South Island New Zealand road trip, Christchurch, West Coast, Lake Hawea, Arrowtown, Wanaka

Picton ahead, a slow turn to starboard, then about to port as we ready to reverse into the berth. "All passengers with vehicles should make their way to the vehicle decks,  Picton arrival ready to disembark". The narrow companionways are soon choking with descending bodies all anxious to be off and on the road again. It had been a smooth crossing, and just as well for those of us who need to be on deck, as on the 'Kaitaki', claimed as the Interislander 'flagship', there is no deck seating at all. We find a seat atop a fibreglass lifebelt storage box as it is this, the very wet steel deck or standing. Poor in the extreme. Unfortunately, other crossing alternatives are few and mostly worse. The ferry is rusty everywhere too, not instilling confidence.

 

Our four legged pal passed the 3 hours safely esconced in the California, tucked up in her bed - treats and water on hand with 'Bark' (Bach) playing on the CD. On our return we couldn't miss her message, as her treats are only eaten when she is sure we are back for good. The only other option for 'Cook Strait' travelling pets is some ghastly looking steel cages, positioned in the middle of the car or train decks and subject to all the scary noises, chains banging, fans roaring, that could give a mild city girl heart failure.

 

Time to start our engine and roll down the ramp onto the Picton foreshore. The South Island of New Zealand is so different from the North, offering great vistas and majestic scenery. After just over a year, it's great to be back, on this visit touring the middle slice of the island where we haven't been since the mid 1980s. Picton, with its lovely  harbour makes a good start to kick off our South Island adventure. From here, the Marlborough Sounds, Blenheim wineries and quick direct SH1 access further south are all available. We spend our first night here, before running down the east coast to Christchurch. Our accommodation at the Aldan Lodge motel is perfect as we are in a larger than usual, modern, tile floored studio unit which has its well equipped kitchen conveniently tucked off to one side. Clean, plenty of towels and a great shower. Tammy is welcome and delighted to meet the owner's children. After dinner in and early to bed, day 2 dawns sunny and bright - perfect for our coastal drive. A pavement breakfast with Tammy at Le Cafe on London Quay where the morning sun gently moderates the dawn chill. We are southbound by 9:30 soon passing the Lake Grassmere saltworks, 10kms or so south of Blenheim - an interesting diversion, where salt is harvested from evaporating seawater, then about 20kms further on our first stop, Kekerengu Store, from where we are pleased to report that the original owner's son and daughter in law have

taken over the management, keeping up and improving on the high standard. It is an amazing setting, above the beach and looking out across the Pacific. Excellent coffee and 'made on site' morning tea choices.

As we continue south to Kaikoura we start to see the snowed peaks of the Kaikoura Range, an introduction to the majesty of the Southern Alps, further south. A straight run down to the Clarence river then the road acquires some hairpin, 25km/h bends, disappearing through a couple of short tunnels beneath coast hugging headlands. Suddenly we see brown shapes flopping lazily on the roadside grass and are amazed to identify several seals sunning themselves alongside the road. They didn't seem to have a care in the world, confirmed when a little further on we pull off the road to have a closer look. Along with several other watchers, we are not so close as to disturb them and they eye us casually. There is quite some disturbance in the bay water, close to shore which we are delighted to see is being made by tens of baby seals, flopping, diving and cavorting. Probably mother is up on the grass taking well earned time out!

Cheviot is a convenient mileage between Kaikoura and Christchurch for a break and we find the delightful Two Rivers Cafe, providing excellent coffee and homemade snacks. Revived again it is on to Christchurch, our first visit to New Zealand's second city in many years and certainly after the 2010/2011 earthquakes. Television takes you there in some ways but cannot prepare for the first hand experience which is disturbing and sad. A city besieged, abandoned houses, shored up buildings, vacant sites, undulating roads, broken footpaths, houses teetering on cliffs - the list goes on and on and this is only what can be quickly seen. The underground mess would be something else. We are staying at Sumner beach which takes us past St Andrews Hill, Redcliff and Clifton. Coming around the foreshore there are shipping containers stacked 2 high lining the cliff side, houses teetering high on the cliff behind which has obviously dropped away and the road, apart from a short causeway which has been repaired, rises and falls like a mini rollercoaster.

 

We are booked for 2 days in a studio at the Sumner beach motel which turns out to be modern, well appointed and Tammy friendly with a small, secure front courtyard. A very friendly greeting from Jane and introduction to the workings of our studio, then unpacking the California and pouring, we think, a well earned glass of red. Tammy says 'what about me' - checking the time it is past 5:30 so getting on towards her dinnertime, a time of day she never forgets. The next day we plan a look at central city although the weather is predicted to be off. The morning dawns threatening but not raining yet, so not too bad. Across the road we spy Joes Garage, the obvious place for breakfast and what a great choice. Bacon, eggs and french toast accompanied by a couple of freshly ground flavourful espressos.  As we set off for the city the rain starts - thick, dense flooding rain and later in the day this proves to be the case when we hear its effect on long suffering residents in some suburbs, sandbagging yet again or dealing with floodwater flowing through their houses.

After a very slow journey into the city we easily find a park in Cambridge Terrace, alongside the Avon. This beautiful part of the city has been reduced to a muddy silted stream, strewn about with construction detritus. A personal opinion is that the iconic Christchurch Anglican cathedral must be restored to its former grace, ready again to act as the anchor for all that is Christchurch. As we expect, the city CBD is not a place to linger - vacant lots, broken footpaths, closed walkways and roads. We had heard of The Tannery in Woolston, where Cassels & Sons Brewery may be a potential lunch venue. Soon on Ferry Road, negotiating the many fenced off work areas, we slowly make our way back east through steady rain with minor flooding evident everywhere. Cassels Brewery is a genuine oasis where we can sit in a covered area with Tammy and enjoy a delicious lunch, charmingly presented.   

Lunch over and with the rain lightening a little we make our way back to the California now parked in a shallow pond. Tomorrow's destination is Hokitika on the west coast via Arthur's Pass, so with this lengthy journey in mind we decide to take a second look in the central city. Ballantyne's department store, a very old Christchurch establishment which largely survived the earthquakes provided an hour or so of quality browsing along with some purchases. A little later, coffee and a bite to eat next door at Hummingbird coffee, cleverly set up in a popup shipping container shopping precint. Very innovative and eclectic. Ms Hummingbird said they had been there for 2 years or since the earthquakes - we wonder whether the location will inevitably become permanent? Despite Christchurch's many problems we find the locals we meet quite upbeat and determined to make progress. The city's future seems unpredictable but we hope for the best.

The last night in our comfortable Sumner beach studio and a restful sleep readies us for Arthurs Pass. The day dawns wet and chilly making loading up a fraught task. Finally done and over to Joes for a light breakfast and one of their great espressos. Sadly, Christchurch is made doubly miserable by the wet weather, so we are not sorry to be on the road west. It's a very slow trip out of the city with some roads so flooded they are closed, diverting lots of construction traffic onto the few roads left. Eventually we leave the city behind passing through Kirwee then Darfield, where we take a break at Wild Things cafe enjoying a full bodied espresso and freshly baked cheese scone.

The road remains flat and fairly straight until the run up to the Torlesse Range foothills, then on through Castle Hill, Cass, Bealey and Arthur's Pass, near Mt Rolleston (2275m).

 

With quite a few photo stops on the way we reach Arthurs Pass Wobbly Kea Cafe in nice time for a late lunch. A bit unlikely looking from the front but once inside, snug and inviting. Very agreeable lunch choices on offer presented by a politely quiet, American accented, mountain man. The Wobbly Kea had it's start in life as a lodge and shop established in the 1920s by the Coberger family. In more recent times Oscar Coberger's grand-daughter, Annelise won silver at the 1992 winter Olympics.

There is not much at Arthurs Pass, except some very photogenic alpine huts which catch my photographer's eye. A little further on we reach the Otira Gorge.  Known as the 'zigzag', this was once a notorious and tortuous downward stretch of road, plagued by rockfall and dangerous undermining. Replaced by a magnificent viaduct in 1999,  this is now roadway engineering at its best with the line and sinuous nature of the bridge adding to the landscape rather than detracting from it, quite a feat in this pristine environment.  

 

Leaving Arthur's Pass and the Alps behind we descend towards the coast, turning south at Kumara Junction. On the northern side and very close to Hokitika our 2 night accommodation at Shining Star beachfront, log cabin style chalets, proves to be perfect and just what is advertised - beachfront, right on Hokitika beach. Our unit, or apartment as it is termed, is spacious with separate bedroom, large bathroom and kitchen/living opening out to a beachfront deck. A powerful and necessary heatpump completes the picture. A guest laundry equipped with commercial Maytag, pay per wash, washers and dryers is nearby. For $3 we get a large quantity of clothing washed and dried. A comfortable night in, a sound sleep in the best bed so far and we are ready for our full west coast day. 'Photographers' light' on the beach this morning - these golden moments are brief but beautiful. After breakfast Tammy takes us for a walk along the wild, driftwood strewn beach. It is hard to imagine the high Tasman surf usually pounding this coast as today is mild and quiet. The enormous piles of driftwood tell the real story though. There is plenty to interest everbody on this west coast beach - we are even told that washed up pieces of pounamu (greenstone) can sometimes be found. We aren't so lucky.

 

Monteiths Brewery in Greymouth is No1 on our list for today and they have a brewery tour at 10:30. Now owned by DB, Monteiths West Coast establishment looks set for a good future, even though the only beer brewed on site are small run boutique ales. Monteiths main lines are brewed at DB HQ in Auckland. Monteith ciders are made in Nelson. The first tour of the day is well attended and led by a charming, very inclusive young lady who certainly knows her beer. At the tour end we get to pull our own pint and enjoy tasting the beer of our choice. A casual restaurant is attached to the brewery and as midday is approaching lunch is an appealing idea. The menu offers various options including platters, so we can mix and match a bit, ending up with a delicious collection of tasty items. A glass of pinot adds to the enjoyment. To top everything there is an enclosed outside area where Tammy can safely roam - what could be better. Over lunch we mull the rest of the day deciding that Lake Brunner is a must, about 40kms northeast from Greymouth. After thanking our tour guide for the great Monteith's experience we are on the road slightly north on SH6 before turning east onto 7 towards Reefton. Not that we are going this far - only to Stillwater - then a right turn onto the Arnold Valley road to Moana on the shores of Lake Brunner. Just before the turn at Stillwater we come upon Brunner (previously Brunnerton) itself where the Brunner coalmine, amongst others, was situated along the the Grey River banks. In 1896 an explosion deep underground killed all 65 working miners. Today all that remains are the remnants of the old 'beehive' coke ovens, a chimney from the sister, Tyneside mine on the opposite bank and the Brunner suspension bridge, originally created in 1887 and now beautifully restored. A very worthy stop - allow about an hour to take it all in and, depending on time of the year, be well wrapped up, as the site is in the cold shadow of the steep northern Grey River bank. The Brunner mine site can be accessed either from SH7 or off the Taylorville-Blackball road on the northern side of the Grey. Blackball - 'the historic town of...' - now here's something; all that awaits is the Blackball Hilton, no longer part of the Hilton group!! Enough said, now onto Lake Brunner.

 

The Arnold Valley road offers no challenges and runs alongside the Trans Alpine rail line bringing us to the small village of Moana, on the shores of Lake Brunner, after about 30 minutes. A very beautiful and scenic spot which should be well up on your visiting list when in the area. The perfect afternoon weather soon sees us parked within a few metres of the shore, with the California in espresso mode. Not too many places in the world where you can do this without booking your spot and paying money. Then as I am pouring the coffee a local angler strolls by carrying a large, just caught, brown trout. It's like a picture postcard in every way. Time to retrace our steps back to Hokitika where we are in perfect time to catch a west coast sunset.  With a reputation for appearing to set the sky on fire, tonight's is a more moderate affair.

The sunset slowly fades to night and the beach chills rapidly. Looking down I can see Tammy huddling behind a large piece of driftwood, shivering and looking decidedly badly done by.  As it has gone way past her dinnertime,  it's nothing a plate of roast chicken and brown rice won't fix.

Lulled to sleep by the sea noises we awake to a still fine but gradually greying day, exactly as forecast. We  continue south today, first spending an hour or two in Hokitika visiting the Hokitika Glass Studio in Weld Street.  Located in an old bank building, there's plenty of colourful pieces to admire, along with a glassblower demonstrating his skills.

Then around the corner to Stella coffee, recommended by the glass studio staff, for a very good coffee and an enormous cheese scone. On the way out of town we take time to investigate the old Customs House built in 1897 and the Andrew Carnegie Free Library which opened in 1908, one of many made possible by large donations from the Carnegie Foundation. Thankfully saved from demolition, now this historic building houses a museum.

 

About 20kms south, Lake Mahinapua, named a reserve in 1907, is enclosed in conservation native forest, completely sheltered and glass still, making for rewarding photography. Seaward dune development has changed a once coastal lagoon into this shallow lake.

A little further on the Whataroa river provides the perfect 'California' lunch spot and we happily prepare ciabatta chicken sandwiches accompanied by Beajolais, followed  with freshly brewed espresso. Quiet, peaceful and serene until near the end of our sojourn Tammy completely disappears from our watchful eye - as only a dachshund can do. (They are masters of the vanishing act. One minute there - nek minnit! Whistling, calling, shaking the treats tin - nothing works as they are on an adventure, following a trail and have totally forgotten where they came from. Eventually they stop, look up, discover they're lost, panic and hurriedly retrace their steps). This is exactly what happens, when  a very fraught 20 minutes later her head suddenly appears around the back of a boulder above us, where we have looked twice already.  Our relief is enormous.

Not far now to our stop for the night at Franz Josef. This truly is an area of great scenic beauty everywhere you look - soaring, snow capped mountains, rushing, boulder strewn rivers and pristine forest. We roll into Franz Josef village around 4pm and easily find the 10 Cottages which is part of a local motel where we are booked for the night.  Quietly positioned in a no exit street the cottages are well designed individual, freestanding studios. Fairly new, with nice bathrooms and a small kitchen area where you wouldn't want to cook a 3 course dinner but adequate for preparing a piece of toast and cup of tea.

The light is fading, but it's clear now and with murky conditons predicted for tomorrow, driving up to the glacier seems the wise thing to do. 10kms or so gets us to the glacier carpark from where a walk choice is to be made. With darkness falling we choose the Sentinel Rock walk which is a 15 minute steepish climb to a lookout point from where the glacier face can be seen. The glacier has receded so much, the view is distant now, but worthwhile, especially with the breathtaking surrounding alpine scenery.  There are several storyboards explaining how to read the glacial pathway, also the legend of the glacier. Our pal is very pleased to see us when we get back to the California and even if she had been welcome in the park she would not have enjoyed the chill. On the way back to our cottage we stop at the historic, arts and crafts design St James Anglican church dating from 1931. The views from here are quite something especially with the setting sun lowering over the Tasman - looking inland across the Waiho River bridge against the lofty mountainous backdrop and looking west down the Waiho river delta to the sea.

The Landing is our wise choice for dinner and again for breakfast.  We do not expect gourmet fare yet the unpretentious choices, prepared to a high standard, suit us well. We breakfast early ahead of a lengthy drive ending at Lake Hawea with several stops on the way, the most noteable being Fox Glacier only 25kms south. A piece of vital road information is (luckily) only gained from casual conversation with the motel reception - the Haast Pass road is closed each night at 5pm. If caught on the western side that is where you spend the night. We have plenty of time to make the deadline but wondered where this information gem would become apparent?

 

Fox is more accessible than Franz Josef now especially as Franz Josef has greatly receded. The Fox river emanates from the glacier base and carries large lumps of glacial ice with it. There is easy river access where touching one of these large, very cold blocks of natural ice makes a connection with the primeval force of the glacier. Nearby is the very small Lake Matheson which was formed by the retreating glacier some millions of years ago. On a still day, clear reflections of Mt Cook and the Southern Alps can be seen, but on the day we are here heavy cloud obscures the mountains. A very pretty lake all the same, with several short and medium length forest walks available from the carpark. At the walks end, or before if needs be, the Matheson Cafe is really excellent.

We remember Bruce Bay from our 1980s visit, recalling the amazing smooth white quartz river boulders strewn all over the beach. What a sight they made. Very different now. The odd few dotted round about - a lot up on the roadside with indelible messages written on them and some heaped into various shaped cairns, which leaves a vast number disappeared completely? Further on for the first time we see an electronic sign warning of the later Haast road closure - we are on target and should make it by about 4pm.

Lakes Paringa and Moeraki are certainly worth a stop on a clear day, but today they are dull and lifeless. We turn east at the Haast river with the road hugging the river until it turns south through the Aspiring National Park. Near the top of the pass several rock falls are being worked on with major heavy equipment lining the roadside. We are signalled to stop and with an apology, advised that the current dozer movements could take up to an hour. We switch off and relax. As it turns out, in half an hour we are signalled to proceed with caution.

 

Out of the mountains on the Makarora / Hawea road we arrive at Lake Hawea's Bellbird cottage as night falls. Apologising for being late, we explain the Haast delay, as the owners have been waiting for us and have the logfire lit which is very welcoming. Bellbird is like being at home, everything is convenient and plentiful. Marge had provided plenty of edible supplies as well - fresh eggs, fruit, cereal for breakfast and so on. Tammy thinks things are pretty good too as there is a resident terrier to befriend. After the long drive an early night and good sleep in Bellbird's brand new bed nicely revive us. We look forward to our 3 nights here as there is lots to explore in the area.

Today we are going, first to Wanaka, about 10kms away and further south to lunch at The Shed Northburn Station on the shores of Lake Dunstan which is really a reservoir formed as a result of the Clyde dam construction on the Clutha river in the early 1990s.

Much has changed since our last visit to Wanaka in the mid 1980s. We do, however, remember the dinosaur slide which lives in the lakeside park. The lake itself is very picturesque and the town is everything a small, modern tourist town should be. We need the repair services of an optometrist, which we quickly discover, following this up with an excellent coffee at Relish Cafe.

 

Northburn Station is on the eastern side of Lake Dunstan at the Cromwell end situated in Northburn Station road. We call them first to see if Tammy can come for lunch too and receive the delightful response, "of course she can, we look forward to seeing you soon". Northburn is easy to find and on this perfect day the drive down Lake Dunstan is very pleasant, but the lake does have a slightly unnatural stiff look to it even after all these years. On our 1980s visit it didn't exist.

The Shed at Northburn is the perfect choice. When we arrive we notice a table and 2 chairs with cushions positioned superbly by a small pond.   To our delight, the charming young lady who welcomes us says, "I put you over there by the water so Tammy could be on the grass, but if you want to be closer to the cafe that is no problem either". Tammy and us think by the pond is complete perfection and we couldn't be happier. Sitting in the gentle warmth of the winter sun, sharing a delicious platter and a glass of Northburn Pinot, a couple of hours goes by quickly and we are nearly the last to leave.  Be sure to visit if you are in the area - you'll love it.

Cromwell is nearby and we want to see how it looks 25 years on. Unfortunately to the visitor the 'new' Cromwell seems lacklustre, especially as we remember what was lost with the drowning of the Lowburn orchards and the creation of Lake Dunstan. While it's  good to see a little of 'old' Cromwell preserved with a few buildings reestablished as a tourist area on the lake shore, it's hard for this to avoid feeling somewhat contrived.  Here is an image taken by the author during a visit in 1986 showing the famous 'Cromwell Junction'. Makes you think about what has been lost.

 

About turn and back to Lake Hawea where Marge has a beautiful log fire warming the cottage. Another 'quiet night in'.

We weren't thinking of visiting Arrowtown on this visit considering it to be too far away, but Marge puts us right, directing us to the Crown Range road through Cardrona. This makes the journey only an hour and a half instead of 2 and a half hours. The only slow section is descending into Arrowtown where there are quite a few 20kmh hairpins. But, it's 'wow' looking down into the valley at this time of the year as the autumn colour on the hillside is amazing. I am sure the hillside must be an organised planting but Marge later tells us the hillside is populated with self sown 'weeds'. Although the definition of a weed is just a plant in the wrong place, these sure are some weeds!

We can't fail to recognise the historic 1860s Cardrona Hotel and just before, on the left, is the fence of a 'million' bras - I must have a picture, so here it is! The hotel building is one of the most well known in New Zealand having been featured in numerous southern themed advertisements. There is a great little period coffee spot come restaurant in behind the facade, but it's quite busy today and with only 1 very willing barista in charge we decide the time would be better spent in Arrowtown.

 

Arrowtown has quite a lot for the visitor and being close to Queenstown and a weekend, is very busy with parking wardens in clear evidence. The 'new-old' Buckingham street section of Arrowtown is rather touristy but there are some original buildings with interesting retailers and we find a great lunch with French wine at Bonjour. The retail strip stops at Wiltshire with Buckingham continuing on until Bedford. This half of Buckingham has many heritage houses, some more newly built, but in keeping with the overall tone.

Even though Queenstown is quite close we don't plan on a visit this year, saving it to include in our 2015 bottom third South Is visit. Tonight is our last at Bellbird and we will be very sorry to be moving on as it has been a comfortable and restoring stay. We can hear the rain on the roof overnight and the morning dawns wet and grey. Marge says it should clear later which we hope for, as our destination for the next 2 nights is Lake Tekapo where Mt Cook is the main attraction. If our luck is in it will be in clear view. Getting the cottage tidied up and the California loaded is not so easy in the rain, so it is 9:30 before we are saying goodbye to Marge.

 

We have to revisit Wanaka to collect the repaired glasses then we are on our way to Lindis Pass on SH8. The Lindis is not as elevated as Arthurs or Haast at a mere 1323m, only showing a little snow on the summits at this stage. Mid winter it will be snowed in. Today it is mist shrouded and miserable, however coming through to the eastern side the sky starts to clear and we can see that Marge's weather prediction is coming true. We are looking for a lunch stop by the time Omarama comes by, yet as we pass through the small town nothing says 'pick me'. Out the other end and there standing proud on the right is the Wrinkly Ram. Judging from the carpark all of today's travellers feel like us, so it's the old adage - the busy is usually the best! And it is.  A simple toasted sandwich, 2, 8/10 long blacks, a 10 minute Tammy walk and we are back on the road again. Onto the Omarama / Twizel  road and we are starting to appreciate the rapidly clearing day, putting a Lake Ohau side trip up to number 1 on the near agenda. Lake Ohau is the westernmost and smallest of 3 parallel glacial lakes - Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo. The scenic beauty of this part of New Zealand is really overwhelming - words like majestic, grand, stunning come to mind but cannot adequately describe what we are seeing. It has to be seen firsthand. It's a 40km run from SH8 to and from Lake Ohau but well worth the time,  with a bonus being this very photogenic, Southern lands stone cottage hidden away by the intersection with the main road.

Twizel developed as a service town for local hydro development projects. Originally intended to be portable and dismantled when these projects completed in the late 1980s, Twizel has instead prospered in its own right providing accommodation and services for summer and winter tourists. I can't say there is too much at Twizel that would grab your attention yet we do find the most wonderful hardware / general store, Jakes, carrying all sorts of hard to get tools and household items. We find a few useful things.

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