New Zealand Trip – Part Three – Arthur’s Pass to Lake Wanaka

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The vengeful rain continued to fall as we snaked our way towards the exit of Arthur’s Pass. The mountain tops were shrouded in blotchy grey clouds, lending a mysterious Jurassic Park like aura to the landscape. Sadly, Jeff Goldblum’s mischievous grin was nowhere to be seen.

 

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Our next stop was Lake Tekapo, and it took us about four hours to get there, the wet weather following us for every kilometre. Glaciers within the headwaters of Tekapo grind down rock and create a fine dust, which when mixed with the lake’s water, colour it a magnificent turquoise blue. Unfortunately for us, the grim sky dampened the effect considerably, and we left the lake cursing the weather.

We continued onto our next stop for the night, a small sugary-treat-sounding town called Twizel, which was originally built in the late 60’s to house construction workers for a local hydroelectric project. Today, as with many south island New Zealand towns, its survival relies on tourism, and it seemed incredibly quiet. Shops and restaurants were concentrated in a small central area, with wide curved roads winding their way around everything. We were checked into our hostel by a man that looked like an offended bulldog, but thankfully didn’t act in accordance with his appearance. The hostel was cheap and crappy, and the heater rattled like an old man with bronchitis. Our room number was 707, which when turned upside down appropriately spelt LOL.

In the morning, we checked out and made our way towards the biggest mountain in the country – Mount Cook – passing Lake Pukaki on the way. Like Tekapo, Pukaki is a glacial-fed lake, and it shimmered lucent blue in the early morning sun. The mountains in the distance looked as though somebody had very carefully ran a white-coated paintbrush along the top of them.

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We drove north along its west bank, the mountains to our left gradually getting taller. Eventually the colossal, 3724-metre Mount Cook appeared, a snow-laden giant in the distance.

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Things of such immensity often imbue me with a quiet humbleness, such is their unfathomable size and extensive existence. Every petty, tiny worry that might once have dulled my soul is vanquished in the face of such wondrous natural greatness. All falls away except for the spectacle before my eyes. It’s truly awe-inspiring; one of the most pleasurable emotions to experience.

As we drove deeper into the mountains, the landscape became even more dramatic, with whitewashed mountains soaring high into the cloudless sky. Our destination was a walking track that ended close to the foot of Mount Cook, and as we pulled into the car park, it was clearly a popular attraction. The track led us through Hooker Valley, walled by mountains and criss-crossed by a turquoise blue river, which was overcome by a handful of suspension bridges that could only hold twenty people and bounced as you went across them. Nervous laughter floated through the air as we tentatively trod its wooden planks.

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The temperature dropped steadily the further we walked, and by the time we reached the end of the track our ears were like strawberry ice-poles. Mount Cook was towering over another beautiful glacial-blue lake, like an eternal watchman.

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This is without doubt the most amazing place I’ve ever visited. Trying to describe its magnificence is impossible, and the pictures are equally mediocre compared to the real thing. It has a stark and unerring majesty; an unapologetic perfection, without a shred of ostentation (unlike my writing).

We slowly made our way back to the car, dodging hoards of Chinese tourists who seemed to have the spatial awareness skills of Ray Charles after a hit of brown sugar. Wanaka was our next stop, a bustling alpine town that ran along a southern section of yet another beautiful New Zealand lake.

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New Zealand Trip – Part Two – Blenheim to Arthur’s Pass

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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