Back to Greymouth

We were back at base by 12:30 and then set off back across country in the van heading towards Greymouth. We had decided to go back to the West Coast so that we could do the Arthur’s Pass return journey the next day as it has a reputation as being a beautiful and exhilarating drive.

En route we passed through Hanmer Springs, Springs Junction and Reefton. As we passed through each town late in the afternoon there was very little activity, looking almost deserted and with all their petrol stations closed. We had planned to stop at Lake Brunner but our lack of fuel meant that we chose the safety of Greymouth for our overnight stay.


We were booked on the 9:30 whale watching trip so got to the “Whaleway Station” good and early. As we looked from the station we could see the whales we’d seen the previous night still surfacing a little way off-shore. Our trip had a sea-sickness warning, with a swell of 1-2 metres, so Vic took some of the recommended sea-sickness tablets. We boarded a bus which took us to our boat, about 20-30 people in the party.

The boat was a very modern catamaran with jet-assisted propulsion which meant it could whizz along at a top speed of around 30 knots. As we surged through the waves leaving the marina it became clear we were in for a very bumpy ride as the boat rose up and slammed down between the waves. Within minutes a number of the passengers, Vic included, were looking very green, or rather white, and by the time we came to our first stop many were ready for a breath of fresh air (at the very least).

The captain of the boat had a hydrophone and was able to listen for the whales, and there was a very impressive video display with lots of computer graphics showing the boat location in realtime and the depth of the water etc. Kaikoura attracts so many whales because of an unusual geological feature. The continental shelf on which Kaikoura sits ends just 1 km away from the shore, with a cliff face then diving down from 100m deep to over 1km deep. This deep water so close to shore is rich in nutrients for the creatures (squid etc) which the whales live on. Male sperm whales are very common visitors to the area, and some remain for up to 8 months of the year, returning year after year.

After a few false alarms, one of the other boats out at the same time spotted a male sperm whale on the surface and we approached close enough to clearly see the huge creature (around 15m long) spouting water on the surface. After about 5 minutes on the surface the whale dived down, showing the famous “high tail” as it went down.

Male Sperm whale at Kaikoura

We moved around the water in the boat looking for more whales but none were showing up. Just as our two and a half hours at sea were coming to and end another sighting was made and we came within sight of another whale. On closer examination, it turned out it was actually the same male sperm male which we’d seen earlier, and he dived down again after a few minutes.

Vic’s enjoyment of the whole episode was somewhat spoiled by very bad sea-sickness, the tablets hadn’t helped at all and she ended up sleeping on the way back into harbour to counter the effects of the motion.

Blenheim & Kaikoura

The next day we decided to break the journey with a few stops in the wine-making region around Blenheim. As we travelled we were surrounded on all sides by fields full of vines. First stop was the Fromm vineyard where Vic had a tasting and bought a bottle of their 2002 Pinot Noir. Next was the Cellier Le Brun, famous for its champagne-style sparkling wines and a passion-fruit flavoured Sauvignon Blanc, a bottle of each of which was duly purchased. We then stopped for lunch at the Montana winery.

Fromm vines near Blenheim

After lunch it was down the coast road to Kaikoura, passing some dramatic glacial hill scenery. As we drove along there was a loud crack and to our dismay a nasty ding appeared in the middle of the windscreen caused by a stone kick up by a car passing in the opposite direction. It didn’t affect the visibility so we didn’t need to get it repaired immediately but it would need to be replaced before the van could be used by another customer.

Arriving in Kaikoura in the mid-afternoon, we parked up and walked into town to buy some gloves for the next days whale-watching expedition. We then walked down to the stony beach to sit and watch the waves; looking out to sea we spotted movement and with the aid of binoculars we were lucky enough to watch a number of whales breaking the surface and diving less than a kilometre off-shore. We watched enthralled for a while until the light started to fade, at which point we returned to the van and then back into town for some dinner.

Kaikoura beach

Queen Charlotte Sound and Picton

Thursday 24th saw us heading off early back up the twisty-turny road up Takaka Hill, this time in heavy cloud which made the drive a little ‘exhilarating’ to say the least. Coming back down out of the cloud, we passed through Nelson again, before making our way along the Queen Charlotte Scenic Drive, an equally twisty-turny road, to Picton. The scenery on the way was stunning, with mountainsides plunging down to the bays around Queen Charlotte Sound. We stopped at the top of a hill to take some photos and found a family of Wekas. One was so eager to get any food we might have that she jumped into the van as soon as I opened my door. We fed them a few scraps of bread and watched other visitors amuse themselves by feeding the birds some crackers.

Picton nestles at the end of the Sound, and is the docking point for ferries to and from Wellington on the North Island. We watched from above the harbour as one of the ferries manouvered its way into dock, before driving through the town to our campsite.

Ferry arriving in Picton

We walked into town and found some internet terminals at United Video so we caught up on our email and I uploaded some photos. We also booked some seats on a whale-watching boat from Kaikoura on Saturday morning.

We popped back into town for some excellent fish and chips from a shop on the High Street later.

Tokaka, Golden Bay and Pohara

Leaving Nelson we took the State Highway 60 up through Motueka into the Abel Tasman National Park, up the extremely winding road over Takaka Hill, stopping to take photos, down to Takaka and on to Pohara, a small beach area with another Top 10 Holiday Park.

Takaka Hill, South Island, NZ

Takaka Hill was used for a couple of scenes in LotR, including one where Legolas spots Saruman’s flying spies searching for the Fellowship. The camping park was very spread-out, with lots of room between pitches and the obligatory mallard ducks making themselves busy cadging food off campers.

The site was also adjacent to the beach, part of Golden Bay, which was miles of clean grey sand with no other people in sight. We decided to stay at Pohara for a couple of nights, to give me a break from driving long distances.

Pohara Beach

The next day we drove the few kilometres to Takaka and did some Christmas shopping and posting there, before returning for a meal at the Penguin Cafe at Pohara beach.

Over to Nelson

Heading inland the road follows the Buller River through to Murchison. On the way we stopped at the Buller Gorge Swing-bridge, the longest swing-bridge in New Zealand. We didn’t fancy paying to walk across, there’s nothing on the other side anyway. We fancied the ‘flying fox’ (strapped to a wire and slide hands-free) back across the river even less, but we watched a couple of other foolish types do it.

Buller Gorge Swingbridge

After Murchison the road goes along the edge of the Kahurangi National Park up to Nelson. We stopped to take in the views over the Tasman Bay above Nelson before driving down into the town. There we had a bite to eat at Ziggy’s Vegetarian Cafe and a look round some of the shops. First stop was the jewellers who made the rings for the Lord of the Rings films. You can buy replicas there, starting at about NZ$180 for silver, NZ$550 for 9ct gold up to over NZ$3500 for platinum. They also had some nice rings with coloured resin blocks set into them but we left empty-handed. Next door was FlameDaisy, a glassware studio which had some spectacular pieces of glass on display, some of which echoed the NZ landscape with mountain scenes, sea and sky.

The rest of Nelson didn’t prove to be terribly exciting so we decided to only spend one night there, before moving on the next day.

On to Westport

The next day was cloudy, making for some dramatic scenery as we drove along the coast.

We broke the journey at Punakaiki, famous for its strange rock formations. The rocks are in stacks of horizontal bands caused by differing hardness of the sediments when they were formed. No one has come up with a good explanation as to why these ‘pancake rocks’ formed in so many layers. Also around the rocks are a number of ‘blow-holes’ which spout sea water when the tide is high, which it wasn’t when we were there. We had a great coffee and cake at the cafe by the main road and then did a bit of shopping at the art/souvenir shop. I bought myself a nicely cut stone pendant, a pewter dice made in the shape of a squashed dragon (!) and Vic bought a ‘Dream Keeper’ doll made by a local artist. We were tempted by some lovely possum fur hats but resisted.

Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki

Next stop was the seal colony at Tauranga Bay, on Cape Foulwind (a great name given to it by Captain Cook). As we pulled up in the car-park, as usual full of other camper-vans, we spotted our first Weka, a fairly common and very curious little flightless brown bird. We walked up the path to the top of the cliffs overlooking the waves and rocks. From there you have an excellent view of the seal colony with huge male fur seals basking on the rocks and other seals swimming and bouncing around. The seaweed here was also very impressive, with huge strands several metres long washed backwards and forwards by the tide.

Fur seal basking at Tauranga Bay

After an hour or so watching seals and having a spot of lunch we moved on again along more spectacular scenery to the Top 10 Westport Seal Colony Holiday Park where we spent the night.

More Hokitika

The site was also just a few yards away from the beach and the sea, and the sound of waves breaking on the shore could be easily heard from our pitch.

Hokitika Beach

Vic and I walked down to the beach which is strewn with driftwood and scatterings of flat pebbles. It was a clear, bright day with very strong sun, but a cooling breeze from the sea. The amount of driftwood was astonishing, unlike anything we’d seen before, and it’s not obvious where it all comes from or why it ends up at Hokitika. Local artists use the wood and the stones and shells for their crafts making for some interesting textures.