South Island, New Zealand – Part 1

A Road Trip to Remember

Welcome to the first leg of our South Island explorations.  It’s been an adventure and we have seen some fantastic scenery – cool rock formations and craggy wild coastlines aplenty. Throw in some great walks, an abundance of seals, a penguin or two, a kea and some quirky New Zealandisms (just as we had hoped) and it’s been sweet as. So, join us on a whistle stop tour! 

A Night in Picton

We stayed longer than we anticipated in Picton when we discovered that the bus to Nelson only departed once a day! Picton is a tranquil, pretty seaside town with interesting little shops and cafes, deserving more attention than most people give it.  For the majority, it’s the port where people step off the ferry and move on as quickly as possible (as we were planning to before the fully booked bus foiled our plan!)  There are also some nice walks, which sadly we didn’t have time to do, but are planning to get to them on our way back!  

A Reunion in Nelson

When we finally made it to Nelson, we discovered a cute little town with some great nearby beaches. We had a fantastic time catching up with our friends, Robyn and Steve and their kids, Matt, Jo and Caitlin, as well as the fabulous Ziggy (their parrot!). We hadn’t seen them since our world trip in 2000 when they were living in Australia and the kids were all grown up now. The highlights of our stay were a trip along the Nelson coastline on Steve’s boat and a day out with Robyn to Keiteriteri Bay.

T ready for some boating action!
Ku and Robyn trying synchronised swimming at Kaiteriteri Bay

Scotty’s Car Hire, Christchurch

We also enjoyed a couple of hours at Nelson’s Art Deco State Cinema 6, where we caught Labor Day starring Kate Winslett.  It was a lovely little cinema with huge, comfortable seats.

The Naked Bus is the company that runs around both islands and is comparatively cheap. We took the bus to Christchurch, where we were due to pick up our hire car. The car wasn’t quite what we were expecting and instead of a hatchback, we were given a station wagon. The cheerful owner Scotty told us we would be able sleep in the back.

The Road to Banks Peninsular

After stocking up at The Warehouse (New Zealand’s one-stop shop), we headed to Banks Peninsula. It was an interesting drive of twists and turns with lots of narrow roads and sheer drops! We eventually came down to sea level and stopped at Barry’s Bay Cheese to try and buy a selection of NZ cheeses – all delicious! 😋

Okains Bay – An Idyllic Camping Spot

The campsite, situated at tiny Okains Bay, was right on the beautiful beach, hidden amongst pine trees.  We pitched our little tent for the first time and then headed to Akaroa where we wandered around its quaint shops, delis and enticing restaurants before stocking up on food and fuel. We spent a great couple of days at Okains Bay, enjoying the beach and the craggy coastal walk which is beginning to fall victim to erosion.

T at our campsite amongst the pine trees at Okains Bay
Ku on the coastal trail which ran alongside the beach

Onwards to Oamaru, an ordinary looking town at first glimpse, but one with more to it than meets the eye. Oamaru is the world capital of Steampunk and home to Steampunk HQ.

Steampunk HQ, Oamaru
Welcome to the World of Steampunk
A host of wacky exhibits await inside the museum

Steampunk HQ

It’s hard to explain what Steampunk HQ is without witnessing it yourself – photographs won’t do it justice. It’s about the sound, the concept, the whole experience. In basic terms, the museum exhibits are created from disregarded Victorian machinery such as trains and tractors which are recycled and rebuilt into crazy and wacky art. Added to that are special effects, lights and a skeleton or scary ghoul or two! It has to be seen to be believed.

Recycled materials are used to create cool art installations

The Walk to Bushy Beach

We decided to pay a visit to the yellow-eyed penguin colony. Now, a certain travel guide book (whose name we won’t mention) suggested the walk to the penguins was a casual and fairly short stroll along the beach.  Well, no! We had to climb the steepest street in Oamaru, walk downhill for several miles and pass several stretches of farmland, before we finally arrived at the beach.

Penguins and Seals Galore!

Bushy Beach is a spectacular stretch of sand and to add to its appeal, seals and penguins hang out on it! As soon as we arrived, we saw the penguins waddle onto the beach, followed by seals shuffling up too!  Fabulous and all free! After watching for a while, it was time for the long walk back. By the end of it, we were cursing that travel guide and were relieved to arrive at our campsite.

Beautiful Bushy Beach

Historical Oamaru

Thanks to its prosperous history, Oamaru has architecture to be proud of.  Art galleries and bookshops abound, and our personal favourite was an excellent second-hand adventure travel book shop situated in an old grain storage building. Some of the locals in the historical area, were dressed in Victorian attire, perhaps just for the benefit of tourists, or probably because they always do it. It’s that kind of town! 

The Home of Janet Frame

T is a fan of New Zealand’s most famous novelist, Janet Frame, who was originally from Oamaru. Her childhood house had been preserved and was presented exactly as it was when Janet was living there with her family. She had an incredible life – from spending time in a psychiatric asylum in London and narrowly avoiding a lobotomy, to finding fame for her writing. Her intense writing style reflected her troubled mind. Ku discovered that Janet was a patient in the same hospital her brother presently works in, which is still run to this day by the Maudsley Trust.

The House of Janet Frame

Oamaru Victorian Gardens

Finally, the Victorian Public Gardens, which opened in 1876 are a must-see if ever you find yourself in Oamaru. There are nooks and crannies to hide in, a Chinese garden, impressive flowerbeds and a friendly talking cockatoo called Jimmy who always decided to say hello as we were walking away – trickster!

Ku and Humpty Dumpty at the Victorian Public Gardens, Oamaru

The Moeraki Boulders

Onwards to the Moeraki Boulders located 30 km south of Oamaru. The large spherical boulders are on a lovely beach and did not disappoint despite a drizzly kind of day. In fact, the crashing waves added to the mystery and drama of the giant marbles.

T sitting on a Moeraki Boulder

Re-Visiting Dunedin

Next stop was Dunedin, a university town with a certain charm. Ku remembered coming here twenty years ago when everything had been closed as it was a Saturday afternoon. She did not have particularly good memories, however she did change her opinion after a couple of days here, primarily thanks to Cadbury World! We enjoyed the Cadbury tour – the chocolate liquid waterfall was impressive and the freebies even more so!

Ku at Cadbury World

We also went to the Otago Settlers Museum which was free to enter. It was a very good museum with an eclectic collection of exhibits – covering the local history of the Maori, Scottish whalers and farmers. It had a whole room of old transport including a cool black Buick pulling a retro caravan. As well as vintage trains, trams, carriages and buses, there were interactive displays and a great collection of retro toys and household appliances. Who knew that NZ had its own version of the TV programme, Playschool?!

An Art Gallery and a Railway Station

The Public Art Gallery was also free of charge and worth a visit. The exhibits were mainly contemporary and well displayed in an attractive space. The city’s Edwardian Railway station was striking and had mosaic-tile floors and stained-glass windows. It was Sunday when we were there, and a farmer’s market with lots of tempting produce was set up next to it.

The Railway Station at Dunedin

A Soggy Night Under Canvas!

This was the end of a spell of sunny and warm weather. At our campsite, where we were surrounded by native bush and next to a river, we discovered why our tent was such a bargain. It could cope with a little rain, but not the bucket loads we received that night! Needless to say, it was a grim night. We consoled ourselves in the morning with a hot breakfast in town at The Perc, where the excellent coffee and tasty breakfast hit the spot.

A Night in the Car!

On to our second night the tent was pitched and we were hoping for some dry weather. All day the sun shone, as it had the day before. At four o’clock, the cloud started circling, and by six it was pouring!  We eventually abandoned the tent and slept in the back of the car. The back seats went down, we lined the car with our camping mattresses, and it was actually quite cosy. However, by morning, our limbs were aching and we were pleased to pack up and hit the road! 

Car Camping in Dunedin

The Rainy Spell Continues in the Catlins

We drove to the Catlins via a scenic coastal route. The landscape encompassed farmlands, forests, rugged bays and deserted beaches.  Our friend Grant, who had been in NZ the previous November, had recommended the area. The weather had not improved very much, and it was breezy and wet, but we didn’t let it stop us. We went to Nugget Point, via a rough gravel road. With our wet weather gear on, we set off passing sheer drops to the ocean on each side, rugged vertical rock formations and stunning views. There was a viewing deck next to the lighthouse where we took it all in. The best part was that there was nobody else in sight!  We also spotted seals down on the rocks, oblivious to our presence.

The view from Nugget Point

Bays and Waterfalls

Curio Bay was a lovely beach and was home to fossilised Jurassic-age trees which are just visible at low tide. Yellow-eyed penguins are known to frequent the beach, but the weather must have put them off that day!  Kaka Point and Surat Bay had fabulous deserted windswept beaches, desolate and quite beautiful.  Another highlight were McLean Falls, very impressive waterfalls located at the end of a twenty-minute hike through the rainforest. 

Ku at McLean Falls

Hunkering Down in Invercargill

Our next stop was Invercargill. It was not on the agenda, but the weather had taken a turn for the worse with constant sleety rain and high winds. Camping was out of the question, so we checked into the Tay Colonial Motor Park for a touch of luxury!  We wandered into town and came across Burt Munro’s motorbike, as featured in the movie ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ starring Anthony Hopkins.

A Birthday Burger and a Movie

To celebrate Ku’s Birthday, we ate at the aptly named Devil Burger, which served gourmet burgers and veggie wraps. As a finale, we went the cinema to see ‘August, Osage County’ starring two of our favourite movie stars, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. A tough-to-watch, but brilliant film. That evening we celebrated further with pizza in our comfortable, warm cabin.

The Sun Makes an Appearance at Manapouri

Next, we drove to Manapouri; a gorgeous lakeside setting backed by mountain ranges. The weather had improved – the sun was out and it was warm again. Hurrah! We stayed at Possum Lodge, a charming and quiet little campsite located with easy access to lakeside trails (and home to quite a few damn sandflies!) 

Ku at taking a walk at Manapouri
T enjoying the view at Manapouri

The Road to Milford Sound

The following day, we set off along the Te Anau – Milford Highway, stopping at various viewpoints.  The road was spectacular – snow-capped mountains everywhere we looked. Arriving at Milford Sound was a bit of an anti-climax – it was a dull day again and we didn’t see it in its best light. The Homer Tunnel was quite an experience, framed by a high ice wall, it’s a one-way tunnel with traffic lights! The 1207m tunnel was dark and dripping with water. We spotted a Kea Bird on the way back and it hopped towards us. Sadly we weren’t able to stop to say hello.

Beautiful views on the road to Mliford Sound
Milford Sound

A Hidden Gem in Eglinton Valley

We stopped to camp at Knobs Flat Campsite, in the grassy Eglinton Valley, and took a lovely walk suggested to us by the campsite manager. We didn’t have any expectations, but the walk was great, lots of twists and turns, steps carved out of tree stumps, a small river crossing and the finale, a lovely waterfall falling into a pristine turquoise pool.

Ku on the mini-hike we took from our campsite

Once back at the campsite, we had a deep discussion about whether to pitch the tent. The weather had been appalling all day. We put the tent up, then decided to move it to a more sheltered area. Then it began to rain heavily. We took the tent down, packed it away and spent the evening in the car reading and eating chocolate!

The rain fell in buckets all night, so we knew we had made the right decision. Another cosy night in the back of the car! It was disappointing as the campsite only had two other tents in it, the amenities were good and it was in a lovely location. Idyllic but for the rain. Oh, and our new friends – those pesky sand flies!

Part two to follow…….

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  1. We have been to New Zealand 4 times now and it never disappoints. While we only made it to the South Island on three of those trips, it has to be our favourite for the wild scenery. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks so much for your comments. We couldn’t agree with you more. Can’t wait to go back at some point. Happy travels.

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