The past ten days has been the stuff of travel dreams for us. Time is moving lightning fast and incredibly slowly all at the same time, as each day feels like we are entering a whole new land. And we kind of are. We've been at the beach, far out into the ocean, climbed into river gorges, gone to wine country, hiked to the top of mountains, been in a rainforest, traversed alpine vegetation, seen a glacier, and sailed through fjords. This is the South Island of New Zealand, and it's cray.
To get here we crossed the Cook Strait on a big giant ferry, between the north and south islands. Despite a report in Lonely Planet of it being a “white-knuckle crossing”, we found it to be super easy. It helped that we got a great weather day, and so we enjoyed a smooth sailing through the narrow waterways with rugged green coastline all around.
We arrived on the South Island into the small port town of Picton, but couldn't stay long, because we had an appointment with some whales. After a lovely picnic lunch in a harbor, we pointed the car south and headed towards Kaikoura. What an amazing drive it was – an exposed coastal route with turquoise waters and a slate gray rocky coastline. It was slightly reminiscent of one of our favorite U.S. states: Maine. When we arrived in Kaikoura, a small coastal town, we realized another similarity to Maine... the area is famous for crayfish. Now, we always get crayfish and crawfish a little mixed up, so we've included a picture. Basically, crayfish is a big brother to lobster, but much more expensive. We'll explain more in our NZ food wrap up post, but in a nutshell, crayfish has nuttin' on Maine lobster. Sorry, Kiwis.
Once in Kaikoura, we headed down to the rocky beach to find the Kaikoura seal colony. When we got to the beach parking lot, there they were! Two adorable seals lounging on the rocks at low tide. We were impressed! We've never been this close to seals in the wild before. It was late and the sun was going down, but we decided to explore a little more so we walked along exposed low-tide shoreline. It was beautiful, and there were seagulls all around. Then, all of a sudden, it was like a scene out of Hitchcock's The Birds. Hundreds of seagulls squawking and flying around above our heads. We had stumbled near a nesting area and they were pissed. We quickly retreated, having not actually disturbed any nests, thankfully. Side note: Nesting colonies smell terrible. Like a giant bird cage filled with bird poop. So. Gross.
Then, off in the distance, I spotted some moving brown blobs. More seals, perhaps? So we continued on, rounded a bend, and there they were: More than seventy seals just sunning themselves on the rocky coastline. It's a bizarre feeling to be alone with this many seals. Will they organize, turn on us, and eat us alive? In reality, they just moaned, groaned, wiggled and coughed, flopped over, readjusted their blubbery bodies, and mostly just lay there. They will, however, bark loudly at you if you get too close. We eventually got some company from other seal-searchers who successfully found the colony, and we watched the seals until the light was giving out and some drops of rain rolled in.
At dawn the next morning, we boarded a boat for whale watching, which is what Kaikoura is really known for. It's a hotbed for whale activity because the continental shelf is very close to the coast, so deep ocean water are just a few miles from off shore. Deep ocean = whales. The vessel was called “Aoraki” or Cloud Piercer, and dang that thing was fast. Why they didn't name it Wave Piercer, I don't know. We zipped all around open ocean with serious velocity, and even though you sure felt it as the boat slammed into waves, it was impressively smooth given the choppiness and speed. Neither Chris or I had ever been whale watching before, and we quickly learned it's both super fun and frustrating. The whale watching company will not use sonar to locate the whales (because it harms them), so instead they use echolocation. This means the captain stops the boat, and then dips the echolocator into the water and takes a listen for whale sounds. Sounds fancy? It's not. The echolocation device was RIDICULOUS-looking. Like something my dad made from his trove of leftover appliance parts and styrofoam. It was a long stick, with duct tape on it, and a janky little microphone at the bottom. The captain listened through a pair of shitty headphones that he probably borrowed from his JVC discman. But hey, I can't really knock it because it worked, and he found a whale straightaway. A few minutes later, we arrived to the whale's vicinity, but now we had to spot it. We all peered into the horizons looking for a spray (from the whale's blowhole) to tip us off to Mr. Whale's location. Of course, even with two professional “whale spotters” aboard sitting in tall observation chairs, it was Eagle-Eye Chris on the port bow who spotted the whale first. (Insert Boy Scout jokes here.)
So, within an hour, we were less than 50 feet from a massive sperm whale, and got to watch him float, spray, blow and then the grand finale, his dive, where we saw his beautiful tail fin before he went back to the depths of the sea. Sadly, this was our only real encounter with a whale. We almost saw one more, but unfortunately arrived just as he was diving, too, and only Chris saw a glimpse of his tailfin. We futilely chased whale sounds for another 90 minutes or so, but alas, no more whales and no dolphins for us.
After whale watching, we just couldn't resist going back to see the seal colony again. This time, we had to take the inland route, because it was now high tide so the rocky coastal path that we took the day before was now obstructed with crashing waves. This elevated path was really beautiful and afforded us great views of the coastline. But, it meant we had to make our way down a verrrry steep cliff to get to the water, about 100 feet straight down on a trail that wasn't really a trail. We did it, but there were some sketchy moments. It was well worth it.
The seals in mid day were even more glorious than the day before. At high tide, there's were two perks: 1) less beach for the seals to lay on, so they are concentrated in a small area, 2) shallow tidal pools that the seals play in with each other, which is quite a show. They were much more interactive and cute – and a little scary when they got mad (which we saw when a stupid guy got too close). Don't mess with a bull, they may have flippers for legs, but they can move shockingly fast. It was hard to leave our seal-friends, but we had to make our way back north that day. Our final treat was seeing a cute pup be led to the water by his mom! But, it was time to go. To avoid going UP that 100-foot sketchy trail that we slid down, we decided to risk it along the shore; with the tide now receding it seemed possible. And it was, mostly. Only one of us didn't time a wave-jump properly and ended up with one soaking wet sneaker. I won't shame this person by naming names.
It wouldn't be a trip to New Zealand without a roadside cattle or sheep crossing. Here was ours, just the tail end when I could get the camera out.
Whales and seals really are far more interesting than us, so I'll just breeze through the rest and stick to a highlight reel for the rest of our (merely human) week:
We explored New Zealand's Marlborough wine trail, and enjoyed a fabulous day of wine tasting at several vineyards. It's white wine country, so I was pretty much in heaven. NZ wine is all about these amazing Sauvignon Blancs and some very delicious Pinot Gris and even Chardonnay.
The vineyards we visited were: Nautilus, Saint Clair, Bladen and Hanz Herzog. There wasn't a dud in the bunch. But shout-outs to Saint Clair for their awesome family-run vibe and fantastic wines (Best NZ 2014 Sauv Blanc winner!), and Hanz Herzog for these amazing hammock chairs looking right out to the vineyard. It helped that we had the place to ourselves, too.
The growing and funky-artsy town of Nelson was our next stop. It's the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park and we did a monster but stunning day hike of the famous Coastal Track. We both agree: it was hands-down the most beautiful hike we've ever done. Emerald green mountains butt up to sapphire ocean, as you wind up and down the coastal pathway. Views are superb and we have plenty of photos below to demonstrate. There are beaches along the hike (if you want to hike dowwwn to the water, which we did) and there's nothing quite like a mid-hike swim after lunch on the beach. Sand in the hiking shoes and all.
We went bike riding and stumbled onto the most beautiful kite fair! We just plopped down and enjoyed the “action”. At a kite fair, this is some molasses action, but fun nonetheless, Example: The unstable stingray kite slowly careens into all the others, taking them down in real-time slo-mo. Twice.
Southward we went, to a town called Greymouth. From there we saw the Franz Josef glacier, and did a super quick hike into the Hokitika gorge, where we could see a beautiful glacial river with the signature milky blue hue. The Franz Josef glacier is one of the most quickly receding glaciers in the world. In 2008, the glacier edge was where we were standing! That's a LOT of melt. (photos below)
We stopped in Wanaka and Queenstown briefly, and will be returning for a few more days later in the trip. Wanaka felt very cool and funky, and Queenstown a little more touristy. We already had a famed Queenstown Fergberger, though, and Chris is proclaiming it in his “Top 5 Burger List”. This is a serious accolade.
One pretty big development this week is that we have extended our time here in New Zealand. As we were staring down our last week here, we just couldn't shake the feeling that we shouldn't leave. Our time here in New Zealand just didn't feel done... so we have decided to stay. Forever. We're moving to New Zealand!
Just kidding/I wish. We changed some flights around and gave ourselves an extra week here. It was a huge headache and took forever to do, but I think the time will be well worth it. There is so much more to see....