Day 37 Drive to Tekapo
After another delightful breakfast at Little River, we bodge out a rough itinerary through the South Island. We have our next few nights and last few nights booked up, but everything in between is up for grabs. If we have learned anything so far, it's that good preparation is king. We decide to wing it. We had initially planed to head north-west, towards beautiful Abel Tasman before meandering clockwise around the coast back to Christchurch ready for Christmas. Instead we have plumped on heading south-west through the Alpine middle, Fiordland and then up the south-east coast back to Christchurch. Today we’re driving to Lake Tekapo, an idyllic part of the central valley floor, hemmed in by the Southern Alps, and with an International Dark Sky badge of honour (like Hawaii and Siberia). i.e., not only does it get dark, there’s zero pollution, so you can capture (at least, if you have better photographic competency than us) one of those full-on NASA-looking galaxy shots.
But only if it’s a clear night, and judging by the relentless rain, we might be bang out of luck. It is a long, slow, grey drive from Little River, with any potential points of interest being obscured by petulant low cloud.
Our only excitement for the morning is in a stop called Geraldine. We find a cafe to have a coffee in (with some seriously sour-faced locals, it is the start of summer here; the weather is cheering noone up), and I order a sausage roll which looks like a can of Pedigree Chum emptied out whole and wrapped in puff pastry. It’s a marathon effort to finish it, but heroically, I do. And then spend the rest of the afternoon perspiring in remorse.
In a village called Fairlie, some 40km from Tekapo, we turn off onto another unsealed dirt-road to add the hire car a further tinge of “full-valet-required”. Our AirBnB this evening is a homely couple of rooms on a working farm, and what a pleasure it is to hear a dog barking without immediately thinking “Shit, rabies!” The lovely host Sonia, winning her millions of brownie points and a glowing review, is delighted to do our hitherto only bath-washed laundry. “It’s nearly Christmas, after all” she says.
After dumping everything, we drive the 40km to Lake Tekapo and emerge out of the clouds into glorious sunshine and a view which goes on for ever. We drive up to the observatory overlooking the lake and the valley, and spend some time walking among the mountains and sheep.
We also drive past the Church of the Good Shepherd, the location for a billion Instagram photos. Demonstrating why, are a billion other tourists, intent only on ruining our photos and throatily hawking up phlegm onto the road. After being reminded by Ruth again that I am also a tourist, It is decided we'll return early tomorrow to get some sunrise photos, before “one of us” says something he will regret.
We drive back into the clouds, watch John Travolta on a train and go to bed, still full from the sausage roll.
Day 38 Sunrise drive to Wanaka and Queenstown
Being less than fortnight away from the longest day, we have to set off at 4am in order to beat the sunrise back at Tekapo. However, we (I) miscalculate by about 20 minutes, and there is a dull glow in the east by the time we arrive, scattering rabbits in front of the car at the Church of the Good Shepherd.
The few stars left are swiftly snuffed out as the world-class night sky is enveloped by dawn. Oh balls. Sulk around the scene, trying desperately to make it look darker than it actually is with the camera. Stupid sun!
The scene is hardly unlovely though. Rabbits are larking about through vivid clumps of lupins under an Alpine backdrop, while bronze, early-morning light sets the landscape aglow.
We drive on south west towards Wanaka, past a bus of sunrise-chasers (too late suckers!). And what a drive it is. We’ve left the rain in the north, and mist is lifting from the valley floor in the early morning light, as we drive across the spine of the South Island.
Mount Cook, the country’s tallest summit, pokes out above a thin cloud layer over another bluest-blue Lake (Pukaki, which inadvertently leads me to humming a Steel Panther song for the rest of the morning) as we draw near to Wanaka. The scenery has gone a good way to ensuring the mood in the car is no longer as frosty as the temperature outside.
With the early morning sun shining brightly, we pull up on the shores of Lake Wanaka, a beguiling locale, walled in by snowy Southern Alps. Wanaka is a holiday town, serving skiers and their ilk in the winter, and lakey sun-chasers in the summer. It has numerous other charms too, but Ruth and I are primarily concerned with its dispensaries of class-A caffeine currently, having been up five hours already. After mainlining this and another absurd, elephant-leg sausage-roll on the lakeside, we roll on.
We can’t check in to our Queenstown dwelling until this afternoon, so given the early hour (only the brightest of eye and bushiest of tail are sharing coffee with us) we opt to have a light jaunt around the nearby Mount Iron Loop, which offers 360º views of the nearby lakes, Cardrona valley and Mount Aspiring mountain range.
Of course, it would have been a ‘light jaunt’ had we not taken the wrong turn at the top, significantly elongating the ’loop’ nature of the trail, drawing it out into something more resembling a lasso.
We get back to the car an hour after we should, sweaty and disgruntled, having clambered out of many a “no-trespassing” field.
We have previously driven along the Crown Range Road, past the Cardrona Hotel (made famous nationally by a Speights Beer commercial in much the same way as Hovis did with Gold Hill) and down a steep zig-zagged breath-catcher to Queenstown. It’s no less arresting second time around. Lord Of The Rings peaks stretch out towards the horizon and gently lapping lakes pool around the valley floor below us. Great work, New Zealand.
We arrive at our AirBnB at 3pm, 11 hours after we woke up this morning. The shower washes many a care away in a grubby stream of unpleasantness.
Our flat is in a lovely spot on the hill looking over Lake Wakatipu and the Bayonet peaks beyond, in a region called Fernhill. Queenstown was our favourite place in New Zealand last time we passed through so we have another few nights here. It’s a hackneyed ‘favourite’ being a Gap Year student haven, and the site of a million YouTube videos of someone throwing themselves off a gorge/off a plane/up but it is just such damned fun. With world-class walking, climbing and drinking on its doorstep, and more besides, we're looking forward to a few days here.
The downside is, such popularity means staying in the middle of town costs a sodding fortune, so our cracking little place is a few miles from the centre. But, with nothing planned for the rest of the day, we trot in along the shore of the lake alongiside TSS Earnslaw. In town, under late afternoon sun, we have a beer and a ventricle-clogging venison burger, toasting our good fortune. As the sun goes down, we retire for much desired sleep, picking up a 24 pack of beer just to give us something to bicker about on the walk home.