Whales, wine and heli-hikes

Trip Start Sep 16, 2002
Trip End Jun 14, 2003

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Flag of New Zealand  ,
Tuesday, December 31, 2002

We flew from Auckland to Christchurch to save time and get some great views of the North Island. Ch'ch is a slice of home from home, from the English named streets to the punting down the Avon, large cathedral and central square and historic trams. The whole place has a relaxed and laid back feel to it, while also having an abundance of great bars and restaurants (including the tremendous Dux de Lux). It was therefore an ideal place to enjoy a New Years Eve. We met up with Olivia and Patricia from the Stray Bus and enjoyed beers and a band in a pub garden. Midnight suddenly crept up on us (and was nearly missed) and then went, without the usual fireworks. No better way to start a New Year than kebabs in the square and the following day spent watching cricket - the one day (and one sided) international cricket between New Zealand and India. The game was hardly a contest as the Indians must have also enjoyed one too many kebabs the night before. More entertaining was the crowd and the hot sun. A memorable New Year and all the better for avoiding the annual hungover drive back to Chester.

To get around the South Island, we hired a car. The plan was to get a small run around but instead we got a Beast. A 94 Toyota Corolla which goes like merry stink (a problem where the speed limit is 100km/h) and is as big as a bus. Even with both our backpacks, the boot seems empty. The car gives us the freedom to do what we want and enjoy the amazing scenary at our own pace.

First stop was Kaikoura, a small costal town known for it's amazing sealife. The reason for this is the huge continental shelf found just off the coast which brings the food chain from plankton right up to sperm whales extremely close to the coastline. We had two trips out on the water. The first was to swim with dolphins. Dressed head to toe in a wetsuit, Simon swam with a huge pod of dolpins as they jumped and swam around him. Jo decided this was all better viewed from the boat. It was an amazing sensation swimming with them, making eye contact or just trying to keep up. We also saw huge sperm whales on a separate trip. These creatures grow to around 20m in length (much longer than the boat we were on) and 60 tonnes in weight. The only view you get is when they come up to surface for air (around every hour) and this view is only of the top 10%. More impressive is the return to the water and the sight of the tail as it enters the water. Well worth the long ride to search for the whales in the first place. We also saw plenty of seals around the area. We stayed at the excellent Bad Jelly Hostel where we were treated to freshly baked bread. Kaikoura is also known for its Crayfish, and we had to enjoy this, along with a large helping of chips.

Blenheim is the home of the world renowned Marlborough wine range and there is no better way to enjoy it than by bike. We visited a number of the wineries including Nobilo and Cloudy Bay, sampling their range and buying a cheap bottle or two. Then we headed north to Picton, a small costal town where the main North / South Island ferry docks and the home of The Villa Hostel and our worst night of dorm hell. It seems that every night we stayed in dorms, either someone arrives in late, leaves early, snores for England, has coughing fits or enters into a deep breathing competition with someone else in the room. Bearly two hours sleep for either of us in The Villa and a decision to ditch dorms completely for the rest of New Zealand.

The beautiful Marlborough Sounds are close by. These stunning hills and valleys are set amongst crystal clear blue water. They are the perfect place to chill out (which we did at our aptly named hostel, The Chill Inn) and also explore. The famous Queen Charlotte track is a four day effort, with camping along the way. We managed a four hour effort but enjoyed it all the same. The steep drive at the hostel almost got the better of the car but we escaped in one piece.

Via Nelson and the rather good Shortbread Hostel (so named because of free shortbread biscuits - we are so easily pleased now), we headed to the Abel Tasman National Park. The smallest but busiest in NZ, we decided to explore it by sea kayak. Jo was not sure about the stability of the kayaks, especially since we set off in heavy rain and rough sea. However all soon calmed down and we were enjoying the beautiful coastline and secluded bays in the sun. Food, including tea and cake, was enjoyed on the deserted beaches. We stayed overnight in Anchorage Bay on a small boat. Somehow, the sleeping area slept 11 people (including a heavy snorer from Portsmouth) but enjoying the peace of the water and the clear stars was worth it. More kayaking on the second day (this time with sore shoulders and blisters) exploring lagoons, rocks and a seal colony. The French instigated a water fight before we were whisked home in a water taxi. An excellent two days and a great way to see this amazing national park.

The drive to the West Coast took us through the scenic Bullers Gorge and the longest swing bridge in NZ (which Jo made it about 10 foot on before turning back). We stayed a night at Beaconstone Hostel in the middle of nowhere. This eco-friendly place is solar powered and has composting toilets. Amazingly it does not smell at all and the owner plans to have good compost for his land in around two years - nice. We joined the owners on their weekly trip to the cinema to see the latest Harry Potter film (not bad) in the local Westport cinema. A bargain at only $7 (just over 2 pounds), the cinema only seemed to have about two staff and had a half time break!

Heading further south we passed through Greymouth (rather aptly named) and Arthurs Pass, a very scenic drive with extremely steep and windy roads which tested the Beast to the full. Our final stop on the West Coast was Franz Josef Glacier. We decided to see the glacier via a helihike, a combination of an amazing helicopter ride up the glacier, being dropped off on the ice and then a two hour hike. The glacier face is very uneven and making progress is slow, as the guide has to hack steps in the ice along the way. We made our way through narrow crevices and over steep gorges before heading back to the helicopter landing area. We had ice grips on our shoes, as well as an ice axe which was more for decoration and confidence. The trip was certainly one of the highlights so far.
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