Everyone we met in New Zealand said that the South Island has more spectacular scenery than the North Island, and I suppose it is grander in scale, but it really depends how much you like mountains, because that’s what most of it is. Personally, I preferred the glow worm caves and all the crazy bubbly stink pools in the North Island, because you certainly don’t get glow worm caves and sulfur hell-stench everywhere (though the lack of the latter is probably a good thing), and to me, all mountains basically look the same, but sure, it was pretty, especially in places where the trees still had some fall colour left. I will say that the South Island produces a ridiculous amount of rainbows. Sometimes we saw four or five separate ones in a day. I mean, it was almost too many, if there can be such a thing as too many rainbows.
One of the main “mountain-appreciation” things we did was go on a cruise of Milford Sound. I confess I had mixed feelings about this, mainly because it is so far from civilization; we had to spend two nights in Te Anau, which I hated more than anywhere else we stayed. It was pretty much just a small tourist town, but it was the off season when we visited; being late autumn, it was too early for ski season, and too late for summer activities, so almost everything in the town was shut, except for their terrible supermarket and a just-OK chippy. I can live off bread, hummus, chips, and ice cream for a surprisingly long period of time, but I at least demand a certain minimum quality of bread, and this supermarket bakery did not deliver. Plus the place we were staying was not very clean, which didn’t help matters. But Milford Sound is indeed rather majestic, and possibly worth putting up with the discomfort (well, not to me, but a less finicky person would be happy enough I think).
As it was not particularly warm outside, we opted for the two hour cruise without kayaking, which I think was a wise decision (not least because if we took a three hour cruise, I would have been singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song the whole day). Two hours was certainly plenty of time to appreciate the fiordland (I was starting to get sick of it by the time we turned back, especially after they parked the boat under a couple of waterfalls so we could sample the glacial water, which would have been fun if it was warmer, but as it was nearly winter when we were there, just left me cold and cranky). We were fairly lucky in that it was a clear day, with no rain on the Sound, and we got to see seals and dolphins. I may be alone in not really liking dolphins (I find them insufferably smug, except for poor Opo), but I guess it was cool that there were some around, since obviously they can’t guarantee that sort of thing.
However, there was a local animal I was taken with: the mountain kea. They are basically big parrots that live in the mountains, and though they look charmingly dumb, with their waddle and annoying “caw-caw,” they are apparently as intelligent as a 5 year old child. As they were described to us at one point, “they can open your backpack, remove a plastic container containing cake, open the container, take the cake, reseal the container and put it back in your backpack, and then eat the cake on a ledge whilst laughing at you.” We were warned not to leave the car door open when driving up to the Sound, as they will steal things out of your car (they’re often described as “cheeky” which I assume is code for “obnoxious”). We stopped at various points of interest on the way there (and because I was about to puke, it being a winding mountain road and all. “Scenic drives” are never for the motion-sickness prone, and New Zealand has a LOT of them) and they came right up to us on several occasions, though you’re obviously not meant to feed them or anything. They’re great though. By far my favourite bird of the trip (and New Zealand’s got a lot of weird birds).
I was quite relieved when we left Te Anau and headed for Queenstown, Queenstown being a sort of extreme sport and resort town in the vein of Aspen (I say this having never been to Colorado) or something. So it had an extremely well-stocked (albeit expensive) grocery store, NY Style pizza, a shop selling warm cookies, luxurious accommodation (with free hot chocolate); basically many things I deem essential to my happiness. And it was quite picturesque (albeit of the mountainous variety), but I was most excited for the (very expensive) street luge track. I’m not an extreme sports person, but I am quite happy to speed downhill in some kind of cart device (like that summer toboggan in Lake Bled). I may have taken it a bit too seriously (I was loudly swearing at people who wouldn’t get out of my way, and I almost flipped the cart a couple times), but it was good fun, and you got to ride a chairlift up to the top each time.
I was sad to leave Queenstown for Franz Josef Glacier, as it was an even tinier village than Te Anau, but we only spent a night there, and our motel room was surprisingly nice, so it was fine (and I had learned my lesson, and stocked up on food in Queenstown). You can actually take a helicopter up onto the glacier and walk around, but that cost something insane like $370 per person, so we opted for the glacial valley walk, which gives good views of the rapidly retreating glacier without actually going up on it. It is also not a particularly challenging walk, which suited me fine.
One of my favourite spur-of-the-moment stops was this former mining town called Ross, which we encountered when driving from Franz Josef to Greymouth. To be honest, we only stopped because I needed to pee (a common theme on road trips), but when I realised it was a mining town, with old miners’ cottages, I insisted we have a look around. This ended up turning into a full-on rainforest walk that somehow managed to be almost entirely uphill, because we went the wrong way round, but I was determined to see the old cemetery, so we pressed on.
The walk was strenuous, but very scenic, and there were still bits and pieces of the old mining equipment scattered about. And the cemetery (on a hill of course) offered excellent views of the surrounding area, and lots of neat 19th century tombstones with interesting inscriptions. Recommended. They also have a small museum there, but it just looked like loads of laminated information sheets that I couldn’t be bothered to read, so we skipped it.
My boyfriend being a geologist and all, we also saw a lot of rocks on this trip. More than I would find ideal, to be honest. There were some “pancake rocks” north of Greymouth in Punakaiki that I was disappointed to find did not actually look like pancakes, they were just layered. And there were a lot of blowholes, if that kind of thing interests you. We also saw some round boulders in Moeraki, on the Otago Coast, but that visit was mercifully cut short by the tide coming in literally all the way up the beach, forcing us to hightail it out of there in a hurry.
Not really nature related, but there was a town called Springfield on the way back to Christchurch that had a giant pink iconic Homer Simpson doughnut right in the middle of it. I had to wait irritatingly long for some stupid 20-something girls to finish taking five million selfies (we literally were waiting for twenty minutes, and I finally had to ask if they could step aside for a minute so I could grab a quick photo, whereupon they acted as if I was greatly inconveniencing them. I should have just forcibly pushed them off through the doughnut hole), but it was still pretty cool for someone who loves classic Simpsons as much as I do (nothing beyond Season 9 please, and even that’s pushing it), though I wish they had actually had pink frosted doughnuts for sale.
I realise this post is much whinier than the North Island one, which is more a reflection on me and my dislike of being away from the amenities of a city or at least a large town than the South Island itself, which was, for the most part, full of friendly people and attractive terrain. Anyway, this pretty much wraps up our time in New Zealand, but I’ve got more Antipodean adventures in Australia to report on next!