Autumn in New Zealand’s South Island

After living in Wellington for over a year, I had left this town exactly 3 times – once to go back to North America, once to go to Auckland for 2 days, and once to go to Paraparaumu for an afternoon (a town about 1 hour away by train).  I also went to my supervisor’s house in the Hutt valley once or twice, but I wouldn’t exactly say that’s getting out of town (though the Hutt river and views of Wellington Harbour from Petone are quite lovely).

So, when my mom decided to come visit, and I decided to officially take a post-proposal holiday, I didn’t actually consult her before planning our foray into New Zealand’s South Island.  I spoke to a number of kiwis for advice on where to travel in New Zealand, and independently they all unanimously suggested 3 places – the South Island’s West Coast, Central Otago/Arrowtown, and Fjordland.  Such consensus would be unlikely if asking an American “What are the best places to visit in the USA?”.  So, I planned a week of ferries, buses, boats and planes, and we did a full-circle tour of the lovely and wild South Island the 2nd week in May.

May is the perfect time to visit the South Island of New Zealand.  The majestic and magnificent Southern Alps boasted a fresh sprinkling of the season’s first snow.  The tourist hoards of high season (December – April) had vanished, and the weather was mild and surprisingly dry.  This is New Zealand, not new England, and the native flora is generally evergreen, so don’t expect fulgent autumnal colours.   In fact, if you do see yellow and red leaves falling from a tree (like the poplars lining the hills around Arrowtown), you can bet they are an introduced species.  However, the South Pacific climate has produced some extremely unique ecosystems and stunning scenery.  This country is the size of the UK, but has 1/10th the population.  That means there are lots of wide open, rugged, wild places.  And lots of sheep.

The first day we left Wellington at some ungodly hour and were waiting for the number 11 bus in Newtown before the sun was even properly up.  We got off the bus at the railway station, and walked over to the BlueBridge ferry terminal, where we boarded a gigantic vessel that had formerly carried passengers around the islands of Denmark or Finland.  The boat still bore signs in a language that used the “Ø” character.

The ferry that crosses the Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton takes about 3 hours.  The Cook Strait is known for its rough seas and wild weather.  On the day we took it, it was cold, and raining, but according to a fellow passenger who regularly took the ferry, it was “a very calm crossing”.  We encountered 3 meter swells which made me and mum a little queasy, but no seasickness!  However, the BlueBridge staff do provide seasickness bags in case you make the crossing on a particularly rough day.  Warning – never ever go out drinking the night before you are going to take the ferry.  This is not the kind of trip you want to make hungover.

Here are some pictures mom & I took on the ferry:

The brave antarctic explorer

The trip takes so long, even though the distance is not great, because the ferry has to navigate the Marlborough Sounds on the North end of the South Island.

This is a beautiful area, parts of which make up the Abel Tasman national park, and from what I hear, also very well worth visiting.

After arriving in Picton, we hopped on a bus to Nelson, about 2 hours away.

The sun shines briefly in Nelson

Nelson is a cute town and we would have liked to have stayed longer than one night, but unfortunately the bus schedules were against us, so after one evening in Nelson, we boarded a bus to Franz Josef Glacier.

This bus took us all along the West Coast of the South Island, and it is truly wild and beautiful.  The waves from the Southern Ocean pound against the rocky beaches and miles go by without a sign of civilization.  Rainforest covered mountains on one side meet the wild ocean on the other side, in one of the rainiest places in the world.  The area around Franz Josef gets 5 meters or rain a year, as clouds collect moisture over the ocean, are blown East, and hit the Southern Alps, releasing their rain on the coastal forests.

Our bus stopped at Pancake Rocks and gave us some time to take pictures in the rain.

After the stop we continued on to Franz Josef village, arriving just before sunset, and checked into the YHA before heading out for a romantic Mother’s day dinner.   The food was unimpressive and overpriced, but the company was excellent.

The following morning was rainy and wet, but the sun came out for a brief second and we decided to take the next shuttle to the face of the glacier while the weather looked promising.  Upon arriving at the glacier car park, it started pouring rain again, but, about 100 meters into our walk, the sun actually came out, and a sparkling blue sky appeared over the glacier.

This is before the sun properly cleared away the fog around the glacier.


I could write an entire post about glacier moraines and how the nevé forms blue ice… but I won’t.  I’ll just say the Franz Josef glacier is pretty spectacular, and one of the few places in the world you can get up close to a glacier and even go tramping around on it (if you can afford it!).

About 1 hour later, it promptly started raining again.

We spent another night in Franz Josef, and visited the glacier hot pools, which were very nice, though pretty expensive.  I splurged for it as I felt the lady who gave birth to me 31 years ago deserved a Mother’s day treat.

We headed to Queenstown from Franz Josef the following day.

This route took us through the Haast pass, which was also lovely.  There were beautiful mountains on every side, pristine kettle lakes (formed by glaciers) every few miles, and lots of cute little lambs and cows frolicking around. The road into Queenstown is winding and slow, but presents spectacular views.

We arrived just in time to stop at the Salvation Army and do a bit of browsing before we headed to our hostel by the lake to relax and prepare some kind of meal.  The following morning we were up at 6 to meet the bus that would take us to Milford Sound, leaving town at 6:45 am in complete darkness.

We pulled out of the Queenstown just as the sun was rising over the Remarkables, turning the clouds into golden strawberry cotton candy!

The bus passed through Te Anau and stopped at Mirror Lake, before arriving at Milford Sound.  We had a 90 minute cruise on the sound, before heading back to Queenstown and finally arriving at around 7 pm, a very long day.

However, well worth it, as the sound was lovely, and we got to see some cute little seals!

Milford Sound

seals amongst the rocksSo, after an exhausting 13 hour day trip to Milford Sound, we arrived back in Queenstown under the cover of darkness, and promptly went to sleep.  We may have eaten something beforehand but I can’t remember where or what.

The following day was literally our first “take it easy” day since the start of the trip – no early morning start, no buses to catch.  But, I didn’t get much of a lie-in as mom woke me up at 7 am demanding coffee and breakfast.  I tried to make some oatmeal, but due to the ambiguity of the dials on the stove, ended up burning it so badly I think I ruined the backpacker’s pot (Sorry!)  I did try to clean it, but it was no use.  I left it on the bench to “soak”, but when I came back a few hours later it had mysteriously disappeared.  Anyway, my second batch of oatmeal with dried apricots and a bit of milk & sugar turned out lovely and we relaxed in front of the backpacker’s giant window looking out over Lake Wakatipu.  Then we headed out to visit the Queenstown Salvation Army, in the midst of a 1/2 off sale.  I thought I took a long time in 2nd hand shops, judging by Ticker’s complaints, but whoa, my mom really takes the cake.  Approximately 4 hours after entering the tiny shop we finally left, mom having scored a number of really fantastic Merino jerseys, and me with a nice black Merino turtle-neck that only strangles me slightly.

After our shopping trip we rode the gondola up to the top of a mountain beside Queenstown.  It was spectacularly sunny and beautiful.

By then, we had had enough of Queenstown’s “party!” atmosphere and the onslaught of bungie jumping/hang gliding/jet boating/other extreme sport advertising, as I think most of the blog audience knows how I feel about extreme sports.  We decided, upon excellent advice, to head to Arrowtown for the remainer or our trip.

Arrowtown is only a 30 minute bus ride from Queenstown but feels like a million miles away.  It’s quiet and cute, in a middle of lovely hills planted with poplars turning yellow and gold in the autumnal air, with the Arrow River running alongside the 2 street downtown.

It’s full of amazing restaurants & bars, an awesome movie theatre, and a wonderful museum of the Lakes district.  I highly recommend skipping Queenstown entirely and spending your holiday in Arrowton.  There is a very reasonable priced backpackers right in the centre of town with a great kitchen and homey atmosphere.  This was by far my mom’s favourite place we visited and stayed; possibly mine as well.

During those 2 days we panned for gold in the Arrow River (but didn’t strike it rich unfortunately), went on a few lovely walks, visiting the museum, and discovered Provisions – the most delicious sticky buns I have ever tasted, mushrooms on toast, and eggs benedict.  DAMN!  Their food is good.

After our delightful two days in Arrowtown we got on a bus to the Queenstown airport, and in a plane that took us to Christchurch and then Wellington, and safely home.  Mom had 2 more days in Wellington and then flew back to Chicago and the springtime.  I miss her already, but know she’ll be back soon…

I took over 700 photos during the trip, but have selected about 200 that I posted on Picasa.

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