With our trip to New Zealand’s South Island first requiring a stop in Brisbane Australia’s ‘River City’, we opt for a four day layover here to recoup from an ass-kicking case of jet lag. Our elderly lodging is in Spring Hill, at the funky 1886 built One Thornbury Boutique B & B.
Access to different districts in the city is simplified by a fleet of water transport including the ‘River Cats’ and ‘City Hoppers’. Boating upriver to the cultural heart of ‘Brissy’ known as South Bank, we stroll along a path tunneling through huge metal arcs being swallowed by a carpet of bougainvillea vines, and looking like a Pepto Bismol colored rib cage of some colossal prehistoric snake.
Many interesting art works are sprinkled about, including a whited out mannequin in a top hat balancing on a unicycle suspended high above our heads. Dilly dallying through the ‘boutiquey’ market we fall victim to a stall selling ‘Tater-Twisters’; a moreish skewered potato machined into a lengthy curled French fry sprinkled with chicken-salt. Note to self: must work on importing back to Canada!
Lunch is further along the river at New Farm Park, where a collection of 180 kaleidoscopic shipping containers with amazing multicultural offerings comprise the iconic Eat Street Market. Near Storey Bridge, a ruckus in the trees emanates from huge upside down bats staring with beady orange eyes. While nimble of wing, these flying rodents are an absolute mess in motion in the trees. Crawling through the leafy branches they are stumbling about like inebriated mini monkeys.
Flying on to Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island, we collect a rental vehicle and drive halfway across the island to Arthur’s Path National Park, before stopping at the particularly peculiar Otira Stagecoach Hotel. This quirky and creaky 154 year old museum/hotel started out as a stagecoach stopover in 1865, and now hosts hundreds of intriguing and eclectic items from Wild West memorabilia to a pool playing possum. There is a Lord of the Rings theme to the place and as we approach we’re greeted by a grimacing Gollum perched atop the roof, dangling his golden ring. Now, isn’t that just ‘Precious’?
The humped hotel’s carpet is revoltingly soiled from absorbing all the dust and spillage since it was laid in a previous century, and covers spongey bouncing floors on the verge of a breakthrough, thanks to the royally rotted supports below! However, this eye-catching spot makes for an intriguing driving break.
Driving further into the National Park we hike up to an impressive waterfall called the Devils Punchbowl, before spending the night in Greymouth. Then, following the Tasman Sea south, we arrive at Franz Joseph Village. Having come to the glacier of the same name, we’re disappointed to learn heavy rains in this rather unstable area have caused a huge slide, blocking our intended trek.
We settle for an amble around Lake Matheson, then still keen for green, hike a lovely ‘fern forest’ while enjoying mysterious warbles emanating from deep within the happily mingling frond fest. Unhappy with the sky still leaking after a pair of nights we push on further south to Wanaka, crossing over many of the 49 narrow single lane bridges plaguing the island.
The lively little town of Wanaka is known for its outdoor activities, and sure enough, pulling into town we are rerouted due to a Half Ironman triathlon event taking place. Walking the shore of the lake, we arrive at the iconic image and likely the most photographed tree in the world, ‘That Wanaka Tree’; a 100-year old willow tree marooned out in the cool water of Lake Wanaka.
In the early 1900’s the tree began its life as a fence post when a sheep farmer chopped off the branch of a large willow and plugged in the ground as part of a fence to restrain his herd. The determined willow apparently was uninterested in life simply as a fence post, and wanted more. So, displaying a tremendous will to live, the fence post that couldn’t be drowned put down roots, and slowly grew into the stunning phenomenon now miraculously residing in the lake.
Today’s plan is to engage our inner mountain goat by tackling the challenge of climbing Roy’s Peak, a strenuous 16 kilometer hike with 5,177 feet of vertical. Zigzagging up to the famous peak in Mount Aspiring National Park, we can’t help but think could have also have been named ‘Mount Inspiring’, as cresting the summit goes from ‘grin ‘n’ bear’ to ‘stop ‘n’ stare’, with its breath-gasping vistas.
After a well-deserved break atop the mountain we’re ready for the hard part; uphill hurts, but downhill destroys! The unrelenting repetition of our toes punching the shoe ends, along with our catastrophic calves twitching like Medusa’s hair net has turned our descent into quite the hobble-fest. Nonetheless, we take great satisfaction from our successful six hour scramble.
Dinner is a well-deserved concoction of items in what’s called a ‘Buddha Bowl’, at a restaurant called Kai Whakapai; a Maori name translating to ‘food made good’ and humorously pronounced as ‘Kye-fuck-a-pie’. Four delightful days in Wanaka trotted by far too rapidly, but due to other commitments we must once again get the tires rolling.
In the minuscule township of Cardrona Village we have a quick wander about New Zealand’s oldest and most iconic Cardrona Hotel, featuring a vintage 1928 Chrysler Model 62 parked out front. Just a little further down the road, another stop is necessitated at the rather titillating sight of an immense collection of feminine lingerie dangling from a roadside fence.
Rumor is a group of women got seriously sloshed at the Cardrona Hotel many years ago, and decided to shed their bras and hang them on the fence to support a friend with breast cancer. The sight inspired more and more women to leave their flopper-stoppers, and as news about the ‘Bra Fence’ spread, the bra population multiplied to thousands. This unique spectacle of a wall of mammary support garments fluttering majestically in the breeze on a humble Kiwi fence has now become a unique tourist attraction.
Linking Wanaka and Queenstown, the exhilarating Crown Range Road is certainly not for the faint hearted. As the highest main road in New Zealand, it reaches an altitude of almost 3,700 feet at the summit, with treacherous hairpin switchbacks looking akin to a seismograph registering an earthquake!
Surrounded by mountains beneath fluffy white clouds floating in a brilliant blue sky, we continue along noodle-thin roads winding through verdant fields rimmed with flaming Montbretia flowers and sprinkled with livestock. For any hooved greenery grazers out there, this is the ultimate place to get your munch on.
After a wander through congested Queenstown we head for the rural township of Glenorchy, along one of the most gorgeous drives in a country and are almost lost for words over the spectacular scenery revealing New Zealand in the raw. Stopping for a bush walk to a turquoise-toned inlet called Bob’s Cove on Lake Wakatip, we are gratified being able to get a photo of the old wharf jutting serenely into the lake. With more miles to drive, we continue past Pig and Pigeon Islands to the breathtaking village of Glenorchy, made famous by being in movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit.
Our lodging just outside of town is next to a field with sleek horses grazing and stunning mountains as a backdrop. Hiking from Glenorchy Wharf, we follow Rees River along a boardwalk with Black Swans and handsome Paradise Ducks patrolling a lagoon overlooked by Mt Earnslaw. I almost set an Olympic record for the high jump and adrenaline gland squirt, when accidentally tripping a powerful possum trap! Lastly we stop for food supplies in the itty-bitty and eclectic Mrs. Wooly’s General Store.
Today, with the clouds still hurling down Noah-rain, we still make the 45 minute drive out to the start of the Routeburn Track, anxiously hoping the sky will stop misbehaving. Regrettably Mother Nature has other plans, but while waiting in the carpark we are joined by a flock of boisterous Kea Parrots. The world’s only alpine parrots are nothing special while on the ground, but morph into brilliant flashers showing off flames of brilliant red and orange from the feathering under their wings when taking flight.
Christine is the only one with a raincoat, and when she gets out of the car to take a photo she becomes involved in an entertaining game of ‘kick the can’ with one of the devious but comical birds, as the cheeky and beaky bugger repeatedly fetches the can and rolls it back towards her feet like a dog fetching a stick.
After a long wait the rain intensifies rather than lessens, and with no rain gear I know any attempt to hike the long tract is not going to end well given my susceptibility to hypothermia. Sadly we renounce our hike and drive towards a spot called Paradise. Stopped by a flooded stream crossing the gravel road that’s caused too much damage to cross without a four-wheeled drive, we have to stop and build up the worse areas with large rocks in order to bully our rental Toyota Camry safely across.
The next leg of our trip takes us to the teeny town of Twizel, where we want to take advantage of the weather. Our drive follows the too-perfect-turquoise-to-be-real Lake Pukaki, with the glaciated beauty of Aoraki Mt Cook in the background getting closer with every mile. Finally arriving in the village of Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak, we begin a 3 1/2 hour hike through Hooker Valley, with much of the scenic walk along a boardwalk meant to protect the delicate eco-system.
A savage wind makes it a struggle to stay balanced crossing over three swing bridges on the Hooker River before reaching the end of the track, where we are met by a glacier lake with grit covered icebergs. Our timing is perfect, as the clouds briefly clear allowing an unimpeded view of the dramatic mountain. It’s been a zonking day and driving back to Twizel we pick up fish and chips for dinner, surprised to learn the fish is the unappetizingly named ‘long snouted elephant fish’.
High in alpine country the nights and mornings are a shivery affair, and we’re grateful for the wonderful wool warmth provided by the Merino sweaters and gloves we are wearing. New Zealand happens to have over 3 million of these curly-horned Merino Sheep; 97% residing here on the south island as these bleating baaa-d asses are blessed with carpeted carcasses resilient enough to handle the cold. In addition to Merino clothing, several shops offer another interesting item for sale; ‘willy-warmers’ made from possum fur. Given the shivery arctic air here I’m giving serious consideration to becoming a customer!
Oamaru is our next layover, as a base to check out the fascinating Moeraki Boulders. These large spherical “stones” on Koekohe Beach are an unexplained nature phenomenon created around 60 million years ago, and almost look like they could be humongous dinosaur eggs.
Through erosion, the buried boulders occasionally birth themselves from within the clay banks of the cliffs, and find a new home by rolling down onto the sandy, boulder-spattered shores. The ravishing rocks create a jaw-dropping surreal landscape with many patterned akin to the back of a tortoise shell.
Flying to ‘Windy Wellington’ it is regrettably living up to its reputation. However, our days here are still an improvement over the bitter weather at home, which has been Victoria’s second coldest February on record with 23 days reaching below zero, and the most snow in February since 1941! Despite the cold weather on much of this trip, we are leaving once again with warm memories of beautiful New Zealand.
Mark Colegrave 2019