Our second week in the campervan was a wet one. In fact, we’ve had rain every day of this journey so far. If anyone wants to chart the perfect course to experience rainfall in every corner of the South Island, just ask us. : )
Thankfully everyone remained positive and the kids were undeterred by the wet. We got out and about most days and saw as much as we could see. There were some downsides though. Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier were both closed due to the heavy rain. Some roads were closed due to flooding and we only glimpsed the beautiful Haast Pass thanks to the cloud and fog that clung low on the mountains.
Still we managed to see and experience more great sights. The low points will be ones we’ll laugh most about later. With a bit of time and sunshine, we’ll only remember this week fondly. Here is a recap, accompanied by mostly iPhone photos because it was too wet to get my camera out:
Day 1: After our incredible day in Milford Sound, we all woke up ready for more adventuring. I awoke first and took advantage of the very ‘practical’, if not charming, campsite we were in to shower, do laundry and organise the van. After breakfast and a bit of school, we drove all the way up to Queenstown. Friends had recommended we stay in Glenorchy, so we carried on north and found Mrs. Woolly’s campsite and General Store near the lake, surrounded by impressive mountains. Keen to get out and walk, we put on our raincoats and took a stroll along the lake before dinner. Michael sat with the kids and helped them with a journal entry while I cooked. The rain came down in sheets as we ate, but finished quickly and left a gorgeous rainbow arching its way over our van. We all took this as a hopeful sign of sunshine to come… but the rain was back within the hour. Sigh.
Day 2: We spent the first half of this day exploring Queenstown. Nestled in between mountains and a lake, it’s clear this town thrives on outdoor sports. We weren’t up for kayaking, mountain biking or jet-boating this day, so we just wandered around the bustling town centre and took in the sporty vibe. We found a little salon on a back street to have Marlow’s fringe trimmed and a craft market on the waterfront with some food vendors. We grabbed hot empanadas there for lunch (which reminded us of being on the beach in Chile!), and listened to the live music. We quickly perused the souvenir shops for postcards and stickers for our collections, then headed back to the van.
On our way out of Queenstown we passed the historic Kawarau Bridge, the birthplace of bungy jumping in NZ. From the road we could see people standing on the big iron bridge so we had to pull in for a peek. For an hour we were transfixed watching the (mostly nervous) jumpers take the plunge. It made us all feel a little bit queasy, except for Marlow, who very sincerely asked if she could have a go!!! We told her ‘no’, and that ‘no’ included the rest of her life. Still, she insisted that when she was a baby she had bungy jumped from a big bridge just like this one.
Happily exhilarated from spectating, we hopped back in the van and continued northwards in search of our own (safer) adventures. We passed through Cromwell, stopping at one of the many roadside fruit stands to pick up cherries, peaches, plums and apricots. We also tried our first ‘real fruit ice cream’ – a NZ classic summer treat that we’d never had. Our day finished outside of Wanaka, at the Lake Hawea campsite, in time for dinner and some play on the playground.
Day 3: Our wettest day yet. It poured with rain—all day long. Unfortunately, this was the day we planned to drive through beautiful Haast Pass, a winding road through thickly forested mountains with a multitude of waterfalls and walks. Sadly we could not enjoy Haast in all its glory (we could hardly see more than 100 meters ahead of us), but we now have a good reason to go back one day!
We did make a stop to go for a short walk to the ‘blue pools’. These deep pools of glacier water are a popular attraction on this route and worth a stop—unless it’s been raining all day and then you’ll find the blue pools are brown. Still we enjoyed stretching our legs and crossing the narrow pedestrian bridges over raging waters. Arriving back at the camper we were all soaked to the bone. Michael and I were half laughing, half crying as we changed everyone into dry clothes, mopped out the van, and drove on.
After Haast Pass, the option of driving down south to Jackson Bay to see the penguins and seals was off the cards thanks to flooding on the roads, so we continued north along the coast. We stopped to pick up whitebait patties, a local delicacy, for lunch from a roadside stand. The kind man in the stand walked the patties out to us with a tray in one hand and a big umbrella in the other. We made it to Fox Glacier that afternoon. The glacier access was closed and the rain still falling, so we spent a cosy afternoon in our van at the campsite. We popped popcorn, watched a movie, played games, made dinner and all went to bed with a bit of cabin fever!
Day 4: The next day we awoke early and were pleased to see our camper did not float away during the night. (The thought actually did cross my mind!) We spent the morning penning postcards and doing a bit of home-schooling. We then drove to nearby Lake Matheson and decided to walk the 4km loop around the lake, despite the misty weather. The lake is famous for its dark water and mirror-like reflections of the beautiful, snow-capped Southern Alps in the distance. For most of the walk we could only make out the foothills, but the clouds lifted enough by the end that we could make out some impressive white peaks. We ate lunch at Lake Matheson Café and prepared ourselves for a wet drive up the coast.
We hadn’t intended to go all the way to Punakaiki, but did not find any inspiring campsites before it. We’re so happy we made the distance. Nearing Punakaiki the landscape suddenly transforms, the beauty (of normally beautiful NZ) triples before your eyes. Here lush mountains are punctuated by dramatic outcrops of limestone and cliffs, dotted with palm trees, giant tree ferns and utterly draped in all of the other magnificent species of native bush. We settled for the night at the Punakaiki Beach Camp, nestled between the towering cliffs and the Tasman Sea. One of our favourite campsites so far (they even had a wood-fired stove and drying room for our soggy goods!), we immediately decided to settle in this pretty spot for two nights. We enjoyed an evening wander along the beach and didn’t even mind the sand flies attacks–such was its beauty.
Day 5: We spent the first few hours of the morning home-schooling in the campsite dining room before walking over to check out the famous Punakaiki pancake rocks and the blowhole. The fascinating formations and pretty walk through them captivated us for over an hour (even in the fog and mist). On the walk back to the camper we saw a sign for the Punakaiki cavern and decided to have a peek. What we found was an incredible cave in the side of the limestone mountain. Guided by the light of our phones (we hadn’t planned for spelunking) we ducked under the narrow entry and explored deeper into the cavern. As we made our way back we detected the faint blue light of glowworms! This was not something we expected to see. We turned off the lights and saw the ceiling sparkle with dozens of blue dots. Magical!
The rain picked up that afternoon so we spent the day holed up in the camper, avoiding the rain and the sand flies. I did laundry, hung our coats and shoes in the drying room, and again we battled with cranky kids and cabin fever.
Day 6: We awoke to a misty morning. Though we wanted to spend more time in Punakaiki the forecast was no better than the days before. A kind person on Instagram mentioned that it was warm and sunny up in the Abel Tasman region, so we plotted a course straight there. We put an audio book on for the kids and made the long drive all the way up to the top of the South Island. The rain cleared as we drove north and by the time we reached Katiterie beach, the sun was shining and it looked distinctly summer-like. We immediately pulled over, let the kids change into swimsuits, slathered on sunblock, and within five minutes we were sitting on golden sands watching the kids play along the river and beach! This is the beauty of travelling by campervan – you always have everything you need for any adventure – whether it’s raincoats or swimsuits. We camped that night in Marahau (about 8kms further north) and enjoyed dinner outside the van for the first time!!
Day 7: We’d heard lots of great things about Nelson so we decided to head that direction early. It had been a long time since surfing at Porpoise Bay, so Michael and Easton were desperate to surf. We researched breaks along our route and ended up at a place called Ruby Bay. Unfortunately for the boys, the waters were placid, not a wave in sight, but the sun was shining brightly. We made a beach day of it, enjoying lunch and swimming along the pretty bay. We spent more time than we intended (we were all so pleased to bask in the sun), that we only made it to Nelson in time for dinner. We had Mexican, at Nicola’s Cantina, walked around the charming downtown area, and then drove almost all the way to Picton, so that we could catch our ferry to Wellington the next afternoon. We happened upon Smith’s Farm Campsite along the way, probably the most charming campsite yet. The owner greeted us with warm muffins and bags of feed for the sheep, pigs and rabbits. She recommended a dusk walk into the foothills to see the waterfall and glowworms. It seemed a bit daring with four kids, but we all grabbed a torch and headed through the paddocks to the forest. Though a bit tricky in the dark we were pleased we’d done it. As we approached the waterfall the blue glow of the worms dotted the hillsides, creating the illusion of starry skies. This was our last night on the South Island, the end of a wonderful (yet wet) 2-week adventure. Now back up to the North Island!