The West Coast
The drive up the West Coast from Fox Glacier to Punakaiki (where the Pancake Rocks are) is truly stunning – it’s obvious why Lonely Planet named it one of the best coastal drives in the world! Lonely Planet has also named the West Coast region as one of the top ten places to visit in 2014 – in the world! This is pretty special for a little slice of a little country.
Punakaiki and the Pancake Rocks
On the way to Punakaiki we stopped in Greymouth to visit the Monteith’s Brewery and do a brewery tour. Unfortunately the brewery was under construction (it’s finished now and is apparently fantastic) so we didn’t get to look around but we were shown a video about how the beer is made and of course got to taste some beer and cider!
We stayed at the Punakaiki Beach Camp, which was about a 2 minute drive or 15 minute walk from the Pancake Rocks. It was a nice camp right on the beach, with clean facilities. The Pancake Rocks are really cool, and we enjoyed the Pororari River Track, which took about 2.5 hours and is pretty easy (and it started just down the road from the camping ground).
Kahurangi National Park and the Oparara Basin
At Punakaiki we split off from our friends, who headed back to Christchurch over Arthur’s Pass. We continued north on SH 6 and drove as far as you can go on the West Coast – past Karamea and into Kahurangi National Park. This part of the trip was amazing – we had both underestimated how stunning the scenery would be, so it took us by surprise. To be honest, we’d never really thought of going to Kahurangi NP, but my goodness we are so glad we did!
The drive north of Greymouth gets pretty windy in places, especially over the Karamea Bluff – we had to stop a couple of times to let Bessie cool down! The views are magnificent though.
We stayed at the Kohaihai Beach DOC campsite, right at the end of the road. This is also the start/end point of the Heaphy Track (one of NZ’s Great Walks, which we hope to do one day!) so there were lots of hikers about. The location of the campsite was stunning, right beside the Kohaihai River mouth. There were lots of sandflies – but that’s normal for the West Coast! We climbed up the hill behind the campsite and were rewarded with a great view.
One of the things to do in this area is to drive into the Oparara Basin, which has limestone geology and so has heaps of caves, arches, and lots of fossils. The road is SERIOUSLY hairy – there’s a sign warning against taking campervans in there, but of course we ignored that advice! There had been significant rainfall a couple of weeks beforehand, and parts of the road were partly washed away so we found ourselves driving over planks of wood on a road about the width of the van with a sheer drop on one side and a cliff on the other! Ick, scary. The road was very steep and narrow in places and we honestly thought our brakes had crapped out – the smell was terrible! We finally got there though, and we found out that some silly people had driven their large (rental) campervan in there a couple of weeks before and it had gone off the road, and was still there! You could actually see the roof in the bushes below the road! Bad idea…
BUT it was totally worth the scary drive – we were rewarded with a couple of fantastic walks (all less than half an hour) through the ancient lichen-covered forest alongside rivers tinged with tannins from the soil, flowing through caves. It was simply incredible – so unexpected and so quiet (we only saw about 3 other people).
We eventually braved the road again and made it back to Kohaihai. Phew!
Nelson Lakes National Park
After a couple of wonderful nights there it was time to head back east, and we drove back down to Westport and then through the Buller Gorge (another spectacular drive) to Nelson Lakes National Park. It was pretty cool to follow the Buller River from its mouth at Westport to its source at Lake Rotoiti in Nelson Lakes.
We stayed at the Kerr Bay DOC campground the first night (we needed a shower!), and the West Bay DOC campground the second night. Both were in lovely settings next to the Lake Rotoiti (West Bay was a lot quieter, as Kerr Bay is close to the town of St Arnaud, and is a serviced campsite so more people stay there – West Bay was further around the lake). We did a couple of lovely short walks around part of the lake – Shaun’s back was playing up so we decided not to do the Mt Robert hike – we’ve saved that for next time!
Abel Tasman National Park
Next it was off to the beach – Abel Tasman National Park was calling our names! I’d been there a number of years ago and loved it, so we had to return. To see the park properly in a short time it’s best to do a water taxi trip combined with part of the Abel Tasman coastal track. We went with Marahau Water Taxis who were fantastic. We whizzed up the coast, stopping to see Split Apple Rock (it actually looks like an apple cut in half), seals at Tonga Island, and dolphins along the way. The boat dropped us off at Bark Bay, and we walked south to Anchorage. The walk took us about four hours – plus a bit of time waiting for the tide to be low enough so we could cross the Torrent Bay estuary! It’s a lovely walk, not hard at all, with lots of great vistas and pretty beaches. The only downside is that it gets really busy with walkers so at times it feels like there’s a constant stream of people! We were there in the height of the summer season though, so out of that time it’s much more quiet.
Mapua, Nelson, and Picton
The final few days in the South Island were spent heading back towards Picton. We stayed a night at the lovely McKee Memorial Reserve in Ruby Bay, and visited the Mapua Wharf for lunch – a great spot with a microbrewery and lots of yummy cafe’s! Next it was through a couple of wineries in the Upper Moutere – a platter, wine tasting, and art viewing at Woollaston Estates and a tasting at Neudorf Vineyards – delicious! We spent a couple of hours in Nelson, a great little city, before heading to the Pelorus Bridge DOC campsite for the night (where Shaun enjoyed flipping off the rocks into the Pelorus River).
Before heading to Picton we checked out a couple of wineries in Blenheim – lunch at Wither Hills (average), and tastings at Spy Valley and Gibson Bridge (both great). Gibson Bridge in particular was outstanding – they produce great wines for such a small vineyard, and the owners were so friendly. We ended up chatting to them for half an hour about the most random things!
Then, sadly, it was time to head to Picton to catch the Interislander back across Cook Strait to Wellington. We free camped for the night in Evans Bay Marina before heading to Taupo and then back to Auckland.
It was a fantastic trip around the South Island – we loved every moment of it! The scenery, the walks, the campsites, the company, the wine, and Bessie made it one of the best travel experiences we’ve had. We can’t recommend this kind of road trip enough – in fact when we hear of people thinking of coming to NZ the first thing we say is “Get a campervan and drive around the South Island!” It is completely worth it – you’ll have a blast.