South Island NZ road trip 3 - Southland and back, 5364 kms. September 2017 image library
At the start of an adventure, loading up the California is always a treat. This time it’s for a long awaited journey far south, to include Dunedin,which we have not visited for 31 years. A friend said we would probably not notice much difference. We shall see.
Our four legged pal Tammy is of course travelling with us and her extensive kit has to be checked to ensure all is onboard. On a previous trip I made the mistake of leaving all her carefully prepared breakfasts neatly stacked in the fridge at home. Not this time!
Mid-morning, we are finally ready to pull out with a full load of diesel, fresh water and provisions for our 3 weeks travel. 3 and a half tonnes all up. We have 4 nights planned on our way to the Wellington ferry – 2 firstly at our favourite Taupo stop – Christina and Steve’s Country Lodge at Kinloch. Their superb private 2 bed cottage has a clear, long view out over the lake. Then it’s 2 nights in Greytown, where we have a booking at ‘Country Bliss’.
An unremarkable run south starts westerly on SH 16, then south through the new Waterview tunnel, which is certainly easing Auckland’s Southern motorway traffic hell.
A general observation about New Zealand roads – they are not great, especially in more remote areas. The result of enormous freight traffic usage - SH 1 is uneven and heavily patched, conditions that are hard on the driver and tough on vehicles. Suspension and tyres take a beating, with the need to be aware, on some secondary roads, of axle breaking potholes.
Country Lodge is as good as ever, but Taupo weather is overcast and clouded in. There’s no view of Ruapehu over the lake this time, while a bitter wind blowing makes the lake front walk we set out on, a marginal experience. Tammy, even though in her thick tartan coat, is not impressed and we are soon back in the California and home to Kinloch. The little cottage is quickly warmed with the generous heating provided and we are inwardly warmed with an equally generous glass of pinot. Tammy growls and lets out a single bark which is her way of saying ‘what about me’. Her usual dinnertime is near so she is soon tucking into her favourite roast chicken and brown rice.
Continuing our journey driving the Desert Road, Ruapehu is completely shrouded, with miserable cold rain falling. A reviving coffee at the Brown Sugar in Taihape lifts our spirits for our arrival shortly at Country Bliss in Greytown, our stop for the next 2 nights. It is ‘bliss’ - a thoroughly charming little cottage, newly renovated and fitted with every convenience. Even the log fire is set ready to light. Lunch on our free day is at Poppies of Martinborough where we can sit outside in their stylish courtyard with Tammy. A little chilly but nothing possum-merino jumpers can’t handle.
After two night’s good quiet sleep, we head for Wellington and the 2pm Picton 'Aratere' Interislander ferry. We are not looking forward to this as we need to leave Tammy in the California for the 3 hour crossing. She has done it before and is fine but we are always glad when it is over. The Rimutaka traverse is slow and twisty as usual but as always, scenic and a drive worth doing if you have the time. During winter months, however, snow and ice can be a serious hazard.
We arrive on time for the Interislander with the weather not looking so good for the crossing with a 2 -3 metre swell forcast. Tammy is set up with plenty of water and treats with Bark CD (Bach) softly playing. She probably won’t eat her treats until we return, but we know she is safe and warm so we ascend to deck 4 without too much worry. The wind picks up outside the Wellington Heads but the swell does not seem as obvious as we had expected. I am hoping for a good clear cruise through the Sounds but as it turns out the weather is very closed in, providing a long dreary run to Picton. Back in the California, Tammy gobbles up her treats, then it’s down the loading ramp and onto South Island soil. What a great feeling. First things first, it’s a comfort walk for Tammy before heading to tonight’s accommodation at a local motel, Aldan Lodge which welcomes Tammy and has a very convenient ground floor unit where we have stayed comfortably before. Their Labrador, 'Aldan' greets us enthusiastically.
South Island day 1 dawns a little brighter so we enjoy a quiet leisurely breakfast at Le Café on the Picton waterfront. Good coffee and great crispy bacon with our toast. A quick stop for diesel before we head south for Blenheim before turning west towards Nelson. We are soon turning left at Woodbourne on 63 thinking of a lunch stop at St Arnaud. The Kaikoura earthquake has made middle and lower South Island access very difficult with the only way south through the Lewis Pass. This was never an easy road and although scenic, now with all south/north traffic routed here it takes about 6 to 7 hours between Picton and points past Hanmer. Roadworks are every few kilometres where wider shoulders are being added to make the road a little less dangerous with the heavy truck traffic. The works are generally single lane with stop-go controls.
This was clearly illustrated the day before we came through when two heavy vehicles sideswiped each other at Maruia, putting one down the bank and closing the road for several hours. We have to pay tribute to the road workers who are braving bad weather and dangerous conditions yet remain cheerful with a smile for each driver.
Single lane road works every few kilometres make for very slow running. We make St Arnaud for a late lunch which we enjoy at Clinker, a new café just off the main road. It’s very good and a welcome respite from sharing the road with heavy trucks and stop-go driving. We join 6 at St Arnaud and then 65 at Ariki, remembering the Beechwood Café at Murchison where we were unwelcome with Tammy in 2014. No return visit there!
SH 65 intersects with 7 at Springs Junction with the Lewis Pass soon after at Maruia Springs. The going is very slow now with the continuing number of big trucks and road gang stoppages. The cone industry must be doing very nicely.
Our next 2 nights are at little Kahui farm cottage, a short drive out of Rotherham. Ian, who owns and runs the small Rotherham farm where his homestead and the cottage are located, is very welcoming and as it is just on dark and quite cool as we arrive, had switched on the heating and electric blankets. Lots of rain on the roof during the night with us cosy in the best bed we had slept in since home. Though still raining lightly at dawn with a grey leaden sky, we are not too concerned as we are thinking of a half day in Hanmer Springs, about ½ an hour away, with a morning coffee at the Power House Café.
Today, though, it takes much more than half an hour as work is being done high up on the cliff face above the Hanmer road. Abseilers, dangling on ropes, are stripping loose rocks out of the cliff face which, if left, could crash down on cars using the road. Skilled and dangerous work, especially as it is now pouring rain and we don’t mind being held up for 20 minutes or so whilst the single lane traffic comes through alternating to our turn. Hanmer, although wet today, is a very neat alpine village with a few good shops selling quality alpine gear and clothing. We buy some well-priced gloves and socks.
The Powerhouse Café building, where we go for morning coffee and return for lunch, is an old Transpower transformer house, in solid concrete with metal frame windows. It’s busy and buzzy, serving excellent coffee with many homemade food treats on offer. After a good walk about town we return soon after 12 for lunch It’s even better than morning as we include a glass of pinot!
Of course, Hanmer is historically known for the Queen Mary Hospital which has sprawling early 20th century buildings on spacious grounds. Happily it appears well preserved, although there does not seem to be any long term occupation. Last time we were here in 2014 we walked through the grounds noticing some minor usage and signage which indicated a call for economic ideas for the future. It is a heritage site so thankfully, the buildings cannot be demolished. The gardens are lovely, with old roses and a magnificent group of mature chestnut trees. We caught these in the Autumn last time, when they were clothed in gold.
The next morning leaving Rotherham, is drizzly and cold with loading the California a rather wet experience. Water is lying around the local fields as the whole area is flat cropping or grazing land rising to foothills in the west. It’s South on 7 then joining SH1 at Waipara, where we stop for a coffee at the grand ‘Churchy’ looking Waipara Hills Winery. The coffee is great and charmingly served. Our route decision today proves to be a mistake as we follow SH1 south through Amberley, Rangiora, Woodend, Kaiapoi, Belfast and then the outskirts of Christchurch. Congested and slow.We look forward to taking the Inland Scenic route through Mt Somers, Windwhistle and Oxford on our return journey in a few weeks’ time.
We are soon south of Christchurch and enjoying lunch at Speights Alehouse in Ashburton. Back in the California, we turn onto 79 towards Geraldine, passing Lake Tekapo having joined 8 at Fairlie. For old time’s sake, we drive Lake Tekapo’s foreshore, passing the McKenzie Country Border Collie who tamed the McKenzie for grazing many decades ago and the Church of The Good Shepherd, packed as usual with tourists. Breezy spring conditions cause the lake surfaces to ruffle, rather spoiling the rich turquoise blue of adjacent Lake Pukaki, but there is plenty of snow on the peaks behind.
Page /2wheel drive this track looks incredibly dangerous.