Although the day started bright and sunny, by the time we’d ‘broken camp’ and got on the road the clouds were shrouding the mountains – and as we were in the mountains that meant that we were in the clouds. In other words it was raining; which was a pity really because with 6,000 ft peaks all around us I’m sure that the scenery would have been spectacular on a sunny day. Scenery aside there’s not much of interest on the drive north from Wanaka towards the coast – in point of fact, with two notable exceptions there’s not much of anything between Wanaka and Hokitika (420km) where we expect to be tomorrow night. What, I hear you ask, are the two exceptions? I’ll tell you ………..sandflies and glaciers!
I’m not entirely sure why they’re called sandflies. The fact is that that they seem to be perfectly at home just about anywhere on the West Coast of New Zealand, just so long as there are people to bite. Forgive me, but I’m doing the species a bit of a disservice; the fact is that whilst the males are annoying but harmless the females are never happier than when they’re drawing blood……….any similarity to humankind is, of course, purely natural.
We stopped for our daily constitutional at the Fox Glacier. It’s really peculiar to be able to drive/walk in the space of a few minutes from what is in effect a temperate rainforest to the foot of a glacier, albeit glaciers that shrink year on year – both the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers have receded by about 3km since they were first seen by Captain Cook in the late 18th century. As we stood at the foot of the glacier great lumps of ice about the size of a small car were being washed down the glacial river towards the sea whilst a man in an enormous, caterpillar tracked, digger was trying to move boulders around the valley bottom in an attempt to channel the river along a particular route. In terms of scale it looked like a Tonka toy trying to move the whole of Chesil Beach – I imagine he must be paid by the hour.
Today was mainly a travelling day and because of the geography it meant re-tracing our steps out of Fiordland, through Kingston again, back past Queenstown and then north to Wanaka. We paused in Kingston to take in the Kingston Flyer, which is supposed to have a classic steam engine running on 14 km of track. Sadly it looks like the Flyer’s days are numbered; the only engines and rolling stock we saw had obviously not moved for many months and according to the owner of the local coffee shop they’ve run out of cash and are looking for a buyer – fancy a business opportunity Jamie?
More spectacular scenery and wonderful views and then, in the middle of nowhere, a couple of English classic cars – an E-Type and an XK150 sat outside a bar/restaurant in the back end of nowhere looking like a million dollars. We’d come across something similar on the Otago Peninsular when we’d run into (not literally) a group of English registered Morgans looking for all the world as though they were on a day trip from Malvern. It’s obviously the thing to do to ship your classic motor out by container and then tour in the New Zealand sunshine to the admiring glances of the natives and tourists. If you’ve got it, flaunt it!
Having splashed out on posh campsites and boat trips over the past few days we’re saving a few dollars this evening by ‘wildcamping’ on a Department of Conservation site to the west of Wanaka. It might be short on amenities, but not on views …….. a 45 minute hike up past Diamond Lake brought us to yet another impressive viewpoint; unfortunately we’ve now completely run out of superlatives.
Our bus driver, Sean, was a mine of useful and interesting information. No doubt all of the nuggets that he passed on to us had been delivered to his passengers on hundreds, if not thousands, of previous occasions, but it was all new to us – so you’ll have to excuse me if I feel the need to share some of them with you too.
Unless you want to spend weeks wandering on foot through the forests, or you’ve won the pools and can afford to take a helicopter or seaplane, the only way to get to Doubtful Sound is by a 50 minute boat journey from Manapouri. The journey takes you to West Arm where, between the late 50s and early 70s the New Zealand government spent 40 million dollars burying a hydro-electric power station 230m down in the heart of a granite mountain in order to capture the force of the lake water as it rushes down into Doubtful Sound and then on towards the Tasman Sea. The result is something that looks like the set from a 1970s James Bond film whilst producing 14% of New Zealand’s electricity supply.
A 20 minute bus journey over an unmade road (according to Sean it cost $2/cm) takes you to Doubtful Sound (which it turns out is actually a fjord) and from there it’s another 90 minute boat journey out to the sea. According to Justin (who drove the boat and had almost as many nuggets to impart as Sean) the sound/fjord was named by Captain Cook who discovered the entrance but thought better of sailing in as he considered it ‘doubtful’ that he’d be able to sail out again. He would probably therefore have been a little surprised to have seen the 15 deck high cruise ship that weaved (wove?) its way between the islands just in front of us……..still, that’s 200 years of progress for you.
For once Denise’s wildlife jinx didn’t come into play and we had seals and bottlenose dolphins a plenty. Note to self: when taking picture of fast moving dolphins remember to set the shutter speed to something sensible. Ah well…… a fantastic day nonetheless.
The drive from Kingston across to Te Anau wasn’t especially exciting. As we set off there was a thick band of low cloud lying in most of the valley bottoms and we only really popped out into bright sunshine on a few occasions during the 150 mile journey. You know that you’re getting into the back of beyond when communities of just one or two buildings start to feature on national maps, but the few small towns we passed through looked pleasant enough. As we swept through the metropolis of Athol (maybe 20 homes?) we were tempted to hang around for the advertised ‘Fun Day’, but as the highlight of the event promised to be a display of vintage tractors we decided to give it a miss.
Te Anau sits on the edge of the Fiordland National Park and it’s not difficult to work out why they called it Fiordland as there’s nothing much other than lakes, mountains and forests for mile after mile after mile. This afternoon we walked about 16km of the 70km long Kepler Track which runs through the Kepler Mountains on the western side of Lake Te Anau, lovely paths through lush forests of tall trees and tree ferns…. but as usual with our wildlife spotting luck, no Kiwi birds.
Tomorrow we’ve booked a place on a trip up Doubtful Sound which along with the more widely known Milford Sound is a popular destination for those tourists who (like us) want to feel that they’re getting a little bit off the beaten track. The package includes a trip through one of New Zealand’s largest hydro-electric plants which was apparently built specifically to produce power to smelt Australian bauxite. Fancy that – shipping ore all the way from Queensland to the shores of New Zealand (and then presumably back again as aluminium) to take advantage of cheap electricity ……. not quite my idea of ecologically sound practice, but what do I know?
Our journey south and west from Cromwell was pretty uneventful; it’s a sad fact that we’re now so completely accustomed to the fantastic scenery that we take it for granted – worse than that, we actually expect it and have the temerity to complain to each other when the views are anything less than jaw-dropping.
First stop was Arrowtown where, after the daily routine of coffee and cake, we wandered through the picturesque high street and then took a turn around what remains (or has been recreated) of the dwellings of some of the 10,000 Chinese workers who arrived in the 1860s to work the new gold fields. With the prospect of picking up roughly ten times what they could hope to earn in their homeland most stayed for a few years before moving on or returning home. By all accounts those who stayed didn’t have much of a life and were given a pretty tough time by the European settlers who needed their labour but were fairly intolerant when it came to ‘foreigners’.
Queenstown is buzzing. Much bigger than we expected and packed to the rafters with horribly healthy looking ‘kids’ between the ages of 18 and 38 it’s easy to see why it’s regarded as a mecca for those who worship the great outdoors and appreciate a good party. After a wander through the beautiful botanic gardens, taking in the stunning backdrop of the Remarkables, we moved swiftly on ………… it must be an age thing.
Bit of a quiet day today. After breakfast and before getting underway we spent half an hour availing ourselves of the free Wi-Fi service kindly provided by the good citizens of Lawrence. They’re no fools …….by providing free Internet access to all comers they’ve guaranteed that every coach and data-starved tourist will pause for a few minutes in the town to check their e-mails and perhaps buy a bite of breakfast or lunch whilst they’re about it. Their cunning plan seemed to be working well whilst we were there.
Our route north took us through Alexandra which, according to our Rough Guide, sprang up during the 1862 gold rush and flourished for about four years before turning itself into a quiet, prosperous service town for the fruit growers of Central Otago – and believe me, there are a lot of them, with every imaginable variety of fruit being grown on the hundreds of estates that fill the valley floors. Whether by luck or good judgement we managed to miss all of the ‘tourist attractions’ to which the town lays claim, but we did enjoy our (now routine) mid-morning coffee and muffin whilst sitting in the sun and watching the world go by. It’s a nice place.
Today has been Waitangi Day which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 between the UK and the ‘United Tribes of New Zealand’. In theory the treaty was supposed to protect the right of the Maori peoples, though there seems to be more than a hint of suspicion that it was just as much about keeping the French out of New Zealand – something for which we should all be grateful!
Our stopover tonight is at Cromwell, which sits on the banks of Lake Dunstan and has the distinction of being about as far from the sea as you can get in New Zealand. A bit like Banbury I suppose…….
The wind was blowing a hooley when we woke this morning, which was particularly noticeable because the van was perched on a cliff top overlooking the bay and rocked noticeably each time the stronger gusts hit the shoreline. Well, that’s our story anyway.
First stop was to visit some weird spherical stones sitting in the sea at Moeraki – it reminded us of a science fiction film in which old folk were rejuvenated simply by sitting in the water alongside the objects – we sat in that bloody freezing sea for at least an hour, but nothing happened!
As we drove down the coast the countryside started to become a little more familiar – still beautiful, but a little tamer and there were definitely fewer ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as we made our way towards Dunedin. Aside from a brief stop to re-stock the larder we didn’t stop in the City, but made our way out onto the stunning Otago Peninsula in pursuit of wildlife. Truth to tell we’ve not done too well so far this holiday with our nature studies – Denise didn’t manage to spot a single roo in Oz and neither of us now believes that koalas actually exist in the wild anymore. Since arriving in NZ we’ve seen plenty of cows, sheep, deer and rabbits; we’ve even seen reindeer grazing – but have we seen a Hobbit yet?
Although the penguins had apparently taken the day off to go fishing, we did at least manage to see some seals and what I can confidently claim thanks to the new binoculars (great choice Jonathan) to have been a Royal Albatross swooping elegantly across the ocean.
Our overnight stop this evening is at Gabriel’s Gully, a couple of km out of Lawrence on the road up to Alexandra. This is another freebie site, but this one has a bit of a history having been one of the key centres for the Otago Gold Rush in the 1860s when 10,000 gold-hungry prospectors literally tore this beautiful little valley apart on their quest for instant wealth. Not many signs left now, but there’s an interesting trail you can follow which tells the story for those who are interested.
If this is Omarama this must be Tuesday morning. Refilling the van’s water supply and emptying the portable toilet isn’t necessarily the ideal way to start the day, but with that small but essential task completed we started the drive back down towards the Pacific coastline. More fabulous scenery interspersed with some pretty impressive dams and massive canals – all part of the country’s irrigation and hydro-electric scheme; very obviously the works of man, but done in such a way that it actually adds to the splendour of the landscape.
According to the Rough Guide, Oamaru is noted for its well -preserved Victorian architecture – I’ll take their word for it. When all is said and done, if I want to see Victorian architecture I can visit just about any town in England; still you can’t blame the locals for wanting to capitalise on their nice buildings, and I’m sure that the slightly ‘theme park’ approach that they’ve taken to the old harbour area will appeal to some of the many visitors from Japan, China and Korea. We had a coffee and moved swiftly on – bah humbug!
The evening was spent at Campbell’s Bay; a tiny seaside community a few km south of Oamaru. Although there are plenty of well-equipped campsites available to the intrepid van-dweller, the New Zealand Department of Conservation has sensibly recognised that there are also plenty of tight-fisted Europeans who prefer not to pay for their overnight stop if they can possibly avoid it. They’ve therefore listed a whole load of sites throughout the country where self-contained vans/caravans (i.e. with their own toilet and washing facilities) can stop overnight without charge.
The site at Campbell’s Bay was virtually empty and perfect for a one night stay. We walked the length of the two mile beach and back without seeing one single item of man-made flotsam or jetsam – not so much as a single plastic bottle or discarded flip-flop. Wonderful!
Last night we went stargazing. As Lake Tekapu reputedly has the second darkest skies in the southern hemisphere it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s a place where people spend a lot of their time looking up at the heavens. So last night we went out to a small observatory just outside town where two very nice, but very nerdish, young men entertained us for a couple of hours by letting us handle their 12 inch instruments. Live long and prosper.
Today we ‘did’ Mt Cook/Aoraki – at 3,724 meters it’s the highest mountain in New Zealand and pretty spectacular from wherever you happen to be perched. We took the 50km road up along the side of Lake Pukaki to Mt Cook/Aoraki Village and, after a coffee and a slightly overdue Skype call to son Thomas in Canada, decided to trek up the Hooker Valley to the glacial lake at the foot of the mountain.
More spectacular views and even more pictures – I have a feeling that the slideshow in the Village Hall is going to run to a couple of evenings!
Footsore but more than a little smug at having overtaken loads of people half our age on the trail up and down the mountain in temperatures over 30 degrees, we climbed back on board our covered wagon and drove the 70 or so km to Omarama. Another hard day at the office!
Monster photograph day! In the good old days of 35mm film we’d have needed a small trailer to carry all the rolls of film that we’d have shot today. Fortunately with a 32gb memory card in the camera it seems that I can take another 3,000 or so photos today before it starts to fill up – unlikely, but possible given the current rate of snapping.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending upon your point of view, it’s the sort of country where every corner you turn makes you want to stop and take a few dozen more snaps so that you can be sure of capturing the beauty of the place. The sad thing, of course, is that no matter how clever the camera may be, it simply can’t compare with the Mark One Eyeball when it comes to capturing the very best view possible. Never mind – just think how many slide shows we’ll be able to give in the Village Hall when we get home (book now to avoid disappointment!).
Lake Tekapo is truly beautiful. Our campsite is about 50m from the water’s edge, so as I sit here waxing lyrical I have a perfect view over the lake to the mountains beyond. This afternoon we walked the five or six miles up to the Mount John Observatory and this evening we’ve shelled out on a ‘night sky experience’ – Tekapo has some of the clearest skies in the southern hemisphere , so a little stargazing through one of the big telescopes sounds seems like a good idea.
….holiday blogs, motoring obsessions and an occasional account of goings-on in the Ewbank household