Thanks to the luxury of having a proper camp site with all those neat facilities like hot showers or kitchen amenities including water boiler and toaster (well we do have all those things in our van but we hardly get to use it since they only operate on 240V for which you need a powered campsite) we decided to have a lush start into Friday before hitting the dirt tracks with Camerons’ 4WD. Bacon, omelet, coffee and tea as well as toasted bread was on the menu. After this royal start into the day we boarded Camerons’ truck and went to discover the real wilderness of NZ. He showed us some nice hilltops and lookout points and we had enriching conversations about how life’s like in NZ. Oh boy those tracks would be nothing for our campervan! If we were to drive our campervan on this track we would be stuck like after ten minutes. It was a funny experience for Yinru as it was her first time on a 4WD like that and it was a surprise that she did not scream during the drive. Late afternoon some laundry and wine drinking was on our busy schedule before having dinner and meeting various other “permanent” visitors from Germany, France and Japan who are on work and holiday visas earning some money in the vineyards.
After stopping at Cromwell for two nights we were desperate to hit the road again and follow our route to one (or most probably THE) highlight of NZs’ spectacular landscape: Milford Sound. This stunning fjord located in the south west corner of the South Island attracts most of NZ visitors and is far off from civilization. A drive from Queenstown (the main gateway to the fjord, located about 50km of Cromwell) takes a good 300km drive (which means 600km return). We have already planned earlier to get into Milford on Sunday this week since that was the only forecasted “not rainy day” (Which is a rare opportunity not to miss since the area receives about 8’000mm of rainfall annually – that’s more than 3 times the amount of Singapore or 6 times the amount of Zurich). Saturday was therefore mainly a driving day with some general shopping to refill our stocks after 5 days. We coincidentally met the two ladies from England on the road there again – what a small world – and reached a basic DOC campsite (well other than a space to park and a smelly toilet there’s nothing on such a campsite) late afternoon. Temperatures dropped to around 5 to 10 degrees and we were happily sitting inside our comfortable van drinking some wine to warm us up while seeing others camping in tents warming their hands at small fires (which were more smoky than burning since the wood they collected was mainly wet). We went to sleep early since there was really nothing to do and we intended to get up early to avoid crowds and tour buses at Milford Sound.
The night was shivering cold and sleep not the greatest. Zero degree line was around 1’000m altitude that morning so we assume the place we slept enjoyed about 5 degrees. We woke up at 7:30am: grey sky, thick fog and misty drizzle falling down from the sky. Everything was soaked in water, wet and cold. We had a short breakfast in our warmest clothing incl. the thickest jacket and socks we had and hit the road around 8am. 10mins after we left we were already glad that we came all the way (600km return) and suffered the shivering cold: breathtaking sharp mountain peaks opening up between magical layers of clouds and fogs. Unusual, yet a bit creepy dark forests in lush greens all covered with a thick carpet of moss wherever there was space free on a branch. The last 30km on the Milford Road itself was an attraction itself. A 1.5km long one way tunnel with water dropping inside and hundreds of meters tall cliffs covered with snow at the highest peaks. We saw many spots we wanted to stop but only allowed ourselves one lookout point since we wanted to get to the sound and pick an early boat. Our Mazda and the driver had to work hard for 1.5hrs (for 30km! so imagine how narrow and curvy this part has been) to reach our target. Once arrived at the parking areas (we were certainly not the first ones) we were even more certain that it was worth to come here. A magnificent scenery of sharp mountain peaks, all covered with forests and other plants growing wherever the rocks offered space, standing tall and reflecting in calm water laid peaceful in front of us. We took the smallest cruise boat available from Mitre Peak (80$ per person for a two hours cruise – 70$ is the benchmark for a good tour. The boat had 66 seats but only around 25 were booked. Pretty “private” again) and started to cruise the Sound around 30min later. What followed was one superlative after another. One peak taller and more mysteriously covered by clouds than the other. Waterfalls, hundreds of meters tall. Endless forests. The two hours cruise passed by very fast with two occasional showers for YinRu; one from ocean waves and another from waterfalls. Feeling like what we saw was almost like a dream we left the sound again (not only because there was nothing more to do there but also because we knew it would be snowing the next day down to 700m so we didn’t want to get stuck on the pass with our van). On the way back we were one of the very few cars driving away from the sound. On opposite direction dozens of huge tour buses came in the area brining hundreds of tourists for a cruise. We were happy having had a peaceful time in Milford Sound and enjoyed stopping every now and then on the way back to see all the lookout points on the way back. The evening we camped at Manapouri with great lake views. The night was shivering cold again, around 7 to 10 degrees with almost 100% humidity.
Longing for warmer weather we started our ride back northwards to the center of the South Island. On our way we were friendly enough to pick up a young guy who was hitching. Josh from England accompanied us for about 2hrs sharing his experiences about New Zealand in the past 5 months while being on work and holiday visa. The day was basically a driving-back day – what might sound boring isn’t in New Zealand. The scenery changed dramatically from wet, fog covered farmlands in the south to endless lakes situated between “mad” looking mountains to New Zealand’s highest sealed pass road with spectacular panoramas over central Otago. We arrived just before dusk at our destination in Wanaka (actually we stayed in Albert Town, but yeah, who cares. You probably don’t even know where Wanaka is J). Heavy winds and pouring rains were on the evening program near the Clutha River. It was funny to see others driving their cars to the toilets not to get wet (what camper are they?! We, of course, changed to shorts, slippers and rain jacket and walked there). The temperatures were a bit warmer and above 10 degrees so even YinRu thought she would be able to sleep well again. She did and was a happy baby again. And the next morning rewarded the wet night with blue skies and beautiful autumn scenery.
New Zealand is a beautiful country. So beautiful that the proud Swiss might even agree: okay, this might even be more beautiful than Switzerland. Magnificent mountains everywhere, each one looking different, as if they have different emotions. Lakes so huge that you’d think they were endless. Climate so fast changing, you don’t know what is coming up next. Sunny this moment, windy next. Full of surprises, everywhere. Even at the petrol station at Wanaka it was a surprise to see the price for a liter of petrol to be NZD 2.10! In other cities petrol range from 1.92 to 1.99. See, you get the picture of the “individuality” of the places and surprises you find in life 😉 We accepted the fact that petrol prices for the next few days on the road would only be more “surprising” and refilled our Wendy there (Wendy is the name for our Campervan, derived from name of car rental company Wendekreisen and the car obviously not very powerful when accelerating hence a lady). Other than looking around in Wanaka and soaking in the beautiful views, we also filled our day with good laughs. We had a fun outing at Puzzling World, a place for all ages to find fun in solving puzzles, looking for way out in a huge 3DMaze, and challenge the mind with optical illusions etc. (even there toilets were creepy, with 3D paintings on the floor giving you the feeling your falling down). It was really funny to try to walk through a tilted room where the ball rolls upwards instead of down. It is hard to explain, if you have time, make sure you visit Puzzling World once in your life…only few hours away from Malaysia or Switzerland 😀 Since the day was sunny and warm we hanged around at Lake Wanaka for some time before a scenic drive to the upper head of the same lake for night at a free campground and having a good shower in our Wendy (ok it sounds weird- showering in a woman?). We were the only ones at the campsite at first but later that night some youngsters came and joined the party. They were actually not allowed to camp there as they did not have a self-contained campervan but well, when you are young you do all kinds of things even if you should not. Even when your mommy tell you not to eat that candy you would eat it. Anyways we are driving towards West Coast of NZ tomorrow and are pretty excited about it. We don’t know what awaits us as on West Coast other than there will be dozens of kilometers driving without passing by a single village, lush greens and rainfall in abundance (about 10 times more than the east side of the NZ alps). We will see how surprising things are!
Westland, the bottom third of the West Coast, a mix of farmland, rainforest and Glaciers is where we were heading next. The name WETland would actually fit it too, thanks to its great rainfall (with about 5m annually not as high as Milford Sound but still double to four times the amount of our hometowns). Lush greens, cows and sheep happily chewing their grass away everywhere. The drive from Wanaka to Westland was scenic, we made a few stops to take photos on the way of crystal clear rivers, thin waterfalls, narrow one lane bridges and dark rainforest as we drove past Haast Pass Highway. After arriving at Haast, we decided to drive further to Jackson Bay which is about 50km south of Haast at the very end of NZ West Coast civilization (There are no more permanently inhabited places further south along the coast). The scenery along the drive changed rapidly: from half-desert plants like cactus to dense rainforests in just 5mins, no wonder this area is a world heritage area. Reaching Jackson Bay, a small little town (we mean it, it is really small) we had our best fish and chips by far. We walked off the extra calories from the fries during a short forest walk and were positively surprised that at the end of the track we were at a completely remote beach (the rest of the pathway was closed due to a storm so we had to walk back). It is definitely representative of NZ too that the scenery is ever changing that you don’t know what awaits you. The contrast of landscape is huge here. Who would expect a walk through rain forest where one can see snowcapped mountains in the far and reaching a beach at the ocean in the end? After spending some time at Jackson Bay we decided to drive back in direction of Haast and find somewhere to camp on the way. It turned out to be, well, not a very wise decision. We drove for some time and in between were happy thinking that we found a nice spot to camp but they all had this “No Camping” or “Private Property” signs. Disappointed we continued all the way back to Haast and asked some locals there if we could do freedom camping. One of the three locals said No, the other two said Yes, so we decided it was alright to do freedom camping (we would probably have done it anyway). Upon the recommendation of a confident local, we went to Ship Creek where camping was allowed, but, when we reached the spot we found this evil “No Camping” signboard again. It was getting dark and we did not want to drive any farther so we pulled up a spot off the road to camp. Not a very wise decision again: we were apparently the “intruders” to some mosquitos home. We woke up in the night hearing mosquitos and to our surprise we saw dozens of them! They must have entered from somewhere. Our campervan was not “mosquito-proof” (main suspect was the slide door as it was not tight enough on the corners)! After busy killing the mosquitos we both tried to sleep again but of course it was not easy not knowing how many mosquitos would be entering as we slept. However besides the evil mosquitos, we got to see a wild owl in the night! It used its big round eyes to look at us while we “watered” the plants.
“The horror of mosquitos” would describe our night/morning best. Not being able to sleep well after knowing our campervan had holes where mosquitos could enter, we got up early. To our HORROR, we saw COLONY of mosquitos in campervan!! We were busy killing them and we both killed at least 100mosquitos (we’re not exaggerating, each one of us lost count at 50 kills) That definitely was unforgettable. We still get shivers when we think of the mosquitos’ colony. However, we started our day very early since we could not sleep anymore. We had a short stop at Lake Paringa which was very lovely and mystical. The mist was clearing up slowly in the morning and with some clearing fog hanging on the lake surface it looked wonderful. If we would have driven a little farther the evening before we would have been able to camp here and probably without the company of mosquitos. But well who would have known? The two famous Glaciers, Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, were on the schedule today the 9th of April. We had nice weather to visit the glaciers today as some parts of the walkway could be closed if weather wasn’t good. We went to Fox Glacier first and then the Franz Josef. Both nice but Franz Josef, the big brother, being more magnificent. You just feel so small when you stand in front of the glaciers and realize once again how great Nature is. The walks to both Galciers took about 3 hours. The timing of the visit could not be better: the moment we walked back to the car park at Franz Josef we started to feel rain drops. The next minute it was pouring! Come to think of it, we probably have to thank mosquitos for waking us up so early 😉 We camped at Lake Mapourika/MacDonalds (same same but different MacDonalds guys) near the Glacier. The rain did not stop until the next day. We actually had a good time in our campervan observing some other campers setting up tents and such and were thankful of the simple things in life: having a roof above our heads. That was our new hobby, the next morning we had our good fun observing other campers preparing breakfasts, cleaning tents etc. After morning observation we drove to Hokitika, the next big town on West Coast. There was even a big supermarket and a good pizza restaurant there! We had our lunch at Fat Pipi Pizza which was good but had nothing to do with European pizza. The weather was still not clearing up yet so we decided to reward ourselves with a good shower today after a week (we certainly did shower but in our van it’s really more a cleaning than showering). We needed to charge our laptop and other stuff so we spent a night at Hokitika Kiwi Holiday Park – the first time after a week in a campsite. We had a good wash of ourselves finally after a week! Scrub scrub scrub! We got to meet two bikers from England who decided to cycle all the way from North to South Island of NZ. They did 2400km in the past five weeks. Maybe one day when we lose our minds we would do that too. We enjoyed the “luxury” of being in a civilized town with internet and uploaded some photos (sitting in our car, next to a wifi hotspot at 9pm after visiting a glowworm place). Please go and like the photos if you have not.
On Saturday we woke up feeling refreshed and started the day with a big breakfast: bacon, omelets, bread and hot tea! Heaven! We checked out at 1030 (instead of 1000) and went to visit the Hokitika Gorge. The Gorge was supposed to be breathtakingly beautiful with milky turquoise water due to the “glacier flour”. Though it was not raining, the water looked less spectacular as it was not sunny enough. Well, one cannot be too greedy ya, this area receives up to 16.6m of annual rainfall so why should there be blue skies on that very day 😉 After visiting the Gorge we drove all the way to Greymouth. Realizing that Greymouth is a dirty mining town with nothing much to see, we had McDonalds (first time in NZ!) and left. The famous Pancake Rocks and Blowholes at Punakaiki were next on our schedule. It may sound a bit rush of schedule but the places were not far apart and we were trying to get there before the weather turned bad. West Coast has most rain in NZ so having rain is pretty normal here. But as a tourist having rain just means more trouble to go to each spot and since almost all attractions are “nature-based” one relies on rain-free time to do sightseeing. We were lucky to be able to see the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes when it was still a bit sunny, and, more importantly: shortly after high tide. The rock formation was definitely unique. Formed over millions of years, the rocks looked like stacks of pancakes. The Blowholes were amazing and cute at the same time. It did blow! (Ok get your minds straight)! The water would be pushed through a hole like a chimney and be blown to the air when there was enough water and force. It’s hard to explain, please refer to the photos attached. There’s even a sound when the water gets blown out.