Exploring the Land of the Silver Fern: South Island of New Zealand—Part I

In 2014, Promega created a special incentive to reward field science consultants who help the scientific community take advantage of our on-site stocking program. The winners had to meet ambitious criteria to receive 2 round-trip tickets to anywhere in the world, a week of paid vacation and spending money. Our four winners from 2014 will share photos and stories about their journeys in a semi-regular Friday feature on the Promega Connections Blog.

Today’s travelogue is Part I of the adventures of Sarah Theos, a client support consultant, who used her award to travel to New Zealand.


We went to New Zealand the first two weeks in December and were surprised that there was hardly anyone there. We had long stretches of the road entirely to ourselves and felt like we were the only ones around on many of the hikes. It was a magical feeling to take in the gorgeous scenery without another soul for miles. We, of course, purchased a book that told us about all of the “off the beaten path” hikes and sights that we must do and tried to check them all off the list! The locals were also extremely friendly and eager to chat. If we did come across any locals on the trails, they always stopped to talk and were eager to hear about where we were from and how we like the island so far. It was the beginning of summer so the days were long with the sun rising before 6am and setting around 10pm. We had plenty of daylight hours to explore.

Day 1: Christchurch

Starting in Washington, DC, we traveled over 29 hours door to door to get to Christchurch, NZ. Since we arrived around 7am, we decided to fight off the jetlag and go out to explore the city. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in Christchurch, knowing that it suffered two devastating back to back earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. My first impression was that there were a lot of gravel parking lots everywhere and boarded up high rises. It looked like a ghost town. We checked into our hotel (built after the earthquakes) and took a walk down to the City Centre. The once beautiful cathedral sat in ruins, surrounded by large buildings in various states of decay. It was a sad sight to see. We then walked further down the street to the botanical gardens. The gardens are beautiful and we spent quite a while admiring the stunning Rose Garden. After exploring the gardens, we decided to drive up to the gondola to explore the city from a different angle.

The gondola takes you up to the top of Port Hills, about 500 meters above sea level. At the top you can see a 360 degree view from the Pacific Ocean and Christchurch to the Southern Alps and the surrounding Canterbury plains. We hiked to the top of Cavendish Bluff to take in the beauty. After the gondola ride, we decided to drive a little ways up the Banks Peninsula to Governor’s Bay where we found a cute little pub. Exhaustion set in around 5pm so we decided to head to a grocery store to stock up on snacks and water in preparation for our drive to the wild, west coast the next day. We passed out around 8pm.

Day 2:  Transalpine Drive through Arthur’s Pass to the West Coast

Since New Zealand was colonized by the British in the 1800s, it is still very culturally British. My husband was born and raised in London so he felt right at home driving on the left side of the road and using the roundabouts like a pro. We set off for our drive cross country through the Southern Alps with plans to stop for hikes along the way. The first stop along the drive was Castle Hill, a unique mountain with massive limestone rock formations jutting out from the ground. It was a cool hike with lots of boulders to explore. Since we were no longer in the city, it was quite peaceful, and we were the only two people there for a while. This is a theme that kept occurring throughout New Zealand on most of our hikes. The weather suddenly took a turn for the worse, and we had downpours and very limited visibility for the remainder of the drive. We stopped in Arthur’s Pass around lunchtime to refuel and take a short 30 minute hike up to Devil’s Punchbowl Falls. It was pouring rain so we were happy that we brought our waterproof gear along.New Zealand1
The falls were beautiful but I wouldn’t recommend doing this hike right after lunch!  There are tons of stairs that seem like they never end!  We would have stayed around the area to do more hikes but the weather was not cooperating and visibility was low. We made it to town of Greymouth about 5 hours later, stopping to get a coffee to warm up and dry out. That night we stayed in an amazing B&B right on the Tasman Sea. Even though it was gray and cold, we decided to take a walk on the beach since it was low tide. There were thousands of mussels attached to the sea rocks and we found lots of starfish hanging out in the tidal pools. We went to a local pub for dinner and hoped for better weather the next day.

Day 3:  Drive along the Great Coast Road from Punakaiki to Franz Josef Glacier

Day 3 was a spectacular day. We woke up super early to gorgeous sunshine streaming through the window with a priceless view of the Tasman Sea. I almost didn’t want to leave! After a yummy breakfast from Jan, our host, we drove up the Great Coast Road to Punakaiki to see the Pancake Rocks. The Great Coast Road is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the world. It hugs the massive cliffs with hairpin turns jutting out over the Tasman Sea. We stopped multiple times on the way to Punakaiki to just stare at the scenery. Punakaiki was the first “touristy” destination we visited. There were still only about a dozen people walking around when we were there as it was quite early. The Pancake Rocks are a sight to behold in both good and stormy weather. Since we were there on a calm day, the blowholes weren’t active but the rocks were drenched in glorious sunshine. After the hike through the rocks, we ventured up the road to the lesser known Truman Track, a walk through the rainforest to a picturesque beach. The walk through the ferns and tropical trees was great and we barely saw another person on the hike. Once we reached the beach, we were greeted by massive waves crashing against the huge rocks. It was mesmerizing. We climbed down to the beach briefly to see the caves and waterfalls but didn’t stay long as the tide was coming in and we didn’t want to be surprised by a rogue wave. We had a long drive ahead of us with several detours planned so we decided to jump in the car and head south.New Zealand2

The Great Coast Road was not a disappointment. We stopped for some fresh fish and chips in the seaside town of Hokitika and decided to take the 45 minute detour to see the Hokitika Gorge. The day had turned gray again with rain threatening. The Hokitika Gorge was well worth the detour. The river is an unbelievable milky blue color due to the crushed minerals and rocks washing into the river from melting glaciers. The hike down to the gorge was fun too as it was the first suspension bridge we got to cross. It was also our first experience with the dreaded sandflies that plague the west coast (tiny little bugs that cause very itchy, uncomfortable bites). Luckily, we remembered to bring the bug spray so we didn’t get too many bites. After Hokitika, it started to rain and continued like this on and off for two straight days. We arrived in the tiny town of Franz Josef around 6pm after a LONG day on the road but decided to head up to the glacier since we knew downpours were expected the following day. We hiked up to the glacier viewing point from the valley floor only to find it blocked off by a raging river. Evidently, a large chunk of the glacier had broken free (pretty common) and washed out the path. We were able to see the top part of the glacier from our viewpoint but couldn’t really get close to it. Exhausted from a busy day of hiking, we went back to the town for an early dinner and then sleep!

Day 4:  Franz Josef

We woke up to torrential downpours and no hope of going up on the glacier helicopter hike we had booked. Since the West Coast is full of rainforests, we were expecting this and were excited for our first day hikes in the driving rain (weird, I know). We suited up, grabbed a quick coffee and pastries from the local café and drove back to the glacier. We couldn’t even see the mountains today due to the fog so were glad we took the detour to the glacier yesterday. The landscape was transformed into a misty, other worldly place full of waterfalls and raging streams and rivers. Franz Josef is another touristy town but there was no one on the trails that day. I guess no one else was crazy enough to hike in the driving rain with very little visibility. We didn’t care. It added to the fun!New Zealand3

While hiking in the rainforest, my husband and I had this long discussion about our new rain gear. I was convinced I had lost weight since my bottoms were falling off of me and I had to pull them up to my chest to keep them from dragging on the ground (we’d been averaging 8-10 miles of hiking a day according to my FitBit). Hubby said his bottoms were way too tight and thought he might be gaining weight. He could barely get the pants on and then was afraid he might split them. It never occurred to us that we got our rain pants mixed up until we took them off to dry them that evening. We had a good laugh about that for the rest of the trip.

After two long hikes through the rainforest in the rain, we came back to the town to dry out and figure out what to do the next day. I desperately wanted to stop at Lake Matheson, the famous mirror lake, which is one of the main postcard images one sees of New Zealand. However, the rain was relentless and the clouds didn’t seem like they were going anywhere. We decided to play it by ear and went to bed hoping for better weather the following day.

Day 5:  Franz Josef to Jackson Bay

We were greeted in the morning by more torrential downpours and thick cloud cover. I didn’t know it was even possible to rain so much! We had had enough and were ready to leave the rainforest and head back to the coast. Since we had to drive past Lake Matheson anyway, I convinced my husband to take the short detour to the lake. It was pouring the entire drive and we couldn’t even see the mountains surrounding us. Lake Matheson has a fantastic café that is a popular stop for tour buses. Luckily, we stopped in the café just minutes before two large tours arrived. As we looked out over the fog, we debated whether or not it would be worth it to do the hour hike to see potentially nothing. The weather was awful and we weren’t in the best of moods at that point. However, I talked him into it and off we went into the downpour, leaving all the sensible tourists sipping their coffees in the café. It continued to rain and rain and rain, and our moods got even worse. However, when we arrived at the viewpoint for the famous “mirror lake shot” the skies began to clear. We were so excited!  We sat down and waited to see if we would get lucky enough to see the view. There was no one else on the trail and we had the entire area to ourselves. Our patience paid off and about 20 minutes later, the wind stopped, the clouds cleared and we got the most amazing view of the gorgeous Southern Alps reflecting on the perfectly still lake!  Alex had left the camera in the car since he was convinced we would see nothing and would ruin the camera with the rain. Luckily, I had my cell phone with me to capture the moment. We stayed there for about half an hour marveling in our great fortune and enjoying the serenity. It was truly amazing. On the hike back, the heavens opened up again and it began hailing on us. We just had to laugh at that point. We jumped in the car and took off towards the coast, hoping better weather would greet us there!

The normally scenic drive was full of rain and low lying clouds so we didn’t really get to see much of the snowcapped Southern Alps. We were driving on a long, straight two lane road surrounded by trees. When Bruce’s Bay suddenly appeared out of nowhere, I was so excited to see the sea that I shouted for Alex to stop the car. The waves from the Tasman were enormous due to the storms rolling through but I hopped out of the car anyway. The sea spray was refreshing and the sounds of the crashing waves were soothing. We didn’t stay long as the waves were quite menacing and another downpour was about to start. The sky gradually began to clear and the rest of the drive down to Jackson Bay was beautiful. We stopped at Knight’s Point to take a photo and then continued south to Ships Creek where there were two beautiful and drastically different hikes to do. We had rain on and off for these hikes but were able to enjoy several stretches of glorious sunshine too. I highly recommend doing these hikes as one is along the sand dunes, ancient forests, and lagoon leading to the beach. The other one is a Jurassic Park type hike through a Podocarp forest. I seriously felt like I would see dinosaurs grazing along the ferns and ancient trees.new Zealand 4

After our hikes, we made our way to the tiny village of Haast for some food before finding our B&B for the night. Most people bypass Haast completely as there isn’t much to see or do here. We decided to stop at the iSite (tourist information site) to see if there were any additional hikes we could do since the clouds had cleared and the afternoon was beautiful. We checked into our B&B near Jackson Bay and then drove down to do a few more hikes before the sun set. The Jackson Bay hike and Lake Ellory were both deserted and it felt like we had the entire area to ourselves. Afterwards, we were exhausted from hiking all day so went back to our B&B for a protein bar (washed down with some NZ wine) and an early night. Our B&B owner was quite the character and we spent a lot of time in the common room chatting with her and swapping fun stories. She showed us a picture book she had of Christchurch before and after the earthquakes. While looking through the book, the magnitude of the disaster finally hit me. All those gravel parking lots were once beautiful buildings and the city used to be full of tourists and locals. It was very powerful to look at those photos and realize just how destroyed the city was and still is. When we headed back to Christchurch for our flight home, these images stayed with me and haunted me.

Day 6: Haast to Queenstown (Back to civilization!)

The day started out sunny near Haast but was extremely cold!  It was summer but someone forgot to tell the weather gods that it should be warm. We drove along the Haast Highway, stopping to for little hikes to Thunder Creek Falls, Fantail Falls and a much more challenging mountain hike to view Haast Pass from above. This was our first major hike straight up a mountain and I was proud of myself for making it up!  After this draining hike, we drove to Wanaka, entering the lake region of the South Island. Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea surround the little town of Wanaka. The lakes are vast and the most brilliant blue waters I have ever seen. It had warmed up by then but the wind was intense. We stopped several times to look at the lakes and take photos before stopping in Wanaka for lunch. Right before we arrived in Wanaka, we saw a hike that looked interesting so we decided to stop. Mount Iron was a fun mountain hike with sweeping views of Wanaka, the lakes, and the snowcapped Southern Alps. We did this hike in record time as I was starving and ready to eat after our busy morning. While in Wanaka, we stopped in a café to get coffee before walking along the lake. We met a friendly cashier from the great state of Wisconsin!  We chatted a bit about the US and then went out to enjoy the beautiful lake for a bit. The weather was still cooperating so we decided to take the mountain road from Wanaka to Queenstown. This is truly one of the most breathtaking drives I’ve ever done. The scenery is jaw dropping as you climb up these gigantic mountains and then descend down to the valleys below. We spent most of the drive in silence, completely overwhelmed by the beauty around us. We got to Queenstown about an hour later and had chosen a hotel on the Kelvin Peninsula to avoid the touristy crowds of Queenstown. We had to take a water taxi across Lake Wakatipu to get to downtown. Exhausted from the long day of mountain hikes, we still managed to stay out pretty late exploring the vibrant city. This was our first run in with TONS of tourists after being alone on the Wild West Coast for four days. I wasn’t very fond of the atmosphere and was thankful that we had chosen a hotel across the lake to relax.New Zealand5

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Promega products are used by life scientists who are asking fundamental questions about biological processes and by scientists who are applying scientific knowledge to diagnose and treat diseases, discover new therapeutics, and use genetics and DNA testing for human identification. Originally, founded in 1978 in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, Promega has branches in 16 countries and more than 50 global distributors serving 100 countries.

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