The South Island, NZ’s Cooler Little Brother

If the North Island and the South Island were brothers, the North Island would be the big brother. It is brash and popular, with lots more people, the two biggest cities, and lots of advertising. The North Island is lovely, with lots of green rolling hills, culture, and things to do and see. But the South Island is where the rubber met the road for us,
and it was a secret too well kept for our taste.

We began our journey of the South Island with a hike around Picton. Picton is basically a ferry-driven town, but it has a few nice tracks, or hiking trails, that you can peruse if you end up there for a day. We hiked a short track to Bob’s Bay, a delightful little beach that we enjoyed for a total of 5 minutes, since the tide decided to come in as we were sitting there. So, we took our pictures, sat in the brief moment of sunlight we had, used the restroom and headed back to get our rental car.

From Picton, we headed off towards Kaikoura via the Marlborough wine region, specifically the town of Renwick. We are trying to do things on a budget, since we are traveling for awhile, so we had picked up our lunch at the supermarket for our car trip. We went to two wineries, including Cloudy Bay and Serisin. Cloudy Bay was lovely, with a nice outdoor patio area and huge swinging chairs to sit in. Naturally, we didn’t get a chance to sit in them since there were a bunch of (snot-nosed) kids hanging out in the yard while their parents drank wine. But we had some wine, bought a bottle, and ate lunch at the picnic table. Serasin was marked as one of the wineries to visit by Lonely Planet because it is biodynamic, a small yet growing movement in New Zealand, but we were not terribly impressed to be honest. Benziger, one of the biodynamic wineries in Sonoma, is far superior.

After wine tasting, I bought a half-kilo of freshly picked cherries and we headed off for Kaikoura, our whale-watching destination. Our bed and breakfast was simple, with a private bathroom across the hall, but the kicker was that our host, Judy, worked at the whale watching company – apparently the only gig in town. She had a miniature poodle named Charlie, who I was obsessed with and petted basically the whole time we were in the house. But back to the sights.

The company, a Maori family-owned business, brags that they see whales and dolphins over 90% of the time, and we were not disappointed. We caught two whales on the trip, and saw both of them dive after spending their few minutes at the surface of the water, breathing. These were sperm whales, and they come up for air once an hour for 10 minutes, during which time they expel all of the carbon dioxide from their bodies and re-oxygenate for the trip below. Unlike blue whales, sperm whales have teeth and don’t eat krill, but fish and things like sharks. They use their ultrasonic whale noises to kill animals that are around them and then eat them. So don’t be caught diving around sperm whales without the proper equipment or your head will literally explode. Whale bodies also sustain a tremendous amount of pressure, since they dive about 3 kilometers underwater to hunt, so their entire bodies collapse. I’ll stop there, but you should read about whales, because they are truly extraordinary creatures.

After Kaikoura, we took another long drive, this time to Motueka, the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park. While in Motueka, we stayed with a lesbian couple, Trish and Renee, who were completely lovely. They served us amazing breakfast each morning, and gave us lots of great trip advice by evening. They had a cottage with a room attached for guests, and in the backyard, they had a picnic table for eating dinner outside, a chicken coop where they raised their own chickens, and a garden that Rebecca and I completely fell in love with. We loved it there and would recommend anyone looking for someplace to stay in Motueka to visit. (link) We also recommend both the Indian restaurant and the Thai restaurant in town for good dinners. We never made it to the dinner place Trish recommended, Hot Mama’s (oh lesbians…), but when we return, that is first on our list.

Abel Tasman was awesome. If you want some truly remarkable wildlife sightings, rent a kayak and kayak over to the island that is a bird and marine sanctuary. The birds there were super bizarre but so fun to watch, and we got a chance to see seal pups crying out for their mothers and playing in the water. I didn’t have the camera, since it was raining and we were, well, in the water, so you’ll just have to trust me that we saw these things. After lunch and a brief respite from the rain and wind, we worked our way up towards Anchorage, turning around just before the left turn there. And as we turned, we saw a blue penguin, who swam under our boat as he fished in the cove. So cool! We stayed as close to the shore as we could so we could see the animals and headed back to our pickup location.

The fun thing about Abel Tasman is that the tide change is tremendous and dramatic. When the tide comes in, as it did while we were kayaking, the water moves really far “inland” so that where they initially dropped us off ended up covered in about four feet of water. So we had to kayak a lot further than we had anticipated on the return trip – oops! So we had a nice dinner with beer and wine to recuperate once back at our inn.

The second day at Abel Tasman we spent hiking, so that I could try to get pictures of some of the birds we had seen in the kayak. Sadly, I only nabbed a few birds, not as many as we had seen the day before, but the photos of the shore were great. And since we will definitely be returning to Abel Tasman and the South Island, I wasn’t too upset.

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