We got the four hour ferry from Wellington to Picton, the main port on the South Island of New Zealand. There isn’t much to see in Picton, so despite arriving as the sun was setting, we decided to head three hours south to Westport, a little sea side town, to break up our longer upcoming journey. En route, we saw a sign for a nearby seal colony so we decided to check it out the following morning. We were so glad we did, as it was amazing! Firstly, it made for a rather interesting drive. A farmer was herding 100s of cows down the road and it was quite the spectacle meandering through them. There must have been close to a 100 seals at the main lookout point and due to the season, it was predominately female seals with their young pups! It was lovely to see some of the younger ones playing in the rock pools and trying to ride the waves or nursing from their mothers. None of us had seen seals in the wild before and I was so taken with how much we could see their individual personalities. It was made even better by the fact we we were the only ones there! The viewing platform is probably 50m away, however on our way back to the car park we saw some playing on the rocks on the beach so we walked down to the water’s edge where we managed to quietly sneak up to about 10-15 metres away from a group of 7.
We pressed on towards Franz Josef. The drive from Westport to Greymouth is ranked in the Top 10 drives in the world, and rightly so! We got our first peak of the Southern alps, the mighty Tasman sea and dense rainforest all within a couple of hours. It is also one of the wettest parts of New Zealand as the sea breeze gets trapped on the mountain range. We stopped off for lunch in Greymouth and stumbled across the best cafe ever – Maggie’s Kitchen. The women that work there were so friendly and the food was some of our favourite we’ve had on our travels. It is also one of the last big towns, so we stocked up on essentials (food, drink, petrol etc).
We arrived in Franz Josef, a small village in the Southern Alps, famous for its glacier. There are various ways to view both the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers; plane, helicopter, hiking or a combination of both. We opted for the heli-hike experience offered by Franz Josef Glacier guides as we’d met other travellers who’d recommended it. We went and booked for the following day though unfortunately when we arrived for check-in on a beautiful sunny day, we were told that the winds were too strong higher up to fly the helicopter so we rescheduled for the next day. We later found out that they hadn’t taken anyone up to the glacier in the last 5 days! Instead, we drove to Fox Glacier. As we were coming up to the parking lot, we could see signs with different years saying ‘in 1975, the glacier was all the way here!’ It was very surreal. The conditions change every day, but for us, it was only an hour return walk to the view point. It was beautiful but perhaps even more impressive was the surrounding valley where the glacier would have ran through years before.
The next day, we went back to the Glacier Guides with our fingers crossed and we were able to go up! We got suited and booted at the base with the equipment they provide. While it is pricey at $449pp (£250), it was all of our first times in a helicopter and we had a full three hours on the ice. The flight is quite short (5 mins-ish) but sufficient to get some stunning views over the mountain ranges and our first glimpse of the icy blue glacier. How the pilots land so effortlessly onto the glacier is beyond me. Once dismounted, we assembled the ice crampons to our boots and began our hike. I was a little apprehensive about how hard it would be but was pleasantly surprised that it was a nice and slow walk with plenty of time to snap photos. The glacier was spectacular and we could even still see the Tasman sea beyond the mountain ranges. It’s also one of the fastest moving valley glaciers; about 10 times faster than most! We saw 2 little avalanches whilst we were on the ice. The guide also asked if anyone was claustrophobic to which I gingerly put my hand up, but fortunately, walking through tight crevices was fine for me. Dave had the Gopro tied around his chest so he still captured us squeezing through when it was too tight/slippy to get the camera out. Overall, well worth the money and one of our favourite experiences to date! Oh, and also included within the package is free entry into their thermal baths which was the perfect way to unwind and relax in the 40 degree water after the day.
After Franz Josef, we faced a long drive across the South Island through Lewis Pass to Kaikoura. Kaikoura was my number one destination in New Zealand because of the wildlife, specifically whales. Seeing a whale in the wild was the top of my list of life dreams. We joined Whale Watch Tours and set out in the hope of spotting a Sperm whale. We were lucky enough to have four sperm whales sightings! The whales will come up to the surface to breath for periods of up to 15 minutes before diving back down. Whilst they are relatively static on the surface, it was so awesome to see such a large, gentle mammal against the spectacular snowy mountain landscape. They are also the only specie of whale that has a blowhole located at 45 degrees on their left side. We got to see the actual holes with water spurting out of them, incredible! We were also extra lucky to spot a few seals, albatrosses and a huge pod of dusky dolphins. I’d guess that there were probably somewhere between 150-200 dolphins. They were so playful, swimming under the boat and some even did flips out the water (see photo below!). It was certainly a highlight for me and a must if you are visiting NZ! In Kaikoura, we also visited another seal colony where we got even closer to what we’d seen in Westport. There was even a massive male, fast asleep on the main boardwalk near the viewing place. Our final excursion was walking the Peninsula walkway with beautiful scenery, though I won’t go too much in to it because I twisted my ankle and it was a bit of a disaster!
We spent our final couple of days in Christchurch with Rachel and James. The city was badly hit by an earthquake in 2011 and is still recovering to this day. As a result,, there isn’t a huge amount to do and you’ll probably only need a day or two to explore the whole city. We did go to a little burger place called Bacon Brothers, where I’d go as far as saying it was one of the nicest burgers I’ve ever had and they are pretty unique in their service style. As it was Rachel & James last night and it was almost our 6 months travel anniversary we decided to treat ourselves to a fancy steak dinner out. Thanks to Rachel & James for putting up with us for 3 weeks and we’ll miss them lots! We still have 12 days left on the South Island by ourselves and intend to explore further south so check out our next blog for the rest of our exploration of the South Island
Thanks for reading,
Sophie & Dave