SOUTH ISLAND - FOX TO QUEENSTOWN (VIA MOUNT COOK) - robmellors

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In my last post we had left Fox Glacier having had a full on, fantastic two days. We were now on our way to Wanaka (you need to be careful how you say that!) travelling first of all down the wild west coast before turning inland at the Haast river. Here the road skirts the Mount Aspiring National park and climbs up into the mountains on a glorious route following the Haast river (which actually has its origin way up in the Mount Cook foothills). Along the way we visited the engagingly named Roaring Billy waterfall, which did indeed roar, and Thunder Falls, which likewise thundered. Most impressive of all were the Gates of Haast where the river is forced through a very narrow gap and roils and thunders its way down the steep mountainside. Kiwis do go in for descriptive names (unless features are named after some famous but dead person) so if you look on a map you generally know what to expect. As ever with New Zealand, just when you think you've seen the best and have already spent way longer than you should have done photographing every incredible view, the best comes last. Once over the pass you descend past the lovely Makaroa (with a great cafe) onto the northern shores of Lake Wanaka, before crossing onto Lake Hawea and back again to Wanaka at the southern end of the lake. One fantastic mountain ringed lake would be enough. Two is just sheer overkill. I don't know how many times we stopped to take in the view (ok, I admit it; for me to take yet another several dozen photographs) but we finally rolled into town exhausted and in need of a cup of tea. Our B&B was a little out of town but had glorious views of the Mount Aspiring range. I'm sure there are some places in NZ that don't have views but we've yet to find them. A stroll along the lake followed by a meal was all we needed to round off our day. The weather forecast for the following day suggested there was a chance of a shower so we sensibly packed waterproofs when we went walking as the sky was looking threatening. And sure enough, just as we were high up on a hill there was a clap of thunder and the sight of a squall line in the distance. We donned our waterproofs and retreated just in time. Now, the weather genie has been very kind to us so far and this was really only the second bit of rain we'd had (sorry to rub it in for you guys back home). Actually it provided a good excuse to go back to the B&B and catch up with the blog, etc. I can't believe just how little time we get to just sit back, relax and do nothing! But they say that in NZ you can have 4 seasons all in one day and they are not wrong. Before too long it dried up, the sun started shining, we got itchy feet and just had to go and hike up another hill. We hiked (tramped to the Kiwis amongst you) high above the lake and town for great views and some tired legs! Our masterplan for NZ said that at this point we should continue heading south to Queenstown and then Fiordland in the far south to travel down Milford and Doubtful Sounds. However, the weather forecast for Fiordland was for a very wet spell in the coming days followed by some nice dry, sunny weather 5 or 6 days later so a quick re-jig of the itinerary and we were on our way to where the forecast was more promising - back to our old friend Mount Cook but this time on the other side of the range from Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers. We didn't have any accommodation booked as most of the places we looked at on the internet were full but we made our way to a town called Twizel and went into the i-site, NZ's equivalent of our tourist information centres. You get them in most towns and even in some small settlements if the area important. Twizel is a bit of a hick town. They even play music (mostly seventies stuff we haven't heard in decades) right outside the public toilets. Perhaps it's to stop people loitering. Being us, we just had to have a dance and got some strange looks from the good folk of the town. I don't think dancing counts as loitering though. Anyway, a very helpful young lady booked us into some rooms in Tekapo for two nights followed by two nights in Mount Cook Village itself. Tekapo is on Lake Tekapo which makes it easy to remember if not pronounce. It is famous for having the Church of the Good Shepherd (a tiny place with a lovely picture window framing a view of the lake) and a statue of a sheep dog. It tells you much about a place when one of its most photographed sights is a bronze collie! (Being a perverse so and so, it's the only thing I didn't photograph). To be fair, Tekapo also has an Olympic size swimming pool. Or rather several thousand swimming pools in the guise of its lake. You know how blue the water in a swimming pool is from all the chlorine? Well Tekapo ( and most NZ lakes, in fact) is bluer and without the chlorine. The colour comes from all the sediments and even the rivers run blue round here. What with the cloudless sky (there I go, rubbing it in again) and the hazy blue of the distant mountains it's a blue end of the spectrum sort of place. Now, there is another thing for which Tekapo is famous (so scratch my original comments about just the church and the dog) and that is the Mount John Observatory. Sited atop of Mount John (really just a hill, even if a rather steep one) this is New Zealand's largest astronomical complex with an array of telescopes and other star gazing devices. It's here because the surrounding area has one of the cleanest and clearest skies in the whole of NZ. In fact, just in the town you can feel that the air is a little thinner and cleaner and you find yourself feeling quite tired and a little breathless. During daylight hours you can walk up to the complex and so into the cafe that's at the top there. It's a stiff walk (or for the perambulatorily challenged, an energetic drive) but the views from the top are incredible. You can see that Tekapo is ringed by mountains, including the Mount Cook range. After 6pm they throw everyone out and lock the gates because this is a working observatory and a dark zone, no lights allowed. The only way to visit at night is by an organised trip so we duly booked a star gazing tour starting at 11.30pm. Since we have been in the habit of going to bed early in order get up and walking/driving early the next day it was a little difficult to stay awake as we climbed on board the bus for a 30 minute journey up to the observatory. We were wrapped up well because, even though it had been 30 Centigrade during the day, at night, in the clear mountain air, the temperature plummets. The tour company, Earth and Sky, gave us padded jackets to wear on top of our own jackets and fleeces; and we needed them! Now, although the nights are often clear in the area there is no guarantee that you will have a clear view of the night sky. There could be high cloud, there could be a bright moon, there could be any number of weather events to obscure the view. Thankfully, we had a sparkling, crystal clear night. About 2/3 of the way up the hill the bus driver turns off all the lights - quite scary as the road is very narrow and twisty. But, as the driver said, he'd done it before and hadn't lost the bus yet! When you get out of the bus you can only use tiny red light torches as these don't affect the telescopes. But you just look up at the sky and are awe inspired. We all know that light pollution has all but destroyed our night sky but here, on this clear, cold night we could see not only thousands of stars in our own galaxy but make out with the naked eye the large and small clouds of Megellan, 170,000 and 200,000 light years away. There was the Milky Way in all its glory, the Southern Cross (as opposed to the North Star), Globular clusters and the planet Jupiter rising. Our guides filled us with all sorts of astronomical information, most of which I confess I have forgotten. We were able to look through two of the large telescopes which weren't in use and through telescopes set up outside in the grounds. We saw Saturn with its lovely rings through a large telescope and had a lesson in how to find South by using the Southern Cross (useful if we ever find ourselves lost in a boat in the Southern Hemisphere with only a Tiger for company! - see Life of Pi). Not only was it a very special, magical night but February 14 as well so I got an A+ for romance. Mind you, a dozen red roses would have been cheaper!. Despite getting back to our B&B at gone 2 am we weren't tired at all and were just buzzing with all that we had seen. And, best of all, one of the astro-photographers was on hand to take fantastic photos with my camera using a very long time exposure and a camera mount which tracked the movement of the Earth so that you don't get star streaks (remember children, it's not the stars that move but the earth) . I want one ( astro camera mount not earth). Tekapo, famous for its Church, statue, lake and observatory had one last surprise to deliver. With a little time on our hands the day before we left we took a walk on a little regarded track up to a sort of plateau area which was covered in lovely grasses and heathland and a few small water filled depressions. It was at one of these that we got sight of the the world's rarest wader, the New Zealand Black Stilt. Birdlife in NZ has been all but destroyed by introduced predators like rats, possums, stoats, rabbits, etc. and the Black Stilt has been on the edge of extinction. But the Department of Conservation has been rearing chicks and releasing them into areas which have been (hopefully) cleared of predators (apart from the few natural ones like the Swamp Hawk) and Tekapo is one such area. And as we were standing right by a pool a couple of juvenile stilts came winging in. They seemed unconcerned at our presence and we got great views of them feeding. A brilliant end to our stay. I think we were still a little high when we got up early next day to drive to Mount Cook village, just under 2 hours away. It goes without saying that the views on the way into Mount Cook were stunning and when we rolled into our Motel it was to find that we again had a view to die for, this time close up and personal to Mount Sefton. The village is parked virtually at its feet and the view from our patio window was of mountain, glaciers and snow. We could lie in bed in the morning and watch the sunrise glowing on the mountain. Of course, we were here for the walking, this being the closest you could get to Mount Cook without actually climbing it. Our first walk was through the Hooker Valley to view the Hooker Glacier which descends from Mt Cook. Initially, this makes its way through grey, boulder strewn moraine, not at all inviting and very dusty. The river is a light brown colour, something like a very liquid caramel, not clear and white as you might expect a glacial river to be. As you tramp into the valley the vegetation becomes greener and with mountains rearing up on all sides it becomes a great walk. At the end of it is the glacier, which you can only see in the distance and its glacial lake. I'm sure we all have visions of pristine clean glaciers shining blindingly white in the sunshine with ice blue lakes at the end of them. But in high summer in New Zealand all the previous winter's snow has melted and you are left with the glacial ice which has been there for centuries, slowly descending the valley at about 5 mtrs per year and gathering rock debris and dirt. It doesn't look shiny white but rather black and dusty. However, 'bergs do break off from the face from time to time and float in the glacial lake. Not quite Antarctica but impressive to look at none the less. The following day we did a walk high into the hills behind the village up to some red tarns, marshy pools which had red pondweed growing in them. It was a very steep climb, mostly up manmade steps and the height gain was about 1250 feet so it was a bit tiring, to say the least. We could have gone higher to climb the summit of the mountain, the Mount Cook range's lowest, but decided we'd done enough! We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Mount Cook. The peace and tranquility was wonderful and we would have been more than happy just to look at the way the light and clouds changed over the mountains all day long. But it was time to get back to the plan and we motored down to Queenstown, via the Karawau Gorge, quite a spectacular drive. Queenstown is a major destination for all kinds of tourist and town was very full. We found it difficult to get a motel room but we did finally secure an apartment, which we like for the space and ability to make breakfast and evening meals when we feel like it. Queenstown is at the Eastern arm of Lake Wakatipu and from our balcony we had a view of the lake; not a sweeping panoramic view, I admit but for the price it was an added bonus. The lake is very beautiful, surrounded as it is by mountains, and Queenstown quite a charming town. It bills itself as the Adventure Capital of the World which is perhaps a bit of a hyperbolic claim but the town was very lively. The beachfront on the lake was packed with people sunbathing and a few hardy souls swimming, there was music playing, people eating and drinking and, on this Saturday night, at least one Stag and one Hen do. It could have been Newcastle-upon-Tyne, even down to the unintelligible accents! At the other end of Lake Wakatipu, past Pigeon Island and Pig Island, neither of which bore any resemblence to bird or porker, is the small township of Glenorchy. From here great walking tracks such as the Routeburn and the Rees Valley can be reached and there is the Diamond Lake at Paradise. The Dart River comes into the lake at Glenorchy and it does have the feel of a Scottish Glen, surrounded by mountains and pastureland. It's certainly miles and a few years away from hedonistic Queenstown. Whilst in Queenstown we started to put together the next part of our trip - a stay in Fiordland, the wettest part of NZ with up to 200 days of rain a year. Would the weather genie hold for us? Would we get drenched in Milford Sound? Would we sink into the 'Dead Marshes' never to be seen again or float off down the Anduin in Elvish boats? (if you don't know what the hell I'm on about then you're obviously not a LOTR fan!). Find out in our next thrilling blog.

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