A South Island Sojourn

Jenny and Joe are the photographers behind some of the (awesome) photos of our bags. We asked them to write about a trip they took to New Zealand in a guest post for our blog. – Darcy

The gentle lapping of the waves was lulling me to sleep. Joe was outside, manning a camera that was pointed out towards the water, shutter wide open, capturing a nighttime scene of Elaine Bay in the Marlborough Sounds of New Zealand’s south island. The stars twinkled brightly and left arcs of light as proof of their existence inside the camera. The International Space Station and a satellite floated past, leaving long straight trails. Lights from the small commercial harbor glittered and reflected their power off the surface of the water. The white painted pier which had been balancing on rickety, spindly legs twenty feet above the water when we had finished dinner hours earlier was now at the exact correct height. The pull of the moon had played its trick and it stuck out magnificently into the still, dark water, the white of its rails reflecting the dark of the sky.

It was our third night of what would be two weeks of sleeping in a van and driving around New Zealand. So far, so good. We hadn’t wrecked the van nor driven, too much, on the wrong side of the road. New Zealanders insist on driving on the opposite side of the road and in order to, well, not die, we had to do the same. That part wasn’t too hard, but let’s not talk about the roundabout I took on the wrong side. The real challenging part was shifting the old manual transmission van with your left hand as the driver’s seat was on the right. That and not turning on the windshield wipers when you meant to hit the turn signal, those controls on the steering column were opposite. Let’s just say it was a learning process.

The author and her husband, Joe, with their van “Vince” at Meatworks Beach campground, Kaikoura, New Zealand

Our van had come with a name, Vince to be exact. Named after Vincent van Gogh, the sides, front and back were all covered in murals paying homage to the Dutch master’s paintings: tulips and sunflowers on one side, starry night on the other. We knew what we were getting into, driving a mural around the countryside. After extensive camper van research we settled on this company because their vans would fit Joe, who is a tall 6 foot 4 and likes to sleep taller. Would it have just been easier to sleep in a tent for two weeks? Yes and no. We could have been more fuel efficient in a smaller vehicle and there is nothing like a sleeping under the stars with only a thin layer of nylon between you and the heavens, but the majority of campsites in NZ don’t allow tents, camper vans only. And some don’t even allow the type of camper van we had because it wasn’t tricked-out with an onboard toilet. It’s all about being self-contained. So we settled on the middle ground and were extremely glad we did. We soon felt at home in Vince, our trusty steed for over 2,000 km.

Here are some photos from our trip:

Joe celebrates our own private beach after a very enjoyable three-mile hike on the Archer Track just past Elaine Bay. The beach and bay, ironically called Deep Bay because it was very shallow, was a very relaxing place to spend the afternoon swimming and watching the tide go out. We were the only people there. Some skinny-dipping may have been involved.

Mmmmm, New Zealand green mussels! Fresh off a boat that tied up at the commercial dock about ¼ mile from our campsite. The captain couldn’t take any money; his catch was going to a big processor, not small retail, so they were free! (And absolutely gigantic!)

Wharariki Beach. Holy cow, amazing. Similar to the Oregon coast but much more rugged and more extreme. The Archway Islands, seen here, stand at the far northern end of the beach. The beach extends for about a mile further south of here. We went at mid-tide and were still able to scamper through archways and explore caves that are filled with water at high tide. Too cool.

From the Wharariki Beach, we cut up a bluff on the far east side and continued on to hike the Cape Farewell/Pillar Point Lighthouse Track. It’s about a 10km loop but since there is no “trail” per se, just colored posts marking where the headlands are, it’s rugged and challenging. But oh the views! The track cuts across sheep pastures and tickles the very edges of deep cliffs and inlets.

The impossibly blue water rushes into the ravines hundreds of feet below your hiking boots making a thundering noise in its urgency. Baby seals ride the waves like no human surfer was ever able to do. Farewell Spit, the longggg jutting and curved beach that stretches 26km off the far northern part of the island can be seen from the viewpoint once you reach the lighthouse. Lunch from this track was lovely.

Next up, the most unusual beach we have ever been to; Paturau Beach. In short, you just must go here. I could spend hours trying to describe the rock formations on this beach, but ultimately, I would fall short. I could show you pictures, like this one of me wandering about the beach but again, it wouldn’t be enough. Just do yourself a favor and go. The limestone rock on the beach has been channeled, fissured, eroded, scoured and tortured by the tides and waves to make the most dramatic rock features. Then the limestone ends and the mud and sandstone appear, forming arches and caves that dot the beach. Just make sure you go at low tide to see all you can.

Ready for another NZ “hike”? This time up to Rawhiti Cave. The hike is short but it gains an amazing amount of elevation in the last little stretch up to the cave. My watch said about 500 feet in the last km. That’s a lot. Bring water. Well worth the breath, the trail ends at the yawning mouth of the cave. Giant stalactites hang down from the roof and sides. There is ample sunlight that enters the cave causing the front, sunlit side of the stalactites to grow moss and algae. The plant matter is then incorporated into the stalactites by the ever-flowing calcium carbonate forming CURVED pinnacles called phytokarsts! (SCIENCE!)

Now here is where it gets interesting. We went for a little bit of a “tramp.” We were warned that it was hard. We were warned that it was steep. We were warned but still we persisted. Holy moly, was it hard and, holy moly, was it the BEST HIKE EVER. On a stunning mountain road connecting the west and east coasts of the south island at Arthur’s Pass, stands Avalanche Peak and home to what is commonly known as the island’s most challenging hike. As native NW’ers, we’ve done our fair share of hiking, but this was hiking at a whole other level. It lives up to it’s billing and gains over 3,400 feet in just over 3 miles. And we’re not talking nice stone stairs built into the trail. Picture roots as hand holds, loose scree under foot and boulders the size of vans standing in your way. At points the trail isn’t a so much a trail as it is steel rods bent and twisted by the constant movement of the rock giving you “guidelines” as to where the trail might have been before the latest winter avalanche.

But oh, the view on the way to the summit is delightful. Snow capped mountains, lush green valleys. Everything you want in an alpine hike. Including leg busting grades and colorful birds, such as these keas pictured here, that would eat you if they were only bigger. Going down was much harder than going up and we deserved ice cream, LOTS of ice cream when we finally made it to the valley floor.

And no trip to New Zealand would be complete without doing something “Lord of the Rings” related. And so we went to Edoras, home of the horse lords. Here, Joe is standing pretty much where the Golden Hall stood when they filmed the second movie. As with everything in NZ, it was absolutely stunning, if not a tad bit windy.

Finally, we made it further south and decided we couldn’t miss Mount Cook/Aoraki. The Hooker Valley Track makes up in scenery what it lacks in vertical elevation gain and quad busting strain. Not to say that it doesn’t steadily rise up a river valley, but it’s very slight and almost gentle for NZ. And, oh, the views. Both sides of the track are surrounded by towering alpine peaks, snow capped even at the end of a long, hot summer. Glaciers hang as if magically suspended from the canyons between the mountains, forming tiny streams that become rushing rivers as they merge and hit the valley below. The track ends at a glacier moraine formed lake, icebergs bob up and down in the milky water as they are steadily calved off at the head of the lake. Perfect spot for lunch and a nap in the sun.

 

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that en route to New Zealand we stopped over in Tasmania, Australia. A close family friend is studying there and since we were in the relative neighborhood, we figured we should see her too!

 

A dinghy sails into the mouth of River Derwent at the Port of Hobart, the second deepest natural harbor in the world.

Walking along a Lake Dobson in Mount Field National Park, Tasmania.

Dolerite cliffs of the Cape Hauy track in Tasman National Park.

We’re Joe and Jenny. Among the many hats (& bags!) that we wear are those of photographers for TOM BIHN. Pacific Northwest natives, we both moved to Seattle for college and never left — except for traveling, of course! When we’re not behind the camera, we have a lot of fun outdoors hiking, skiing and gardening. You can see more of our work at joenicholsonphotos.com and jenniferbuchananphotography.com. Joe’s Instagram handle is @jnichpix.

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