Even though 75% of the population lives on the smaller North Island, New Zealanders call the South Island the mainland as it’s bigger in size. While looking at the map I realized I had only seen a third of the country and that took me half a year. True, half of that I spent working, but at this pace I wouldn’t even have enough time to explore the other two-thirds! Soon I would fly to Asia for 2.5 months to reunite & travel with Tuija, leaving ‘only’ 4 months on my working holiday visa, of which I would probably need to work half as I would return penniless. Fortunately, I did seasonal work in Hastings, allowing me to apply for a 3 months extension of my visa. I realized I was going to need these months to see everything and leave the country with a few dollars as well. But that was all far away in the future. First I had to make my way to Christchurch for which I had 2 weeks’ time until my flight.
The first morning after the crossing felt like a new chapter. Fully rested I opened the curtains and took in my first views of the South Island. The night before I arrived in the harbour after dusk and now with the sun shining I could see the green & white mountains in the distance. The landscape was like a painters palet. The sky was blue, dotted with white clouds hovering over the green hills. Autumn was here so the leaves of the trees were yellow, orange and brown and with a coffee in one hand and my road trip playlist on the car radio I got goose bumps everywhere. First I headed back to the town I arrived at as I hadn’t seen it by daylight yet as I arrived late the night before.
Picton is a small coastal town and even though it doesn’t offer that much to see, it’s the starting point for the nearby Queen Charlotte track, a 1 to 5 day trek. I would have loved to do the full trek, but the nights were too cold for a Dutchy so I only did a single day. However, that meant I would have to get back to the car somehow, but I was sure I would find a ride back somehow. I left my van Yaya 2.0 at the start after packing snacks, water and warm clothes. It was a steep climb but the views were rewarding.
In the distance I saw the ferry leaving and arriving at the highest point, I sent a photo of the view to my Scouts friends in Holland, who were on a fun weekend away at that moment. They were still up at 2 in the night and not entirely sober, which became clear as they were all screaming and shouting through the phone when they suddenly video-called. It was great to see them and hear their voices, but at the same time I was a tiny bit sad to miss these fun events. After hearing what they’ve been up to and showing them my view, I walked down and made it to the gravel road. It wasn’t a busy road, but 20 minutes later a car stopped for my upstanding thumb and a lovely Kiwi lady brought me back to my van Yaya 2.0. Hitchhiking is really easy in this country and you meet the most interesting people who taking or giving rides. This lady had emigrated from England and she did not regret that choice. Looking at the views from the car I couldn’t do anything but agree.
A useful phone app while traveling is Wikicamps. It shows all the (free) campsites, points of interest and where to find toilets, drinkable water, etc. One of the nearest points was a cave which had glow worms living in it! Armed with my tripod and camera for some slow shutter time photographs I crossed the forest to find the cave. After my eyes adjusted to the dark, tiny blue dots lit up all over the ceiling. Upon shining a light on them, I noticed how only a tiny point of their tail lights up. With this they attract insects to then catch them with their strings. After some photo’s I walked back to the van and met an older Kiwi who wondered where I was from. He said that he was retired and loves sailing and then offered to take me and any friends I would have in December to join him on a trip!! I wrote down his email address and thanked him kindly. Who knows, maybe I’ll be sailing at the end of the year!
Continuing west I arrived in the town of Nelson. This coastal town proclaimed itself the ‘geographical center of New Zealand’, which was confirmed by a monument on the top of the city’s park hill stating the same. Heading down to the shore I was staring at the ocean looking at the dancing waves. But after a closer look I realized that these were not waves, but jumping wales! There were more people on the beach but no one really seemed to care – I guess it’s a normal sight for locals. Excited as little kid I tried to capture the enormous creatures on video:
It was another Monday which meant chances were good there would be a local scout troop having a meeting that evening. I searched the web and found the nearest group in the suburb Stoke. Like all other groups so far, they too invited and welcomed me warmly. It was a small group, only 4 kids were present that night versus 4 leaders, but like the groups I encountered the kids loved the ‘speculaaskoekjes’ they earned after my little quiz about Holland. As a thank you for coming I received some badges again for my growing collection and happy to have met some more Scouts, I walked back to my van for another cold autumn night.
Being a Dutchman I need my peanut butter. During the months that I had been in New Zealand I tried various variations, but never really found one like Calvé. That changed when I tried ‘Pic’s peanut butter’. Now before you think this is a sponsored advertisement, I’m only introducing this as coincidentally, I was driving past Pic’s factory while leaving Nelson. On my Wikicamps map, a flag showed up and informed me that the factory organizes daily tours. I stepped the brake and took the nearest exit for a U-turn. As luck would have it, the next tour was about to commence and I noticed my fellow visitors were all under 5.
A preschool group had signed up and even though I was about 6 times as old, our enthusiasm was equal. I had seen this brand in every supermarket so expected a huge factory, but to my surprise it wasn’t bigger than half a school gym. They only had one roaster, one blender, one jar-filler and only a dozen staff members. Business was going well, as Mr Pic (I swear that’s his real name) himself stepped in and gave us all a hand. He looked exactly like the cardboard statue of him and told that despite his diminishing sight (he was using a guide dog) his passion for making peanut butter remained undiminished and another factory would open within the year. His story was that he travelled the world and tasted many ‘inferior’ brands (all on display in the reception, including Calvé…), inspiring him to create his own. Lots of (free) tasting later I continued driving to the mountain town of Saint Arnauds.
My fuel meter was dropping, which meant I either had a fuel line leak or I was going uphill again. Sadly it was the second one, but that also meant I was getting closer to my next stop. I arrived in cold, cloudy and rainy St Arnauds around 3 in the afternoon. The town literally had just a few houses, one gas station and a visitor centre. I wasn’t sure what to do as the sun would set in two hours, walking in this weather wasn’t an option, but stopping the car at a free campsite would mean I would get very cold, very quick. There was no bar, café and the only restaurant was closed. Luckily the gas station had a tiny café with a few tables & chairs. I decided to sit down and grab a cappuccino. There was no Wi-Fi, no cell phone reception and the other people seemed to mind their own business. Fortunately that changed when someone broke the ice and 30 seconds later all 5 of us had joined in on the conversation. This is how I met Robert, an American guy, and Chrissi, a German girl. We were all solo travelers, had just arrived & had the same plans to climb up Mount Robert (what are the odds, meeting a Robert at its namesake mountain) so we decided to team up for the following day!
After a crazy cold night on a free campsite, where various truck drivers decided to take a break right next to my van while keeping the engine on (assholes) we drove up to the start of the trek. We had no idea what we were walking in to as the top half of the mountain was covered in clouds. Totally under dressed (again) we soon found ourselves in a few centimeters of snow. And then a few more. And more. On the top we were almost knee deep in the cold white goodness. We spotted a hut in the distance and headed there for a lunch break. After filling up, the clouds had disappeared and we could take in the magnificent views of the valley and the lake. The snow didn’t matter to us anymore and even though my shoes were soaked, it was getting warmer again as we descended.
The sky was blue again, the sun bright and we sat down on a ledge after spotting & photographing a hawk which wasn’t shy at all. We agreed there was no place we would rather be than right there and then. All we heard was the sound of the birds and the wind, while the fresh mountain air filled our lungs. We finished the day with some beautiful shots down at the lake, where huge eels were hanging out under the wooden pier. Unfortunately, time had come to say goodbye as I didn’t want to stay another night on this altitude (read: in this temperature). With the sun setting I headed down back towards the coast to visit Kaikoura, town of shiny shells, seals… and wild dolphins!