With my brother visiting New Zealand for the first time, he had planned a road trip around the South Island to see some of the country’s highlights. After all, he hadn’t travelled all this way just to see his little sister! Originally he was going to head off on his own, but after securing the time off work and double checking that he was prepared to spend 2 whole weeks with me (something that we hadn’t done since we were teenagers), it ended up being me & him on the road for a spring-time roadie. I love road trips although they’re inevitably tiring, but I insisted on doing all the driving so that my brother could sit back and enjoy the stunning New Zealand countryside.
My brother had decided the route and overnight stops, so on day 1 we set off from Christchurch to head inland to the lakes of the Mackenzie District. There’s various routes to take there, and I took the scenic route cutting across to the Rakaia Gorge which normally offers a view of the stunning turquoise waters of the Rakaia river. In advance of my brother arriving in the country there had been a recent dump of snow followed by some inclement weather so I had a feeling the river was more likely to be a muddy grey colour, just like the day I had hiked the Rakaia Gorge walkway some years ago, and as it turned out, not only was I right, but the river was in extreme spate and the force of the water gushing through the gorge was immense, and the river was starting to flood into the car park below the bridge. We got out to stretch our legs and wander around, first crossing the old rickety road bridge and then to cut up the river a little to view the bridge from a different angle. Unfortunately, Mount Hutt, which is usually visible from here, was partially shrouded by some cloud. Still, it was a good opener to the stunning scenery that this island is famous for.
From the Rakaia river, we followed the scenic highway south to Geraldine, turning towards Fairlie and from there, headed over the mountain pass to Lake Tekapo. This drive reminds me quite a lot of my homeland of Scotland, and my brother commented the same. We arrived in Lake Tekapo late morning, and the sun lit up the water of the glacial lake in a brilliant blue. The lupins were also in flower which always adds some added beauty to the place. As an introduced and invasive species, they are actually classed as weeds or pest species here, but yet locals and tourists alike love to see them in bloom in the alpine regions of New Zealand. We parked at the far end of the village centre and took a walk down by the lakefront, joining the many other tourists that were also there that day, everyone intent on getting their Instagram-worthy photographs against the backdrop of the snowy mountains. Despite my brother’s luck with the warm sunshine, the recent dump of snow meant the mountains were still white and it was the perfect vision.
Since I’d last been in Lake Tekapo, which had been about 18months prior, there had been some obvious developments. New housing estates had appeared, several of the shops in the village centre had changed hands and a new supermarket had been built. There was clear evidence that parts of the foreshore had been tampered with also, a sure sign of further building works to come. Following lunch in one of the cafes that had undergone a renovation since I’d last been there, we crossed the new bridge across the lake outflow to the Church of the Good Shepherd, probably one of the most famous sights of New Zealand. It is often framed by the Milky Way in an astrophotograph or the backdrop for somebody’s wedding, either way it is an immensely busy spot as every visitor to Tekapo tries to photograph it from the same angle as everyone else, whilst desperately trying to find a new angle that fewer people have done before. It’s an interesting observation on human society whenever you turn up to the popular photography spots of New Zealand.
For my brother, the blue shade of the lake was a colour he’d not experienced before. For me, the wintery snowy backdrop with the spring-like foreground of lupins and sunshine was a novelty, and I was happy to walk along the lakefront as my brother wandered along. He was keen to cut round to the eastern shore, so we headed all the way round to the south-eastern bay which we had to ourselves. The wind was blowing the waves in our direction and in one spot the lake level had dropped to reveal a patchwork of puddles across the stony beach. Cutting back towards the village, we crossed the lake outflow via the road this time and wandered past the shop fronts back to our car. As we would be self-catering that night, we stopped at the new Four Square supermarket to grab some stuff for dinner and then headed on our way.
For me, no visit to Lake Tekapo is complete without heading up Mount John. It is possible to walk up to the summit from the village although strangely, considering my propensity to hike everywhere, I’ve never actually walked up, always driving up instead. I was surprised to arrive at the turn-off up Mt John to discover a hut and barrier due to the introduction of a user fee for the road. Sitting at the top of Mt John is an Observatory belonging to the University of Canterbury. Students come here as part of their course, and owing to this part of the Mackenzie District being an internationally recognised Dark Sky Reserve due to its lack of light pollution, it is also possible to pay to take part in a star gazing tour here.
But the main draw during the day time is the view over the nearby lakes of Tekapo and Alexandrina and the flanking mountains of the Southern Alps. So whilst I objected to the fee, having come up multiple times before for free, the $8 charge was reasonable, and we spent enough time at the summit to feel that it wasn’t overpriced. It is a conundrum in New Zealand though, where tourism has taken off so much, that infrastructure is, in places, struggling to keep up. It is an issue of contention amongst the general public where many object to the mounting costs of maintaining and upgrading facilities that are overused by tourists but paid for by Kiwis. Having paid tourism taxes and had to purchase visitor passes for national parks in other countries, I’m personally in favour of a tiered system where locals pay less or nothing at all and visitors pay more. There will always be plenty of people to argue either way, but as a regular user of the Outdoors, I’m sick of seeing rubbish, waste and inconsiderate habits of tourists (many of which cause damage or harm to native flora and fauna), and am keen to see a positive change happen.
From Lake Tekapo, the scenic drive winds across the rolling hillside before finally arriving at the eastern bank of Lake Pukaki, another brilliant blue glacier lake. The road cuts down to the southern end where it crosses a dam and this is one of the first places where the hulk of Aoraki/Mount Cook, the country’s tallest mountain, is really pronounced. We were staying in Mount Cook village that night, a place that I love due to the many hikes in the area, and taking the turnoff that leads up the western side of Lake Pukaki, it is a deceptively long drive there. There are some great views on route though and although the shadows were starting to fall across the mountains to our left, Aoraki remained in sunshine and almost free of cloud.
Due to the steep mountains flanking its every side, the village was in shadow when we checked into our motel room. Whilst we didn’t have a view of Aoraki, we still had a mountain view and after taking a breather for a bit, we headed up to the Hermitage where we could see Aoraki’s peak in all her glory as the colour of the snow on her flanks changed with the lowering sun. The alpine setting was reflected in the temperature which was dropping down quite dramatically. I was keen to watch the sunset over Aoraki but was forced indoors to watch it through the glass of the Hermitage’s large front windows. Eventually my brother wanted to brave the cold to take some photographs without the reflection of the glass, and so I joined him outside as the light faded from the sky.
We had a nice cosy motel room which was part of a large complex which included a bar, a kitchen serving meals and a kitchen for self-use. It was a busy little place with plenty of backpackers and self-drivers there. After dinner though, we retired to our room, and it was very easy to fall asleep after all the driving and fresh air. This was to be the recipe for the rest of our road trip, and the following day would be no exception.