Wow, it's big. That's my first impression of the Kea campervan which we're going to drive on a whirlwind tour of the South Island. Self-drive tours are popular in New Zealand and campervans are a particularly popular option. But, I wonder, how is the Kea going to handle? Will it be difficult in the mountains?
These fears are soon put to rest. Power steering, an automatic turbo-diesel engine and a comfortable, high driving position with good visibility and huge side mirrors make me feel at ease in no time.
The "house" at the back is very well appointed - so much so that I dub the campervan the Ikea, because it has everything, although it is of course named for New Zealand's mischievous alpine parrot, the Kea. It can sleep up to six people and has a kitchen with a fridge, gas stove and a microwave oven, plus a bathroom with shower and toilet.
We have chosen to drive straight to Oamaru after arriving on one of Air New Zealand's direct flights from Perth to Christchurch. This will give me chance to get to know the Kea as the drive down the east coast is nice and easy, plus Oamaru and the Waitaki Valley will put us on the doorstep of the drive across the Southern Alps.
Oamaru turns out to be the perfect start to our trip and we immediately warm to this pretty harbor town. The main street is colourful and welcoming but it is the harbor-side limestone warehouses of the Victorian precinct that attract us most. Built in the 1870s using local limestone, the warehouses are now a vibrant place filled with galleries, artists and artisans as well a mix of retail shops. We spend some time browsing, looking at books, antiques and quirky Kiwi souvenirs before heading off to explore the Steampunk HQ at the edge of the Victorian precinct.
A steam train running off the rails outside the historic building makes a dramatic statement about what lies within. The gallery and the yard behind are home to a large collection of weird steam-driven machines and devices cleverly displayed with dramatic lighting and audiovisual displays. It's an interesting interpretation of steam-powered science-fiction machinery.
For dinner we try the Riverstone Kitchen, a restaurant run by award-winning chef Bevan Smith and his wife Monique on the Waitaki Plains, just north of Oamaru. Bevan and his family grow their own vegetables on site and source the rest of the produce from local suppliers depending on what's in season, so the menu changes regularly.
I choose an entree of Marlborough figs with Windsor blue cheese, roasted hazelnuts and vincotto followed by a main of spiced lamb with roasted summer vegetables, chickpeas and coriander. My wife opts for deep-fried zucchini flowers with four cheeses followed by rib eye of Wakanui beef with sauteed potatoes, butter beans and romesco sauce.
Satisfied after a sensational meal, we decide to fit in one last attraction for the day. Oamaru lays claim to being the penguin capital of New Zealand, so we head down to the harbor to watch as the tiny blue penguins return to their colony after a day of fishing at sea.
Seated quietly in one of two outdoor viewing grandstands along with several other visitors, we listen to commentary as small groups of penguins emerge from the water and waddle up a stony ramp to their nesting burrows.
The birds don't arrive until after dark and numbers vary daily, but this evening's count is just short of 100. A colony of rare yellow-eyed penguins can be found just 5km from Oamaru, at Bushy Beach.
The following morning we drive out through the rolling hills of the Waitaki Valley, enjoying the views as we pass the Waitaki and Aviemore dams. It's increasingly scenic as we pass wineries and small towns. We stop for a break at Hot Tubs Omarama. Owners Lance and Jan Thomas established the business four years ago after travelling to Japan, where they fell in love with the local onsen, or hot springs, which have been part of Japanese culture for centuries.
The hard-working couple have created a stunning place. Set in clever landscaping so you can enjoy privacy while taking in the views of the Mackenzie Basin, the tubs are filled with fresh mountain water and temperature controlled using a wood-fired SubTub. As we soak up the beautiful setting in our tub, we try to imagine how special it would be to sit here during the winter when the landscape is covered in a thick blanket of snow.
Continuing our journey towards Queenstown, we cross the tussock grassland of Lindis Pass. The 971m pass winds its way through smooth slopes devoid of any other vegetation but as we get closer to Queenstown the landscape changes, becoming more agricultural with a mix of dairy farms, wineries and orchards. We stop to buy fresh fruit at one of the many roadside stalls before rolling into Queenstown.
Built on the shores of Lake Wakatipu with stunning views of nearby mountains such as the Remarkables, Cecil Peak and Walter Peak, Queenstown is perhaps the South Island's best-known tourism town.
Adventure tourism is what this place is about and from skiing and jet-boating to skydiving and bungee jumping, you name it and you will most likely find it here. But there are plenty of other things to do if you are not an adrenalin junkie: cruise Lake Wakatipu on the coal-fired steamer TSS Earnshaw, explore some of the hiking trails close to town or hit the shops and restaurants. We choose to try the steepest cable car lift in the southern hemisphere - much to my wife's dismay, as she is scared of heights. It carries us 450m up to the Skyline restaurant at the top of Bob's Peak to a superb 220deg. view of Queenstown, The Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu. Below us, the lights of the town are taking over as evening darkness descends onto the landscape. During our buffet dinner at the Skyline restaurant, the special setting inspires one diner to get down on one knee and propose to his sweetheart. After a few moments of consideration, she agrees, to applause from all the other diners.
The next morning, we are up early for one of the most anticipated parts of our itinerary, a flight/cruise/flight trip to Milford Sound. Low morning cloud cover over Queenstown is a concern but as we take off and climb above them it makes for a slightly eerie but beautiful flight. Clouds form what look like white rivers in the valleys below, while the snow-covered peaks of the taller mountains reach up into the morning sunshine, some of them appearing close enough to reach out and touch as our small plane flies past.
By the time our pilot begins the descent into Milford from the west, flying in among the tall mountains around the sound, the morning sun is beginning to do its job and the low clouds are starting to burn off and reveal some of the splendour that awaits us.
Bowen Falls, Sinbad Gully, Mitre Peak, Pembroke Glacier and Mt Pembroke dominate the view as we board our boat for the cruise on Milford Sound.
As we cruise out along the sound, the skipper points out other landmarks, including peaks known as the Lion and the Elephant. The mood changes constantly as the clouds battle the sun for supremacy. This is really spectacular wilderness. They get an average rainfall of nearly 7m - that's right, metres - per annum here and it rains every second day on average, making Milford Sound the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand. Stunning waterfalls cascade down the steep mountainsides. By the time we reach St Anne Point at the end of the 15km sound, the weather is brilliant. Fur seals drag themselves up on to rocks by the steep mountainsides to soak up the sunshine while others wallow in the water, waving their flippers as we pass. The skipper slows the boat near the 155m Stirling Falls and nudges the bow close enough to give anyone who is not undercover an ice-cold shower. Finally one last treat as we sail into Harrison Cove to get a closer look at the Pembroke Glacier, before heading back to our plane for the return trip to Queenstown. By now most of the cloud cover has dispersed, revealing the splendour of Fiordland and Lake Wakatipu.
We set off to our next destination, Fox Glacier, taking us on a stunning drive through the mountains. Just outside Queenstown, we begin the climb up through the hairpin turns towards the Crown Range summit. The 1076m pass is the highest sealed road in New Zealand. Europeans first used the pass in the 1860s when they drove sheep across the ranges searching for pasture. The road was finally sealed in 2000 and it is now a major tourist route, providing easier access to the ski fields at Queenstown and Wanaka. We descend through the Cardrona Valley towards Wanaka, past Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka. Winding mountain roads reveal one breathtaking view after another as we drive through Mt Aspiring National Park towards Haast.
We stop several times along the way at places such as Fantail Falls, where I wade across the shallow, crystal-clear but ice-cold Makarora River to get a closer look at the waterfall. We drive on, following the Haast River until we catch our first glimpse of the Tasman Sea, where we head north to Fox Glacier. It's one of the most scenic and interesting drives I have done.
The twin towns of Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier have two of the most accessible glaciers in the world. The Fox Glacier's terminal face is just 5km from the township and easily accessible, either on your own or by joining a guided walk to explore the ice caves and spectacular formations created as the river of ice forces its way down through the valley. Visitors can also take a heli-hike that combines walking on the glacier with a helicopter ride.
The Fox Glacier falls 2600m on its 13km journey from the Alps to the coast; both the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers are quite unusual because they descend to about 300m above sea level, finishing among the greenery of the temperate rainforest below.
I take a helicopter trip to the top of the Fox Glacier to get a bird's eye view of the river of ice plunging down through the valley. As our pilot flies straight up the valley, conditions are overcast at first, but as soon as we get above the low clouds we are faced with a remarkable alpine vista of the glacier with Mt Cook behind. We land briefly on the snow to take pictures and throw snowballs.
During our trip we have met plenty of friendly Kiwis but we needed to see a real kiwi - bird, that is - so as we head north towards Greymouth we stop at Franz Joseph Glacier to visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre. Here you can see the rare Rowi kiwi roaming around the nocturnal house and go for a backstage tour to see how the centre, in partnership with the Department of Conservation, runs its successful breeding and incubation program.
Kiwis are under severe threat from introduced species such as stoats and cats, and radio trackers are used to monitor the birds in the wild so that when they lay an egg it can be removed from their nest and taken to the centre, where it is placed in an incubator until it hatches. The young hatchlings are fed and raised until they are strong enough to be released on a small, predator-free island. Seventy kiwis were successfully returned to the wild last year.
Continuing our journey, we stop in at the new Westcoast Treetop Walk, near Hokitika. Similar to our State's own tree-top walk at Walpole, the 450m steel walkway is 20m above the forest floor, providing a bird's-eye view of the rimu and kamahi tree canopy. There is also a 40m tower from which you can see the Southern Alps and Tasman Sea, plus a cantilevered walkway with a viewing platform at the end.
Later, in Greymouth, we join a small group of beer lovers for a tour of the Monteith's Brewing Company's new brewery. Stewart Monteith started the brewery in 1868, much to the delight, no doubt, of the many thirsty gold miners working in the area at the time. As we make our way through the brewery our guide explains the brewing, kegging and bottling processes but unfortunately this is the last tour of the day, so the brewery is idle. Afterwards, we sample some of the product at the trendy new bar at the front of the brewery where they have cunningly matched their extensive range of beer and cider with a selection of pub fare.
The next morning we are up early to learn a bit more about the gold mining history of the area. Shantytown Heritage Park is an opportunity to step back in time and see how life was for the gold mining pioneers from the 1860s onwards. The town's two main streets have 30 historic buildings, including a church, hospital, jail, fire station and various shops. We take the steam train for a short trip to see the displays at Infants Creek Sawmill and walk back along a short forest track to see a gold-panning demonstration, stopping along the way at information boards to read some of the pioneer's amazing stories of hardship. One tells of a tree logger, Charlie Dudley, who cut his toes off with an axe. He calmly sat down, took off his boots, rolled the toes up in his sock and threw them into the bush, before proceeding to eat his dinner while a mate ran down the track for help.
To reach to our last stop at Hanmer Springs we're forced to endure another stunning drive, this time over the Lewis Pass.
Hanmer Springs is a lovely village with oak trees lining the main street. Like many towns in New Zealand, there's plenty of adventure stuff on offer but we're here to relax and get pampered at the popular thermal pools. Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa has nine outdoor pools heated to 33-42C, three sulphur pools with natural unfiltered thermal water, a 25m heated pool and six private pools. The fractured rock bed along the Hanmer Fault produces the hot springs here, which were discovered by Europeans in 1859 although not developed for another 20 years. In the early days, the pools were used not only for recreational bathing but also by the neighbouring Queen Mary Hospital for the treatment of recuperating soldiers and arthritic and disabled people.
Throughout our trip, we parked the campervan at the Top Ten Holiday Parks with 49 locations around New Zealand. We required only a powered site but the parks offer many other accommodation options including self-contained units, cabins and unpowered sites for tents. Most of the parks are rated four-star plus to five-star so you are assured of excellent, well-maintained facilities.
Driving around the South Island really is a pleasurable experience but be aware it takes a lot longer than you might expect to drive through the mountain areas. Allow plenty of time so you have time to enjoy all the sights along the way.
Haere ra, New Zealand - see you again soon.
Air New Zealand operates two flights per week from Perth to Christchurch, a seasonal service operating through to April 26, 2014. ·Travellers from Perth can also connect through to Christchurch via Auckland. airnewzealand.com.au.
Top Ten Holiday Parks, top10.co.nz.
Kea Campers, keacampers.com.
Mogens Johansen was a guest of Air New Zealand, Kea Campers and Top Ten Holiday Parks.