Despite the bleak greyness of the water around Wellington – conditions for the crossing from North to South were supposed to be good. There is a yawning gap of sea between the two islands, and also many a narrow strait between the small islands en route, until Picton, South Island. The journey is longer than the Channel crossing from Dover to Calais – nearly four hours. An hour into our smooth sailing, we walked to the viewing deck, only to find that the boat was moving with a definite tilt of about 10 degrees. Suddenly everything felt unstable and shaky and we returned to the food lounge and I buried my head in my arms on the table and chose oblivion over the reality of modern seafaring.
Blenheim is barely 20 kilometres from Picton, the ferry terminal on the southern side. Its the capital of the wine region of Marlborough – these familiar names keep popping up even all this way from England. Vineyards keep on rolling with the hills in the distance – the warm days and cold evenings being perfect weather for wine-making. Blenheim town centre could be any market town in Somerset or Wiltshire – with a well-laid out high street and shops. Once you leave the town, it feels a bit like Napa Valley in California but not as crowded with bus tours. These are predominantly white wine varieties – so it was no surprise to see vineyards with German names growing Riesling and Gewurtzraminer, and of course the French varieties and also Pinot Gris. We visited a couple of vineyards for sampling and by the second one had to limit ourselves to a quick sip before emptying the rest into the bucket provided. Driving away, we saw the reassuring road signs – “Lower alcohol limit begins here”!
As we drove on towards Murchison, still only a hundred kilometres or so from Blenheim, we crossed many one lane bridges over stony creeks and rivers, past thick forests and farmland on each side. Every creek is named – from the banal sounding Hamilton Creek to Stinky Creek and even Dismal Creek. The further one drives into South Island, the more remote it seems. And as it gets more remote, and the forests dense and untouched – but there are always sheep grazing in the fields.
Our stop for this evening was the western town of Greymouth. The van rolled to a halt and just ahead of us was the wide ocean – the water just a short distance away. One of the real joys of the campervan is to make a cup of tea and be able to walk a few steps where the frothy waves come to greet and embrace. This town became famous after the Gold Rush in the late 19th century when two prospectors found the yellow stuff in the black sand of the Grey River that runs into the Tasman Sea.
Greymouth is famous for its Pancake Rocks, massive Dolomite striated stones that stand with the ocean surging most dramatically over and around them. Gulls and herons rest on a distant stone protrusion.
The van swallowed up mile after mile of open road as we headed to Franz Josef, named after the famous glacier. Sadly, as we walked up to the viewing point, we read about two young Indian boys who crossed the barrier and died as a boulder of ice caught them unawares in a sudden avalanche.
In the guide book “1000 Places To See Before You Die” there is a section on ‘flight-seeing’ the glaciers and ‘snow-landings’. The best way to see the magnificent peaks, if you can’t climb it is to go above it. The next morning we splurged on a helicopter ride and went along with professional climbers to fly over Mt Cook and Mt Tasman the two tallest peaks in New Zealand. Edmund Hillary practiced on Mt Cook before climbing Everest. Its a truly magnificent feeling to just rise up vertically for the most stunning views.
At the top, we left the climbers and their provisions for the next week behind. As we swung past, we saw them heading to the glacier hut that was perched precariously on the side of the mountain face. We gawped in awe.