New Zealand: Lake Taupo to Auckland

The day length is noticeably longer up here. Lake Taupo was being buffeted by strong winds as we left and the ducks looked very ruffled, not knowing to risk swimming on the water.

Making a note to return in a different season, we got back onto Highway 1 just north of the town. There are plenty of adrenalin activities to do around here but I would be happy just to do some walking on the trails. The road passes through the large Kinleith Forest before descending into farmland.

North of Hamilton, farmland merges into coal mining country and Huntly is the centre. There are both underground and opencast mines here. Happily, we found a diversion around Lake Waikare. It is struggling with algal bloom and pollution from the surrounding farms. There is a big clean-up operation underway in the Waikare River which runs alongside the road. It was just as windy as Lake Taupo.

Very few birds were attempting to fly today but we did spot a few wild turkeys foraging by the side of the road. Nearer to Auckland the expressway becomes a motorway. With roadworks and road improvement schemes we felt quite at home. We dropped the hire car off and dragged our cases the three blocks or so to our hotel. We are now joining part of the British Lions tour so that James can enjoy some rugby. It does leave us with quite a lot of free time however so tomorrow we will sample some of the delights of Auckland. While we were checking in, the screens in reception were reporting serious disruptions with road closures and ferry crossings due to snow in the South Island. At least we have escaped that.

New Zealand: Wellington to Lake Taupo

We spent most of the morning on Highway 1 dodging heavy showers and getting used to the new rental car. The road runs by the coast for the first few miles before continuing inland. We had a brief stop on the windblown beach at Pukera Bay with Kapiti Island in the distance.

Foxton was our coffee stop and as this area is not very densely populated, reminded us of many places on the South Island. We were the only customers in the cafe at the time. Foxton was a New Zealand flax-stripping centre, has a Dutch windmill in the town centre and a beach. As we drove on, listening to music on the iPod, The Stranglers’ ‘Something better change’ came on and seemed very apposite given the political situation back home in the UK.

Sanson sits at a road junction and that is all it seems on the map, so finding The Ministry of Books was serendipitous. This very large shop is well-organised, has a huge selection on all aspects of New Zealand and many other subjects as well as some antiquarian volumes.

By the time we emerged with a couple of purchases it was raining very heavily. The next big road junction was at a town called Bulls. In addition to a large black bull sculpture, a notice welcomed visitors saying it is ‘a town like no udder’. The next town on our route was Waioru which described itself as an ‘oasis in the Rangipo Desert’ at 792m altitude. It is a garrison town and entry to much of the countryside on the road through the desert is restricted as it is an army training ground. We had our lunch at the rain-soaked summit which is at 1074m and noticed several military police vehicles, a fire engine and ambulance passing us on the road, red lights flashing. A rainbow appeared in the sky

but the torrential rain continued and only a mile or so down the road we had to sit and wait for more than an hour until the accident was cleared. We then descended down to the lake and alongside it into Taupo and our hotel but all we could see was the rain.

New Zealand: crossing the Cook Strait

Just after sunrise and while the moon was still high in the sky, we were driving out of Nelson.

Highway 6 runs through the mountains and over a couple of passes before descending into the Rai Valley. We had breakfast there. Further on, the road crosses the Pelorus Bridge and can be closed when the river is in flood. At Havelock, there are two options to get to Picton where the ferry departs from. You can stay on Highway 6 and get there via Blenheim or take the windy and scenic route. We chose the latter and were only a little way along it when we came to a look–out with views back up the valley and over the Marlborough Sounds.

Eventually this road descends to the shores of Queen Charlotte Sound and we arrived in Picton. We had a little time to kill before the ferry so coffee, a look in Down Under Books, the local second-hand bookstore which has a good selection of books on New Zealand as well as all the usual sections. Before heading over to the ferry terminal we had a short walk around the marina to Shelley Beach. There are other trails around here for walking and cycling.

Our mileage so far on the South Island has been 1604 miles. We dropped off the rental car as they charge you £500 to take one over to the North Island. We had arranged to pick another up in Wellington the following day. The ferry was not too busy at all and you can check in your cases so that you don’t have to lug them around on board.

The crossing was smooth and the sun went down before we docked in Wellington.

After getting my fix of mountains and forests it was quite strange to be back in the city with concrete flyovers, skyscrapers and rush hour traffic. We took an electric taxi to our hotel and had dinner at a nearby Belgian pub. We finally had some venison for the first time here after seeing so many red deer being farmed on the south island and were served by a guy from Leeds. We have met so many young people from the UK and Europe who are working here. Most of the antipodean youth seem to head for London.

New Zealand: Fox Glacier to Nelson

After scraping the ice from the windscreen we were on our way. None of the cafes in Fox Glacier Village were open early for breakfast on a winter Sunday morning so we had to wait for that until we got to Franz Josef Glacier. Dense mist and low sun made progress a little slow as did meeting a large herd of cattle who were being moved a couple of miles along the road near Whataroa. A little further on we found a lovely spot on the shores of Lake Ianthe. You can camp here and a couple of campervans were there.

Ross is a former gold prospecting town where the largest nugget in New Zealand was found in 1907. Nowhere was open for coffee so we pressed on the Hokitita. Caffeine levels topped up we had a little look around town. It has something I have never seen before: a sock shop and museum. They do sell a few other woollen (merino and possum) items e.g. sweaters but it is mostly socks and wool. They have a large display of old machinery, domestic and commercial used for sock-knitting. There is also a large jade factory and shop. You can go in and see the stones being ground and decorated and there is a large shop selling jewellery and other items.

Heading north out of Hokitita we were driving alongside the railway and the coast. Many of the old wooden bridges sit alongside the new concrete ones. Just north of Kumara junction Highway 6 still uses the old single-lane metal bridge but a new one is under construction. We drove through a place called Shantytown which had a motel but did not look at all an inspiring place to stay. At Greymouth we drove inland on Highway 7 up the Grey River Valley crossing its various tributaries and then on another road to rejoin Highway 6.

New Zealand: Queenstown to Fox Glacier

Today we continued on Highway 6 out of Queenstown and through the Karawau Gorge on the modern concrete bridge. The 1880 old bridge nearby became the world’s first commercial bungee jumping venture. You can still do this here if it is your thing. The road passes wineries and orchards. There is even a place called Bannockburn which is quite unlike the Bannockburn I know. When I was at school we could always remember the date of the Battle of Bannockburn as the local pub is called the 1314 Inn. We could have taken a more direct minor road over a 1000m pass to our morning coffee stop at Wanaka but in winter this is likely to be very icy or snowy as it goes past a ski area. Wanaka is a smaller, quieter and laid-back place than Queenstown and might be worth considering for any future trip in the region. It has a very pleasant overlook onto Boys Bay.

Further north, the road passes alongside Lake Hawes

over a small neck of land and then back alongside Lake Wanaka.

There was hardly anyone else on the road. Near Makarova we could see all the mountains around us.

The Haast Pass is a bit of a non-event. It is 564m but as it is in the middle of rainforest, there are no views. The early Maori had been using this route for a long time before the first Europeans appeared. It is named after a German Geologist, Julius von Haast but others suggest that Scottish Prospector Charles Cameron may have crossed it before him. The road was not opened to vehicles until 1965. Highway 6 follows the Haast River right down to the beach. Various creeks are crossed on the way but the one with the best name was Crikey Creek. I could hear the Tasman Sea waves before I could see them but we had a walk on the beach after filling up with fuel.

Mountains back onto the beach.

Back on the highway we were soon at Bruce Bay where notices warn drivers about debris being blown onto the road in high seas.

Our destination was the Fox Glacier. The Franz Josef Glacier a little further north is bigger but busier. Even at the Fox, you are advised to walk up the path before 8am or after 6pm in summer. There are numerous companies who will sell you guided walks on the glacier or helicopter rides but we chose the low key drive to the last carpark on the access road and then the walk up to it. The access road marks the face of the glacier in 1915 and 1935. It had even retreated and continues to do so since 2008. We made the 20 minute walk up to the viewing area a power walk as we had been sitting in the car rather a lot.

Afterwards we settled into our motel in the village and are preparing for the longer drive tomorrow.

New Zealand: the road to Queenstown

Another early start on a cold frosty morning to drive back down Highway 94 and then over to Queenstown. Milford Sound is a good place for dark skies as there is very little light pollution. Although I have been in the southern hemisphere numerous times, I always find the stars in the southern sky a little disorientating. The car thermometer read zero for most of the icy road down to Te Anau where we were accompanied by misty mountains and frosty leaves.

We had to drive carefully in order not to end up in in a ditch like one vehicle we passed with emergency services in attendance. We had stopped at one layby to look at the view and noticed two Kea on another car. They appeared to be trying to eat the rubber seals. I told the two women in the car that our squirrels chew the lead flashing on the roof for no obvious reason. I was quite pleased to get a shot of them as we had seen several Kea but they had all disappeared very quickly. I am still trying to identify all the raptors we have seen feeding on road kill.

At Te Anau we stopped for a coffee and then turned towards Queenstown. The sun had at last come out and the thermometer started to rise a little.

Our picnic lunch was eaten by Lake Wakatipu and then we endured the major roadworks around the construction of a new bridge into Queenstown. It was quite strange to be back among the crowds on a Friday afternoon in this busy town. It is a major base for winter sports and there were a lot of young people around. There are numerous outdoor retailers and obviously some wealth around as there is also a Louis Vuitton store. Needless to say we did not need to do any shopping but chose a walk around the garden peninsula instead. There we discovered a new sport. We had spotted a few people throwing frisbees and coming across one in the undergrowth, had assumed it was lost. We shouted over to the nearest family who told us to leave it which was a bit mystifying. We saw a few more lying on the ground, seemingly abandoned further on, but it was not until we left the park that I saw a notice saying that Disc Golf had been played there since the 1990s.

Some people thought it was warm enough to sit on the beach but it was not warm enough for me.

Fortunately our hotel is out of town a bit and fairly quiet for relaxing in before tomorrow’s journey.

Invercargill to Milford Sound

The guide book describes Invercargill as ‘flat and featureless’. It is flat and only has a few 19th century buildings but is a good stopping off point on the Southern Scenic Route as it has all the services for re-supplying if you are heading to more rural parts. It was raining as we left and I wondered if there would any views on the road at all and whether it would be raining at Milford Sound. It has the reputation for getting more rain per annum than the Amazon rainforest on more than 200 days every year. We did get a brief lull in the downpour on the windy Gemstone Beach near Orepuki.

Further on after the road had headed inland, we had a coffee in Tuatapere. It has a population of 555 just a few more than Smallwood and is mainly a logging and farming town. There was a sign by the road announcing that it was the sausage capital of New Zealand. The waitress in the café enlightened us and said that a local butcher had won a national award. At Clifden is New Zealand’s longest wooden suspension bridge over the Waiau River built in 1899. It is still used by pedestrians but the road uses a modern concrete bridge.

Near Blackmount, the Takitimu Mountains appeared on our right-hand side. Just outside Manapouri is the world’s first hydroelectric power station on the Waiau River. It was built to power and aluminium smelter in Invercargill.

The rain had now disappeared and in Manapouri we had a short walk on Fraser Beach.

At Te Anua we had our lunch by the harbour. Mount Titiroa (1710m) is just visible from the shore and looks as if it has snow on but it is granite shining in the sun. There were trees including South Island Kowhai by the waterside. It was then time to take Highway 94 to Milford Sound. We first passed Walker Creek and then the road follows the Eglinton River and Valley which is obviously glacial.

At Mirror Lakes, you can see the reflections of the Earl Mountains in the still water.

Just after the Lakes was a notice announcing we had crossed 45 degrees latitude. There are also signs saying that ‘New Zealand roads are different’ but to our mind they are very like roads in rural Scotland. Near the Divide was evidence of the wet climate as all the trees were draped with lichens.

Before descending into Milford Sound the road passes through the Homer Tunnel. It is three quarters of a mile long and was opened in 1953. For most of the year there is a traffic light system to control access but this is suspended in winter as they do not want vehicles standing in a queue outside the tunnel in a high avalanche risk area. We got through eventually and found our way to our accommodation in Milford Sound. In busy seasons you are advised to leave Te Anau at around 8am to drive to Milford Sound or you risk being stuck behind lots of coaches as it is New Zealand’s most popular tourist attraction. As we approached in the afternoon, most of the coaches were returning to Te Anau.