New Zealand Part 3 – The South Island

I wrote the following blog post a week before the tragic events in Christchurch occurred, ready for me to add the photos and publish. My response on hearing of the incident was one of utter disbelief and complete shock. Our experience of this country was one of beauty, love, and kindness from all we encountered. How could something like this happen to these generous and welcoming people? It seems totally incomprehensible.

I stood in Mass this morning praying alongside my children and thinking of all those families who were also praying together on that day, all those children stood next to their mothers, who were brutally murdered in cold blood. And as I tried to sing the hymn, the tears poured down my face, my heart aching for the bitter injustice of it all. Everyone should feel safe to worship in whatever way they wish. No-one should have to feel fear or persecution for what they believe in or experience the horrors of what happened that day.

And against that backdrop, the following post seems too light hearted and ebullient. But that was our experience of this country. One of happiness, joy and warmth. That is the true New Zealand. And so I’d like to share that with you.

The South Island

The final stretch of our journey around New Zealand saw us exploring the wild and breathtaking South Island in Charlie the Campervan, but this time as a family of four, having said a sad goodbye to our friends at Christchurch airport (see this post for Part 1 and this for Part 2). For a family who love the great outdoors mixed in with a lot of adventure and new experiences, I don’t think there is a better place in the world than New Zealand’s South Island. Its natural beauty is beyond compare (the pictures seriously don’t do it justice), with endless opportunity for adventure activities. Here’s what we managed to see and do during our 18 days here (which was nowhere near long enough – another trip here one day soon is definitely in order!).

Day 23: Christchurch

On our first day back together as a family, we decided the best way to help MrJ tackle his jetlag, after flying half way around the world in one go, was to get out and about in the sunshine and see the city. As an aside, it’s worth noting that he suffered much less with his jetlag than we did. Next time, I think we’d all do the journey in one long haul rather than breaking it up in Hong Kong as we did this time.

There was so much I wanted to do in and around Christchurch but with only one full day scheduled here, we could only do a small number of the things on my list. First up was Quake City, a fantastic little museum about earthquakes, showcasing why they’re so prevalent in the Canterbury area and specifically focussing on the two recent and devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. The Beans were fascinated by the exhibits, reading about topics such as liquefaction (when the shaking liquefies the ground and it bubbles up burying streets and sinking buildings) or how the Statue of the Virgin Mary inside the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrement turned 180 degrees during the 22nd Feb 2011 earthquake to face outwards and towards the city… (how spine tingling is that!).

Togetherness was the message that really shone through for me from this museum. Togetherness and resilience. They were dealt an incredibly tough blow in 2011, but together they came. There was an extraordinary response from the emergency services, international rescue teams, along with thousands of volunteers who offered their help, from construction workers, the Student Volunteer Army and the Farmy Army. A photograph of farmers using their tractors, however small, to help clear the roads of the fallen debris will forever stay in my mind.

Creativity also blossomed in the aftermath. One of our favourites was the cycle-powered cinema created by engineers on the spot where the cycle trading company had once stood, before sadly it was demolished in the earthquake. Christchurch’s residents hooked up their bikes to power old silent films, whilst local musicians performed live music composed especially for the event. Clearly then we all had to have a go on the bike used to power the short film explaining this inspiring event.

As we were nearing the end of the museum, a siren started sounding… Initially, I assumed it was just an interactive part of the museum, giving an example of an earthquake siren, but as it continued to sound (and since I was on high alert anyway given what we’d just been reading), I thought it was worth checking whether this was something to be concerned about. And yes, it was an earthquake siren, so all of us museum-goers bundled outside at the same time remarking on the irony of the situation, whilst inside feeling a little anxious given the pictures/videos we’d just viewed. Fortunately for us though, it was just a practice, but it left us feeling a little unsettled and more than a little aware of the dangers faced by the residents of this remarkable city.

Having finished the museum and in need of a little light relief, we wandered down to the beguiling Christchurch Botanic Gardens to have lunch in the shade of a giant sequoia tree. This was followed by a meander along the pretty river to check out the unfamiliar duck species, watch the punting attempts and have a nosey into their boathouse with all the vibrant punting uniforms on display!

Then it was back on the bus out to Sumner where we were staying (a great location to stay if you’re planning a trip here), for a quick dip in the pool at the apartment followed by a slightly rougher one in the Pacific Ocean on the glorious beach nearby. Which just left time for dinner out at a delicious Vietnamese restaurant and a few games whilst we waited for the food.

Accommodation: Sumner Re Treat Apartments

As MrJ had just travelled half way around the world, we decided it might be good for him to have a couple of nights in an apartment rather than jumping headfirst into the campervanning lifestyle. These apartments were amazing and after three weeks in a campervan with six of us, they felt like the very height of luxury! But seriously though, they were extremely well fitted out, large apartments with access to a swimming pool on the roof and only a short walk to the beach and restaurants. What’s not to like! I wished we could have stayed here for a week to be honest!

Day 24: Lake Tekapo

After managing to fit in some schoolwork in the morning whilst MrJ and I packed up the apartment, we set off in Charlie for Lake Tekapo, a three hour drive from Christchurch. The colour of this lake is the most gorgeous turquoise blue created by the rock flour from surrounding glaciers. It’s jaw droppingly beautiful. We stopped in for a prayer at the Church of the Good Shepherd whose location overlooking this stunning lake is quite literally second to none. And then it was on to the campsite, set in another idyllic location on the shores of this blue phenomenon. The Beans jumped straight out and headed down for a quick swim in the lake to cool off.

After this, we decided to walk up Mt. John, the start of which was just 10 mins down the road from where Charlie was parked up for the night. The climb was pretty steep, but the views from the top were spectacular, making every step worthwhile. On the way, Bean9 chatted happily to me about the various plotlines for the novel she’s started writing, taking inspiration from her all travel experiences so far. Then, it was down for dinner, after which I offered to type up some of her story whilst she narrated, to help her speed up the process – she’s not the fastest typer and the ideas were coming into her head so much faster than she could get out through her fingers! She absolutely loved this process, hopping around me in excitement and giggling away as we worked together under the starry sky (it’s supposed to be one of the best places in NZ for stargazing due to the low light pollution). It was a special time for bonding with my baby girl 🙂

Finally, it was time for bed as we watched with slight horror mixed with fascination as a small two-person Jucy campervan turned up in the space next to us and no fewer than five fully grown adults got out of the van… MrJ and I spent the next few hours puzzling over how on earth they were all going to fit in to sleep in the van – they seriously must have been squashed in like sardines – but they must have managed it somehow!

Accommodation: Lake Tekapo Motels and Hotel campsite

This was an excellent campsite with good facilities, friendly staff and the most wonderful location overlooking the lake and right next to the entrance for the walk up to the summit of Mt. John. I’d definitely recommend.

Day 25: Mount Cook and the Hooker Valley Glacier

Next morning, we were up bright and early ready for our drive up to Mount Cook village for a chance to see this behemoth of a mountain, the highest in New Zealand standing at 3,724m tall. The views along this drive were out of this world and involved many stops to take photographs, as well as an almost continual running commentary from MrJ as he excitedly pointed out a whole variety of geographical features to the Beans, such as glaciers, terminal moraines, drumlins etc. Seriously, New Zealand is like one big geography lesson – to be honest I wished I’d done more with the Beans on this topic before we arrived, but MrJ did an excellent job as our stand-in geography teacher for the trip, discussing with them things like the difference between V shaped versus U shaped valleys – and then showing them examples out the window!

After a quick stop at the visitor’s centre in Mount Cook Village, we decided to do the three-hour return Hooker Valley Track to see the Hooker Glacier. On this hike, the Beans had another lesson on the importance of taking the right equipment with you on walks in mountainous areas given the possibility of quick changes in the weather conditions. When we set out, the sun was shining brightly, but only a few minutes into the walk, the wind whipped up making it extremely difficult to stand upright – I even had to take off my glasses on the swing bridges to stop them blowing off my face as I crossed them! Then the rain set in and the temperature dropped a fair number of degrees as we hurried to pull on our coats, hats and gloves (which they’d initially been reluctant to bring along). This lesson was further hammered home as we passed a group of tourists struggling along in flipflops (or in one case wedge sandals….), shorts, t-shirts and umbrellas, which were proving particularly useless as the winds were so strong, they could only hold them over their heads about 5% of the time!

But seeing their first glacier at the end of the hike made the difficult trek so worthwhile. Bean8 was fascinated by the shape of a huge chunk of ice which had come loose from the glacier and had floated down to the end of the glacial lake, almost opposite where we were sitting. Then it was back along the trail to warm up and dry off in Charlie before setting off on the drive back out of the valley and on to our next campsite, after what had proved to be an excellent and hands-on geography field trip.

Accommodation: Dunstan Downs High Country Sheep Station

This was probably my least favourite of the campsites on the South Island – it was basically a field with some basic kitchen and shower facilities. But to be fair, it was raining after four weeks of glorious sunshine, which may have somewhat tarnished my opinion of the place, and it did prove a useful location en route between Mt. Cook Village and Queenstown, our next destination.

Day 26: Queenstown

Given the basic nature of the campsite at Dunstan Downs, we decided to get up and out early and straight on with our journey to Queenstown. En route, we stopped for a ride on the awesome Shotover Jet. I nearly didn’t do this as I was terrified of us having a crash, but MrJ persuaded me and all we all jumped in to the boat for the ride of our lives. It was utterly brilliant. So much fun. It’s not for the faint hearted as you get seriously close to the sheer rock walls and twisted around at incredible speeds as the driver performs 360 spins, one after the next. But for any adrenaline junkies, this is one not to miss. We all had smiles stretched across our faces for hours afterwards.

And then it was on to the beautiful town of Queenstown, set next to the exquisite Lake Wakatipu. I was blown away by this town. Given its popularity, I’d expected it to be too touristy for me and to be underwhelmed by its charms. I was completely mistaken – although there clearly are a lot of tourists, this place maintains a laidback and relaxed feel with a backdrop so gorgeous, I could stare at its delights for hours, breathing in the fresh, crisp mountain air.

Once we’d settled into our campsite, we walked into town and up the gondola to have a go on the luge. Another super fun activity – we’d been advised to get the maximum number of rides, which turned out to be excellent advice. The gondola ride itself was brilliant with amazing views over the town as you progress up the sheer sides of the mountain. And then, once we’d fitted our helmets, we jumped on to the chairlift to have a little instruction on how to drive the luge carts, before heading down for a practice run. Oh my goodness, I was hooked! We were straight back up on that chairlift for our next four rides down the faster run, again with huge grins stuck to our faces, trying to overtake each other and be the first to the end (we might have a slight competitive streak in our family!). Such fun!

After checking out the views one last time and reluctantly pulling ourselves away from the luge, we took the gondola back down into town. We finished off this perfect day with a delicious meal at Captains in the centre of town.

Accommodation: Queenstown Holiday Park and Motels Creeksyde

We loved this centrally located campsite (along with pretty much everything else in Queenstown) with its large, spacious and clean shower and kitchen block.

Day 27: Queenstown

We hired biked on this gloriously sunny day for four hours, which gave us enough time for a 28km bike ride along the perimeter of the lake through some of the most magnificent scenery I’ve ever encountered. I had to keep stopping to take photos and mumble to myself that I would love to live in a place like this! We also stopped for a quick play on the rope swing beside the lake and then further along by the shore for a picnic lunch. On the way back, we passed a microbrewery which clearly needed investigating given MrJ’s fascination with the brewing process. And obviously we had to sample the fare – I can attest that it was indeed delicious! Which all made for a slightly wobblier ride back to the bike shop, again with big smiles plastered to our faces!

After a lazy afternoon and dinner back at the campsite, we headed into town for a wander around to enjoy the local street entertainment – some of which was excellent and others somewhat questionable!

Accommodation: Queenstown Holiday Park and Motels Creeksyde

Day 28: Arrowtown

Our morning started with a lovely Mass in the local Queenstown church, before heading to lunch in Arrowtown, a charming and quirky gold rush village. We had a lovely walk along the river where Bean8 and MrJ had an in-depth chat about metal ores and how to extract them from the ground (!) whilst Bean9 talked some more to me about her story plotlines and how to develop them. Then, we had a wander around the cute little Lakes District Museum about life in a goldfields town, followed by a meander along the main street with its pretty heritage buildings. Our final stop was for a gold panning lesson (something that Bean8 has been very keen to do) and a practice at panning for this treasured metal in the local river, where apparently, when the area was first discovered, whole lumps were to be found all along its length. They found some gold flecks in the samples used for the lesson, but sadly failed to find any big lumps in the river!

Then it was back to Charlie for dinner and a walk into town to yet another microbrewery (it’s important to have a good sample size!) and an opportunity to teach the Beans how to play pool – a key skill for later life!

Accommodation: Queenstown Holiday Park and Motels Creeksyde

Day 29: Wanaka

We were quite tired after a busy few days, so we had a fairly relaxed day driving to our next campsite at Wanaka, followed by a walk into town alongside the beautiful Lake Wanaka, a haircut for Bean8 and a free game of frisbee golf – such a great concept, we should definitely bring this back with us to the UK!

Then there was just time for a delicious curry before the walk back. We loved the town of Wanaka, a less intense, smaller version of nearby Queenstown. I’d definitely recommend a stop here.

Accommodation: Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park and Motel

Another good campsite, set in the most picturesque location, with the lake on one side, the mountains on the other and only a short walk into the heart of Wanaka town.

Day 30: Wanaka – Puzzling World and Roy’s Peak

It was supposed to be a rainy day, so we planned a visit to the mostly indoor Puzzling World, which turned out to be an excellent choice (although it didn’t rain a drop!). We started off with the world’s first 3D super maze, the aim of which was to make it to all four corners and out of the maze. We opted for a strategy of holding our hands to the left and only turning left, which allowed us to complete the maze in only about 20 minutes, which the Beans were thrilled about as it was supposed to take much longer. Then, it was on to the collection of illusion rooms which were fascinating. Some of our favourites were:

  • The Hall of Following Faces, the design of which makes you feel like you’re being watched where ever you move by 168 famous faces on the wall. They appear to be coming out of the room towards you but when you get close, you realise they’re actually sunk into the wall.
  • The Tilted House – this seriously messes with your sense of perspective as a snooker ball apparently rolls up a table and into the pocket!
  • The Ames Room – another illusion in which two children standing in opposite corners of the same room appear one as a midget and the other as a giant.

There were many more illusions, puzzles and wonders scattered throughout the museum and then in the cafe, a whole plethora of puzzles and games to play whilst you drank your coffee. So, then followed a few hours of testing their mental tenacity with the tricky puzzles on offer in the cafe. I have to confess to being the first to give up and head to the van for lunch, but MrJ and the Beans refused to leave that cafe until they’d cracked their chosen puzzles!

After lunch we headed to a quieter part of the lake, but en route
passed by a car park with what looked like a lovely track up a hill and thought why not, let’s just climb up there. So, we did. It was an interesting decision as it was 2pm in the afternoon and the return climb was supposed to be 6 hours, so we planned to just walk up for half an hour for a quick stretch of the legs. But the views were too good not to keep on climbing and we found ourselves (after a little cajoling) at the viewing point, 30 mins from the summit of Roy’s Peak. MrJ ran up to the top, but it was getting late, so the Beans and I headed down. It was a beautiful hike, which took them 3.5 hours in total and included an elevation gain of 850m – and they did it in beach shoes! It made me realise just how very fit they’ve become since visiting the South Island with all the hiking and biking we’ve been doing.

On our return, we did decide to carry on to our original destination to a quieter part of the lake, for a quick dip before heading home and stuffing ourselves with a large well-deserved dinner!

Accommodation: Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park and Motel

Day 31: Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier & Day 32: West Coast Wildlife Centre

The next two days seeing the spectacular Fox and Franz Josef glaciers as well as a backstage kiwi talk and encounter are covered in my blog post: A Day in the Life of a Worldschooler.

Day 33: An 11.5-hour drive & Day 34: A knifemaking course

These two days documenting our crazy day of driving to make it to the brilliant knifemaking course in Barrytown are covered in my blog post: Hands-on learning – A knifemaking course.

Day 35: Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki

After two very busy days, we opted for a lie in and slow get up, followed by a walk to the curious limestone formations of what appear to be piles of petrified pancakes at the aptly named Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. These were formed as lime-rich fragments of dead marine animals were deposited on the bottom of the sea, and then covered by weaker layers of soft mud and clay. Earthquakes then raised the layers above sea level and the wind, sea and rain eroded the softer mud layers, giving the rocks their distinctive appearance we see today.

They make a pretty spectacular sight, especially at high tide as heavy ocean swells crash into the caverns beneath the rocks, causing huge cascades of water to spout into the air through blowholes in the rocks. Unfortunately, we were there a couple of hours before high tide, but it was impressive nonetheless. Definitely worth a visit. The Beans loved watching for particularly large waves to see if they would cause a puff of water to come spitting out of the various blowholes.

And then it was on to our next destination, Murchison, a small rural town at the confluence of the Buller River and the Matakitaki River, which turned out to be one of our favourites. After settling into the lovely and thankfully quiet campsite with its random collection of animals, we just had time for a quick walk up the nearest hill for another stunning view out over the countryside. Back at the campsite, it was Bean9’s turn for making dinner, which she managed with very little help – no mean feat when you have to move everything out of the camper into the little kitchen and back again once everything was cooked! Then, as we washed up and prepared the beds, the Beans were super excited to be allowed to feed the resident emus and Wally the wallaby, before we all crashed into bed.

Accommodation: Kiwi Park Motels and Holiday Park

Definitely one of our favourites thanks to a peaceful location, friendly owner and the chance to feed emus and a wallaby – a huge hit with the kids!

Day 36: The Buller River

Today was another day of new experiences for the Beans and me – this time, it was white water rafting with Ultimate Descents, an excellent family-friendly company! MrJ has done quite a bit of rafting before and was a little disappointed at having to go for the relatively tame, grade II rapids option offered to children under 10. Fortunately, when we arrived, they took one look at the size of the Beans (Bean8 looks more like an 11 year old) and offered us the chance of doing the adult option. As we were at the end of the summer, the river was particularly low and so even this only involved grade III rapids. So, despite my nervousness, I slapped on a smile and said, “Yes, that would be lovely,” as I felt the eyes of my husband on me, willing me to accept!

I’m so glad we did. It was just the most brilliant fun. Yet again. Every day seemed to bring something new and something awesome. Words cannot really express how grateful I am for the opportunity to have experienced all of these wonderful adventures. I looked over at the happy faces of the Beans as we drifted slowly along in the glorious sunshine; I listened to their squeals of glee as they paddled furiously towards a rapid, whizzing down over them at pace, with the boat spinning around, seemingly out of control; and I watched as they jumped laughing into the cold water to drift delightedly along the river. And I thought to myself, what a perfect lesson for a Monday morning. I literally couldn’t think of a better place to be at that moment in time 🙂

And to top it all off, we were welcomed back to the Ultimate Descents office with freshly baked scones, the most delicious I’ve ever tasted! Baked by probably the most happy, smiley lady I’ve ever met.

That afternoon involved a drive up to the north of the South Island, to the picturesque Abel Tasman National Park, for yet more escapades. Whilst MrJ and the kids went to try out the 100m long waterslide (yes, seriously) at our campsite, I had a chance for a little relaxation before the dinner/bedtime routine.

Accommodation: Bethany Park, Kaiteriteri

Another great campsite, with large sites, a 100m waterslide and excellent, clean facilities, only a short 15 minute walk from the heavenly Kaiteriteri beach.

Day 37: Abel Tasman National Park

This day’s planned exploits were for a half-day sea kayaking (another first for the Beans and me) through the bewitching watery shores of the Abel Tasman National Park, followed by a boat trip to see the seals and a chance to walk and explore the park’s terrestrial delights before heading home. The kids took to kayaking like ducks to water and relished the chance to play on the beaches and wander through the peaceful interior of the park. It was another perfect, albeit tiring day in paradise. I’ll let the pictures do the talking!

Accommodation: Bethany Park, Kaiteriteri

Day 38: Abel Tasman National Park

Although I’d planned for another day of walking in the National Park, we were all fairly exhausted by this point, and in desperate need of a relaxing day. So, we ditched the plans and aside from an early morning play at the beach and some midday paddock golf together at the campsite, the day was our own for us all to do as we pleased. A much needed day of recuperation.

Accommodation: Bethany Park, Kaiteriteri

Day 39: Hanmer Springs

Sadly, our days in this magnificent country were drawing to a close. This was to be our last full day. Checking out of the campsite, we headed back down to Hanmer Springs, this time for MrJ to have the opportunity to sample the delights of the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa, with its fun waterslides, lazy river and naturally heated thermal pools (40 degrees is just about the perfect temperature for lazing around in, I think!).

Accommodation: Alpine Adventure Park, Hanmer Springs

This was a good campsite with large sites, a clean kitchen, great park and small swimming pool, although the showers weren’t the cleanest, but overall, I’d recommend.

Day 40: Christchurch to Melbourne

Our last morning in New Zealand: we drove down to Christchurch to catch our flight to Melbourne – a new country for the Beans and an opportunity to reunite with our friends again, this time at their lovely abode.

Thank you, New Zealand, we had the trip of a lifetime in the clutches of your awe-inspiring land, welcomed wholeheartedly by your generous and kind people. We’ll never forget you and are hope to return one day to your breathtaking shores.


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