The Hotel booking site, booking.com, advises you that, should you not be able to find accommodation in Mount Cook Village you could try Fox Glacier, a mere 39 klms away. Well, yes, that is true if you hike the aforementioned Copland Pass or hire a helicopter to fly you from one place to the other. But for us mere mortals it’s a 425 klms drive from Cook to Fox. You could do it in one day but we are learning to take things easy so we looked for a place to stay in Lake Wanaka or Lake Hawea, which are about half way. No chance. It was a holiday week-end – Waitangi Day when Kiwis everywhere celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi bewteen Europeans and Maori. Everwhere we looked was full so we searched about for somewhere else and came up with a small settlement on the main road between Wanaka and Haast. Makarora was its name and it took us some time just to get to pronounce it properly.
There aren’t many options for places to stay in Makarora and we were drawn to Makarora River Ranch, not least because, on the phone, Kaye who ran the accommodation, was so helpful and amenable. ‘I’ve only got the little cottage available’, she said, ‘but as it’s just the two of you that will be fine’. Well, it was ‘little’ compared with some of the three bedroom houses we’ve been staying in but there was still acres of space and it was on a working farm with wonderful views and every facilty you could want.
The Makarora River which runs down this steep sided valley is a beautiful, clear blue and one of the major attractions is the Blue Pools. A short walk from the highway, among a lovely forest brings you to a swing bridge from where you can look down into some deep, aquamarine pools. And if you are young and the fancy takes you you can leap into the crystal clear waters from the bridge or the rocks surrounding the pools.
It’s quite a leap and not for the faint hearted but we found a couple of young Californian guys having fun jumping, soon to be joined by a few other travellers. I would have had a go but didn’t have my cossie and jumping in my boxer shorts would have caused severe embarrasment, not to me but to Jane and everyone else. Well, that’s my excuse anyway.
Moving on from the frolics at the bridge we walked through gorgeous forest alive with bird song until we reached the mouth of the Young River as it enters the Makarora. A three day, very demanding hike up the Young River Valley is a popular one in this area and it certainly looked like it would be a memorable one. But carting all your camping gear, food, etc is not for us.
Returning to the bridge several hours later we discovered just how popular the Blue Pools were. It was now totally crowded with people leaping, swimming, picnicing and photographing. The car park was completely full and we were glad that we had seen this attraction in the relative calm of early morning.
Makarora River Ranch really is a working farm run, for the time being, by the delightful Kaye and Willie. On our final morning Willie took us on a fascinating tour of the farm land. When it was first settled the farm took up the entire valley between the western end of Wanaka Lake and the Haast Pass, something like 30 klms. In order to clear the land they set fire to the trees and they burned for three days solid on both sides of the valley high up into the hills. The farm we were on once had a huge workforce and was entirely self sufficient, as it had to be in what was once the wilds of New Zealand.
The farm is now owned by an American and managed by Kaye and Willie. It comprises about 8,000 hectares and cattle, sheep, deer and Himalayan Thar are reared on its steep hillsides, though much of the land is unproductive and now owned by the NZ government. The deer is sold for venison but both deer and thar are reared for hunting. The Thar were a bit elusive but we saw many deer with their young. Stags are kept in separate paddocks and it is incredible to see their wonderful antlers.
Parties of hunters, many from America, arrive annually with powerful rifles and pit their wits against animals that, though wary, are so used to seeing humans they don’t react that much when you enter their fields. Those hunters must be so full of wit.
Willie took us high up into the mountainside and it was clear, just from talking to him, that he doesn’t really hold much truck with a man who would shoot a magnificient stag just for fun and the chance to pose with its antlered head in his lap. He has a deep love of the land, having been brought up on a farm on the opposite side of the valley. He’s also travelled the world serving on ships and also flew aeroplanes in the past. And he is a brilliant photographer, preferring to shoot the animals he cares for digitally. He and Kaye are retiring shortly and going to live in their house in Wanaka but I don’t think Willie will be able to resist the lure of the land.
Makarora turned out to be one of those wonderful chance finds which seem to be presenting themselves to us this time around and after a final cup of tea and a chat we were on the road again heading for the Haast Pass and Fox Glacier. It’s a glorious run through the Mount Aspiring Range up to the Gates of Haast where the river gushes down a narrow ravine then down, past Roaring Billy waterfall onto the West coast. The capital of the West Coast is Sandfly. OK, I made that up but, in the same way that a country’s capital usually holds the largest number of people, the West Coast holds the largest number of sandflies in NZ. Strictly speaking they are not sandflies but tiny black flies but forget the scientific name – you can find them, or rather, they can find you, anywhere in NZ but they do seem to concentrate on the West Coast in vast numbers. Even with insect repellent on they’ll find that one micro-millimetre you didn’t manage to cover and go for it with a vengance.
So, we wafted our way down to the west coast, smelling of insect repellent and hardly daring to get out of the car and came to rest at the Mount Cook View motel, there to meet up with our lovely Kiwi friends, Irene and Murray. Back in 2013 we couldn’t find a room in Fox anywhere until we tried phoning one last Motel. Stephanie said, no, she was full as well but her mum and dad might be able to put us up b&b at their house. Thankfully, Irene and Murray did come to the rescue and we hit it off instantly and have been friends ever since.
This time round we stayed at Stephanie and husband Gavin’s virtually brand new home in a guest suite but Irene and Murray entertained us at the motel which they now help look after. And it was as though the three years in between our meeting just melted away. Fox was as busy and full as ever so whilst Stephanie fended calls and tried to find rooms for people we four sat and chatted, drank wine, ate great food and just relaxed.
Whlst it didn’t rain in Fox the weather was a bit mixed with Mount Cook being a little shy, although when it did show itself the view from the motel was superb. Inour unit at Steph’s house we had good views of Mt Tasman from time to time.
Back in 2013 we had gotten up before dawn and rushed down to Lake Matheson to get views of the mountains reflected in the lake. But this time? Well, the clouds were too low, the wind was too high and why struggle out of bed anyway? We’d been there, done that, got the photo on the wall. Let’s just turn over and have another hour in bed.
We did tramp off down to Matheson, very much later than dawn, and there fell into conversation with Juile and John, a young couple from California. They were both keen photographers and a chance meeting on a bridge at the start of the trail led to an hour long chat whilst we walked the trail together. That’s one of the nice things about travelling independently, you get to meet all sorts of people with tales to tell, experiences in common. And who knows what friends you’ll find along the way just waiting there to greet you with a simple ‘Hi’.
But it was now time to say goodbye once more to our friends old and new. Partings are always a little sad and yet they hold out the prospect of reunion. So here’s to the next time, friend