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New Zealand – Mountains, Lakes and Friendly People

Mountains beside the Dart river New Zealand

Mountains and Dart River New Zealand

Over the years Judy and I have often mused that we should visit New Zealand someday and it would be nice to attend the Warbirds over Wanaka International Air Show. Well we finally stopped procrastinating and crossed both off last April. Why did we wait so long? Both were terrific!

The contrast between New Zealand and Australian landscapes was striking. Mountain building ceased a long time ago in Australia. The resulting landscape is a well weathered and eroded mixture of plains and rounded mountain tops – in fact Australia has the distinction of being the flattest continent on earth.

In New Zealand we were delightfully confronted by a landscape of high mountains with sharp-edged peaks and ridges, snow-fed braided streams with gravel beds, and lakes of the most glorious, unbelievably blue water. The other attractions were the variety conifers and the colourful autumn leaves, neither of which figure heavily in the subtropical region Judy and I come from.

We also found the countryside to be green, the people very friendly and the sheep plentiful. We experienced the friendliness of the people at customs. Our travelling Bear Sigmund (Siggy) has his own passport and we asked for it to be stamped by customs who advised that they don’t stamp passports in New Zealand anymore. While we were waiting for our luggage to be checked through customs an officer approached us saying he had found a stamp and stamped Siggy’s passport for him. Siggy’s owners were very impressed and continued to be by so all the New Zealanders we met on our travels.

One of the striking things for us was the high carrying capacity (beasts to the hectare) of New Zealand pastures. We had never before seen such large dairy herds or sheep flocks and on such small paddocks, not even in Tasmania.

High quality woollen garments were everywhere and often included possum fur making them extremely soft and warm. The possum fur is from introduced Australian Brush Tailed Possums which have reached pest proportions. Contrary to what we were led to believe the highways were in excellent condition and compared to Australia almost devoid of large trucks, which could explain the quality of the road surfaces.

Getting There

Our travel period included the busy Easter period which was made busier by the Warbirds over Wanaka Air show. We decided it would be wise to book our travel and accommodation through Flight Centre 12 months in advance – and just as well from an accommodation and car hire point of view.

To reduce costs we decided to hire a Maui Van and were pleasantly surprised by the performance of the van – easy to drive, good acceleration and cruising, economical fuel-wise and comfortable to stay in. An added advantage was a pocket in the top of the dash where Siggy could sit and see the countryside as we drove. We were surprised by the number of motor vans on the road compared to Australia – it certainly is big business in NZ. The tourist parks we stayed in were clean and well appointed. All in all a great experience.

Day 1 (Brisbane to Christchurch)

We flew direct from Brisbane to Christchurch staying overnight in the Sedina Hotel conveniently within walking distance of the airport and the Maui office. The room was comfortable and the Hotel’s dining facilities excellent.

Day 2 (Christchurch to Geraldine)

The next morning we picked up our van. A word of warning – allow at least an hour for this procedure as Maui first has you watch a video on the Van’s facilities etc before the booking procedure. It is time well spent and getting in the day before pick up was a good idea.

Out and About

Initially we thought we would spend some time around Christchurch, but the weather was rainy and dreary so we headed south on Highway 1 turning off at Ashburton to join Highway 8 for our first overnight stop at Geraldine.

This part of the journey took us across the Canterbury Plains full of large dairy herds and huge sheep flocks. One remarkable thing was the very tall windbreaks made up of large conifers. These were precision clipped to form very high, narrow, straight lines with flat tops and ends. We would like to see how they clip the trees to form such precision-straight lines. The weather was miserable so we didn’t stop for photos.

After lunch at Ashburton we turned off to Geraldine stopping at the Red Shed to examine their woollen products. Kiwis are not shy about promoting sheep. There were toy sheep of every size and style not to mention a great variety of high quality woollen garments, blankets etc. One item that took our fancy was a bed cover made from possum skins – soft and warm, but too costly for us.

The sun came out as we approached Geraldine, which proved to be a pretty town. It reminded Judy of the towns she saw years ago around the Snowy in Australia. We were pleasantly surprised by the variety of large conifers planted in our tourist park – Ponderosa Pine, Cedar of Lebanon and Sequoia – all with name labels. To our delight we were to have many more encounters with exotic conifers on this trip.


Whilst searching for a supermarket we came across a small shop which boasted the world’s largest sweater. We thought, what the heck let’s have a look. And there it was! An enormous patchwork thing (5.3 metres from wrist to wrist and weighing 5.5 kg). We decided the boast was probably true.

However the real discovery in this shop was a mosaic reproduction of the medieval Bayeux tapestry. The mosaic background is made up of two million small metal tiles and the finished mosaic is 42 metres long. The reproduction is hand painted on the small metal tiles and the art work was excellent. It took over 25 years to complete. The shop also has wonderful woollen garments of their own manufacture.

Day 3 (Geraldine to Wanaka)

Continued on Highway 8 past Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki to Twiezel, Omarama and Tarras where we turned onto Highway 8A to Wanaka.

Out and About

Leaving Geraldine we travelled through more green pastoral countryside with rolling hills all heavily studded with sheep. After Fairlie we climbed a small range and came to a different, drier landscape of expansive brown pastures with glimpses of the snow covered Southern Alps. Real mountains! Our second surprise that morning was the sudden appearance of Lake Tekapo – an unbelievably blue jewel in the middle of the brown countryside.

We pulled into the parking area on the Lake near the much photographed “small but perfectly formed” Church of the Good Shepherd. It is tiny and inside there is a plain glass window behind the altar showing the lake and mountains and at the other end there is a disproportionally large pipe organ. The church was dedicated by the McKenzie County run holders in 1935 and nearby is the statue of a dog commemorating the contribution of the collie dog to the grazing activities of the district.


We got chatting to a group of Chinese tourists who alerted us to a good viewing platform on nearby Mt John Observatory. Off we went to the turn off just a short distance from the car park. The climb up is narrow, steep and long, but the Maui Van managed is easily – and down again with judicious use of the Triptonic gear change facility. The 360 degree view from the top is stunning especially with the contrast of the striking blue of the lake and the brown countryside framed by the towering Two Thumb Range. There is a cafe at the top (good tucker but steep prices matching the road up) and it was very pleasant to eat lunch at the outside tables facing this vista. There are several observatories on top of the mountain, all research facilities of the University of Cambridge.

After rejoining Highway to Wanaka we came across another lake whose water was even more striking than Lake Tekapo. This was Lake Pukaki and if someone had shown us a photo of this lake without our seeing it in real life we would have accused them of Photoshopping the colour. It is the most intense incredible blue with a view across to the equally blue Ben Ohau Range.

Continuing on after a pause for photographs we crossed a braided stream just before Omarama and then into the amazing Lindis Pass. The landscape was of treeless high mountains clothed in tussock grasses. The Pass was long (forgot to measure distance) and full of the most wonderful geology and landscapes.

Emerging from the Pass we turned right just after Tarras onto Highway 8A to Wanaka. A bend in this Highway provides a wonderful view of the Clutha River and the one lane bridge to Wanaka. Clutha is an old Gaelic name for the Clyde River in Scotland. The River was a typical New Zealand blue and lined with Poplars just assuming their yellow autumn finery, a nice contrast with the blue water and red bridge.

Being Easter and the day before the air show, Wanaka was jumping so we continued through the town centre. It is a neat, attractive town situated on lovely Lake Wanaka with a winter tourist feel about it (skiing and other winter sports). Streets are lined with deciduous trees which were just beginning to change into autumn colours adding to the picturesque quality of the town.

With some time up our sleeves we travelled around the Lake to Glendhu Bay and took a short walk around its shore. The scenery was beautiful with mountains and autumn clothed trees all reflecting on the millpond smooth water. Mount Aspiring was visible in the distance.

Days 4 and 5 (Warbirds Air Show Wanaka)

Details of the Air Show are the subject of a separate blog to follow.

Days 6 and 7 (Queenstown)

We took the direct route south to Queenstown along the Cardrona Valley Road. Before our departure Judy was talking to a lady at our holiday park who said that we must stopover at the Cardrona Hotel for coffee and we did.

Cardrona is small and retains its historic buildings. The coffee and apple pie we had at the Hotel were excellent, but the Hotel itself was a surprise. The facade is deceptive. It looks very small and ordinary from the outside, but the interior is expansive with very old English pub look and feel – very rustic mellow and warm with lovely worn wooden floors, exposed beams, low ceiling and a fire in the fire place. The effect was not one of just stepping back in time but also like stepping into the Tardis. Well worth a visit for food and atmosphere.


Just before Queenstown the road descent is very steep with a lot of tight hairpin turns. We thought at the time – best going down than coming up. Lunched in Queenstown on the shores of beautiful Lake Wakatipu and headed for our pre booked Dart River Cruise.

Queenstown itself is beautiful with a stunning setting beside Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by high mountains with razor sharp crests. Along the lake there are numerous cafes, high quality buskers and a wide variety of shops – lots of browsing and dining opportunities. The lakeside at dusk is a very relaxing experience.

Day 7 spent around Queenstown visiting the Gardens and the lookout.

Out and About

Day 6 – Jet Boating Safari There are several Jet boating tours available from Queenstown and we chose the Dart River Safari Tour because it offered a bus trip, an off road trip from Genorchy, forest walk and the jet boat ride. All lived up to expectation.

We set off from Queenstown by bus travelling along the shores of the beautiful glacial Lake Wakatipu with informative comment from our guide about the geology and history of the area. The views across the lake were of large mountains with smooth sides scoured by ancient glaciers. In fact they show the “U” shaped sides typical of glacial valleys. At Glenorchy the group was divided into two groups with one going up river in the boat and the other by off-road coach up the Dart River Valley. The two groups met up river and changed vehicles. We were in the second group.

Our guide provided more geological and historical information as we drove up the valley between high mountains. One item of interest was a glacial deposit of rocks and soil (moraine) that is remarkable for its size and is appropriately named Mount Alfred. The moraine was deposited during the last ice age at the junction of glaciers in the Dart and Rees valleys. Mount Alfred is visible as a distant, small, symmetrical peak just to the right of centre in the photo. A Google Earth search for Mount Alfred shows the enormous size of this moraine.


There are several Lord of the Rings locations in the area: Lothorian; Isengard; Amon Hen and the Misty Mountains. We intend to view the movies again to look at the scenery with new eyes. At the end of the coach ride we disembarked for a short walk through a beech forest to the boat ramp. What a lovely forest and we remembered such forests from the Lord of the Rings films. All in all we would have liked a longer walk with more time to explore the forest.


The jet boat ride was exhilarating – speeding along in very shallow water along the stream braids with the bottom of the boat scraping on the gravel in places. Every so often the driver would signal by rotating his finger and he would do a 360 degree fast spins – much screaming and water everywhere followed by excited laughter. Adding to this physical excitement is the splendour of the vistas on land – the lovely forests and mountains. On the trip the boat skipper pulled over several times to provide commentary on the river, the geology and history of the area. We can recommend this tour.

Day 7 – Around Queenstown I woke up under the weather in the morning, but well enough for Judy to venture out for a few hours. She walked across the shingle beach beside the clear Lake to the botanical gardens. Two Cedars of Lebanon greeted her at the entrance with a large Ponderosa Pine a bit further in. The gardens were a knockout with cypress, oaks, pines and deciduous trees in autumn colours – simply beautiful. Many photos were taken.


In the afternoon I had recovered and we ventured up Bob’s Peak by Skyline Gondola – quite a steep ascent too. The view was spectacular across Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu to the towering Remarkables Range. It was here that we fully appreciated the size of the Lake (“L” Shaped and 293 sq klms in surface area. Two thirds of the Lake is in excess of 300 metres deep. That’s a lot of water).

Days 8 and 9 (Queenstown to Christchurch)

Christchurch to Timaru via Cromwell and Omarama. Overnight in Timaru then to on to Christchurch airport. Cold and raining from Timaru to Christchurch.

The morning of day 8 proved cloudy and the further north and east we went the more the weather deteriorated. It was extremely dreary by the time we reached Timaru where we spent the night – boy when it is dreary in New Zealand it is really dreary. The weather got worse as we approached Christchurch and we were pleased to get off the road. Handing the Maui Van back in proved painless time wise (regretted giving it up though) and we headed to the airport for food and check in.

Impressions

Would we visit New Zealand again – you bet and fully intend to. And the beauty of it is that it’s only 3 hours flying time from home.

Our main reason for visiting this time was the Wanaka air show and we strung some other activities in to fill out a week. We would like to visit again with more time to do a tour of the north and south of the south island. We’d like to see the country with snow on it, but are a bit iffy about driving with chains, but nothing ventured nothing gained.

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