After spending the ski season in Queenstown, I needed to get up to Auckland for my onward flight to Fiji. One must of course fly to Fiji (unless you’re on a cruise ship or you happen to have a yacht), but I had no intention of flying from Queenstown to Auckland when there was an interesting overland route available! Having already travelled around New Zealand’s South Island a few years earlier when I visited Kaikoura (for whale watching), Aoraki (Mt Cook), Milford Sound, and Franz Josef Glacier, this time I headed straight up to the Abel Tasman national park at the South Island’s northern tip to do some hiking & sea kayaking before making my way over to North Island for the first time. Once on North Island, the plan was to travel from Wellington (New Zealand’s capital) to Auckland (New Zealand’s largest city) via the usual tourist spots of Lake Taupo (to do the Tongariro Crossing hike) and Rotorua (to go caving in the nearby Waitomo Caves).
Abel Tasman national park is located near Nelson, which is the northernmost city on South Island. Getting there by bus from Queenstown involved two legs, with an overnight stop at Fox Glacier. But that was fine by me, as South Island’s west coast road is one of those spectacular drives that you never forget – I’ve been fortunate enough to do it twice and I highly recommend it.
South Island’s stunning west coast road
The alpine scenery between Queenstown and Wanaka is followed by some nice lake views (of Lake Wanaka and its close neighbour Lake Hawea), and then you reach the coastal stretch which really is incredible.
The Southern Alps are right on top of the west coast, so as you drive north you have the ocean to your left and the mountains towering up immediately on your right, with the road spanning a series of rivers as they drop down from the Alps through spectacular valleys, canyons which quickly open and close their jaws to you as you drive past – have your camera at the ready and try to be faster with it than I was! (or better yet, skip the bus and get your own wheels for the drive)
(I used Atomic Shuttles for this trip up South Island, and the driver for the first leg was a typically jovial Kiwi who had a grand old day chatting away to his handful of passengers – and who, as it turned out, was married to a Japanese woman and had spent many ski seasons in Japan… the stories he told of waste-deep powder snow certainly helped plant the seeds for my eventual decision to go chasing powder in the Land of the Rising Sun)
In 2005 I’d visited Franz Josef Glacier and tried a spot of ice climbing, so this time at Fox Glacier I just stopped for the night and continued on the next day without visiting the glacier itself. I would’ve liked to see it, but I was budgeting for the upcoming trip to Fiji and Central America so had to give it a miss. The drive from there up to Nelson wasn’t nearly as spectacular, but still nice enough.
The Abel Tasman Coast Track
Upon arrival in Nelson, I arranged (through my hostel) a hiking & sea kayaking trip along the Abel Tasman Coast Track with a local adventure sports company – this entails an early morning pickup from your Nelson accommodation, a roughly 2-hour drive to the park, and then into the kayaks for half a day paddling your way north along the coast in turquoise waters past golden beaches with nary a soul on them.
Eventually our guide led us to pull into a beach where we had lunch, and then we hiked back the other way along the Abel Tasman Coast Track, which is famous as one of the designated Great Walks of New Zealand. The whole track is a 3-day trek (or longer), and though we only walked 3 hours’ worth it was stunningly beautiful.
The fine sand beaches and clear waters really do look like they’ve been imported directly from a tropical paradise brochure… not the kind of scenery for which New Zealand is known internationally, but every bit as gorgeous as the more famous lakes-and-mountains views.
Then it was on to Picton and the Interislander ferry across the Cook Strait to North Island, a couple of nights in Wellington, and then up to Lake Taupo to do the Tongariro Crossing
Have you been hiking or kayaking on the Abel Tasman Coast Track, or driven the South Island west coast road? How was it? Any questions? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
Search & book accommodation in Nelson here. Airbnb’s also a good option, if you’ve never used it before you can get a 30 dollar discount if you sign up with this link
Make sure you have a good insurance policy – World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas (most travel insurance companies won’t cover you if you’ve already left your country, and this can be a crucial point as I once found out the hard way in Thailand)
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