New Zealand South Island - Welcome to Paradise
During the last visit in New Zealand in 2012, we missed everything south of Christchurch. This time we want to catch up with the south part of the South Island. The weather during late summer and autumn could change quickly. Therefore, we did not book anything in advance to let the weather conditions decide our itinerary. As the forecast for Milford Sound, one of our bucket list destinations, was predicted unexpectedly good for the next two days our route was defined.
We drove the 700 km in 10 hours from Christchurch to Te Anau the closest town with affordable accommodation to the Arran Motel to not miss this rare opportunity. Our drive on the scenic road towards the harbor started next morning in darkness, but as soon as the first sunlight hit the mountains, we became overwhelmed by this spectacular scenary of the Fjordland. We did plenty of stops to enjoy the magnificent sunrise with a view clouds in the valleys. The morning cruise at Milford Sound was well-chosen, it was not very crowded, and the fjord was bathed in light. On our way back we stopped for a hike up to Lake Marian. This steep trail through the wettest rainforest we had ever experienced was what we loved most.
On the whole west coast sandflies are the most annoying creatures. Although we protected ourselves with long sleeves and trousers, they got us at the dunny (toilet without flash). An early Maori legend says that sandflies were created to punish laziness. As long as you move and don’t stand still, you are not that attractive to them. So we tried to stay in constant motion - not an easy task!
We left the western part of the Island for a while and tried to explore “The Catlins” one of the least visited areas on the South Island. Although we even heard from Kiwis that this part of the island is not often known to them, we would give it a try. To our surprise, we found a great scenery with untouched beaches, marvelous waterfalls, beautiful lighthouses, large seal colonies, and finally the yellow-eyed penguin returning from the sea at sunset.
During the Easter, weekend weather was predicted to be great at Mount Cook (Aoraki in Maori), with 3754m elevation the highest mountain in the southern Alps. To be close to Mount Cook we choose the White Horse Hill Campground for $13 per person/day. It is well known that the weather in the mountains can change quickly and so we were challenged the second night with heavy rainfall. Anyhow the stay close to Mount Cook was worth, and we could hike the well known Hooker Valley track and part of the Mueller Hut track in sunny weather. Beside the magnificent views of Mount Cook during sundown, we found huge lakes which were formed by the retreating glaciers.
Further north at the west coast we stopped by the massive glaciers coming down from the Southern Alps. Although we know Glaciers from European Alps, these are very different. They end up at around 300m and are easily accessible. In fact, the surrounding rainforest and the close location to the seashore had been most impressive to us. Both Glaciers, Fox and Franz-Josef, are in a retread period and lost a large part of their size from former years. Although Franz-Josef was known as the fastest growing glacier in the world, it shrunk since 2008 by 800 meters in length. We were shocked to learn this dramatic change, and we are sure that the retreating Glaciers are one of the impacts of the global climate change.
Continuing on highway 6 we stopped in a small town well known for a world famous sunset but, most importantly, Hokitika is known for pounamu, also known as greenstone. From here we drove inland to visit the area around Mt. Tuhua. We were greeted by a local stopping his car close to us by "Welcome to the Paradise." He was right, the view in the morning across Lake Karniere, the Dorothy Falls, and the trail up to Mt. Thuhua were second to none. The rainforest was almost pristine, and the trail was full of obstacles like fallen trees and steep slopes. This is how the island looked in former times.
Back on the coast, we followed Highway 6 towards Paparoa National Park to stop by the Pancake Rocks a place we visited already in 2012. We planned to do the whole Inland Pack Track, but we learned at the visitor center that cyclone Gita had damaged an enormous portion of the backcountry trail including a swingbridge. The only remaining alternative was to hike the first section towards the Ballroom Overhang and return the same way. Following the trail led us through 16 river crossings in total. Luckily the level of Fox River was relatively low, and we did not get wet above the knees. However, the water was damned cold, and we were glad and exhausted as we returned to our car before the rain started in the evening.
However, this should not be the last cold water we touched. On the way back to Christchurch we passed Arthur's Pass and stopped late afternoon at the Cave Stream. Again a place we had known from 2012. Here you can walk through a 600 m long cave following a river upstream in pitch darkness. This time we could wear our neoprene swim gear which was essential as the water was far colder and higher compared to the last visit.
Again we both mastered this challenge in near-freezing cold water and safely returned to Christchurch to depart to our next destination.