My eyes hurt from staring!

Trip Start Dec 01, 2009
Trip End Jan 23, 2010

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Where I stayed
Decco Hostel, Queensland

Flag of New Zealand  ,
Thursday, January 14, 2010

At this stage in our travels, I fear that we're beginning to sound very repetitive as we tell you about another spectacular place. Are you getting the picture? New Zealand is simply spectacular... just about anywhere you go. The next day or so described here is no exception.

Leaving Te Anau after those fantastic 4 days on the Kepler Track, we drove north a few hours for a night in Queenstown, hoping to shorten the next day’s drive a bit. I look back on Queenstown and remember contrast. It’s a remarkably beautiful place, enough to inspire one to take a deep breath in silent awe (view the panoramic photo by clicking on it to enlarge it), but when driving into the center of the city, the crowds were so thick and chaotic, that I found myself wanting to hold my breath and get out.  Fortunately, we found Deco’s hostel, a bit off the main drag, yet with views of the lake and mountains. Aaah… We were only there for the evening, so we really didn’t explore the area much, other than to venture downtown for a tasty meal

We’ll say this much: if you’re hoping to enhance your adrenaline production with sky diving, bungee jumping, sledging or one of many other thrill seeking activities, if you’re inclined to spend an equal amount of your waking hours consuming alcoholic beverages, or if you have a large pocketbook to spend on jewelry or other gifts, Queenstown is the place for you, especially during the holidays. We’d like it better in the off-season.

This was a travel day for us, from the mountain towns east of the fjordlands, up and over a mountain pass, and down to the west coast, also known as the Wet Coast. The fjordlands in the far southwest are among the wettest places on earth, but the Wet Coast isn’t far behind by most standards. 

Leaving Queenstown, we drove north, back through the Wanaka environs, and along its sister lake, Hawea. The margins of Lake Hawea are only very sparsely inhabited, and despite its being a rather large lake, not a soul plied its waters (folks back home: it’s slightly longer than Lake Tahoe, but less than half as wide). We stopped several times to stand near its edge and gaze out at the spectacular view. We would have liked to stay longer in this peaceful, seemingly timeless place. Just look at the photos and you’ll see why. On this day, we had distance to cover, so we said to ourselves that we must return.

After passing Lake Hawea, we returned to Lake Wanaka, this time along the northerneastern shores, still heading northward to the pass. This end of the lake felt more wild, with snow-tipped mountains rising from its margins. Some peaks had sheer, exposed rock faces that must have been hundreds of feet, perhaps hundreds of meters tall, reflecting light toward us, and Mark was excited to think of climbing one of those faces one day. Sweet temptation.

Also along the shore of Lake Wanaka was a fantastic waterfall, cutting a deep and narrow slot before plunging into the lake. Alongside the waterfall was a bolted rock climb. Alas, without the great company of Jason and Ruby, we also found ourselves without climbing gear. Something else to return to, hopefully with the two of them!

A long, mostly dry riverbed fed into Lake Wanaka--evidence of the amount of snow that can, at times, melt into the lake. Beyond this valley loomed ever-larger peaks, with more snow, and more associated dreams on the part of my mountaineer. The possibilities were exhilarating, and I could sense an increasing lightening of our spirits. What is it about mountains that seems to refresh the mind? Is it the clear thin air? The clear meltwaters? The sense of renewal? Whatever it is, it felt good.

Just over Haast Pass, we stopped again to take a short walk to Fantail Falls. A clear blue stream flowed down from the pass, and on the other side of the stream was this lovely tumbling fall. The waters were cold, but not enough to stop other passers by from crossing the shallow creek and splashing in the falls. We would have liked to linger longer here and play, but only dipped our feet in the stream before moving on.

Further down the road we could see where massive glaciers, along the southern edge of the mountain chain that includes the mighty Aoraki (Mt. Cook), dropped high elevation cascades in the distance, pure white water. Lower down still, the highway was forced to cross the steep gorge carved by the tributary-fed river, on a high metal bridge—the Gates of Haast. The waters below were rumbling, and we stopped to walk alongside this powerful flow.  As you look at the picture, at first you might not sense how strong the water must be. But if you look closer, you’ll see Mark standing beside the water, and will gain perspective on the massive size of the boulders in this tumultuous river. Jason--I think this one might be too big for that exciting kayak run ;<) I’m fairly certain you won’t be able to talk Ruby into this one!

Below the Gates of Haast, the valley opened wider, with more expansive mountain views, and also more cliffs covered by native vegetation. The road remained curvy and slow. Some might see this as frustrating and a test to one’s patience. But it’s also a great way to find a new visual surprise around each corner, and what we were beginning to appreciate was the wildness of the west coast. Until a few decades ago, this part of the country was nearly cut off from the rest of New Zealand, accessible only by boat, known as a wild frontier where only the toughest of Kiwis and Maori lived, in a land of extremes: glaciers, steep valleys, ocean, dense bush and rain. Roads did not penetrate the mountains to the east. Nowadays, the west coast is sought after for its beauty. Still, not many live here year round, but those who venture into this area, even if only briefly, receive a grand reward.

Soon we found ourselves looking out on the Tasman Sea and a rugged coastline. I was reminded a bit of the topography along PCH of the central and northern California coast, but the water was a deeper blue, the vegetation was more dense and tropical, and there weren’t the characteristic little towns every several miles along the way. This was still predominantly uninhabited, and to my eyes, relatively untouched.

We continued northward along the coast, then weaving inland, then back to the coast again, for a few hours until we arrived in the Fox Glacier Township, in the waning hours of the evening. We made a tasty dinner in the nice kitchen of the Ivory Towers Hostel, and watched a pale apricot sunset over the rooftops of the little town.

Next blog…the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers…
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