According to the myth, Pandora’s curiosity set all the evils in the world loose as she opened the famous box. Our curiosity did not lead to such catastrophic events but it did unleash one or two surprises.
As it turned out, the Southern Alps can be experienced from the West Coast too. One option is to get a helicopter ride that would drop you – and your guide – off in the middle of one of the mighty glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef. Many claim this to be the highlight of their New Zealand trip but somehow it feels like cheating – and it is not easy on your wallet either.
Lake Mathewson makes for a good alternative, especially on a clear day. Instead of rocks, you will be walking amongst trees.
Its calm waters offer stunning reflections of the surroundings, including the mountains and glaciers. Nice – and free of charge.
After hundreds of photographs and waiting, without luck, for Mt Cook to break through those clouds, we headed north. The vast majority of the roads on the South Island are one lane, sometimes literally. Bridges are often too narrow for two cars to share, and since sharing is caring, why not let trains pass through the same road? Sure thing.
Rainforests and caves
A couple of things to note while on the West Coast. First, it is wet, seriously wet. Heavy rain, showers, drizzle, mist or storms, you name it, they have it. Second, it is a bit cold, with temperatures rarely above 20 degrees. You may not want to put on your bikini but these are perfect conditions for a rainforest to thrive. And thrive they do.
Flightless birds, like Kiwis, used to rock these forests. Back in the days before humans arrived, they had no predators and so evolution decided that wings were an unnecessary burden. When the first settlers arrived from nearby pacific islands, these birds struggled to survive. And a few years later, the Europeans brought weasels, cats and possums putting the last nail in some these amazing birds’ coffins. A few species have managed to endured the new conditions though and it is not uncommon to hear them or even spot them – a small Weka almost run into our car scaring the hell out of us.
The Tasman Sea has also helped forming the landscape, spending thousands of years creating oddly shaped rocks, like the popular Pancake Rocks – long story short: layers upon layers of plant sediments and marine creatures that turned into limestone thanks to pressure and time.
That night we camped by a rugby field in the town of Karamea. This is another dead end in the road network which means that not many people make it this far. It is home to a set of limestone caves known as the Oparara Basin. In the words of a local:
If Karamea was located somewhere else in the country, there would be hordes of tourists visiting each day.
A bold statement perhaps? Or maybe not. A different colour palette operates here, with the Oparara River boasting a reddish brown tone courtesy of natural tannins.
Over the years, the river has created a number of natural limestone tunnels, some large enough to host a block of flats inside. The biggest one of them all, Oparara Arch, is 43 metres high and 219 metres long. Huge.
A narrow entrance off the main path descends down slippery rocks and leads to our favourite cave, Moria Gate Arch. Smaller than its cousin above, it is more spooky and intimate.
Since could not go any further north from Karamea, we had to backtrack a bit and then follow a 500 km detour through forests, farms, fields and hills, before finally arriving to the northern part of the island, Golden Bay. In a few days we had seen huge mountains, rainforests and limestone caves. But there was another surprise waiting for us the next morning.
You shall not pass
Ten days before our flight to the US was due, we applied online for our visas. A simple and quick process we thought, except that the american government decided on January that having visited Iran in the last five years could pose a threat to the national security. Visa denied. Crap.
We could still get a visa though, the traditional way. This involves an interview at the embassy, a $160 fee and a minimum wait of 2 weeks. Crap, again. We do not have the time or the will to deal with all of that, which means we need to find another route into South America – it also means we are going to lose a fair bit of money in flights. Need time to think, let’s go to the beach.
Not a bad place to reconsider our plans
Slightly worried about our travel plans but convinced that we would find a way to make it work, we headed to Cape Farewell. With Abel Tasman National Park being the star of the show in this part of the country, not many people are drawn to this rugged coast of huge cliffs and green fields. A mistake?
Yes – I think so too. Not far from there, a path through beautiful rounded hills, that Mr Frodo would happily call home, leads to yet another secret gem.
Sand dunes, a sea lions colony – which we missed – and a couple of surfers trying to tame the waves. The water was cold but it mattered not. This was just the right place we needed to sit down and think about our plans.
Decision time is better with wine
With our desire to spend a few months in South America, not flying through the US opened a whole new world of possibilities.
The Pacific Islands? Canada? Chile?
Hmmm… how about Argentina?
Argentina! And then we can go up to Bolivia, and Peru and Ecuador and Colombia, which is exactly what we wanted to do…
Why on earth did we not think of that in the first place????
A quick call from a public phone – old school – to Air NewZealand and within five minutes we were booked on a flight to Buenos Aires. Sounds pretty good to me. Shall we enjoy the views now please?
Starting our Latin-American trip in the south of the continent opened up the possibility of another epic road trip. Buying a car in Argentina, driving the Pan-American Highway and selling it in Colombia. Will it be possible though? And more importantly, can we sort it out in just ten days??
All this planning meant we were missing out on some of highlights of this part of the country, like the Abel Tasman National Park or the Marlborough Sounds. They were there, we were looking at them, but we failed miserably to truly enjoy them as our heads were thinking about steaks and tango. But something managed to catch our attention.
The land surrounding the town of Blenheim is fine wine territory – we are now getting used to this. Driving around through the vineyards, we came across Clos Henri, probably our best wine tasting experience to date. The guy was a genius, taking the time to explain the importance of climate, grapes and soil and how they affect the final product, wine. And they use an old chapel as a cellar door. Boom.
Where were we? Ah yes, to buy or not to buy a car. It turns out that purchasing a vehicle as a foreigner in Argentina and then leaving the country with it is a no-no. We might need to go to Chile to find some wheels, this is getting far too complicated.
To find some inspiration, we headed to the Marlborough Sounds to take in the views. It truly is a special place but it was just not the right time for us.
The last few days have flown by and our time in the South Island has come to an end. We’ll never forget the mountains, the coasts – both of them, the roads, the hikes, the rainforests and everything in between.
The North Island welcomes us with the best beer in the world (what?!), a great museum and hot springs – not bad for a start!