Wednesday: Wellington to Nelson
It was time to say goodbye to the North Island and board the Interislander Ferry for the 3.5 hour transit to the South Island. Boarding just a few kilometers north of Wellington CBD, the Ferry was much like a small cruise ship, complete with reclining chairs, cafes, movie theater, and a playground for passengers, vehicles, and commercial trucks that had to make the 100 kilometer passage through the Cook Strait.
We found the sunshine abundant this morning, which made for relatively calm seas and amazing visibility. As we worked our way into the Sounds, we could see sweeping vistas of green farmland, snow covered peaks of the Southern Alps and crashing waves against large rock formations in the waters.
Arriving into Picton, on the Northern Coast, we picked up our South Island rental car, another Mazda3 (noticing a trend here?), though this time, we switched to red in color for the second road trip and began to make our way
south, west, and then northwest (remember — no straight lines on NZ roads) to reach our destination for the night of Nelson.
Along the way, we got to sample wines at three different vineyards along the Marlborough Wine Trail. Stops at Allan Scott, Cloudy Bay, and Herzog were all very enjoyable, with great staff, beautiful cellar doors and grounds, and excellent wines. A good number ended up packed away in the trunk and will be rationed over the next 10 days as we work our way west, south, and then east and we work ourselves counter clockwise through the South Island from Picton in the north to Christchurch in the south.
Following the excellent wines and a picnic lunch out at one of the wineries, we made a stop for a thickshake (milkshake) and that provided a little extra sugar boost to make it to Nelson and to our stop for the night at The Bug, our stay for the evening. The Bug is actually a smaller backpacker hostel, run by a great guy named Anthony, who provides accommodation for about 30 people per evening in smaller dorm style rooms (4 to a room) or in private ensuites (We had a Queen bed with our own bathroom/shower), along with a shared living room and kitchen. The entire place was immaculate and had the coolest theme, all old-school Volkswagen Bugs (get it?) with everything from each of the rooms being named about a VW Bug, salt and pepper shakers in the shape of VW Bugs, etc. We got to make a couple of meals in the spotless kitchen, and enjoy an evening with many other folks working and traveling their way through New Zealand. It was a great change of pace from sterile hotel rooms and Anthony and his team took great care of us. Highly recommended!
Thursday: Nelson to Karamea
We covered a lot of ground on Thursday, as we worked our way south, west, and then north (again — no straight line roads anywhere here…) to reach Karamea. Karamea is a tiny coastal community (population 650) that is located 100 kms north off the main West Coast road. Why would we venture all the way out here? Details tomorrow (Friday)… After a good 5 hour drive from Nelson to Karamea over a number of winding and beautiful passes, we arrived into Karamea and to the Karamea River Motel, where our host Kay showed us to a beautiful one bedroom unit with a beautiful view of the hills and farmland that seem to be a postcard-like signature of this region. As we prepared dinner in our kitchen, a few of our neighbors came up to our window to visit… They didn’t bother us much — they just wanted some grass and moved on… Two huge dairy cows (the main industry of the region) were located adjacent to the property, and when they are hungry, they just go where the grass is. That’s just the kinda place this is — warm people and genuine country living.
Friday: Oparara Arch + Honeycomb Cave
Friday morning, we got an early start as we were picked up just after 9am by Bill, super-guide for the day, to introduce us to the reason why we ventured 100kms off the main road to come to Karamea. The Oparara Arch is the largest Limestone arch in Australiasia and the Honeycomb Hill Cave is a beautiful, completely untouched (read: no commercialism) limestone cave that you must hike 40 minutes through the bush to reach.
We began our morning driving 18kms on a gravel, graded road in his 4×4 into the Oparara Basin, the valley in which we would begin our day. A former logging site for decades, it was determined that the logging could not be sustainable in this region and the Department of Conservation (DOC) took ownership some years back and turned it into a National Park. These days, everything must be kept as natural as possible and tours are granted only by special permission with limited tour groups and tour providers to avoid any potential damage to the plants, animals, caves, and other aspects of the region.
On this day, only three people would be visiting Honeycomb Hill — the two of us and our guide. We were the only people at this amazing and unique place and to have it all to ourselves was not only a feeling of immense appreciation to have the opportunity, but also one of responsibility to ensure that others would be able to enjoy their chance later on. It is this same process that we believe encourages the national spirit of ownership and that of conservation everywhere we go here in New Zealand and a movement that we can only hope can begin to catch on in the States.
After the 18km drive into the Basin, we then got out of the 4×4 SUV, packed up our gear (including helmets and headlamps), and began our 40 minute bushwalk (about 2.5 kms each way) to the cave. Along the way, Bill pointed out local flora and fauna, and in a very low key way, quizzed us about what we had seen and to determine if we could pick up the features and identifying aspects of the trees, plants, and birds. It was actually fun and made the time fly by. He shared some information about his family, living in the region, and got to know us in the process. We all connected and made our small group adventure just that much more enjoyable.
Once we reached the edge of the caves, we had to remove all backpacks, walking sticks, etc. — anything that could potentially impact or damage the interior cave walls. This cave had no electric lighting, no special plastic barriers or chicken wire fences to avoid accidental contact. Honeycomb Hill was left in its completely natural state (with just the smallest amount of adjustments made by the DOC to avoid falls and to ensure safety) to be enjoyed exactly as it has been for decades since it had been found by deer hunters.
The cave was massive, with more than 15 kms of passageways and more than 40 entrances and exits. To keep things simple (read: not get lost), we used one entrance and came out of another exit and focused on just three key passages that allowed us to see a number of beautiful limestone features, glowworms, an underground river, and more, but with little more than a single high-powered torch (flashlight) and our LED headlamps, the caves became so much more than just a tourist attraction. Bill knew every inch of the cave like the back of his hand and we felt extremely comfortable with his expertise, his focus on safety, but his constant focus on our enjoyment of the experience really made it all worthwhile.
We enjoyed our intimate Honeycomb Cave tour and exited and slowly worked our way back to the SUV. Once we arrived, we came to a small interpretative center, created by the DOC, with information on the caves and the logging history, and some restrooms. Here, there were three picnic benches, where Bill selected one and proceeded to prepare a picnic lunch, complete with tablecloth, ceramic plates, tea, fresh fruit, and a variety of freshly baked goodies for desert. It was excellent and once complete, we were ready to start our second bushwalk to the Oparara Arch. At over 200 meters long and 40 meters high, it is the largest freestanding limestone arch in Australiasia and the journey to reach it was almost as much fun as the destination.
We walked along a river, crossed a metal swingbridge, passed by waterfalls, and climbed over boulders to get to the destination, proving yet again, that the journey and the destination both can be just as fulfilling. When we arrived at the arch, the sheer size of it was astonishing, and we just took pictures and video in a feeble attempt to try and better capture the magnitude of its scale.
We completed our final bushwalk back out to the car, and Bill drove us back to our car to say goodbye. It was an excellent day, well worth taking the road less traveled as you may find amazing adventures along the way.
We had about a two hour drive back from Karamea to Cape Foulwind (the weather can sometimes be brutal here, hence the name) and as we came into the small coastal community, the sun was brilliant and bright, just as a rain shower past through the area, cleaning the air, and making everything reflect the suns rays as sunset was fast approaching on the horizon.
As we drove into our accommodation for the night, Steeples Cottage, we met Pauline and Bruce, our hosts for the evening and we were led into the “Cottage”, an amazing unit with a separate bedroom, huge living area, complete kitchen and full bath. The sheer size of our place was mind-blowing, until you took a look through the floor to ceiling windows onto the back deck and emerald green manicured backyard that takes you out to the ocean’s cliff edge. Here as the sunset was completing its final disappearance of the day, the sky was in 8 different hues of blues, purples, yellows, oranges, and reds, and against the backdrop of the lighthouse in the distance, the beautiful mature trees, and the gardens of our cottage, it was just amazing. In that moment, all of the beauty of the last two weeks had been summed up in a display that simply was beyond words. Folks, we will try endlessly during this trip to continue to find suitable adjectives to describe the intense natural beauty of New Zealand, but we will fail to find adequate words. We’ll simply have to let the pictures due the talking.
Saturday: Cape Foulwind to Franz Josef
We have a lot of ground to cover, and as such, we had to say a quick goodbye to Steeples Cottage and continue to head south along the West Coast of the South Island. A few minutes out of Cape Foulwind, we had a quick stop at the seal colony, where a few dozen seals or Kekemo live. They were out sunning themselves on the rocks enjoying the day as we marveled at the coastline of the Cape and grabbed some pictures, along with a handful of other tourists out at the spot.
Back in the car, we continued south to one of our major stops for the day, Punakaiki. At this coastal location, they have a beautiful display of nature in action as there are Pancake Rocks, a large number of beautiful formations of layers of rock that have been pressed and stacked together over time and through pressure, where they look like stacks of pancakes. Also, the surf and sea can be quite violent here, and the crashing waves carve huge amounts of rock away forming a number of beautiful shapes, curves, and formations of the rocks.
We admired here for nearly an hour and continued south along SH6, working our way towards Franz Josef Glacier, our overnight stop for the day, and it seemed that we were riding a fine line between dark gray clouds and rain on one side of the highway, and bright blue skies and sun on the opposite. As the two weather fronts competed for supremacy, we were treated to bursts of rain, lasting no more than a couple of minutes, blazing sun that required sunglasses, and moments later cloud cover and fog! Four seasons in a day, they say, about New Zealand weather — we think it might be valid as four seasons in an hour!
We encountered all sorts of weather, from drizzle to rain showers, to sunshine and double rainbows (a couple of which we actually drove through!) as we worked our way through again, breathtaking beautiful countryside, full of farms, dairy, cattle, and sheep, along with towering mountain ranges covered in forests, and sub-tropical trees and ferns lining the highway edges as we wound our way to our destination.
Once we arrived at Franz Josef, we checked into our motel for the evening, walked around the town (no joke, it took 8 minutes to cover the entire thing!) and relaxed for the evening with a nice dinner and making final preparations for our last week in New Zealand for a while.
Can’t believe that we will be headed off to Australia in a week! Next entries will be on the Southland, Otago, and Canterbury, including Queenstown, Invercargill, the Caitlins, Dunedin, and Christchurch! Wishing you all a great week and talk to you soon!