Our week-long exploration of New Zealand’s South Island started well enough. When you rent a car from Hertz with the intention of driving through both islands they don’t want you taking the car on the ferry, and we didn’t want the expense of taking the car on the ferry. Instead you drop off the car in at the ferry terminal in Wellington (without formally returning it), and then just pick up a new one in Picton when you get off the boat. Simple as that.
We got on the ferry and the ride was beautiful. It takes about three hours to traverse the Cook Strait and then travel down Queen Charlotte Sound through what felt like fjords or Alaska’s Inside Passage. Calm, relaxing, beautiful, with quiet spaces available to read … pretty much a perfect journey.
The hell started when we got to Picton. There was quite a line at the Hertz office and by the time we got to an agent she said “You don’t have a reservation and we don’t have any more cars.” The “no more cars” was believable; the recent earthquake on the South Island had stranded a lot of cars and everyone was having a problem with supply. But we had a reservation, we were sure of that. If they didn’t have a car they would have called us to say “Don’t come down here!” And they were giving cars to others with reservations. We called the Hertz support line and they were sure we had a reservation. The people in Picton didn’t think so, though, and they weren’t giving us a car.
No one else had cars either. You know, that earthquake thing. A delightful woman at a neighboring, local car rental place (Ace, if you’re ever in New Zealand) tried to help us, including calling around to all the other options, but she came up empty handed too. It was looking grim; we were starting to research hotels in Picton until they could find us a car. Eventually, though, after an hour or two of anxiety, she came through and not only found a car but – importantly – found one with a trunk big enough for all our luggage. Finally we were off to see the South Island. Thank you lovely lady of Ace!
First on the agenda was two nights in Nelson, a two-hour drive west from Picton. The drive introduced us to the millions and millions of bright yellow broom plants that cover the South Island’s roadsides this time of year. Not only was the ubiquity of broom plants a subtle reminder of British history (the plant was the emblem of a certain French family of Anjou who thus became known by it’s Latin name, plants genista, or the Plantagenets; they ruled England for 350 years starting with Henry II in the early 12th century), but they brightened up everything along the road. Nelson itself was a cute town with a small pedestrian mall area that seemed to have a great little night-time buzz, definitely a place one could hang out in for a while.
A big advantage for starting in Nelson was that the weather was supposed to be good there and miserable in the rest of the South Island. And indeed, the weather was fabulous, perfect for a day-hike we did in Abel Tasman National Park. The Coast Track is a famous three- to five-day hike all along (surprise!) the coast of the Tasman Sea, often described as the most beautiful of New Zealand’s Great Walks, extremely well-marked and easy to follow. As we’re not big on backpacking or sleeping in huts – or at least one of us isn’t… – we just hiked the first 10 kilometers out and then turned around and came back. It was a beautiful
hike tramp with glorious views of the sea and kayakers and remote beaches, even occasional forays deeper into the woods. At the start there were lots of other people, mostly also on day-hikes, but after a few kilometers we encountered others only much more infrequently. After the hell of our Alpine hike on the North Island, this seemed like heaven.
From Nelson it was a long six-hour drive southwest to Franz Joseph Glacier, a little town right next to – you guessed it – Franz Joseph Glacier. It’s supposed to be one of New Zealand’s prime attractions, but you couldn’t prove it by us. We got in too late to see it the one night we were spending in the village, and the next morning, when we planned to see the glacier on our way out of town, the weather was cold and rainy. It’s a 40-minute hike from the car park to the glacier and no one felt like taking that on in the rain. Somehow sitting in cold, wet clothes for the remaining four-plus hour drive didn’t seem that attractive. So except for a pleasant early morning run – before it started raining – Franz Joseph was kind of a bust. Kind of like the Emperor after which it was named who ruled over the demise of the Hapsburg Empire.
Our penultimate stop was in Queenstown, the self-proclaimed “Global Adventure Capital.” Nestled into the remarkably beautiful Remarkables (an aptly named mountain range) and alongside Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand’s third-largest lake, you’ll never be bored in Queenstown. Hiking, biking, and zip-lining are only the start. It’s a bungee-jumping center, with mountain bikers careening down steep mountains and parasailing and God only knows what other delights. For the most part, we stuck with the hiking, primarily a great 13-mile jaunt where Mark’s parents drove us out to some golf course along the lake and we hiked a nice trail back into the city. The day before I’d hiked up to a big peak overlooking Queenstown – most people take the gondola up there – but I lost all my pictures during a new-phone booboo so that one doesn’t really count. (Strangely I lost a bunch of pictures of the ferry ride to South Island all the way through Queenstown, but I recovered pictures from the North Island that I thought I’d lost. I’ve added them to the post on the North Island so if you’re looking for pictures of Mark in his bright and happy yellow raincoat, now they’re there!)
Finally, it was back to Auckland for two more nights. We took Mark’s parents to Soul, the great bar-restaurant that Mark and I had enjoyed on our earlier stops, and they liked it too. And then on our last night, Mark & I actually had friends visiting from Boston. John and Shayna were on their honeymoon, 11 months after their wedding in Boston. John is the CTO for our company, a guy who started as an intern and about whom, after his first week, we knew would some day run the company. So we had a chance to catch up on some of what was going on back at the office and commiserate over the awful, truly depressing state of American politics today. It was too short a visit with great friends, but it was the only day we had so it had to do.
And that was New Zealand. The next morning we were off to Cairns, Australia, Mark’s parents were headed back to Michigan, and John & Shayna were off to Japan. Two weeks wasn’t nearly long enough for New Zealand so we’ll have to come back the next time we’re ready for a little South Pacific island hopping.