This is what I call a real ferry! New Zealand’s a country split in half by the Cook Strait. It might only be 23 at its narrowest, but the seas here are some of the most dangerous in the world, and the ports, at Wellington and Picton are both safely sheltered well inland, making the total crossing distance more like 70, taking about 3½ hours.
Even as a child this trip was on my bucket list—
well before the expression was coined. Driving is not the easiest way to traverse New Zealand, but for me there was no debate. We wanted to see the country from end to end, so we spent a month there, driving 6,500
in a rented RAV4 and taking the ferry both ways across the Cook Strait. Two companies serve this route; Bluebridge with two ships which we took heading south, and Interislander with three ships which we used on our return.
The day before we sailed south we spent looking around Wellington—
we visited Golum at the Weta Studios, walked around the botanical gardens in the pouring rain, and watched the ferry Aratere from the top of Mount Victoria as she approached the narrows into Wellington Harbour. The wind was so strong that it was impossible to walk at times and the ferry seemed to lean as if about to be blown over. We worried whether we would enjoy our trip the next day, or would we be sick the whole way across. It was lucky we had delayed our crossing by one day compared with our original plan.
The storm that day had been exceptionally destructive in the South Island where the deluge of rain had caused a lot of damage on the west coast. In particular it had destroyed the Waiho River Bridge, cutting the SH6 west coast road around Franz Josef. In so doing it decided our route for us—we had to leave the west coast and cross over Arthur’s Pass instead of carrying all the way down and crossing over the Haast Pass. It took just 18 days to rebuild the bridge enough to get traffic flowing again, but by then we had returned to the North Island.
This ferry crossing is not without incident, with the Aratere earning the nickname El Lemon
, with a number of well publicised problems plaguing the Spanish-built vessel. The most infamous accident on the Cook Strait ferries was when the MS Wahine capsized at the entrance to the harbour resulting in 53 deaths in 1968. Back then the ferry ran to Lyttleton rather than Picton as it does now.
Our luck improved as the next day was bright, sunny and not too windy—
by Wellington standards. We spent the morning making a somewhat rushed tour of the Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand (excellent!), just the other side of Lambton Harbour where the Bluebridge ferry docks. Being so near we were able to wait until close to the check-in time, but that put us at the end of the queue and so we were almost last to board the MV Straitsman. They put the last few of us on a ramp inside the ship, just wide enough for cars, which was jacked up for the voyage—
a bit strange, but they know how to make the most of filling the ship with trucks and cars and all things in between.
This was a trip where you wanted to be on deck and watching the view the whole way. Our route out was like a corkscrew, as Wellington Harbour really is beautifully protected from the open ocean. As we looked back it was clear how much of Wellington is built on the edge of a hill.
We were close to rugged cliffs most of the way across, and we barely felt we had left the North Island before we are entering the narrow gap into Tory Channel on the South Island—
this is a classic point on the crossing for all tourists to be outside with cameras ready. This is spectacular scenery, with the steep hills close to us on both sides, with the ship keeping up a good speed while turning, and heeling a bit, to stay in the channel. We saw few signs of civilisation—
the odd farm building near the water, making us wonder if they can drive in there or need everything brought in by boat.
Things opened out a bit more as Tory Channel led into Queen Charlotte Sound, but the scenery was still beautiful, especially in the late afternoon sun. We did one more 45° turn to port past The Snout, a long spit of land, and then we could see Picton about 5
straight ahead, and what I took at first to be another ferry, but which turned out to be a visiting cruise ship. The town of Picton itself looked very small from the sea, clustered mainly around the ferry docks with a few tendrils of housing stretching up the hills.
We had been invited to spend the night with friends of our cousins, and as the ship prepared to dock we worked out which was their house, at the top end of one of the roads stretching up the hill, directly behind the ferry dock. In addition to being so convenient for the ferries, we had a very warm welcome from Helen and Paul, and as we pored over the map of the South Island their practical travel advice made a big difference to our next couple of weeks of travel. We found this same hospitality and helpful attitude wherever we went in New Zealand.
We set off the next morning heading first for Nelson, and then on to explore the rest of the South Island. But driving away from Picton we had an excellent view down onto the ferry docks and were able to watch a shunting engine unloading rail wagons from the Aretere, an Interislander ferry and now the only ship on the route equipped to ferry rail wagons.
We returned two weeks later having seen as much of the South Island as we could without risking running out of time as we headed north and back to our flight home. For our return crossing we chose to go with Interislander on the MS Kaiarahi, partly because the schedule suited us better and partly for variety. The biggest difference was that it poured with rain the whole day, from leaving Picton right through to arriving at to our motel near Mount Ruapehu in the North Island many hours later. For that reason we sought out a good seat inside the ship, rather than spending the whole time outside as we had on the trip south. The view through the rain and mist was way less impressive, but we did seem to see more ferry traffic, which had me dashing out into the rain with camera whenever I noticed a ship approaching.
All in all we loved the South Island and our crossings both ways. Fully up to expectation. And the calm seas were a bonus.
These are big ferries, intended to carry a lot of trucks and cars, and anything else that needs to go from one island to the next. Their capacity is measured more in lane-metres than number of cars. They fit in whatever they need to, including the large tracked excavator which shared our trip south with us. Stock trucks carrying cattle make a big part of the traffic. We looked down on the open tops of empty trucks returning south and on similar trucks full of cattle heading back north, and you could smell them, empty or full! The original service (what is now the Interislander) was and remains a branch of the national railway system, now called KiwiRail. The Bluebridge service was created partially because of the needs of South Island trucking companies to have a more reliable service, more focused on serving their needs.
Interislander or Bluebridge? We checked the websites for both and chose the sailings that best suited our plans. The prices are not much different—we ended up paying a little more to return on the Interislander than it cost us to head south on Bluebridge. Discounts seem very common—we got senior rates, but there are all sorts of things advertised, and it may be if you book through your car rental company you can get a better price. We just booked online about 4 days ahead and had no trouble. But that was the autumn—I’ve heard from people how difficult it can be to get bookings around the summer peak Christmas time, especially for RVs.
Facilitates on the boats seemed pretty much the same to me, but all we did was buy a snack and use the toilets. The food available was decent and the ships were all in good condition. No complaints. Even free Wi-Fi, though of minimal quality. Because the services compete their websites advertise based on features (like movie rooms), so check online if that interests you. For us it was the spectacular views—and they are the same on all the boats!
So why don’t they build a tunnel?
The English Channel is 34 at its most narrow, compared with just 23 for the Cook Strait, so it seems like an obvious thing to consider, as the Channel Tunnel has now been in operation for 25 years. And a ferry would deliver a major economic benefit to the region.
But it does not seem to be something New Zealanders think about. The geology is much less favourable to a tunnel than the gently curved chalk strata under the English Channel—harder, deeper, and more faulted. And any tunnel would require major road or rail link to be built to connect to the rest of the country’s transport network, mainly through rugged terrain. Even now most of SH1, the country’s main road link from north to south, is still single carriageway.
These are all problems that could be solved for a price. But that price would be enormous—far more than the Channel Tunnel, but paid out of an economy far, far smaller than that of Britain and France. So there is no doubt the ferries will carry on running here for a long time.