I managed to complete my run on the beach before the sun disappeared behind the clouds. It decided to stay there, so the rain showed up to keep me company.
I’ve said it before, but there’s nothing quite so grim as rain at the seaside.
First stop of the day was at Punakaiki “Pancake Rocks”. Well, they have rocks, which look like a stack of pancakes. But they also have a café serving actual stacks of pancakes. Guess which I preferred!
The rain continued to fall, and after two days of jaw-dropping wonderment my feet were back on the ground. The scenery turned into trees. Miles and miles of trees. Occasionally there was something amazing – a ridiculously blue river for instance. But it was all a bit glum. I rolled on into the descriptively named town of “Franz Josef Glacier”.
I took a quick look around town, but there wasn’t much to see. There was a new Mountain Bike track on the map but nobody knew how to get to it. The rain finally lifted and there was even some light in the sky, so I figured I’d have a quick nip down to the glacier that evening, instead of chancing what the weather would be doing in the morning.
Stunning. Mesmerising. Spectacular. Awe-inspiring.
These are words I’d expect to be using to describe a glacier that has a whole town built for it, on an island where every bend unveils a new wonder.
But the only word that sprung to mind was: Grubby.
The white ice is cloaked in a layer of black debris, which kind of spoils the magnificence. The glacier on the Icefield Parkway is far better, and it has the decency to come down to the car park, where Franz Josef, and his mate “Fox” down the road, require you to hike for 40 minutes to even get to the viewing spot 500m away from the face.
Which is why the following morning, with the clouds and rain still hanging around (well, the clouds were, don’t suppose rain can hang) I decided to keep rollin’.
But I should mention the surprise encounter at the campsite. I got back after grabbing dinner to find my new neighbours were my old neighbours! Rob and Kerry were parked next to me again. They were talking to a couple of “Clockers”.
I’d best explain that: There’s not many roads round the South Island, and most campers seem to be trying to see all of it. So everybody does a lap, and you’re only choice is which way round you go. Hence there’s a tribe of people heading the opposite way to me who I’ll only ever encounter briefly, the “Clockers”, and my tribe, who I keep running into, the “Antis”. It’s weird, you find yourself checking in at the campsite next to the German lady you saw in the layby when you were both taking the same picture, or the old guy you said hello to at the lake.
So we had a nice chat to this particular pair of “clockers” but I didn’t remember their names. Those guys are just not worth it.
In the rain I reach Haast, which seems to entirely consist of a café. It is at least a nice café, with a roaring fire and décor reminiscent of Northern Exposure, with animal heads protruding from above the bar.
I stodge up and roll on. The incessant rain and monotonous trees require an aural remedy, I select “The Javelin” by Blue Amazon. It’s an album that’s basically an hour of not particularly remarkable trance music which serves to heighten the impact of the final tune, their big hit: “..and then the rain falls” which seems appropriate.
So for an hour I drift along in a contented daze. The road meanders and traffic is sparse. I’m enveloped in the music as I reach the final track. The synthesized strings swell to a roaring crescendo, then fall away leaving one kicking bass drum, followed by that glorious vocal:
“…and then the rain”
Bloominheck! I’ve been building up to this point for an hour. Coping with the drudgery in anticipation of a glorious climax and now the weather has ruined…
Hang on, the rain’s stopped!
…and at almost the exact same time I emerge on to a glorious lakeside road. Twisting and turning, clinging to the steep slope at the side of the lake. Above me, the arboreal monotony has given way to a dry cragginess. Incessant green has been replaced by browns, reds, yellows and black, reflected in the blue lake below.
This is better. This is more like it. This… is Otago!
Around Lake Wanaka I skirt, then Lake Hawea, equally beautiful and into the town of Wanaka.
First stop, “Puzzling World”. Almost like a museum, where all the exhibits are optical illusions, but so much more. There’s a hall of faces, where all the faces follow you around the room. There’s a perspective twisting room, that looks square, but makes an adult on one side appear smaller than a child at the other. I particularly liked the sloping room. The floor slopes steeply, but the walls don’t, giving you the impression that the floor is level. This makes it hard not to topple over, and indeed a Japanese tour group entered, literally fell through the room, then left!
After more mind-bending exhibits, and the chance to play with a stack of puzzles and games from around the world there’s a 3 dimensional walk-through maze.
“As long as you start the maze by 6pm you’re OK” says the guy on the desk.
“Will you come and rescue me if I get lost?” I enquire, half joking.
“We’ll bring you tea and a sandwich”.
But I needn’t have worried. The maze sign says it takes 30 minutes to 1 hour. I reckon I can beat that with my top-secret maze-solving strategy!
In 19 minutes I’m within sight of the exit when a guy stops me and asks me to photo him and his wife! Doesn’t he see I’m against the clock?
“smileonetwothreeclicklovely!!........what ANOTHER ONE?!”
But I make it to the exit and crash through, at 20 minutes on the dot, to rapturous applause!!
(Funny, the looks people give you when you crash through a wooden gate in a sweaty mess and rapturously applaud yourself. Oh well!)
Brilliant place that Puzzling World. And I’d steamed round so fast I still had time to find the local mountain bike park, and navigate my way round it without a map. Which turned out to be considerably more difficult than the maze – and the maze didn’t have huge drops to fall down!
Fortunately I found my car and emerged just as a young couple of bikers were loading their bikes onto their car.
“Is there a map for this place?” I pant.
“Sure, have mine” says the guy, and explains that they’re on their way to Queenstown for Mountain Bike Week.
Which I knew nothing about a week ago, but now find myself heading inexorably towards!
At the campsite I have a quick look around for Rob and Kerry, but they’re not here. Well, I didn’t ask where they’d be next, so it was pretty unlikely.
…until the morning, when there they are, getting their van ready for the day!
OK, I should point out I keep staying in the Top 10 chain of Holiday parks, as do they, so it’s less extraordinary, but still nice to see familiar faces. We compare plans, they’re doing 2 nights in Queenstown, then 2 in Te Anau, I’m doing 1 in Queenstown, then 2 in Te Anau, then back to Queenstown…
Wait, that sounds like planning!!
Well, yes, but only because Easter weekend is approaching so I’d better have something booked.
It’s raining again. I don’t have far to go to Queenstown, and I’d like another go at the Wanaka track, armed with my sweaty second-hand map, but it’ll be ridiculous in the wet (the track, not the map!). So I kill some time wandering round sports shops in a bemused attempt to see if anyone stocks XXL helmets.
Lucy doesn’t but she has some very nice jackets for half price, and I don’t have a really good waterproof so I buy one. She says I should ride the “Dean Bank track” before I leave town.
Their helmets are too small.
I try another shop.
“Good Morning, no, sorry those are all the helmets we have”
“Sigh. It’s not that good, what with all the rain”
“True, but you have a nice jacket”
…and another 2 shops, but no protection for the cranially well-endowed.
It’s still pouring down. What to do? I don’t want to leave town without a ride, but yesterday’s track in the rain will be lethal. I decide to head out to the start of the Dean Bank track, just to have a look. It’s only 2km out of town, but what do you know, the rain stops as I get there, so I give it a go.
Well, thank you Lucy!! Another truly awesome mountain bike track. No decision points or clumsy maps on this one, just 11km following a twisty, turny track across desert sands, up cliff faces, into the woods, down to the river valley floor, up slippery slopes, over jumps, under tree boughs…fantastic. And thanks to the rainfall I got a good spraying with mud as I went!
Luckily I have my awesome van and my own portable shower which …isn’t working. Hmmm. The taps are coughing and spitting up water and the pump is making an awful racket. I manage a quick wash in the tepid dribble but this is not good with weeks still to go. Hopefully the tank’s just empty, but I filled it up recently. Then I remember, there’s a Britz rental place in Queenstown, and I’m going there next.
I take the scenic route to Queenstown via Cromwell, and there’s lots more beautiful views of lakes and craggy desert hills, but I press on and make it to Britz. They shut in 15 minutes but the mechanic is happy to take a quick look. While I wait the girl on the desk says, “oh the water tanks are very small. One 2 minute shower and you’re pretty much out”
I’d have expected more from a 2 person van, but sure enough the mechanic tops it up and it all works fine.
I apologise for wasting their time (better than wasting mine coming back if it needed fixing) but they’re very pleasant and I’m in Queenstown.
After a week of campsites a few km from small sleepy towns it’s fantastic to stay a few hundred metres from the centre of a bustling young town with so much to do. And Rob and Kerry show up again.
But I’m coming back for the Easter weekend so tonight I take it easy and find a pub with a live singer. No stools at the bar though. It seems the Kiwis don’t tend to adopt the American sit-at-the-bar-and-talk-to-strangers habit which is a real shame for a stranger in a strange land like me.
Tuesday, and a quiet day in store. Next stop is Te Anau, a small town of no real consequence, but the start of the 120km road up to Milford Sound, the biggest attraction in Fiordland. So I take my time, fill up with diesel, and set out on the leisurely 2 hour drive.
I’ll get to the campsite in the early afternoon, then spend the rest of the day sorting out a cruise around the Sound on the next day. The guidebook warns that the road to Milford will be packed with buses heading for the popular midday tours, and that booking is essential. I don’t fancy an early start so I might as well aim for a late afternoon tour, and try and get one of the smaller boats. I’d rather tour with 75 people than a couple of hundred, and at least the drive back will be quieter.
It’s a really beautiful day today, barely a cloud in the sky… what will it be like tomorrow?
Hang on, if I’m going for a late cruise anyway, why wait? It will be awful if the weather’s grey tomorrow and I could have gone today.
Have I got time?
Suddenly my quiet day vanishes and I’m against the clock. Luckily the roads are as deserted as the land. If I push on I can reach Te Anau around 12.30. Plenty of time you’d think, but the 120km drive with all the buses and tourists takes two and a half hours, and that’s without stopping for views.
I’m in luck, one of my brochures has a small boat going at 4pm in “Late December-March”, check in 20 mins before departure. That gives me 40 mins to call at the campsite and maybe grab a quick lunch.
So I screech into Te Anau at 12.30 and find the Cruise centre.
“Sorry sir, we’re not running the 4pm cruise anymore. It’s only Decenber to March.”
“But it IS March!”
“Exactly, so it isn’t running”
“Eh!! ….er…..OK, when’s your last cruise go?”
“How long does it take to get there?”
“Two and a half hours”
Maybe I ain’t cruisin’ today.
But there’s another company, offering a 4.30 cruise, so I call them:
“Do you have space on the 4.30 cruise?”
“Yes, certainly. But we need six people to go out”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, with you, we only have three people booked, and we need six before we’ll go out.”
“It’s a nice day, I’m sure we’ll get more and go out though, don’t worry”
But I do worry. It’s what I’m best at. They’re at the end of a very long slow road, where there’s nothing else to do. How many people are going to drive all the way down there without booking?
It’s such a beautiful day though, I’ve got to take the chance. So I duck into the campsite because I’ll be late back, and the girl on the desk – some oddly spelled name like Danniyell – recommends another tour group, who do a 3.45 sailing.
“Thanks, but I wanted the smaller boat. Besides I don’t think I’ll make that one”
If I’m going to drive another 2.5 hours, then jump on a boat for 2, then drive 2.5 back, on top of the 2 I did this morning, I’m gonna need lunch. Thankfully Te Anau has a Subway. So I munch down a footlong and hit the road soon after 1pm.
But there’s nobody on it!
And there’s not much to see for the first 60km. I mean it’s fabulously beautiful, but only in the way most of the South Island has been. So I push on. In a car I’d be tempted to plough on, but in a campervan it’s a bit more tricky. At least I don’t feel like I’m missing stuff by not stopping…
At about the 30km part the road emerges from the trees into a valley. And what a valley. The floor is flat and wide, but there’s mountains soaring into the sky. As Tennyson might have put it:
Mountains to the right of me.
Mountains to the left of me.
Mountains in front of me.
Hang on… in front of me? How’s that going to work? No time now, keep pushing on.
I’m making good time. The 3.45 is easily do-able even with 20 mins check-in. But I’m heading towards the face of a cliff. Surely that’s going to slow me down?
On the upside, there’s a tunnel.
On the downside there’s traffic lights and a sign saying “Wait up to 15 minutes”.
To the right there’s a countdown clock. 5 minutes 15 seconds to go.
“Come on, come on”
If they need six people and there’s 3 of us, can’t we pay double?
I’d pay double not to have to come back again, not to have to pay for diesel, and we’d get a tour with just the 3 of us. How cool would that be? Surely the others will pay double? How much would I pay not to have to come again? Could I buy 4 tickets?
Great tunnel. No messing around with any bends, or a ceiling. Just a straight drop through a mountain, getting dripped on.
Out blinking into the sunlight.
Onwards and downwards.
Come on, come on!!
The road twists and turns, but luckily there’s still nobody on it. Of course that means there’s nobody to join our cruise.
How’re we doing?
Ten km to go.
Good, I’ll have time to bag up stuff for the trip. Have a quick pee. Ask about the 4.30, and if it’s not going, still catch the 3.45 - If there’s any places left.
Except there’s something funny about the destination on the sat nav.
No time to look now. The road’s still twisty, and beautiful, …look at that view…
No, watch the road!
Except I’m not. I’m in the car park, but there’s still a “ten minute walk” to the cruise terminal
Quick, quick, quick.
The drive was great, but I really don’t want to do it again tomorrow.
Into the cruise terminal. I spy the desk with “Next cruise 4.30pm” and gasp the question:
“Is the 4.30 going out?”
“We still don’t have 6 people, but we’ll get them, it will most likely go out, it’s a nice day.”
“How many do you have? Still 3? Or have you got more”
“Oh, the other 2 came earlier and decided to catch another cruise. It’s just you”
“I see” I yelled over my shoulder, running for the other desk.
“Have you any space on the 3.45?”
“It’s a big boat then?”
“Oh no, it’s a small 75 seater”
“Oh great, how many people are going?”
And there I was. I’d made it. And after a long frenetic dash there was nothing to do but wait.