Nearly 12,000 miles (19,000 km) stand between the UK and New Zealand. It’s as far away from anywhere as one can get and yet there’s a familiarity, a sense of belonging and home. Maybe it’s the friendly locals, or the protection it offers from being the last major land mass in the Southern Ocean before Antarctica, but New Zealand is magnificent and unspoilt. The scenery is spectacular, wonderful and occasionally a bit weird. This great outdoors can be experienced by standing in front of a vast lake or mountain and just breathing in. It’s where one could imagine that mindfulness originated, for such is the peace and tranquillity, that paying attention to the present moment is not difficult at all. Driving along the vast open roads, the South Island certainly has its fair share of natural beauty and the following are a handful of the natural wonders that are deserving of a moment or two of reflection.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes
Punakaiki is a small township on the northwest coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Known for its ancient geological rock formations known as the Pancake Rocks, its dramatic craggy coastline, despite being located on the more sheltered side of the South Island, is still pounded by the waters of the Tasman Sea. The effect of this erosion, along with immense water pressure and seismic action formed the rocks over 30 million years ago.
During high tide, sea water bursts from between the rocks like geysers creating a sight worth waiting for. The rocks themselves are easily located at Dolomite Point, just off State Highway 6. Take the short loop walk to see the rock formations and blow holes or adventure onto one of the nearby trails in the Paparoa National Park. And if you thought the natural geology and beauty end there, then you’d be wrong.
Situated nearby is the Punakaiki Cavern featuring its own colony of glow worms, Fox River Caves and the Ballroom Overhang, the jewel at the end of the one of the longer day walks. If wildlife is your passion, then also keep your eye out for Hector’s dolphins and fur seals as you might catch a glimpse of them along this coastline too.
Franz Josef Glacier
The Franz Josef Glacier is one of two glaciers located a mere 3 miles (~4.8 km) from the small town of Franz Josef. As with most places in New Zealand, there are activities aplenty, some a little more adrenalin pumping than others. For the less adventurous (but still fairly fit), walk the path to within range of the terminal face of this great glacier and then return to town for a dip in the glacier hot pools. Sitting in a hot pool surrounded by rainforest near a glacier, it couldn’t get more special than that.
Alternatively get that bit closer and take one of the Heli trips up to the glacier itself, and experience a guided walk or glacial ice climb. Either way it’s hard to get a sense of scale from something so large. At approximately 7.5 miles (12 km) long, it’s not until you stand back from it that it’s possible to comprehend its sheer enormity. It radiates light in the sunshine, but due to its movement, gathering debris as it advances, it can look a little dirty on its surface in places. Despite this, it’s definitely worth a visit, and if the scientists turn out to be right with their predictions on global warming, then sadly it may not be round for all that much longer.
Lake Wanaka is the South Island’s fourth largest lake covering an area of 74 sq miles (193 square km) more than the size of Surrey in England, where I live. Highway Six runs along part of its length and has some amazing views of the lake and surrounding mountains. At one end is the town of Wanaka, a popular all year round resort with the option of winter sports, such as skiing and snowboarding in the winter and water sports in the summer. Although it has lots of activities on offer, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to enjoy the scenery and take to the hills. Over 466 miles (750 km) of tracks crisscross around the lake and with options for hiking, biking, picnicking or simply sitting and soaking up the fresh mountain air, Lake Wanaka certainly has plenty to offer. One can never tire of looking out over clear waters reflecting distant mountains and New Zealand has plenty of them to offer in this department.
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Even the name conjures images of a perfectly still and serenely quiet place. Milford Sound has often been judged as a top travel destination and with good reason. It is serenely beautiful and magnificent. It rains a lot but it can be forgiven for this, as it results in numerous waterfalls cascading down the sheer cliffs.
Kayaking offers one of the best views, and floating almost effortlessly and silently on the surface, with nearly 450 meters (0.3 miles) to the fiord floor below you, and cliffs towering over 1,600 meters (1 mile) in places, there really isn’t anywhere that makes you feel quite so insignificant or small. Part of the allure of getting there is also the winding road that carves its way through the mountains from the nearest town, Te Anau, approximately 122 miles (240 km) away. Be aware though, that in winter you must carry snow chains and there is a risk of avalanches, which could lead to road closures. It takes about 2 hours to drive the route and there are no petrol stations en route to Milford Sound so best to fill up before you go. Milford Sound has only one accommodation option so book well in advance if you want to stay, or alternatively book an overnight in Te Anau. You will need at least a day in Milford Sound so best to give yourself time to arrange your activities beforehand and give yourself a rest before moving on from there.
Scattered like giant marbles on a beach, the Moeraki Boulders are large almost alien like spheres of rock that look like giant turtle eggs, or something out of the ‘Alien’ films. They litter the Koekohe Beach, just south of Oamaru. There are many explanations for the boulders appearance on the beach, including ancient Maori legends, but whatever the reason, they definitely lend themselves to fairy tales of giants and other worldly happenings. Originally buried in the cliffs to the rear of the beach they have, over time, been revealed through erosion. Formed around 60 million years ago, they are known as concretions; they weigh around 7 tonnes, are 2 meters (6.5 ft) across, and they were created over 2 million years. The boulders are now protected and to get the best view of them, ensure you visit at low tide.
Relax and enjoy the scenery
The South Island can be navigated quite easily and driving is the best way to get around. Train travel on the South Island is limited, with links from Picton to Christchurch via the Coastal Pacific Train and Christchurch to Greymouth via the TranzAlpine train. Stopping off at an impromptu scenic view is only possible with the freedom of driving yourself, but always be prepared and plan your journeys, ensuring fuel stops are available en-route and that you have the correct equipment if driving in wintry conditions. Most of all, relax and enjoy the ride, for every step of the way there will be something grand or unusual to discover.
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