Tuomas: Seals, glow worms and dead things on trees – Kaikoura and Picton
Picton, New Zealand
After leaving Timaru pretty late in the day we decided to head north only up till Christchurch and spend the night there without making any longer stops. In the end we didn't quite make it to Christchurch, but stayed a little towards south on a free communal camping ground that we found through a note we got from the visitor center in Christchurch when we started the trip. We made our way from the SH1 to a town called Springston and from there turned south towards Leeston. There were two free campsites there, we chose the one by the side of the road at the river. It was a large area with a clean looking but rather smelly pit toilet. There was no water other than that of the river, but being self-contained this wasn't a problem for us. We spent the night planning our road trip a little further, we hadn't really given the north island a whole lot of thought before that…
The next day we headed further north to Kaikoura, some 200 kilometers away. We arrived in fine weather that sadly seemed to be making a turn for the worse. We asked the i-Site visitor center what there was to do in town, knowing already that there was supposed to be a seal colony somewhere. The lady suggested a walking route to take us to the colony and around the peninsula and that's what we decided to do. We left the car at the visitor center and walked a long while next to the road before reaching the end of the peninsula with the seals. There's a carpark there and a whole lot of people were looking at the not quite so numerous seals that were hanging around there. There seemed to be as many seal cubs as adults, which was nice because the big ones didn't do much other than lay in the sun while the babies went around in the shallows playing. It was fun to watch them for a while but in the end we headed off to avoid the rain that seemed imminent.
We headed up on the smaller track that rises from the carpark to the top of the cliff and kept on walking around the peninsula. This was old whaling territory and there are still numerous companies arranging different types of whale spotting trips on boats and planes. We tried to keep our eyes on the horizon but failed to spot any puffs of mist sprouting from a leviathan. There were none to be seen that day, sadly. We did spot a seal colony that dwarfed the one at the carpark with its size, the rocks below us were dotted with the dark bodies for a good while. The scenery was nice on the land side also, the rain passed us by without touching us and the sun made short appearances through the clouds. We were in farming country with cows sometimes sharing the path with us. It was once again very Middle-Earthy, with small grass covered hills resembling the Shire.
The path around the peninsula is supposedly about 12 kilometers long and it took us almost three hours to complete back to the i-Site. By then it was closing time for them but we managed to fill our fresh water tank from the tap outside. After that we were faced with a difficult question: how to continue on from here? We had camped for free for three consecutive nights and while our power supply was still looking plentiful (it recharges as we drive) and we had all our water and waste sorted out, we were a little dirty ourselves. At this point Sini would like to state that we hadn't gone completely without washing, we had bought ample amounts of baby wipes which we used daily and we had even washed our hairs with a bucket of cold water in Timaru. So in the end we were clean but our clothes were not and we were in desperate need of a washing machine. Those can be found at pretty much any holiday park, provided that you spend the night. However, we had a specific campground with laundry facility in our sights for the next night. Paying for a holiday park for this night as well would then be pointless, right?
We decided to drive on and headed 30 kilometers north to Okiwi Bay, where there was a free Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite by the SH1. It was dark when we arrived and we were a little confused about where to park the car, but we ended up choosing a nice spot on the left hand side of the area, as far away from the train tracks as possible and close enough for the toilet. Not too close though, because this was without a doubt the smelliest pit toilet we've ever encountered. It was hardly possible to stay there and if you did, your clothes smelled for a very long while…
After another rainy night we woke up in sunshine and walked the ten minute walk up to the Okiwi Bay lookout before returning to the road. We drove what remained of the drive to Blenheim and stopped at the i-Site there to ask about the details of our forthcoming ferry crossing from Picton. We received a map of Picton and some general advise about the ferry (it's easy to find the Interislander terminal, you're supposed to be there no later than an hour before departure…). We also asked about the local vineries. Marlborough region is known for its wines and vineyards, we even knew one by name: Brancott Estate. We asked about that one and got another map showing its location. We headed that way and found it without much fuss (we did miss a turn once…). The drive to the estate took us through the vines that were shedding their leaves for winter. At the parking lot we found a radio phone that we could have used to summon a free shuttle to the top of the hill, but we found it easier to just walk up. We were received with kindness and showed to a small room to view a four minute video of the origins of the estate before stating what kind of tasking we would like to do. They had four different options costing $10, $12 or $18, or nothing at all. Quite obviously we chose to do their more limited complementary tasting, which included three Sauvignon Blancs (a sparkling, a white and a dessert) and one Pinot Noir. I believe this was my fourth time at a vineyard wine tasting and it might well have been the best. Being free, it was that much better, though the wines spoke for themselves too.
After the tasting we stopped at the local Pack 'n Save to get some more wine (they were selling at the estate, of course, but it was beyond our meagre price range, of course). We also checked the hardware store across the street for butane cylinders. Our campervan came with a gas stove that uses 220 gram disposable cylinders, of which we had four when we started (though one was partially empty…). We were down to the last cylinder now. At Haast I had looked in horror at a cylinder going for $14.90 at the local store. Luckily that was an in-the-middle-of-nowhere price and we got four of them from Bunnings Warehouse for $5.90. That should see us through until the end of the road trip, I think.
From Blenheim we drove on to Picton, but didn't stop there. Instead we continued along the very winding and slow Queen Charlotte Road to a DOC serviced campsite in Momorangi Bay. We had made the reservation they claim to require over the free wifi of a Countdown store, even paying for our stay up front. In the end, this being low season, the reservation apparently wouldn't have been necessary. It might have saved us some money though, since in the DOC booklet they say that serviced campgrounds charge $15 per person plus $3 per person for power. We had reserved a power site for $30 and no-one asked about the additional $6. They did however charge additional $1 for "five minutes" of hot shower. The "" is because when Sini tried it she first got half a minute of cold water, leaving her with barely enough time to rinse herself clean with the hot. I skipped this problem by washing with a bucket I filled from the faucet (no-one said you couldn't). We also used their laundry facilities and washed two loads for $3 each (they only accept $1 coins) and putting them through two runs in the dryer ($3 each) because one wasn't enough. My last minor complaint is of their office hours, 8-9 a.m. and 5-8 p.m., which meant that we had to wait a long while before being able to register and acquire a pile of $1 coins, not to mention get the code required for the nearest toilets.
It wasn't all bad though, the view was nice as long as the weather remained clear and the kitchen and other facilities were clean. Also, and mainly, they had a glow worm grotto on their site. We missed the opportunity to go see glow worms for free in Hokitika and had been mournful about that ever since. We reserved this site just to see them. So when darkness settled into the world we went browsing in the bush. They had a walking track looping through the forest in the back of the grounds which during daylight should take just ten minutes to walk around, but pitch black was another thing. Our flashlights are in desperate need of some new batteries, that's all I can say. Walking around in the dark was weird enough, but made weirder still by the fact that they were trapping animals along the trail. I don't really know what it was all about, but we passed a fox-sized animal hanging dead from a tree, its neck crushed in the jaws of a massive mouse trap. It could have been a possum, we didn't stick around to get a decent look.
After moving on we did see the much desired glow worms. They were everywhere, though not extremely numerous. It was nothing nearing a glowing matt of them, but at points it did seem like there were two sets of stars, one above us and before and under us. It really was pretty cool, at home we usually see just one or two at a time.
And that was New Zealand's south island for us! The next day we took the ferry to Wellington for a week more of road tripping in the country. We really enjoyed the almost two weeks we had in the south, although the weather wasn't the best. We did have some sunny days in between the rainy ones and got to see some amazing scenery in the less populous part of the country. The mountainous regions were probably our favorites, we got some good tramping done there, among other things. Next we'll head on to the more cultural north to see what it has to offer.