In order to get to the South Island from Wellington we had to take the Interislander ferry to Picton, in the northeast of the island. We booked this a few days in advance just to ensure that we got the time we wanted (several run per day). When it came to our day and time we checked out of our hotel in Wellington and drove our borrowed Toyota Surf down to the ferry dock and waited in the queue with all the other cars, trucks and campervans. Boarding was slow but easy, and by our allocated departure time of 10:30am we were off!
The ferry journey was an event in and of itself. The weather had not been good to us in Wellington, but on the day of our ferry journey the rain stopped – the clouds stayed though. We took our spots on the deck and shivered in the chilly winds – determined to look at the views. Once we left Wellington harbour, we started to see distant views of Marlborough Sound. As we got closer it became clear that the journey through the Sound was going to be spectacular, in spite of the dull weather. And spectacular it was, with amazing views for the last hour or so of the journey. Until then it had just been us and a few other people out on the deck, but after we got to Marlborough Sound it seemed like about half the boat came out to watch the scenery with us. As if to match expectations, the weather warmed up a bit, and the sun even threatened to come out once or twice. Jumpers off and we enjoyed the warmth!
We were a bit sorry to get off the boat in Picton, but the scenery did not stop there. As we’d be coming back to Picton we didn’t linger, but we got straight on the coastal road to Nelson, via Havelock (green mussel capitol of New Zealand apparently!). This was a spectacular drive, and a great follow on to the ferry ride. All in all it took a couple of hours to get to Nelson, but we saw a great amount of scenery in this introduction to the South Island, including some spectacular native bush. Native bush is a bit sparser in the North Island, and little of it is as impressive as some of the massive trees I saw on the drive to Nelson.
On arrival in Nelson we were not disappointed in the results of our long drive. What a character-filled town! It’s one of those places you take an instant shine to. It probably helped that the sun came out as we arrived, but the town itself was so full of life and character that it was impossible not to like it. We stayed just out of town near the beach at Tahunanui, but we were close enough that we could enjoy it easily. We had a wander around the town, and I was impressed by a unique church overlooking the town on a hilltop. Along with the colonial architecture in the town, this added to the overall prettiness of the place.
During our stay in Nelson, we also spent a bit of well-earned time on Tahunanui Beach. On our second (and last) full day in Nelson, we enjoyed walking up and down the beach. The tide was low, and in the Nelson region when the tide is low it’s really low. The beach increased in size several times over, and we were free to walk it to our hearts content. A paddle in the water revealed that the low sea level combined with the good weather and bright sunshine made the sea as warm as a bath. This was a pleasant experienced we had not partaken in since our travels in south-east Asia! We rounded the day off with a highly impressive sunset on Tahunanui Beach – truly spellbinding.
The following day we reluctantly left Nelson behind and began the winding journey up the coast towards Collingwood and Farewell Spit at the northwest point of the South Island. We stopped at a few places along the way, first of which was early in the morning at Mapua, a small town on the coast which smelled strongly of smoked fish down by the waterfront. The small wharf was picturesque, and the enthusiasm of the kids jumping into the water from it was infectious (not infectious enough to join them though).
We drove on, making a few stops on the way to look at the scenery. Most impressive of all was a viewpoint at the top of Takaka Hill, looking back towards Nelson and Motueka. The view of the sea in the distance, with apple orchards in front, and native bush up close was stunning. Interestingly, the rocks on the hill and near the viewpoint were scattered and serrated, layered rocks which looked like they’d been thrown about like shrapnel. In Maori mythology they’re said to be the scales of a defeated Taniwha (mythical beast) which were scattered on the mountainside. Looking at the rocks you can believe it, as they look just like enormous scales.
A windy drive down the other side of the mountain brought us into the Golden Bay region. We drove on, stopping for lunch at Milnthorpe Quay, a rustic wooden quay near Collingwood. It was a lovely spot, with oyster catchers (birds) squawking nearby and a river flowing down to the sea nearby. We captured the only bench on the site, and enjoyed a good lunch!
Our arrival in Collingwood was with much relief. Lonely Planet had not been overly full of praise for the place (but not too negative either). Fortunately for us, it was just our sort of place – laidback, relaxed and quiet. We checked into one of the few hotels in town, and went for a wander on the windswept and sunny beach. The tide was out so far that it took us a while to reach the sea, but the walk was good, hopping over tide pools and getting our toes into the sand.
We walked back later on as well, and enjoyed the sunset over the quiet beach. The area does not see too many people, and it was nice to see a beach empty but for the driftwood and bird-prints. The soft light made it even better, and the complete lack of noise apart from the waves lapping at the shore made it a truly memorable spot.
The following day we drove up to Puponga, from where we did a 6km walk via Farewell Spit and Fossil Bay. Farwell Spit is the sand spit which extends from the northwest tip of the South Island like a long finger stretching towards the west coast of the North Island. The spit was amazing, and we walked up onto the rolling sand dunes. It was like being in the desert in India, apart from the colour of the sand and the nearby sea!
The walk along the spit back towards Fossil Bay was equally impressive, and along the way we passed a snoozing seal who made little attention to us. Fossil Bay is apparently named as such because you can find fossils in the fallen rocks from the sandstone cliffs. We smashed a few and couldn’t find any, but it was a good spot for some lunch, and we explored the cave at the end of the bay. I was intrigued to notice some medium sized crabs perched on the rocks high in the cave – I started to feel a bit like I was being observed after that, so I left the cave! The most impressive feature of the bay for me was the smooth stones imbedded into the cliff face – it was as though a streambed had once become imbedded in a lava flow, and then buried for thousands of years before being exposed at the base of the cliff.
After the walk we headed back to the car and drove to Wharariki Beach, a few kilometres away. Upon arrival it transpired that we had just stumbled upon the most impressive beach in all of New Zealand. First of all, it was a massive beach with hardly anyone on it. Second of all, seals. There were dozens of seals on the beach, along with their pups. We were able to get quite close to them, although those that did get too close were told off with a growl and occasionally an aggressive charge! We were very careful not to disturb the seals as some other people were doing. It was certainly a very special experience to get so close to them
The third thing that was so special about this beach was the scenery. It was like being transported into the film set of a prehistoric movie. The beach was riddled with caves and arches – both on the beach and offshore, and all in all it made for spectacular viewing. The large rockpools filled with fish, and the sandstone cliffs just accentuated the beauty. I really do think it’s the best beach I’ve ever seen. The best part about it is that I don’t think it will ever get that busy – Farewell Spit is so far out of the way and off the main tourist trail that the hordes will never reach it – I hope!
After that it was back to Collingwood for one final night in Golden Bay. The northwest of the South Island was a great introduction to this part of our trip. For me it’s a real eye opener. I grew up in New Zealand but I’ve never been to the South Island until now. It turns out that I was missing a lot!