Top of the South Island

Picton Ferry

Eight months of living on the north island of New Zealand was finally over, as we drove our van onto the Picton Ferry in Wellington, at the bottom of the north island. We had booked our ferry ride in advance for $235NZD which would take both of us and our van for the three hour journey to Picton, at the top of the south island. Over the time we’d lived in New Zealand we had heard the locals rave about the beauty of the south, so we were very excited to see it for ourselves.

After waiting for over an hour due to delays, we parked our van a few stories up on the large ferry and we were off! We had been told that the ferry ride was a journey in itself, so we settled in and crossed our fingers we’d catch a glimpse of some sea life and see the Queen Charlotte Sound we’d heard about near Picton. The ferry was nice, with a small theater on the bottom floor and cafes throughout.

Picton Ferry
The Interislander ferry we’d take to Picton.

The captain made an announcement as we were about a half hour into our journey that we’d be getting into Picton about an hour and fifteen minutes behind schedule due to some technical difficulties and our late departure. He’d find himself making more announcements about delays later in the trip, including a delay because another ferry had also been delayed and now we were both trying to dock in the same small port in Picton at the same time.

We unfortunately didn’t find the sound to be quite as special as described, partially because of the high rate of deforstation throughout the sound, but enjoyed the color of the water anyway. No sea life wanted to greet our large boat, and two hours behind schedule, we finally docked and drove off the boat in the small town of Picton. The ferry ride turned out to be just a standard ferry ride (of course, our first that we had driven our own car onto) but we were plenty excited to see the south.

Queen Charlotte Sound
The Queen Charlotte Sound was nice, however the clean cut lines of harvested trees and the sparsely covered hills took away from the scenery a bit.

Nelson Area

Our first stop was the Nelson region, and after driving for two hours we stopped in the town of Nelson. Similar to Auckland or Wellington, Nelson is both the name of a region, what may otherwise be called a county or district, and a town/city within the region. Gas was much more expensive than we had seen anywhere on the north island, so we gassed up hoping for cheaper prices further south and headed on toward our first campsite in the south island. The campsite was right on the beach and we were lucky to hear waves crashing next to us as we slept under a pine tree in our van.

Heading toward Abel Tasman National Park, we drove past it a short ways and down a private road. Parking among a group of cows on a muddy road, we started a hike Sissy had heard about toward Rawhiti Cave. Rawhiti Cave has one of New Zealand’s largest cave openings, and is full of stalactites hanging from it. It was raining a bit as we crossed a dry river bed, with a small trickle of water snaking between the rocks. Heading up the muddy path after about 45 minutes things got steeper and muddier. About an hour into the hike we were working our way up a steep, muddy slope and finally reached the mouth of the cave.

Rawhiti Cave
The mouth of Rawhiti Cave has hundreds of stalactites hanging from it.

Sissy let out a laugh just as I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. A goat ran from the path a few meters from us and up some rocks. A whole group of goats stood atop a rock at the cave entrance and watched us as we admired the hundreds of pointy stalactites and followed a path down into the cave. While the road to the parking area and the path leading to the cave seemed to have been left without maintenance for years, the path at the mouth and inside of the cave looked new and well maintained. There were railings to keep people from going too far in, but the path went about half way into the cave before signs asking you not to go any farther were posted.

Rawhiti Cave
A few of the goats in the mouth of the cave.

The cave mouth was the most impressive we’d seen in the country, and we tended to find ourselves in an abnormally high amount of caves since we moved here. After exploring around a bit, we waved goodbye to the goats and headed back for our hour or so long journey to the van. Shortly before getting back to the parking area we came across something that we hadn’t been expecting. Where we crossed the dry river bed earlier now was a full blown river in a relatively heavy flow. Over the course of an hour and a half or so this small trickle of water had turned into a river just under a meter deep and moving with some real force. With no better options presenting themselves, we took our socks and shoes off and hopped into the dark brown water and waded across.

Rawhiti Cave
Getting our boots on after wading through the dark brown water.

New Zealand tends to have a problem with rodents, specifically possums, and tries at every turn to kill the things when they can. If the government is Tom, the rodents are New Zealand’s Jerry, winning the fight at every turn while Tom resorts to harsher and harsher tricks to kill him. This could become an issue with the water in the country as the government uses a poison called 1080, among others, to kill rodents. They not only use it in traps that you see along virtually every hiking trail in the country, but they also drop it from planes and helicopters into the rivers and through the forests, possibly contaminating the water along the way. This, along with intense and dense farming and the odd bit of cyanide, causes reason to be concerned when wading through rivers and streams, especially when the water is as brown and murky as this river was. After crossing the river we hopped in the van, happy to have visited the really amazing cave and gotten safely across the river.

While driving toward our next destination we made a stop at the Labyrinth Rocks, an attraction Sissy had read about. We made a quick detour to the rocks and started our free journey into the Labyrinth. The rocks are limestone formations, the largest of their kind in the southern hemisphere if you believe the sign. Walking along we saw children’s toys neatly placed every dozen meters or so along the odd limestone sticking a bit out of the earth. The toys looked a bit worn and were more than a little creepy. The numbered attractions within the labyrinth were just odd bits of rock with names like, “The Grand Canyon” – that was a rock with a split in it – “The Stegosaurus” – that was a kind of long rock – and so on. We were underwhelmed and a bit too creeped out to stay, so we took off.

Labyrinth Rocks
The toys at the labyrinth were a bit odd and the whole place was a little creepy.

Pupu Springs, or Te Waikoropupu Springs, was our next stop. We had seen some amazing springs on the north island at the Blue Spring and Hamurana Springs, which gushed crystal clear water into streams flowing from them, so our expectations were high. Pupu Springs is the largest freshwater spring in the country, and are supposedly even more clear than the springs mentioned above. We took the short path over a very clear river to the springs, and saw a large, clear pond that was the springs. While it was larger than the Blue Spring or Hamurana, it lacked the same wow factor for some reason. Perhaps it looked less clear due to the size of the pool, or the plants growing in it, but regardless it was neat to see.

Pupu Springs
Pupu Springs was an interesting, short trip to the largest springs in New Zealand.

Lake Rotoroa, not to be confused with the equally beautiful Lake Rotorua on the north island, was our next stop. We had read that while the lake is beautiful, we would be attacked by a pesky bug we had been briefly acquainted with before and would become quite familiar with, the sandfly. Sandflies are kind of like mosquitoes on steroids. They’re small, fly directly for you instead of buzzing around and wasting time like mosquitoes do, and have a vicious bite. These little vampires suck your blood and the bites itch for days and days.

Lake Rotoroa
Our view of the lake just after sunset.

The lake was every bit as beautiful as we had hoped, with clear water and black swans drifting about, and the sandflies were every bit as vicious and plentiful as we had heard as well. The short, jagged mountains were still dusted with snow, and low lying clouds floated around them. We zipped up our jackets and put our hoods on to keep more sandflies from biting our heads and necks and as soon as we finished cleaning up after dinner we jumped back in the van to try to avoid any further onslaught.


Heading south we drove toward Punakaiki, a small outpost consisting of a few shops and residents, known for its pancake rocks. The rocks were said to look like stacks of pancakes, so we parked near a restaurant selling stacks of pancakes and walked down the path toward the rocks. We didn’t expect too much, layered rocks sound relatively interesting, and as we came to our first viewpoint we were impressed at what we found. The rocks seemed to be everywhere and hugged the coastline, so waves were smashing up against them and shooting into the air.

Punakaiki Rocks
The rocks at Punakaiki stretched further along the coast than we expected.

Along the path we came across a blowhole that was shooting spray up almost as high as another visitor’s drone that was flying above. There was a point in the rocks that had been eroded away by the sea, creating a low archway and a bay slightly inland. After spending the better part of an hour at the rocks, we headed down to a short, nearby cave, and then back to the van to move on to what would be a big highlight of our trip, Franz Josef Glacier!

Franz Josef
Franz Josef Glacier was a great experience a bit further south!