Knowing how much I love travelling and having adventures, my fabulous friends all chipped in and bought me a weekend at a flash resort on the West Coast of the South Island for my 40th birthday party.
Last weekend we finally found a free weekend to squeeze in a trip and stay at this amazing resort. It was an absolute treat, especially as I had been sick in bed with a cold earlier in the week. I hoped my hacking cough and snivelling nose wouldn’t annoy Andrew too much.
We packed up the car and headed off on Friday afternoon, over the Southern Alps. It is a good five hour drive from Christchurch to Franz Josef Glacier, and it was about 8pm by the time we checked in at the beautiful Te Waonui Forest Retreat, where we were greeted with a welcome kiwifruit drink and hot towels.
“Where have you come from?” They enquired with foreign accents
“Christchurch” We replied
“And before that?”
“Ah no – just Christchurch – we live there!”
They seemed surprised. It seems they don’t see many kiwi’s in this part of the world – the human kiwi’s that is. There are a few real kiwi birds around these parts. In fact for the whole weekend just about everyone we met from staff in the shops, to other people exploring the area – we were the only New Zealanders there!
We were shown to our room where we were given detailed instructions on how to operate the air conditioning, and then we perused the pillow menu while drinking the complimentary champagne and ordered room service pizza for dinner.
The following morning, we were up to partake in the buffet breakfast. More champagne (it was helping my cough) and a few pastries from the buffet sneakily wrapped in a serviette for our lunch – then we were off!
My friends Ken and Karina are always raving about a place called Okarito. I had never been there, and since we had already done the glaciers a few years ago we were keen to see something new.
We pulled up at the Okarito Nature Tours base where the smell of proper coffee was wafting out the door. Ordering a couple of flat whites, we booked a kayak and got a run down from Baz and his friendly team about all the cool things we could see while out on the water.
Mist hung limply in the tops of the dense native bush as we pushed our kayak in to the glassy Okarito Lagoon. Paddling against the ebbing tide we headed upstream.
This stunning wetland covers an area of nearly 12 square kilometres, and is home to over 70 different species of birds. The kotuku – white heron is particularly special. Okarito is its only breeding site in New Zealand and in 1941 there were just four nests left, but thanks to careful monitoring and management, there are now nearly 100 breeding pairs of these majestic birds in the lagoon. We were lucky enough to see a few of them fishing in the shallow waters as we paddled past.
The rivers weave their way through the tidal lagoon creating a maze of islands and waterways for paddlers to discover. We kept to the marked channel as the water receded, uncovering expansive mudflats. Oystercatcher birds poked their slender orange beaks in to holes searching for seafood treats.
The mudflats disappeared in our wake as the river narrowed and we entered the kahikatea swamp forest. The perfect reflections of the bush in the water created an optical illusion making me feel like we were flying as opposed to floating. We paddled further upstream, having to duck under fallen trees across the river and occasionally get out to drag our kayak across shallow patches before re-entering the main channel again.
We found a clearing and pulled up on an island, unpacked our lunch of stolen pastries from the buffet and admired the view. The clouds parted briefly to give us a glimpse of the rugged Southern Alps reaching high up in to the sky above us.
After about three hours of paddling, we headed back to the Okarito Nature Tours base, pulled a beer out of the chilly bin and explored the beach. I can totally see why Ken and Karina raved about this place so much. Even on a misty day it was just spectacular.
We headed back to Franz Josef and booked ourselves in to the hot pools located right next door to the hotel. The people at checkin suggested we just wear our slippers and robes from the hotels over our togs. So I did, but I did feel like a bit of a plonker walking down the main street in a dressing gown and slippers…
Anyway the hot pools are just lovely in Franz Josef. Not as big and busy as Hanmer, and a nicer bush clad setting with shade sails to protect you from the sun and or rain. We boiled our aching arms away in the pools and then headed back to the resort for a fabulous five course dinner.
The following morning it was drizzling again. I dragged a reluctant Andrew around the touristy shops looking for a map of NZ tea towel and then we headed off for a walk.
The scenery in this part of the world is just spectacular. One minute you are shrouded in thick lush rainforest, and then the bush clears to reveal steep cliffs, glistening blue glaciers and reflecting lakes. It really does take your breath away. How lucky are we to live in such a beautiful country.
It started to rain – hard. So we reluctantly jumped in the car and headed for home. Stopping in Hokitika to hunt down a whitebait pattie for lunch. The trendy cafe’s didn’t have them, so we headed to the pub and finally found some real kiwis! Dressed in stubbies, jandals & singlets, there was no mistaking we had come back to reality again. We had a game of pool and enjoyed our delicious lunch, before heading back over the Alps to home.