Franz Josef Glacier to Queenstown

Motorhome day twenty-one: Franz Josef Glacier to Wanaka

It rained. All night. The view from the motorhome’s bedroom window this morning did not include any glaciers, mountains or sky – in fact in the rain it was possible to make out other campervans in adjacent spots, but not much else! We upped and offed, not seeing much point in hanging around, and with a reasonably long day on the road in prospect.

We retraced our steps to the Fox Glacier and then carried on towards Haast. It was pleasant enough, but it was still raining, and so we didn’t even stop at Bruce Bay, a famous landmark. The tide was up, and the sea a sort of steel grey under the rain clouds.

We pushed on to Knight’s Point where the view was good, but once again a lot less spectacular than it would be in sunshine. The information board at the lookout mentioned that the bay below was a refuge for seals, and also that penguins were known in that area.

Our next stop was Ship Creek (insert own joke here), where a Mesolithic-era forest walk was recommended. The rain held off while we enjoyed half an hour’s respite from the road, idling through the swamp forest.

Some of the flora was familiar, but there were some new ferns and other plants to see, and the birdsong was as lovely as ever. Some of it is quite familiar now, especially after the Zealandia visit.

Onwards, and, after swapping drivers in Haast, we began to follow the Haast river inland. It was all still in cloud, but it was just possible to discern huge mountains on either side, looming out of the mist. We stopped to have a short walk to Roaring Billy Falls, and he was very much in full voice after all the rain! It looked like the water was exploding out of the hillside.

There were lots of stopping places where you could see waterfalls, and we stopped at pretty much all of them. The next one, Thunder Creek, was a tall, splashy waterfall.

At the confluence of the Haast and Landsborough rivers we stopped for a quick lunch, and could see more of the river’s gorge as the clouds lifted a little. We started our traverse of the Southern Alps, via a long climb over the Haast Pass. The rapids at the Gates of Haast (straight out of Lord of the Rings, that, surely?) were running fast and furious, and we were once more up in the clouds.

We reached the summit, and began the descent, and then all of sudden we were out of the mountains and into the middle of a sunny, pastoral scene, sheep in the fields, and the top of Lake Wanaka.

It was gorgeous. We stopped to take pictures and marvel at the blueness of the water. The drive along the lake was spectacular, then we crossed the ‘Neck’, the isthmus (the sign said) to the formerly connected Lake Hawea, a glacier lake like Lake Wanaka, lying alongside. The road now clung to Lake Hawea’s side, but occasional rises always had a lookout point, and the views from these elevated positions along the lake were wonderful. It was like a different day, suddenly everything was bathed in sunlight.

We rolled into Wanaka, did a bit of shopping and settled into our campsite, where we’ll be for three nights. It had been a day on the road, but what a road it had been.

Motorhome day twenty-two: Wanaka

We went out for dinner last night, it was quite strange putting going-out clothes on and being served for a change! I had ‘fush and chups’, a very popular dish here, and Jonathan had some delicious New Zealand lamb, ‘backstrap’, not a cut we recognised, but apparently it is saddle loin.

This morning we awoke to blue skies and sunshine, and wandered round to have a look at ‘That Wanaka Tree’. It’s become rather famous, it’s a lonely little willow a few metres off-shore, but it’s ridiculously photogenic and people have been, well, photographing it. It’s lovely. We took some pictures. Of course we did.

After lunch the weather was still looking excellent for our booked boat trip to Mou Waho Island. The skipper of the boat initially thought we might have to go to Stevenson Island instead, as the lake conditions had been a bit bumpy, but after consulting with other skippers and assessing our group of six as being ‘brave’ (eek!) he decided to go for it.

It was a brilliant trip. It’s always good to see a lake from on the lake, as it were, and heading out from Wanaka we quickly turned north and had a longer view up the length of the lake. It wasn’t too bumpy, although our skipper and guide, Craig, was very adept at smoothing out the biggest waves. It was only when we reached the top of the peninsula which shelters Stevenson’s Island from the main lake and turned east for Mou Waho that we hit a few bouncy peaks.

As we disembarked the little speedboat we could already see two buff weka on the beach, grubbing around amongst the driftwood. They were the main reason for choosing this trip, so that was a good start! Our group waited in a small clearing for Craig to moor the boat, and several more weka appeared to see what we were up to. They are usually described as feisty and curious, and they were certainly both of those.

They were reintroduced to Mou Waho by conservationists, after a failed reintroduction on Stevenson’s Island. They became extinct on the mainland in 1920, but Māori people had taken a few birds to Chatham Island, and they’d just survived there. Thirty birds were taken to Mou Waho, which is much further away from the shoreline than Stevenson’s Island. This meant they were much safer from predation by stoats, which can swim short distances and had found Stevenson’s Island close enough to invade. The original thirty birds are mostly now gone, having bred and lived out long natural lives, but there is one pair remaining, named Wally and Sally by rangers. There are around 250 birds on the island now, and Wally and Sally alone have produced 26 chicks, the latest two just a few weeks ago.

We set off up the track to the lookout point, with Craig describing the history of the island and pointing out trees, plants and birds along the way. On of the most remarkable was the lancewood tree. When young, it looks like this:

The leaves are incredibly hard and spiky, which the plant evolved in order to protect itself from its main consumer, the now extinct moa. Like an ostrich, but around three metres tall, moa would graze on the lancewood leaves as they wandered by. The mature lancewood tree is completely different, it looks like this:

Once the tree is tall enough its leaves change, becoming fleshy and soft, and the tree bears small berries.

We also saw manuka, from which the famous (and famously expensive) manuka honey is generated. There are no hived honey bees on the island, but plenty of small, native bees, so no liquid gold from these bushes but plenty of nectar for the local bees. The lower parts of the manuka bushes looked blackened, as if burnt, but Craig explained that it was a symbiotic fungus which draws moisture up to the bush. There were still a few small white flowers on one of the bushes, and Craig told us that part of the reason why flowers are mainly small and subtle in New Zealand is that they are mostly pollinated by small nocturnal insects rather than birds.

At the top of the path, there was a lake. A lake on an island in a lake on an island in the sea! The glacier which formed Lake Wanaka was unable to break down the hard rock of Mou Waho, and so went around either side, leaving a lake on the top.

It was a beautiful spot, and Craig produced tea, coffee and biscuits from his backpack for ‘afternoon tea’. We were joined almost immediately by Sally and the two chicks, which have apparently been named Harry and Meghan. They were completely unafraid, and very interested in the biscuits, which we were instructed not to feed them, of course. The chicks are almost fully grown now, and will be ejected unceremoniously from the nest in the next couple of weeks to go and find their own territory on the island.

Just as we were about to leave, we were honoured by a visit from Wally himself, recognisable by his silver leg ring. All the original birds were ringed, males on the left leg, and females on the right. Wally is already a year older than weka are expected to live, so his time is probably short now, and we left feeling privileged to have met him.

One last push and we were up at the lookout, with incredible views of the lake. We could see as far as the ‘Neck’, where we drove across the isthmus between Lakes Wanaka and Hawea yesterday. It looked cloudy up there, and Craig explained that there was a big rain shadow effect at the north end of the lake, at the Haast pass. Most of the rain is shed on the other side of the pass, which explains the sudden sunshine and bucolic scenes we encountered as we descended the pass.

We all took pictures of the beautiful panoramic views, and then started back down the track. Halfway down we stopped to plant a tree. Eco-Wanaka, the company running the tour, has been planting native trees here for years, after the island had been cleared of Californian pines, which had rather taken over. So far they’ve planted over 8000 trees, with tourists, school parties and more concentrated efforts by conservation volunteers. Craig told us that the mature lancewood tree he’d shown us had been planted fifteen years ago by a five year old schoolgirl. The planting is mixed, and our group planted a tiny wineberry tree.

It had been a great visit, our guide knowledgeable and thoughtful, and we’d enjoyed it immensely. Good job we were all brave enough to go for the bumpy option!

P.S. A weird fact: Lake Wanaka is 311m deep, but it sits at an altitude of 278m, so the bottom of the lake is actually below sea level.

Motorhome day twenty-three: Wanaka

A relaxed day today. We did a bit of motorhome admin, and then took ourselves off for a short drive round the west side of the bottom of Lake Wanaka, since we’ll be going out in the opposite direction tomorrow. We drove as far as the metalled road went, after which there was a gravel track we didn’t fancy, and are not really supposed to drive on in any case. We couldn’t see much of Mount Aspiring, the biggest peak in the area, it was shrouded in cloud. The lake was still beautiful, though.

We also dropped in at the Maude winery’s tasting room just outside Wanaka centre. It’s named for Mount Maude:

The original winery itself is at the foot of Mount Maude, four hectares of vines on 45 degree slopes! Some of them are clones of pinot noir vines in Dijon, and our tasting host pointed out that since Wanaka is on the 45th parallel south, and Burgundy is on the 45th parallel north, the vines are living in very similar conditions. We bought a small number of bottles, just to keep the wine cellar properly stocked.

Motorhome day twenty-four: Wanaka to Queenstown

We’d been told that under no circumstances were we to drive the motorhome over the Crown Range Road between Wanaka and Queenstown, with its fantastic views, kea parrots and more direct route, boo, but since it is also famous for its tight hairpin bends, narrow road and hair-raisingly steep descent into Queenstown, we didn’t mind too much. As it was, our route took us a very pretty way anyway, with lakes and mountains aplenty. Halfway down Lake Dunstan we spotted the sign for the official 45th parallel, and there was a little map showing its position halfway between the equator and the South Pole. It reinforced just how little land there is between here and Antartica, that is, none!

We stopped for a quick peak at Roaring Meg, a stream full of rapids below a hydroelectric dam. The forest on the hillside looked a bit dead, which seemed odd.

The board at the rapids lookout explained that this was part of a scheme to eradicate ‘wilding trees’, that is non-native trees which are pushing out weaker native species. The wildings are deliberately killed, and the native species regenerate underneath. On looking again, you could see that this process was well underway, with thick green vegetation visible under the ghostly wildings.

Queenstown was looking very fine in the sunshine, and after a quick shop and getting settled into the campsite, we had lunch under the blue skies, and then took ourselves off for a walk into town. Queenstown is famous as a centre for scary activites such as bungee jumping, sky-diving and the like, and it has the feel of a ski resort, somehow. There are lots of adrenaline sports shops, and a lot of (young) people walking around looking either slightly apprehensive or hugely pleased to have achieved whatever it was they’d been apprehensive about. Here’s one of the currently fashionable activities:

And this is what it does once they’ve strapped you into it:

We signed up for a nice, tame lake cruise for tomorrow ????

We had a very pleasant walk around the harbour, and along the park on the other side, along with all the other adrenaline-avoiders. The lake is the longest in New Zealand, but it wasn’t possible to see all the way down it as there’s quite a bend in the middle. The Remarkables, an impressive mountain range of pointy peaks, runs down one side at this end.

After dinner from Fergburger, a legendary takeaway in town as recommended by Joshua, and a bottle of the Maude pinot noir, it was time for bed.

Motorhome day twenty-five: Queenstown

It was cold this morning, very cold. Our campsite is in a gorge, so the sun doesn’t make it over the ridge til late morning, and my iPad greeted me with the news that it was only 7 degrees Celsius. We dug out warm clothing for the boat trip and dressed in layers so we could adjust as it got warmer, since we had plans to try out the gondola after lunch.

The ‘Spirit of Queenstown’ was waiting for us at the harbour, a large catamaran which would take us down to where the lake turns the corner. There was an optional sheep farm visit, but since we live surrounded by sheep at home, we declined!

It was quite chilly in the wind, but the views along the lake were great, the Remarkables in shade still, but Cecil Peak and Walter Peak looking sharp against the cloudy sky. At the ‘corner’, a whole new vista opened up, right down to Mount Earnslaw at the other end of the lake, with its remnant glacier.

It was that glacier which had carved the lake, although it hasn’t advanced for 18,000 years now. We turned around at the sheep farm, and you could see a few of the Merino sheep in the fields, hardy little things quite similar to Herdwick sheep in the Lake District and farmed for their wool in much the same ‘fending for themselves’ way.

After the trip we enjoyed a lunch by the harbour, now in bright sunshine and thankfully much warmer! We closed the afternoon with a trip up the gondola, for views down to Queenstown and along the lake. At the top, if you wanted to you could ‘luge’ down on a little sliding trike thing (no thanks), do a tandem sky-dive (also no, thank you), or a bungee jump (need you ask?!). Or you could enjoy the views of other, braver people doing all these things, and of the lakes, mountains and the town.

We’ve enjoyed Queenstown very much, despite not joining in with any of the scary stuff. The NZ couple we met at Pahi Beach said exactly that about it, actually, that you could go and do all kinds of crazy stuff, or you could just enjoy the town, the scenery and the lake, it was really whatever you wanted to make of it. And they were right!

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