Spring Roadie: Mount Cook to Queenstown
My brother and I awoke to a sunny morning, however the mountain tops were nowhere to be seen. Mount Cook village is nestled amongst some of the tallest mountains in the country, close to the west coast, and as such, the area is privy to its own weather system, and at the mercy of the cloud systems. Luckily my brother had had plenty of opportunity to see Aoraki/Mount Cook the previous day, because we were not to see it again on our trip. I love this part of the country because it is surrounded by mountains, littered with walking and hiking trails, and due to being at the end of a very long dead-end road, it feels secluded and a bit less touristy than some of the rest of the South Island. I’ve visited a few times previously, including a visit where the village was surrounded by snow. The most recent visit prior to this one with my brother was to attempt to hike up to the Mueller Hut, high up in the mountains above the village, but I was a bit early in the season to go up, and wasn’t prepared for the snow in the upper reaches, thus being thwarted.
With an action packed 10 days of South Island driving to get through, my brother had selected the Hooker Valley track as his walk to do in the National Park. It is one of the country’s most popular walks, leading across alpine vegetation from the village to the lake at the base of Aoraki. We left the village in sunshine, but the clouds were falling over the mountain tops all around us, and it was clear the weather would close in as we progressed along the hike. There were plenty of other people on the trail that day, and we made good time treading along the well-maintained path. Some of the alpine flowers were starting to bloom, which along with the glacier lakes and nearby river, were a ready distraction as we hiked. As we neared the final rise at the end of the trail, spots of rain began and accompanied us as we reached the viewing area of the lake and Aoraki. The bulk of the mountain was hidden behind the cloud, which was a shame, but there was plenty of iceberg activity below to look at.
A path leads down the scree to the lakeside and this is the place to go for a close up of the icebergs. The rain was driving into us a little here which made it cold, so we hid in the lee of a large boulder whilst we had a snack, popping out briefly to take photos and pick up shards of ice. This was my brother’s first experience of icebergs, and it made me realise how much I’ve gotten used to the New Zealand landscapes in the 6 years I’ve lived here. I certainly don’t take it for granted, ever in awe when I see the glacier lakes, the towering mountains and the braided rivers, but I’d certainly forgotten what it was like to see these things for the first time. Whilst New Zealand has many similarities to Scotland, there are enough differences to make you appreciate you’re somewhere different.
By the time we had returned to the village, the clouds had closed in a little more. I had wanted to take my brother to the nearby Tasman glacier lake, but it was clear as we passed the turnoff that there would be nothing but cloud to see if we went, so it wasn’t worth wasting any more time. We had a few hours driving ahead to reach Queenstown, so by late morning we were on the road. Down the long stretch of road past Lake Pukaki, and onwards to the south, we had lunch in Twizel before continuing. There is a definite change in landscape as you follow the inland road south, and a somewhat desert quality starts to creep in. A little north of Omarama, I drove off the main road and headed along a dirt track, past an honesty box at the gate onto private property, and onwards to the Clay Cliffs. I’ve driven past the sign for these every other time I’ve been through this way, and so this was the first time I’d actually visited.
From the car park, an obvious track leads up to the base of the cliffs which stood distinctively like pinnacles against the blue sky. We had returned to sunshine, and meandered into the gaps between the peaks. It initially looked like there was an obvious path to follow, but after an initial climb and slide up loose scree, it became quite clear that the path petered out and became vague and loose under foot. Some people ahead of us sent a wake of loose stone in our direction and we did the same to those behind us. In the end, we backtracked a little, picked a different route through then once again reached an impasse. It felt like we were in some kind of foreign desert landscape and I was glad to have finally visited. My brother enjoyed squirrelling around the place also, and we found more paths to follow, away from the main track, as we slowly made our way back to the car park.
Continuing south, we cut through Omarama and onwards to Lindis Pass, one of the many mountain passes that New Zealand has. At 971m (3186ft), the Lindis Pass is the highest road pass in the South Island. The vegetation here is rather scrubby, which makes the view a little uninteresting to me, but at the top is a viewpoint where you can stop to look back at the road already travelled. From here, the drive down the other side towards Cromwell is windy, and we snaked our way down the hill, eventually arriving at Lake Dunstan which the road hugs all the way to Cromwell. We stopped briefly by the lake shore and also the giant fruit in Cromwell’s town centre, but the shadows were already starting to lengthen, accentuated by the steep mountain sides that flank the Kawarau Gorge on route to Queenstown. I’ve never had the opportunity to stop anywhere in the gorge before, and didn’t really know where was worth stopping at, so apart from a brief pull-in near a power station, we pushed on, arriving in Queenstown by the late afternoon.
Nestled around the shores of the large expanse of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is an odd place. The main settlement is sandwiched between the lake and the mountains and as such sits in shadow for the latter part of the day. Kelvin Heights across the Frankton Arm of the lake is better situated for sunshine hours. Queenstown will always be an immense drawcard for many, with nearby ski fields for winter lovers, adrenalin activities on its doorstep, water sports and hiking within easy reach and a plethora of bars and eateries to choose from. I however, am not one of its fans. I’ll happily visit it from time to time, but it is overcrowded and eager to part you with your cash. We were staying along the lakeshore away from the main drag which was great, and it was a pleasant walk along the lakefront as the sun was lowering. We went for dinner at The Cow, one of my favourite places to eat in town, and afterwards, I always find it impossible not to visit Patagonia, a chocolate and ice cream shop that sells divine ice cream. I didn’t need it, but I sure did my best to shove the cold chocolatey delight down my gob.
The next morning was one of sunshine, and we had another morning hike planned. Although Queenstown has a gondola, it is also possible to hike up the hillside to the viewing platform, rather than pay the fee for the gondola. So as we are both avid walkers, and by way of saving money, we left our accommodation that morning and picked our way up into the forest behind the hostel. Ironically, before my brother had announced his visit to New Zealand, I’d already booked to fly to Queenstown for Christmas, in order to hike Ben Lomond, the tall mountain immediately behind the lake. So a month before I’d be back to hike it, we found ourselves on the Ben Lomond track which eventually joins up with the road up to the gondola building. Some old pipes litter the track and as we found ourselves at a waterfall, the route became a little unclear. I discovered when I was back in December that we had taken a wrong turn, but we did eventually make our way back to the proper path.
The route eventually breaks out into the mountain bike park that is scattered across the hillside. Here the Ben Lomond track separates from the road to the gondola building and we had to keep our eyes and ears open as the bike tracks regularly cut across in front of us. There were plenty of bikes out on the trails, whizzing past us at speed at regular intervals. Finally, the familiar view of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu opened up below us, and we were back amongst the crowds jostling around the viewing spots. With the ziplines, luge and bungy jump, this was a good example of how you could spend a lot of money here, but we simply meandered around and watched as people either raced down the tracks in their little carts or chucked themselves off a platform. At the time of visiting in November, there was plenty of work being done here to upgrade the facilities and this made a couple of spots extra busy, but we did manage to get some spots of grass to ourselves to soak up the view.
We hiked down via the Tiki trail which brought us out at the back of town. Picking our way through the streets, we stopped for lunch at a cafe overlooking a square, and then headed into the Queenstown gardens. The blue skies had been replaced by clouds, but the mountain tops were still clear so despite the change in outlook, we still had a great view over to the summits. It is a lovely walk along the lake foreshore round the little peninsula, and is another example of a free thing to do in Queenstown. In fact, if you don’t mind using your own two feet, there are several free things you can do here. Once on the far side of the peninsula, overlooking the Frankton Arm, we cut up onto the hill in the middle and into the compact Botanic Gardens. Being springtime, there were plenty of flowers in bloom to look at and we both found plenty to take photographs of.
We walked back to the car parked far around the lakefront and although we didn’t have enough time to drive all the way to Glenorchy, I took my brother to Bennet’s Bluff lookout about half way there where there is a stunning view across the lake. The cloud detracted from it a little, but the steely colour of the water was still stunning and it was worthwhile taking the detour. We weren’t to see any sun for the rest of the day, and on return to Queenstown, I drove through it and out the other side, cutting across the Kawarau river bridge tracking south. Hugging the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu for some distance, we hit rain as we continued onwards on our South Island road trip.