New Zealand South Island road trips: Kaikoura, Punakaiki, Otago, Mackenzie Basin, Akaroa

Our one-week journey across the South Island of New Zealand started with a day in Christchurch. Christchurch, or Ōtautahi, in Maori is the most populous city of the South Island, with more than 340,000 inhabitants. The city of Christchurch is slowly recovering from the devastation caused by major earthquakes in 2011 but even now in 2013, the damage is still apparent in a number of areas. Driving along the coast towards the south, it’s possible to admire breathtaking scenery in the form of coastal cliffs, rich vegetation and unspoiled beaches. Christchurch Botanic Gardens are one of the most famous attractions in this city.
The Gardens are renowned, not just for their endemic and foreign flora, but also for the numerous artworks scattered throughout the grounds. About 180 kilometres north of Christchurch is the little town of Kaikoura. In Maori, the name Kaikoura means “meal of crayfish”. This settlement was actually once a centre for the whaling industry. Although the crayfish industry plays
a role in the economy of the region, the town has now become a popular tourist destination, mainly for whale watching. During our whale watching excursion, we saw two giant sperm whales, New Zealand Fur Seals, pods of Dusky Dolphins, and three types of Albatross, including the Gibson’s, Northern Royal and Shy albatrosses. In addition to sperm whales, other whale species can also be seen depending upon the season. We found the boat staff to be very well prepared
in answering our questions about marine life, and the videos displayed during the cruise were a good introduction
to the waters of the Kaikoura coast. Kaikoura beaches are populated by colonies of Southern fur seals. They differ from true seals because
they are smaller and have external ear flaps. At Ohau Stream Walkway and Waterfall, a permanent colony of baby seals
takes refuge in the freshwater mountain stream. They spend most of the day playing in the running water, descending to the beach every three days to be fed by their mothers until they reach maturity. The unique variety of marine life that
characterises the Kaikoura coastline is currently under potential threat from plans by Big Oil to build a deep sea rig off the coast of New Zealand. In a big step backwards for their green credentials, the government of New Zealand supports
this initiative, although their decision to gag local people by prohibiting protestation is a clear indicator that something untoward is taking place. Take away free speech, and you take away faith and credibility. The disturbance that oil drilling entails could drive away the whales that are the mainstay of Kaikoura’s tourism industry. Moreover, drilling in a seismically active area at depths never attempted before is an experiment that also puts the area at risk of an environmental disaster. The egress of oil into this environment could irreparably damage the delicate equilibrium of marine and coastal life in this region forever. If you get the impression that Kaikoura is sparsely populated, wait till you see the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. As we drove from Kai-koh-ra towards Westport,
we encountered the most wild and bucolic scenery of our trip. Woodpecker Bay features perhaps the most
stunning and unspoiled beaches on the Tasman Sea coast. Halfway between Westport and Greymouth is a single village, called Punakaiki, famous for its Pancake Rocks and Blowholes.
The Pancake Rocks are a heavily eroded limestone terrane, where ocean swells burst through several vertical blowholes during the high tides.
Naturally, we arrived during a low tide, but the scenery was no less spectacular for it. The beauty of New Zealand’s South Island is not limited to its coastlines and marine life. A mountain chain crosses the island from top to bottom, the highest peak being Mount Cook, at 3,754m. The two largest glaciers are the Franz Joseph and Fox glaciers. Safety barriers discourage visitors
from approaching the glaciers too closely, but with licensed guides, it’s possible to hike across the glaciers by land approach, helicopter or even ice plane. In the Alpine regions, it’s not uncommon to encounter Keas. The Kea is the world’s only alpine parrot, and has been deemed one of the most intelligent and curious of all birds on earth. We found one at Franz Josef glacier car park
and were stunned by how cheeky and comical this parrot can be. Keas are attracted by the prospect of food scraps. Their curiosity leads them to peck at and carry away unguarded items of clothing, or to pry apart the rubber fittings of cars. Once very common, Keas are now endangered, as they were formerly demonised as killers of sheep,
leading to bounties that saw their numbers plummet, from hundreds of thousands to just a few thousand today. Fortunately, Keas are now strictly protected, and making a slow comeback. 300 km south of Greymouth is Haast. On the way to Haast, just after the Waita River, is the Curly Tree Whitebait Company.
Not only can you buy fresh whitebait here, they’ll also cook it for you on the spot in the form of whitebait fritters, which makes for a healthy local delicacy. New Zealand whitebait are unlike those eaten in Europe.
They are the juvenile stage of certain small, freshwater fish that mature and live as adults in rivers. The eggs of these fish are swept down to the ocean where they hatch. the young fry then move back up their home rivers in the form of whitebait.
New Zealand whitebait are caught in the lower reaches of the rivers using small,
open-mouthed hand-held nets. A kilo of locally sourced whitebait costs about $80 straight out of the net, so if you see it for less, such as at a supermarket, chances are that it isn’t a local product. National delicacies are best accompanied by good quality grape juice.
New Zealand doesn’t need to import such things, as the central Otago region is famous for producing award-winning wines.
We went for a wine tasting at the Wild Earth Outdoor Kitchen & Cellar Door,
where we were served a tapas-like selection of Lamb, Venison, confit of Hare, Mussel, Salmon and aubergine dishes on a long wooden stave, many of them smoked in retired Pinot Noir Wine Barrels. The dishes were paired with 5 complementary Wild Earth Wines, making for a truly memorable occasion. We then stopped at the Gibbston Valley Cheesery to taste a platter of assorted Kiwi cheeses in their sunny front garden. Had it not been raining torrentially, the following day would have been spent taking a scenic flight from Wanaka to Milford Sound
to enjoy the spectacular views of the mountains, lakes and fiords of the Fiordland National Park. Instead, we headed towards Tekapo, passing by the fairy-tale, turquoise coloured Lake Pukaki. Its colour is so otherworldly that it looks almost unreal.
40 minutes drive from Lake Pukaki is Lake Tekapo, of a similarly crazy shade of blue. This area is renowned among astronomers as it hosts the Mount John University Observatory,
one of the darkest spots in the world from which to observe the skies. Back in Christchurch, we made a last trip out to Akaroa, just south of Christchurch on the Banks Peninsula. The peninsula is comprised of the remnants of two large shield volcanoes, and a large inlet offering safe harbour has formed where the eroded rim of the caldera has fallen below sea level.
We booked a two-hour voyage with Black Cat Cruises to experience the majestic scenery and wildlife around this bay. Hector’s Dolphins, a New Zealand native and the world’s smallest ocean going dolphin are the main attraction. In addition, yellow-eye and Little Blue penguins, seals and other seabirds – that nest in the many sea caves and volcanic cliffs of the area –
are just a few of the animals which you might spot. Akaroa is in itself a historic little village. Here, some of the houses and the streets retain the names and characteristic features of the first French settlers, as well as those of the English settlers that followed. The beauty of New Zealand’s South Island
certainly seems to permeate the character of the people who inhabit it. Our journey would not have been possible
without the help of our New Zealander friends and their families, who kindly hosted and accompanied us across the pristine landscapes of this truly remarkable island. We have yet to visit the North Island, but so far, New Zealand is a country not to be missed.

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