As a heads up to our more casual readers, this will be a longer post than usual, there have been too many incredible views, awesome people, and exciting adventures to simply write brief post. So if you are short on time you should at least scroll through the blog and take a look at some of the pictures (ha, we know that is what most of you do anyway!) To our more dedicated followers (thanks mom!) we hope we can convey a portion of the beauty of the past few weeks through this post!
Our last post ended with Carl and I on the ferry from Wellington on the North Island heading to Picton on the South Island. The water was rough with strong winds causing a rocky ride. The bathroom stalls were seldom vacant with fellow weak stomached vacationers. In order to avoid feeling seasick ourselves we spent most of the three hour ride out on the deck of the ship. Carl decided it would be best to have his wheelie bars on the back of his wheelchair due to the movement of the boat. These wheelie bars catch him if the chair tips backwards. These ended up being the right call as the movement of the ship sent him backwards onto the wheelie bars several times to the somewhat amusing panic of the passengers behind us. We were also able to spend time talking to a fellow passenger who had grown up near Queenstown who provided us a list of suggested places to see as well as a list of places to avoid, we always try to make a point of taking the advice of locals. Due to a several hour delay it was dark by the time we sailed into Picton and made our way to the first campsite. However the next morning we were excited as we were starting to get a glimpse of some of the mountains of the South Island.
Our first day of driving was down the East Coast Highway 1. Our goal was to be just north of Christchurch by the end of the day, a five to six hour drive along mostly coastal roads. With the Ocean on our left and the mountains on our right, we wound our way south continually straining our necks to get a better view of the mountain views, the rocky shores and countless seal colonies lounging on the beaches.
We arrived in Christchurch which is a manageable city on the East Coast with a view of the Alps in the west but itself set in the hills of the East.
We spent several days in Christchurch staying with our first host through an app called Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is a phone app that connects travelers with locals who freely open their homes, showers and washing machines. It has served as a great way to continue our frugal travel as well as being able to meet new people, learn about their travels, as well as get input on the places we should go and things we should see. Biff was our first host, and we had a great experience. She even had some food for us when we arrived. She has hosted over one hundred travelers in her house and we are thankful for the few days we were able to spend with her. She was also able to direct us where to head next. As we were planning on bypassing lake Tekapo and lake Pukaki on our way south, she advised us that they were worth the drive, and we would later find out that she was absolutely right. While in Christchurch we had the opportunity to spend Sunday at a local church. One family also invited us to their house after the service which turned into a fantastic afternoon with several couples and families from the church. A meal in a home with other people always beats cold cut sandwiches and pb&js out of the back of our car! While planning our trip to New Zealand I also remembered a friend who I had met in University about eight years ago while she was spending a semester studying in the United States as an exchange student from NZ. I had reached out to her and we made plans to catch up while we were in Christchurch. It was a blast getting to catch up with Anna and reminisce about the “good ‘ol days” at Purdue University. It was awesome getting to catch up, thanks Anna!
We also took this chance to try the “Tim Tam Slam”, while it is more of an OZ thing more than a NZ thing, we still had to try it. This is when you take an Original Tim Tam, and suck coffee through it almost like a straw, this turns the already delicious Tim Tam into near perfection! Thank you OZ and NZ for enriching our lives!
As we explored the City of Christchurch the deep scars of the Earthquake of 2011 were still visible in the structure of the city as well as in the stories of the residents who lived through it. The earthquake took the lives of 185 people from this city. We came across a quiet, simple but beautiful memorial of 185 white chairs, each unique, each empty, each representing a chair in a home that now sits empty. A particular poem struck me as we toured this memorial.
Blessing for the Brokenhearted
There is no remedy for love but to love more.
—Henry David Thoreau
Let us agree
that we will not say
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.
Let us promise
we will not
time will heal
when every day
opens it anew.
Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—
as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it,
as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
is to love still,
as if it trusts
that its own
is the rhythm
of a blessing
begin to fathom
but will save us
As we drove South, we took Biff’s suggestion and took the long way ’round to the inland lakes. This took us about a day out of our planned path, but when you have nowhere to be and plenty of time to get there these “off the planned path” detours have their way of adding to the excitement and freedom of a trip. The glimpse of the South Alps came as we approached lake Tekapo. The water takes on an almost fake looking turquoise color, due to the whats called “rock flour” which are rock particles eroded during the melting and runoff of the melting glaciers. This beautiful blue water with the South Alps in the background make for a stunning landscape.
The next day we went to a nearby lake with similar features called lake Pukaki. While lake Pukaki is similar to Tekapo you get to have a stunning view of Mt. Cook. Standing at 3,724 m Mt. Cook is New Zealand’s tallest mountain. The drive along the lake, through the head waters and then a hike up to a view of the Tasman glacier (NZ’s largest glacier) at the base of Mt. Cook was breathtaking.
Our next stop was the city of Oamaru back on the East Coast on our way down to Dunedin. The main attraction in Oamaru is the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. All along the drive through the South Island of NZ you see signs to “not approach the penguins”, to “watch out for penguins”, and “caution, penguin crossing”. However through our conversations with other backpackers and travelers we are all convinced this is all just a hoax as none of us have seen any penguins except if you pay to go to a penguin reserve or viewing area. The Oamaru penguin viewing area turned out to be a seated bleacher section which you could pay for a ticket in order to watch the penguins come in that evening, as this was a little too commercialized for our liking we decided to move along towards Dunedin.
Our First Hitchhiker!!!
Carl and I had heard that the South Island is full of hitchikers. We were excited to start meeting fellow travelers while giving them a lift. Our first hitchhiker was a French Canadian from Quebec. It was wonderful hearing his journey both through life and around NZ. He was the first of a number of hitchhikers who we had the pleasure of meeting.
Our stop in Dunedin was short, but it was a lively city with several quirky attractions. We spent a few hours dodging rain clouds as we took a self guided tour through the local street art.
We also had heard that Dunedin was home to the steepest residential street in the world according to the Guinness World Records. Carl and I, always ready for a challenge couldn’t turn down the opportunity to hike up this record holding slope. With a group of onlookers cheering us on, we slowly, so very slowly, made our way up the 36% sloped incline!
The next stop was NZ’s Southernmost city of Invercargill. On our way to the Southern tip we made several stops along the scenic road to hike to some waterfalls in an area called the Catlins. It is impossible to stop at every scenic lookout, waterfall hike, or suggested stop, but they are each worth a stop as each provides yet another beautiful view.
We finished our drive into Invercargill where we had our second Couchsurfing host. We got along with Elise especially well as our first order of business was to go out and buy the unique NZ ice cream, drinks and chocolate that we had not yet tried. After eating far more than a human should consume of Hokey Pokey Ice Cream, Moro Chocolate Bars, NZ chocolate milk and a glass of L&P Soda, we were all content not doing anything else the rest of the evening. Thank you Elise for the awesome hospitality!
However, since we couldn’t spend all of our time eating chocolate, the next day Carl and I headed down to the Bluff. The Bluff is perhaps the only attraction near Invercargill, but it is the point south of the city which had a marker denoting the furthest southern point in NZ and disputably the second closest point to Antarctica. We were also told to try the Blue Cod which was delicious, especially when deep fried in batter!
We had now made it from the near North side of NZ (Auckland) to the southernmost tip, and it was now time to start our journey back up the West Coast. The Southwest side of NZ is an area called the Fiordlands. This area is a stunning combination of the end of the South Alps scattered among hundreds of lakes and rivers and ocean inlets. However when visiting the Fiordlands prepare to be wet… all the time… there are approximately 200 rainy days a year, with up to 8m of rain yearly depending on the area!!! Despite the cold and wet weather, the Fiordlands offered a mystical beauty that we have never seen before. One of both Carl’s and my favorite drives was the road from Te Anu up to the Milford Sound which is a part of the Fiordlands. It was a cloudy rainy day and we had debated not making the one and a half hour drive out to Milford Sound. However we had been told by some other backpackers (who were huddled underneath a shelter with us for several hours trying to avoid the pouring rain) that it was worth the drive. Our route mostly followed a series of gorges among mountain cliffs which disappeared into the dense clouds above us. The drive followed along side a rushing river which was fed from thousands of waterfalls seeming to fall from the clouds down the cliffs surrounding us. It was surreal, a mysterious beauty that I have never seen before. In an effort to capture the beauty we constantly stopped the car, attempting to take pictures that gave the scene justice. This drive continued in this beauty for the better part of an hour, then ending at Milford Sound. The sound itself closely rivaled the beauty of the drive with its own stunning mountains jutting out of the foggy water disappearing into the dark clouds above. When asked the highlights of our trip, Carl and I both put this drive near the top of the list.
However beautiful the Fiordlands were, we were happy to emerge out of the rain and into the warmer, drier weather of Queenstown. Queenstown is perhaps one of the most well known cities of the South Island, known for being the “Adventure Capital Of the World”! From bungee jumping, to white water rafting, from boat cruises to horseback rides, Queenstown has it all, unfortunately it also brings in ALL of the tourists. As our goal was to enjoy the nature and the beauty of NZ more than the guided tours and heavily commercialized areas we decided to take a drive through Queenstown and continue moving on up to Wanaka, an equally beautiful but less touristy town.
In between Queenstown and Wanaka we had read about a back gravel road that wound through some beautiful back country views of the Alps. It was not our intention to drive too far down this somewhat treacherous road, however after almost an hour of “just a little further” we decided that if we wanted to make it to our next campsite by a reasonable hour, we would need to head back.
Our first stop in Wanka was a nice hike up Mt. Iron. This walk turned into a more rigorous trek than we had planned and included several step ladder sections over fences along with steep rocky and gravel sections of path. For the ladders we decided to wait for someone to come along. We would then have them hoist the chair over the fence to the other side and then Carl and I would step up one side of the ladder and then down the other finishing with Carl back in the chair. It was another lesson in learning the willingness and joy that strangers took in helping. One Aussie, whose real name was Bill Murray, stayed with us for the rest of the hike helping push and carry the wheelchair through the difficult sections. The view from the top of hill overlooking Wanaka was all the more enjoyable having put in the work to get to the top.
We spent several hours driving around lake Wanaka and hiking some of the smaller side trails that we found. The beauty found in the secluded areas tucked away in the mountains is always a joy to seek out and discover. And with crisp fall weather in the air and the trees just beginning to change color, it made for a memorable afternoon just wondering with no particular destination.
Our next drive took us over the South Alps to the West Coast and up into Fox Glacier. Fox Glacier is one of NZ’s most popular glacier destinations for the incredible views and beautiful treks. Unfortunately due to some recent rock slides the roads and trails up to the glacier were closed, however we had plenty of stunning views from afar. There was no shortage of picturesque locations where you could stop and just take in the beauty of the South Alps.
The primary goal for Fox Glacier however was much more extreme than a pretty view. This was where Carl took the jump of his life, deciding to leap out of a perfectly good airplane! Carl and I have been trying to find a place that was willing to take a paraplegic skydiving for the past year. A group of us had gone in 2016 hoping they could take Carl as well, however due to insurance reasons or lack of the proper equipment we had not found a place in Ontario that would do it. However after walking into Fox Glacier Sky Dive we met the owner, Mark, who had done almost 40 similar jumps with para and quadraplegics and had all the equipment and knowledge necessary. So with excited anticipation we waited for a clearing in the weather to allow for the jump. That afternoon never cleared up, so we decided to show up first thing the next morning and wait until a clearing came. Around 9:30 the next morning the clouds cleared just enough for one plane to take Carl up for the jump of a lifetime.
With the rush of adrenaline still running through Carl’s veins we were ready to continue our adventure up North to Franz Joseph glacier. The trail leading up to Franz Joseph was thankfully open unlike the one to fox Glacier. We were excited to get out on another hike, even with storm clouds looming. About halfway to the glacier the rain started pouring and by the time we made the round trip to the glacier and back, stopping just long enough to snap a picture of the glacier, we were both thoroughly soaked. However there is an enjoyable aspect to being so wet that you can’t possibly get any wetter, so you are then free to walk straight through puddles and streams, no longer trying to avoid the rain but eventually just embracing it (this might be easier said while fondly looking back at a memory as opposed to being in the midst of it).
Continuing up the west coast we spent a night in Greymouth which offered a bit of sunshine and warmth which was gladly accepted and gave us the chance to dry everything out which had remained wet for the better part of the previous week. We continued up the beautiful coastal road with a roadside stop in at the Pancake Rocks, a very unique natural rock formation of layered rocks. It also said that wheelchairs were not permitted, we usually take these signs as more of a challenge than a regulation.
We continued up into the northern tip of the South island where we explored the Northern Peninsula of the Golden Bay along with the Able Tasman Park. The Northern Peninsula was a unique landscape of huge expansive beaches without a single other person in site. While just a short drive away the Able Tasman park was a dense NZ rainforest with picturesque coves with cliffs and rock formations throughout the drive. It was again a reminder of how quickly the NZ landscape can change.
Our third Couchsurfing host was waiting for us up in Nelson which is a city only a few hours from Picton, which is where our journey along the South Island began as well as where it would end. The weather was once again sunny and beautiful and we could not pass up the opportunity to spend the day basking in the sun for a few hours before heading to our host’s home. One unique attribute of Nelson is that it contains the point which is considered the “Center of New Zealand”. I am not sure who decided the center needed to be at the very top of a steep hill, however we took advantage of the beautiful weather and made our way to the top!
That afternoon we headed over to Host’s house. That evening we joined our host Vicky and her son Karlin to their local pub where we got to hang out with the Wednesday night regulars. This is always one of my favorite ways to learn about a city or a country, and it made for an enjoyable way to finish our trip around the South Island. It was wonderful being able to stay with Vicky and Karlin and hear about all of the traveling they had done together. Thank you both for your hospitality!
The next day we headed back to the Ferry that had originally brought us to the South Island and would now take us back to the North.
We have two more weeks now to spend on the North Island before heading back to Australia. You can expect one last NZ post (Part 3) which will bring our NZ trip to an end and lead into the final leg of our travels with 10 final weeks in Australia.