Posted by: Richard Marshall | May 10, 2017

New Zealand 2015 Part 1: The South Island

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Milford Sound Road

I’ve seen a lot more of New Zealand since my last posts, so had better start writing some updates. For my December break I returned to New Zealand. My parents had done a couple of scenic train trips, but for me it was my first visit to the South Island. I flew from Penang to Christchurch, a pretty exhausting flight, and was picked up early in the morning by my parents. They had decided not to spend the night in Christchurch, but to press on over the Southern Alps to Westport on the west coast. The drive took us out through the Canterbury plains and up Arthur’s Pass. The scenery became more and more dramatic as we drove on, and although the pass was shrouded in rain the views were spectacular. We also saw our first Keas – large, friendly flightless parrots that sometimes make a nuisance of themselves eating windscreen-wipers and window seals!

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Mom and I on the way to Arthur’s Pass

Westport itself is a pretty though somewhat depressed town – it was historically dependent on coal mining which has suffered in recent years. On the morning of the day we stayed there we drove out to Punakaiki a little further north to see the Pancake Rocks, odd-looking sandstone formations that resemble pancakes in layers. The site also has a number of blow holes that water and spray rush though at certain times, making it look as though the rocks are steaming. We admired some more scenery along the way, but that afternoon the weather closed in  -one of the few bad days we had. Fortunately, one of the attractions in Westport is the Monteith’s Brewery, where we did a tour of the facility and spent the rainy afternoon sampling a few of their beers.

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Pancake Rocks

32. Blowhole, pancake rocks

Blowhole at Pancake Rocks

From Westport we drove further south down the coast to Franz Joseph Glacier. The town itself was very pretty, with stunning views of the mountains and glimpses through the clouds of Mount Cook. We walked as close as we could to Franz Joseph Glacier, though recent rains had washed away much of the path. We could get a lot closer to the face of Fox Glacier, and both were visible extending up the mountainsides from further away.

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Fox Glacier

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Mountains, sheep and glaciers

After visiting the glaciers, we headed south and then back over the mountains at Haast’s Pass. As with all the South Island, the scenery continued to be stunning with incredible sweeping views of the Tasman sea and steep mountain sides cloaked in impenetrable beech forests. The landscape opened up on the eastern side of the mountains into grasslands, a result partly of rain shadows and of course farming. We stayed next in Lake Hawea, in an old fashioned hotel overlooking the lake and the mountains beyond. We decided not to stay in nearby Queenstown, the South Island’s most famous and tony resort town. Stopping there the next day made it clear that it was a good idea. Although the setting is gorgeous the scale of tourist development is a bit intense. We did stop at Arrowtown just outside of Queenstown, which was once on old gold mining town. Although obviously gentrified most of the historic buildings have been beautifully preserved, and we enjoyed exploring and having delicious meat pies for lunch.

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Lake Hawea

From Hawea we drove to another lakeside town, Te Anau. Te Anau is the jumping off point for one of New Zealand’s most famous attractions, Milford Sound. The town itself was very pretty, and Milford absolutely lived up to expectations. The road itself, winding over the mountains and through a tunnel, built with huge effort in the depression, was absolutely stunning. We then took a boat trip down the sound to the Tasman and back again. We were very lucky to have perfect weather in a place that gets 6 metres of rain a year. The most famous mountain, Mitre Peak, was perfectly reflected and we saw splendid waterfalls rushing down the mountainsides. Even in summer the mountains were snow capped which made the scenery even more dramatic.

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Lake Te Anau

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Mitre Peak

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Milford Sound

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Kea Parrot on the Milford Road

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The Milford Road

After Te Anau, the last leg of our trip took across the bottom of the South Island to Dunedin. We stayed there a couple of nights and I was really taken with the town. The natural setting is stunning, and the city has lots of beautiful nineteenth century buildings, the railway station in particular being an icon of the town. It is also the home of Speight’s brewery, and the alehouse there was the second great beer location of our trip! We went bird watching on Otago Peninsula which has a breeding colony of Royal Albatrosses. We also stayed till sunset to see Little Blue Penguins coming back from the sea to their burrows. We saw one more species of penguin, the much shyer and rarer Yellow Eyed Penguin. The next morning we drove out the airport and then headed to Auckland, where family was about to arrive for Christmas.

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Dunedin Railway Station

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