The ferry crossing from Wellington arrived on the south island in a small harbour town named Picton, which we're told is a popular seaside resort town in the heart of the Marlborough Sounds. We immediately disembarked the vessel and drove through Picton towards the west coast.
Our first camping destination was to be Nelson, a small city of approx 55,000. Our journey to Nelson had us driving through long mountain valleys with miles upon miles of vineyards, and with the autumn season changing the leaf colours, the landscape became a sea of yellowish orange with a rocky mountain backdrop. Spectacular! Little did we know this was only an appetizer for the landscapes that awaited us.
Friends had recommended that we spend a day in Abel Tasman National Park, so we decided that it would make more sense to camp closer to the park. We pushed on another hour and set up camp on a beautiful beach in Kaiteriteri, which was only a short hop to the park entrance at Marahau. We enjoyed a great sunset on the stunning beach cove before retreating to our heated campervan, which became essential due to the unexpectedly cold temperatures.
Our original plan was to kayak and hike the park, a tour that would take us most of the day. But the morning weather was not looking good and it was very cold to be out on the water with limited gear. So we scratched the kayaking and skipped right to the hiking. Our 16 km hike took us to some of the most beautiful and isolated, golden-sanded beaches.
We travelled through lush, dense forests along spectacular coastlines. The water was so crystal clear and blue you wanted to reach in and take a drink. The unspoiled, prestine landscapes was very refreshing and peaceful, and the hike was a great opportunity for us to walk and talk for hours. Take a look at the photos, they'll tell the story much better.
Rather than return to our previous night's campsite we elected to continue on and tackle an hour off of the next days long journey down the west coast. Throughout our camping experiences there was always something missing. Something that defines Canadian camping...a hot, crackling campfire! Well, that and beer (but the beer hasn't been missing). Kiwi's aren't big on campfires. Most campgrounds do not allow fires, but even if they did, many campground owners said it wasn't in big demand so they just assumed not offer it. It may be becuase campervans are so popular and people are in and out so quickly.
Anyways, we were excited to learn that a campground an hour away from Abel Tasman National Park offered campfires, so off we went to find a campfire! We arrived at the site only to discover that there was no dry firewood available. Not giving up that easily, Nicole was able to sweet talk the owner into digging into his personal stash to help two Canadians fulfill their camping needs. It also helped that we were the only campers in the entire campgrounds too! The campfire was great and well worth the extra driving, especially since the temperature dropped to a frosty zero that night.
The following day was meant to be a driving day as we needed to get from the north end of the island to about midway down the west coast. Our destination was the world famous Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers. The drive down the coast was amazing. The oceanside drive has us traveling up and down mountainsides that overlooked rocky beaches with huge 15 foot waves crashing against the shore.
We knew that we were in penguin country and were very keen on spotting the commonly seen blue penguins. But it was not meant to be. Apparently this time of year (May-July) it is very hard to see the penguins. Of course, this did not stop us from continously stopping along beaches and searching for them, but it did not change the disappointing outcome. No penguins.
Along the way down from Westport to Greymouth we visited the Paparoa National Park to hike around the park and see the Pancake Rocks and the Punakaiki Blow Holes. The national park is filled with limestone cliffs, steep canyons, underground caves and lush forests. The Pancake Rocks are the premier attraction and were very interesting, and they are exactly what they sound like. The rocks stick out of the ocean from the side of limestone cliffs and look like a stacks of wafer-thin rock pancakes. Look at the photo album to get a better sense of its unique shapes. We were lucky with the rough, rainy weather as this sent huge waves under the rocks and shooting up water through the mighty blowholes. Apparantly the blowholes perform even better at high tide. Even still, the water was shooting upwards of 25 feet.
We broke up our long driving day with a proper lunch right alongside an isolated beach. We pulled the van right up and coooked soup while watching the thunderous waves crash on the beach. It was one of those moments where you actually stop and think about what you're doing and where you are. Sometimes its easy to get lost in all of the excitment that you forget how far away from home you really are. It was one of those moments where you genuinely think "this is really awesome"!
The long journey down the coast parallel to the Southern Alps also made us realize what a diesel guzzling pig our camper van is. I guess ultimately you get what you pay for, right? Still, for anyone considering doing a similar adventure, make sure you don't get an old clunker with 280k mileage on it. That said, our van still had its charm!
We arrived in Franz Joseph just before dusk and quickly set up camp for the night. As the sun set, the clouds disappeared and we were greeted by the enourmous snow capped Mount Cook (close to 3,700 meters) towering over us. This was a real treat given that the area is notorious for unpredictable, cloudy weather at this time of year.
The Westland National Park is very unique with the rainforest rising from sea level to the dramatic Southern Alps with many peaks more than 3,000 meters high. We did the routine tasks of finding a campground, setting up camp, cooking dinner on our small propane stove, watching a movie on the mini laptop, and then packing it in for the night in the back of the surprisingly very comfortable campervan.