I wond’r if these are avalanche conditions… Unreal & treacherous hiking with Sam in New Zealand

After a near miss, well quite a large miss really, to the tune of over 1,000 miles, Sam made it into our loving arms, as we greeted him in the arrivals hall of Christchurch International Airport. You see, Sam, our good friend from London had taken up our invite to join us, but unfortunately referred to an out of date schedule when originally booking flights. This meant he’d be landing in Sydney, while we were across the other side of the Tasman Sea, in New Zealand. But hey, that doesn’t matter anymore – the three amigos were back together, ready for a road trip so awesome it would make us question our reality!

Criminal sheepdogs and glacial walks

After a year apart we had a lot to catch up on, and fortunately the long journey ahead of us provided plenty of opportunity to do just that. While not gassing away or filling up on gas, we were of course using gas to locate eateries en route. That night our accommodation was to be a cabin expertly curated by moi, in the small town of Lake Tekapo. Amusingly it felt as though we’d been transported back to the 1970’s, with it’s warm pine interior and ancient ski paraphernalia, precariously hanging from the walls. The next morning we awoke to skies as blue as the deepest ocean, beautifully framing our incredible surroundings now visible in the daylight. As Tekapo is perched on the side of a huge lake, it offers stunning views across the water, with snow capped mountains loitering in the distance.

Following a pleasant chat over modest, instant coffees on the terrace, we were ready for whatever the day had to throw at us. First in fact was a coach load of tourists, bustling to get their photos in front of the famous ‘Church of the Good Shepherd’.

It didn’t bother us too much though, as the beautiful lake views and lovingly cast sculpture of ‘Friday’ the New Zealand Border Collie kept us occupied. He’s believed to have belonged to a shepherd turned sheep rustler: James Mackenzie back in the 1850’s. Comically after James’ capture, Friday continued to drive the sheep of his own accord, much to the annoyance of the authorities. Rather than celebrating illegal farming antics, the statue commemorates the indispensable role of sheepdogs for the local people.

“Iceberg, dead ahead!” I enthusiastically proclaimed – That afternoon we’d opted to take on the ‘Hooker Valley Track’, which would eventually lead us to Hooker Lake, interspersed with lumps of ice that had broken off from Hooker glacier at the far end. The relatively flat, three hour return walk gave us the perfect introduction to New Zealand’s astonishing scenery.

While struggling to keep an eye on the path and swing bridges ahead, we couldn’t stop looking up in awe of Mt Cook / Aoraki – New Zealand’s highest mountain. There he stood, impossibly large yet almost graceful, watching over the surrounding hills and mountains like an older brother. As we arrived at the end of our walk on the the edge of Hooker lake, the mysterious clouds surrounding him dramatically dispersed, giving way to his mighty peak. Managing to pull ourselves away from the magnetism of the scenery, we set off towards our next stop: Wanaka.

Celebrity trees and avalanche warnings

Wanaka is a popular tourist destination for various reasons; it’s situated like Tekapo on the edge of a beautiful lake, has many of New Zealand’s best ski fields nearby, but most importantly is home to the world famous… #ThatWanakaTree. Wanting to see what all the fuss was about, we reluctantly went to take a look. Yes the uniquely crooked willow tree, with its spellbinding scenery makes for gorgeous instagram envy shots. However, the throngs of surrounding tourists and their buzzing drones definitely detracted from its beauty, and made us slightly embarrassed to be part of the whole charade.

Given how incredible the previous days walk had been, we were almost convinced there was no need to explore anymore of New Zealands great outdoors. Although FOMO of course got the better of us, and the Rob Roy Glacier Track caught our attention, partly due to mine and Sam’s Scottish roots. After some off-roading on the 10km of unsealed roads, then a quick photoshoot of the curious velvety cow nearby, we set off on the days adventure.

This walk was to be bitter/sweet, in such that it was far hillier and exhausting that yesterdays, but at least meant a totally different experience. A large swing bridge across a deep gorge heralded the beginning of our climb.

After an hours walk we caught a glimpse of something brightly coloured through the trees. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a warning sign, signalling possible rockfalls for the next 50m. Having successfully survived our first ‘test’, Mount Rob Roy didn’t waste any time in lining up our next challenge, in the form of treacherous avalanche terrain up ahead. As we’d seen plenty of other walkers pass us heading down, we bravely/stupidly carried on, thinking the surrounding trees would surely lesser the impact of runaway snow.

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Our natural defences however soon disappeared, as the valley opened up in front of us, offering glorious panoramic views of the dramatic cliffs and glacial ice on top. Once at the upper lookout, we tucked into our sandwiches in satisfied silence, while taking in our surroundings that now featured a staggeringly tall waterfall, beautifully cascading down the steep rock face.

Driving back through the various fords we’d overcome to get here, took us far longer than on arrival. This was mainly due to taking comical slow-mo videos – crashing through the pathetically small strips of water, while attempting to out-do each other with cheesy tunes. The general consensus was that my selection of ‘I’d do anything for Love’ by Meatloaf, was near impossible to top.

That evening, having spent nearly an hour bumbling through car parks in near total darkness, we finally found ourselves in what must be one of the most secretive bars on earth. This was further underlined, by the fact there was no more than three other people inside, including the barman! There we enjoyed an eclectic mix of cocktails overlooking Wanaka lake, while enjoying entertainment provided by the poor driver of a large motorhome, struggling to escape the carpark in which he’d entered.

Unexpected birthday blizzards in Queenstown

While enjoying a spot of shopping in Wanaka the next morning, we exchanged tea-towel purchases for valuable route advice from the friendly shop keepers. Putting this new intelligence to use, ‘Cardrona Distillery’ was well and truly in our sights. Unsurprisingly we wasted no time in frantically completing a full sweep of the shop in search of locally produced whisky. Confusingly there was no sign of any liquid treasure, and after asking, we discovered this would be the case for another year, until their golden nectar reached its third birthday. Luckily they had other delights on offer, including a fruity, smooth orange liqueur that we had as part of Irish coffees.

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Once we (the royal we) satisfied our immature minds with photos of the quirky ‘bra fence’, featuring thousands of undergarments lining the road, our priorities soon turned to food. Despite grumbling stomachs, we couldn’t resist pulling over to properly take in the awesome scenery our road was snaking along – featuring rolling hills, snow capped mountains and shimmering lakes beyond.

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Finally making it to Arrowtown, the local bakery was of course our first port of call. Within a blink of an eye the rich, gravy pies, silky mash and peas disappeared; all washed down with the sweet nectar that is New Zealand’s famous soft drink: L&P. After exploring the historical wooden buildings, followed by a riverside walk to undo our pastry sins, we departed for Queenstown where we’d been upgraded to a spacious two bedroom apartment 🙂

Considering it wasn’t that cold and Spring was in full swing, what welcomed us the next morning for my birthday was quite a surprise – three inches of snow and a raging blizzard! We felt rather sorry for those who were caught out camping… Although we’d planned a day of extreme sports, the surreal weather and full cooked breakfast that Joella and Sam prepared, definitely made up for it. Fortunately, when reaching near critical fullness the snow stopped, allowing us to venture outdoors into the white world.

Given the wintery conditions, our noses led us to an old wooden boat moored up on Wakatipu Lake downtown, offering aromatic mulled wine. That evening we treated ourselves to half price fine dining thanks to First Table, including famous New Zealand lamb, which truly melted in our mouths.

Exploring the eerily quiet streets of Christchurch

Thankfully New Zealand is well versed in dealing with snow, so our drive to Christchurch the following day was without a hitch. Upon checking into our hotel, complete with futuristic bathroom ‘pods’, we set off in search of 21st century’s bread and butter: beer and wifi. Despite Christchurch being New Zealand’s second largest city, it was eerily quiet and we struggled to find any sort of drinking establishment. Eventually settling for a Wetherspoons lookalike, a quick google reminded us why the city was so deserted – it was still rebuilding in the wake of a deadly earthquake back in 2011. Fortunately there were signs of recovery in the form of a lovely cocktail bar in New Oxford St, and Little High street food market.

The following morning, Joella and I – minus Sam who’d stealthily left on his red eye flight back to Sydney – checked out of the hotel, and secured a caffeine hit. Before looking anymore like a hobo, I popped into a nearby barbers, where I received more than just a haircut… It turns out that hairdressers are hot on the heals of taxi drivers and tourist information for recommendations on things to do. So with my new found local knowledge, we made little work of Christchurch’s top attractions, including the tranquil botanic gardens and cutesy trams that trundled through the streets like it was still the early 1900s. Before long it was time to wave goodbye to Archie our trusty mechanical steed, and hop onboard our plane back to Sydney.

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Given the number of documentaries, stories from friends and the Lord of the Rings films, selling New Zealand as possibly the most scenic country on the planet – it had a lot to live up to. So I can happily report back, that following our six week jaunt from top to bottom, it most definitely lived up to all expectations! We’ll be sincerely sorry if we don’t return to explore more of this wonderful wilderness again very, very soon…

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