Across the mountains and up the coast

New Zealand is pretty much road trip paradise – every drive is spectacularly beautiful, there is something interesting every hour or so, and even at the busiest time of year you can get accommodation with only a days notice, so you can go where the road leads you, or, as the  case happened with my post-Christmas road trip with my sister, where the weather might be better!

The week after Christmas is the busiest time on the roads in New Zealand, as everyone takes advantage of the public holidays.  It’s also notorious for having bad weather – the Murphy’s law of vacation time.

Road trip week with my sister was no exception.  I left Wellington in damp drizzle, and arrived in Christchurch to pouring rain.  The weather report predicted 6 days of rain on the normally drier eastern coast of the South Island, and 4 days of rain and 2 days of sunshine on the usually wet, wild and windy West Coast.

Obviously, two days of sun being better than none, we picked the West Coast for our road trip!

We drove across the Canterbury plains in a downpour, the towns and farms obscured by clouds and pelting water, our windshield wipers going as fast as they could.  Only as the road began to climb the foothills of the Southern Alps did the weather clear, revealing far-off mountains capped in snow even in the midst of summer.

The further we got into the mountains, the better the weather.  At Arthur’s Pass, the midpoint of the road between Christchurch and the West Coast we stopped to have a sushi picnic on the grass in glorious sunshine, and then went for a walk in the fairytale-worthy beech forests that the western half of the South Island is so famous for.

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com
Then it was all downhill, under viaducts channeling waterfalls out over the road:

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

And past rippling meadows of red-seeded grass, framing narrow roads twisting down from craggy mountains, the drone of summer bees filling the warm, humid air.

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

As the land flattened out, farms appeared, with old barns of weathered native timbers echoing the shapes of the peaks above them:

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

Once, all of these farms would have been sheep farms.  Today, as the price of wool and mutton continues to fall, more and more farms are turning to the more lucrative dairy business.

The names of the towns and farms bear witness to the settlers who braved the rugged West coast, and the people who originally settled it.  We passed Inchbonnie, and then Kotuku (named for the endangered native white heron), where we saw the miniature historic bungalow, before meeting the Grey River, and travelling with it to the sea, at Greymouth.

The rest of the trip was alternating rain and sunshine, misty clouds giving glimpses of grey beaches, waves rolling into shore:

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

The surfers and paddleboarders were undeterred by the cold waves and the inclement weather, and every beach had a half dozen hardy souls taking advantage of the swells.

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

While the West Coast is littered with amazing historical and scenic spots, it’s inevitable that one spot gets dubbed the ‘must do’  attraction, which every caravan and road tripper and tour bus inevitably stop at as they charge down the West Coast towards the tourist mecca of Queenstown.

On the northern West Coast this spot is the Pancake Rocks & blowhole at Punakaiki: an interesting geological formation with layers of rocks stacked (as the name suggests) like pancakes, and a natural blowhole that spouts water into the air.  But only if you are there at the right tide, with the wind blowing in the right direction, a feat which I have never managed!

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

Overdone tourist attraction or not, we dutifully fought our way to a parking spot in the overflowing carpark, and then trotted around the little paved path that wound through the rocks, carefully perusing each educational signboard, learning about the  Oligocene and karst landscapes,  stylobedding and compaction.

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

Less touristy, but equally entertaining, were stops at roadside stalls with honesty cash boxes, where we bought eggs* and lettuce, endive and spring onions.

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

We also stopped at one of the few farms in New Zealand where you can buy raw milk.  It’s only legal to sell raw milk “from the farm gate,” and there are only 6 certified sellers in New Zealand – and only one of them is on the North Island, but they are a full 6 hours drive from me.

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

I’ve never had raw cow’s milk before (though I grew up on raw goat’s milk†), and was just interested in seeing what it tasted like (amazing!  We sat on the farm fence and drank milk straight out of our tin travelling cups – and I rarely drink milk straight).  I did find that the nasty hay fever that has plagued me all this spring disappeared entirely when drinking the raw milk  – but that could equally have been the change in plants on the West Coast, or lots of exercise and no work and stress.  So I’m not quite a crunchy-dippy convert to it, but I’m certainly a taste convert.**

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

So now I need to find somewhere near Wellington to get the stuff, because right now my adorable happy cow glass bottle is sitting sad and lonely and empty in my kitchen.

After a couple of days in and around Greymouth, we drove north, past awesome road signs, and into the sun.

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

There, we explored more wild beaches:

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

And cooked:

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

And played extremely poor but extremely competitive scrabble, with a 1921 Oxford English Dictionary for reference.  As you can imagine, much squabbling and hilarity ensued, especially when we discovered that the dictionary had an entire addendum section in back, full of words “which have come into prevalent usage due to the recent unrest of the Great War.”

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

New Years was celebrated with a lovely shared dinner with backpackers from Germany and (German-speaking) Switzerland and Austria.

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

We, and the other pair of Kiwi backpackers, discovered that that area of the world (or at least all of these representatives of it) takes New  Years quite seriously.  We were astonished when they burst into cheers and indiscriminate hugs  at the stroke of midnight, and then  actually put on a cassette tape (remember those?) of Auld Lang Syne , and began to sing along with it, word, chapter and verse, arms linked.  This was followed with ebullient toasts and a bit of sniffly reminiscing.  Mouths agape with astonishment we four announced “Yay, we made it, bedtime!”  and took ourselves off, leaving them mouth agape with astonishment. “Aren’t you going to stay up and celebrate?”

We started off the New Year with blue skies mirrored in remote beaches:

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

And walks round the coast to seal colonies amongst the rocks, where we watched the soap opera of seal lives; burly males fighting for dominant position, lost wee ‘uns calling loudly for their mothers, svelte young lady seals posing to their best advantage on the warm rocks, all among the drama of crashing waves and swooping seagulls.

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

From the sunny (ish) coast we headed back towards the mountains, where a short walk to a historic bath was interrupted by the sound of an approaching freight train, and then a spectacular, unseasonal hailstorm, with hailstones the size of small grapes (unfortunately we didn’t have time to photograph the really big ones – what with being soaked through, freezing, and in more than a little danger of being thumped on the head by a real whopper).

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

The mountains were cool and misty, the rain keeping the trees green and the lupines blue, and muffling the sound of New Zealand’s most famous bird – should you be lucky enough to hear it call.

South Island New Zealand thedreamstress.com

And that was the trip: mountains and coast, mist and rain and sun and hail, excitement and relaxation.  And I’ll tell you a bit more about the most exciting, historical, interesting things in individual posts.  Because my adopted country is amazing and fascinating AND YOU SHALL THINK SO TOO.  ahem.  I hope 😉

* Lots of eggs.  Lots and lots and lots of eggs.  We went through 5 dozens eggs in 6 days – and there were only two of us!

† Obviously, as we had spare goats to trade for sewing machines!

** And yeah, I know, salmonella, blah blah blah, but I’m a fan of the ‘get exposed to lots of germs’ theory of health, and I put more trust in tiny farms that can control what happens to all of their milk and cows, than huge corporations that accidentally allow thousands of litres of product to get contaminated with dangerous chemicals (*cough, cough melamine*).


  1. Thanks for sharing! It’s still mid-winter here in New York and your photos warmed me up and gave me some hope for spring!

  2. Looks like a beautiful trip! Some parts remind me of home (Montana) but others are pretty exotic to me. I agree with you about the raw milk – it’s super delicious! For several years I participated in a “cow share” program here in Indiana, where I paid a monthly rent for my share of the cow and got raw milk in exchange. I like to jokingly speculate on just which part of the cow was my share – back lower leg? upper tail?

    • Elise says

      Us too! It’s the only way to legally get it. And don’t fret about finding it: Here in Albuquerque, a family from Texas (where grass actually grows) brings some each week for the herd sharers. There must be something similar near you. Have you asked around the farmers markets?

    • New Zealand is pretty amazing because it has such a diverse range of climates and landscapes in such a tiny piece of land, so there are bits of it that look like Hawaii, and bits of it, as you say, that look like Montana, and bits that look like Norway, and bits that look like Argentina. Apparently it has all but one of the possible geographic climates (desert, tropical rainforest, alpine, etc.), and that one is Arctic, which we are clearly in the wrong hemisphere for!

  3. Fairy-tale worthy, and milk milk milk milk! I’m currently a bit envious. 🙂
    (That was meant to be one long irregular sentence, but it does not look that way now with the “I”.)
    I loved the description of the “seal soap opera”, too. 🙂
    I guess New Year’s Eve/New Year IS a big thing around here. If you allow it to be. The sort of Christian background I grew up with inevitably gives it a bit less of an importance, but at the same time, there tend to be services at the time, even though it’s not a church holiday at all, so there…

    • Well, all your travel posts in Eastern Europe make me very envious, but glad that we have this format to share!

      There are certainly lots of people in NZ who make New Years a big party thing, but this is the first time I’ve seen people get very emotional about it. It may happen though – it is one of those holidays that you tend to celebrate with the same groups.

  4. Beatrix says

    NZ is gorgeous!
    Reminds me a lot of my native coastal northern California (Sonoma & thereabouts).

    • It certainly is! I’m so lucky to live here. It’s been over a decade since I’ve been in Sonoma, but I can see the resemblance.

  5. Dear Leimomi,

    Another lyrical tale of one of the tale-friendliest places on earth. How can one not tell stories about such a paradise?

    Thank you so for taking us on your trip with you,


  6. Spectacular scenery! The trees by that bridge look like a Gainsborough background. I’m so jealous of all the beaches.
    Even though I live in the Maritimes, where there are loads of beaches, I’ve only been to the ocean once in my life.

    The difference between raw milk and store bough milk really is incredible. My Grandfather is a dairy farmer so we grew up on raw cow’s milk. The first time my little brother tasted store bought milk he said “that’s not milk!”.

    What sort of new words did the great war bring about?

  7. The south island is amazing. My partner and I were in the Nelson area around Xmas, then did the Heaphy track from Boxing day, and ended up going back home for NYE as the weather was packing it in and our planned tramp on the west coast ended up being closed!

    How many years have you been in NZ? Just curious as you and I have many similarities – Americans studying/working in textiles (just finished my PhD last year) living in NZ! 😀


  8. Aaaah NZ, one of my favourite places on Earth. I have very fond memories of my previous visits to this beautiful and unique land, and and I’d visit again and again with no excuse whatsoever! A Kiwi once said to me, “we’ve a lot in common with you Canadians: we live next to a very large and (shhhh!) domineering neighbour”. It was said with humour and a twinkle, but isn’t there a bit of truth in every quip? I was so touched by this New Zealander’s desire to bring us nearer to each other.

  9. Fashionista says

    Raw milk is the bomb! Sadly I no longer have access to cows but if I ever get an opportunity I am there like a shot fluttering my eyelashes and glass bottle at a dairy farmer for some straight out of the cow. I too grew up on goats milk as in north western Queensland goats survived brilliantly due to their foraging skills. My father (ever the practical man) figured that a house cow would need feeding & attention whereas the goats were pretty much self sufficient. He was right 🙂

  10. MJ Ruisi says

    Wow! what a great right way to see your country….. as a gardener in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park…we have lot’s of Plants that thrive from New Zealand & Australia …so seeing the countryside is very revealing to me….and lupines are my one of my favorite perennials!!!!

  11. Lyndle says

    Great post Leilani! It’s a cool trip. You’ll have to do the Canterbury side sometime when it’s not raining, there are some cool rock formations. I was interested in what you said about New Year. – my family are 5th generation NZers with distant Scots heritage, but we have always linked arms for auld Lang Syne at midnight, and kissed everyone, and broken out some whisky or whatever. (Well except for those of an age to be partying it up on a beach somewhere). I had assumed this wasn’t unusual, but maybe it is. At the millenium, I was in bed with measles, but in Dunedin my parents were partying till dawn with their church people.

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