3,800 kilometers on the odometer, way too many tanks of gas and countless hours of car-time later, we have a lot to catch up on.
The south island of New Zealand is a magical dreamland. No wonder they chose it for the setting of the Lord of the Rings movies. We realized a few days into our road trip that the little gold symbols in our road atlas marked filming locations; a nerd’s fantasy. Since our last post, we’ve made our way to the southernmost tip of the south island and are awaiting a ferry to the north. Along the way, we’ve seen a lot of sheep, visited glaciers, had a day at the horse track, hung out with Amy’s brother Aaron and made our way all the way up to Abel Tasman national park.
First up after our visit to Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula was the Catlins. This area is super remote (i.e. there are more sheep than people, by about 3 times). The people that do live here talk funny and are genuinely surprised to meet people that want to visit New Zealand. We stopped off at the southernmost point of the south island to say we were there and it was worth the trip down miles of gravel roads to get there.
Next up? The Fiordlands. This area of New Zealand is famed as one of the most stunning scenic spots in the country. We believe these claims, however it was so rainy and overcast that we never got much of a chance to find out for ourselves. The town of Te Anau was our home base for exploring the greater area and well known Milford Sound. We were lucky to make it to the Sound at all because of a huge landslide (or landslip, as Kiwis call it) that destroyed the road a few days before we arrived. One afternoon, Highway 94 opened up and we made our way in and out within a window of a few hours. Homer Tunnel reminded us a lot of the Eisenhower Tunnel in Colorado, but much more rudimentary, with rocky dynamite-blown walls and sparse lighting. Possibly more beautiful than the Sound itself, were the countless number of waterfalls that cascaded down thousand foot rock faces as we descended from the tunnel.
We would have loved to wait out the fog and gloom for a clearer day in the Fiordlands, but we heard this is very, very rare so continued on our way. During our drive towards Queenstown, adventure-sports capital of the eastern hemisphere, we saw an awesome steam locomotive that Amy was particularly keen on. It’s the random sights like an antique train rolling by that really make road trips fun. The highway that runs along Lake Wakatipu is unbelievably eye-catching. The snow-capped mountains sit right along the crystal clear lake that makes an S-shape with Queenstown at the apex of the bend. We spent one of our days in Queenstown hiking a mountain that is also home to the town’s newly built gondola. At points we’d wish we’d taken the easy way up, but the hike was more rewarding once we saw the view from the top. By the time we made it back down, we were ready for a less strenuous activity and our arrival couldn’t have been more well timed. We lucked out and stumbled upon a jazz festival in the center of town; our favorite act was a fun and unique rendition by a jazz bad and special percussionist playing along to a silent Charlie Chaplin film.
On our way out of town we stopped at Lake Wanaka for a day hike, another drop dead gorgeous place (we were soon realizing that this is the way most of the south island is). The path curved around the perimeter of the lake with stunning views of the mountains. It also happened to be the sunniest and warmest day of our visit in New Zealand so far. When we reached the end of the lake, we stopped for a few moments for some photos before heading back to the car. As we started our return journey, Amy asked “you still have the keys right?” Mike reached into his coat pockets, patted his pants and said, “oh shit!” At some point during the hike the keys had fallen out of his fleece, and despite meticulous backtracking, we were unable to find them. Eventually we accepted defeat and the fact that we would have to call the rental company to report the lost key and figure out our options. As the lady from the rental company was explaining the costly re-keying process, she paused mid-sentence, “I’ve just received a message. Looks like someone found the keys on the trail and turned them into the Edge Water Hotel.” What a relief. The BIG MAN must have been looking out for us that day!
With keys in hand, we proceeded north and yet again the views were simply ridiculous. If we haven’t mentioned it already, Amy is a huge fan of informational signs; along the way we learned that Lake Wanaka is New Zealand’s deepest lake reaching depths of over 1000 feet. Despite being in a mountainous area, the bottom of lake actually sits below sea level. Kinda blows your mind, doesn’t it?
After a night of camping and cooking an amazing meal of lamb pasta over the open fire, we headed for two of the island’s most famous glaciers, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. It was ancient glaciers that carved the lakes of Queenstown and Wanaka. The hikes though rocky expansive valleys leading up to Fox and Franz Josef really help you appreciate the creative/destructive power of glacial movement.
Due to various safety risks, hiking on the glaciers is strictly regulated, so we enjoyed our view from a safe distance and made our way to the nearby holiday park. We were in luck; they had a fantastic hot tub, and there is nothing like warm soak on your feet and body after a chilling night of camping and a long day of hikes. The next morning we awoke feeling refreshed and again took to the road. We started writing this post with the intention of catching up on all our South Island adventures, but have come to realize that we have just seen too much here to put in one post. So, we’ll leave it at that for now and continue next time with our tales of the West Coast, Christchurch, Abel Tasman, Kaikoura and Marlborough.