We made two visits to New Zealand in 2013, in January and February and then November and December. On both occasions we enjoyed fabulous weather with the odd spit of rain and a few clouds but mostly glorious sunshine and warmth. This time we’ve had to become adept at watching the weather forecast and changing our plans as necessary.
It rained buckets on our final night in Blenheim, much to the delight of Bill, the owner of the vineyard and cottage. Two inches fell in the night he told us and it was a good, steady rain. Just perfect for those millions of grapes, so we couldn’t really complain. The following day looked to be shaping up OK so we set off on a journey which would take us to an old haunt via a new route; Hanmer Springs.
The Molesworth Station route is one of those classic tracks that sets the pulse racing of all those looking for a little adventure. It is said to be a spectacular drive up the Awatere Valley, following the flank of the Inland Kaikoura Range to the watershed of Molesworth high in the Boddington Range before descending the Acheron River valley to Hanmer. It’s a twisty, narrow, gravel road, open only between December and April and liable to be closed at a moments notice, usually due to fire risk.
Molesworth Station is New Zealand’s most extensive farm and it must be a pretty brutal place to live, given its remoteness. Still, they do get to see a motley collection of cyclists, camper vans and tourists in 4x4s like ours driving through. For us it was going to be a trip of at least 6 hours over rough ground and we were a little uncomfortable given the amount of rain which had fallen in the night in the benign Marlborough district. Bill assured us that our RAV4 would cope with the several fords along the way and and the sign at the entrance to the Awatere Valley told us the road was open. So off we set in reasonable conditions, travelling the broad valley which was just a mass of grapevine plantations. Up ahead we could see the mountains smothered in cloud but the road seemed OK, there was other traffic on it including a huge sheep truck and it was a great drive through the valley, climbing higher and higher towards a dark mass of cloud.
Looking over the sheer drops into the river below we could see it roiling and boiling. It wasn’t the usual aquamarine of the rivers we know and love in New Zealand but a sort of cement colour. By now it was raining, lightly at first then heavier and heavier. I could feel the road getting slick beneath my wheels and we were about an hour into our journey when we realised there simply was no point going on. The mountains were now completely obscured by cloud, the rain was getting harder, the wind stronger and our spirits wavering with each gust. A rare flat area appeared where there was space to turn around and our decision was made. Retreat isn’t always inglorious in the face of overwhelming odds and we just couldn’t see the point of pushing on just to say that we’d done it and arriving frazzled and tired just for a one night stop at Hanmer.
So, more than two hours after we’d started out we found ourselves more or less back in the same place and heading for Hanmer via a more prosaic but still scenic route, the Inland Kaikoura Road, which, oddly enough, goes along the flank of the Seaward rather than Inland Kaikoura Range. Don”t ask me to explain it, either. We arrived at Hanmer in a blaze of sunlight and warmth, happy that we had turned away from the Molesworth route even though the mountains now appeared benign. We enjoyed a glorious sunset view from our motel followed by an excellent meal at ‘Restaurant 31’ which set us to right. I’m sure the food at restaurants 1 to 30 would have been equally good but we couldn’t be bothered to walk to any of those!
Now, the name Hanmer Springs should strike fear into the hearts of those of you who have read my previous blogs from New Zealand. For it is here that Jane fell and broke her wrist whilst walking on Mount Isobel and here that yours truly lost the keys to our hire car that very night, delaying our visit to Christchurch hospital by the better part of a day. So we had some ghosts to lay in Hanmer.
I think I have already mentioned that I am now the proud possessor of a chain attached securely to my person at one end and the keys of the car at the other. So my chances of losing the car keys again are ….. Well, I won’t tempt fate by saying what the chances are before the end of the holiday and Jane is now threatening to get chains for my iPad, my glasses and my wallet. However, for Jane the only way to allay the Ghost of Hanmer was to go for a walk up Mount Isobel again. Bearing in mind it was on the ‘easy’ waterfall route that the accident had occurred last time, we chose one of the routes which would take you right to the top of the mountain. However, we wanted to leave for our next destination by early afternoon so we didn’t go more than an hour up the ridge finding a great picnic spot and sitting in the sunshine looking at the views. And we made it back down in one piece so the ghost of Isobel has been allayed.
It was then time to drive to Geraldine (the place not the person) for another overnight stop before motoring on to the Catlins and the southern most point in mainland New Zealand. On the way there we noticed that there were dozens, if not hundreds, of vintage cars, luckily travelling the opposite way to us, at speeds varying from the respectable to the man with a red flag speed. There was, it seems, a rally in Dunedin and every manner of car passed by from the first days of motoring to the 1960s.
The Catlins is an area of rugged coastline and rolling hills full of sheep and dairy farms. Our bach was a few klms out of Owaka, the main town and we had a huge house with enough bedrooms for ten people a lovely garden and beautiful rural views. Oh, and hens which came racing out of their coup every time our car turned in the drive. We were encouraged to give them our food scraps which we dutifully did, though they never did deliver more than the three eggs the owner gave us on our first day. Ungrateful blighters.
Even for Kiwis it is a remote corner of New Zealand with few facilities so it was just up our street. It is an area rich in wildlife. At Kaka Point there are penguins and at Surat Bay Sea Lions on the beach and Royal Spoonbills in the estuary. Jane always says that Surat Bay is, for her, the most beautiful in the world; the beach, the sea lions, the crashing waves and the vast open sky. You can stand at the counter point of the sea and the estuary and feel the universe wheeling about you. It’s magical stuff and to wander amongst it all as the sun sets is food for the hungry soul.
At the appropriately name Slope Point you are at the furthest reach of mainland New Zealand (Stewart Island is more southerly still but the very remote Chatham Islands take the prize as most southerly NZ island). At Slope point you are nearly equidistant between the chill of the South Pole and the steamy heat of the Equator.
At the end of our visit we had planned on turning neither north nor south but west, going towards Fjordland and Queenstown but looking at the Met Service webcasts left us in no doubt that, go west and you’ll end up with 400mm (yes, that’s 15 inches) of rain from Cyclone Victor. El Niño is highly active this year and is causing all sorts of problems, not least in New Zealand. As part of our relaxed approach this year, we are not on any fixed itinerary, apart from getting to stay with a few friends we have made from our previous visits, so we can change plans at the drop of a hat; or bunch of seaweed, bunion, toss of a coin, throw of a dice or any other random predictive event you might imagine.
So, where does the weather look best? Marlborough. But haven’t we just spent hours in the car coming from there? So what, we go where the sun goes, dude, just a freewheel-in down that highway, wind in our hair, sun our face, Hendrix on the stereo. OK, maybe I exaggerate a little but I was an Easy Rider once, you know. Well, not quite Easy Rider but, you know, I was in a band, did the the Rock and Roll, the chicks, the drugs, all that stuff. Well, OK, not really many drugs and even fewer chicks but I did play bass guitar. Badly.
Anyway. Enough of this reverie. So, on account of yer actual weather, we decided to retrace our route calling in this time not at Hanmer Springs, where we had laid the ghost of ‘What is broken stays broken and what is lost stays lost’, but at Methven which is about half way between the Catlins and Marlborough.
The Canterbury Plains are New Zealand’s largest area of flat land stretching from Christchurch in the north to Otago in the south. Methven is at the extreme western edge of the plain beneath Mt Hutt. And, when it comes down to it, whilst we enjoy coasts and rivers and hills what we really love are mountains. So we opted to stay not one night but two in a place we had been to before. Like Ohakune on the North Island, Methven is really a winter resort and so is quite empty at this time of the year. Which is fine by us. It also means that there is plenty of accommodation available at out of season prices so we found a great two bed apartment which the manager let us have for the cost of a one bed studio. An evening meal at the local Irish pub (yes, you read that right. An Irish pub called the Dubliner with the ‘Proclamation’ posted on the wall and run by a real Dubliner in the middle of nowhere, New Zealand. Perfect) set us to right.
We took a day off of our travelling by hiking for a couple of hours on the flanks of Mt Hutt and then taking a slightly scary gravel road up to the ski field at the top. The views were magnificent and to round it all off we drove over to Lake Coleridge up yet more twisty, gravel roads. The mountain ranges here divide East from West coast and you could see the clouds butting up against the western slopes of the mountains, dumping all their rain there. We knew then that we had made the right choice to turn around and head back to Marlborough. We shall, of course, travel down the West Coast, for we have an appointment to keep with our friends, Irene and Murray over in Fox Glacier. But for now we’re sticking to the dry side.