We left Hamilton on a night bus and were immediately reminded of how irritating other people can be as a guy was playing terrible music out loud on his phone. Thankfully this only lasted a short while, and we were able to grab a few hours of fitful sleep in between toilet stops.
We arrived in to Wellington just before 7am, and were delighted to find out we could catch an earlier ferry than the one we’d booked, saving us hours of waiting around in the wind. The crossing was lovely, beautiful scenery appeared on the horizon and we got very excited thinking about all the hiking we were planning to do.
We arrived in Picton – a strange, small frontier port town – and collected our hire car. We had initially planned to rent a campervan for the quintessential NZ travelling experience, however everything we looked at was way out of our budget. Our backup plan was just to get the cheapest car we could and use our tent as much as possible. We left it too late booking a car and so the tiny cheapest ones had sold out. We went for the next budget option, which turned out to be an estate car, easily big enough for us to sleep in the back of. This has ended up being a lifesaver, as NZ has a culture of “freedom camping”: people in motorhomes, vans and cars can pitch up on most public land and sleep overnight for free, but this doesn’t apply to tents. If we’d only had our tent we would have had to pay for campsites every night, which would have been impossible. As it is, there are many restrictions on freedom camping, the most common of which is that many areas only allow “self-contained” vehicles (those which contain a toilet and waste water facilities), which our little estate definitely wasn’t! Each council has their own local by-law, making the whole process more complicated and sometimes making it really difficult to know if you are in an area that allows camping or not. But we managed to get by using a combination of camper apps and local council websites, and overall we’ve had a great time ambling around the island at our own pace.
We set off to the east of Picton for the bigger town of Blenheim, to buy camping supplies and food. We then drove around for ages trying to find somewhere to sleep, as we were not au fait with the freedom camping regulations, and eventually gave up and headed to a campsite run by the Department of Conservation (DOC, on whom more later). The site was next to White’s Beach where we watched a lovely sunset and then went for a walk along their glowworm track. It was great just to be able to walk at night without any fear of predators or stray dogs – the first time we’ve been able to do this since leaving the UK. We came to an area where a stream had cut a deep wall into the cliff and as the night closed in hundreds of twinkling lights appeared across it like stars. Back at the campsite we laid out our rollmats across the back of the car, arranged our bodies around the bars that stuck painfully out of the seatbacks and settled in for a few hours of cold, uncomfortable sleep.
As we set off the next day we had our first encounter with the fallout of a major storm which had been ravaging the island for several days. The road we set off on was closed due to flooding, forcing a 100km diversion. At a DOC visitor centre, we asked about where would be good to go walking over the next few days and were pretty much told not to bother anywhere nearby as there was torrential rain forecast all week. We ended up heading to St Arnaud’s, where the weather was due to improve for a short while. We found a beautiful lake, flooded up to the car park with its jetty underwater, which made for some great photos!
The lake also housed ENORMOUS New Zealand longfin eels. They are born in the Pacific ocean, swim upstream to the lake where they live for up to 80 years, then swim back to the ocean to spawn once and die. They were very curious and came up from under the jetty when people got near, looking for food. It was quite unsettling while the jetty was under water!
We went on a lovely walk and our first summit in NZ: Mount Robert at 1421m. We’d been looking at the mountain for a couple of days: although we’d slept parked in a layby, we’d returned to the lake for dinner and breakfast as there were toilets and facilities available, and had been admiring the changing iridescent colours of the rocks on its slopes. It seemed only fitting that we should make the effort to summit it. The path we took zigzagged up a tree-clad spur covered in ancient birch forests which in turn were covered in moss and lichen. The gnarled branches were so beautiful, and seemed to twist and turn about the shafts of sunlight which filtered through the deep green leaves. Huge bees buzzed around us and we were captivated by the magical sound of NZ birds which seem to combine the call of a Mockingjay with R2D2. Their weird calls echoed through the stunted trees which creaked in the wind.
Above the treeline the lake stretched below: milky blue, occasional dark shadows scudding across as clouds shifted overhead. At the top we found the summit by chance as the path doesn’t cross it. We took a wide plateau down to the north side (facing the sun!) and made our way to Bush Line hut at the beginning of the descent track. The hut was amazing – we had been expecting a bothy, but this was a DOC Serviced hut, one of the fancier ones available with a stocked woodburner.
The infrastructure for hiking (or “tramping”) in NZ is incredible: mostly provided by the DOC, there are well maintained and signposted paths through all the national parks, allowing people to go on walks in the wilderness with little preparation or skills. As a result, we found it really difficult to buy a map and compass, which made Jay very nervous! The huts dotted around the national parks mean that you can do multi-day hikes without needing a tent. We had an epic lunch (of instant noodles and crisps in a roll) in the hut looking out over the mountains all around, and then set off on the descending path back to the woods and lake.
The next morning we woke up in the car and Maeve was in absolute agony due to the cold, hard, uneven surface we were sleeping on. We finally came to our senses after three uncomfortable nights and went to buy an air bed. The shop also had a sale on pillows so we treated ourselves, and spent the subsequent nights in relative luxury. We also splashed out on an advent calendar (on sale, since it was well into December now).
Our aim was to head towards the Franz Josef glaciar, but once again the weather was against us. We heard on the radio that the storm in the south of the island was still raging, and the one main road down the west coast of the island had been severely damaged. Our only option for heading south was to cross over to the east the island via St Arthur’s Pass. The closer we got on the single road, the wetter it became.
At the DOC centre in St Arthur we learnt that it had been raining solidly for nine days, and wasn’t due to stop for atleast another 24 hours. All the surrounding walks involve river crossings, so we were told it would be a few days yet before it was safe to try any. Thankfully behind the visitor centre was a shelter that we were able to have breakfast in, away from the torrential downpour. We shivered through the process of making porridge and coffee, grateful that there was at least somewhere dry, before deciding to cut our losses and continue south-east away from the storm.
During our drive south, we got our first glimpse of snow-capped mountains through the wall of drizzle. We braved the wet weather to explore some amazing rock formations at Castle Hill.
We finally emerged from the rain just as the landscape opened out into flat plains: an open vista stretching as far as we could see. The sky was so vast that you could see cumulous clouds changing to towering cumulo-nimbus and dumping their rain on distant towns.
We stopped in the afternoon for supplies, and popped into a chippy, where we discovered that curry sauce on chips is not a thing in NZ. This particular place didn’t even have vinegar, so we improvised with a tub of salsa, and used up the leftovers with onion and lentils for breakfast the following day.
During our drive we heard that the two bridges over the river Rangatata on the east side of the island were both flooded. Along with the damaged road on the west (which we heard wouldn’t be open for weeks), the south of the island was completely cut off from the north. It was hard for us to fathom that a country this prosperous could be reliant on just three roads for all transit up and down the island (we heard a report of stranded tourists being flown out by helicopter). We decided to just get as close to the bridges as we could, as the reports were that they should reopen in the next day or two.
While looking for somewhere to sleep in the town of Mayfield, we stopped to use the public toilets at a recreation ground, where we were surprised to see campervans and caravans lining the football pitch and filling the carpark. It turned out that we could camp there for a voluntary donation, using the toilet facilities and water points. There was a local open air pool available too, but it was too cold for us to brave it.
As we were getting petrol the next morning, the shop owner said the bridges wouldn’t open until the following day at least. Just as we were pulling away from the petrol station she kindly came running out to tell us she’d just heard on the radio that the nearest bridge would now be opening at midday – only an hour away! That was great news and we made our way straight over, to find out that a lot of other people had been stuck in the region waiting for the bridges too. We joined the extensive queue of traffic and just before noon we started to trundle forward. At the bridge it was clear that the storm and subsequent flood water had wreaked havoc: tarmac lay in huge strips in ditches where it had been torn off the road, and trees littered the area. It was incredible that the road had reopened so soon.
Our plan was to head to the Mount Aspiring National Park, as by the next day we expected that the flood waters in the rivers would have receded and we’d be able to get up into the mountains. It was an epic drive through towering mountains, passing deep gorges, and via opal blue lakes that shimmered in the bright afternoon light. Evidence of the extensive water that had fallen on the landscape was everywhere, and the lakes had risen to engulf the lupins that dotted their banks in icy meltwater.
Our journey took all day as we kept having to stop to gawp at the scenery and take pictures; us and everyone else, as every layby was filled with cars and campervans exchanging places with each other. We arrived at the town of Wanaka filled with excitement, ready to explore the incredible landscape that we’d had glimpses of all day from the car.