For a really good road trip, head south.
What’s in your backyard? Do you actually know? It’s probably the usual mixture of personal triumphs and failures. There’s the vege bed you dug and built that’s now completely overgrown, and the pétanque set that was used in summer to completely destroy the neighbours but has since been left to rust in the rain. Let’s be honest, we love our backyards, but we do tend to neglect them, and this is exactly how I feel about the South Island.
Te Waipounamu, the South Island, our own backyard – I’m always surprised by the number of Kiwis I meet who have never set foot on the island some call the Mainland. And by ‘some’ I mean South Islanders and no one else. Arbitrary rivalry aside, it’s an astounding place and during the school holidays, we set out on a family adventure to see as much of it as we could in our allotted two weeks. A proper road trip.
Before you ask, as many have, we did not do this by campervan. My wife andI have two girls aged eight and six and, for the most part, we get on pretty well. But the fastest way to ruin a good family dynamic is to drive and cook and sleep and ablute in the same vehicle for 14 days, so to create the illusion of personal space, we instead decided to combine a rental car with the classic New Zealand motel.
Our pilgrimage started in Wellington, which the keen reader will notice is not actually in the South Island, but what’s a trip to our big island without cruisin’ there on the Interislander? The iconic vehicular ferry service (that I hadn’t boarded since I was about 11) is an experience every New Zealander should have, if only to get the ‘Cruisin’ on the Interislander’ jingle, which played on television for years, firmly stuck in your head for the duration of your holiday.
Things have certainly gentrified on the Interislander since I was last there in the early ’90s. Back then, you’d have been lucky to get a cup of Bushells or a can of Rheineck, but now you’ll find a couple of cafés serving recognisable and very edible café faire, and a cocktail bar. This is what I noticed about this holiday more than anything: the South Island is now very well set up to be enjoyed by tourists and it actually knows its worth as an international destination, which is something few places in the North Island really do.
What we experienced in the ensuing fortnight may seem a little traditionally touristy to some, but I make no apology for this. These are places that are ours to enjoy too. Our highlights included Raetihi Lodge in the Marlborough Sounds, Kaikoura Whale Watch, Hanmer Springs (although I probably wouldn’t recommend going on a public holiday like we did), seafood restaurant Fleur’s Place in Moeraki, driving the Haast Pass, searching for pounamu on West Coast beaches near Hokitika, and seals and seals and baby seals and seals. So many seals! The pièce de résistance was the Tranz Alpine train that runs through the Southern Alps between Greymouth and Christchurch; it’s difficult to put into words how incredible the scenery is on that journey, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
We saw very few Kiwis at these tourist spots, but they were being enjoyed by people from all over the planet and I guess this is a phenomenon that happens everywhere; I doubt many Parisians have climbed the Eiffel Tower. But I urge you, the next time you’re looking for a truly unique experience, to look a little closer to home. The neighbour’s place is always exciting, but there’s nothing quite like your own backyard.