New Zealand has been the only major country where life has continued as normal throughout almost all of the pandemic. What better time to get out on the road and explore this extraordinary country while you have it all to yourselves?

Coastal scenery in Kaikoura in the South Island, a region famous for its marine life and recent magnitude 7.8 earthquake, where geological forces continue to shape its remarkabe landscape above and below the water

IN JUNE 2020 AUCKLAND Airport’s small domestic terminal was reported to have seen more passengers pass through it than some of the world’s busiest airports including Singapore, Hong Kong, and all the Australian airports. Apparently it was “zeroing in on London Heathrow”.

As countries around the world found themselves easing Covid lockdowns only to reimpose prohibitive measures later, allowing travel and cancelling it, in New Zealand life, at least on the surface, has remained almost entirely normal. So normal and safe is life deemed to be here that record numbers of Britons and Americans have visited our country’s immigration website.

Only 25 people in New Zealand have died from Covid-19 (mostly in age care homes). Seventeen months after the pandemic began our borders remain closed, except for an on-and-off travel bubble with Australia, and an ongoing one with the Cook Islands. Anyone arriving from abroad must still quarantine for 14 days. Vaccinations (Pfizer) are ramping up with over one million of our five million population having received at least one shot.

There has been criticism from people who don’t live here that we have kept our borders closed for too long. That we are sacrificing our economy and our tourism industry, and that we can’t keep Covid out forever. Well, we can try, at least until we have been vaccinated. As it happens, GDP is up, exports are up, and domestic tourism is up.

Pre-Covid, tourism was New Zealand’s biggest export industry, contributing 20.4% of total exports last year. It generated a direct annual contribution to GDP of NZ$16.2 billion. New Zealanders, who have been encouraged to “do something new”, have supported the country’s recovery and tourism sector, spending an additional $1.1 billion in the nine months from May 2020 to March 2021, compared to pre-Covid spending levels.

Jet boating on the Waiau River near Hanmer Springs, Canterbury

What our critics don’t understand, mainly I think because they’ve forgotten, is what it actually feels to live life normally: without masks (except on public transport), without social distancing, without ongoing paranoia and announcements of new community transmissions, new lockdowns and deaths. 

Kiwis have been lucky enough to be able to travel around our beautiful country without worry. My wife and I have undertaken three road trips in the past year and the conclusion we’ve reached is to appreciate just what an incredible country this is, and how fortunate was are to live here. This is an account of the first of our trips.

Braided river valley in clearing mist near the Lewis Pass in the Southern Alps

NORTHERN SOUTH ISLAND TOUR

Roslyn and I flew to the South Island last July and found Auckland’s domestic terminal was heaving. Like the country’s shopping malls and crowds at New Zealand Super Rugby games, people were packed happily together, relaxed, just like old times. Urged by Jacinda to explore “their own backyard” rather than travel abroad, our flight was filled with families heading to the South Island for school holiday fun.

We booked a motorhome for a week to tour the north of the South Island: whale watching in Kaikōura, the wine country around Blenheim, taking a wildlife cruise in the stunning Marlborough Sounds, and exploring the countryside of the northern reaches of the Southern Alps.

There are many who swear, and I am among them, that the best time for a road trip around New Zealand’s spectacular landscapes is winter. The mountains are coated in photogenic snow; rivers are lined with russet-coloured willows adding a dash of warm hues that snake along verdant green valleys, while sheep roam the slopes in thick, shaggy coats. 

Most importantly everything is cheaper, especially motorhome and car rentals. Avoid school holidays and you’ll have the pick of the best powered motorhome sites, the ones overlooking the sea or mountains or nearest to the hot showers and toilets. And you won’t even have to book. 

Countryside by the Waiau River near Hanmer Springs, Canterbury

We found nearly all the motorhomes in the Christchurch depot were booked up. So, too, the spots on the Whale Watch Kaikōura boat, which cancelled our trip because of rough weather. Campsites with motorhome berths were almost full to the brim, and we scraped into some of them.

Kaikōura, a few hours north of Christchurch, which gave its name to the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 2016 which struck 37 kms south of the town, has been dependent on whale tourism and associated businesses since 1987. Visiting sperm whales, and other species, to the area’s deep, nutrient rich waters were seen as a way out of the town’s and Maori population’s employment problems. Nature tourism became a huge success and I was pleased to see how busy it was now, even without international visitors. 

The landscape around Kaikōura, ringed as it is by the snow-capped Kaikōura Ranges, is impressive. Equally striking is the evidence of past uplifts caused by this and other earthquakes which you can see along the beautiful Kaikoura Coastal Walkway which winds its way above basking seal colonies.

Sunset over Kaikoura in the South Island
On the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway which takes you along a spectacular cliff top track above colonies of seals, with views across the ocean to snow capped mountains
Information board displaying the dynamic coastline in Kaikoura in New Zealand’s South Island
Rock formations in Kaikoura in the South Island
Adult New Zealand fur seal in Kaikoura, an area of rich pickings for all marine mammals

On our way north motorhomes of all shapes and sizes seemed to pass us every five minutes. These would normally be driven by international tourists. Instead, Kiwis waved at us merrily as they passed. Along the earthquake-ravaged road on the east coast near Kaikōura, parts of which are still being repaired, traffic control operators waved too, even bowing extravagantly as we drove past.

We headed to Picton in the Marlborough Sounds where we had booked a dolphin watching cruise with E-Ko Tours. Picton is, well, picturesque, especially on a cloudless day, nestled in a bay of wooded hills looking down gorgeous Queen Charlotte Sound. The Interislander Ferry from Wellington arrives and departs here each day.

Picton Harbour in Queen Charlotte Sound, Marlborough
Evening at Queen Charlotte Sound in the Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand’s South Island

It turned out that the host of TVNZ’s Breakfast Show, Matty McLean, was on board our tour boat with his crew to film a lucky couple who had won a prize of a cruise and luxurious night’s accommodation in a lodge Queen Charlotte Sound. The weather and the wildlife put on a show for them and the rest of us.

A colony of king shags, one of the rarest birds in the world, whose numbers are estimated at around 600, sat on a rocky outcrop inviting photos. And there were seals, and dolphins; a lot of dolphins. None of us had ever seen so many dolphins. We tracked a huge pod of common dolphins that had come into the sound for a feed. Matty McLean did a piece to camera with the water behind him boiling with dolphin activity.

King shags, one of the rarest birds in the world whose numbers are estimated at around 600. This small colony is in the Marborough Sounds in the northeast of New Zealand’s South Island
TVNZ’s Matty McLean with winners and dolphins
Dusky dolphins in the Marlborough Sounds
A New Zealand robin takes a bath
View from the head of the Marlborough Sounds down Queen Charlotte Sound from the nature sanctuary of Motuara Island

Our route from Picton took us through the devastatingly beautiful, hilly and windy backroads which loop around the Sounds to Havelock, another charming little town that sits beside an expanse of water among forested hillsides and islands. The weather stayed kind and, in the sunshine, you could understand why summer in the Sounds appeals to so many. 

Whenuanui Bay⁩ in Queen Charlotte Sound, ⁨Marlborough⁩
Boat sheds in the Marborough Sounds

The next stop was west, several hours drive, to St Arnaud and Lake Rotoiti in  the Nelson Lakes National Park. The view up Lake Rotoiti to the snowy mountains is one of New Zealand’s most iconic. St Arnaud exists to cater for the outdoor pursuits of tourists who come to tramp the beech forests and mountain tracks, kayak and swim in its glacial waters. It’s a great stop for lunch in a motorhome. 

Lake Rotoiti in Nelson Lakes National Park in the Tasman District of New Zealand’s South Island

We overnighted near the rural town of Murchison and I sent my wife to walk the longest swing bridge in New Zealand which straddles the mighty Buller Gorge. No way was I crossing that. She zip-lined back. On our route back east we stopped at nearby Maruia Falls. I can’t resist waterfall photos and set up my tripod in drizzling rain. By now the weather was closing in as we crossed the Lewis Pass over the Southern Alps, most of the breathtaking scenery hidden from us in low cloud and sleet.

Buller Gorge Swing Bridge, New Zealand’s longest swing bridge
Maruia Falls near Murchison in the Buller Region of the South Island

Not a prepossessing day for a sub-alpine walk, we thought. How wrong we were. We donned our wet weather gear and beanies and stepped out of the campervan into an icy blast at the beginning of the 65km St James Walkway. We managed about half a kilometre of it, but it was enough. 

It was as though a celestial gardener had thrown together as many extraordinary varieties of sub-alpine plants as he could gather and sprinkled them with care over a giant rockery. Around us beech trees dripped with mosses that hung like giant spiders webs, or Christmas tree decorations. It was the most magical part of the entire trip. So taken with it were we that we returned from Hanmer Springs, an hour away, the next day to see it once again in clear, cold morning sunshine.

Beech forest and lake on the St James Track in the Lewis Pass of the Southern Alps in New Zealand’s South Island
Alpine wonderland on the St James Track in the Lewis Pass in the Canterbury region of the South Island
Beech forest decorated with moss on the St James Track in the Lewis Pass of the Southern Alps

At our last stop, the alpine resort of Hanmer Springs in Canterbury, famous since Victorian times for its geothermal spas, we found bedlam: bars and restaurants packed with families, lengthy queues for tables, not a mask in sight; children dripping wet in towels crossing the road from the spa pools in the icy cold; car parking chaos on the tree-lined streets.

In a pub, TV reports showed thousands of people queuing from 3am in the dark at the mountain car parks of ski resorts around Queenstown. It was clear that Kiwis had turned up in huge numbers to support local tourism. For many, it would have been the first time they had explored their own wintry backyard, normal winter holiday destinations being Australia and the Pacific islands. 

They should do it more often.

Colonising willows on a tributory of the Waiau River, looking towards the mountains of Hanmer Springs, Canterbury
Countryside in the Tasman district of New Zealand’s South Island
Moss covered beech tree on St James Track in the Lewis Pass in the Canterbury region of the South Island

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