South Island Things to Do Tips by Kakapo2 Top 5 Page for this destination
South Island Things to Do: 122 reviews and 227 photos
On the TranzAlpine, along the Waimakariri River.
As I have travelled on the TranzAlpine I can compare the road and train trip - and cannot really tell you what to do if you have to choose between the two kinds of transportation LOL
What is absolutely clear: The train trip is more relaxing, as you do not have to watch the traffic. But I can tell you, I was standing on the viewing platform most of the time, so I surely sit more when travelling by car ;-)
The road trip
You get fantastic scenery on the road trip which you do not see from the train:
1. the fabulous ascent of Porters Pass and the inner sanctum after the highest point of the road, with several beautiful lakes;
2. the fantastic limestone rock site of Castle Hill;
3. the dramatic downhill road through the Otira Gorge, with a waterfall diverted over the road.
And, as said, you can stop anywhere and enjoy the places, you have a chance of encountering wildlife like the keas, etc. I consider Cave Stream as a minor miss if you travel by train. Most people have no torches and do not enter the cave system anyway, and it is just another beautiful place in the tussock grasslands of the High Country.
The train trip
On the train trip you get some sights you can only dream of when travelling on the road. The most fantastic stretch is between Springfield and Cass. (Get on Googlemaps and you will see what places I am talking about.) The railway line first follows the Waimakariri River Gorge, your places of interest are Otarama and Staircase, then Avoca. You can access this area by train only. This meandering river gorge is like a mini Grand Canyon, just not red rocks, and the water at the bottom is turquoise blue on a sunny day. Absolutely breathtaking. You pass 19 tunnels and many scary bridges.
From Avoca you drive through tussock grassland with huge lupin fields in summer (usually late November until early January), and you pass Lake Sarah.
The railway line joins the road between Craigieburn and Cass, through Arthurs Pass. Then the train passes a 8.5 km long tunnel through the mountain (while car drivers hold their breath on the way down the steep gorge road) and comes out again before Otira.
Whereas most cars would carry on on SH 73, the train follows the route north (through Poerua), past Lake Brunner (Moana), and then to Greymouth. You can also drive this route by car.
What to wear and what not to wear...
A word about the viewing platforms of the train: If you spend a lot of time out there photographing, be prepared to be filthy afterwards. (Dark clothes highly recommended...) I really had a black face and smelled like a car engine under the shower. My hair was oily from the diesel fumes which envelope you especially in the many tunnels, and the shampoo not white but grey ;-)
Have some of those wet cleansing tissues at hand, for the case the toilet in your part of the train is out of order, as ours on the way from Greymouth to Christchurch, so you can clean your hands after excessive photographing on the platform. And go to the toilet before boarding the train. You never know... The only toilet stop in such a case will be at Arthurs Pass.
Food and drink on the train is very affordable, so no real need to bring sandwiches.
Best places to sit and stand
If you want to take photos of the Waimak Gorge out there make sure to stand on the right side of the platform on the way to the west and on the left on the way east (back to Chch). No need to get outside before Springfield.
Surely I am a big fan of the road trip but on the train trip you get other unique sights, especially through the Waimakariri Gorge.
My latest recommendation therefore is: Travel to Greymouth by train and back to Christchurch by car, or the other way round, and you get it all ;-)
If you make a return trip, consider staying in Moana on Lake Brunner. Greymouth is not a very spectacular town, and in the hour you have there you cannot do a lot, whereas you would have 2.5 hours in Moana for coffee and a very nice bushwalk or walk along the lake.
The full train trip takes 4.5 hours each way. Departure from Christchurch is 8.15am daily, departure from Greymouth at 1.45pm.
Tour and Intercity buses start right at the exit of the railway station in Greymouth. Shuttle services in Christchurch (esp. Canterbury Shuttles) cost NZ$ 5 if you want to go to a place within the so-called Four Avenues (Bealey, Fitzgerald, Moorhouse, Deans) of the central city.
For more pictures see my Travelogues on this South Island page.
Other Contact: http://www.canterburyshuttles.co
Milford Sound and Mitre Peak at low tide.
To tell you that you should visit Milford Sound if you travel in New Zealand would be like carrying coal to Newcastle. Of course you have to go there if you have enough time and are in the area. Well, probably not if you are from Norway! You have fiords as fanstastic as Milford Sound and even better.
To me, Milford Sound was even the trigger for my first trip to NZ. I had seen a photo in a magazine. The fiord, the nearly 1700m high Mitre Peak, white sand and a cabbage tree of which I thought it was a tropical palm... This was the perfect picture postcard of NZ, so many features of the world at one small place.
Already on my first trip to NZ I visited places I found more magic than Milford Sound but it always remains a very special spot.
I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. We stayed at Te Anau and drove to Milford Sound early in the morning, so we already came back from our boat trip out to the sea when the tour buses from Queenstown arrived. On the way to Milford Sound and back to Te Anau we stopped for keas and spend a long time just playing with them. Of course, they inspected the rubber parts of the car, but they also loved to play with coins we gave them.
In the meantime the fiord has become a rather crowded place, and sometimes even noisy when all the sightseeing airplanes and helicopters start and land. I do not like this at all in such pristine environments - but I must admit that you get such incredible views in this remote region which is inaccessible on land in many parts, and you can imagine the creation of Fiordland by huge glaciers.
In winter the road to Milford Sound can be closed occasionally as it is prone to heavy snowfall and avalanches. Always check the weather forecast and get information on the road conditions before your trip, and carry snow chains, just for the case.
Update 26 September 2008%
Not only here but also in the forum I often ask people to get information about the condition of the Milford Road before travelling there. And I do it for good reason. Although sometimes Milford Sound is the only sunny place in the whole of New Zealand, this is not the norm. It rains a lot down there (that is why it is so beautiful and green), and while travelling a bit further north or east you do not get aware of it. Yesterday, for example, a huge slip crashed down on the road after heavy rainfalls, and destroyed parts of the road. Luckily nobody was injured, two local ladies had a narrow escape. So again, get your information - and have alternative plans ready for the case you cannot access Milford Sound.
Road info here:
Checking both websites out right now only Transit tells you that the road is closed. AA only records that the avalanche risk is low... Not very helpful! So you better use the Transit website, and note their 24/7 freephone hotline:
0800 4 HIGHWAYS (0800 444 449)
In the meantime I have written and uploaded a proper Milford Sound page with a lot of information and photos, not just about the fiord itself but also the drive on the Milford Road and the attractions along the way, also information about the Milford Track.
Lake Grassmere is pink in sunshine.
You cannot do a lot there but it is a spectacular view that you should not miss. In nice weather the colour of Lake Grassmere, about 20km south of Blenheim, is absolutely shocking pink, well, not just a bit surreal.
This lake is the major source of New Zealand's salt production. As it does not rain a lot in this sunny region this low-level lake offers perfect conditions for the salt industry. The salt works can be visited - but only on Tuesdays and Fridays, as far as I remember. The enterprise's name is Dominion Salt.
60,000 to 70,000 tonnes of salt (of which most is exported) are harvested from Lake Grassmere each year. Sea water is pumped into the 688 hectare main lake continuously throughout summer. Evaporation increases the sea water's strength, and it is pumped into a series of concentrating ponds, where further evaporation takes place. When the brine reaches saturation point it is transferred into crystallisation ponds during the summer months. You cannot miss the 20 metre high white salt piles from the road.
The pink to purple colour of the crystallisation ponds is caused by natural microscopic green algae that change to pink in the high salt concentration. There are also small pink shrimps in the water that thrive in this salty environment. Of course, the colour appears most striking in sunshine.
If you turn left (when travelling to the south) after the lake or right before the lake (when travelling north) you reach wonderful and peaceful Marfells Beach (see extra tip).
The Paua House at Canterbury Museum.
Update 7 July 2008
The Paua House has now been recreated and can be seen in the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch since 4 July 2008. It is a fantastic display, matching the original. The museum has a lease for ten years - so you do not have to hurry. More pictures and information on my Christchurch page (Things to Do).
(Background info from 28 July 2007)
This year we had many reports about the famous Paua Shell House in Bluff on TV - unfortunately rather a sad story.
The late Fred and Myrtle Flutey had covered this house and garden in paua shells and added kitschy paua-decorated ornaments and trinkets, and turned it in a tourist attraction. It was their wish that it should remain like this and used as a museum. But the new owner, Fred and Myrtle's grandson Ross Bowen, ignored that wish and cleared out the house in a late night action and shifted the shells to an undisclosed place. He had said the shells should be displayed at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch - and after initially claiming they had not heard from him and not to be interested, the Museum has confirmed this month that they have received the shells, and that they will present them in the not too far future. Obviously the plan is to dedicate one room to the shells and decorate it in the way Fred and Myrtle Flutey had done it in their house in Bluff. Even Southland mayor Tim Shadbolt commented this solution would be better than to exhibit the shells at another place than the original house, as a lot more people would see and enjoy the shells and kitsch in Christchurch than in the Far South.
Apart from that agreement, I still think this guy who dismantled the house in Bluff is a disgrace.
What made me smile is that he did not succeed in selling the house at the auction at the end of April 2007, so he had to wait until he could satisfy his greed. I was always sure that the house would sell at some point, as it has a lovely seaview and sits on a big property. Finally, in July 2007 he sold the house for just under $300,000. Sadly, the new Australian owners did not intend to transform the house back to its former uniqueness. But I think at this moment the deal with Canterbury Museum was already perfect. And the grandson even got airtime on TV to announce it...
Cleaning feathers and chatting ;-)
We had not given a thought of seeing penguins at the Petrified Forest of Curio Bay. We were already happy to arrive at low tide (as we had not checked the tides, just driven down south leisurely) and see the exposed tree trunks and logs from 180 million years ago.
After having walked over the rocks and fossils, I stayed a while, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere (while my hubby fled the sandflies...). Suddenly a yellow-eyed penguin came out from the sea and walked towards me. As my husband had taken the camera with the big lens back to the car, I ran up to the carpark and got the camera - and when I arrived back on the beach, a second penguin had joined the first one, and they steadily walked towards me, stopped from time to time, cleaned their feathers, and seemed to chat - a bit like you and me when walking from shop window to shop window and discussing the exhibits LOL
Now I had learnt that this penguin species is shy, and you should not approach them closer than ten metres. But what to do if the penguins approach the humans? Well, I just stood still and made some steps backwards when the penguins came too close, and took my photos, and enjoyed this extraordinary encounter.
You remember such moments forever :-)
At dusk you should be aware that the penguins normally do not come to shore if they see too many people, and this would be very bad after the hatching of the chicks, because if the parents are too scared to come to shore the young do not get any food. But especially when chicks are in the nests penguins often come to shore already in the afternoon. So step back and keep your distance. Also at dawn there is a lot of penguin activity on the beach.
BTW At nearby Purpoise Bay you can watch Hector dolphins.
Penguins waddling onto the Petrified Forest.
We went to Curio Bay - which is at the western end of Purpoise Bay and just some kilometres before Slope Point - because we wanted to see the Petrified Forest. This is exposed on the beach at low tide. Lucky us, we were there at the right time of the day, so we could walk on this Jurassic forest park which dates 180 million years back. This is already absolutely impressive, as you can clearly recognise lying tree trunks and stumps. If you are lucky you get a bonus, as did we: Some yellow-eyed penguins waddled ashore (see next tip).
The Petrified Forest is one of the most extensive and least disturbed examples of a Jurassic fossil forest in the world and stretches about 20 kms from Curio Bay to Slope Point. Those 180 million years ago - the middle Jurassic period - the area was a forested coastal floodplain of Gondwanaland. Most of the future NZ was beneath the sea.
It is believed that the forest was destroyed when heavy rain washed down volcanic debris from a volcano. This could have happened as often as four times over a period of 20,000 years, every time when the forest had regrown. You can clearly see this, as distinct bands of fossilised tree stumps and wood are exposed in the cliff face. As the sediments were buried deeply, they were impregnated with silica minerals. This turned the wood into rock.
After NZ had split away from the Gondwana super-continent about 100 million years ago and drifted north, the sea eroded the layers of sandstone and clay, so now the tree stumps and logs are exposed. Please do not carry away fossils!
In cold wind you feel how close the South Pole is.
On the way from the Catlins to Bluff, you pass Slope Point. There would be nothing to see apart from hardy grass and rough seas if this was not the mainland's southern-most point. So a sign tells you how far it is to the Equator and to the South Pole. No real surprise when standing in a cold southerly that the South Pole is 300 km closer than the Equator ;-)
The exact position:
Latitude 46°40'40'' south
Longitude 169°00'11'' east
On some maps Bluff seems to be further south than Slope Point - but this is when publishers try to fit a NZ map in a narrow frame. They adjust the South Island more vertically to fit in the space, so the north/south axis is not exactly vertical, and by doing this Slope Point moves a bit further north and Bluff further south...
Behind this stretch of beach camping is allowed.
I did not really know about Marfells Beach before I got there ;-) In fact, I only went there because a "private road" sign stopped us driving to Cape Campbell where I had wanted to go after I had spotted it on the map. But this became another typical New Zealand disappointment thanks to a farmer :-(
Cape Campbell and its lighthouse are indicated on the signposts from SH1 (20 km south of Blenheim) but only when you would have to turn right after several kilometres the "private road" sign indicates that you should not drive there because some farmer blocks the direct access. Still you have a chance to get to the Cape - if you make a full-day walk along the coast from Marfells Beach, checking the tides and not drowning... High springtides can make the bluffs impassable. The lighthouse is from 1903, replacing the original one from 1870.
Marfells Beach is named after Richard Marfell who that arrived from Gloucestershire in England in 1881. He started farming north of Lake Grassmere and then subsequently aquired the land behind the lake. It remained in the family until 1982.
Camping is allowed on a short stretch of the beach, from the end of the access road around Clifford Bay to a gate a short way behind the toilet block. The facilities are rather basic and primitive. I read that during the peak season in summer it can happen that 100 people spend the night at Marfells Beach. When we were there in March 2007 there were only two or three parties staying there.
If you carry on walking after the gate you get to Mussel Point where the walk to the lighthouse starts after a sharp right turn.
The beach is rough, picturesque and peaceful. But there is a cloud hanging over it, as TranzRail has applied for consent to build an interislander ferry harbour there, and this application has found consent - which is hard to swallow, given the beauty of the place. But as long as several appeals have to be dealt with the Department of Conservation (DOC) will keep on looking after the care of the beach and the camping facilities.
Directions: The access road is approx. 20km south of Blenheim, right after or before the salt works of Lake Grassmere.
Vineyards wherever you go, here Old Renwick Road.
Sure, the Montana Brancott Winery is NZ's biggest and Marlborough's most famous winery. But there are so many more wineries in the region around Blenheim that I would surely forget many if I tried to list them all. If you travel north, west or south of the town you will always pass lots of vineyards and wineries where you can make tours or just purchase wine. Many wineries offer gourmet dining packages.
Montana has impressive buildings and looks like a bit like a rustic European castle, including a eight metre high cathedral ceiling. It is located south of Blenheim on SH1, easy to spot. The Marlborough Wine and Food Festival takes place at the Montana Estate every year in February.
Other famous brands which you will also find in every supermarket are Matua, Wither Hills, Hunter's, Cloudy Bay, Grove Mill and Highfield Estate. Just to name some.
Marlborough Wine Tour operators:
15A Murphys Road, Blenheim
Phone (03) 577 9046, Mobile (027) 434 6451
Phone (03) 577 9997
A selection of wineries (Renwick is west of Blenheim, on the the West Coast route SH6) and links:
Montana (and restaurant), Riverlands, SH1, www.montana.co.nz
Matua, New Renwick Road, Email: email@example.com
Clifford Bay, Rapaura Road, SH6, www.cliffordbay.co.nz
Wither Hills, New Renwick Road, www.witherhills.co.nz
Hunter's Wines, Rapaura Road, www.hunters.co.nz
Herzog Winery (and luxury restaurant), Jeffries Road, www.herzog.co.nz
Grove Mill, Cnr Waihopai Valley Rd & SH63, Renwick, www.grovemill.co.nz
Highfield Estate, Brookby Rd, RD2, www.highfield.co.nz
Forrest Estate, 19 Blicks Rd, Renwick, www.forrestwines.co.nz
Huia Vineyards, Boyces Rd, RD3, www.huia.net.nz
Drylands, Hammerichs Rd, www.drylands.co.nz
St. Clair, 156 New Renwick Rd, Liverpool St (Riverlands) and Cnr Rapaura & Selmes Rds, www.saintclair.co.nz
Allan Scott, Jacksons Rd, www.allanscott.com
... and lots more!
If you have no time to visit Blenheim, do not worry: There is not a lot to see. What makes Blenheim known all over the place is the wine that grows around this little Marlborough town which BTW is the capital of this region. New Zealand's biggest wine producer is located near Blenheim, it is Montana, and everybody knows the Montana Wine Festival.
The town itself, as said, has not a lot to offer. There is a nice square in the centre with a clock tower, and Seymore Square with another - bigger - clock tower, palm trees and nice flower beds. Some minutes from the centre is Pollard Park which is an English style garden. It is situated between the Old Renwick Road and Parker Street (parallel to SH 6).
Apart from the wine Blenheim is famous for another superlative: It is the town with most sunshine hours in NZ. In average the sun shines 2438 hours per year, so the town dubbs itself as the sunshine capital of NZ. When we there the last time it was a hot day, and the hills around the town were so dry that they looked as if covered in desert sand.
If - for whatever reason - you spend more than an hour in Blenheim, for example for some wine-tasting days, you can do water activities like housboating on the Opawa River (you can stay for the night), or hire a boat for cruising and fishing, and you can do punting and kayaking on Taylor River. They also have a Riverside Railway which runs on weekends normally.
Houseboating Opawa River, tel. (03) 577 9205
Boat Hire, freephone (0800) 934 262
Address: i-site, Railway Station, Sinclair St., SH1
Other Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Phone: i-site: (03) 577 8080
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