An island fling in New Zealand

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

New Zealand's stunning South Island comprises mountains, fjords, glaciers and wildlife-packed parkland. Kathy Marks discovers that the best way to see it all is to take to the road

Tea on Mou Waho Island, in the middle of Lake Wanaka. We had paused at an idyllic spot in the Southern Alps of New Zealand's South Island. As we admired the vast glacial lake, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, an uninvited guest strolled into view.

Unperturbed by our presence, the buff weka examined the Thermos, the mugs, the tea bags and the biscuits. Eventually, realising that it would not be sharing our spread, it wandered nonchalantly back into the bushes.

Fearlessness and inquisitiveness are the characteristics that spelled doom for New Zealand's flightless birds when rats, stoats, rabbits and possums were introduced. The buff weka has been extinct on the mainland for decades. But thanks to predator-free sanctuaries, such as Mou Waho, it's rebuilding its numbers, although it remains endangered.

Chris Riley has played a part in the bird's revival. His company, Eco Wanaka Adventures, runs half-day tours to the nature reserve. Each time he visits Mou Waho, which has two shimmering lakes of its own, he plants a native sapling. Chris also keeps an eye open for stoats; these wily creatures, lured by the aroma of weka, occasionally swim across, braving nearly a mile of deep water.

The wild South Island of New Zealand offers adventure-seekers everything from remote trekking to whale-watching. Within an area the same size as England and Wales, you can float over tranquil meadows in a hot-air balloon, get up close to a glacier, enjoy the fruits of the southernmost wine-making region in the world, or visit the adventure capital of the world, Queenstown, which sits beside Lake Wakatipu in the shadow of the Remarkables range. Yet Wanaka, situated on the doorstep of Mount Aspiring National Park, is not unlike its bigger, brasher neighbour. As well as being a lakeside location with sensational mountain scenery, Wanaka offers all the outdoor activities associated with Queenstown: skiing, jet-boating, rafting, canyoning, kayaking, paragliding, rock climbing, mountain biking and fishing, but without the latter's commercialism.

Chris believes that serene Wanaka has learnt from Queenstown's mistakes. Most of the lake's perimeter is protected from development. So the unsullied view from the summit of Mou Waho, where a rare New Zealand falcon perches on a rocky outcrop, is unlikely to change.

There are great views from Aspiring Campervan Park, just outside Wanaka town. New Zealand prides itself on its campsites, or "holiday parks", many of which offer scenic settings and facilities including television lounges and well-equipped kitchens. Aspiring has a sauna and two indoor spa pools: a perfect remedy for aching limbs after a day's hiking.

Given the standard of such sites, and good roads with light traffic, many visitors hire a camper van to explore the South Island. New Zealand is relatively permissive about "freedom camping" outside designated areas, although some municipalities are clamping down. The Department of Conservation runs campgrounds in national parks, with basic facilities.

We flew into Wellington, collected our van and hopped on one of the regular ferries linking the North and South Islands. The last hour of the picturesque voyage to Picton is spent traversing the Tory Channel, part of the convoluted network of waterways, peninsulas and inlets that constitute the heavenly Marlborough Sounds. In Picton harbour, three dolphins materialised next to our boat, where they cavorted and frolicked like naughty puppies.

Among the many trips out of Picton, you can take a water taxi to the Portage Resort Hotel and eat locally caught snapper and salmon overlooking tranquil Kenepuru Sound. Kayaks can also be rented at Portage, which is an overnight stop on the four-day Queen Charlotte Track, one of New Zealand's best walking trails.

Nelson, west of Picton, is the sunniest spot in New Zealand, yet the west coast is one of the world's wettest places, with average annual rainfall of 270 inches. Travelling between the two, we discovered that camper vans can be a challenge on the South Island's twisty mountain roads. It's advisable to choose a compact vehicle, possibly forgoing a bathroom.

The highway bordering the west coast features wild, rugged scenery, including the amazing "Pancake Rocks", enormous limestone formations sculpted into horizontal stacks. Stay overnight in pretty Hokitika, which has craft shops selling local pounamu, or jade, and a driftwood-strewn beach.

The weather is wild and a savage storm a week before we arrived had effectively closed Fox Glacier, one of the chief lures of the West Coast. But we were lucky: Fox had just reopened. Our guided walk up the valley and on to the ice was a singular experience. We climbed through a rainforest of orchids and tree ferns, and ascended the ice with the help of crampons. The glacier resembled a field of egg whites whipped up to dirty peaks, with the sunlight revealing a spectrum of blue tones, together with myriad shapes and textures.

Notices warning climbers not to linger in "active landslide areas" were an ominous reminder of ever-present danger. We saw a massive boulder that had recently tumbled down, smashing an information sign. Our guide, Rodger, cast frequent glances up the slopes of the valley.

Overshadowing the glacier are New Zealand's two highest peaks, Aoraki (rising to 12,313 feet, and also known as Mount Cook), and Mount Tasman (11,473 feet). On a clear morning, both are reflected in nearby Lake Matheson. Milford Sound is the biggest attraction of the West Coast – indeed, in all of New Zealand – so your experience may be marred by crowds. So take a cruise on neighbouring Doubtful Sound, which is 10 times bigger and far less busy. It is a place of awesome natural beauty, where sheer, forested cliffs tumble down to glassy waters. When the boat's engines are off , the silence is overwhelming.

Near the shore, we saw seven dolphins, part of a resident pod of 60. On the rocky islets that dot the sound's entrance, fur seals lolled, while a solitary fiordland crested penguin waddled around.

The best of the South Island comes last, for at its southern extremity lies the wonderful, windswept Catlins Coast and, offshore, the little-known gem of Stewart Island. Despite a daily diet of jaw-dropping scenery up to this point, I was instantly besotted with both. The Catlins feels distinctly off the beaten track. Unsealed roads lead to tall cliffs, deserted beaches and bays frequented by dolphins, sea lions, fur and elephant seals, and endangered yellow-eyed penguins. You may see whales, and even albatross – but, if not, Dunedin's Otago Peninsula, 70 miles to the north, has the world's only mainland royal albatross colony.

The route ends near Bluff, the port from which the Stewart Island ferry departs. (Camper vans have to be left at the Bluff terminal.) The island is an unspoilt wilderness, with 150 miles of walking tracks, but only 17 miles of proper road, and is excellent birdwatching territory.

In the one township of Oban (population 380), blue penguins nest near the jetty, while large, noisy kaka – which are seldom seen in the wild – congregate in the garden of the excellent Stewart Island Lodge. The island is the likeliest place in New Zealand for you to spot the elusive kiwi. Even if you don't, you will almost certainly see other rare birds, including yellowheads and saddlebacks.

A plaque outside Oban states: "'I must go over to New Zealand some day' – Stewart Islander." After a few days in this extraordinary place, a visitor may well share those same sentiments.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting there

Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnz.co.uk) flies to Auckland from Heathrow via LA or Hong Kong, with connections to Wellington, Queenstown, Christchurch and the rest of the South Island. Return fares to Auckland are on sale until 6 Jan from £699; internal flights start at £90. To reduce the environmental impact, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; reducemyfootprint.travel).



G etting around

Maui (00800 200 80 801; maui.co.nz) rents two-person camper vans from NZ$172 (£66) per day in January and February to NZ$75 (£29) per day from May-September. The ferry crossing (00 64 4 498 3302; interislander.co.nz) from Wellington to Picton starts at NZ$395 (£152) for two people, with a van. Stewart Island ferry (00 64 3 212 7660; stewartislandexperience.co.nz). Returns NZ$120 (£46) per person.



Staying there

A powered camper van site costs about NZ$45 (£17) a night on the South Island.

Stewart Island Lodge, Halfmoon Bay (00 64 3 219 1085; stewartislandlodge.co.nz). Doubles start at NZ$390 (£150), room only.

Visiting there

Mou Waho Island tours with Eco Wanaka Adventures (00 64 3 443 2869; ecowanaka.co.nz) cost NZ$140 (£54).

Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company (00 64 3 573 6078; marlboroughsounds.co.nz) offers kayak tours for NZ$65 (£25) per person. Fox Glacier Guiding (00 64 3 751 0825; foxguides.co.nz) offers treks costing NZ$89 (£34).

Doubtful Sound day trips with Real Journeys (00 64 3 249 7416; realjourneys.co.nz) start at NZ$260 (£100).



More information

newzealand.com; 00 64 9 914 4780.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Boxing promoter Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney, entered the 2014 Celebrity Big Brother house
people
Sport
Dwight Gayle (left) celebrates making it 1-1 with Crystal Palace captain Mile Jedinak
premier leagueReds falter to humbling defeat
Sport
Harry Kane
premier leagueLive minute-by-minute coverage
News
The letter, purported to be from the 1970s, offered a message of gender equality to parents

When it comes to promoting equality of the sexes, we tend to think that we’ve come a long way in the past 40 years.

News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
News
peopleFormer civil rights activist who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine has died aged 78
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Excellent opportunities are available for par...

    Investigo: IT Auditor

    £60000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: A global leading travel busi...

    Recruitment Genius: Chef De Partie x 2

    £16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This charming and contemporary ...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin