Our road trip in New Zealand continues on the South Island with more sustainable initiatives and stunning natural beauty.

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Wellington – Dunedin (NZL)

“We definitely would not set sail on Lucipara2 today”, Ivar remarks. He does not need to check the weather forecast to know that the wind is blowing hard at sea. For the last few days a storm has been building and it is predicted to reach maximum force this afternoon. That is exactly when we are scheduled to cross the Cook Strait, the infamous channel between New Zealand’s North and South Islands, on a ferry. Whenever we voiced our concerns about the wind forecast to Wellingtonians, the answer was always the same: “No worries mate, the ferries always run.” Still, we feel a bit anxious when we drive our campervan to the ferry terminal in the pouring rain. Minutes after joining the queue, Floris receives a text message. “The ferry is delayed by two hours,” he reads from his phone. “Apparently it’s still going”, he adds in disbelief.

To kill the time, we do some lastminute sightseeing in downtown Wellington. A short distance away is a historic church. Old St Paul’s was built in wood in 1865 and is the city’s former cathedral. As soon as we step inside, the serene interior takes our mind off the weather. The arches spanning the church’s nave resemble the hull of ship, turned upside-down. “I refuse to read anything symbolic into that”, Ivar jokes.

Crazy Crossing

We are long back at the dock when our ferry finally appears. It takes another few hours before we are on deck – parked behind a truck transporting live sheep. Sat at the bow behind large windows, we listen to the crew’s safety instructions. The announcement ends with a warning. “It’s quite rough in the Cook Strait”. That proves to be an understatement. As soon as we leave the shelter of Wellington Harbour, paper vomit bags are handed out. The ferry ploughs through rough seas and moves up and down, causing a deafening noise whenever the ship hits the water after coming off a wave. The windows through which we observe the spectacle regularly get drenched in sea water. It isn’t until the ferry turns and the waves come from behind that the sailing gets a bit smoother. Finally, in the shelter of the Marlborough Sounds, the sea is calmer. But we are in for another surprise. Due to strong katabatic winds, no ferry can dock in Picton. A long wait begins for the wind to abate and the dock to be available, as there are three ferries ahead of us. At 1 o’ clock in the morning, delayed by more than 10 hours, we finally drive onto the South Island. Despite the somewhat false start, we’re relieved and excited for our South Island road trip to take off.

Majestic Marlborough

After a short night on a campground, our tour begins with a winding road along the coast. Around every corner we are treated to another spectacular view of the Marlborough Sound. Clear blue water contrasts with the bright green trees of the islands, peninsulas and bays for which this region is famous. And rightly so, it’s breathtaking!

The route then leaves the coast and continues through lush forest. An immense variety of trees, ferns, and shrubs surround us. The area’s pristine nature begs to be viewed up close, so we stop at Pelorus Bridge for a short hike. “There are so many different species”, Ivar remarks. The names of some of the trees and plants, like rimu, matai, and totara, are indicated on signs along the path and sound foreign to us because they are of Māori origin. Forests like these covered large areas of New Zealand before European settlement.

Living Big in a Tiny House

We make our way to Nelson, a pleasant town on the Tasman Sea, to meet Eva Pomeroy. She welcomes us to her house, which is scarcely bigger than a caravan. In fact, it’s a “tiny house”, one of many in New Zealand. Eva explains what makes hers unique: “I built it myself using only recycled materials.”, she proudly tells us. Impressed by her craftmanship and resource-saving efforts, we step inside. Despite the limited size, Eva seems to have everything she needs. She has made storage compartments under the staircase, with the space under the top step serving as a wardrobe. The stairs lead to a loft, which serves as her bedroom. The design not only increases floor space but also creates a homely atmosphere.

Eva raves about the many benefits of her lifestyle. “Having less stuff and using less energy means I have lower costs and can live debt-free. As a result, I can afford to work part-time and spend more time on things that make me really happy”, she beams. Eva has found a smart way to reduce her ecological footprint and escape the rat race of the New Zealand property market, it seems to us. In fact, there is so much to say about the sustainability benefits of living in a tiny house that we have written an entire sustainable solution article about the topic!

Tramping on Jandals

A few hours south of the city is Nelson Lakes National Park. We have come here for one of the best ways to experience New Zealand, which is on foot. Indeed, New Zealand is synonymous with tramping, as hiking is called here. The country offers hiking tracks for all tastes and ability levels. We have picked a hike to Angelus Hut for our first two-day hike. It promises to be a challenging tramp for us seadogs, as it involves schlepping backpacks filled with dry clothes, food, cooking gear and sleeping bags 1000m uphill and across a long, rocky ridge. “I packed our hiking boots especially for this”, Floris triumphantly informs Ivar.

However, we soon experience that not using boots for a long time spells trouble. Ivar’s soles come off soon after we reach the ridge. He tries to continue without them, but soon realizes that it’s a no-go. What now, return to the campervan to get his other shoes? The thought of climbing up the mountain again instead makes Ivar choose his flip-flops (jandals in Kiwi slang). “Good enough”, Ivar judges after a few steps.

The path is rocky and sometimes steep, but Ivar soldiers on. After 12 km, we finally reach Angelus Hut, our refuge for the night. The setting couldn’t be more picturesque: it sits on the shore of a small lake, surrounded by mountain peaks. After a swim in the refreshing water we mingle with the other hikers who sleep here tonight. Our first hut experience is complete when we try to find rest in the fully occupied 24-person bunk bed. Despite the crowd and inevitable snoring, we get enough rest for the tramp back to the campervan the next day. “No more hiking boots for me! Jandals work just as well”, Ivar jokes.

West Coast Weather

A drive along the Buller river brings us to the west coast. Its rugged coastline, shaped by rough seas whipped up by a relentless train of storms over eons of time, is breathtakingly beautiful. The road borders the sea and provides endless views over the ocean. We pass bays with beaches of black sand, stretches of rainforest, and artistic rock formations, like those at Punakaiki. Mother nature has outdone herself here by carving rocks to resemble large stacks of pancakes. The ocean waves keep crashing into these natural sculptures, each time leaving countless drops to glitter on the rocks.

Shortly after checking into a small camp site further down the coast, we get our fair share of the typical weather in this part of the country: depressions. These storm systems not only bring strong winds from the Tasman Sea, but also rain. “The heavy rain is going to last for a few more days,” Ivar predicts, backed up by his weather app. “It is bound to be drier on the other side of the Southern Alps”, he adds. “It’s decided then”, Floris replies. “We’ll drive across the mountains tomorrow!”.

As predicted, it is still wet and grey the next day. Nevertheless, we interrupt our drive to visit one of the highlights of the area, the famous Frans Josef glacier. We follow a trail to the end of the glacier, but it abruptly ends with the glacier still far away. All we see is a barren valley of grey rocks and a small trickle of melted ice. An old photo shows what one of New Zealand’s national treasures once looked like. As a result of human-induced climate breakdown, the glacier has retreated so far that it’s basically gone. It’s a stark reminder of one of the many crises that humanity is facing. The former highlight can be scrapped from the travel guides unless the Department of Conservation uses the opportunity to better communicate how severe the climate crisis is and what visitors can do to ameliorate the situation (like apply some of our sustainable solutions, of course!).

Hastily across Haast

The Tioripatea is one of only three mountain-passes across the Southern Alps of the South Island. It was already used by the Māori in pre-European times but today it is better known as the Haast pass, named after 19th-century explorer Julius von Haast. Unlike him, we don’t need to walk for six weeks. We feel fortunate to be able to use a paved road and drive through a stunning landscape of mountains, forests, and waterfalls in a matter of hours. The further we drive, the more clouds disappear and the sun shows itself again. On the other side of the mountain peaks, we follow a large, wild river that flows into an enormous lake, Lake Wanaka. Yet it isn’t until we hike up Roy’s Peak and get a 360-degree view that we appreciate the full beauty of the area. Distant snow-capped peaks contrast with the clear blue waters of the lakes below. We understand why stunning Wanaka is such a popular place in New Zealand.

In town, we meet Megan Williams. She is involved with sustainable tourism and building communities to safeguard waterways. Hearing her talk about the various sustainability initiatives in the region makes us hopeful. We follow her advice to visit Revology, a unique store with inspiring eco-lifestyle products, and Wastebusters, a recycling centre at the edge of town. Set up by an enthusiastic collective of youngsters, they encourage the re-use of materials. Their enormous second-hand shop sells used items, everything from couches to books to TVs, while things that cannot be re-used are collected for recycling. For a country where most waste still ends up in landfill, it is quite a progressive approach.

Mesmerizing Milford Sound

From Wanaka it’s not far to Arrowtown, an old gold mining village with original Victorian-style wooden houses. It’s the perfect size for a short visit before we reach Queenstown, the area’s tourist mecca. After checking in at holiday park Creeksyde – probably New Zealand’s most environmentally sustainable campground, as evidenced by the use of recycled building materials and a decent waste separation scheme – we walk to the waterfront. We have the town almost to ourselves, as the foreign tourists who normally fill the many hotels and apartments are absent due to the pandemic.

The area is certainly very scenic but we cannot be persuaded to pursue any of the adrenaline-boosting activities that the town offers, like bungee jumping or skydiving. The weather isn’t good enough and our wallets protest, too. We soon find ourselves driving on to Fiordland, the country’s most southwestern region. It’s known for its Norway-style fjords, which we are eager to explore.

Using Te Anau as our base, we check the weather and soon throw our plan of doing a multi-day hike overboard. Too unreliable! Instead, we venture on a challenging day hike to Gertrude Saddle. This ridge promises spectacular views onto Milford Sound, the most famous fjord in the region. At the parking lot, signs warn us that the track is only suitable for experts, which we don’t really consider ourselves to be. “Let’s see how far we get”, Floris suggests. The path starts out flat, but soon turns into a climbing exercise. An elderly hiker is us on his way down. “I turned around because I’m afraid it’s too slippery for me”, he warns us. Unfazed, we continue, passing more signs pointing out that the trail is very dangerous when wet. We understand the warnings all too well when we climb over steep rocks, polished smooth by water. Fortunately, the weather is sticking to the forecast and we not only have a dry tramp, but also fabulous, clear views of Milford Sound from the top. The wildness and steep rugged mountains indeed remind us of Norway.

Natural Fibres

After so many scenic exploits, it’s time to dive into sustainable initiatives again. Our minds are set on finding out more about harakeke, or New Zealand flax, once the country’s number one export product. Thanks to a thriving business in fibres made from the harakeke plant, flax mills could be found all over the country. Nowadays, there is only one left, just outside Invercargill. It’s reason enough for us to drive all the way to the south of the South Island. We wonder what the potential of the natural fibres industry is. Given that plastic pollution on land and in the sea is spiralling out of control, could they be a viable alternative?

Vaughan Templeton, fourth-generation farmer of the family-owned property, takes us on a tour of the mill and tells us the fascinating history of harakeke. “For centuries, the Māori used the long, sturdy leaves and the fibres of the harakeke plant to make baskets, clothing, and many other objects. When the European settlers came, the fibres reminded them of European flax, so they called the plant flax, although New Zealand flax is very different from European flax. The harakeke turned out to be extremely suitable for making ropes for use on ships and in farming to bale hay. My ancestors harvested the leaves and extracted the fibres using the flax mill. An entire industry arose, which after a great boom finally collapsed in the 1970s, mainly due to the increase in labour costs. Today, my family are farmers but we keep the tradition alive by maintaining the flax mill as a museum.”

Isn’t it high time for a revival of this versatile, natural material, we ask Vaughan? His eyes sparkle as he answers us. “Of course! With all the plastic pollution nowadays, biodegradable fibres could be a wonderful solution. Harakeke grows everywhere, so there is plenty. To make harvesting the leaves economically feasible, it would help if there was a use for the gum that is inside the leaves. It’s similar to aloe vera, and could be used in soaps and cosmetics. After the gum and fibres are extracted, what remains of the leaves is perfectly suitable as animal feed.” We totally understand Vaughan’s enthusiasm about harakeke as a multifunctional, zero waste, natural product. We wonder if an entrepreneur is already working on it?

Nature’s Art

Although not as spectacular as the west coast, the south coast of the South Island does not disappoint. We visit pockets of original forest that have survived thanks to the Department of Conservation’s efforts. Amidst lush rainforest we find majestic waterfalls and at Curio Bay we marvel at unique reminders of the area’s prehistoric vegetation, a fossil forest dating back to the Jurassic period. The trees were alive around 180 million years ago, when New Zealand was part of the Gondwana supercontinent. Volcano flows buried the trees, which scientists have identified as ferns, pines and trees that resemble New Zealand kauri. The silica contained in the volcanic material permeated the wood and hardened, while the wood decayed. What emerged were stone replicas of the trees and stumps. It’s a mind-blowing sight that leaves us in awe of our earth’s age and natural history. 

We find another striking display of nature’s art further down the road. Via a steep downhill trail through native forest, we reach a white sandy beach. It’s wide and flat, meaning that waves caused by storm surges crash violently against the coast’s steep cliffs. The endless battering of ocean waves has carved out gigantic caves, dubbed the Cathedral Caves for their size and shape. As we enter the largest cave, we indeed imagine ourselves in a natural cathedral.

Lending Nature a Hand

As we get close to the city of Dunedin, we decide to first camp on the Otago Peninsula. This 20-kilometre long stretch of land faces the Pacific Ocean on its eastern shore and creates Dunedin’s large natural harbour on the western shore. Although close to the city, it still provides a home to some iconic New Zealand wildlife. The Royal Albatross Centre protects a piece of land where albatrosses breed. We have seen these magnificent birds at sea, but never before on land. We watch in awe as a parent clumsily lands with food to feed a fluffy chick, a scene that is simultaneously funny and fascinating. To the shock of our group, a feral cat suddenly walks close to the nests. Luckily it doesn’t hurt any of the chicks. “Intrusive pests remain a point of concern”, our guide comments. She explains that many introduced predators like possums, rats, and stouts are regularly caught, underlining the important work that the centre undertakes to help these iconic birds survive.

Elsewhere on the peninsula, we get up-close with the rare yellow-eyed penguins at the aptly named Penguin Place. This private reserve is a former sheep farm. Its owners have largely rewilded it to provide a natural habitat for these iconic but endangered birds. It’s a visionary initiative that allows these fascinating animals to roam here undisturbed. Relatively speaking that is, as the seals have also discovered this peaceful place. Thanks to the helping hand of the passionate people running Penguin Place, these beautiful animals can still survive in New Zealand.

Dutch – Kiwi hospitality

“If you come to Dunedin, you’re most welcome to camp on our driveway!” Annegien, a Dutchwoman who follows us on Facebook, wrote to us a few months ago. We now gladly take her up on her offer. On the way to her home, the winding, uphill road passes forests and meadows. At their spacious property, Annegien and her Kiwi husband Tim welcome us. Their kids Liam and Katie even speak some Dutch words. Over a delicious dinner we learn that the family recently moved here from the Netherlands. They built their own house and created a large fruit and veggie garden. We end up staying two nights, cooking and hiking together, and discussing sustainability and the differences between living in New Zealand and the Netherlands. It’s heart-warming meetings like these that make our trip extra special.

Rescuing Food

“I was a lawyer but wanted to do something more socially relevant”, Deborah Manning begins. We meet her at her office in Dunedin. “I knew that in New Zealand, a large group of people has difficulty accessing nutritious food. At the same time, an enormous amount of good food ends up in landfill every day. I saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: reduce food waste and bring good food to the people who need it most”, she explains.

“I started collecting food in the trunk of my car and eventually founded Kiwi Harvest”, Deborah continues. “We run a professional organisation with permanent employees, volunteers, our own trucks, and food-hubs throughout the country. Every day, each hub collects food from supermarkets and restaurants in the region. We collect products that can no longer be sold, but are still suitable for human consumption. Here in our warehouse we sort everything and prepare it for distribution. We take it to community organisations that provide it to people who need it the most.”

The work of Deborah and her team is praiseworthy, as it is evident that wasting food is at odds with sustainability. If less food was wasted, less would need to be produced. That would make a massive difference in land, water, and energy use, emissions and packaging materials. To learn more about food rescue and what you can do to reduce it, read our sustainable solution article!

The Happy Island

The nature, people, and sustainable initiatives that we have seen on the South Island so far make us happy. We are not surprised to learn that the locals call “their” island the Happy Island. And we have only seen half of it! There will be more South Island adventures in our next logbook update, the third and final episode of Vanlife.

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