South Island, New Zealand Marlborough, storm Gita, milford sound, queenstown

Should we or should we not try running down a tall, steep mountain and jumping off on a tandem hang-glider as recommended by our friend Suzy? This was the question on our minds as we prepared to leave the North Island. We said goodbye to Wellington and went to trade in the car at the Interisland ferry terminal (btw, Avis sucks in New Zealand). We’ve been trying the whole beginners’ mind thing and hang gliding would be an interesting test case. On the one level, what’s the big problem?.. all the Tripadvisor reviews say “it’s fine; not scary at all”! But for two, not particularly adventurous “old” folks, it seemed super scary and by no means a slam dunk.

Our ride to the South Island awaits

The ferry crossing from Wellington to Picton was thankfully unbillious and relatively uneventful apart from a brief encounter with two dudes who were fairly well baked and seemed keen for me to take their picture. Okay fellas, here you go. The views across the Cook Strait were spectacular.

Ferry crossing: Cook Strait, Tory Channel and Queen Charlotte Sound

We had a one night stay at Picton before moving on to Blenheim in Marlborough County where a lot of wine growing / production happens. I managed to drag myself out of bed to take this sunrise image of the bay outside our window; everything was so still at dawn.

Boats at peace

Marlborough! This name has now become attached to places of meaning for me and Victoria: somewhere we went to school (and met!) in the UK, and now somewhere of great beauty that we quickly grew to love.

Our back yard view

On the second day, we got to experience our second Wine Tasting tour, this time with less rain / nausea and more humor as we had the good fortune of having a fun bunch of folks accompanying us. Colleen, from Highlight Wine Tours was our fantastic guide and mini-bus driver. Along the way we learned that our palettes have not caught up with the times as we are firmly in the Chardonnay camp, not Sav Blanc which is more popular / in vogue / commonly grown in Marlborough at the current time. Because of this we were happy to support the spirit of the Bring Back Chardonnay (BBC) movement (yes, Cain, we know BBC is an abbreviation for many things!?....)

One day; 29 wines
Beautiful Marlborough Sunrise

After a couple of days enjoying Marlborough and it’s produce, it was time to take the road trip over and down the west coat passing through the fabled glacial region.

All bridges great and small

As part of the trip we crossed many of these single track bridges; the one pictured above was short but there were many much longer ones. I snapped this whilst attempting to take some waterfall images along the way.

Stoic sheep on a rugby pitch
Road Trip with a view

We stopped for a night at Hokitika on the West Coast, which was allegedly booked-out for our Saturday night stay but which seemed oddly closed for business when we arrived at lunchtime... Franz Josef was our next stop where dense cloud cover put paid to our planned helicopter trip to the summit of the glaciers A planned stop at Lake Matheson to see the reflection of Mount Cook was similarly thwarted by the weather so we took pity on a couple of Dutch hitchhikers and drove them to their bus stop. It became clear that we weren’t the only ones to have had trouble finding accommodation on the South Island: they had slept on someone’s floor for five days waiting to get a coach reservation. Chinese New Year was to blame, apparently!

The drive in the rain through the Haast Pass was memorable with dramatic terrain punctuated by energetic waterfalls and rivers with requisite expanses of single track bridges to cross over them and framed with dramatic skies. Towards the end of the journey, as we approached Wanaka, our next destination, we came apon this stunning view of Lake Hawea and we hoped to be able to explore the next day.

Lake Hawea

After a few days on the road, we were glad to arrive at our next base and went to sleep after an amazing sunset which we observed from our “watchtower”.

Pink sky at night.....

Pink sky at night, shepherds’ delight.. was proved wrong in this case: Cyclone Gita hit the South Island, and if I’d been a shepherd, I’d have given-up and applied for a job in banking. We were hammered by rain for the next few days and it got so cold we had to light the stove in our AirBnb which lacked central heating (ok, Harriet: not cold by Indiana standards but certainly cold for summer-time down here!).

Our “rent a cat” approved of our fire-lighting skills

To pass the time we caught up on some Oscar “Best Picture” nominations which we watched at a couple of small local theaters. If you ever visit Wanaka and love movies, be sure to check out Ruby’s which was supremely awesome and a great antidote for being cold and water logged. In other somewhat surprising news, we also made friends with Maurice, the cat we rented with our AirBnb; no small accomplishment for two non-cat people.

Maurice. Not sure he loved us, but we formed a working relationship
And then the sun came out

As we were departing from Wanaka, the sun finally came out and we became aware that we’d actually been staying in a basin surrounded by cool mountains that were now very photogenic capped with snow.

“Those mountains weren’t there yesterday”

Perfect timing for good weather, as having missed-out on a flight to the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, we had booked a flight to Milford Sound.

Cessna U206F

Flying there was even cooler than we had hoped due to the fresh snowfall from Cyclone Gita. We flew from Wanaka Airport, over the lake and Matukituki Valley, up and over the Mount Aspiring National Park (should be Mount Inspiring!) and then the Olivine Ice Plateau and Southern Alps. I had a wonderful view next to the pilot in the Cessna 206.

Flying out over Mount Aspiring National Park

The descent and landing at Milford was certainly the most scenic, thrilling landing I’ve ever experienced in a light aircraft (Warren: you have to do it someday if you haven’t already!). After a short bus ride, our water chariot awaited to show us the sights of the Sound, which some consider the Eighth wonder of the world. We concur. These images don’t in any way do it justice. Highlights included, well, the most amazing scenery on the planet, dolphins, seals, waterfalls and a glimpse out at the Tasman sea.

The Eighth Wonder
Seals, Dolphins oh my
Lady Elizabeth Bowen Falls
The graceful might of Bowen falls

As we left the ferry we were thrilled not to be boarding a coach for the five hour return trip to Queenstown. If you ever visit the area and, like us, can’t stay overnight close to Milford Sound (be it Chinese New Year or some other holiday), flying is definitely the way to go.

So many photographic opportunities to and from Milford Sound..... a blog in itself
Dart river

The flight back was equally picturesque; we took a different route over Glenorchy and crossed the dramatic and strangely appealing and relevant Dart River where scenes from both “Alien Resurrection” and “Mission Impossible 6” have been filmed. We touched down with inspired and restored souls, memories of the deluge displaced with those of nature’s resplendent beauty and majesty. And so, off to Queenstown.


Queenstown is the smallest city we’ve yet visited in New Zealand but in a strange way has been one of our favorites. Although we were staying out on the outskirts due to availability, we were quick to visit the center.. what we experienced was something akin to an alpine ski town in summer.. with pedestrian precincts housing bustling eateries and street performers.

Determined to enjoy the view of the Remarkables at our AirBnb

About that tandem hang gliding that we’d machinated over earlier.. we decided to go ahead. Only there was a slight screw-up that turned out well (was it fate intervening?).. we had booked tandem PARAgliding in error.. and there was no way to change it. “Don’t worry” we were told “paragliding is actually less scary than hang gliding”. “You’ll be fine”. That phrase again. Oh well, you only live once, let’s do this!

Landing Zone

And so we found ourselves at the base of the ski field of Coronet Peek looking out at The Remarkables (which frankly do look remarkable!). I’d been paired with Vicky, and Victoria with Tom. After a mini bus ride filled with much silent anticipation, we found ourselves strapping into harnesses and getting ready to go. Vicky worked hard to put me at ease and got me to pose for the camera (the results speak for themselves). Victoria / Tom went ahead and we ended up going second to last.. we had to wait awhile for the right wind.. I dutifully followed the instructions of “walk, walk, walk, run-run-run-run-no-matter-what”.. after a few brief seconds which were a blur of action and mild panic I found myself running in mid-air cartoon-style like in Tom and Jerry... and lo we were airbourne. The experience was breathtaking, pure magic. All I can say is, thank you Suzy for the suggestion, and thank you fate for the twist. Definiately check out Coronet Peak Tandem if you are in Queenstown and make sure to request Vicky as your pilot.

Tandem Paragliding from 700m - maybe we should go higher next time?

Here’s the home movie to prove this wasn’t an elaborate CGI fake out:

Big thx to Vicky and Coronet Peak Tandem

You can’t really come to New Zealand without checking out a sheep farm; there are 27 million sheep here after all, and wool is one of the primary exports. I had also developed an Ice Breaker addiction since being introduced to their T-shirts, made from New Zealand wool. So when the opportunity came to visit a farm which produces wool used in their products I felt personally invested.

The sheep at Mt Nicholas High Country Farm get to enjoy this amazing view
Belle, the sheepdog, doing her job

More so than the sheep, I was stuck by the amazing skill of Belle, the trained “Eye” dog that so skillfully responds to human commands and herds the sheep without inducing stress. Once trained, these amazing dogs sell for as much as NZ $20,000.

Belle the “Eye” dog catches some shade

We nearly didn’t go to Arrowtown.. but I’m so glad we did: really cool little ex-gold mining town that has become a tourist destination with boutiques and restaurants.

Arrowtown, where some folks still pan for gold

We managed a hike along the Arrow River where I took the picture below.. unbeknownst to me at the time, [NERD ALERT!] this is actually The Ford of Bruinen which is the location from Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring where Arwen faces down the Nazgul.

A Defender cross the Ford of Bruinen
Arwen turns to face the Nazgul

A Lord of the Rings refererence seems a fitting way to close as we find ourselves at the end of this amazing tour of New Zealand. And we really don’t want to leave this incredible place. We will certainly be back and I encourage you to visit sometime if your haven’t already.. you won’t regret it!

Milford Sound, one of the eight wonders of our trip

If we managed to keep you until the end, thanks for sticking with us! If you are interested in following along go to http://clarkezone.io and if you like gratuitous food pictures I’m posting those at http://instagram.com/clarkezone

Love James and Victoria

Created By
James Clarke


All text and photography (C) James E Clarke 2018

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