‘Oh, you'll love the South’ everyone said in the North. ‘It's so different there, it's like a whole different country’. It was hard to imagine how it could be different, when the North Island is already so diverse. Purple grass? Two moons? Sheep flying using tiny knitted wings?
From our first explorations, the answer seems to be that the North of the South Island is a lot like the North, but everything just looks a bit more dramatic and wild. Fewer people, smaller villages, even more room for nature. And, tragically, smellier toilets.
For the first night we stayed in Blenheim for some grocery shopping and library time. It was not the most exciting town. In the words of our Grumpy Dutch Guidebook: ‘Only the flowers and the stone bell tower have something resembling charm’. But we were not worried, we had a road trip along the very beautiful North Coast planned.
When the weather cleared up a bit we set out to discover the Marlborough Sound region by way of a climb up its highest peak - Mount Stokes. The climb up the 1203 meter high mountain was great grip training: mud, slippery roots, slippery rocks… A constant climb with bits of hope coming through the trees in the shape of sunbeams. Would we have some lovely views of the sounds on top, despite the clouds below? Would all our efforts be rewarded? No.
We arrived at the top to see a green hill in a cloud. At the highest point, we found two young men staring at the clouds. They told us there were only infrequent glimpses of the small sections of landscape to be seen. ‘We have been here for two hours. We may stay another hour or so.’ The two seemed sober enough, but it seemed like a strange way to spend an afternoon.
Then the clouds parted a bit, showing off a beautiful scene of sea and mountains in a perfect square window. ‘It's the same bit’ the cloud watchers said glumly. The view disappeared as soon as it had come, but the strong wind kept changing the clouds and gave a constant hope for more. It was pretty addictive stuff, but we had to leave the die-hards to it since a long descent was waiting. Slippery rocks, slippery roots, mud… We were very happy to see our campervan waiting for us at the bottom.
Thankfully, we saw a lot of the sounds the next day on our road trip. We had a short break for a walk to see some waterfalls Pelorus Bridge. Unfortunately, we noticed that our natural beauty thresholds have been raised: after all the dramatic sights we have already seen anything that is not a multilayered scene with a combination of mountains, snow, sun and newborn lambs is an anticlimax.
At Pelorus Bridge we did a decent walk with two quite impressive waterfalls, but without a trout jumping out of the water to catch a passing dragonfly in its mouth, we didn't feel the need to linger too long. We did notice one advantage of our constant hiking: thanks to our slippery trail experience we were able to cross over these more straightforward tracks like mountain goats.
Another thing a lot of people told us about was the Abel Tasman National Park. It's New Zealand's smallest national park named after one of the greatest Dutch explorers. The trail there is one of New Zealand's Great Walks, but we weren't sure whether five days of beach walking would help with our beauty threshold problem. So we decided on a shortcut suggested by our Grumpy Dutch Guides: a boat ride to a place over 20K up the track and a walk back.
30,000 people go to the park every year but because we are still in the off season it wasn't too busy. The people who were on the boat with us dispersed quickly and left us to mostly explore the tracks on our own. It was clear to see what attracts so many people to the park: rocks and forests on one side, sea and islands on the other, with the occasional beach to have sandwiches on. We even had an empty enough beach to be able to take some drone footage of ourselves walking away, with Adrian insisting ‘Whatever you do, don't look back’ like a modern day Orpheus.
The draw of this area is pretty clear: we had the most sun and warmest weather yet, and everything is just easier when you can sit outside and don't need to put on 7 layers to go to the bathroom. We decided to stay the night near the beach for for a final bit of summer before heading back into the mountains of the Nelson Lakes. One spoiler: we have not seen the last of the cloud gazers of Mount Stokes…
The scenery was stunning and the colour of the sea and sand were beautiful, but still we were glad to have gone for the shorter option. The second half of the path had a constant repeat of the same corners as the coastline winds along and it became a little claustrophobic. To add to the surrealism we ran into the cloud gazers from Mount Stokes, who were apparently on the tourist trail with exactly the same tempo as us.