New Zealand’s South Island

By Nigel Wright [email protected]

Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal seven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

New Zealand’s two main islands are surprisingly different in character. Whilst the North, with its warmer climate is best known for its beaches and volcanoes, the South is slower paced and dominated by the magnificent snow-capped Southern Alps and deep waters of Fiordland.

The island is normally reached either by ferry to Picton across the Cook Straits from Wellington in the North, or through Christchurch airport which serves as a convenient international gateway.

Christchurch itself is the most English of all New Zealand’s cities where punts glide down the picturesque Avon River through the immaculate botanic gardens.

Tragically, two severe earthquakes have hit Christchurch this year causing many deaths and considerable damage to buildings, notably the lovely Anglican Cathedral.

All the Rugby World Cup matches due to be played in Christchurch have been moved to other venues.

However, as the main damage was confined to the central areas, there is still excellent accommodation available in the city and local region. Tourist authorities are keen to stress that South Island is still very much open for visitors.

The beautiful isolated West Coast
The beautiful isolated West Coast

Mt. Cook National Park

This impressive park should be on everyone’s South Island itinerary. It contains New Zealand’s most spectacular mountains including the mighty Mt. Cook – at 3,755m, the highest peak in Australasia.

The park is reached from Christchurch by motoring south across the Canterbury Plain and then west past charming Lake Tekapo, whose waters are tinged turquoise by silt from glacier melt. Edmund Hillary perfected his climbing skills on Mt. Cook before conquering Everest and this fabulous area has walking and climbing routes to suit all abilities.

We trekked from Mt. Cook Village on the Kea Point Trail, enjoying perfect views over the glistening alpine peaks, hanging glaciers and icefalls.

The resident ‘Kea’ parrots entertained us during our excursion. Naturally inquisitive and highly intelligent, they live on berries and insect larvae, but these pesky parrots have a reputation for destroying windscreen wiper blades and car aerials with their long curved bills!

Queenstown Adventures

Few towns anywhere have such a dramatic setting as Queenstown, on the shores of beautiful Lake Wakatipu and backed by the ‘Remarkables’ Mountains.

A short drive south of Mt. Cook, it is the self-proclaimed adventure capital of the world where the courageous and foolhardy can ski, snowboard, bungee jump, rock climb, hike, hang-glide, skydive, parasail and jet-boat amongst fabulous scenery.

However, you don’t have to put yourself at risk to enjoy all the attractions. After watching local youths bravely bungee jumping above the deep Kawaru Gorge (where the sport was invented), we took the more sedate option of gold panning at nearby Arrowtown, a nicely preserved relic of the gold-mining era.

Having failed to unearth our golden nest egg, we chose to cruise on Lake Wakatipu on the coal-powered steamship TSS Earnshaw and admire the glorious mountain landscape.

This stately old craft sailed to Glenorchy, at the head of the lake where we enjoyed afternoon tea and crumpets watching a sheep dog trial demonstration. Queenstown really can entertain all types of tourists!

Mount Cook National Park
Mount Cook National Park

Magnificent Milford Sound

Lake Te Anau is huge, enjoys a great location on the edge of Fiordland National Park and is just a three-hour drive from Queenstown.

Tiny Te Anau town is perched on the tranquil lakeshore and makes an ideal exploration base for the area. Thought by the Maoris to be the work of a superhuman sculpture, Fiordland is an unspoiled wilderness, with some of the world’s finest walking trails.

Milford Sound is the most famous fiord, with even its access road earning world heritage status for its scenic beauty.

Our own campervan journey to this fiord began in miserable wet conditions, perhaps not surprising, as the area is one of the wettest regions of the world.

However, as we climbed out of the dripping misty rain forest, the sun broke through and the clouds rolled away to reveal a mountain seascape of unsurpassed magnificence.

Milford Sound, with its precipitous rock walls, cascading waterfalls and deep icy blue sea is best seen from one of the tourist cruise boats. It is a magical journey, packed with photo opportunities, where you can watch dolphins, seals and penguins in their natural habitat, before the skilful captain maneuvers his craft under the cliffs to ensure a colossal waterfall soaks everybody! It was an unforgettable day, but visitors should be warned to use copious quantities of mosquito repellant to drive away the millions of evil resident sand flies!

West Coast Isolation

Our return to Christchurch took us through more breathtaking scenery in Mt. Aspiring National Park to the tiny west coast community of Haast.

It is perfect camping country and we felt totally isolated amongst its landscape of rainforest, wetland, sand dunes and a surf-pounding shingle beach. Driving north on empty roads, with the Tasman Sea on our left, we stopped to admire the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, tumbling from the Mt. Cook massif almost to sea level.

On a surreal guided glacier trek, we discovered how tiring it is to walk on translucent rock-hard ice, even when wearing crampons. The road continued through Hokitika, source of Maori greenstone jewelry, to the drab industrial town of Greymouth.

Scene of a recent mining tragedy, this town is nurtured by coal and timber and has a definite ‘Last Frontier’ feel.

The last leg of our expedition was through the Southern Alps over Arthur’s Pass with its dazzling backdrop of serrated ridges and eternal snowfields.

The road runs through unspoiled mountain scenery alongside the famous TranzAlpine, one of the world’s finest railway journeys.

After crossing the fertile farmland of the Canterbury Plain, we were soon in Christchurch and enjoying a final tram-ride in Cathedral Square.

If you yearn to rediscover the best of British traditional values amongst welcoming, friendly people, then New Zealand could be your perfect holiday destination.

Visitors who come expecting to experience a pristine, beautiful and well-organised little country with a pleasant climate will never leave disappointed.

There is so much to see and do that the one consistent visitor complaint is not allowing sufficient time!