There are so many things that we love about New Zealand and something kind of minor but of great importance to us is their public restrooms. First, one can almost always find a public restroom when needed and they are always kept very tidy. Many New Zealand towns have these cool ones, where you press a button that opens a sliding door. You enter, and press another button to close the door. A voice informs you that you have 10 minutes, and then the music starts! (A cover of “What the World Needs Now is Love”). We’re big fans!
Our freedom camping site near Westport sure was buggy! We came away with bites that itched for several days. And it wasn’t the last of the bugs. After a harried breakfast on Saturday we got out of there. Our first stop was Cape Foulwind, where there is a NZ fur seal colony. It’s a spectacular area, but the fur seals were kind of few and far away. However, the highlight for us was the wekas! They are another native ground dwelling bird like the kiwi, that we had failed to spot thus far. This inquisitive fellow was checking out our campervan, hoping for some treats.
Further south we entered Paparoa National Park. At Punakaiki is a spectacular site called Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. We arrived at low tide, so the the tide-dependent blow holes weren’t very active, but the rocks formations were spectacular!!
By early evening we reached the port town of Greymouth. A local brewery, Monteiths, is here, so we popped in for some microbrews and tasty tapas. We finally tried the revered green lipped mussels, which were excellent. Our campsite that night was by a beach, so we took a long walk and looked for the green, jade-containing stones. We found a few cool candidates.
On Sunday we went the short distance to Hokitika, known for it’s jade and jade carvers. Fortunately, we arrived the day after the wild food festival. It would have been fun, except for the overwhelming crowds. Stina shopped for her jade pendant, and found just the right one. NZ’s famous glaciers are just down the road, so after lunch we headed that way. We passed through Ross, where largest gold nugget ever was found in NZ. Then it was Hari Hari, with the “widest main street in NZ” and its famous speed trap. Near the little town of Whataroa is a white heron reserve that deserved a look. However, after a long drive down a very dusty dirt road, we struck out, seeing only the much more common, but cool pukeko birds.
We made it to the alpine town of Franz Josef in the late afternoon and our first stop were the “glacier hot pools.” We’re not sure if this place is using natural hot springs like the places we visited on the north island, but the hot pools sure felt good! We still had some daylight so we headed up the glacier access road and did two short hikes. The first was to Peter’s Pool, which offered great bird songs, and views like this.
We then hiked to the glacier viewing area and saw the Franz Josef glacier from afar. As light was waning, we decided to make a closer glacier approach the next day. At our campsite in Franz Josef we had a light dinner of cheese, salami, and olives, washed down with some wine. Don especially was dealing with all kinds of bug bites, mostly from Westport site, but a few new ones as well, so some anti-itch cream was applied and we tried to sleep.
On Monday morning we started with a breakfast in Franz Josef, and then drove a little farther towards the Fox Glacier, which we heard might be better. First we stopped at Lake Matheson, which is supposed to offer great views of the glacier and reflections of the surrounding mountains. The views were nice, but a breeze kicked up ripples and the reflection wasn’t working. The Fox Glacier access road goes up into a spectacular canyon, reminiscent of entering Yosemite. We did the hike up the moraine to the viewing area, and the glacier was very cool! The range of colors, the crevasses, the occasional falling rocks and ice blocks, and the surrounding peaks, all mind-blowing.
Our time on the west coast ended a little father south at Haast, and then we proceeded inland. The road gets very windy and steep, even by NZ standards, as it goes from the sea towards the big lakes of Wanaka and Hawea. There are some spectacular river gorges, waterfalls, and views of surrounding peaks. We stopped at the beautiful Blue Pools, which are at the confluence of two mountain rivers, but didn’t stay long due to the aggressive sand flies. As the landscape becomes a high plateau, it reminded us of the eastern Columbia River Gorge. It was very dry and sunny, which amplified the effect. We arrived in the town of Wanaka in the evening, tired after the long drive. However, it was an incredible sunny evening, and our campground had a hot tub, so it wasn’t all bad!
On Tuesday morning we had a nice breakfast in town and did a little souvenir shopping. We left by mid-morning heading towards the east coast. By lunch time we were along technicolor blue Lake Pukaki, with an amazing view towards Mt Cook. It would have been nice to linger longer here, or continue up to Mt Cook, but our schedule was pushing us further.
After a few cute towns, more impossibly blue lakes, huge sheep ranches and other agricultural fields, we finally reached the Pacific coast and the town of Timaru. It’s a nice setting, but the town seemed a bit industrial or lacking in character. It was a convenient place for the night, though, so we bought a few groceries and called it a day.
Wednesday was our last drive, from Timaru up the coast to our final destination of Christchurch. It was surreal to realize that nearly 5 weeks in NZ had passed. And then entering the earthquake-ravaged city added to the sensation. It was immediately clear that this place was unlike any other that we had personally experienced, still dealing with the massive effects of 4 big earthquakes (and thousands of aftershocks). One of our first sights was a poignant memorial to the victims on the lot where a beautiful church once stood – 185 white chairs.
However, across the street, the “cardboard cathedral” is being built, an innovative temporary church to replace one that was lost. And then across the street from there one sees the bulk of the downtown core – called the Red Zone – which is still cordoned off as the heavily damaged buildings and streets are being demolished. All around are signs and graffiti with messages of strength and hope. Arriving here was a real emotional roller coaster. After some exploring we decided to check out the suburb port of Lyttleton. It’s on the other side of a ridge, accessed through a long tunnel. It, too, was affected by the quakes, but to a much lesser extent. It’s a very scenic location, a deep bay surrounded by ridges. We would have liked to explore this and the neighboring Banks Peninsula some more, but it was getting late, and we need to find our final campsite in NZ.
This was it, Thursday the 14th of March, our last day in NZ. We packed our bags for the flight to Sydney, and sorted out some items to donate to a local charity, and other items to ship home. We had a few hours left, so we went to the Re:START shopping area. Adjacent to the Red Zone, they set up a shopping and dining area for local retailers, using shipping containers as improvised stores and cafes! It was a very impressive and innovative way to get the local economy rolling.
Here they also have an earthquake museum, one of the best that we’ve seen. In addition to all kinds of exhibits about the events of 2 years prior, there is a video with interviews of many affected individuals, and it was quite emotional. We were warned about its intensity, and it was suggested to just watch a small part. After this we saw a short video from a security camera that was rolling during the quake. It starts to shake, and you’re told to watch a man on the far side of the scene. As the shaking starts he ducks into the doorway of a building. Then the building’s facade crumbles down! After a while the shaking stops, the dust settles a bit, and you see the man emerge unscathed! Outside in the parking area, a big event was getting underway. It’s a children’s charity that uses wacky vehicles and characters, with water and foam spraying and other antics. It was hard not to smile, and we came away feeling that Christchurch was going to pull through their catastrophe stronger than before.
We leave NZ a little heavy hearted as we did not get to see everything that we intended. We truly had an amazing time though and know that we will just have to come back again to see more of this beautiful country. It is time to move on now for the next part of our adventure in Australia. G’day mate!