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The Top of the South Island—February 2015

February 20, 2015

I know.  There’s no excuse.  I haven’t posted anything since our last trip and here I am writing about another trip.

It’s not like there hasn’t been a lot to talk about.  It’s just that the stuff that’s going on sort of speaks for itself.  I have nothing to add.  For example, I’d really like to weigh in on the subject of the 20 year old American guy who was gored rather publicly at a bull running festival in Spain.  You want to ask what he was doing there and why.  But once you see the pictures and think ‘Oh my, is that where he got it?’ and then you read that the surgeon said that the guy needed surgery “to repair his sphincter,” you realise that silence is the best policy.

Or the story about the cat that got hit by a car and was presumed dead by its owner and buried.  It turned out it wasn’t dead and crawled its way back home.  The so called ‘zombie cat,’ which is now the center of a ‘custody battle’ between the owner and the local animal shelter is getting more press coverage than Greece, Libya and other global hot spots combined.

How can a rational person compete with that kind of stuff?  So I hope you’ll agree that it seemed like a good time to head out on the road and forget about things for a few days.

We hadn’t been down to the top of the South Island since 2000 and it was definitely a place I wanted to spend more time in.  If you’re in the North Island, there are two ways to get there.  One is to take the ferry from Wellington to Picton or you can fly into Nelson, the biggest town in that part of New Zealand.  The Nelson area has a population of about 46,000 which makes it the 12th largest city in NZ.

You fly into Nelson on a small propeller plane and the single runway airport on the beach gives the approach a Tora! Tora! Tora! feel.


Once we landed we picked up our rental car and after exploring Nelson a bit we headed out.  Here was our route:


We headed west and our first stop was in Ruby Bay where we met up with our friends Rene and Marianne.

After lunch we headed to Motueka where we spent two nights exploring the surrounding area.


The highlight of Motueka was the Sunday market.  We’d been to a market in Nelson when we arrived the day before but it was one of those upscale community markets where they sell designer kids clothing and there are no free samples.  The Motueka market was different.  It was like I’d time travelled back to the 60s.







There was even a man who made guitars out of old car parts.


For the next few days we drove sort of in a loop to increasingly remote and beautiful places including Farewell Spit (the northernmost point of the South Island and at 27 km, the longest sandspit in NZ) and some of the very remote bays in Golden Bay and the Marlborough Sounds.

This area is also home to the Able Tasman National Park and the Kahurangi National Park and we did several short day treks exploring both parks.

I won’t describe each place, but this will give u an idea—around every curve there was another spectacular view or quiet beach.  The beaches ranged from sandy (black, yellow or white sand), shelly or rocky. Here is a sample, in no particular order.















We drove on some interesting roads.




In the real world, old shoes hanging around can mean you’re in a bad neighbourhood.  But not in this case. None of the locals knew how this got started but the shoes along this fence keep increasing in number!


We walked on some scary paths.



Along the way we saw some interesting signs:




And visited some picturesque settlements.





We also stopped by the Te Waikoropupu Springs, which are considered very sacred by the local Maori.  The water is among the cleanest in the world with visibility up to 63 metres (207 feet).




Hitchhiking is a good way to get around the South Island and we did our part to help out some young German and French visitors.



Many tourists opt to travel by camper vans or combi vans and some of the rental companies have interesting messages.






While some prefer to get to the secluded beaches via a ferry shuttle that has its own docking ramp.


But it wasn’t all fun and relaxation!  Before we left for the trip I was doing some research and learned about something called the “Skywire” which was billed as the “longest flying fox in the world.”  I’d never heard of a flying fox until I came to NZ.  Basically, it’s a playground ride.  A cable is strung between two uprights and a sort of wheel box with handles is attached to the cables.  You run up, grab the handles, lift your feet and you sail along.  The Skywire was right on our route and I figured, why not.

Unfortunately, I stopped reading their website before I came to the words “highest” and “fastest.”

We found the place  and met Jill, the owner.  She had me fill out a rather alarming release form and then told us that Scott would be our guide and take us up to the flying fox.  We were the only visitors that afternoon so things were very relaxed.  Scott took us on a long and entertaining drive around the property in a four wheel drive truck.  In addition to the flying fox they have paintball and off road adventures on quad bikes and he gave us a nonstop explanation of everything we saw.  At one point we got out of the truck because he wanted to show us some very mature approximately 1,800 year old native matai trees on the property.  As we were getting back into the truck he pointed overhead and said, “Oh, by the way.  You see those wires up there?  That’s where you’re going to be in a few minutes.”

Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a good idea.


Of course it was too late to back out and we got up to the launching site.  Four people actually sit in this flying fox at once and it is motorised.  Scott made a ritual of starting everything up and explaining all the details, including fascinating topics like the frequency of lightning strikes.

He strapped me into my chair.


The white box behind him is a control box that includes a speedometer so you can see how fast you are going.  It also has an intercom attached.  The picture below shows Scott’s hand grabbing the microphone to clip it onto my shoulder harness.

He explained that in case of emergency we would be able to communicate.  As he put it, “I won’t be able to do anything to help you, but at least you’ll have someone to talk to.”  Actually it’s not so much for technical emergencies but he said that some people totally freak and the intercom is so that they can beg to have the ride aborted.  He paid me a dubious compliment by looking at me and saying, “It’s usually the big macho guys who lose it.”


I was informed that a short distance beyond the tiny light patch straight ahead is where the other tower is located.  On arriving there, the flying fox would reverse and return to base.  Once I was strapped in, he waited what for what seemed like an agonisingly long time before launching me.

This is me receding into oblivion.


In spite of the wind and g-forces, I managed to take a few pictures.  This is looking down:


And out to one side.


It’s really high–and this shows the dangers of not doing your research.  The entire trip is a little over 3 kilometres (almost 2 miles) and at the highest point you are 150 metres (almost 500 feet) above the trees.  Depending on the weight of the passengers, the Skywire can reach speeds of up to 115 kmph (about 70 mph).  The heavier the weight, the faster the freefall and as I was the only passenger, my maximum speed according to the controls was 87 kmph.

The two worse parts are near the far end when you start to slow down.  Of course you have no idea if that’s supposed to happen or if some horrible malfunction is occurring.  Then there is the arrival at the far end where you come to a full stop and prepare to reverse.  You are dangling above the treetops and although intellectually you know that something has to be done to the machinery to make it go backwards so you can return to earth, it seems like forever—at least long enough to convince you that the reverse switch isn’t working.

I was feeling pretty good on the return trip, especially when I slowed down for re-entry.  I came to a stop, anticipating a slow cruise back to the gate.  My buddy Scott, no doubt in collaboration with my wife, decided that since there was no one else around and since I hadn’t been screaming on the intercom to make it stop, decided I’d enjoy another trip.  So I was off again.

The second time wasn’t as bad and I even had the presence of mind to switch the camera to video and film the adventure.

Seriously, it was a really fun ride and I’d highly recommend it.


Since I was still on the high flying buzz, we decided to visit the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. This museum has one of the world’s most extensive collections of both static and flyable World War I aircraft. Movie director, Peter Jackson (of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies) is an avid enthusiast and many of the rare planes and memorabilia are from his private collection.

The museum has been designed by cinematic and special effects craftsmen and although it was well worth a visit it also makes you wonder why 100 years on, we have not learnt from history.




The Nelson-Golden Bay area is considered to be the artistic capital of NZ with a variety of artists in residence here. You can visit several of them at their home/art studios and watch them at work.

At Marahau, we visited an open air art gallery displaying sculptures by Maori wood carver, Woody Woodward. His beautiful works of art depict stories from Maori mythology carved on big logs of wood.






Not everyone has to be a professional artist to be creative.  As we drove through a settlement in the Marlborough Sounds called The Grove we admired the residents’ interesting mail boxes.











We headed back to Nelson for our flight back to Auckland and spent a couple of days exploring the Brook Waimarama Eco Sanctuary, gardens, beaches and museums in/around the city.

One of the highlights in Nelson was a visit to the World of Wearable Art and Classic Cars Museum.

The Wearable Art competition started in Nelson in 1987 with artists creating, well, wearable art.  The competition became so successful and generated so much interest that is has now moved to a bigger venue in Wellington and every September-October draws artists from all over the world.   The museum in Nelson houses the winners of the previous year’s competition and the creativity is amazing.  Here are a few samples—real models actual wear the garments during the competition.

This was the 2014 supreme award winner ‘Poly Nation” made of old suitcases and representing the journeys people make and the ‘seeds’ they carry to other lands.


This is a dress made of balloons.


Here is a very New Zealand entry:


These are entrants in the “Bizarre Brassiere” category:


Some of the garments look best in black light:



And here is one made out of eyeglasses:


And tea cosies:


And the private collection of 110 classic cars in the adjoining exhibition hall included some works of art, too.


After all that culture, we decided to spend our last evening in Nelson fighting the crowd at the local beach.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2015 11:44 pm

    Looks like a great place to visit, but a horrible place to have to leave.

  2. Gail Robertson permalink
    February 21, 2015 4:27 pm

    Tom, when you have photos and memories such as these, few words are necessary- Many thanks for sharing, Gail.

  3. February 23, 2015 10:16 am

    “If you’re waiting for a sign, this is it.” Good one. There’s something so typically Antipodean about Scott sending you back out into space and saying there’s nothing he can do to help anyway. I always enjoy your travels, Tom. When are going away next? 🙂

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