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New Zealand - October 2017


South Island

Christchurch (The Quake City!)

This is the largest city on the South Island and the third most-populous city behind Auckland and Wellington. Agriculture is the historic mainstay of Christchurch's economy.
The city suffered a devastating series of earthquakes between September 2010 and early 2011. On 4 September 2010, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Christchurch and the central Canterbury region, six months later on 22 February 2011, a second earthquake measuring magnitude 6.3 struck again the city. Although of lower magnitude, the intensity and violence of the ground shaking destroyed the urban area and killed 185 people. 1,500 buildings had been demolished, leading to an ongoing recovery and rebuilding project. The town is today a big construction site with its city center dispersed on several locations and streets interrupted by work-sites. Walking or driving downtown is still difficult due to the many detours and closed roads  6 years’ on.
In spite of all these, there are a couple of very lovely bars and fine restaurants. We found one bar (Casa Publica) offering hundreds of excellent rums from all over the world, including from Guadeloupe (Bielle brut de fût 55 NZD / 34 € for 3 cl)! Francesca Italian Kitchen serving fabulous Italian meals like or better than in Italy! The selection of craft beers at The Institution is great. Moreover, there is also one fantastic NZ cheese maturing and cheese selling shop: Canterbury Cheesemongers.

Christchurch (latitude 43° S) has a long history of involvement in Antarctic exploration as a departure point for expeditions. Christchurch International Airport serves as the major base for the New Zealand, Italian and United States Antarctic programs.
We felt the climate in Christchurch as sub-antarctic and similar to Kerguelen with strong cold winds and we had to adapt quickly from 1 clothing layer to 5 layers including a hood! However, for the locals it’s a different thing – they’re totally feeling spring’s coming: the girlies are in hot pants and bare legs like in tropical Cairns! Can’t believe it...
Despite the low temperatures, the spring is well advanced, the flowers are blooming and trees are in a magnificent blossom!

Today we picked-up our camper: it’s a Toyota Hiace from Britz with 159’738km! We spent the whole day loading our vehicle with all our stuff but also to clean it, up to our high standards, of course … it will be our sweet home for the next two months! At the beginning, we were quite disappointed as the vehicle appeared to be smaller than expected from the internet images. In fact, it’s smaller than the Toyota Hilux we had in Australia. We have now only 4.8 m2 living area (kitchen, storage, sleeping, sitting). On the other hand, we wanted something agile and quick, not one of those huge monsters of 8-9 meters length blocking the road to all other users! … 

Mission complete, our home is ready for the adventure: tomorrow we go to Akaroa.


Christchurch - Akaroa – Geraldine (320 km and 3 days travel) 

Akaroa is a charming small town on the Banks Peninsula, set on a sheltered harbor in the French Bay and is a popular resort town. Many Hector's dolphins can be found within the harbor, and boat tours are a major tourist attraction.
It’s the only settlement founded by the French in New Zealand (1838 - Port Louis-Philippe) and the French influence is reflected in many local place names. The Akaroa Tourist Office as well as the municipality have the French flag included in their logo. The area is producing fine wines, olive oil, king salmon, lavender and cheese.
The best grilled salmon is at Murphy’s corner (the owner is also the fisherman!). The best fish and chips we had since we arrived down under. The best hand crafted cheese can be bought but also viewed at Barry’s Bay. We loaded our orange campervan with many delicacies...
On our way to Geraldine, we stayed overnight at Straight-8-Estate, a family-owned vineyard. Mary and James are very welcoming hosts and fabulous winemakers, especially the Pinot Noir Rosé and the Riesling! They gave us insider tips for our trip. We will certainly stop there again on our way back from the South.
In Rakaia, we followed the river banks to approach the Southern Alps and then took the scenic route 72 down to Geraldine. Geraldine is a lovely town with a country village atmosphere, with majestic old forests (Talbot Forest), early settlers cottages, little arts and crafts corners.
Talbot Forest Cheese is named after the last remaining bits of a huge native forest that used to cover much of mid Canterbury. The shop stocks most of their delicious range of specialty cheeses and you can watch the skills of the cheese maker in the factory from the shop's viewing window.
Beside being the gateway to the lakes in the central Mackenzie Basin and the beginning of the Starlight Highway to Tekapo's and Aoraki, Geraldine was the perfect place to stay over night and break our journey.


Geraldine - Oamaru - Moeraki – Dunedin (235 km and 4 days travel) 

Due to the bad weather, we had to change our travel plans again and went to the East coast.
The entire region along the scenic route 72 has lush green pastures where countless sheep and cows are grazing. It reminds us to Ireland.
Oamaru is a pretty small town with intact neo-classical buildings and harbor. The harbor is home not only to an old wooden wharf but also to hundreds of blue penguins that waddle ashore at dusk. Unfortunately, it’s no longer a natural nesting area as there’s a stadium-like seating to stare at those small birds living now in wooden boxes! So, instead, we went south to Bushy Beach to try spotting the world’s rarest yellow-eyed penguins. A short and enjoyable walk along the cliffs leads to an observation point where you can see the entire shoreline. But we were too early and the penguins were still off-shore fishing.
Because it was too cold to visit the local brewery, we preferred The New Zealand Whisky Collection Cellar Door where we could taste whiskies distilled from what was once the world southern most distillery (Willowbank distillery in Dunedin, closed in 1997). They have an excellent selection. They are planning to restart the distillery in few years’ time. 

In Moeraki, there are the world-known spherical Moeraki Boulders. They’ve been perfectly rounded over millions of years and are strewn across the shore of Koekohe Beach. They’re best seen at low tide but the downside is the crowd.

South of the Moeraki Village, at Katiki Point, a couple of kekeno (fur seal) and a colony of the rare hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin) are waiting for you. We were very lucky to see one adult yellow-eyed penguin jumping along the cliffs during the day and very close to us. Normally, they are coming ashore at dusk.
All Tourist Information Offices and brochures are listing all conservation sites for penguins. However, they don’t mention that those sites are fenced and not accessible! You drive tens of kilometers to see a fence and a sign mentioning that it’s against the law to proceed further! We are fully in favor of protection sites but it would be better to avoid mentioning everywhere to go and see the wildlife when actually you cannot see it!
The Otago Peninsula is a definite highlight of the region: it’s one of the few places in the country to boast such a diverse range of wildlife, from frolicking seal pups and lazy sea lions to thriving populations of rare yellow-eyed penguins and northern royal albatrosses.
The royal albatrosses can only be seen with a guided tour to the observatory and nesting place. The area is completely fenced and built. As we saw them in their very natural habitat on Crozet, we did not stop there.
Neither did we take the tour to see the little Blue Penguins because they’re living, like in Oamaru, in wooden cases with people watching them from a stadium-like stage. We preferred to take the tour at the Penguin Place, a private conservation reserve dedicated to helping the endangered yellow eyed penguins. There, you have the unique opportunity to view natural penguin behavior through a complex system of trenches (like during WW I) and viewing hides. They have around 25 pairs nesting on the reserve.
During this period, the penguins are breeding with the eggs hatching between now and November. They will then be nursing their chicks during the summer months. Hence, it’s quite difficult to observe them during this time. The yellow eyed penguin, the rarest of all penguins, is timid and rather solitary. It doesn’t live in colonies and needs to have its own undisturbed space. Around 75% of this rare species disappeared due to various causes in the last years. 

The magnificent Sandfly Beach, named after the sand which given the windy nature of this coast flies from the sand dunes surrounding the bay, is our New Zealand highlight since arriving here. The beach is a popular site for the Hooker's Sea Lion to bask on the sand.

The city of Dunedin is the best preserved Victorian and Edwardian city in the southern hemisphere. Dunedin is the old Gaelic word for Edinburgh. The Octagon is the heart of the city with a mix of shops, restaurants, cafés and bars. Dunedin has a rich history in the arts and of making art freely available for all to enjoy. The city is now embracing street art with an increasing number of blank walls being transformed into work of art by local and international artists.


Dunedin – Kaka Point – Mataura – Alexandra - Cromwell (460 km and 3 days) 

Nugget Point is one of the most iconic landforms on the Otago and Catlins coast. The headland at the end of the road from Kaka Point has a lighthouse at its tip, surrounded by numerous rocky islets (The Nuggets).
The SH92 (part of the Southern Scenic Route) along the Catlins is a very panoramic drive with little traffic and several view points of the inland as well as of the rugged coast. The most beautiful drive however is the Fortrose – Mataura Road stretching across incredibly green and lush pastures with millions of sheep, lambs, calves and cows: you feel like being in the Jura hills.
Overnight, we camped at the multi-awarded Retro Organics cheese factory. The farm processes the organic milk from their own Jersey cows into fully natural products. The cheese and yoghourt factory is on farm and only 75 meters away from the milking shed.
Another change of travel plans due to a large stormy weather front coming-in on the west coast. Instead of going to the rainy Te Anau, we decided to move to Alexandra, the sunniest spot in New Zealand, and wait there until the weather gets acceptable, if at all possible.
While driving to Alexandra, the landscape went from the incredibly green lush Jura-like pastures to a reddish-green hilly area, it seems that there is less rain here. We crossed the Otago Fruitlands: a series of orchards with apples, apricots, nectarines, peaches trees in blossom...
Alexandra is located at the junction of two rivers, the Manuherikia and Clutha and surrounded by a distinctive “moonscape of rocky tors”.
Central Otago is truly a world of difference with vast undulating landscapes, rugged snow-capped mountains, clear blue rivers and deep gorges. Wild thyme colors the hills purple … So, we stopped to collect enough of the aromatic thyme for the remaining of our travel. It’s incredible to see all these hills completely covered by wild thyme! 

Guess what, we’re using our outdoor chairs for the first time! It‘ s true, it’s really sunny and warm in Alexandra.
Due to some breakdowns, we traveled today only to Cromwell (at the 45o south). So, we used the time to visit few wineries in the area. Wine is all around in Cromwell and several wineries are located in the middle of the township! As such, we could visit five wineries in one day with the last one by foot! 

There are 175 vineyards in Central Otago and the commercial release of wine started in 1987. The production is focused on pinot noir (75%), followed by pinot gris (12%), 4% of Riesling, 3% sauvignon blanc, 3% chardonnay, 1% gewürztraminer and 2% others.
Multi award winning Wooing Tree next to the town was our first visit and all of their wines are very good! Blondie, a unique blanc de noir made 100% from pinot noir is exceptional!
Our second visit was the nearby Scott Base, this vineyard belongs to the winemaking pioneer Allan Scott located in Marlborough. They have an aromatic and well-balanced pinot gris. We will visit this winery when in Marlborough together with Moa Craft Beers, founded by Allan Scott’s son
Josh. Downtown Cromwell, we went to Quartz Reef and then to Bannockburn to Akarua Cellar Door where we sampled wines and bubbles including their excellent ice wine (late harvest of riesling and gewürztraminer). The last stop was at the top range winery Carrick located in a beautiful place with breathtaking view of the river and the snow-capped mountains. Our preference went to the Bannockburn Riesling 2015 with a pleasant hint of grapefruit and mandarine ... awesome! The winery is also producing a tasty green extra virgin olive oil. The restaurant offers an interesting choice of very fine lunch menus, nearly Michelin-style!


Queenstown – Milford Sound – Te Anau – Wanaka (635 km and 6 days) 

Queenstown is a mix of Zermatt & St. Moritz. If you don’t need to buy unnecessary stuff then don’t stop there.
South of Queenstown, the road follows the shores of Lake Wakatipu with great panoramic views similar to the Lake of Como (Italy) in winter time. From the lake end, the road follows large valleys with pastures for sheep, cows and deers until Te Anau. Thereafter, you drive along the shores of Lake Te Anau to Te Anau Downs. The landscape then becomes more and more alpine with the most spectacular point just before the Holmer Tunnel.
Welcome to Milford Sound! Today’s menu (same as everyday): heavy rain, snow down to 800 meters, strong gale with maximum temperature in the afternoon of 6 degrees passed 45 degrees South. We don’t wanna know what it will be tonight.
Tomorrow morning, we’re on our cruise and surprise, surprise, the weather forecast is heavy rain and strong gale… no choice but to wear our Iceland-proof gear!
Against any weather forecast, it’s blue sky for our cruise in Milford Sound! It rains 200 days per year here, and the remaining days it’s windy and cloudy but lucky us, we have sunshine! It won’t be a “classical” Milford Sound cruise with rain and fog but one with wonderful blue waters surrounded by high snow-capped mountains. Our luck didn’t stop there as we saw the rare tawaki (Fiordland crested penguins) as well as dozens of bottlenose dolphins coming to say hello. The only disappointment are the waterfalls having less water than during a rainy day!

The Kea is the world’s only alpine parrot. It’s only found in the forests and mountains of the South Island. We have seen many times these very adaptive and curious birds … they understand immediately your social behavior and assess in a probabilistic way if they can get food from you or not.

The Kea is listed as an endangered species and the size of the wild population is declining rapidly (currently estimated at less than 5000 individuals). About 150’000 Kea were culled between 1870 and 1970 because they injured sheep. Kea are very social, playful and are rated as one of the most intelligent birds. A recent study (Nature, 3 March 2020), shows that Kea can integrate information across different cognitive domains. The results provide evidence that true statistical inference can be found outside of the great apes, and that intelligence can evolve in brains with a highly different structure from primates. 

On our way back, we stopped again at the fabulous Lake Wakatipu with its pristine water (the New Zealand version of the Lake of Como), this time with sun! Indeed, our second day in a row with sunshine! 

We then took the alpine Crown Range road to Wanaka. Wow, it’s like driving on the old Saint Gotthard road. The landscape is really alpine here with the mountains covered by snow and the brownish pastures: a big change from the perfect green we enjoyed further south.
Wanaka is very different from its sister Queenstown and simply much better! We cannot understand why the crowd is going to Queenstown ... Wanaka has a nicer lake, more amazing mountains, it’s also less commercialized and the town is very pretty! We will surely stay longer here! The area around Wanaka is a sub-region of the Central Otago wine region with several top wineries and vineyards. Another treat...

Lake Hawea is of incredible water clarity and cleanliness: you can see each pebble even at 10 meter depth. The color of the lake is amazing from turquoise to deep blue, it’s a fairy-tale landscape. The best lakefront is located at the beautiful Scotts Beach where the surrounding mountains showcase an unforgettable scenery.
When in Wanaka, you must go to the Rhyme and Reason Brewery. This is a great micro brewery with a fantastic range of brews and really nice people. We especially appreciated the gorgeous frozen (icebock beer) black IPA as well as the imperial stout! And for our last evening, the cherry on the cake was the Raspberry Cook food truck serving exquisite food at a ridiculous low price.





Wanaka – Omarama – Aoraki – Tekapo – Springfield – Arthur’s Pass (630 km and 5 days) 

We are in luck, again beautiful day. We went to the Clay Cliffs near Omarama, giant clay flutes located on a private property costing 5 NZD. The view is like a majestic sand-castle with hundreds of magical towers. Back at our campground, we had the pleasure to enjoy a glass of wine from the Rippon winery under the sun in our camping chairs. It was hot!!!
We woke up with a morning drizzle. The forecast for today announces rain early in the afternoon. We’ll try our luck again so we’re heading towards Lake Tekapo. On the way, we stopped at the High Country Salmon in Twizel first for the amazing views of the mountain range with the lake and also for the smoked salmon… The clouds are clearing up and the sun is coming out. It seems that it’ll be a beautiful day. So, we decide to go to Aoraki/ Mount Cook instead of Tekapo. Wise decision...
From White Horse Hill Campground (760m), we climbed to Sealy Tarns (1250 m) for breathtaking panoramic views of Mount Sefton (3157 m) and Mount Cook/ Aoraki (3754 m). The weather was simply incredible with a blue sky and a clear view. Overnight, we stayed at the campground situated at the base of the mountains: it was quite windy with the camper shaking all the time but we were able to sleep.
Route SH73 traverses the Southern Alps coast-to-coast in an incredible showcase of pristine mountains and rivers. At Castle Hill, you can admire a huge limestone formation standing out on green hills and resembling to the walls of an immense castle. There are no official walks across the boulders, just a network of informal narrow trails leading through this intricate labyrinth. Surely, one of the highlights on our journey through the South Island.
Via the Great Alpine highway, Arthur Pass village is a departure point for many hiking and trekking (tramping in NZ) trails. Unfortunately our luck came to an end ... after 5 beautiful sunny days, the weather turned back to “normal” from a kiwi’s standpoint: cold (no more than 10 degrees) and rainy although in Spring. Therefore, we were forced to stop our hike and return to our camper under the rain – frozen cold :-(


Arthur’s Pass – Franz Josef Glacier – Fox Glacier (256 km and 4 days) 

To avoid the joys of the rain for the next couple of days, we went south to Franz Josef instead of camping in Hokitika. Thus, hoping to cross quickly the bad weather front.
It’s a long rainy day, an endless real tropical rain but with temperatures lower than 10 degrees! We closely monitor the rain radar to catch any changes to the depression and to adjust our plans. Tomorrow, it should be over!!! Crossed fingers…If confirmed, we’ll gain one day of precious sunshine!
A ray of sunshine peering through our camper van’s window this morning! A quick look at the rain forecast and it seems that the rain is over with totally clear sky at midday. Great - we can go hiking today to admire the Franz Josef glacier. So, we leave around 09:30 for the Robert
Point track, a 3.5 hour return challenging hike. We’re excited: the sky is blue and the sun is shining through the lush rainforest. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last… after less than 1 hour walk, we have to put our raincoat on :-(
We hope that the forecast will be right as it’s tricky to walk on the exposed track directly on rocks dangling in the open… It reminds us of the Sentier Augustave in La Réunion with exposed sections, steps in the open and narrow bridges hanging into the void.
After 4 hours, we are finally up there on the platform facing the glacier. Just on time to catch that glimpse of blue sky and sunshine atop the blue ice! It was really worth it...
And our luck is back ! We have 3 days in a row of unexpected sunshine and blue sky for the region to make the most of Glacier country.
We drive down to Fox Glacier and walk the short track up to the view point. Although Fox glacier is less steep and closer to sea level, it’s less beautiful and imposing than Franz.
After Fox, Lake Matheson and its famous reflections of snow-capped mountains. Not really easy to immortalize the perfect reflections on camera when the lake is not still…
Nevertheless, the hike around the lake is eerie. There is such diversity of ferns, mosses and lichens in the NZ forest with all shades of green that you feel like being in a magical forest where you expect seeing elves and trolls coming out of the wood at the blink of an eye...

Anyway, chasing the sun: we’re getting good at it !!!!




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