November has been our second month travelling New Zealand’s South Island in our car, and in a word, it’s been AMAZING. I’m falling in love with NZ a little bit more everyday; the more we see of it, the more I dread leaving this beautiful country. This month we’ve been non-stop: we’ve explored the Southland, Fiordland, bits of Otago and Canterbury, as well as the West Coast. I have so many blog posts to publish about so many experiences but the wifi in New Zealand is just so slow or limited that it’s much easier said than done!
We left our HelpX in Colac Bay at the start of November and headed straight to the Catlins. We only briefly visited the region in October and I knew we would want to go back again. We did all of the things we missed previously, including the Waipohatu walk, McClean Falls and the Petrified Forest, as well as revisiting Slope Point because it’s just amazing there. I love the Catlins – it’s one of my favourite places we’ve seen so far and I wrote a full blog post on it here.
The nearby town of Gore is famous for its country music, brown trout fishing, and history of illicit liquor making. Since we aren’t particularly interested in country music or fishing, we decided to visit the Hokonui Moonshine museum, to learn about prohibition in New Zealand, how Hokonui whiskey was distilled, and we had a free sample of the illicit liquor. It didn’t taste half as bad as I expected, and the museum was definitely worth visiting! In the afternoon we visited Dolamore Park and hiked up to Popplewell’s Viewpoint (460m). It was tough but the views were rewarding! On the descent we stopped to look at the Whiskey Creek and Horseshoe Falls, gorgeous waterfalls that tumble through the bush.
Te Anau is a small town in the Southland and was our base for embarking on the Kepler Track (one of New Zealand’s Great Walks). It’s a four day tramp and is one of the best things I’ve done while in New Zealand. I wrote a bit more about it in a blog post here. Who would have thought I would stand on the top of a mountain!? Not me, that’s for sure. For more info on the Great Walks, visit the DOC website here.
Te Anau is also the starting point of the Te Anau – Milford highway (94) which leads to Milford Sound. The weather is very interchangeable around the Fiordland because of the mountains and fiords, so it’s a good idea to take both your waterproofs and your sunglasses when you visit! Milford Sound is simply beautiful – an unreal sight until you see it with your own eyes – and, accordingly, it’s very busy. There were heaps of tour boats on the water and the car park was choc-a-bloc… I must say I preferred our trip to Doubtful Sound.
The highway is full of a number of other things to see and do. We stopped off at the Chasm, a huge, booming waterfall that thunders through the rocks below. There were plenty of Kea, New Zealand’s native alpine parrot, at the Homer Tunnel – they are very mischievous and tried to eat our roof rack! We saw the huge Humboldt Falls and hiked the strenuous climb up to Lake Marian, a mystical lake hanging amongst the mountains… It was too windy at Mirror Lakes for a “mirror” reflection but we saw the black teal duck/papango diving into the water.
Another thing I loved about Te Anau was the Bird Sanctuary, where you can see endangered species such as the Takahē, Kākā and Ruru/morepork. When the maōri people first came to New Zealand, they stamped out many species of birds, such as the huge Moa. When the Europeans arrived, they brought along pests such as stoats and possums who also wiped out many species. It was thought that the Takahē was extinct until 1948 when a small colony was discovered by Geoffrey Orbell in the nearby Murchison Mountains; now most of them live in conservation centres. As you can tell, the Bird Sanctuary was a fabulous experience for me because I’ve become a slightly over-enthusiastic bird-watcher since coming to NZ…
After the Southland, our next stop was Queenstown. I wasn’t sure what to expect of QT; other travellers had told me it’s amazing, whilst Kiwis had said it was too touristy and had lost its charm. I was somewhere in the middle: it’s very touristy, but it’s still charming. The postcard-perfect mountains and the too-blue-to-be-true Lake Wakatipu surround the small but thriving town centre… I can see why it was deemed ‘fit for a queen’ by the New Zealand government!
We only stayed in Queenstown for the day; since it’s the adventure capital, it’s not an ideal place to be when you’re on a budget. There are heaps of bars, restaurants and shop, and endless adrenaline-fuelled activities year-round. Our treat was lunch with James’ friend Luke and his girlfriend Holly. We were going to try the famous Fergburger, but the queue was huge and frankly, how good can a veggie burger be, really? That said, the falafel burger I had at Devil Burger was A-MAZING. In the afternoon we sweated off the calories with a trek up the Tiki Trail, where we looked out over the city and shared an ice cream. We camped at a gorgeous free campsite in the Gibbston valley, with the beautiful Kawarau river flowing past.
This month James and I both bought new hiking boots. I’d been hoping I wouldn’t have to because New Zealand is notoriously known for its expensive hiking wear. However, after my old pair were destroyed on the Kepler track, I couldn’t really go without… I bought a new pair in Queenstown for a really reasonable price! James bought his new boots before we did the Kepler, but noticed a few days afterwards that they had a manufacturing fault – the lining at the heel had somehow moved around the boot making them really uncomfortable. We ended up having to drive back to Te Anau from Queenstown to return the boots, and, once assessed, the manufacturer sent out a new pair… We finally picked them up in Hokitika about two weeks later (apparently next-day delivery is slow in NZ).
We spent a few hours exploring Glenorchy, a sleepy town at the top end of Lake Wakatipu. It isn’t very busy, with only a few shops and cafés really, but a fair few tour buses stopped off and streams of tourists with selfie-sticks pottered about. It’s also popular with trampers as it’s close to the Routeburn track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.
After a couple of hours ambling around, we had lunch in the sun before heading up to Paradise – yes, there really is a place in New Zealand called Paradise! It consists of only a handful of houses and access is by a gravel road with many fords – luckily our Honda made it through. It’s a beautiful area of rolling hills and farmland, with a backdrop of the mountains: paradise, if you ask me.
We then visited Arrowtown, which we both fell in love with a little bit. It’s a small town, with a gorgeous historic centre that still retains much of its heritage architecture. We visited the old Chinese Settlement, which was where the first Chinese settlers lived when they arrived in New Zealand in search of gold, during the Otago Gold Rush of the 1860s. Some of the huts that the miners lived in still stand today.
Perhaps it was a bad idea to visit Cromwell on the same day; it didn’t compare in our opinion, though it is worth a visit and seems to be quite up-and-coming. We popped into the Salvation Army and picked up some great CDs to add to our collection in the car: Bob Dylan, The Pogues, and ‘The Best Rock Album in the World… Ever!’ Safe to say we were rocking out all the way to Wanaka…Wanaka is a gorgeous place and I knew I’d love it before I even arrived – the town isn’t massive, but has everything you need, including an abundance of bars and restaurants. It has a relaxed, laid back vibe and the view of the lake is simply mesmerising.
While in Wanaka, we took a walk along the river and saw the famous #ThatWanakaTree. We hiked up Mount Iron (548m) and visited Lake Hawea, which is just as gorgeous at Lake Wanaka but sees a lot less tourists.
We did the Rob Roy Glacier walk which was just incredible. The valley has been carved by the glacier and you can get pretty close to it at the end of the track! It was certainly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. There is a photo to show where the glacier used to stand in 1911 – it’s melted a LOT since then. We feel lucky to have seen it before it disappears completely!
By far my biggest accomplishment while in Wanaka was the hike up to Roy’s Peak (1578m) – it was so tough! It’s basically three hours uphill, no flat bits at all, and it was SO sunny (who forgot to put sun cream on AND decided to wear shorts? Me…). Nothing quite beats the view at the top of a mountain, but it was something else at the summit of Mount Roy; it was like a painting. Spectacular.
Leaving Wanaka in the late afternoon, we headed towards Lake Tekapo. We stopped by Lake Poaka to have dinner and James played his guitar for half an hour or so before it started raining. It became overcast really quickly but we did see a pretty rainbow! We carried on to Tekapo and took a quick walk around the town (a really quick walk – there’s not much there) before waiting at the Church of the Good Shepherd for night to fall.
Lake Tekapo is in New Zealand’s Dark Sky reserve, meaning the stars are even more beautiful here, and in winter you can see the Milky Way. James has been playing about with my camera and was looking forward to taking some photos of the stars – the cloud hung around until sunset but then it was mostly clear. Along with about 30 professional photographers carrying huge cameras and tripods, we stood my compact Sony Camera against rock to keep it still. We must have looked like such amateurs! I found the whole experience was very bizarre; a huge group of people were stood by their cameras taking photo after photo of the sky, without even glancing up to look at the stars properly. Personally, I am way too impatient for night-photography so I sat on a nearby rock and did some stargazing myself, through my own eyes, not a screen.
The next morning the weather was still overcast but we took a few photos of Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki, which are unbelievably blue. Then we drove to Mount Cook village, where the weather was 100 times worse. The rain was non-stop and the wind was so powerful it was rocking the car. “Fine spells” were predicted for the following day, so we spent our afternoon in the car in the only campsite there: a DOC campsite which costs $10pp per night but thankfully has a kitchen and hot showers!
The next day, the “fine spells” didn’t seem to arrive… We did the Hooker Valley walk but spent more time looking at the floor than the “sights” – because we couldn’t see anything! I still don’t know what Mount Cook even looks like, because grey, ominous-looking clouds have been in front of it every time it’s been view. We decided to do the Governor’s Bush Walk after lunch, mainly because it would provide a little shelter from the rain; it was a pleasant amble through the trees, with lots of little signs confirming the names of the plants and, when the rain stopped for a few minutes, we could hear the calls of the native birds.
We debated staying at the campsite for another night, thinking that perhaps the weather would improve, but the forecast was much the same if not worse for the next 3-4 days. We decided we would rather visit Mount Cook again at a later date – possibly after Christmas. We left the village that afternoon, stopping at Twizel for some groceries and continuing through Lindis Pass. We camped at a gorgeous free DOC campsite by the ruins of the Lindis Hotel which was built to service miners during the first Lindis Gold Rush in 1861. The evening was warm and clear better so we had dinner outside in the sunshine.
The drive from Wanaka towards Haast has some stop-off opportunities, which are good if you have a long journey. We were slightly disappointed with the Blue Pools – they are in fact just one ‘pool’, but the Thunder Creek Falls and Fantail Falls were impressive.
As soon as we arrived in Haast (which is obscenely expensive for petrol by the way), the weather began to turn, and by the time we reached Fox Glacier, it was pouring with rain. The dreadful weather is one of the reasons the coastline is known as the ‘wild’ West Coast.
We decided to brace the rain and visit Fox Glacier anyway, but we were shocked to find all access beyond the car park was fenced off for safety. Normally you are able to take a number of walks which take you to the lookouts and allow you to get up to 500m away from the glacier. During heavy rainfall, rivers can flood, ice can unexpectedly fall, and …. so it’s perfectly understandable that no access was permitted.
A little deflated, we drove up to Franz Josef glacier in the afternoon, which was partly accessible; the river had overflown and flooded the path. It’s going to need to be rebuilt I reckon! We did the Sentinel Rock lookout which offered decent views.
I had been considering doing a guided tour on Fox Glacier. However, only a couple of weeks ago four tourists and a pilot lost their lives in a helicopter accident due to adverse weather conditions. Although the guided tour is on the glacier, not in the air, you still have to take a helicopter to get onto the ice. This is not a risk I’m prepared to take in light of the recent accident! (Please note that the guided tours do not take place during periods of bad weather – they weren’t operating when we were in the area anyway.)
In the late afternoon, we went to Lake Matheson which was beautiful but still, we didn’t see Mount Cook because of the clouds! (Will I ever see it!?) There was too much wind for the lake to be reflective; it’s best to visit at dawn or dusk for the “perfect” photo. We camped at a free site by Gillespie’s beach and sat by the sea for a while since it had stopped raining. I set my alarm for 5am, so we could catch the sunrise at Lake Matheson – however it was hugely overcast and pouring with rain when we woke up, so we went back to sleep.
Fed up of the rain, we did our laundry and then headed onto Hokitika and camped by Lake Mahinapua. It’s difficult to know when to just give up and move on with the rain; on the one hand I want to stay around to experience the best weather, on the other we can’t afford to linger about for days on end.
The weather was finally sunny in Hokitika so we tried to see as much as possible!
First stop was the beach, where we stumbled upon the famous “Hokitika” wooden sculpture – I have no idea when or why it came to be here so please advise me if you know!
Next, we drove out to the gorge, which is normally a gorge-ous turquoise colour (see what I did there!?) However, because of the vast amount of rain recently, the water was a murky green. It was still beautiful though!
On the way back, we stopped at the Dorothy Falls, which are only a couple of minutes walk from the highway and are simply stunning. It’s incredible the hidden treasures you find on a drive in New Zealand.
We then drove East to Arthur’s Pass and spent the night in a free DOC campsite where some more friendly kea work is up at 5am. We spent the last day of November on various walks in the National Park: the Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfalls, the Arthur’s Pass Walking Track, the Bealey Valley Track, the Dobson Nature Walk, and finally the Temple Basin Track, which ascends to the ski huts that are used here in winter (the runs look so strange without the snow on them!)
December brings more travels, treks and, of course, Christmas! This will be the first festive season away from home for James and I, and it’ll be strange but we’re excited! Stay tuned for more updates!
Recommended campsites we’ve stayed at this month:
Please note that James and I have a non-self-contained vehicle; prices are reflected accordingly.
- Gore Country Club Campsite: $8 per vehicle
- Lumsden Motor Camp: $10pp, includes a fully equipped kitchen, unlimited hot shower, & feeding the llamas!
- Lowburn: Free
- Bendigo: Free
- Luggate Cricket Club: $5pp, includes a hot shower & plug sockets
- Lake Mahinapua: $6pp
- Gillespie’s Beach: Free
- Klondyke Corner, Arthur’s Pass: Free
- Pukaki: Free
- Lindis Pass Hotel: Free
Hope everyone has had a great November! For more updates (when I have wifi) you can follow me on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat (abbigail-rose).
Thanks for reading,