As each day dawned in a new campsite somewhere glorious (the Top 10 sites are all located in superb areas – by the lakeside, the ocean front or just a dew-filled clearing among old trees), and we hit the road once more in our Britz campervan, my main worry was how much of all this will I remember? The sheer awe of seeing unspoilt beauty is something truly special – no busy tourist development on the magnificent lakes – just the odd sailboat or kayaks quietly making a disappearing trail. Lake Wanaka in particular as we approached Queenstown must be the most serene expanse of water in the world.
However, Queenstown is an exception to what I’ve just said – it is an unashamedly manic tourist town, with skiing in the winter and all sorts of crazy jumps and dives on offer in warm weather. The campervan park was tightly packed in this south-western town – as we needed to get further down, we decided to leave in the morning for Te Anau (named after the lake there) the start of the fiordlands of the southwest, to get to Milford Sounds that day.
Named after the Welsh port (Milford Haven) as its discoverer was from Wales, this has a windy road that goes past the Mirror Lakes where the hills are reflected in the clear water. We stopped by a fresh water river flowing furiously where adults and children were crossing over the slippery rocks for fun. When we got to Milford town, the boat took us on a two-hour ride through the fiords, past mountains full of trees that grow on moss, as there’s no top soil. There are tree avalanches here when there’s heavy rain as the rocks themselves are strong. The water is as deep as the mountains – 250 metres and the seals are at play on the islands and then the feeling of being closed in disappears as the fiords open out into the wide Tasman Sea.
Doubtful Sounds is harder to get to as it is even more remote. We needed to go by bus to Lake Manapouri (Maori legend says it was formed by the tears of a princess) where there is also a 10 km underground power station. There was a mild drizzle and the clouds snaked around the mountains as if a giant somewhere was having a long smoke. We crossed the lake and got the bus again through Wilmot Pass where we got a view of the snaking fiords. This is where my admiration for the untouched nature took a reality check. We were told that the early settlers brought in rabbits to feed the growing human population and when they got out of control, they brought stoats and possums to hunt the rabbits. New Zealand used to be one big aviary – many flightless birds like the kiwi and the emu were eaten by these new predators introduced into the eco-system. Now there are traps set to catch the stoats and possums en route. Once we got on the boat again, we could see the conservation work that is going on in this World Heritage site. The seals that used to be hunted for their double-layered fur are now protected – they were doing synchronised swimming or just sunning themselves. We had a glimpse of the husky dolphins and more lushness of waterfalls and greenery on the rock face. The rata tree has tiny red flowers and grows here – Christmas flowers of the fiords. I still can’t get over giant trees growing on moss.
We could’ve gone further down to the southern-most tip of the country, where the next stop would be Antarctica, but we turned back and began our journey up north. This time, we went to Omarama past the Clay mountains in the Waitaki valley – these look so neat and smooth, as if they’ve been made out of modelling clay. Coloured a deep turmeric, in the setting sunlight, they looked stunning. Driving through Christchurch felt as if we were back in the flat fields around Reading on the motorway – after all the uplifting, surging scenery, this felt a little deflating. Hanmer Springs just north of Christchurch is where the thermal springs are – for a reasonable entrance fee, we could spend an entire morning soaking our tired limbs on the sulphureted water.
Kaikoura is where people go to fly over to see the whales or take an early morning boat-ride to swim with the dolphins. We drove on to the salt marshes on Marfells Beach by the night and parked the van by the Pacific Ocean on the east coast. Local families from Blenheim and Sedden had already camped for Christmas celebrations on the beach. The stars were falling out of the sky that night and in the morning strange birds visited the beach, oblivious to our presence. Black gulls with orange beaks scurried about (Black Oyster catchers), cormorans and a lone heron that looked quite bored by my inquisitive face.
Crossing over back to the north, it was clear that we needed double this time to spend in the South! Auckland was another 650 km from Wellington and our journey broke in Wanganui, a beautiful city by the water with roads named Delhi Avenue and Madras Street. We saw signs for Harihari and Ramarama too (were the Maoris ancient Hindus, we wondered). The Maori names are everywhere and the Maori people are a significant minority. We stopped at the glow-worm caves of Waitomo in North Island. Our Maori guide whose great grandfather helped the British explorer discover the shining caves beneath the ground was a man who stood proud and was succinct with his words. He explained that this site was celebrating 125 years – it was part owned by the Maoris and was going to be completely handed over in 2027. A bit of a wait! It is tradition to ask visitors to sing, he said. When no one volunteered, he sang a short song – with the acoustics in the cave it felt like a snippet from a concert. Inside the caves were stunning stalactites and stalagmites and low-hanging shining glow-worm cocoons that we went by boat to see. He said that there were similar caves in their neighbouring country. The Aussie ones were less bright!