Leaving Glenorchy was a bit of a wrench but we knew that we would be heading for even greater heights so we weren’t wholly down-hearted. We zipped through Queenstown with barely a second glance, headed out past Arrowtown and made our way into the Cardrona Valley. It’s a scenic drive over the Crown Range of mountains. In fact, this is the highest main road in New Zealand and it certainly felt like it by the time we got to the top.
Cardrona was at the centre of the Otago Gold Rush in the late 1800’s and it still boasts several of the buildings from those days, most notably the Cardrona Hotel where we stopped for a coffee. It’s very much a tourist destination nowadays but the valley makes for a lovely drive, eventually bringing you into Wanaka. Like Queenstown, Wanaka is set on the shores of a beautiful lake, in this case Lake Wanaka, which at least is both easier to pronounce and remember than Wakatipu. It’s a very pretty spot but, as with its bigger cousin, it is also very busy. We have stayed in Wanaka in the past and have had a lovely time exploring the Mount Aspiring Range around it but this time we just called into the New World supermarket and further up the road the fuel station (supermarkets in NZ very rarely have fuel stations attached to them) before trundling on.
We made our way to Twizel via the rather wonderful Lindis Valley, with its rolling hillsides full of trees and tussock grass. You eventually wind your way up to the Lindis Pass with its dramatic scenery.
Our base for the next few days was Twizel, which is, apparently, the largest town in the Mackenzie District, a largely agricultural area but one which encompasses some of the greatest scenery in all New Zealand. When I tell you that the population of Twizel is just over 1,200 you’ll understand that ‘largest town’ doesn’t have quite the same meaning as in the UK or most other countries.
But what it lacks in size Twizel makes up for by being the gateway to the incredible natural attractions of Mount Cook and Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo. So, sometimes size doesn’t matter.
We arrived at our comfortable accommodation in Twizel, a large three bed house, in time to unpack the car and then take a late afternoon drive into Mount Cook Village, 64 klms away. Mt Cook is one of those iconic mountains which just draws the eye the minute you see it. I think that the twin peaks somehow just make it an almost perfect mountain, rather like Machapuchare (aka Fishtail Mountain) in Nepal. It’s not anywhere near as high as its Himalayan cousin but at 3,724 mtrs (about 12,217 ft) it is still a very serious mountain.
The drive in is quite mesmerising and the frequent stops for yet another photo makes it a rather slow journey. I can’t help myself stopping to take yet another photo, despite the fact that I have many similar shots from previous trips.
When we eventually reached the village the sun was beginning to set and it was getting very cold but the views were lovely.
The following day we returned to Mt Cook village intending to do some walks but the most popular one into the Hooker Valley was closed after the first 10 minutes as a bridge across the river had been damaged previously. An avalanche on the slopes of Mt Sefton perfectly illustrated the danger that these snowy slopes present. We both heard a thundering noise and I looked across to see what I at first thought was a plume of smoke. Then I realised that it was a small avalanche set off by the strong sun.
This is a remote area, despite the presence of an hotel, numerous motels and several camping areas. Fixing a damaged track takes time and money so for the time being hiking up the Hooker Valley isn’t a viable option. We had already done many of the other walks in this area in past visits so decided to head off for Lake Taupo, another well visited tourist destination.
Our goal was to search for the critically endangered Black Stilt, the rarest wading bird in the world. Back in 2013 we had found several reintroduced birds in a wetland area above Taupo but it seems that they have not survived or have moved on. At any rate we drew a blank on these illusive birds.
We rounded off our day by going to Lake Pukaki and watching Mount Cook from afar as the sun set. There were a lot of people camping nearby, there was a couple playing guitar and drums and it was a very peaceful, contemplative atmosphere.
And, as the night drew on, we just had to mosey on down to Lake Twizel and finish the day by viewing the starry heavens reflected in the waters of the lake
The stars in their heavenly ride
sparkle the waters with diamonds of light
stretched horizon wide
from mountain side
to grass soaked plain
and through the layers of the night