After a chilly and blustery night we woke up in the sports round car park that had been our home for the night. It was an equally cold and grey morning but thankfully the sports complex had toilets and a sink so we could brush our teeth and wash our faces before hitting the road for the longest stretch of our New Zealand drive.
The drive south from Blenheim took us through the spectacular Marlborough wine region where the majority of New Zealand’s largest wine estates are based. As we drove further south the rolling vineyards started to turn to forest and hills were replaced by small mountain ranges.
Towns became more and more sparse and we soon became nervous about how little gas we had with the nearest petrol station nearly 120km away. We made it on fumes but lesson learnt we would always fill up at the half tank mark.
For lunch we headed into one of the many DOC parks and pulled up at a picnic site alongside a scenic river. The occupants of the other handful of cars were all down in the river panning for gold – having got our feet wet on the north island, we opted to simply watch.
Jamie cooked up a lunch of pasta and pesto while I took the chance to tidy and organise the van. The river stop was also an introduction to the local sandflies – a small mosquito like pest with a nasty bite. The handful around were more of a nuisance than causing any real harm but were sufficient reason to pack up quickly and crack on.
A few hours further down the coast and with late afternoon setting in we arrived in the busy town of Franz Josef, under the shadow of giant snow capped mountains. The town itself has a population of only a few thousand but attracts thousands of tourists with its adventure sports and Glacier tours. The small town was packed with hotels, holiday parks, bars and restaurants belying its remote location.
We used our CamperMate app to get a powered site in the Rainforest Retreat for $39. The facilities were fantastic, scenic grounds, good kitchen and shower facilities and an on site bar where we enjoyed a couple of cocktails after dinner.
With dinner done and sunset fast approaching the sky started to turn a spectacular shade of red. Mike flew the drone up and over the town as far as he could in the conditions, getting some great shots up to the Glacier and back down along the riverbed.
After a solid nights sleep we decided on a morning walk up to Franz Josef Glacier. The walk started from just a few minutes drive out of town and took around 45 minutes each way, covering around 3km there and 3km back. We were blessed with perfect blue skies and sunshine, which meant before long we were stopping to shed some layers.
The walk itself was relatively straight forward, largely flat until a gradual slope near the viewing point at the end. En route we traversed the riverbed, enjoying fantastic glimpses of the Glacier the further you walked. What was immediately apparent was that they didn’t like drones – every couple of hundred metres as perfect taking off spots was another ‘no drones’ sign – damn!
Overhead was a constant whir of helicopters as the sightseeing tours from town landed on the Glacier every 15mins or so. Whilst well beyond the range of a drone, it was clear that the over priced $400 a ride helicopters owned the skies around here.
After stopping for photos and selfies at the viewing point we made our way back towards the van. We’d been the second group out on the mountain that morning so began to hit the crowds on the return leg – it certainly pays to beat the rush.
Just down the road from Franz Josef is the arguably more famous Fox Glacier although the town looked less impressive or inviting. We stopped on briefly at the lookout point, taking a few photos and soaking in the view before heading on down the coast.
The further south we ventured so the Southern Alps gave way to rolling woodland and forest. There are no motorways in this part of New Zealand so we followed the single lane windy road through the forests until we reach the coast and the tumultuous Tasman Sea. We followed the dramatic coastline for nearly a 100km before reaching a viewing point and stopping for some lunch.
From the view point we sent the drone up to get some photos out over the sea and along the cliff face and ragged rocks lining it. Once again sandflies were the enemy and forced us to rush down our lunch and get back on the road.
A few minutes later and the road turned inlands as we reach a dramatic glacial river, lined with bushes in rich autumn colours. Another chance for the drone. Within seconds however the sandflies had begun to swarm. At first they were a nuisance but within a minute or two we were covered, Mikes hands controlling the drone were eaten alive with at least ten large nasty bites later emerging. We had to abandon the flight with Mike left running around the viewing point stripping off his jump and flapping around trying to shake off the flies. Whilst the few photos we got were okay, it was a shame we couldn’t have had more time.
The last hour of the drive to Queenstown consisted of trying to kill the flies that had snuck into the van while navigating steep windy roads. As the sun began to set the autumn colours contrasted with the grey skies. The descent from the mountains down into Queenstown provides beautiful vistas of the town and we stopped briefly for some photos before slowly descending down some of the steepest roads either of us had ever drive on.
Queenstown itself immediately resembled a French ski resort, packed with people wandering around of and off the pavement, making navigating around rough. We booked in for the night on a powered site at the local holiday park – unlike the previous night this one was neither all that nice, nor at $55 all that good value for money.
Tiring of pasta and washing up, we decided on a cheat night, heading into town for pizza and wine. Whilst dinner broke the budget, little cheat nights definitely felt worth it – especially after a long tough few days in the campervan.