Boarding the ferry from Wellington, Doug and I departed on a three hour boat ride across Cook Strait to the northern town of Picton on the South Island. The strait is said to be one of the roughest pieces of open ocean in the world. Even on the giant car-carrier Interislander ferry, the 10 foot swells felt immense. Once in Picton, our plan was to drive the West Coast of the South Island through to Franz Josef Glacier and south to the Fiordland National Park. The West Coast is what one of our cab drivers dubbed the “wild west of New Zealand”; with mountains that fall away to pure blue ocean below and nature more expansive than any comparable civilization, it’s apparent that the island is home to only 25% of the entire New Zealand population. The island itself is just over 58,000 square miles but has only 1 million people. In comparison, the North Island is home to about 3.3 million people but a landmass of just 44,000 square miles.
We picked up our “touring car,” as our rental agent praised the 1990’s vintage Toyota. She claimed she had driven one down the coast and it was a dream. No wonder the rental price seemed such a bargain when we booked it. With neither of us having experience driving a car on the left side of the road and from the right side of the car, Doug took first shift behind the wheel. We clipped a curb as we drove out of town which snapped the zip tie holding the hubcap to the car and not soon after, we saw the thing fly off to the left and tumble down the road. It wasn’t two minutes before Doug says, “I’m getting pulled over.”
The exchange went somewhat like the following:
Police officer: How you doing then? You were going about 85 kilometers per hour …
Doug: Yeah, I’m sorry, I just picked the car up and just getting used to it.
Police officer: Oh, you’re from the States then? Well, you’re doing a great job. Fantastic really. But at 85 you’re impeding the flow of traffic. You see these turn-outs here? Well, just stay to your left so people can pass you.
Doug: What’s the speed limit?
Police officer: Well it’s 100. So you were just going a bit slow. You’re doing fantastic though.
Me: So officer, if I may clarify, you pulled us over because he was going too slow?
Police officer: Well yup, you were just impeding traffic a bit. Do you guys have a map? Can I get you a map?
548 kilometers is 340 miles. In that distance to Franz Josef, we passed through rolling mountains lined with wineries and out onto the West Coast.
We arrived late at night into Franz and booked a heli hike up to the Franz Josef Glacier. The glacier is 7.5 miles long and is fed by a 7.7 square mile snowfield high above the Tasman Sea. The reason why Franz Glacier (and neighboring Fox Glacier) is so remarkable is that it ends just under 1000 feet from the sea amid a temperate rainforest. This also means that temperatures on the glacier are incredibly warm. The ten minute ride up the glacier was spectacular. We buzzed the top of a mountain peak and the cliff fell away to the glacier far below. With crampons on, we tramped along the ice, navigated around cravasses and through ice caves.
We moved south and through the Southern Alps and up Haast Pass. The drive from Franz Josef through to Queenstown is remarkable. At every corner, Doug and I would yell “Ohhhhhhh!” as we approached another unbelievable vista. We made a stop in Wanaka and determined it would be a fine place to live in the future but continued through to Manapouri, our resting place for the night. Manapouri is a small little town, fit with a motel and situated on the bank of Lake Manapouri, and is the gateway to Doubtful Sound in the Fiordlands.
We boarded a tour of Doubtful Sound. Doubtful Sound is actually a fjord, a deep cut into the rock produced by a glacier that forms a body of water and typically much deeper than the surrounding sea. Leaving the dock in the morning and across Lake Manapouri, the fog lifted off the water and cleared into blue. The view from the top of the pass overlooking Doubtful Sound is remarkable. We sat among dolphins swimming by, watched Fiordland Crested Penguins jump to the water, and seals basking in the sun. A fitting end to a trip that still leaves me speechless.
Below is a map of our entire trip. I have yet to figure out how to get the road map to transfer to wordpress, but imagine a line through the points.
B: Franz Josef
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To learn about the Franz Josef heli hike, click here to visit the Helicopter Line.
To visit the tour companies for our trip to Doubtful Sound and more information, check out Real Journeys.
Below is more photo evidence of the South Island.
… and what was Doug’s reaction to all of this? (And mine, but off-camera) …