We had originally planned to spend well over a month in New Zealand (which Kiwis pronounce ‘New Zillund’). The eclipse in Australia changed that, as did the timing and availability of home exchanges. We spent a mere three weeks in New Zealand, and only nine days on the South Island – not nearly enough time. Our South Island base was a gorgeous home perched on a hillside with a spectacular view of the South Pacific just south of Christchurch, roughly in the middle of the South Island.
Our Home in Christchurch
Our Deck — Breakfast with a View
This perch was a precarious one. In February of 2011 a devastating earthquake centered in Christchurch destroyed many of the historic downtown buildings, including much of Christchurch’s historic cathedral.
The quake had rippled and buckled roads throughout the region, and driving was at times slow and precarious. Sections of many of the hillside homes surrounding the city are now dangling over the edges of cliffs newly created by the earthquake and its aftershocks. The cliff-top home in which we stayed had narrowly avoided disaster. Parts of the driveway just below the house had disintegrated, and cracks were evident in the walls of the home. Despite the ravages of the earthquake Christchurch remains a delightful city that still maintains a very British flavor. We spent part of an afternoon “punting” on the Avon River, which courses through the center of town.
Our idea was mainly to use the home in Christchurch as our base for exploring the lakes, mountains and coastlines of the South Island. New Zealand looks tiny on a world map, but it would take fifteen hours to drive the length of the South Island alone. We didn’t have enough time to visit some highly recommended parks on the northern and southern edges of the South Island; so we had to be very selective. What we did see there was absolutely beautiful. As we leave, it’s clear that we have a lot of unfinished business to do tramping about in New Zillund.
Our final foray away from Christchurch was a trip to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Major storms had battered the western half of the South Island during a good part of our stay there, causing tremendous flooding in the west and summer snowfalls in the mountains. These were the remnants of the hurricane that had caused so much devastation in Fiji – our next destination. It was only a few days before our departure from New Zealand when the weather finally cleared enough for us to attempt a trip to the Southern Alps. They were distant enough from our place in Christchurch that we decided to make it a two-day camping trip, using equipment very graciously loaned to us by Nigel and Desiree, with whom we were doing our home exchange in Christchurch. Our primary destination was Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, but Nigel mentioned that we might want to stop for a bit in Tekapo on the way to Mt. Cook.
Tekapo is on the southern shore of Lake Tekapo, and as we rounded a hillside and got our first view of the lake, the color was so vivid that it looked almost unnatural, as though the lake were a solid substance. It simply compelled us to stay.
Although we were an hour away from Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, we found a campground at the edge of the lake and pitched our tent on a bluff overlooking the blue-green waters.
The Southern Alps were visible in the distance on the far end of the lake, and the snow level had been so low in the recent storms that even the smaller hills surrounding the lake had gotten a heavy dusting. It was glorious.
Lonely Planet had mentioned that there was a café with a ‘to-die-for’ 360-degree view atop nearby Mt. John; so we started the drive up. Although the drive was less than ten miles, it took us the better part of an hour because we had to keep stopping to take photos of flower fields, the lake and the surrounding mountains.
By the time we arrived at the top, gale-force winds were blowing, forcing all the visitors to cram into the tiny glass-walled café for shelter. I tried to order us a light lunch, but, after an experience like that portrayed by John Cleese in the Monty Python “Cheese Shop” skit, I eventually discovered (after a good deal of fruitless guessing) that only two items on their menu were actually available – coffee and scones. This eliminated my usual indecisiveness about ordering café fare. As soon as our “lunch” arrived we were ordered off of the mountain because the winds were forcing the authorities to close the road that provides access to the Mt. John. We gulped down the coffee and scones, rushed out and tried to take a few photos in the windstorm, and then again from the car windows as we negotiated the switchbacks down the mountain.
Returning to the campground, we went for a jog along the rim of Lake Tekapo, followed by a long soak in the adjacent hotsprings with a view of the snow-capped mountains surrounding the lake.
The next morning we made our way towards Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, but again the going was slow because the vistas we encountered along the way were utterly distracting, beginning with Lake Pukaki, which seemed even more vivid than Lake Tekapo, an intensity we hadn’ t seen since our visit to Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies.
Lake Pukaki is fed by waters from the glaciers of the southern Alps, which deposit the silt that suspends in the lake, turning it a stunning turquoise.
From the southern end of the lake there was a view to the north end, which was dominated by the rather formidable, glacier-clad, Mt. Cook. At over 12,000 feet Mt. Cook is the highest peak in New Zealand, rising to its full height from a plain that is only a few hundred meters above sea level.
Recent storm activity had been so intense that the dam and spillway at the southern end of Lake Pukaki were overflowing, and the beautiful turquoise water was pounding into a broad valley, creating a turquoise torrent, the Pukaki River, which plunged over falls and then disappeared around a bend, painting the landscape blue.
Despite the fact that this was the rainy season on the South Island, tourists had risked bad weather simply for the chance of catching a view of Mt. Cook and its sister mountains. The mountain gods were with us, providing what New Zealanders call “fine weather” with deep blue skies.
The trail up Hooker Valley took us past 10,300-foot Mt. Sefton.
Then it meandered up the Hooker River all the way to the terminus of the Hook glacier and others that fed into it. We crossed two long suspension bridges, under which the gray-white river thundered and boiled.
Staring down the valley, I shuddered to think of what it might be like to run a river raft or kayak down such a raging torrent.
After the second footbridge we were met with a full-on view of Mt. Cook, whose huge, commanding presence dominated the horizon. Massive glaciers covered the mountainsides and spilled from the feet of Mt. Cook. This was why we had come to New Zealand.
The trail was crowded – even after the going had become precarious, and sections of the trails had become stream beds channeling the run-off from the recent storms. I was especially impressed by the tenacity of a middle-aged Asian woman who attempted the rocky, mucky three-hour trek dressed like Tina Turner in a red satin jacket and high-heeled boots. I hadn’t realized that ankles could twist in so many directions before.
On our return trip to Christchurch, we realized how much of the South Island we would not be able to see on this trip, including Abel Tasman National Park in the north and Milford Sound in the south. Our sample had been small, but exquisite. New Zillund is a place to which we absolutely must return.