Discover New Zealand’s South Island
Maui, that mischievous hero of Polynesian mythology, apparently had a grand old time creating New Zealand. According to one version of Maori legend, he created it on a fishing trip, no less, as an unwelcome stowaway on the waka (canoe) of his three older brothers, who had planned to leave their pesky half-sibling behind. In the very deepest part of the ocean, Maui cast out his fishhook made of a magical ancestral jawbone. Down, down, down it sank until it hooked onto something big, which the demigod and his kin hauled up with incantations, supernatural powers and sheer might.
Their prize — Maui’s fish or Te Ika a Maui — represents New Zealand’s North Island. The South Island? Why, that’s the canoe, and I’m standing on the very spot Maui stood when he made his great catch: the Kaikoura Peninsula.
Situated on the South Island’s eastern coastline about a two-hour drive north of Christchurch, the Kaikoura region is a fitting location to hear a story about fishing. It plays host to an abundance of marine life and, accordingly, has a long history of human settlement. Maori tribes used the area as a base for hunting the now-extinct flightless moa and finding crayfish (kaikoura means “to eat crayfish”), Europeans set up whaling stations here and, in more recent times, the nearby village of Kaikoura has become a bustling stop-off point in tourist season for people keen to spot migrating sperm whales, swim with pods of dolphins and photograph lounging southern fur seals at the large seal colony just out of town.
Not only is my guide Maurice — full name Manawatu Te Ra — a gripping storyteller, he’s a fabulous host.
Not only is my guide Maurice — full name Manawatu Te Ra — a gripping storyteller, he’s a fabulous host. He’s already taken our small group out to the historic pa (settlement sites) of his ancestors, to the marae (communal hall) grounds of his community and to his home, to meet his charming wife and tuck into some homemade Kiwi kai (that’s scones and sandwiches to you and me). Now he drives us toward the seaward-facing Kaikoura mountains to a forest he poetically calls The Realm of Tane, the god of forests and birds.
It’s raining out but we don our rain jackets and walk, testing the small, finger-like, peppery-tasting yellow berries of the kawakawa shrub (its leaves also make a soothing tea), learning about traditional Maori medicines and greeting a 900-year-old giant of a tree that escaped the axes of early loggers. NZ’s slow-growing native flora is beautiful and astounding, much like its views, and certainly like its legends.
Adventure, here we come
Kaikoura may be where Maori lore says New Zealand began but it’s not where this particular journey started. Like most Aussies and Kiwis, I love a good road trip, and this one began seven days ago when a friend and I hired a campervan to explore some of the South Island’s most beautiful spots. Upon landing in Christchurch, we headed straight to the capital of adventure: Queenstown.
The drive to reach this southerly gem — renowned for its jet-boating, bungy-jumping and all-round freestyling way of life — is a thrill in itself. We choose the inland route which takes you past Aoraki (Mt Cook), NZ’s tallest sentinel, over Burkes Pass to the turquoise-hued lakes Tekapo and Pukaki, on to the sweeping grasslands of Mackenzie Country (if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, this is where Peter Jackson filmed the battle of Pelennor Fields) and, finally, through the winding Kawarau Gorge.
Queenstown, nestled amid looming mountain ranges next to the azure brushstroke of Lake Wakatipu, is a honeypot for skiers, mountain bikers and hikers. Yet, while adventure may be Queenstown’s second name, wellbeing is surely its third.
Queenstown … is a honeypot for skiers, mountain bikers and hikers.
If you’re in need of relaxation, you’d be hard pressed to find a lovelier yoga studio than Nadi Wellness Centre, where you can do “rise and shine” yoga with a view, or a more luxurious pampering paradise than the boutique hotel Matakauri Lodge. At Onsen Hot Pools, a 10-minute drive away towards the Coronet Peak ski area, you can soak away aches and pains while soaking up mountain views high above the Shotover River. On the road out to the hamlet of Glenorchy, new retreat centre Aro Ha even offers “wellness adventures” where visitors can combine their two loves in an eco-friendly, sustainable environment.
Arrowtown & Wanaka
Leaving Queenstown for Wanaka, we drive via the historic gold-mining settlement of Arrowtown, where Condé Nast-lauded fine-dining establishment Saffron showcases the best of regional food and wine and where you can spend a cosy evening ensconced with a glass of local Otago Pinot Noir in front of an arthouse film at Dorothy Browns. It’s also the start of the Motatapu Track, a demanding 34km hike northeast to Wanaka that forms part of Te Araroa, a 3000km trail that runs from the northern tip of the North Island to the bottom of the South.
This visit, however, we’re not in Arrowtown for the night or to tramp; it’s on to Wanaka to visit Rippon, a biodynamic winery and vineyard that overlooks Lake Wanaka and the snow-capped mountains beyond.
Rippon wines are special. Rolfe Mills, a third-generation farmer on his family holding, started experimenting with grapevines in 1975. In 1982, he and his wife Lois planted the first block of vines with the intent of crafting high-quality wine and, seven years later, they released their first vintage. These days, the couple’s son Nick is in charge and stays true to his parents’ methods. All of the grapevines are grown according to Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic principles and without irrigation; the Earth’s energy imbues the vines and the fruit, so the award-winning wines produced retain the terroir of the ancient schist from which they came.
Tasting a young Riesling at the cellar door, gazing out over the neat rows of vines running down to the lakeshore, you get an inkling of how this place has the power to inhabit a wine and to settle in one’s soul.
Wild west & rugged
The remote, sparsely populated West Coast of the South Island is like the area time forgot. Alongside the coastal road heading north, vast, wild tracts of native lowland forest swoop down on black volcanic beaches littered with piles of whitewashed driftwood and swept by howling winds from across the Tasman Sea. Maori inhabitants called this region Te Tai Poutini — The Tides of Poutini — naming it after the mythical sea guardian of pounamu, or greenstone, its precious natural resource.
A brief gold rush in the mid-1800s created numerous towns along this coastline but most people disappeared just as quickly as they came. A number of artists now call the West Coast home, along with those with a yen to get away from it all. Yet still, outside of the three main settlements of Westport, Greymouth and Hokitika, there are limited signs of civilisation along the snaking coastal route.
Vasts tracts of native forest swoop down on black volcanic beaches littered with piles of whitewashed driftwood and swept by howling winds
There are, however, perhaps not unexpectedly in such a prehistoric landscape, two rivers of ice: the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. You can walk within metres of these opaque blue remnants of the Ice Age and, with various tour operators, you can even walk on them or fly above them. But you can’t yet stay on them yet, thank goodness. We stop for the night at a Department of Conservation (DoC) campsite 15km out of Franz Josef, where we’re dazzled by starlight undampened by city lights.
The next day, while it’s not whitebait season, thanks to the help of a friendly cafe-owner I get to taste that delicious Kiwi delicacy — the whitebait fritter — on the way through Hokitika. Home to the annual Hokitika Wildfoods Festival, Hoki, as it’s known to the locals, is as cute as they come and its regional food is just as good. The tiny fish are crispy, the batter light and eggy, and I can’t imagine how wonderful this fritter must taste from September to mid-November when locals wade into fast-running streams to catch the young whitebait sprats and sell them at roadside stalls.
About an hour’s drive further north, you can stop off for a wander out to Pancake Rocks at the edge of Paparoa National Park. These coastal rock formations look like the stacked culinary works of a hungry giant and, as you meander toward the ocean, you can spy large blowholes where at high tide the ocean spurts into the sky.
Luxurious Abel Tasman
Scoot forward 24 hours and I’m now on first-name terms with a small team of American, Canadian and British tourists and Marius, our lanky walking guide in the lush coastal Abel Tasman National Park northwest of Nelson. A deep thinker who is in the process of creating a self-sufficient lifestyle with his family on a block of land nearby, Marius is leading us on the first leg of a two-day adventure with eco-tour operators Wilsons Abel Tasman.
That morning, after staying a night in the vibrant town of Motueka, we take a ferry from Kaiteriteri up to the starting point of our walk: a section of the 54.4km Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of NZ’s nine Great Walks. A relatively easy track, it winds along the waterline, through native forests and around secluded golden beaches.
Marius has an impeccable knowledge of the local flora and fauna. As we walk, he points out special plants, alerts us to distinctive birdsong and shares the history of Abel Tasman, at 225.3 square kilometres the smallest national park in NZ. Early European settlers farmed, milled tinder and built ships along the coastline but by the 1930s most people had left this remote area and it was designated a national park in 1942. The non-native animal and plant species the settlers brought with them continue to threaten the region’s delicate ecosystems today, yet native vegetation and birdlife are slowly regenerating. Privately funded initiative Project Janzsoon is working in partnership with DoC to help the park recover from the incursion of pests.
Crouching down, Marius draws our attention to red, anemone-like sundew flowers embedded in the earthen wall of the hill beside our track. Sundews eat insects to survive in nutrient-deficient soils and are able to adapt to wide variety of atypical environments. They’re an analogy for humanity, Marius reckons; like them, we must adapt to resource scarcity by finding new, eco-conscious, ways to survive.
We overnight in a luxurious lodge right on the beachfront at Torrent Bay before, after a satisfying breakfast, kayaking our way back to Kaiteriteri. I share a kayak with our guide, Paddy, who paddles with us across the glistening waters to visit the islands just offshore where we glimpse shags and a lone fur seal calling for its mum.
Paddy says that while these waters are protected, the wider Tasman Bay area — which has boasted a bounty of seafood for as long as humans have been present — has been heavily overfished by commercial dredge fisheries. I wonder to myself what the first hunters and gatherers in this breathtaking part of the world would have thought of such a development.
Fine wine country
After two days of outdoor exercise and adventure, it’s time for a visit to a region celebrated for its wines, specifically its Sauvignon Blanc: Marlborough. We have a day-long stopover near the regional centre of Blenheim so we figure, why not spend it wisely? And, by wisely, I mean investigating the glorious vineyards and wines of the Wairau Valley’s fertile flatlands.
As we walk, he points out special plants, alerts us to distinctive birdsong and shares the history of Abel Tasman.
There is a surprising number of small organic wineries operating alongside the big setups such as Matua and Australian-owned Cloudy Bay. Helen, our guide on a half-day tasting tour, takes us to the oldest organic winery in the region: organic and biodynamic Seresin Estate. Here, the vines are hand-tended and the grapes hand-picked and we’re lucky enough to see their fertilising machine in action: a draught horse hooked up to a cart loaded with sprayer tanks that are full of nutrient-dense compost tea. It’s ingenious and the horse looks perfectly content as he’s walked through the rows of vines, tea spraying out behind him as he goes.
Owned by Michael Seresin, a Kiwi cinematographer who spends part of the year in the UK, France and the States, the 45-hectare vineyard at Seresin produces small batches of wines that are fermented with wild yeasts. Olive groves, orchards and vegetable gardens add to the diversity of the estate and at the cellar door you can taste delicious oils as well as wines made from several varieties of grape including, of course, the Sauvignon Blanc.
Heading down the eastern coastline the next day to Kaikoura and, later, our departing flight from Christchurch, I tear my eyes from the sheep-dotted pastures to gaze at the ocean beside me. I think about all the natural riches Mother Nature has bestowed on the South Island. I think about its beguiling blend of Beauty and wildness, remoteness and community. I think, truly, this is a legendary land.
Air New Zealand flies to Christchurch from all Australian capital cities and major centres. airnewzealand.com.au
Hitting the road is the best way to see New Zealand. You can hire a car and stay in hotels or camp, or you can do what many travellers do and hire a campervan. Options depend on your budget but we chose a Cheapa Campa. cheapacampa.co.nz, +64 800 3260 5466
- The Resurgence is a luxury eco-lodge a short drive from Motueka. Boutique rooms and cabins start from NZ$525 (AU$495, US$448). resurgence.co.nz, +64 3528 4664
- Department of Conservation campsites are dotted throughout NZ. Facilities on offer vary and the DoC website has a comprehensive list. doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-stay
What to do
- Maori Tours Kaikoura offers full-day, half-day or two-hour tours that explore Kaikoura as well as Maori legends, history and traditions. maoritours.co.nz, +64 3319 5567
- When in Kaikoura, try crayfish at its freshest at the Kaikoura Seafood BBQ kiosk on Fyffe Quay, on the way to the seal colony.
- Queenstown locals do brunch at hip American-diner-style cafe Joe’s Garage on Searle Lane. joes.co.nz
- In whitebait season (September to mid-November), watch out for roadside stalls hawking whitebait along the West Coast. They’re worth a stop.
- In Motueka, visit the Arcadia Cafe for organic vegetarian food and delicious chai.
- Wilsons runs single- and multi-day hiking and kayaking eco-tours in the Abel Tasman National Park. abeltasman.co.nz, +64 3528 2027
- Na Clachan Wine Tours runs small, friendly tasting tours around Marlborough (from NZ$65/AU$61 for a half day). Helen can visit organic wineries on request. naclachan.co.nz, +64 3578 8881
- The writer travelled courtesy of Air New Zealand and Cheapa Campa.