WELLINGTON, Nov 12 — North Island or South Island? When visiting New Zealand, many travellers ponder upon this very conundrum.
The former has active volcanoes, the City of Sails (Auckland) and one of the world’s best coffee capitals (Wellington). The latter has crystal clear lakes, rugged coastlines and the mysterious Fiordlands.
Why choose? We reckon doing both makes the most sense to enjoy all of Middle Earth. Even the journey from one island to the other can be quite an experience.
Instead of flying, why not take a ferry across Cook Strait (named after British explorer James Cook, who sailed through it in 1770), with its stunning spectacular views?
We begin from the Wellington Harbour. On the way there, we observe early morning divers braving the cold waters at the Queens Wharf. Admirable but a tad masochistic, surely? This early, most of the docks are empty awaiting boats and ferries.
Soon we board our Interislander ferry to Picton on South Island. The Kaitaki is the earliest ferry, departing at 9am and reaching Picton just past noon, perfectly timed so we can grab lunch there.
Passing the perimeter of the bay, we enter the open waters of Cook Strait which connects the Tasman Sea with the South Pacific Ocean.
We wave goodbye to the last of the floating buoys and say hello to the deep blue sea. Technically our 92-kilometre journey takes place within the confines of the strait but we’d never know this isn’t the great open ocean. The wide expanse of water stretches from shore to shore, from our ferry to the horizon.
Life, at this very moment, seems limitless and full of possibilities.
The craggy cliffs above the Wellington Heads, the muscular bodies of formidable clouds overhead, the sun trying to pierce through and not quite succeeding till it’s noon — such splendour!
We can just make out the tip of South Island. Looking out for dolphins or whales, we mostly spot seagulls and shags in the air.
Patience and a keen eye are rewarded by a colony of fur seals on the rocks. A solitary animal on the furthest edge acts as sentinel while the mothers nurse their pups.
Some of the older ones wander clumsily over the uneven boulders, learning their way through this often harsh world. We can’t help but imagine the waves battering us to bits if we went overboard but these sleek, flippered creatures are built to slip through the waters like arrows from a well-tuned bow.
The landscape changes all the time. As we move through Tory Channel, the rugged rocks give way to brown slopes dressed with sun-baked grasses. There are sudden breaks in the mountainous terrain; patches of shore will appear, covered with the flotsam and jetsam of the strait.
These driftwood beaches have a stark, desolate beauty entirely their own. Some beach-goers or campers must have been here recently; they leave their mark in the form of tepees and tents made from storm-tossed, washed-up branches.
Adorned with slivers of vibrantly orange seaweed, these are signposts and they are temples too, to a way of life, to the journey from North Island to South Island, and back again, south to north.
The ferry ploughs on. The ghostly vistas give way to lush green hills, dotted with bursts of autumnal reds here and there. In the distance, another ferry (we aren’t sure) approaches.
These are lonely waters indeed, and all the more beautiful for it. We are a world away from our city lives with all the traffic jams and incessant cacophony.
Soon — far too soon — we reach our destination on the other side. The tiny town of Picton welcomes us to New Zealand’s South Island. Hardly immense, the harbour is a hint of how sparsely populated many of the places we’ll encounter later in our travels around the island.
Yet even here, there is more to marvel. The Edwin Fox Maritime Museum pays homage to the Edwin Fox — the world’s second oldest surviving merchant sailing ship.
More than that, the ship is the only one surviving to have transported convicts to Australia. Built of teak in Calcutta in 1853, the dry-docked ship is a paean to another time, terrible and testing.
Before we grab our rental car and begin our exploration of South Island, there is time enough for lunch. Certainly our bellies insist. Asking the locals, everyone agrees that Gusto, a no-fuss café that serves the community, is the place for us.
We get our much needed coffee in the form of flat whites. A starter of marinara-sauced mussels with garlicky pesto bruschetta; steamed rice with curried chicken and a salad — nothing fancy but it sure hits the spot. Not a bad way to cap a single morning’s journey on one of the most magnificent water crossings in the world.
Interislander Cook Strait ferry
For fares and times, visit www.greatjourneysofnz.co.nz/interislander/
33 High St, Marlborough, New Zealand
Open daily 7am-2:30pm
Tel: +64 3-573 7171