Like many port towns around the world, Picton itself is a bit of a dive, so get back in the camper and drive out of there towards Blenheim. On the drive you’ll notice the surrounding fields are decorated in neat little lines. Upon further inspection, you’ll see that there are grapes growing from these delectable formations, and then it hits you. You’re in the Marlborough region, where the world’s best Sauvignon Blancs are born. You can pop into most vineyards, stay for a spot of lunch or have a tour. If you’re a wine enthusiast, you might want to stay a while a take tours of the region as a whole. Besides the wine, the scenes of stretching vineyards are a sight to sate the OCD within us all.
A stunning coastal drive to the south from here (assume all drives from this point onwards consist of incomprehensible beauty) will take you to the town of Kaikoura. Stop about 25km north of this town and walk along the coast looking down at the waves breathing over the rocks. These are the chosen grounds for a colony of seals, lazing, playing, and fighting away in the sunshine. Soak it in as a starter, if you will, because in Kaikoura you have bigger fish to proverbially fry. You would be forgiven for thinking the reason for your visit in this town is the scenic mountain backdrop. In fact, you’re here because the town was founded in this spot as a centre for whaling due to its proximity to the Hikurangi Trench. Don’t worry, you’re not going on a hunt, but you can still pop on a boat and have a look at the giants in all their breaching glory. Keep an eye on the sky for albatrosses, it might distract you from the poor souls vomiting with seasickness all around you.
You’re in the Marlborough region, where the world’s best Sauvignon Blancs are born.
A couple of cities to the south are obligatory stop off points on most people’s itineraries. Nowadays, Christchurch is unfortunately best known for its disasters. Most people stop off to visit Cathedral Square, which hosted many attractions before the 2011 earthquake, then promptly get out of Dodge. Dunedin is very much a university town, so it gets notably quieter when the adults learning to fend for themselves leave for the holidays. It was established as a Scottish settlement with subtle clues to the link all around the city. The name itself derives from the Scottish Gaelic for ‘Edinburgh’, and many of the street names match those of the Scottish capital. It also has a statue of the Scottish national treasure, Robbie Burns, right in the heart of the city. If you don’t care about relations with Scotland or uni students, the city is still worth a visit to see if you can run the 350 metres up the steepest street in the world, Baldwin Street.
Over on the west coast things are a little quieter. You can drive for an hour without seeing another car on the road. Duck into a camping spot for a secluded picnic or stop by the ocean to build your immortal rock stack; these are the lazy days of your trip. Don’t leave your doors open at the beaches for too long or you’ll spend the next few hours chasing sandflies out of your van with a sock. Somewhere along this coast is a tree top walking experience, which should give you your sense of achievement for the day if you find the peace and serenity all too boring. As for tourist activities, this part of the island is dominated by two massive glaciers.
Franz Joseph Glacier is a 12-kilometre-long stretch of slow-moving frozen river. A remnant of the last ice age, the ever-changing natural landscape is truly a stunning site. Guided tours are on offer for every level, from your Burger King fanatic to your Robert Scott idoliser. The frozen wonderland is a morphing monster of fanatical proportions, so safety precautions should be heeded. Helicopter tours will set you back around $100 NZD per person. The aerial view of ice falls and crevasses takes you along the glacier and lands you on a snowfield on the top of the world. It is the only sight in the world I have seen the well-travelled editor of this magazine fall to her knees in awe. Twenty minutes north of the glacier, accessible by helicopter only, are two white water rafting runs to rival any other. The class 4 and 5 rapids are completely isolated from civilization, so your screams of joy will be heard only by the mountains. Once your back and have fulfilled your glacier viewing needs, sit in the town’s hot springs and reflect on your day, get a good night’s sleep, then drive 30 minutes down the road to the next one.
All drives from this point onwards consist of incomprehensible beauty.
Fox glacier is tiny. Not the glacier of course, that’s massive, but the town itself only has a few hundred residents, which permits an intimate feeling of relaxation to seep into your being once more. Here the same guided walks and helicopter tours are on offer, or you can trek right up to the face of the glacier on your own. Don’t be silly and cross the barriers. You will die. There are several walks around here: Up into the mountains with a view over the glacier, into the rainforest on the edge of town, or drive down to the beach and walk along the pebbles to the rusty old gold dredge. There’s also another seal colony within walking distance from here. In the distance, you’ll see New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mount Cook.
Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is yet another example of the raw nature New Zealand has to offer. Here you are encouraged to leave as little human impact on the area as possible by ‘taking only photographs and leaving only footprints’. The village is a nice place for people of all shapes and sizes to go walking, but those wanting to scale the mountain itself will need to have some experience.
There is a superfluity of ridiculously good-looking lakes in the South Island, and few of them rival the impression left on you after visiting that of Wanaka. With a whopping nine thousand residents, the town of Wanaka is by far the most populated area you will have seen for many moons (or at least since arriving on the west coast). Take a few days to sit under the trees and practice your stone skimming skills in the picturesque lake. All the staple New Zealand activities are on offer here: walking, hiking, riding a bike, plus a couple of the more adventurous ones such as rafting, paragliding, and rock climbing. Just outside of town is the must-see attraction, Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World. The puzzle centre is filled with interactive optical illusions and games that will daze you for days. Outside there’s a 1.5km stretch of maze set out over two storeys to keep you puzzled after your puzzling time in Puzzle World.
Queenstown is a hoot. At last count there were 220 adventure activities on offer in the scenic resort town so the chances are, if you can think of it, you can do it here. Most of these activities take advantage of the view, with the stunning Lake Wakatipu within crawling distance and the Southern Alps providing the backcloth, you wouldn’t have to indulge in any activities to warrant visiting the place. A lot of the focus is on snow sports, with slopes for all levels, it’s a fun affordable day out. During high season it’s a bit of a party town, so if you want to sleep at all, stay away from the centre. At the shores of the lake, a standing wave causes the rise and fall of the water every 30 mins or so, said to be caused by the burial of a sleeping ogre, who left behind only his beating heart. See if you can spot the phenomenon.
The frozen wonderland is a morphing monster of fanatical proportions… chances are, if you can think of it, you can do it here.
One sight not to be missed on this wondrous island is the elusive Milford Sound, which is actually a fjord. It’s remote location and singular road in mean that if the gods decide to curse you with avalanches (common in the winter months) you won’t be able to get there. It’s worth sticking around until things clear up to see what Rudyard Kipling described as the “eighth wonder of the world”. A boat tour will take you around the fjord, surrounded by sheer rock faces. Dolphins, penguins, waterfalls, and a 360° view of the fjord is a good place to end your trip, this is New Zealand’s trump card.
This is New Zealand’s trump card…
There are many gems to be discovered in New Zealand’s South Island, both hidden and well documented. The joy of the trip is to jump in the camper and just drive. As you reach the top of some pass, the sky will expand and present a mountaintop Babylon of nature just for you. This trip can truly only be described as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Except for me. I’ve done it twice.