Exploring New Zealand’s South Island

Exploring New Zealand’s South Island

We spent a total of 6 weeks in New Zealand: 9 days in Auckland, 3 weeks in a campervan, and a week and a half in and around Fiordland National Park. We already talked about what it was like living in a van, so this post is about what we saw while traveling in the van (other than seeing red…that was already covered in detail)!

Map of our roadtrip route

Kaikoura

Our first stop after picking up our van in Christchurch was Kaikoura. We were very relieved to have made it through our first leg of driving in New Zealand, as the pitfalls were numerous: remembering to stay on the left side of the road, navigating traffic circles, and driving down narrow, shoulder-less, undivided highways with large trucks whizzing by a bit too close for comfort.

Aerial view of Kaikoura

We checked into our holiday park with our van, still giddy and excited. We used the hot tub, cooked a nice dinner, and lounged around in the TV room, until it was time to shower and go to sleep. As night fell, the temperature dropped to below 10 degrees Celsius, and it also started raining. Quickly it became apparent that showering right before bed was a mistake – Lisa’s hair simply would not dry, and it was pretty chilly in the van (we had gone with the budget model, meaning no plugging in, and thus no heat for us at night). So she slept with her head wrapped in a towel and wore layers of warm clothes. It was OK as long as you stayed bundled up under the blanket. At least that’s what we told ourselves, as we stared down the prospect of 19 more nights in the van. When we woke up in the morning, everything was still damp. Maybe this van thing was going to be harder than we expected…

Luckily, the weather improved for the rest of our time in Kaikoura! Our plans there mostly involved a bunch of marine wildlife tours, including swimming with fur seals, swimming with dolphins, whale watching, and bird (mainly albatross) watching on a boat.

Swimming with Seals

First up was a seal swim with Seal Swim Kaikoura. The operators warned us that this was their first tour in a little while, as recent conditions had not been conducive to good encounters. Fur seals like to stay out of the water if they can, but their thick fur makes them overheat sometimes, and they need to jump in for a swim to cool off. This is lucky for humans, as we cannot approach fur seals on land (they are protected) – they are clumsy and awkward out of the water, so would feel threatened. However, in the water they are amazingly nimble, and thus much more confident. So, interactions can happen on their terms, and they will often approach swimmers to check them out and sometimes play. Unfortunately for us, the weather was cool and cloudy, meaning fewer chances for good in-water seal encounters. The tour operators were hopeful that today might be better, but didn’t want to make any promises. In fact, many other people had opted not to go, and we were alone on the boat with just one other person.

We geared up in our two-piece 7mm neoprene wetsuits (water temperature was a brisk 15 degrees C) and set out in hopes of swimming with seals. When we got there, we saw lots of seals lounging around on the rocks, and our guide pointed out a few of them in the water. Some of them also appeared restless and maybe ready for a swim! However, as we peered more closely at the water, we saw that it looked more like pea soup than water.

A few of the seals did get in the water, and we held our breath in excitement, but none of them seemed too keen to approach us. We did have a couple come within maybe 4 or 5 feet, but with the soupy visibility, all we could see underwater were seal-shaped shadows.

Finally, as we were ready to admit defeat and get back on the boat, a juvenile male seal got in the water and hung out at the surface, not too far away. He sort of floated upside down, scratching his butt, and the guide said this was a good sign – the seal seemed relaxed.

So we approached closer, until we could see him in the water (this meant we had to be REALLY close, given the poor visibility). He didn’t seem bothered at all, and continued hanging out for a while. Then, he started swimming circles around us, and porpoised around playfully while we watched in delight.

We went back another couple of times to visit the seals, and although we did have some better visibility conditions, we did not have the most cooperative subjects. There were some males we were able to get fairly close to, but they were much more interested in scratching and rolling around than in us. So, we would swim slowly towards them, they would scratch themselves and briefly check us out before turning their faces away, and then they would jet off like big furry torpedos.

Although we didn’t have the same playful encounters as our first day, it was still really fun watching them move around in the water. Seal Swim Kaikoura was a great operation, and if we really wanted the best seal encounters, we should have come in the summer, when hotter weather and curious pups would have made for much more interaction.

Dolphin Encounter

Next up was a tour to swim with dusky dolphins. We got to the tour company’s building early in the morning, and got suited up in the familiar very-thick wetsuits. There were a lot of people going out – enough to fill a small theater room – which concerned us. But they split us into three different groups, to go on three different boats. We probably had 15-20 swimmers on our boat. This was better, but still concerning. Twenty people in the water at the same time is a lot of people!

The tour guides told us that the dusky dolphins were really friendly and curious, and the best way to attract them was to flail around, make lots of noise, and dive down under the surface. Bryan had rented a weight belt from the local dive shop, and after getting special permission from the company and boat captain (weight belts were against company policy), lugged it onto the boat. This was much better than floating like a cork on the surface the whole time!

After a short boat ride, the captain announced that there was a big pod of dolphins ahead of us! Soon enough, the boat was right in the middle of them, as they swam past on all sides. We geared up excitedly, and got down on the swim deck at the back of the boat. The captain cut the engines and honked the horn, signaling it was time to get in the water. The tour guide at the back of the boat pointed off to the side, yelling that a big pod was coming right towards us!

We slid in, gasping a bit from the shock of the cold water, and started looking around underwater. Once more, it was pea soup. We could barely see each other, and we were only 5 feet apart. Lisa started making “singing” noises through her snorkel (as we had been advised to do during the orientation video back at the shop), which if you ask Bryan, sounded more like the sound you would expect from a woman grievously wounded from being hit by a car than from someone trying to sing like a dolphin. But hey, it seemed to work, as one, then two, then three dusky dolphins materialized out of the green haze and swam around us with so much speed that Bryan barely had time to attempt a photo.

By the time our brains caught up with our eyes, they had disappeared back into the murk. We lifted our eyes out of the water, as that was the only way to see anything more than 4 feet away. Around us was a chaotic medley of snorkels, flippers, and dolphin dorsal fins.

We put our faces back under the water, Lisa still valiantly making noises, Bryan holding his camera at the ready and continuously spinning in circles. More dolphins appeared, and Bryan did his best to flail around, diving down under the surface. They liked our antics, and some of them spun around us two or even three times before jetting off. It was really neat.

Then we had a few minutes with no dolphins, so we tried moving locations, but to no avail. The boat horn blasted, and we returned, clambering onto the swim deck and exclaiming excitedly. We did this at least 3 or 4 more times. Our fears of having too many people were completely unfounded, as there was more than enough room for everyone, and more than enough dolphins to go around. Each time we got a bit better at making a spectacle of ourselves, and each time we seemed to get a bit more interest from the friendly little duskies. It was tiring, but exhilarating! And kudos to Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura for running such a well-oiled and incredibly fun operation!

Albatross Encounter

One afternoon, we randomly decided to sign up for an Albatross Encounter tour. Neither of us are avid bird fans or anything, but seeing an albatross sounded pretty cool, so we decided to go for it. It was a smaller tour, and we were definitely the youngest participants by at least 20, if not 30 years. The boat captain had some fish liver to feed the birds, and some of them clearly knew what was coming, as they flew behind the boat for several minutes before we finally stopped.

First we had a few petrels and shearwaters hanging around – there was clearly a hierarchy among the different birds, with the big petrels gobbling up the food and the smaller species hanging out farther back eating the bits that were missed and floated away. Then after a few minutes, a few big albatross (wandering albatross and Salvin’s mollymawks) flew in to join the feast.

Salvin’s Mollymawk

The wandering albatross were huge, with a wing span of 2.5 – 3.5 metres! They were also incredibly loud and bossy, squawking and babbling at the other birds as they greedily stuffed themselves with the fish. They would occasionally take a break from gorging themselves to clack their beaks at the others and tell them off if they came too close.

Wandering albatross bossing around the giant petrel

It was so entertaining to watch, and especially to listen to! We enjoyed this experience a lot more than we expected.

Whale Watching

Kaikoura is one of the few places in the world you can reliably see sperm whales. During our time there, none were in the area, so although we tried to go out 4 different days, each time it was canceled and we ended up getting our money back. Although we were disappointed, we appreciated that Whale Watch Kaikoura was honest and didn’t just take us out anyway to get our money.

Here’s a video with some highlights from Kaikoura:

West Coast

Next up was a trip out to the west coast, where we were mainly excited for a blackwater rafting tour with Underworld Adventures. Bryan had researched the many glow worm cave options in New Zealand, and after reading all about the heavily touristed ones like Waitomo, decided it would be best to find the quietest, most remote one he could. This was it.

We started out getting suited up in warm wetsuits (yet again). After a drive in to Paparoa National Park, we took a short train ride through some rainforest. Then we picked up inner tubes, did 1-2 hours of walking up to the cave entrance and through the cave system, and then got into our tubes in a small subterranean pool. We formed a small inner tube train, and our guide then towed us through the glow worm cave system. We didn’t have to do anything other than lay on our backs and admire the spectacular display of natural lighting above us. It was phenomenal, like rafting under the stars on a clear, cloudless night.

No one in our group (which consisted of us and a polite family from Singapore) made a sound until we reached the end. Reluctantly, we gave the glow worms one last look, and then picked up our inner tubes and walked/paddled our way out of the cave system. We then floated down the Nile River in our inner tubes, back to the train, and finished the tour. We do not have any photos to share, because Bryan reluctantly listened to the tour operator’s suggestion not to bring along cameras.

Our guide had told us that there was a large glow worm colony under a rocky overhang outside the entrance to the cave, so that night we decided to return. This resulted in the Great Glow Worm incident, which you can read about here (see point #1).

The rest of the West Coast involved verdant temperate rainforest, with the forest floor carpeted in ferns and moss and giant tree ferns lining the rivers; a rapidly-retreating glacier (Franz Josef) with a remarkably lush glacial valley; and a number of pretty and remote beaches. The pictures speak for themselves so we won’t do any more talking about it.

Franz Josef Glacier
Canopy of tree ferns!

Wanaka

Aside from the near-demise of our relationship, we actually really enjoyed Wanaka. Once we had resolved some stuff and were able to relax and explore, we discovered that the town was charming and beautiful.

On our last day, we hiked Roy’s Peak. We enjoyed the beautiful views of the valley, Lake Wanaka, and the surrounding mountains, but we didn’t end up going all the way to the top. The trail seemed in good shape, but Lisa was feeling a bit run-down, and we ended up running out of water (because Lisa had dropped her water bottle and it spilled everywhere).

View from the Roy’s Peak trail

Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park

Our next stop was Mt. Cook/Aoraki National Park. We arrived in town and found the campground – there were no holiday parks here, just one camping area run by the DOC. Even so, it was still really nice, with flush toilets, running potable water, and a sheltered cooking area (this was especially appreciated, since it was – once again – raining).

The next day, the rain cleared up, and we started by visiting the Tasman Valley.

Tasman Glacier

Then we got to the main event, the Hooker Valley Track, which was an easy and flat 10 km walk through amazing scenery and with a gorgeous view of Mt. Cook itself at the end. It was a cloudy day, but we were lucky enough to get a glimpse of its summit when the cloud cover parted for a few minutes.

Views along the Hooker Valley Track
Finally caught a glimpse of Mt. Cook

We had been planning to stop at Lake Tekapo – yet another Instagram-famous site, supposedly exceptional for star-gazing. However, with all the cloud and rain we had been experiencing, we doubted we would be able to see much of anything in the sky. Indeed, the “stargazing forecast” for the next week looked pretty dismal – the best day was rated a 2 out of 10. So we decided to carry on and focus our attention on another worthy pursuit: wildlife watching.

Oamaru & Dunedin

We visited Oamaru and Dunedin, on the South Island’s east coast, to see penguins. Specifically, the smallest penguin in the world (the little blue penguin) and the rarest penguin in the world (the yellow-eyed penguin).

Oamaru has a neat organization called the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, which has set up a thriving penguin colony along the Oamaru waterfront. They build nest boxes, provide a safe place free from disturbance, and keep out the introduced predators which have been decimating penguin populations across the island (dogs, cats, stoats, weasels, etc). For $25 each we got to sit in a grandstand while the sun set, and watch as rafts of the little birds returned from the ocean, clambered up the rocks, and scuttled past us on their way to their nests. It was super cute, but no cameras allowed! (This is a good thing, as flashes damage penguin eyesight). The experience was totally worth the cost, and we like to support organizations like this.

The next day we found a spot we could observe the penguins coming home from afar, for free. It was pretty far away – far enough that we would not interfere with or impact the penguins in any way.

Little blue penguins coming home for the night

Satisfied with our blue penguin experiences, our next objective was to find the elusive yellow-eyed penguin. We did lots of reading on forums, trying to figure out where we could see these birds without having to pay for a costly private tour. There were a number of posts from 2010 – 2015 about a few different yellow-eyed penguin colonies.

To see the penguins coming home from the ocean we had to be in a good spot about an hour before sunset, so we went to scope out a place. The first place we went was Shag Point, which we read had a penguin hide. When we got there, not only was there no penguin hide, but we could not even find any warning signs about not disturbing the penguin colony. It appeared that the colony was gone.

Next we went to the Katiki Point Lighthouse, a location which we had read had a healthy yellow-eyed penguin colony and an observation hide. When we arrived there, we found there was no hide, no mention of a penguin colony, and the place closed at 5 pm, well before sunset.

So, we hopped back in the van and raced back to Bushy Beach, by Oamaru, and went to the penguin hide there. The path down to the beach was closed off with a sign saying that no access was allowed in the morning or evening. This was a good sign. We then went to a hide high up on a cliff overlooking the beach, and found a bunch of other people waiting. We watched for quite awhile as no penguins materialized out of the ocean.

After deciding to leave, we walked into a “penguin advocate”, a local volunteer in a yellow vest who kept an eye on tourists and made sure that penguins were given the space they needed. She sadly informed us that the colony at Bushy Beach used to have had something like 30 or 40 penguins, but had now declined down to only 7 individuals. And none of them had been seen for a few days. But then she turned and pointed way down the beach, and we saw one lone penguin walking up the sand. It was very sad.

We headed back to our holiday park distraught by the fate of the poor yellow-eyed penguins. We read about several factors putting pressure on these birds: introduced mammalian predators; increased commercial fishing (and thus less available penguin food); and tourism. We read about terrible things like tourists picking up penguins (UGH!), and using flashes to take photos, which damages the penguins’ eyesight. If a penguin gets scared near its nesting site, it will abandon it forever.

The next day we headed down the coast to Dunedin, which according to posts from the same 2010-2015 date range had a number of yellow-eyed penguin colonies that could be visited for free. One was supposed to have a hide, while another had large sand dunes where you could keep a ways back from the beach.

We drove out to the Otago Peninsula to continue our penguin quest. Yes, we could just sign up for a guided tour, but ever since our amazing Glacier Bay experience, we had been trying to recreate the wildlife connection we felt with the grizzlies. So, we figured it was worth one more shot.

Our main objective was Victory Beach, which was a 45 minute walk from a remote parking lot, but sounded like it had the best odds. By the time we got there, it was very grey and drizzly, with the weather forecast showing a high chance of rain. Not having much in the way of warm clothing, we headed out with our light fleeces, rain jackets, hiking pants and hiking boots.

As we approached the beach, the deluge began. And as we crossed through the sand dunes, the wind picked up, blowing rain at us at an almost 90 degree angle. We were soaked in about 5 minutes, and it was only about 8 or 9 degrees. We walked out on to the beach, and the wind got even worse. After a short hike, looking out for penguins, we decided that we had to turn back. The weather was awful, there was no shelter and we were going to freeze, and the beach was huge. We had no idea where the penguins were supposed to be (if there were any left) and there didn’t seem to be good viewing spots where we could keep off the sand to avoid scaring penguins away, without having to push through the sodden bushes topping the dunes.

So, we beat a hasty retreat, warmed back up in the van, and drove to Sandfly Bay. Sandfly Bay was supposed to have a penguin viewing hide, but when we got there we read a sign saying that it was shut down due to storm damage. Sounds about right – we headed home empty-handed.

The next day we signed up for a tour with Elm Wildlife Tours. We read that they had a partnership with some local landowners and had spent 9 years nurturing a yellow-eyed penguin colony by planting trees that yellow-eyed penguins like, and trying to keep out predators.

They took us on a tour of this private reserve, and we saw a lot of yellow-eyed penguins from the penguin hides.

At one hide, we were no more than 5 or 6 feet away from a breeding pair, though we learned that they had recently lost their chick to a stoat or weasel.

We also saw a bunch of the world’s rarest sea lion, the New Zealand sea lion, and a cute colony of New Zealand fur seals.

This made us think a bit differently about wildlife tours, because in this case the operator had played a large role in conservation of the animals, and by keeping access restricted and educating tour participants on proper wildlife etiquette had kept overzealous tourists from scaring off the animals. We were happy to spend our money to contribute to their efforts.

Unfortunately this is what things seem to be coming to in today’s Instagram-driven world, where selfies up close with wildlife garner hundreds of likes and followers, regardless of whether the taking of said photos may involve stressing or harming the wildlife.As long people value social media likes over the wellbeing of wildlife, it probably needs to be this way: all known penguin colonies protected, and public access restricted or forbidden. Sad, but true.

Queenstown

By the time we got to Queenstown, we were exhausted and just needed to unwind. We ignored the plethora of flashy jetboat tours, bungee jumping excursions, canyoning adventures, and skydiving expeditions, opting instead to focus on two things: eating and relaxing.

As we wandered about Queenstown, we saw a restaurant with a huge lineup going down the sidewalk. Fergburger. We had heard of this place, but we were a bit suspicious…was it over-hyped, or worth the wait?

We decided we might as well live a little, so we got in line. Thirty minutes later, we had in our hands two of the most wonderful looking burgers we have ever seen. Bryan went with a classic cheeseburger (with lettuce, tomato, onion, aioli, and ketchup), while Lisa went with the Holier than Thou, containing tempura tofu, spicy satay, coconut & coriander sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber, snowpea shoots, and aioli.

We found a park bench to sit on, and each of us bit into nothing less than the best burger we have ever eaten. Here are Bryan’s thoughts (Lisa wants everyone to know she had nothing to do with what follows).

Not only did they nail the flavours, but the textures were perfect. The burger patty was ever so juicy and bursting with flavour, the veggies gave the perfect amount of crunch, and the bun was a sublime blend of crunchy toasting and slightly chewy goodness. It’s hard to do it justice with words. Think of the greatest piece of music ever written, which is clearly Iron Maiden’s Hallowed Be Thy Name. Think of the song as it approaches the rampaging climax. Biting into the bun – the guitar solos… Dave Murray climbing up and down the fretboard with his signature mix of wild abandon and smooth legato, Adrian Smith, always calm and in control, working through his carefully constructed trademark blend of arpeggios and tapping sequences. Crunching through the juicy tomato, crispy lettuce, crunchy and savoury red onion – the twin guitar harmonies carrying the familiar refrain to a pounding crescendo. And finally, biting into the heavenly patty, releasing the succulent juice and perfectly seasoned beef flavour – Bruce screaming out “Yeah, yeah, yeah, HALLOWED BE THY NAME!”

Anyway, Fergburger was the highlight of Queenstown. Other than that, we didn’t do a whole lot, but we needed every minute of unwinding to prepare for Fiordland National Park…


2 thoughts on “Exploring New Zealand’s South Island

  1. Wow. That’s a lot of activity and tours throughout New Zealand. Swimming with the fur seals sounded interesting – was swimming with sharks a secondary benefit? I’m only assuming that with my ladder of inference – I hold a belief sharks like fur seals – not to swim with them but for other reasons. 🙂

  2. I’ve never seen someone compare eating a burger to a song composition. First off, the greatest song is highly suspect. Second, you need to sell this script to McDonald’s ASAP! It’ll be next years Super Bowl commercial, Iron Maiden and all 🤘

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