Not long after arriving in New Zealand, somewhere around day 2 of being stuck at a motel in Kawerau, we realised that having a car here is quite useful. You can drive and stop and where you want, and they use the proper side of the road. So, for the last week or so, we’ve been roadtripping around the South Island, driving and stopping where we want, in a camper van.
We picked up our van in Christchurch, and just as the city’s worst floods in years were hitting we drove away across the Canterbury Plains. They are beautiful wide open spaces apparently, but I was too busy wrestling to stay on the road through the wind and rain to notice! The weather calmed down as we got inland though, and for our first stop we drove over a cheeky few kilometres of gravel roads to reach Mount Potts Station.
There were no other tourists around, and the place is quite off the beaten track. It also happens to be home to Mount Sunday, the location used as Edoras, capital of Rohan in The Two Towers. It is one of the more iconic locations of the trilogy, and required very little CGI. So when we rounded the last bend, we saw the flat valley, ringed by snow capped mountains and the smallish, stump of a hill in the middle, exactly like the films, I worried the trip had peaked too soon! We walked from our campsite to the hill and climbed, and were the only people in sight. We didn’t get to use replica swords like the official tours, but having Edoras to ourselves was pretty magical.
The next day we moved on to Lake Tekapo, camping at the base of Mount John. The lake is stunning, amazingly blue and green and reflects the mountains around it. That night was nice and clear, and the area is famous for its big sky and lack of light pollution – the stars were amazing, even if the lack of cloud cover meant it was a bit chilly in the van! We got up early the next day and hiked quickly up to the top of Mount John for the 360 degree views of the lakes and mountains, and then were rewarded with a half price trip to the hot springs!
From Tekapo we drove to Aoraki/Mount Cook, the tallest peak in Australasia. We camped right near the base of Mount Sefton, and spent the next couple of days tramping and walking around the mountains, rivers and glaciers in the area. At the end of one walk, we reached a lake formed by a glacier retreating. Mount Cook was right in front of us, and at the far end of the lake the glacier was slowly breaking off into icebergs which we sat and watched float around. It was stupefyingly awesome.
After filling a memory card with photos that will never do justice to the views, we headed off back to the east coast, going against the tourist traffic, and drove all the way southeast to Oamaru. After being in the wild for a few days it was nice to be in a coastal town, especially one famous for its cheese factory (we had a few samples), it’s very Victorian architecture, and most bizarrely for steampunk. We also visited Dunedin, a really cool university city which we will definitely try and get back to, where we did some learning of our own at the excellent Settlers Museum, all about the early Scottish colonists who founded the city.
To end our first full week, we spent a couple of days driving around the Catlins National Park, way down in the southeast. It feels pretty end of the worldy in many ways, and there are very few other tourists (or even people) down there. Law found us an awesome little campsite to park at in a place called Curio Bay, where we were in an enclosed area of flax grass right on the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea. Curio Bay is on one side of the headland, and is famous for its 180 million year old petrified forest of fossilised tree stumps (amazing), and even more amazing, it’s Yellow-eyed Penguin colony! Wrapped up warm against the roaring 40’s wind, we watched for a couple of hours as penguins got out of the sea and waddled inland to their nests.
On the other side of the headland is Porpoise Bay, a perfect sandy, half-moon crescent beach which gets it’s name from the Hector Dolphins that play around in the surf. We watched them jump and swim for a while, before I decided to brave the cold (it’s not that far from Antarctica here) and go for a dip. I swam around for a bit and two of the dolphins got gradually closer, until I could see them about 5 metres or so away. I was the only person in the sea. It was amazing.
Basically, in just over a week we’ve seen and done loads, way more than I can fit in here. The scenery is stunning everywhere, literally every bend in the road is photo-worthy, our bed is nice and comfy, cooking on the gas stove or in the camp kitchens is fun, we climbed Edoras, saw glaciers and icebergs, saw penguins, swam with dolphins, climbed around at Aslan’s Camp, visited the very end of the country and we still have two weeks left in this van.