our trip by visiting Kaikoura before heading to Christchurch. Unfortunately, the main road running from the north of the island is still closed after the last major earthquake, and from the south was also closed thanks to a pretty major rock slide! This meant we had a 10 hour drive via the ‘inland road’, which was also pretty badly damaged in November. The windy, narrow, and barely paved road was certainly an experience, but we got to see some pretty awesome views we’d have otherwise missed. Arriving in kaikoura was quite a shock, with many shops, restaurants and hotels still closed due to structural damage. The town is effectively cut off right now from the rest of New Zealand, but the perseverance of the locals is inspiring! They all seemed to keep such an upbeat attitude to everything, with no outlook other than to dog it out and move on.
The same can definitely be said for Christchurch. The aftermath of the 2011 earthquake that caused so much destruction is still more than apparent; half the city is still a building site! I had totally underestimated how much damage had been done, and was genuinely shocked when we arrived to see the hundreds of cranes, traffic cones and workers in fluorescent jackets and hard hats. 185 people died in that quake, and the reach of the damage seemed to touch everyone we spoke too. Yet still everyone was upbeat, positive, friendly and loving life. The city itself is super quirky, with street art covering what felt like every wall, and a number of very stylish boutique establishments selling everything from art to ice cream. It also still contains an old school tram, that even has a touring restaurant running in the evenings! The whole place was super cool: even down to crossing the road, which offered games of pong against the opposing side of the road, or the massive NES style game just on the road being projected onto a building opposite. Seriously, this game was cool! I can definitely see why people like Christchurch so much.
Perhaps one thing that I slightly underestimated though was the variety of unique wildlife i’d be seeing whilst on the South Island.
Most people immediately think of the kiwi when you mention New Zealand, and understandably so, as it is the national icon after all! Sadly we were only able to see one in captivity, and it did a great job of hiding too! However, New Zealand has so much to offer in terms of wildlife you’d be pushed to see anywhere else! For example en route to Milford sound, we spotted a number of Kea, the worlds only alpine parrot, casually hassling tourists and nibbling the plastic off passers bags and cars. These birds look pretty average until they spread their wings, when you suddenly see a beautiful array of colours on display. These guys were super playful and a real sight to watch. Combine this with the huge numbers of hawks and eagles you see flying around and your in an ornithologists dream land! Note, I didnNOT take the photo below!For birds though, this is by no means the pinnacle. On the south coast in the land that time forgot known as the Catlins, we stopped off at the Royal Albatross sanctuary. These air monsters are basically dinosaurs I’m sure, with a wingspan on average of around 10ft! The royals are picky buggers, only frequenting the Southern Hemisphere; New Zealand and Patagonia are the most southern points bar the Antarctic, so they are pretty happy here!
Just because I haven’t talked about birds enough, I need to mention the penguins. The teeny tiny blue penguins enjoy many of the coastal areas of the South Island. We managed to spot them both at Abel Tasman national park and Kaikoura. We ended up rescuing a baby blue in kaikoura, who was casually enjoying his first moult (so couldn’t go in the sea) when he was hassled by incoming tide (and shitty tourists trying to get a selfie or sixty). We ended up calling the Department of Conservation who came along and moved him to a safe space. Apparently they get super stressed if they are hassled so we may have saved the little guys life! Conservation points for the win!!! On the same day we also spotted a couple of fur seals chilling on the rocks just off the coast. I was probably 10ft from one, which was a pretty awesome experience!
Finally, crossing to the sea is probably one of the greatest experiences I’ve had with animals ever, and beating a day with Asian elephants is going to be a tough one to beat! We decided we had to book onto a whale watching tour as Kaikoura is synonymous with seeing sperm whales. After a couple of failed attempts getting out on the boat, on our last day there we managed to both secure a place. Normally on a tour, you’re lucky to spot a couple on a two hour cruise. Not only did we spot two within about fifteen minutes, but they put on quite the show for us! We had a good 20 minuted of them coming up for air and generally messing around, which is fairly uncommon for sperm whales. Then the real fun started! About 30 minutes in our whale spotters on the boat saw a blue whale, an incredibly rare sight apparently. Heading over to get sight of them up close, we discovered there was not just one, but a small pod! We have no idea why, but they were quite happy just chilling in pretty much the same spot, rolling around, swimming upside down, the works. To spot one is rare enough, but to see 3 for such a good amount of time is almost unheard of, to the point where two of the staff on board were brought to tears as they’d never seen anything like this! Honestly, just being around such mammoth and rare creatures was an experience enough, but to have them around us for so long was unforgettable.
I always knew I’d love this country, but what was delivered was so much more than I could have ever imagined. Without a doubt this is the most stunning country I’ve ever been to, one that kept giving and giving, and somewhere that will always be close to my heart (and my arm now, whoops). Thanks to New Zealand, I’ve swum in crystal clear glacial rivers, sat in geothermal hot pools, climbed a volcano, hiked to glaciers, seen royal albatross, fur seals, blue penguins, sperm whales and blue whales in their natural habitat, been to hobbiton, seen a live super rugby match, slept at a vineyard, seen the Milky Way countless times, sand boarded down a desert, and so much more. I definitely won’t forget this place anytime soon.
Seeing this place in a campervan was such a joy and definitely recommended to anyone, and after 7000km driven we still feel like there was so much more to see. Oh well, I guess we’ll have to come back! 😜