Weather in New Zealand is a fickle beast.
Baking in the scorching sun one minute and then huddled under a tree trying to escape the freezing wind and torrential rains the next. The weather forecasts are no good – as evidenced by today’s forecast of a “zero percent chance of rain” which we read on our phone’s weather app while standing, rain-soaked, under a park gazebo.
This perplexing weather situation plagued us as we worked our way up the west coast of the South Island.
The fact that it is sometimes called the “wet coast” instead of the west coast should have given us an indication of what we were in for.
“Oh, the rain is still coming down sideways honey…that’s nothing,” said one small town local we talked to in a quaint diner. “When it comes straight down – well, then you know you’ve got a problem!” she continued with a twinkle in her eye and a mischievous grin that was shy a few teeth.
I don’t really understand what she meant…but I’ll take her word for it as I have never seen downpours of rain like we’ve seen here in New Zealand.
Due to the weather we have had to modify our travel plans on the fly. Waking up each morning and deciding if we should stay in the area and wait out the weather (like we did in Milford Sound) or do we continue on and miss some things.
After leaving Queenstown we drove the picturesque highway through Mount Aspiring National Park and over Haast Pass. Unfortunately the rain clouds had the entire area socked in so we only caught brief glimpses of the beautiful scenery.
While making our way over Haast Pass we stopped to see Thunder Creek Falls. It was a fast stop, however, as the sand flies nearly ate us alive. Vicious wee beasties!
We camped near Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier, but again, the rainclouds, floods and washed out roads prevented us from seeing these magnificent sights. Rather than waiting for the weather to clear we decided to forego the glaciers and continue north toward Punakaiki, a town famous for their unusual “pancake rock” formations. Glenn is a huge fan of pancakes so he was sure this was a sight we needed to see as soon as possible.
The rain clouds finally passed and gave us this beautiful sunset with the pancake rocks silhouetted in the distance.
Hiking through the pancake rocks of Punakaiki.
Where’s the syrup? Geologists don’t know for sure why the limestone is layered like this.
We then continued even further north (in a torrential downpour, of course) to the town of Karamea to see the Moria Gate Arch. This part of New Zealand is several hours out of the way from the traditional tourist routes so we really had the place all to ourselves.
We took a beautiful hike to the Moria Gate Arch, which is massive. You can see Glenn in the lower right of the picture to get a sense of scale.
Glenn climbing up out of the cave that leads to beneath the arch.
A side view of the arch. The river water is a beautiful, albeit a bit unsettling, rust color of from the tannins that are leaching out of the organic material on the forest floor…a sign of the amount of rain the region gets!
The aptly named Mirror Tarn that we passed while hiking out from the arch. I was mesmerized by the details in the water’s reflection.
We then continued our swing around the north end of the South Island and ended up in Picton where we toured the Edwin Fox, a transport ship (goods, immigrants, convicts) built in 1853.
Glenn standing in the belly of the Edwin Fox. The woodwork and metalwork of the ship was spectacular and is the reason the boat can still float to this day (although it is now in dry dock to be preserved).
We may have played with the kids dress up clothes…since no one else was onboard. Glenn’s ever-growing beard really brought the pirate look to life I think.
I loved the patina of the wood, as well as on the metal skin that was affixed to the hull of the ship to protect it from pests.
I could have spent hours studying the details of the ship.
We then began our trip back south toward Christchurch, stopping off in Kaikoura to hike the beautiful peninsula and go whale watching.
The weather finally gave us a break and we enjoyed the amazing hike around the Kaikoura Peninsula.
A big fur seal came up to shore to say hello.
The coastline around the peninsula was otherworldly and it was easy to see why it is such a sacred place for the Maori people.
Glenn making his way back down to the water from the trail we were hiking along the top of the bluffs.
We spent one morning out on a boat whale watching. This is one of the sperm whales that frequent the area. He is a large male that has been known to protect smaller sperm whales from pods of orcas. Sperm whales sit on the surface for several minutes with just a portion of their backs and their blowhole exposed (as seen here) before diving again to feed.
Sperm whales stay down feeding for upwards of 45 minutes. The boat captain used a microphone to listen to the whale using echolocation while hunting to try to determine where the whale would most likely resurface. The captain would listen for the whale’s clicks (echolocation), drive the boat in one direction…listen for the clicks again and then reposition the boat in another location…on and on and on. Next thing we knew the whale resurfaced again just in front of the boat. Pretty impressive game of cat and mouse.
Sperm whales give you a great show of their tail as they begin their next dive. He won’t be back on the surface again for another 30-45 minutes.
We also got to see a huge pod of dolphins off the coast of Kaikoura.
Although shy, these dusky dolphins put on a great show by doing big flips out of the water.
We could have stayed on the South Island for weeks longer, but the time had come to begin exploring the North Island. We boarded a plane and flew to Wellington where Glenn was very excited to visit the Weta Workshop where all of the costuming for The Lord of the Rings was done.
Outside of the Weta Workshop we were greeted by the trolls from The Hobbit.
Hobbit feet. I really, really, really wanted to rub my hands over those hairy toes. It was a somewhat unsettling compulsion!
Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside of the Weta Workshop but the amazing talent of their artists are featured all over town, including this fantastic Gollum that greets you at the Wellington airport…
…and these scaled up figures of New Zealand soldiers (based on real people) at the Gallipoli exhibit at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
The details on these huge figures (there were several different ones) was amazing…look a the sheen of sweat, the pores in the skin, the stubble, the texture of the tongue. So amazing.
Although the weather has caused us a few hiccups along the way, we truly enjoyed our time touring around the South Island and look forward to what the North Island has in store for us.
In the meantime, I leave you with this picture of the dolphin pod…which totally cracked me up!
Interested in reading more about our travels in New Zealand?
Too much of a good thing? (New Zealand, Part 1: Christchurch to Southland)
Things are looking up! (New Zealand, Part 2: Milford Sound and Queenstown)
Farewell to Middle Earth. (New Zealand, Part 4: North Island)