Beautiful New Zealand: up and down the country via train and ferry

Clear views of the north of the South Island as the ferry comes into Picton harbour

New Zealand is definitely a country best explored with a car, or even better, a camper van. It can be hard to access its remote beaches and many national parks without your own transport, and the low population density means that there’s a dearth of decent-sized towns to base yourself in while you explore the area.

As a non-driving, low-budget backpacker, I have found it more comfortable to stay in larger urban centres where I have access to a supermarket and cheap hostels, and where there are cinemas and museums to explore on rainy days. In these cities and towns, such as Picton (where the ferry from Wellington comes into), Christchurch (a good-sized city on a peninsula on the east coast of the South Island), and beautifully sunny Nelson (in the north of the South Island), I have found plenty of ways to entertain myself and have found them good bases for day trips into the surrounding nature.

I am also blessed with dear friends who’ve connected me with friends of theirs, meaning I have even had the chance to take overnight camping trips and to go surfing on beaches that are too awkward to reach without a car. I’m sending a massive thank you to all those who helped me out so far.

Camping at the peak of Mount Oxford, south of Christchurch

All that being said, public transport is very good in New Zealand, with the InterCity bus network connecting most of the major towns up and down the country, and even many smaller ones. I took an especially scenic, 11-hour journey from Auckland down to Wellington in the North Island, with plenty of coffee/loo breaks and a friendly driver who also acted as a tour guide, pointing out anything of interest as we went along.

What’s more, if you’re organised, you can turn long trips into forays into extreme beauty. As well as being the most romantic option, Scenic Train journeys offer miles and miles of picturesque landscapes that become almost excessive because there’s so much of it. These train rides aren’t merely spotted by the odd nice view – more or less each entire journey carries you gently into the heart of that wild, soaring beauty that New Zealand is famous for. These trains are obviously popular, however, so ideally you should book them a good few weeks before you actually want to travel.

Views from the Picton -> Kaikoura leg of the scenic coastal train journey
The beautiful blue coast that the trainline hugs on its way to Kaikoura. Fur seals can be seen on the rocks further south.

Also part of this network is the Interislander ferry which, as the name suggests, takes you between Wellington, the large capital city in the very south of the North Island, and Picton, a small town on the north coast of the South Island. This has to be the most beautiful ferry ride in the world, with aching views of both islands rising beside you at either end of the three-hour journey. Beware the strong winds that will blast you around the deck of the ferry, though!

Picton has a pretty harbour and an excellent museum, the Edwin Fox, which displays the last surviving ship that was used for transporting convicts from Britain to Australia. Built in 1853, the Edwin Fox has been restored and you can look around and walk on the ship itself. Although not as spectacular as the Vasa ship in Stockholm, it’s a very cool slice of history and well worth the visit.

Picton harbour
The Edwin Fox Maritime Museum can’t be missed as you exit the ferry. It’s well worth the visit
The ship, the Edwin Fox (built 1853)

There’s also a whaling museum, which I was especially interested in as I’m currently reading Moby-Dick and was heading on to Kaikoura, a stunning peninsula on the east coast of the South Island that’s famous for its cetacean population. As it turns out, I saw three sperm whales on my whale-watching trip, as well as a pod of a couple of hundred dusky dolphins and some cute fur seals with their pups.

The gorgeous Kaikoura coast – once the morning mist had lifted
One of three sperm whales spotted on my whale-watching tour

Another exceptional journey is the Tranz-Alpine train, also part of the Scenic Trains network. Crossing east to west from Christchurch to Greymouth or vice versa, the train winds through the Southern Alps at a leisurely pace, giving plenty of time to look outside. Mountains upon mountains, pure rivers flowing… it’s a feast for the eyes.

The beginning of the Tranz-Alpine journey as we left Christchurch
About one-third of the way into the journey, mountains appear
Arthurs Pass is about halfway through. A lot of people stop here to go hiking

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