The Southern Alps provide a pristine playground for New Zealanders and nowhere more so than at Mt Hutt, an easy two-hour drive from Christchurch. Travelling south the road hugs the foothills to the quintessential country towns of Geraldine and Fairlie, before ascending into Mackenzie country where the turquoise-blue waters of Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki contrast sharply with the dry, rocky hinterland. SH80 leads to Mount Cook, NZ’s highest mountain, and to the rumbling Tasman Glacier, with its lake embedded in a vast lunar-like landscape. Further south the popular lakeside resorts of Wanaka and Queenstown, both situated beside sparkling lakes in a stunning alpine setting, provide endless opportunities for adventure activities. We take three days to explore the route from Christchurch to Queenstown and begin the journey with an unexpected snowboard lesson at Mt Hutt. We buy new jumpers in Geraldine, spend the evening with locals at a country cinema, enjoy a scenic flight over Mt Cook, taste 500-year old ice from the Tasman Glacier, sunbathe in Wanaka, explore Arrowtown and relax on the shores of Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu wondering where we should begin!
It’s 10 am at Mt Hutt, and Bob and I have miraculously caught the tail end of what has been a wonderfully long ski season. Two and a half hours ago we left Christchurch and now – quite unexpectedly – we’re in a snowboard class on the slopes of Mt Hutt. We watch in awe as others sashay skilfully past, totally at ease with their boards. We haven’t connected with ours in quite the same manner, but fortunately there are several other beginners sharing the same dilemma. However the younger members of our group are picking it up depressingly fast. Our instructor, James Harding, is patient even though it’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks. “Focus on where you’re going and your board will follow,” James tells Bob. It’s good advice, and when the lesson ends we feel confident of the basics.
The mountain air and exercise has worked up an appetite and so we drive back across the rushing Rakaia Gorge to the Terrace Downs High Country Resort, nestled in the foothills of the Southern Alps by the Rakaia River. The championship 18-hole links style golf course sports nine lakes and 70 bunkers but we’re not here for a round, rather to enjoy lunch and après-ski in the clubhouse restaurant where everyone’s welcome. Our table overlooks the course and mountains and after dining on rich venison we head downstairs to the spa pools which feature massive bi-fold windows framing views of the mountains – and nine holes of golf!
Refreshed we leave and drive to Geraldine, a pretty town nestled beside the Talbot Forest on the banks of the Waihi River. Our first port of call after checking into our accommodation is at the Giant Jersey, where made to measure garments are knitted in fine Perendale, Mohair or Merino wool. After a cool morning on the slopes Bob decides he needs a new jumper.
Fortunately Michael and Gillian Linton’s shop boasts around 1000 pre-made jerseys on its shelves, so there’s plenty from which to choose.
“Do you think that would fit?” Bob teases Gillian pointing to a colossal jumper that is pinned to the wall. It was made in 1991, and the Lintons were later awarded a mention in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest ever.
“It’s the only jersey we have that really is ‘one size fits all’,” laughs Gillian as we leave.
Geraldine is full of artisans. We visit Chocolate Fellman’s on the main street. Here qualified chocolatier, Rene Fellman, makes the finest chocolate using specially imported gourmet couverture. Bob’s eyes boggle at the array on offer which includes a Kiwi classic – chocolate fish!
Many of Geraldine’s creative products come in edible form and so – munching chocolate fish – we visit Talbot Forest Cheese where cheesemaker Paul Fitzsimons crafts his tasty wares, followed by Barker Fruit Processors and the Honey Corner Shop.
In the end we taste so many samples that dinner is an in-house snack before we depart to watch an art house comedy screened on an old Ernemann Model II projector at Geraldine’s classic country-style cinema.
It’s run by Barry and Anthea McLauchlan and we’re greeted on the doorstep by ‘Reverend Barry’ as he’s known around town. He ushers us inside and offers a choice of seating: a cozy couch downstairs, or a regular seat up top. We choose a two-seater and watch as tracksuit wearing country-types fill the room, and the movie begins. About halfway through, it suddenly flickers, then stops. Thinking the projector has broken down Bob whispers, “Let’s go,” just as ‘Reverend’ Barry booms out “INTERMISSION!” and in rolls the wine and cheese.
It’s really kind of bizarre and Bob’s absolutely delighted, “What a great idea,” he says, “We should do this back home!”
Later on as we bid newly-met friends farewell Bob thanks Barry who’s standing on the steps waving farewell. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had at a cinema!” he says. “Ah good,” says Barry, “country folks round here like a bit of a catch up.”
After a slower start to the day we sit above Fairlie admiring the view of the Southern Alps. We stop for a latte at the town’s Old Library Café, then stretch our legs around its Heritage Museum.
But Bob’s keen to get into the mountains and so we depart, ascending through Burkes Pass to the vast open landscape of Mackenzie country and the Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo, where we arrive amid a flurry of tour buses.
“Wow,” says Bob, as we wait it out before we enter the church, “I’m sure glad we’re travelling by car and can take our time.”
The church, constructed from stones gathered locally, was built as a memorial to the pioneers of the Mackenzie Country. Nearby, the bronze statue of a sheep dog, erected in memory of all high-country mustering dogs, gazes longingly at the turquoise-blue lake. “I think he wants a swim,” says Bob.
There’s a long line of eateries on Tekapo’s main street serving a variety of international fare, but we choose to picnic in the park beside the beautiful lake. Lunch includes fresh fruit and chutney from Barkers, and crackers and smoky manuka cheese from Talbot Forest Cheese. Then we depart and drive the alternate scenic route to Lake Pukaki along the Tekapo Canal Road, stopping at the Mount Cook Salmon Farm en route.
Here these tasty fish are farmed in pens. We take a self-guided tour and discover that the smallest smelt are located downstream and are moved upstream as they grow, pen by pen, until they reach ‘death row’ at two years of age. Fresh salmon can be purchased, or you can catch your own on supplied rods. Bob’s tempted but instead chats to a local on the bank who fishes for canny rainbow and brown trout dining on the salmon’s leftovers. “I’ve caught more than one 12-pounder here,” he tells Bob.
We continue to the Mt Cook Lookout where Aoraki’s snowy crown rises majestically above Lake Pukaki, then drive up SH80 to the tiny alpine village of Mount Cook, through scenery so vast, it’s overwhelming. “I feel dwarfed,” says Bob.
At Mount Cook we check into the Hermitage, where our rooms provide amazing picture-postcard views of Mt Cook and Mt Sefton through enormous floor-to-ceiling windows. Then we head downstairs to the information desk where we discover there’s a wealth of activities from scenic flights, heli-hiking, glacier exploration and rock climbing to 4wd journeys and lots of popular hikes including climbing the summit of Mt Cook (3754 metres) with experienced guides.
“I don’t know about climbing Mt Cook, but a scenic flight sounds good,” says Bob to the girl at the tour desk, who books us in on the next flight.
We spend some time at the Dept. of Conservation information centre learning about local flora and fauna, then check onto our Mount Cook Ski Planes flight, the only company licensed to land fixed-wing aircraft on the Tasman Glacier. After taking off from its tiny airport and circling Mt Cook, hydraulic skis provide a safe snow landing on the glacier, and we jump out to soak up the absolutely breathtaking scenery. Bob clicks away furiously and, after throwing a few snowballs around, we climb back on board for a unique ski take-off experience, then land back in the valley below.
Later, from the Hermitage’s ambient and aptly named Panorama Restaurant, we watch the sun set over the mountains and dine, most fittingly, upon delectable Mt Cook Salmon.
The morning dawns damp and grey. “The mountains are gone,” says Bob mournfully. Nevertheless we make our way early to the Blue Lakes and the Tasman Glacier View track, a 40-minute return walk from the car park. At the lookout we gain excellent views of the lower Tasman Glacier, a rock-strewn river of ice rumbling through a vast lunar-like landscape.
“It looks forbidding,” says Bob, as we return to join our Glacier Explorers tour of the lake. Our guide, Kylie Wakelin, settles our group aboard a Mac boat, then we motor alongside one of several floating icebergs. “It’s made from pure water and snow that fell over 500 years ago,” she says breaking some off so we can have a taste. Bob’s neighbour, a Japanese chap, is prepared for the occasion. He whips out a hip flask of whiskey and a mug, adds ancient ice, and shares this heady brew with Bob as we continue across a silty, milky-grey surface to the glacier’s impressive bluff which begrudgingly yields its melt to the glacier lake. There’s a medley of sound: the steady drip of melting ice, loud cracking, rumbles, creaks and splashes, as muddy ice slumps to the water leaving gaping wounds that emanate electrifying shades of blue.
It’s 10 am before we begin our four-hour drive to Queenstown. As we rejoin Lake Pukaki the sky clears, but Mt Cook is completely shrouded by cloud. “Lucky we flew yesterday,” says Bob.
On Twizel’s Lake Ruataniwha we pass rowers, and shortly after Omarama we drive through the dramatic mountain landscape of the Lindis Pass. In Tarras we consider our lunch options, but decide to continue to Wanaka where we eat at the information centre’s café nestled amongst poplars and deciduous trees on the lake’s southern shores.
Bob collects tons of brochures on Queenstown’s many attractions, then we soak up more sun at peaceful Glendhu Bay before resuming our journey. We take an alternate route to Queenstown, via the Cardrona Valley Rd where we stop to photograph the historic Cardrona Hotel. There are a number of activities to indulge in: horse riding, quad biking, and monster trucks and rally car rides, but we continue on through the dry tussock-filled landscape to a lookout point which offers excellent views of the mountains and Lake Hayes.
Descending, we turn off for Arrowtown, an old gold mining town nestled on the banks of the Arrow River. A wide leafy boulevard leads to this quaint town which we explore on foot, marvelling at its wealth of original cottages, shops, saloons and churches from the gold mining period.
At the Lakes District Museum we see fascinating displays detailing the various gold-mining methods used in Arrow River and then we explore the Arrowtown Chinese settlement on the far side of town. Here also there’s plenty to keep visitors amused, from playing a round at the Millbrook Golf Course to hiking, hot air ballooning, horse riding, hang gliding, paraponting as well as 4wd tours up the river to the ruins of Macetown, a gold mining ghost town.
But we’re bound for Queenstown, and after driving over Edith Cavell Bridge – as the Shotover Jet skims the canyon walls beneath – we arrive in Queenstown where a charged atmosphere lingers in the crisp mountain air. Visitors join queues snaking from booking offices, while others relax outside busy cafés and bars and fill in time writing postcards before their next adrenaline-pumping activity.
We park down by the peaceful lake and sit on its shores admiring the view: trees reflect in the clear blue waters of Lake Wakatipu; The Remarkables and Cecil and Walter Peaks pierce a golden sky. The TSS Earnslaw - a coal-fired, twin-screw steamer - toots its departure to Walter Peak high country station and chugs across the lake, while behind us the Skyline Gondola almost ascends vertically to Bob’s Peak, where a beautiful panorama awaits. The distant cry of punters on its 800-metre-long luge adds an air of excitement, and faint screams can be heard from the direction of the Ledge Bungy.
“Well,” says Bob finally, after flicking several times through a thick wad of brochures, “Where do we begin?”