New Zealand’s South Island (Part 2)

13 - 30 March 2013. Filed under category Travel.

This is the second part of my travel guide to New Zealand’s South Island. Click through here to check out part one.

Day 10: Helicopter Ride over Fox and Franz Josef Glacier

It is pricey, but a helicopter ride is a spectacular way to see the grandeur of the Fox glacier and its nearby buddy, Franz Josef. Just make sure that it is a clear day, or it is not worth the ride. And the clouds can appear very quickly, so don’t book in advance. Earlier in the day is usually clearer. (The helicopter rides are better to take from the Fox glacier as you have the option of taking a shorter route around just Mount Cook.)

If the helicopter ride is out of your budget, go see Lake Matheson and view the Fox from the Peak Point View.

Don’t sleep in Fox but carry on to Franz Josef and get your bookings in for the next day.

Day 11: Franz Josef and Pancake Rocks

Hold on, before we do this section, start playing this song. It is required background music.

Ice Climber

By now, you’ve seen glaciers from afar, you’ve seen them from a boat and you’ve seen them from a helicopter. Now it’s time to explore them on foot! The Explorer Walk was one of the most fun things I did on my odyssey through New Zealand’s South Island.

A short helicopter ride brings you onto the Franz Josef glacier, where you put on spike shoe clamp-ons and start explore  the many cracks, crevices, tunnels, holes, pits and valleys throughout the glacier. I felt like the blue eskimo in Ice Climber!

If you are choosing between the longer helicopter ride or doing the explorer walk, do the explorer walk! Seeing the glaciers from afar is a little like seeing your lover from afar. It’s nice, but it’s not the same things as being inside him. (sorry) Speaking of which, the people at Glacier Explorers are young, fun and hot! And totally awesome.

If you take an early morning walk, you have enough time to drive on to Westport, and along the way, stop by the weird and wonderful Pancake Rocks.

Day 12: The Denniston Experience and Wood Chopping

We’ve now reached the mining part of New Zealand, and we’ll first explore the historic mining by taking the Denniston Experience tour. You’ll get to ride a little train into a historic coalmine where the two tour guides illuminate both the mine and its history with their funny yet informative tour. I’ve taken mine tours before where guides explain this and that, but this is a great tour in that  each visitor is assigned a job title, and the guides teaches that person what a person with that trade would do in the mine.

Oh, and if you are around Westport in the right time of year, you might run into the New Zealand wood chopping championship.

Day 13: Reefton Gold Mine and Maruia Springs

With mining practices of old fresh in your mind, take a guided tour of the Reefton Gold Mine and compare the old ways with this modern gold mine. Surprisingly, the tour goes right into the industrial site, which is unusual for all kind of reasons. You get to see most of the steps in mining gold, from the open pit to the black slushy ‘concentrate’ (~60g gold per ton) from which gold is extracted using chemicals. For lovers of big machinery (like my dad) this is a must.

There are two hot pools on your way east. Manmar Springs is the larger and more tourist-friendly pools, and have water slides etc. But I recommend that you skip that in favour of the Japanese styled Maruia Springs. It has much more ‘soul’, and if you spend the night there, you can use the pools all night long. Also, the reasonably priced restaurant served me the most delicious sushi of my life!

Day 14: The Seal Colony of Kaikoura

Drive on to Kaikoura. Book yourself in for the dolphin swim, and then go check out the seals lapping up the sun on the cliffs around the bay of Kaikoura. At the same place is also a great lookout over the town and the mountains behind it.

Day 15: Swim with Dolphins

When I booked the dolphin swim, I was vibrating with excitement that I might just swim next to a dolphin. I didn’t see a dolphin; I saw over a hundred. The sea was roiling with dolphins. And I was right in the middle of the dolphin pod. They were all sides as well as above and below. And they came delightfully close! It was a-fucking-mazing! The Dolphin Encounter wildly surpassed my expectations.

My parents also went on a Whale Watching tour. Four hours on a boat and they saw one whale, at some distance. I think I did right in skipping it.

Freezing because dad forgot his wetsuit jacket.

Freezing because dad forgot his wetsuit jacket.

Day 16: Arthur’s Pass

If you have the time, you can extend your trip before returning to Christchurch by driving to Arthur’s Pass and back. The scenery is beautiful, going from forest through to alpine in a couple of hours.

The best stop along the journey is Castle Hill, and if you want a short trip, it is worth driving at least this far. Castle Hill is a scattering of enormous boulders. Doesn’t sound good, I know, but trust me. They are wicked cool, especially in the morning light, and the view from the top is awesome.

Drive as far as the viaduct and the half-bridge, then turn around and drive back and to Christchurch.

Day 17: Christchurch: Quake City

In 2010 and 2011, two big earthquakes devastated Christchurch. The quakes overshadow everything in the city, and macabre as it may be, it is what makes Christchurch a fascinating city to visit. A large part of the centre is simply gone. The houses fell, and the ones that did not are red listed as insecure and will be taken down when time permits. But it’s not just the centre. Everywhere you go, you find vacant plots where the houses are simply missing. It is eerie.

Amidst the destruction, seeds of creativity spring from the cracked tarmac. The most famous is re:start, a shopping district made entirely out of colourful shipping containers. Even more wonderful, and less known about, is the gap-filler projects. These are creative usages of the now vacant spaces, such as a mini library housed in a fridge or an open dance floor where the public can plugin in their own music and hold dance lessons.

To really understand the quake, you need a local to explain it, and you should take both the Red Zone Bus and the Open Decker Red Bus to go around and inside the red zone. The guides are great at explaining just what the city lived through.

Day 18: Fly Home via the Air Force Museum

We have come full circle, and it is time to return wherever you came from, or if you are a fellow nomad, go wherever you next will lay your hat.

On your way to the airport, I recommend that you stop by the Air Force Museum. It’s charming, small and staffed by some old veterans, proudly wearing their uniforms and trying hard to explain to ‘us youngsters’ how their comrades skins were horribly burnt and scarred by petrol (and they were the lucky ones.)

Ice Climber

Ice climber was the first ‘real’ video game I ever played, back on the old faithful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). As all first-time games, it has stuck in my head and heart. In the game, you climb a glacier, or potentially an iceberg, collecting vegetables and avoid polar bears wearing sunglasses and pink speedos. Eventually, you escape the top of the mountain with a well-timed jump-and-grab of a passing condor.

As I explored Franz Josef, I kept looking for that fashionista polar bear, but to no avail, and when I jumped and grabbed the landing feet of a departing helicopter, the guides began screaming at me. No appreciation for old video games…

Credits for the Ice Climber theme music above goes to Mazedude on Overclocked Remix.


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  1. kimera azriel says:

    I think we need to join your nomadic tribe. Day 15 clinched it.

  2. Martin says:

    Franz Josef is my favorite part. Nice guide. Very inspirative. I hope that one day I will see some of those places too.

  3. Crys Klier-Hoffman says:

    being surrounded by snow six months of the year ( or all year apparently this year), I am usually not excited by pictures of more snow and ice. HOWEVER, your photos of gorgeous mountains and ice caves, ( especially the electric blue cave), make me forget what lies outside my door. Don’t understand how your guide can be in shorts and bare arms. Hot blooded???
    The seal in the rock crevice is one of those little treasures you always seem to find and the dolphins, well, I guess they all got the message ” Gustav is coming!!!”
    I absolutely love seeing your mom and dad. Such fun for you to share these adventures together.
    Thanks for sharing. Today the media is full of the horror going on in Boston and it is good to take a few minutes to break away from it and know the world really is a beautiful place.

  4. Jono says:

    I am “this-close” to returning home to NZ after reading this.

  5. Gottes bell says:

    New Zealand is always like a dreamland to me. I visited there for a week last year. But it was like a dream tour for me. The time was so narrow. can you post more photos of that place?

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