NZ, February, 2014
Mark and Vicki are in the second month of their car camping/cabin/hostel-staying trip to New Zealand. They spent 8 weeks in NZ summer 2009. These articles concentrate on the practical rather than the details of the tourist sites. The Frenzy book that I refer to is called NZ Frenzy by Scott Cook and only available on Amazon in US. All costs below are in NZ dollars, which are pretty steady at .83 to the US dollar right now. DOC refers to Department of Conservation which is NZ's National Park and Forest Service and Smithsonian all rolled into one.)
The weather actually turned out great for our four days in Queenstown, so we could have car camped after all. We repeated the walk up Queenstown Hill from2009, but hiked from the Black Sheep Hostel. Bad idea, adds lots of climbing. Drive to the topmost parking area where there is lots of room. The other major activity we did was the Skippers Canyon jet boat. We chose this one because you not only got the jet boat ride but the 10 mile trip into the canyon. Even if you have a four wheel drive vehicle you do not want to drive it on your own--plus no rental car insurance is good for Skippers, and for good reason. We had an excellent driver for our 4 wheel 20 passenger bus but I was petrified all the way down! Had there been any room to walk I would have considered it but the road was just wide enough for the bus--great fun when we met the rafting bus! The jet boat ride was great fun and went up river far enough to see where the Ford of Bruin was filmed for LOTR (Lord of the Rings.) A lot of bang for our $119.pp buck. Maybe next time we will do the rafting. Did I mention you can spend a lot of money really fast in Queenstown!
We wanted to do the overnight cruise to Doubtful Sound and the weather report showed four clear days coming up, so we booked our quad cabin through Black Sheep and actually got a good discount from what it would have been online $320 pp instead of $375. So early Sunday morning we headed to Manapouri, which is a nice two hour drive south, much of it along the lake. You take an hour's catamaran trip across Lake Manapouri, then about an hour's bus ride to reach the 3 master sailing ship for the Doubtful Cruise. There are 10 quad share cabins on board and we shared ours with a couple from Charlottesville, Va. You spend hardly any time in the cabin anyway since the nature talk ends at 11 pm. Then we did some star gazing and the Captain said be up by 6:15 if you wanted to see the sun rise. The first afternoon you cruise to a secluded cove and can either kayak or go out in the tender with the nature guide. Then you can swim if it happens to be a rare, warm day. It was super calm so we were able to go beyond the usual turn around and out a little way into the Tasman Sea. The next morning we had thick fog for part of the cruise back. Weather is everything on these cruises so booking in advance can get you your own expensive cabin, but you may not see anything. The supper and breakfast buffets were pretty good, plus afternoon muffins and always free coffee and tea. The buffets gave us a chance to try some New Zealand specialities like pavlova that we wouldn't order on our own.
We called ahead from Queenstown for a double room at the right-in-town YHA Hostel in Te Anau. Our room was in its own building with 3 other rooms and had a private kitchen, dining area and shower/toilet block for just those 4 rooms. Very nice for $70. A Dutch man we spoke to had to take a $90 room just for himself as all the dorm and single rooms in town were booked up. Things are much busier overall then when we were here in 2009 in the middle of the great worldwide recession, and reservations were not such an issue. New Zealand has been completely discovered by the Europeans as a budget winter destination compared to their own countries. With more good weather predicted we just spent two nights and headed to Milford Sound for a day cruise.
Milford is about a two hour drive but you will want to make lots of stops either going or coming back. It is one of the world's lovely scenic drives. We were hoping to catch some afternoon rain as the sound is gorgeous when all the waterfalls are going. We had seen it that way after our Milford Trek five years ago but were too exhausted to enjoy it! This time it hadn't rained in 6 days so it was a drought in a place that gets 23 feet of rainfall per year. There are lots of cruise options but the 9am cruises are only $50 vs $70 at mid day when all the tour buses arrive from Queenstown. We tented at the Milford Lodge. We had stayed in a double room before but you have to reservations for those rooms months in advance. Even space to park a campervan sells out several days in advance and every tent site was full. This is the only place to stay in Milford and the closest DOC campgrounds are 60k away. Given the amazing sandfly population we stayed in the lounge until dark before heading for our tent. Thank all the gods that be that sandflies go home in the dark! No cell phone service here either. Tenting was $22 per person.
Driving back from Milford we made a couple of stops including the short hike up to the impressive rapids on the Lake Marian trail. Just after lunch we reached The Divide and walked up to Key Summit. Following the Frenzy book we continued on another hour (go left on nature trail and then left beyond the Lake Marian viewpoint) through some boggy but easily passable (in hiking boots) areas to the end of the ridge. There we could see four lakes and 3 river valleys, each flowing in a different direction to the sea, and also the Greenstone Valley where we had hiked from the other side of the mountains. It was also possible to pick out the Routeburn Track as it marched up the valley from Lake Mackenzie to the the Harris Saddle. That was a trek we did five years ago in a white out.
Coming back from Milford we spent four more nights in Te Anau at the Te Anau Kiwi holiday Park as it is right in town and a convenient walk to everything. (We should have bought their membership card and saved 10%, as we later stayed in several more of their accommodations. Top Ten Holiday Parks also has a card, but they are consistently more expensive than Kiwi. We were able to get Mark a hut ticket for Luxmore on the Kepler Great Walk so he did an up (1000 meters) and back. Though there was no rain while he was gone, there was an inversion and he climbed in a white out, until above it. Even when there is no rain the cloud cover can ruin a tramp or a trip to the Sounds. This area is much like hiking in the Alps. There the expense is for lifts to get to the backcountry. Here he had to take the $25 boat each way to avoid an extra 7 miles of hiking, plus the hut ticket was $54. Together we also did the day hike to Lake Manapouri which is the last part of the Kepler.
On the way back to Queenstown we passed a lovely freedom camping (wildcamping) area right along the Lake Wakapitu. It was about 25k south of QT as I remember.
Back in Queenstown we spent the afternoon browsing the stores and then strolling the Queenstown Garden. It is a small peninsular stretching into the lake that was set aside right at Queenstown's founding. As it was a warm, sunny day in the 70s, people were swimming on the little beaches and from a public raft right off shore. The center of the park had a wonderful rose garden and immense lovely trees--most English varieties of oak, cypress but even some lovely California sequoias. Many people are turned off by the hustle of Queenstown with all the expensive action activities, but if you delve below the surface it is still has lovely free places to hike and explore. We spent the night about 5 miles north turning off the road to Glenorchy to reach the DOC camp at Moke Lake. Lots and lots of folks camped there but we found a good spot near the kitchen shelter at $6 pp.
Since there was no cell service at Moke Lake we stopped in QT briefly to check email and a half hour later pulled into the free parking lot in Arrowtown that was already almost fillled. Arrowtown was a former gold mining camp and now exists strictly on tourists. But the original buildings, tiny houses, and Chinese camp are still interesting. In addition there are two LOTR sites and the lovely walk by the Arrow River. In fact you can walk or bike the 38k from here to Queenstown on the path that is part of 100k of well groomed walking and bike paths that connect the area. Heading east we stopped at the LOTR site for the Pillars of Argonath, which is right across the road from AJ Hackett's original bungy jump. The jump bridge is free and fun to watch the crazies throw themselves out into the air. To see the Pillars site turn at the sign for Cromwell Winery. Drive about 2 k on gravel road and then turn around where the road widens away from the gorge. On your way back stop by the road sign and look downstream towards the bungy site. You will recognize the spot where the pillars were CG'd into the gorge. Plus it is a great view.
On further east through Cromwell for Taris we turned onto Maiori Point Road to see the area where the LOTR race to the ford took place and the view of the Misty Mountains. There was a great deal of logging going on in the ford area and the land was for sale so it may not look like Arwen's desperate ride much longer.
In Wanaka we stopped for gas and groceries as both are expensive and in short supply in the Fox and Franz Joseph area on the west coast. The drive over the Haast pass is a lovely but lonely one past first Lake Hakewa and then Lake Wanaka. At one point the two lakes nearly touch. As we left Wanaka we noticed a nice but basic campground in Albert Town right on the river for $7pp. Since there are no DOC campgrounds near Wanaka it would make an economical stop. We continued to the Cameron Flats DOC campground near the pass. Lovely view, but the worst sandflies since Milford Sound. Probably would have been better to have stopped earlier before leaving the lakes.
On the west coast I wanted to revisit Fox Glacier and do the walk to Franz Joseph Glacier plus some other hikes and views outlined in the Frenzy book. We did get to Fox but then the weather closed in--no views for us. Stayed in a nice cabin in the renovated Holiday Top Ten Park for $70. More clouds and rain the next day so few stops on our way to Hokitika where we found every room already booked because it was the Thursday night before the start of the Ironman Coast to Coast race through Arthur's Pass. No choice but very wet tenting at the Kiwi Holiday Park. We had planned to cross Arthur's Pass but the holiday park people said it would be a mess for the next two days and nothing but rain predicted anyway. Looking at the calendar we realized we had 3 weeks before our ferry to the north island. Looking at the weather, a lot of wet was moving to the Tasman region the end of the next week so we made DOC camping reservations to start the 4 night Abel Tasman trek the next Monday. We did stop on the west coast to do the Frenzy recommended hike a Motukiekie Beach at low tide—super. And then spent the night at the Punakaiki campground so we could be at the Punakaiki rocks at high tide. Unfortunately, though the surf looked rough to us, it wasn't really going so the blowholes and surge pools were only good and not great. Weather is everything in New Zealand!
Our favorite hike in NZ last visit was the Abel Tasman. This time we decided to camp as again you have to commit a week or two in advance to stay in the huts. We stayed in a kitchen cabin before and after the hike at the Marahau Motor Camp for $70 per night. We had originally planned on staying in the the double room but to get to it you have to go through the backpacker's dormitory, so we upgraded. We were lucky they had space as there are only 5 cabins. Many people prefer to stay in Motueke as that is where the closest grocery, etc. is. Our plan was for 4 nights going all the way to Wharwharangi like last time. We bailed a day early for two reasons—no rain but morning fog left the tent and everything else saturated and a wash out on the trail just before Totaranui meant an added hour for us over very steep terrain.
The AT trail is all packed sand and gravel and quite beautiful. We especially like the first day to Anchorage as there are lots of beach views and streams making their way to the sea. But it is also the most crowded section. We took the water taxi back from Totaranui for $47 pp after calling them from the campground there to change our reservation. You can get them to also carry your packs for you each day for $15 for 23 kilos. You can combine kayaking with walking but then you would miss the first day. There is only one tidal crossing that has to be planned for at Awaroa, but you need to figure it out before booking a hut or camping spot as you can only cross two hours before or after low tide. If you miss the low tide crossing at Anchorage you add about an hour (or more for us) to your day tramping the high tide track. I think that tired us out overly much. There are lots of different ways to do this hike that don't involve sleeping in the huts or camping, so if you are interested just send me an email.
We have only kayaked about 10 hours in our lives but we did rent a double kayak, $65pp, and spent one day on the water exploring the close in bays and islands around Marahau. It was very foggy but calm. Had it been windy and sunny we would have been in a heap of trouble. Five hours of paddling was a lot. By the way, all the rain that was supposed to arrive and the reason we hurried north never materialized at all.
Last time we didn't get get up to Takaka or Farewell Spit as we had to hurry south for our Milford Tramp dates, so we were anxious to explore this part of the island. It is a lovely drive but it is slow going over Takaka Hill. On the way we stopped at The Grove, highly recommended in Frenzy but barely mentioned our other guides. This short 40 minute walk was right out of Indiana Jones. No temples but instead limestone carved by the sea overgrown in NZ jungle trees, roots, and vines. Terrific! As good as what we saw at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but of course, different. We spent the night tenting ($19pp) at the Wharariki Campground right next to the parking lot for the 30 minute walk to the beach. Again, this is a place to visit at low tide to see all the wonderful arches, bridges and sea caves. But if you don't like wind, stay closer to Takaka. No sand flies but a constant blow of about 30mph and gusts that were hard to stand up against. Coming back we enjoyed more great views from Takaka Hill and took the Canaan Road near the top to see the LOTR movie site where Aragorn leads the hobbits into the wild. Chetwood Forest was an amazing place with lichen covered ghost trees and worth a look even if not a LOTR fan. In addition there is a free DOC campground there and you can take the walk to see Harwood Hole--the 11th largest sinkhole in the world. Next time for us.
Tired of being on the go, we stopped again in Nelson. This time staying in a $50 cabin in the Maitai Valley Campground about 6k from downtown. The entire valley is a park but we only stayed two nights as wifi was very spotty and the sandflies were still pretty fierce. The cabins that are part of the campgrounds seldom have full bedding. Most have pillows and a bottom sheet, but you need to have sleeping bags or such with you. Some places will rent a duvet and sheets for about $5 a day. All of them so far have had an electric heater, plugs for charging, and usually a refrigerator. Following the Frenzy book's advice east of Nelson, we headed out into Marlborough Sound spending the night tent camping at Elaine Bay DOC, $6 pp, and hiking 6 miles round trip on the Archer Track along the sound. In three hours we never saw another person or even a boat on the water and the views of the islands and sound were gorgeous. On the way back we spotted a huge fishing boat coming in to the wharf and Mark hurried ahead to see the unloading. It was filled with huge sacks of green lip mussels that they off loaded into 10 tractor trailer loads. Mark scored a free kilo and cooked up a luscious batch for dinner on only our one burner backpacking stove. Unfortunately, his overindulgence in a food he doesn't eat that often led to about a 3 hour stomach ache complete with chills. We decided not to stop at the Mussel Pot restaurant the next day! We did, however, continue the drive (now on a well maintained but windy and narrow road) out to French Pass. Glorious views of the sounds, not much traffic. There is a DOC campground at the end where we saw some pretty good sized rigs parked, so don't be too blase about the lack of traffic on the way.
According to the Frenzy book we had better views driving than we would have if we had walked the four day Queen Charlotte Track. We had planed to do it but the sandflies are still abundant so we decided to head to the northern east coast. We stopped near Blenheim at the Cloudy Bay Winery for a tasting and luckily Mark didn't like their famous sauvignon blanc, though it was $10 cheaper than anywhere else there. Between Blenheim and about 30k north of Kaikoura there is absolutely nothing but sheep and cattle grazing. We spent two nights in Kaikoura—no reasonable cabins available—tenting at $21 pp at the Alpine-Pacific Kiwi campground. This is one of the most expensive areas of the South Island, I think because it is so isolated and has such a short tourist season. The drive south of town for 20k along the coast is super, and we stopped just north of the Paua Cafe to watch an amazing huge pod of porpoises leaping and playing just offshore. Usually Mark and I aren't big animal fans, but this was special. There is also a large breeding colony of seals north of Kaikoura where we saw more seals than on all the rest of the South island put together. Plus they weren't just hauled out laying on the rocks but running around, fighting, and the pups playing in the tide pools. The coastline itself is more beautiful on the drive from south to north, but don't look for any sandy coves—this is all black pebble and rock—no fun for walking or sunbathing.
As I am finishing this we have changed our ferry reservation to go to the North Island five days earlier than planned. Had we rented a camper van, I think we could have spent another three weeks here, especially waiting out some of the bad weather so we could have driven Arthur's Pass and gone across the very far north of the island to the uninhabited north coast. The tent camping is just a pain as is trying to book reasonable cabins and working around the weather. When we are done I will write up what we have learned about camper rentals and freedom camping here and how you can do it without going broke. Hugs, Vicki