South Island, New Zealand - Swimming with Dolphins, Walking on Glaciers and a serious amount of wine...
Our first stop was Marlborough, situated on the north-eastern corner of the South Island and NZ's largest wine-producing area. There are 65 wineries and 290 grape growers in the area and we'd decided to spend 2 days here getting battered..sorry, sampling the wines of the region.
Our first day was spent on a tour with 7 other people. We realised we were in trouble when we arrived at Villa Maria, the first vineyard, at 10.30am and were promptly given 10 different wines to try but we gave up all hope of staying even remotely sober when our tour guide informed us we'd be visiting a further 11 wineries that day. After the 15th glass of wine, we had no idea whether we were drinking a $300 bottle of wine or a $5 one and it was a very drunk Paddy and Debs who staggered back to the hostel 7 hours later! We woke the next day to a killer hangover and a hazy memory of serenading our tour guide with Jingle Bells, (which, strangely, he hadn't seemed to find as hilarious as we all had) but there was no time to feel sorry for ourselves - we had another 11 wineries to visit that day!
We'd decided to hire bikes for the second day and cycle around the vineyards but unfortunately the bad weather of the northern island was obviously following us and we had a day of torrential rain. Undeterred though, we dug out our raincoats and headed off. In an area usually full of cyclists touring the vineyards, we were the only 2 people out on bikes that day which seemed to amuse the vineyard owners who brought us towels and hot soup in addition to wine! Not quite the day of cycling through sun-drenched vineyards we'd envisaged but after the 10th glass of wine we didn't really mind and by the end of the day we couldn't tell if it was soup or wine we were drinking anyway!
The next day we headed south to Kaikoura. Located on the east Coast, wild dusky dolphins inhabit these coastal waters and the next day we were booked on the 5.30am trip to go swimming with them. It was a struggle to get out of bed but well worth the sleep deprivation as our boat soon found a pod of over 400 dusky dolphins out in the Pacific Ocean. We were handed snorkells and masks and told to jump in and we spent the next 2 hours swimming with these amazing creatures as they jumped and dived around us.
Later that day we headed to Christchurch to pick up our campervan. We'd chosen a company that decorates the vans and were looking forward to driving around the south island in one covered in daisies (Debs' preference) or Jimi Hendrix (Paddy's). No such luck however and a psychadelic camouflage van became our home for the next 3 weeks! We attracted quite a bit of attention but at least it was easy to find in a car park (although not, obviously, in a forest where it blended into the background!)
From Christchurch we headed to the Southern Alps to see the incredible Mount Cook which, at 3754 metres is NZ's highest mountain and we spent a day hiking in the area. We then drove south through the Otago Peninsula to the town of Oamaru which is home to a colony of blue penguins where we spent an evening hiding in a beach hut watching 200 blue penguins returning home from a day out at sea. The next couple of days were spent driving through the Catlins towards the Milford Sound on the south-west coast where we were spending Christmas Day. The Milford Sound is a 15km fiord situated within the Fiordland National Park and is surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise 1200 metres on either side and it is absolutely stunning. It's also the wettest part of NZ and one of the wettest areas in the world with a massive 6-8 metres of rainfall each year so it was a rather soggy Christmas Day but fantastic all the same!
Not content with just experiencing a day in the rain, we'd also decided to do the Milford Track - a 55km, 4 day trek through the national park and one of NZ's Great Walks. (Admittedly we'd booked this before we'd discovered the amount of rainfall the area receives!). Unsurprisingly it was raining on our first day and as we arrived, soaked to the skin at our 'hut' (a hut with basic cooking facilities, no showers and 2 rooms with 20 bunk beds in each room for 20 other snoring trekkers!) we questioned our motives, and our sanity, for doing this. Thankfully though, the next morning, the sun was shining and we were lucky enough to have 2 glorious sunny days trekking alongside snow-capped mountains, through stunning alpine forests and valleys carved by glaciers.
We finished the trek at Sandfly Point, tired, weary, and after 4 days without a wash a bit on the smelly side and headed straight for Queenstown for a shower and some good food! Queenstown is the party capital of NZ, known for it's late nights and extreme sports and everywhere around us people were throwing themselves out of planes, hurling themselves off the tops of mountains and jetskiiing on every available stretch of water. Whilst the most extreme sport we undertook was hiring mountain bikes (although Paddy engaged in some extreme ice-cream eating if that counts?), it was the perfect place to spend New Years Eve and we spent the night drinking in bars along the lake before watching fireworks at midnight.
From Queenstown we headed back to the Fiordlands area for an overnight trip on the Doubtful Sound, so-called by Captain Cook and the largest Fiord in NZ and spent a fantastic day kayaking and sailing around the Sound before driving to the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers on the West Coast.
The Glaciers themselves are incredible. The Fox Glacier is 13km long and falls from the Southern Alps to the coast and has been advancing for the last 20 years. The Franz Josef Glacier is also advancing at the rate of 70 cm a day - 10 times that of typical glaciers and it was here that we undertook a heli-hike. We flew by helicopter around the glacial valley before landing high up on the glacier where we spent a couple of hours wandering through incredible ice-formations and caves which was a fantastic experience.
Our final stop was back to Christchurch for a couple of days of relaxation before leaving New Zealand. Our time here had been amazing and incredibly diverse. From swimming with dolphins, to climbing glaciers to trekking in the Fiordlands - New Zealand is an incredible country and we absolutely loved it here. The downside however, was that after all the rain our tans were starting to fade so it was time to move on and where better to go to top up our tans than Bondi Beach, Sydney.....