Driving through Haast Pass to the West Coast, we had a mixed reception. For one, our blood seemed to be far too sweet for the thousands of small sandflies – ready to gorge themselves and fly away a slower blood filled blob. Their short day on earth, a subtle reminder to live life to the full and a stronger one to have a large amount high strength insect repellent on hand.
Stopping off for the night at Lake Paringa, we braved the dusk to quickly fry enough sausages each. It was temping just to leave them cooking on the gas cooker while we sheltered inside. However, each time we entered back in the van, we took a further swarm of insects in with us. Tam took some comfort in smearing them across the windows, writing her name scrawled in our stolen blood.
The West Coast made for some good driving. The one lane bridges and windswept trees all part of the character. A short detour up Franz Josef showed us how quickly this glacier was in decline. Mitch was here 6 years ago and in that time it had retreated over a kilometre up the valley – leaving the viewing platform high and dry. Surely, insurmountable evidence for a change in regional climate. Here we got the good news by text that our visas had arrived intact. Great! We are allowed back in the UK! A huge relief.
Passing inland through Westport we had a chance to stop off and walk around the Brunner Mine, one of NZ’s worst mining disasters. A solemn reminder also stood for the more recent victims of the Pike River Mine. Near St Arnaud we found Tam’s fondest childhood memory of the area – an old hut, which had been re-purposed as a cafe and maintained some level of pioneer charm.
Lake Rotoroa was where we set up camp amid the largest black haze of sandflys we had ever encountered. Our only reprieve was when a bus load of Chinese tourists arrived. Their blood appeared to be more appealing and we had several minutes of peace to eat our sausages cooked on the gas burner.
Mitch’s friend Tim had a pretty sweet spot over the Takaka Hills in Golden Bay, well worth a visit. Taking the GMC over those hills was a bit of a task, but it managed to haul its big V8 engine over the top and down the switchbacks for quite a bit of petrol. Lucky the petrol price had fallen so far, otherwise we would have burned a big hole in our pockets. Being able to stay at Tim’s bach was a real treat, nestled at the back of a section of natives overlooking the beach. With Tim as our jet lagged tour guide, we took in the local sights of Tata Beach, Milnthorpe Reserve, Waikoropupu Springs and the Mussel Inn. Waikoropupu had a pristine flow of 14,000 litres a second gushing from the ground, a massive source of some of the freshest water in New Zealand.
Stopping for the night in Kaiteriteri, we managed a small meal before being chased out of the local car parks by the camp security from down the road (vigilante justice). We later managed to find a secluded spot at a boat ramp, which meant that the early morning fishermen woke us while jostling for a parking space. Around the bay at Marahau we took a water taxi to Bark Bay, with the idea of an Abel Tasman Track run to Sandfly Bay and back to Marahau. The run was a bit longer than expected, with a few steep gradients, estuary crossings and gnarly roots. Tam had been dragging her clumsy feet a little too much and on one mistimed step ended up face-first on the track. A bit dazed, she dusted herself off and we managed to complete the remainder of the 17km run, in the hot sun, without any water (Tam used most of it to wash her grazes).
Arriving in Nelson we stayed a couple nights with Mitch’s friends Greg and Anna and their kids, Leni and Luca. Having been about 3 years since last seeing Leni, the family had gotten a bit bigger, with a third on the way. Luca had a good drive of the big Chevy, typical boy, complete with “brrrm brrrm” noises. Nelson was probably the hottest place we had been and the sun was scorching throughout the lazy day.
Our final drive took us around the coast of Marlborough to Picton, where we climbed aboard the Interislander bound across the Cook Strait for Wellington. On leaving the ferry, we noticed a slight bump in the van. We caught up with a few old friends on the Wellington waterfront only to return to the car park, turn the key and notice the same bump. Pulling off the motorway and setting up camp in Paraparaumu, we didn’t give it too much thought, we just wanted to sleep.
Rising the next day with a nice view of Kapiti island, we couldn’t help notice the ocean view was on a lean. On inspection, it turns out the rear tyre was blown, the second in 2 weeks! After much deliberation and several quotes from local tyre shops we decided to chance it on the spare to Rotorua. Driving back to Tam’s parents went relatively quickly. A warm swim in Lake Taupo and the van being covered in a swarm of bees a couple of familiar events in familiar country for us.
Our South Island Road trip was almost other worldly. We’ve traveled so much of Europe, but for us, there are so many gems in our own back yard.