New Zealand: the South Island

Bucket List! I can’t believe we made it to the bottom of the world in New Zealand. We had a total of 5 weeks, both islands to cover, and 2 groups of friends to visit and hang out with along the way. Woohoo! I’ll start our story on the South Island; we actually flew into Auckland, hightailed it to Wellington, then caught the ferry to Picton after a few days visiting a friend.

The Interislander ferry was a smooth, sunny ride on gentle seas. We birded off the decks the whole 3.5 hours, and saw Fluttering Shearwaters, Fairy Prions, and our first Albatross (White-capped)! Sweeeeet. We even spotted a mola in the waters as we coasted on by. It was pretty magical entering Marlborough Sound, it felt like we were in a dream.

When we arrived, the Highway from Picton to Christchurch was still closed more than a year after the earthquake, so instead of a 2.5 drive to Kaikoura we took the long way around. That means over 8 hrs on winding roads with stop and go traffic, taking 2 full days – Yikes! But we enjoyed the drive, and stopped for a picnic at Lake Rotoiti, with amazing mountains, busloads of tourists, and a couple new birds: New Zealand scaup and Black-billed gulls. The gulls were banded, and the boys had fun reading the band combos, which we will send to the researcher (we’re such science geeks).


We thoroughly enjoyed our night at a little campground along the river in Murchison, where we had an amiable host, free kayaks and fishing gear, and we saw New Zealand Fantails flycatching over the water, and had a close encounter with a Weka.



A rainy drive to Kaikoura couldn’t dampen our spirits, since we were all pretty stoked to get there for our pelagic tour with Albatross Encounters in the morning. The weather cleared up overnight, which means there were post-storm swells out at sea – thank goodness for motion sickness tablets – but the sun peeked through and we had a terrific morning birding with a great guide. 14 species of birds, including 4 petrels ( Northern Giant-Petrel, Cape, Westland, Gray-faced), 3 Albatrosses (Salvin’s, Wandering, White-capped), 3 Shearwaters (Hutton’s, Short-tailed, Buller’s), plus gannets, cormorants, gulls, and terns. Owen has more to say about this in an upcoming post, I’ll let him fill in the details.


Kaikoura at dawn

The rain came down even harder, so we diverted to an Airbnb on a farm outside of Christchurch, where we got to meet the locals: a wonderful family with 2 boys who played board games with our kids all evening, and their animals: sheep, chickens, and angora rabbits. Great fun, all around.


Farmstay Fun!


The drive from Kaikoura to Christchurch

Heading inland towards the mountains I was SO EXCITED. I’ve seen so many images of the area on social media, and when we started encountering roadside lupines, and you could see the snow-capped mountains in the distance, and the blue lakes appeared, I was giddy with joy. We stopped at the Church of the Good Shepherd, and then at Lake Pukaki where we got our first views of Mt. Cook.



There aren’t a lot of campgrounds for tenters around, so we found a spot in Twizel (we had to share the space with a bajillion sand flies, which are like black flies back home but their bite is worse!), and after a visit to the river to soak our toes (and where we saw Common Redpolls), we ate some dinner then went back to the lakeshore to await the sunset. It was stunning, with the fading pink sun shining on the glaciers of Mt. Cook. This area is a dark sky reserve, AND it was the peak of the geminoid meteor shower, so we waited until dark in the hopes of seeing stars and meteors. Unfortunately the clouds rolled in and obscured the sky, but we had a wonderful peaceful evening; a great memory.


Mt. Cook at sunset, from the end of Lake Pukaki


One of the great New Zealand walks is the Hooker Valley, which follows the river for 5 kms one way, over 3 suspension bridges, and ends up at the lake at the foot of Mt. Cook, with icebergs calving off the Cook glacier washing up at your feet. It was as good as it sounds – we were all in great spirits, and were in awe of the landscape around us.

By the time we arrived in Lake Wanaka, we realized how tired we were of the pace – hours each day in the car, with every night in a new place. We slowed down and had a couple nights here to plan, mixed in with a visit to Puzzling World (which we all loved – 3D pictures, sculptural illusions, and a giant maze which we solved brilliantly, without fighting!), some ice-cream at the lake, sunset at the Wanaka Tree, shopping in town, and lots of time on the trampoline. It felt good to ignore nature temporarily 🙂


It was here that we were forced to decide, and with heavy hearts we opted to skip Queensland, Te Anau, and Milford Sound: with limited days left on the South Island, the pace and hours of driving would be simply too much. We started out SO ambitious, wanting to see it ALL. Unfortunately, life catches up to you, and we had to make some hard decisions about what we could and could not accomplish. So we turned West instead of South, visiting the Blue Pools (that weren’t blue), Ship Creek (which had Hector’s Dolphins playing in the surf), skipping Fox Glacier (we couldn’t afford the heli flights anyway) and headed up the coast to Franz Josef.

The New Zealand summer holidays had begun, and campgrounds were filling up, prices were being raised for the week, and the trails were getting busier. But that didn’t stop us from loving it here. The west coast was like a mix between the Canadian Rockies and Hawaii, tropical but with glaciers. But what made it truly Kiwi was the alpine parrots flying around! We saw a few Kea here, way up high, and giggled with glee.

We wanted better looks at Kea, so drove up the winding mountain roads to Arthur’s Pass, but it was 8 degrees and raining sideways so we ate some hot pies (a national food here), and drove back down again…you win some, you lose some 🙂

A couple of nights in Punakaiki were bliss – we did a riverside walk amongst the tree ferns, visited the pancake rock formations, and watched the sea explode into surge pools, ate some Tip Top icecream (SO GOOD), and beachcombed at sunset. It helped that the weather was finally improving, with sunny days and not a drop of rain!

Our last South Island stop was in Kaiteriteri, the gateway to Abel Tasman park, another long-dreamed of destination that I’d heard about for years. There’s a multi-day coastal walk that sounds amazing, but we opted to give our feet a break and try something new, so we booked a day-long sea kayak tour! The four of us took two double sea kayaks, and had a guide along with us. The sun was bright, the swells were high (1.5 – 2 m), and we all had a marvelous time, checking out coves and lagoons, The parents’ arms were a bit more tired than the kids’ by the end *ahem*, but a couple of hours at sea followed by a picnic lunch and play time on the beach was just what the doctor ordered.


This 2 nights/location thing was still a fast pace, but it worked out great for us as we were able to stretch our legs and explore longer and further, which was much more relaxing and definitely more fun. We weren’t getting many new birds, and were definitely noticing the lack of biodiversity overall – hardly any spiders or dragonflies, no snakes or frogs, but New Zealand is definitely known more for it’s incredible landscapes. And we thoroughly enjoyed getting out on hikes in forests and on mountains, into the ocean and onto the beach. We had to re-calibrate our expectations, and once we started to just see the beauty in the wild instead of simply in the wildlife, we understood the appeal of this glorious land. And the best part: we were only halfway done! Three weeks on the North Island were coming up, starting with Christmas in Wellington!






One thought on “New Zealand: the South Island

  1. Love the diversity of landscape in NZ! And your photos are gorgeous! Looks like you are all more than surviving. We are missing you!
    Guess you have heard about our COLD winter…brrrrr.


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