New Zealand Sabbatical

Second time around. This time with more van!

Intro by Passionfruit…

Scott… what a guy. Of all the ways he could have spent his 10 year sabbatical at Nike he invited me, my sister, Tatiana, and her husband, Joe to join (they have long teaching breaks about this time). Luckily Heckles Creative’s sabbatical aligned perfectly with his and I accepted the invite. The only stipulation was that Tatiana and Joe rent their own camper van. Fair enough. We get along, but let’s face it, even family needs some elbow room. Why New Zealand again? Well, it still remains perfect if you love nature, national parks, hiking, fresh air, unpolluted night skies, unpolluted waters, wildlife, solitude and living in a van down by rivers, oceans and lakes – all of our favorite things! It’s magical. It’s also perfect for those who like to travel on the fly without a lot of planning because all you need to do is: #1. rent a camper van. #2. show up. #3. decide which direction to drive. #4. step on the gas and go! Easy breezy. That sums up the next 33 days.

And now from Mr. Sabbatical, Pickles, himself…

We opted to start driving south because on our last visit we ran out of time to do this area justice.  We stopped in some of the towns along the East Coast that we love, but we all wanted to get out of the towns and off the beaten path asap.

South, South Island
The southern tip of South Island New Zealand
High Traffic Area on the Southern Coast
Christmas Eve Dinner on the coast. It is always good to travel with people that can cook.
Watching Sea Lions, watching the wave come in and getting some sun.
Tati’s sunset knitting class
Curio Bay

Curio Bay is one of the “Must-do’s” of the south island that we didn’t have time for it on our last trip.  Fair enough – we didn’t make that mistake again.  Curious what we rented to get around?  These are 20 year old Toyota HiAce vans, certified self-contained meaning we could go anywhere and be self-sufficient for at least 3 days: we carried all our own fresh water, contained all gray water, LPG gas for cooking, and a porta toilet (goal: leave NO trace anywhere).  This certification permits camping in the wild (a.k.a. freedom camping) which we love. 

Double Trouble. We found a couple of side-by-side campsites on top of the bluff at Curio Bay.
Curio Bay is the home to the rarest penguin in the world, the Yellow-Eyed Penguin – YEP for short. There are less than 300 breeding pairs left, so while you can see them come in at night their habitat is very protected.

We had some favorite hikes that we wanted to do again and share with Joe and Tati.  First was the alpine lakes hike from the divide.

We promise that last time the view was spectacular!
30 minutes later…Amazing. Weather in the Milford Sound changes quick.
Fooling around at Cascade Creek Campsite. A fantastic DOC (Department of Conservation) site in Fiordland.
Gertrude Saddle is another favorite hike.
Although weather prevented us from getting all the way to the saddle, we did make it to the Black Lake.

On our last visit to NZ, we drove out to Milford Sound in the rain only to find out that no camping spots were available and had to turn around.  After that, we were wise enough to book camp sites in advance and spend a day touring the Sound.

Even though it was a bit overcast, the Milford Sound Ferry Tour was great. It is impossible to fully appreciate this area from the road alone.
Mt. Aspiring National Park

We made our way thorough Queenstown for a nice meal, but it didn’t take long before we craved some freedom camping in the wild.

Morning View of the locals in Mt. Aspiring Nat. Park.
A short hike and photo op on one of the sets of Lord of the Rings (for all those LOTR fans)
Isthmus Peak Track, another favorite hike that we did with Joe and Tati
Lakes Region and Mt. Cook

There is nothing like seeing the bright blue glacial water of Lake Pukaki and Mt. Cook. On a clear day it is breathtaking. On average Mt. Cook is covered in clouds 2 out of 3 days.  Lucky us.

Amazing Freedom Camping on the east shore of Lake Pukaki.
The lake region is also known for being one of the best places to observe the night sky because it is one of the darkest places in the southern hemisphere.
The Hooker Valley track is a busy hike, but for a good reason.  The scenery is amazing.
Watching icebergs float down from the Hooker glacier.
The Alps to Ocean (A2O) runs from Mt. Cook all the way to the coast at Oamaru. It is set up for cyclist, but Passionfruit found it was a great running trail as well. Someday we want to bike the A2O. Next time!
Lake Ohau doesn’t get nearly as much attention of Pukaki or Tekapo, but it is a great stop and the Lodge is amazing. In the winter the lodge hosts the US ski team for training during the winter. During the summer they are open to A2O bikers, tours and dirty campers like ourselves. They had a great social dinner (where we met the pork rind king and queen of NZ) hot showers, laundry, and a hot tub overlooking the lake. A dirtbag’s paradise!
Wanaka Rob Roy Glacier

Wanaka, somehow we blew through this town on our last visit.  Foolish!  Wanaka is great!  Good food, good beer all is a small city on the side of lake Wanaka.

Seriously good burrito from the Craft Burrito food cart. Sarah is seriously burrito deprived and choked down a large.

Since we had seen the Fox and Franz Josefs glaciers, we opted to explore the Rob Roy Glacier in Mount Aspiring Park through the Wanaka entrance.

The valley of the Rob Roy Glacier is stunning.
For a little context. That waterfall is 1000 meters high. The scale of NZ is hard to fathom.
Abel Tasman Nat. Park.

On our drive up north we picked up a couple of hitchhikers who were coming off the Heaphy Track.  These two women were on the year long work visa for people under 30 – and we are still upset that we didn’t know about that when we were younger.  They made us want to pull out our backpacks and tent and do an overnight hike.  They told us how we could do the middle section if we take a water taxis in and out – so that’s exactly what we did.  It was super easy to plan the water taxis and book a campsite at one of the i-site centers (information centers) which are ALL over NZ and make traveling on the fly easy breezy.

Our water taxi drop-off at Awaroa hut in the middle of Abel Tasman Nat. Park.
11.5 k later we reach our campsite in Bark Bay
Even though we were backpacking, we still had to pack a happy hour Nalgene of IPA.
That’s our campsite back there on the beach
The second day we hiked 13.5k to our water taxi pick-up at Anchorage Hut.

Coming off of the Abel Tasman Track a Kayak guide recommended the Pelourus Bridge DOC campsite.  It is one of the nicest DOC sites on the South Island and apparently another LOTR film site.  We checked in and the host asked, “Do you like Glowworms?”.  Um, Hell Yea! He proceeded to tell us about the short 15 minute hike to a waterfall where we could find them at night.

Perfect River for swimming at Pelorus Bridge Campsite. Apparently Hobbits rode barrels down this river??
Once we make it to the waterfall, we turned off our headlamps and saw this… glow worms everywhere, clinging to damp mossy rocks and trees.  Magical!  Glow worms are really a species of fungus gnat endemic to New Zealand that are bioluminescent. Read about them because they are fascinating.

We almost stayed a couple of days at this campsite as we couldn’t image what could be more magical than a glowing forest, but we continued on to the Queen Charlotte Sound on the North-East corner of the South Island.  We stayed at a Campsite called Mistletoe Bay in the Te Mahia region.  While it is a family friendly campground, it felt like a playground for adults with hiking, swimming, kayaking and stand up paddle boarding.

Mistletoe campsite could have been called Camp Firewood from the movie Wet Hot American Summer.
Kayaking in Mistletoe Bay, Waterfall bay and Fence Bay.  It looks like a lake, but it is all salty ocean water.
Sting rays were all along the edge of the bay.
View from Onahau Lookout just off the Queen Charlotte Track.
More Bioluminescence!

As the sun set some other camper asked “Have you seen the glowing ocean at night?” We didn’t know what to expect, but we certainly needed to check it out.

Sure enough, the water was glowing with bioluminescent plankton. The plankton glows when it is disturbed by hitting the shore, or waves made by swimmers, or if you toss a bit of water on the surface (like this image).  More Magic!

On November 14, 2016 there was a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that completely destroyed sections of roads to Kaikoura and made it difficult to get to when we visited in January of 2017. Now the roads are (almost) repaired and rebuilt making travel here much easier.  Kaikoura is known for its wildlife: sea lions, albatros, dolphins, and whales.

View from the top of the Kaikoura Peninsula

We met a traveler that told us that she had a life changing experience swimming with dolphins.  We didn’t know that was even a possibility, but with testimony like that how could we pass that up? At the local i-site, we were able to secure a swimming with Dolphin tour but only the 5:30 am tour was available.  Being on vacation, setting an alarm kind of goes against our principals, but for SWIMMING WITH DOLPHINS… worth it! I don’t know my dolphins very well, but we were told that the Dusky Dolphins of the area are some of the most friendly, curious, and acrobatic of all the dolphins in the world.  To get their attention it was suggested that we make squeaky noises, swim in circles and look them in the eye.  Just act like a dolphin.  It sounds a bit like a joke to see what you can make tourists do, but once you see the dolphins going to the loudest squeaker – suddenly everyone in the water is squeaking up a storm.  Sarah made more of a guinea pig noise which she claims was very successful.

Get your dolphin face on! The water was cold so these thick wetsuits kept us real warm. The little tabs on our heads were brightly colored so the boat could see us.

Only one company is permitted by the Dept. of Conservation to interact with these dolphins.  NZ takes great pride and care in protecting its natural wildlife. 

So many Dolphins! A pod of Dusky dolphins can be hundreds. The white dolphin in front is a Hector’s Dolphin joining in the fun, which is only endemic to New Zealand.
Dusky Dolphins can be seen jumping out of the water and doing flips or flops or this, the flip ‘n moonwalk. Watching them provides hours of entertainment.
A two-fer Whale Tail! We saw a total of 3 sperm whales on our tour and these two dove down simultaneously.
VIDEO of the acrobatic Dusky Dolphins & Sperm Whales!

We think the compact Dusky Dolphins are the Corgis of the Sea. I think you’ll see why.

In was an amazing month in New Zealand, and these were just some highlights of our trip. There were many smaller adventures along the way and most of those came from the excellent guide book NZ Frenzy, by Scott Cook.  It has been our go-to guide for both of our trips. Highly recommended for travelers going to the island!   

If there is one thing we learned it’s that there is no such thing as too much time on this island.  We can’t wait until the next visit!  

Until next time!


Love, Pickles & Passionfruit

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4 thoughts on “New Zealand Sabbatical

  1. I love it when you go somewhere and write about it! You guys look so good! Sarah, I love your hair color!

    New Zealand is the place I want to visit the most. Glow worms, glaciers, dolphins, penguins. Where else can you see such amazing nature?!? Thanks for sharing your adventures!

    Hugs to you all!

  2. Lovely, lovely, lovely! Just the perfect antidote for the frightening malaise engendered by waking up and reading that our new EPA head is/was a highly paid lobbyist for the coal industry! Also….So very refreshing to see no slab walls of condos constructed around every bay and beach, no Rita’s, no Pizza Hut, no Robins Burgers, no Long John Silvers, no Kentucky Fried Chicken, no Boardwalk with Whack/A-Mole stands, no salt-water taffy and cotton- candy kiosks and no Trump-branded casino/winery/golf clubs desecrating the NZ landscape. NZ sure knows what to revere, respect and cherish. By the bye—-That’s the stream where the elves floated as they were in hidden barrels….. It’s the “car-chase/GoPro” scene from LOTR!
    Bilbo released the barrels but he didn’t have his own barrel and had to scramble for one. Later downstream there are orcs swarming all over and Legolas & Taurien do spectacular archery shots as they run down the streamside……..Sarah remember those golf-bag burritos we each had at Anna’s up by the MFA in Boston?? I still am laughing over our feast starring those legendary giants. Loved to see the four of you so healthy, happy and strong in one of the most beautiful places on earth❤️!

  3. Oh boy…WOW! That was an amazing trip report. NZ is one of my favorite places in the world and precisely because of its natural beauty. It brought back SO many memories of our trip there waaay back in 2000. Thank you once again for bringing us along. Oh and Sarah, I love your hair. Looks good on you and no more nasty chemicals.

  4. I love, love, love it all! The pictures are all amazing! And swimming with Dolphins? I feel like this is the first I am hearing of this! So fun!

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