After three hours crossing the Cook Straight via ferry, we saw first glimpse of land. Large mountains off in the salty ocean air horizon. We approached slowly until we were surrounded on both sides of us by lush, green mountains of the peninsulas in the Marlborough Sound. We were outside, on top of the ferry taking in the views and the promises of a new island to explore. It already felt like a different land, as you could feel the remote, wilderness atmosphere that the Sound gave off. We traveled in through the ocean inlet for almost another hour, amazingly, before docking and embarking onto the lands where we are to spend the next three weeks. It is time to see what all the South Island hype is about for our own two eyes.
Picton & Nelson
Picton is the first town that you arrive in when entering the South Island via ferry. It is a quiet town that thrives on the ferry & other port traffic. The town has a very quaint main street, High Street, which we spent our time on. Not much is open nor many people out and about after 8pm, however we found a very beautiful park to the right of the docks which had views of the sun setting over the Marlborough Sound horizon. We sat on a bench together and just took in the view of the colorful pink and purple sunset with the anchored sail boats and the mountains cascading behind them. It was a quiet but perfect first night on the South Island.
On the second day, we were quickly starting to learn that wifi was already becoming more sporadic and unreliable. Cellular service was poor and most cafes here had strict time and data limits, if they offered it at all. For this reason, we didn't stick around Picton long, and we took off for Nelson, the next town west toward the northwestern coast, with the goal of getting some work done. We arrived and were surprised to find that this was a quite happening town. There was a lot of shopping, restaurants, bars, and parks. We found a cafe followed by a bar where we were able to accomplish our work goals. The bar was located on a street that was similar to Church Street in Burlington or Pearl Street in Boulder. We didn't do any kind of adventures while in Picton or Nelson, but we did acclimate to the vibes of the South Island and took in the culture of these two different towns.
Abel Tasman National Park
Our first adventure on the South Island led us to Abel Tasman National Park, sitting on the Northwest shoulder of New Zealand's south island. We arrived on day 15 of our trip and kicked off the day with a hike through part of another one of New Zealand's "Great Walks," the Abel Tasman Coastal Trail. It started off crossing long, wooden bridges through the ocean's shallows. Many people had made love notes and put their initials in stones in the water around the bridges. We did not have the time to leave our mark but enjoyed the view and the occasional cut up (humor/joking) piece. The trail then picked up through ocean side, tropical forests which created tree tunnels that were quite enjoyable to walk through. From an ocean lookout point, we spotted a sting ray swimming the shoreline. Second shoreline stingray sighting so far (say that 3 times fast). We, also, spotted many Wecas on our trek, one even walking inches by leg to pass me like I wasn't even there. We kept on another couple kilometers until we reached Apple Bay. This bay homed a peninsula beach that had the ocean on one side with views of the Adele and Tonga Islands and then clear, calm waters of an ocean inlet that wrapped behind the beach on the other side of it.. The water was warm, perfect for swimming. Unfortunately, we had to turn back, as we only had 3 hours to hike before heading to our next adventure. However, The Abel Tasman Coastal Trail is much longer, involving 4-5 days of hiking and camping to complete. The scenery is amazing and if I had a recommendation for someone who had more time than us, it would be to do more of the Abel Tasman Coastal Trail than we did.
Our next adventure was a kayak trip to Split Apple Rock, a rock tucked in a bay near Abel Tasman National Park that looked like an apple that was split in two. The kayak ride was about 45 min in and 45 min back, however on the way in we experienced kayaking in the windy and rocky, afternoon ocean waves. I thought it was thrilling but I could tell it made Hannah just a little bit uneasy. I swam out and played on the rocks on arrival, including jumping off one of the boulders, and Hannah walked the beach, preferring not to swim at this moment. There were starfish, shrimp, sea anemones, and some corals in this little reef. There were also small sea caves in the ocean cliffs that wrapped around the bay's walls. It was entertaining, beautiful, and fun. What was not fun was losing our older GoPro Hero 3+ that had survived MANY near death experiences. We once dropped this to the bottom of the Queen's Bath in Kauai and thought it was gone until someone with goggles helped us retrieve it. Another time it was dropped to the bottom of Donner Lake in Tahoe, where we waded through the deep waters for ever before actually finding it again. After these two incidents, Hannah begifted me floaty attachments to be used at all future times going into areas of water. Apparently I didn't learn my lesson but I was about to. The GoPro was on a clipboard attachment that I thought to be super clamped to the kayak's ropes. I had to unboard onto a rock to search for a pair of (free) sunglasses that I lost on a rock while swimming. After giving up on the sunglasses, I boarded back onto the kayak. I let go of the sharp, barnacle covered rocks around me and let my weight fall back into my seat of the kayak while Hannah watched, in slow motion, as my big butt knocked the Gopro from its secure attachment into the ocean. This time there would be no return, as it fell down a dark, deep rock crevasse. After much frustration and searching with our paddles, we deemed it was gone for good this time. Sticking my hand into dark ocean rock crevasses gives me the creeps and I know it'd be such a long shot. Luckily, I put a bid on a slightly upgraded GoPro from NZ's version of Craiglist and won it for very cheap. We also cleared the memory card the day before, so no pictures were lost and all is well! We returned our kayaks and the beach we left at looked 100% different upon returning. The tide had gone out to sea and left the beach untouched by the water for an extended 600 meters. It was crazy how much the scenery changed from the change in the tide. Despite the first casualty of our trip, we loved Abel Tasman National Park and would put it high up there on recommendations. Hannah recalled seeing a bar on the way back to our car that had stunning views and offered free live music every Thursday night (this night), and we both decided it would be the perfect way to wash away the sorrows of losing nice things and to calm the nerves. We noticed a "Bernie 2016" sticker on the ukulele bag on stage and befriended the local sound tech setting up the stage, whose name was Harmony. He actually turned out to be a dual citizen, originally from Toledo, Ohio. He had lived in New Zealand since I was born, in 1987. We chatted for a long time about all sorts of stuff and also learned that tonight was open mic night, that he was a musician hosting the night, and that this night was apparently a very popular night in the area. We quickly learned this to be true, as the house became packed with locals and tourists, some driving from distances away to be there specifically for this. It was a ton of fun. We mingled with all sorts of people, both locals and tourists. We befriended a dutch man, named Stan, who was there to play the digridoo for the first time on stage. We enjoyed many beers and then the musical highlight of the night, a reggae/ska band that brought high energy and talent to the stage. We had a fantastic party to conclude our time in Abel Tasman. The next day would not be as much fun, as it was dedicated all to work and recovering from the night before.
The West Coast
We continued south down to the West Coast of New Zealand. We quickly recognized it to be a similar drive to the Pacific Coast Highway in America. The mountains were towering and would disappear in the distances of the salty, ocean air both north and south of you. These mountains, however, were taller, more tropical, and completely lush green mountains. It was incredibly scenic just driving on this cliff-hugging, sharp, windy road.
Our first short, scenic hike was to Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. It was a short 15 minute hike through a tropical forest area and then you reached the edge where you began to see large limestone rock formations that looked like stacks of pancakes. It was different for sure. Scientists, til this day, still don't know what caused the rocks to form in the pancake stack shapes that they did.These rock formations made great pictures though. There were parts where the rock formations had inlets and caves that let in the strong ocean waves that would come in and crash loudly against the rocks. Also in these parts and other areas were sections where the strong crashing waves would hit against the rock and blow water up through holes and crevasse shooting salt water high into the air. The walkway was all made out of stone and the site was definitely unique.
We drove inland to Arthur's Pass for a day to hike. This is where we first experience the huge mountains that the South Island had to offer. These mountains were jaw dropping big, and we had to climb one in the Kingfish to get to Arthur's Pass. The van had a hard time mustering up the horsepower to make it up the steep grade of the road up. We hiked the Devil's Punchbowl & the Arthur's Pass Walking Trail trails. Both were through awesome forests with many stairs and were incredibly steep ascents.
Our next stop was to the Hokitika Gorge, which became an instant highlight for me. The river going through the gorge was a glowing, fluorescent turquoise blue color. We've never seen water this color before. The mixture of rocks being ground into fine powder by the glaciers and the glacier water itself creates this majestic color. The water was absolutely freezing, straight from the not so far away glaciers. When I dipped my head in I got brain freeze, literally, not to mention the feeling of losing all of the breath in your lungs from the shock of the cold water. There was a 40 foot boulder at the water's edge that, after seeing someone else do, I found my next thrill. It was high enough, when on top the rock, my legs would shake when I looked over the edge. Well, if you're not busy living, you're busy dying. I took the leap and fulfilled my next adrenaline rush for the week. We stayed the night in downtown Hokitika, near the beach. We found the one open bar in town and ended up meeting all sorts of people that we talked to until the bar shut down late that night. We met a local kamboocha maker, originally from Indiana, PA (a place where a lot of my best friends went to college). We met a girl on a work visa, from Pleasanton, CA (not far from us in SF). We mingled with the bouncer, the bartender, and two different drunk groups of friendly local kiwis. We were told the most shocking thing that night. A couple people in these Kiwi groups had told us that they thought our accents were the coolest. We have never heard this and never expected to hear this. Personally, I think the American accent is the most bland accent ever. I mean how can you compare to that (insert adjective) British or Aussie accent. We took in the compliment.
To conclude our time on the West Coast, we drove 6 hours south to Wanaka where we would stop by the Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers. While we weren't up close or personal, we did get okay views of the beginning of each glacier. It was both our first times seeing a glacier in real life. The rest of the drive to Wanaka was amazing. It was down a very remote highway that went through forests, ocean coast line, and then finally through the towering mountains of New Zealand's Southern Alps. These mountains were incredibly huge and made for a very adventurous drive.
We arrived to Wanaka late on Christmas Eve. The whole town was partying like there was no tomorrow. Every bar on Ardmore Street was packed house. We were tired and full from our meals and didn't indulge much in the evening's festivities but took it all in. The next day was a polar opposite of the night before. The town was all closed down for Christmas and nothing was open and a fraction of the people were out and about. We had learned that in most of the South Island that you have to park your campervan in campgrounds, as they're banned from most towns in the South Island. This is okay for us, as it's nice to have shower facilities readily available. We stayed at a holiday park in the town's center and had a lazy Christmas in Wanaka. We did a steep, hour and a half return hike to the peak of Mount Iron. At the top you had 360 views of the whole town of Wanaka. We had planned to the Rob Roy Glacier hike, but it rained a lot of the day, making it not so desirable. In the evening, we enjoyed dinner, wine and a peaceful walk on the lake's beach for sunset. We stopped with the rest of the tourists to snap some photos of "#thatwanakatree," and we enjoyed a quiet Christmas evening back at camp. It was our first Christmas spent together married and it will definitely be remembered. We hope every one has enjoyed their own holidays, whether you spent it adventuring or home visiting family.