New Zealand – The South Island, Part 1

For a recap of the first part of our trip, see the north island post.

We arrived in Picton, our ferry port on the south island, in a cool, gray drizzle. Not the best introduction to the south island, especially because we were planning to spend the next day at the beach. We pushed on, though, heading for Nelson, our home base for the next couple days.

As we wound through the mountains, we saw more of the pine trees we’d seen in the north island. Logging is a big thing in New Zealand, apparently, and even in remote areas with no towns or people, trees are planted for future logging.

Look at those neat rows of future paper/lumber.
Look at those neat rows of future paper/lumber.

The lower half of the photo shows the native New Zealand plants. Or at least more native than the carefully planted pine trees. It’s amazing how much of the country is covered in forest designed for logging. One guide told us the trees grow to harvest height in about 25 years, so farmers often plant a “retirement stand” and sell them off as a retirement bonus.

As we came down into Nelson, the sun started peeking through the clouds. Once again the mountains had blocked the weather.

Nelson was the first city (err… town?) that we came to where people were out late. Even Wellington closed up shop at 5:00PM and no one at all was out by 8:00PM, despite (supposedly) being known for its nightlife. It was bizarre. But in Nelson, we actually found two (!!) restaurants open at 9:00PM. And they were crowded! Therefore, Nelson immediately endeared itself to us.

The next day we drove out to Abel Tasman National Park for a day-long tour. Tracy was sea kayaking and Dustin and I were doing an extended ferry ride followed by a short hike.

The day was mostly sunny, but threatening clouds loomed on the horizon. It was also a bit cool, but, undeterred, I wore my swimsuit under my hiking clothes. It was quite the fashion statement, since the swimsuit skirt hung out over the top of my pants.

Jessie Mihalik, fashionista.
Jessie Mihalik, fashionista.

The coast was beautiful, with wide, sandy beaches and crystal-clear water. We were dropped off on a beach by the ferry to hike to the pickup point.

The ferry leaving us.
The ferry leaving us.

What they failed to mention, or I failed to grasp, was that we’d be hiking straight over a mountain. Granted it was a small mountain (100m or so… so really more of a hill), but it felt tall enough when walking straight up and then straight back down. Even that wouldn’t have been so bad if the view was worth it.

It wasn’t.

We mostly saw trees and scrub brush. In some places you could see the ocean, but they were few and far between. We did see a ton of people, though. It was, by far, the busiest trail we had hiked thus far.

We met up with Tracy at the next beach, and I braved the water. And by that, I mean I put my toes in. Because, once again, it was freezing. There were some kids swimming, but that was about it. I wore my swimsuit all day for no reason. Ah, well.

We took an early ferry back to the car and headed back to Nelson. It was the first time I decided to drive. On the wrong side of the road.

No one died.

In fact, it was fine. I’d had a week of acclimatization as a passenger, I kept up a mantra of “driver to the center,” and I didn’t have any trouble. I even handled traffic and roundabouts with (relative) ease.

The next day was a long travel day. We drove halfway down the west coast in a single day. The west coast is somewhat desolate. Both the travel book and our hotel lady in Nelson warned us to fill up the car every time we passed a gas station. Neither was joking. There were signs warning about no petrol for 70-100km.

But because of the lack of people, it retains a wild beauty. One of our first stops was at a seal colony. After a few hours in the car, it was nice to stretch our legs. And the scenery was worth it. The tide exploded onto rocks and sandy beaches.

At the seal colony.
At the seal colony.

And seals! We saw baby seals, though we didn’t take our zoom camera on the walk, and they were too far away to get a good picture with an iPhone.

We stopped at a scenic overlook and got our first photo of Chuck.


Dustin named it Chuck, because it looked like a “chicken duck.” In fact, it was a weka, one of the many types of flightless birds in New Zealand. This particular Chuck was super friendly–someone, likely multiple someones, had been feeding him.

The next stop was at the Pancake Rocks. Due to some geological shenanigans, the rocks are layered like big stacks of pancakes. There are also a bunch of caves and “blowholes” where the tide comes in and spouts up through the rocks. We were there at mid-tide, so we didn’t see the blowholes in action, but we were able to see the water rushing into the caves. It was awesome.

Pancake Rocks
Pancake Rocks

It was after we had walked around in the hot sun for an hour or so at the Pancake Rocks that I finally put two and two together. A few days before, I had broken out in what looked like hives on my arms, upper chest, and ankles. Everywhere I broke out was somewhere the sun hit my skin, and the rash got worse in the sun at the Pancake Rocks.

I am allergic to the New Zealand sun. I’m the equivalent of a New Zealand vampire.

I’d heard the sun was more powerful in the Southern Hemisphere, thanks to a lack of pollution, but I didn’t think much of it. I live in Texas. We get a lot of sun. I’ve never had a problem.

Apparently medicine can make you sun sensitive, but the one I take shouldn’t have that effect. There is also a condition called PMLE that affects some people. I’ve never had it before, so we’ll see what happens when summer hits here.

So, after my astounding conclusion, no more tank tops. Luckily, the southern island was cooler and a jacket was almost always appropriate. And as soon as I stopped exposing my skin to the sun, the rash went away like magic. Yay, vampirism.

After the Pancake Rocks, we continued down the coast and then turned inland towards our destination of Fox Glacier.

I will say this: New Zealand has some amazing roads. First of all, they are all in excellent condition. And, secondly, some of them are feats of engineering.

But some of them are just crazy. Take, for example, this one lane car bridge that is also a train bridge:

One lane train bridge.
One lane train bridge.

That’s right, you drive your car straight onto a one lane bridge that also carries trains. In the same lane. No, I don’t see any reason why this could possibly be a bad idea, why do you ask?

The road between Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier was another such road. It wound around the side of a mountain like the world’s bendiest (and clingiest) snake. My average speed (because I had the luck to be driving this piece) was probably 30 km/h, and I was driving in sunny weather. I would’ve hated to drive it in the rain.

But we made it. Fox Glacier, the village, sits below Fox Glacier, the glacier. Except the glacier can’t be seen at all from the village.

And I do mean village.

It was a wide spot in the road, though it did boast three restaurants, all of them (thankfully!) open late. And all of them were essentially next door to each other, too. A sprawling metropolis it was not.

We began to wonder if we’d been duped into touring a nonexistent glacier. We went to bed joking that tomorrow they’d show us some rocks and claim they were a glacier.

We got up the next morning and walked across the street to the tour company. Where they promptly made us take off our nice, comfy hiking shoes and don the most uncomfortable pair of hiking boots I’ve ever had the displeasure of wearing. Even the extra thick socks they gave us did not help.

The boots were needed so the crampons we’d use on the ice would attach properly. I wish I’d taken my chances.

We took a bus out of town and then through a rainforest. The guide said they get something like nine meters of rain a year, and this glacier was fairly unique because it was so accessible. The glacier in question was still no where to be seen.

The bus dropped us off in a valley that did seem like it might’ve been carved by a glacier. And then we hiked in our awesome boots. The glacier is shrinking at an alarming rate, so I feel bad for people in another five years. They’ll have an even longer hike, assuming the glacier exists at all.

Finally, it came into view. And what do you know, it was an honest-to-goodness glacier.

We walked through a couple rock fall zones, and the guides told us to stay together and not to stop for anything. We didn’t think too much of it. But we would learn.

The first thing we did was crawl into an ice cave under the front of the glacier:

Ice cave
Ice cave

The guide said they only had a couple more days before the whole thing would collapse. That was reassuring.

Then it was time to don the crampons and get up on the glacier. Every day guides would have to come out and create a new trail by cutting stairs in the ice and filling crevasses so they were safe to walk on.

Dustin on the stairs.
Dustin on the stairs.

I have to say, of all the awesome things we did on this trip, the glacier hike was one of the best. It was amazing. The trail went up stairs and cut through crevasses. At points, like in the photo below, I was happy to have a waterproof jacket on, because you had to lean against the ice to make it through certain sections of the trail.

Part of the trail.
Part of the trail.

If you go to New Zealand and do nothing else, do a glacier hike.

As we were leaving the glacier, the rocks that had been falling across the valley turned into a serious rockslide. We’d been seeing small rocks fall all morning, but enough finally fell to take out some big rocks. Dustin and I both got video, and we were both so excited that the video is portrait instead of landscape. It’s still pretty cool. :)

This time when the guide told us to stick together, we all hustled along like good little ducklings. By the time we made it back to the bus, our feet were killing us. We were all super happy to put our regular hiking shoes back on.

This is the map of our south island route. In this post, we’ve made it to letter D, which is Fox Glacier.

South Island Map
South Island Map

Tomorrow, more on rockslides and the rest of our south island adventures.

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