The boundless rain clouds that had wetted Blenheim yesterday evening were gone by morning, and the town was bathed in glorious yellow sunshine. We aimed our vehicle westward through the valley, surrounded by vines and gently sloping mountains. Sports mode was activated for the Mazda 6, initiating a sudden lightness to its bulk, and a new sensitivity to the accelerator that made the car infinity more fun to drive. The excessively winding roads, the fortuitous lack of cars, and the spectacular landscape made it thoroughly enjoyable.
After about an hour of driving, we spotted a sign for a lake and decided to take a quick look. We were met with a huge, crystal-clear body of water enclosed by sky-reaching mountains, and families of ducks gently quacking their way to and fro. If you were a duck, you’d probably want to live here. There were only about ten people with us in total; it was mostly silent and peaceful.
We reached the coastal community of Punakaiki after about four hours, the car quietly ticking in protest at the workout it had been put through. My imagination rarely does a good job of visualising how a place is going to look – it was less like a traditional, compact community and more like somebody had taken a bunch of buildings and placed them as far apart as possible while still being able to call them a collective. Punakaki is backed by looming limestone hills, which comprised the western edge of Paparoa National Park. The main attraction of Punakaiki is an assemblage of sea-jutting rocks that look like the biggest and most unappetising pancakes one could muster. At some points, they formed small coves which were filled by the Tasman sea, relentlessly swirling and smashing furiously against the edges. According to the educational signs, scientists still aren’t entirely sure how the pancake-like formations occurred.
We stayed in a tiny Amazon village-like “retreat” that night, which like Punakaiki itself, was a collection of buildings spread out across a short distance. Our night was to be spent in the “Te Nikau” house, a wooden structure that had four bedrooms and a large communal area downstairs. Ambling around the area with a stick in its mouth was an old brown labrador-looking dog, who had the most spectacular eyebrows and moustache I’d ever seen on a canine. He snuffled happily as he approached us and I gave his chin a pleasing scratch. Sat on the porch of the Te Nikau house was the most Kiwi person we’d met so far, and when we got up to our room we were unintentionally regaled with meticulous grand plans for the building, in rough but entertaining fashion.
When the Earth span to such a degree that the sun was no more, we realised how eerily quiet it was compared to city-living. If a cricket chirped, you heard every stridulating decibel; when the wind blew, you could hear the dog’s facial hair rustling. My tinnitus was more apparent than it had ever been while in Punakaiki.
Despite the quiet, we woke early after having slept well, and jumped back in the car for our next destination – Arthur’s Pass. After about an hour’s worth of driving, snow-capped mountains appeared in the distance, but were mostly obscured by the ill-timed rainclouds that surrounded them. They looked magnificent regardless. We entered the huge sloping valley of Arthur’s Pass, gigantic mountains closing in upon us.
We were headed for a hike trail called Bealey Spur, just past the township of Arthur’s Pass. Upon arriving, it became apparent that the rain wouldn’t relent. We trudged our way up the mountain regardless, reaching the top after two hours of sweating and cursing. It would have been a breathtaking walk had it not been for the expansive rainclouds; the best view was when returning to the starting point after four exhausting hours.
Soggy and tired, we checked into our accommodation in the township of Arthur’s Pass, the owner chuckling at our sodden appearance. The heater in our room got an equally tough workout over the next 20 hours, after which we packed up the car and made our way south, to the famous inland lakes.
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