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At the Mercy of the Weather Gods: A Winter Trip to the SI of NZ

At the Mercy of the Weather Gods: A Winter Trip to the SI of NZ

Jun 24th, 2013, 04:49 PM
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At the Mercy of the Weather Gods: A Winter Trip to the SI of NZ

It's been over a year since we took this trip. At the time I tried to post snippets from the road, but it was hit and miss. Then life intervened and I lost my trip report writing mojo.

Now, as I prepare for a return visit to the South Island in August/September, I'm determined to finish this report, in part to whet my NZ appetite, in part to help other forum members currently planning trips of their own. So, as threatened, here’s the longer, more detailed version.

June 2-23, 2012 (incidentally, the exact same dates as last year, but a day less)

The itinerary:

Amberley – one night
Rai Valley – two nights
Murchison – three nights
Hokitika – two nights
Cromwell – two nights
North Catlins – three nights
Te Anau – three nights
Glenorchy – three nights
Geraldine – one night
Christchurch – one night

Why this particular itinerary and all those one and two night stays?

Basically it was a combination of wanting to explore specific locales that were on our radar from our last trip, concerns about potential bad weather in said locales (being rained out in a tiny hiking-only area for instance), having to plan around the limited availability of a B&B in Glenorchy, using frequent flyer miles which restricted our arrival and departure times, and organizing the whole trip in four days (which is another story altogether).

Suffice to say, this is what we came up with. It’s certainly not an itinerary I’d suggest for a first time visitor. In retrospect, it was too much driving (4,124 kilometers) and not enough walking, but it worked.

By using all 92,000 of my United Frequent Flyer miles, purchasing another 8,000 miles and paying taxes and fees, we secured two return flights from Perth-Auckland-Christchurch in Business Class on Air New Zealand, booked four days before departure for $544.60 USD.

By 6 pm on June 2, we’re checked in at the Perth Airport, sipping South Australian sparkling wine and nibbling on anti-pasto and Jaffas in the Qantas lounge. Sweet.

After watching Richard Simmons shimmy across the screen in a typically clever Air NZ safety video, we’re wheels up and on our way. Within no time we’re being treated to that incredible Air NZ Business Class service, and some surprisingly good food.

I’ll spare you the foodie details, but the honey macadamia nut/strawberry ice cream, and the chocolate/orange truffle cake with spiced cherry compote are a highlight. And there’s nothing like an after dinner late harvest Riesling to make one feel completely spoiled.

Excellent food, service, and entertainment system, not-so-good seats; the footrests barely lift, so we basically have to sleep upright, not that we can sleep anyway.

The crew is very good about letting us rest as long as possible, asking if we want to be woken for smoothies and muffins, dimming the lights immediately after meal service, etc.

Note: As of Sept. 3, 2012, Air New Zealand’s Perth to Auckland flight has newly configured planes, with Business Class lie flat beds, Premium Economy and Seats to Suit Economy options.

But enough about the flight, on to the trip.

Day 1: Arrival in Auckland and Christchurch, drive to Amberley

We arrive in Auckland just before 6 am. The timing of this flight is brutal; it leaves early evening from Perth and arrives early morning in Auckland, but is too short to get much, if any, sleep. To make matters worse, we have a four hour layover in Auckland before our connecting flight to Christchurch…frequent flyer tickets, need I say more?

It takes close to an hour to clear Customs (it’s always the hiking boots), then there’s another long queue to drop off our bags for our connecting flight, where we ask about the possibility of getting on an earlier one. We’re told we’d have to take our bags to the Domestic Terminal and ask there. There’s only one manned help desk in the International Terminal and a sea of self-service kiosks…we figure it’s the same story at Domestic…so we give up, leave our bags and walk the 10 minutes to the Domestic Terminal. We while away the hours in the Koru Lounge, which much to my delight, has shower facilities! Oh how I love a hot shower after an overnight flight.

We eventually arrive in Christchurch to an icy southerly, which chills us to the bone as we await the APEX shuttle. We’re soon in our high mileage, bumped and bruised 2006 Toyota Corolla; convinced it’s the same exact car we had last year….with an impressive 170,000 km on the odometer. Our 21 day rental is $848, including $25 for snow chains and a $25 fee for returning the car to the airport prior to 8 am upon departure (to cover parking fees).

By 1 pm Christchurch is in our rearview mirror as we head north on SH1, tired, but happy to be back on the South Island.

Our usual MO is to bypass Christchurch and drive 2-3 hours towards our first destination. For an early winter visit such as this, we’d normally drive south first; the theory being that it will only get colder down south as winter progresses.

But because we’ve arrived mid-day sans sleep, we’ve booked our first overnight in Amberley, a ~40 minute drive north of Christchurch. The loose plan is a late lunch at Mud House Winery (pre-booked online), and then a wee bit of wine tasting at a few Waipara wineries that are only open on weekends.

It works. First a tasting at Mud House (loved, loved, loved the Waipara Hills Equinox 2010 Pinot Noir; the Equinox 2010 Pinot Gris was nice too), followed by lunch; Beef Hotpot for the carnivore (beef marinated in Mud House Merlot, slow cooked in a vegetable fusion and served with mashed potatoes - $23) and Chicken Cream Cheese and Cranberry Filo for me (roasted shredded chicken breast tossed in a creamy cranberry sauce wrapped in filo - $22). Both are very good; we’re off to a good start.


Next a visit to Torlesee, recommended to us by someone who knows we like fortified wine. We don’t care for this particular version; but we do like their cassis liqueur; discovering later that it makes a tasty Kir Royale when combined with a nice Aussie sparkling. We also pop into Pegasus Bay for some of their lovely Pinot Noir. This time last year their restaurant was closed, but on this Queen’s Birthday long weekend it’s open and hopping.

Interesting tidbit for fellow wine buffs - Waipara is known for their Rieslings, but we didn’t like any of the Rieslings we tried ---too sweet for our tastes.

After exploring Amberley Beach, we get settled into our digs for the night, Teviot View Accommodation, my review of which can be found here:


When booking Teviot View, I’d asked the owner to make a dinner reservation for us at the Nor’Wester Café, thinking it wouldn’t hurt to have a back-up plan if we arrived too late for lunch. I don’t normally book restaurants, but I make exceptions for holiday weekends in small towns.

So, evening finds us at the tiny, but very busy Nor’Wester; a cold 10 minute walk from our motel. We both enjoy a bowl of excellent tomato, bacon and lentil soup served with thick bread ($12.50 each). This is followed by an appetizer of cold smoked salmon with preserved lemon, cream cheese, caper berries and ciabatta for Bill ($18), and a toasted ham and cheese for me ($12.50). It’s all good, but heavy on the bread.

And with bulging stomachs, our very long day comes to an end.
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Jun 24th, 2013, 04:56 PM
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Day 2: Amberley to Rai Valley

We sleep like logs, as one does after a sleep deprived overnight flight. The only noise is the ticking clock and an occasional passing car.

Bill reckons he needs a warm breakfast before our long drive day, so it’s back to the Nor’Wester for sustenance. He declares the Eggs Bennie excellent, and my onion cheese scone and flat white hits the spot ($30 including 15% surcharge as it was a public holiday).

I’ve estimated today’s drive at four hours, knowing it will probably take us much longer as it invariably does.

We leave Amberley under a cloudless blue winter sky pointed north on SH1. Before long we pull off on an unmarked road to chase a photo and end up walking a muddy ford-riddled 4X4 road down to the Hurunui River for a short wander; a prime example of why our drive days take twice as long as estimated.

Just south of Cheviot we veer off course again, making a 42 km roundtrip detour to Gore Bay, stopping at the Cathedral Gully Lookout for some incredible views of clay cliffs and a canyon en route. We continue down steep Cathedral Road to explore the bay, surprised to find a small community situated across a lovely rocky beach fringed by cliffs. We then take the road to Manuka Bay, park at the gate and walk about a ¼ of a mile down the hill for some gorgeous views of the bay from above. A sign announcing the Hurunui River Mouth catches our attention, so naturally we follow it; rewarded with yet more pretty views.

Then it’s back on SH 1, surrounded by pasture and busy with end-of-holiday traffic headed in the opposite direction. We eventually enter the Kaikoura District, the Pacific Ocean coming into view, complete with sunshine! We skirt the town of Kaikoura, stop at Ohau Point to photograph seals on the rocks below, and then seek out Ohau Stream, hoping to see a few seal pups. One look at the car park and we know we’re on to something. A short walk later, mouths agape, we’re watching ~100 seal pups frolic in the ice cold pool beneath the waterfall. Still more pups bask on the river’s rocks, and one even wanders around in the bush above the trail. It’s an incredible sight and an off season travel perk – the seal pups gather in the winter months. Woo-hoo, lucky us!

Back on SH 1, we continue north, stopping once or twice to look for more seals…big ones this time…finding many scattered on the rocks and snoozing in the grass along the foreshore.

We continue our drive. Soon the black sand beaches are replaced with undulating barren bluffs and seemingly endless rows of bare, rust-colored grape vines. I begin to worry that I’ve made a mistake in estimating the drive time. At Seddon the highway becomes a series of tight squiggles as we work our way through the White Bluffs south of Blenheim, where we finally arrive just past 4 pm, near dusk.

We stop for groceries and a quick bite to eat, relieved that unlike Western Australia, New Zealand businesses are alive and trading on public holidays.

After some confusion, we locate SH 6 to Renwick and forge on to our destination, Mount Richmond Estate in the Rai Valley; halfway between Havelock and Nelson, where we arrive some 8.5 hours after leaving Amberley. It’s seriously dark and reception is closed, but we eventually find the proprietor and get settled into our unit Charlotte, my review of which is here:


Minutes later we’re soaking in the outdoor hot tub under a full moon, just us. Beauty.
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Jun 24th, 2013, 05:00 PM
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Day 3: Exploring Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve

The Rai Valley is not a place most tourists bother with, but I’ve been curious about it for some time. We’d planned a full day here to explore the tracks in the scenic reserve, and despite the gloomy day and the forecast for plentiful rain, that’s what we do.

We don our rubber, and drive the 10 minutes from our accommodation to the reserve, where we walk the Totara Walk and the Circle Walk (2.7 miles combined), which is part of the Te Araora Trail that runs the length of New Zealand from Cape Reinga to Bluff. Both walks are nice enough, leading through forest and alongside the river, but it’s impossible to escape the noise of trucks braking on SH 6 as they slow for the one lane bridge…not what we had in mind.

We also walk the Tawa Walk and the Elvy Waterfall Track (two hours combined, about 3.25 miles). We thoroughly enjoy the Elvy Track, not for the waterfall so much, but for the peace and quiet; it’s well away from the road. It rains steadily throughout the walk, making the exposed rocks and packed clay a bit slippery.

We consider continuing on to the Trig K Track (four hour return), but the thought of a slippery uphill climb in the rain doesn’t sound like much fun. Instead we settle for a soggy picnic perched atop a wet log at the base of a waterfall, before taking our cold waterlogged selves back to our accommodation.

The rest of the day is spent chatting up the proprietor over flat whites in Mount Richmond’s onsite café, where we learn that some of The Hobbit had been filmed where we’d just been. Apparently, the crew had to bail when the river flooded. Not surprising, considering the torrential rain we were treated to throughout the night.
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Jun 24th, 2013, 05:12 PM
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Day 4: The Big Dump – Rai Valley to Murchison

Our 30th wedding anniversary brings severe weather warnings throughout the South Island and so much rain that we think for sure we’ll be trapped in our cozy cottage indefinitely. There’s snow in Canterbury, rain, sleet and wind in Nelson and Westport. Yet, when we step outside our door it isn’t even cold.

We leave the Rai Valley via squiggly, whiplash inducing SH 6 under dark ominous skies and sporadic bursts of rain, arriving in “sunny Nelson” to gloom and a fiercely cold cyclonic wind. We pop into Cocoa for a cup of hot chocolate and a few chocolates (which I tried later and didn’t like one bit….and that’s saying something). We spend a few hours poking around the shops and eat lunch at our favorite Nelson establishment, Little India (Kadai chicken, Shahi Paneer, rice and garlic naan, delicious - $36). As we dine next to a window facing the street, we watch sandwich boards skitter down the road, umbrellas capsize, frenzied hair and skirts whip about and a stroller tip over, terrifying its tiny passenger. The wind is ferocious.

The rain arrives, icy cold and wind driven. In the few hours we’ve been in Nelson, the temperature has dropped from 13c to 8c. The storm has arrived. And it’s nasty.

We relocate SH 6 and leave Nelson, heading south, trying to avoid impact with flying trash cans, feeling sorry for some poor fool on a bike, and soon learning that SH 6 is closed at Inangahua, as is SH 65, due to snow. Uh-oh.

And sure enough, about 50 km north of Murchison we hit snow…lots of it. Hope Saddle (elevation 1,532 feet!) is a veritable Winter Wonderland which feels more like Colorado than New Zealand.

The snow disappears as we approach Murchison, the Buller River brown with runoff. We take the 11 km detour to Lake Rotoroa, the largest of the lakes in Nelson Lakes Nat’l Park and the starting point for several walks. It’s hardly walking weather though, so we move on after satisfying our curiosity (does anyone happen to know where the Lake Rotoroa water taxis go?)

Back on SH 6, it rain/snows/sleets throughout the rest of the drive to Murchison. We locate our accommodation, River Song Cottages, and proceed to freeze our bits off. My review can be found here:


That evening, rugged up in every piece of fleece and blanket we can find, we watch the drama unfold on the evening news. There’s flooding in Greymouth and snow at sea level is wreaking havoc in Canterbury. There are delays at Christchurch Airport, public buses have been pulled off the streets, schools have closed, there’s been a rash of car accidents and 3,500 homes in Christchurch are without electricity. At higher elevations, several roads have been closed, including Arthurs and Lewis Pass.

Indeed, an action packed day on the South Island.
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Jun 24th, 2013, 05:23 PM
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Days 5 & 6: Exploring Murchison, “Are you wet enough?”

By morning Hanmer Springs and Arthur’s pass are virtually cut off due to snow. The thermal springs at Hanmer are closed due to lack of electricity and stranded people are being rescued from Arthur’s Pass.

All was as it should be in Murchison, so we go hiking.

Murchison, population 453, isn’t exactly a hotbed of excitement. We’re here to explore the tracks, and explore we do. Here’s a rundown of how we spend our two days:

1) The Skyline Track, at the junction of SH 6 and Matakitaki West Bank Road. This track zigzags uphill and promises views of the Buller River and “perhaps the most scenic gorge in New Zealand”. It’s foggy at the base of the hill; we think we can get above it, but no, the fog follows us up the track, so no views for us. We hit snow about one kilometer up, so it‘s a cold wet slog, but we both enjoy the trek, lack of views notwithstanding (2.14 miles return, steep and slippery).

2) Johnson Creek Track, located ~six kilometers down Matakitaki West Bank Road. This track climbs to a slip that was formed in the 1929 Murchison earthquake, but we have to turn back about 20 minutes in due to a dangerous river crossing. We see some wild goats, a few Weka (flightless birds) and sunshine, so it’s not a complete loss. We continue driving up the valley and are rewarded with some lovely views.

3) Maruia Falls, located 23 km south of Murchison via SH 65 (which re-opened the afternoon after the storm). The falls were created following the 1929 earthquake and they really are a sight to behold.

4) Lyell Walkway, located 35 km west of Murchison via SH 6. This is a loop track that leads past the remnants of the former gold mining town of Lyell. We’re greeted in the car park by a rooster and more rain, but so it goes in the rainforest (4.7 km, 2.7 miles, 90 minutes). This is an enjoyable track, harder going in than out (uphill), slippery due to an abundance of exposed, wet tree roots. There are a couple of unnerving drop offs where the trail has eroded, falling straight down to the river far below. The DOC had recently erected two very stout looking new bridges; hopefully, they’ll get around to repairing the track before some hapless hiker falls into the river. There’s a 6-8 hour track here too, which connects Lyell to Gibbston, wherever that might be.

5) Six Mile Walkway, located 10 km south of Murchison on Matakitaki Road (not to be confused with the Matakitaki West Bank Road). The track leads up through a paddock and follows the water race into the forest (more rain!). We walk to the intake and beyond, where a downed tree stops us in our tracks. It’s impossible to go any further, which might be the intent as the track doesn’t appear to be maintained beyond the intake. It’s easy for the most part, a few hilly bits, a couple of scary landslips, a lot of curious Fantails; an enjoyable one hour, 2.17 mile walk.

6) Mataki Willowgrove Walk, an easy ½ mile meander along the Buller River near town.

We self-cater for the most part, but have several flat whites and cake at Beechwoods Café (good the first day, not-so-good the next) and a very good late lunch at Rivers Café (Eggs Bennie, spicy vegetable soup, berry cider $33). Not a lot of food options in Murchison.
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Jun 24th, 2013, 05:37 PM
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Day 7: Bye-bye Murchison, Hello Hoki

We leave Murchison via SH 6 with one maddening sandfly bite each, both on our feet weirdly enough. The sun comes out for about five minutes; then it’s back to torrential rain. As we drive, we pass gobs of vibrant Pukeko (purple swamp hens) munching away in the meadows and going about their bird business.

I’ve estimated the drive to Murchison at 3.5 hours, but of course, there will be detours.

The plan is to take SH 6 & 7 (newly re-opened) towards Greymouth, but true to form the plan changes; we end up following the Buller River towards Westport instead. At Berlins we’re treated to a brilliant, short-lived burst of sunshine and a nice photo op, but no caffeine as the café is closed.

The rain persists as we continue west along narrow winding roads, the fast flowing and very muddy Buller River to our right. We skirt Westport and ease our way south on SH 6 to Punakaiki, the weather changing every two minutes. The moody Tasman Sea appears as we drive along the squiggly coastline, stopping for photos at the slightest hint of sunshine and picking up a few sandfly hitchhikers along the way. We arrive to ‘almost sun’ at Punakaiki, where we meander along the Pancake Rocks walkway (which we have entirely to ourselves), photograph a few bold Weka and warm up with flat whites in the café.

Then it’s back on SH 6, Bill commenting on how everything in NZ seems to be up for sale, me noticing the alarming abundance of gorse, and then begin the hairpin turns that bring our attention back to the road.

In Greymouth, Bill drives directly to Bonzai Pizzeria as if he’d just been there last week. We share a loaded large pizza washed down with cider; good food, friendly service, and leftovers for dinner ($34).

Back on the bitumen we locate the Reefton Highway (SH 7), turn right at Stillwater and follow the Lake Brunner Tourist Drive, noticing how much warmer it is here than in Murchison, enticed by the snow capped peaks ahead of us.

Yes, another detour. We’d discovered Lake Brunner last year and I’m anxious to explore the tracks. It’s mercifully dry, but the waning daylight doesn’t bode well for my lengthy list of walks, so we settle for the 45 minute Rakaitane Track and a side trail alongside the lake before moving on.

As we continue on SH 7 to Moana I’m reminded of why I like it back here… it’s just so darn pretty…a stunning lake surrounded by heavily treed, snow capped mountains descending to emerald green pasture, scattered waterfalls, and (gasp) blue sky! What’s not to like?

Just past Inchbonnie we turn west on 73, then rejoin SH 6 at Kumara Junction, making a loop. As we work our way south we’re treated to a beautiful sight, a huge orange ball of setting sun. We chase it for a photo, ending up on a side road leading to the Londonderry Rock track, which of course begs exploring, even though it’s almost dark. A ten minute walk leads us to a “glacial erratic”, a massive rock deposited here via glacier.

We finally arrive in Hokitika and check into the Shining Star, my review of which can be found here:


True to form, the 3.5 hour drive has taken us 8.25 hours. Not because I’ve underestimated, but because that’s just how we do things.
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Jun 24th, 2013, 05:58 PM
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Day 8: Nice weather, if you’re a duck

Note: We haven’t spent any appreciable time in Hokitika since our first visit to the South Island in 1994. We needed to break up the long drive from Murchison to Cromwell, so Hokitika made perfect sense and gave us a chance to reacquaint ourselves with the area.

It’s cold and sunny, a promising day...at first. We drive to town for breakfast at Café de Paris, Bill proclaiming the Eggs Bennie “excellent” ($26.30 with muffin and a flat white).

I’d compiled an impressive list of walks, so we follow the road to Lake Kaniere and set out on the Kaniere Water Race Walkway, a 2-4 hour one way walk, depending on who you believe and how far you walk. I hate it; we last all of 30 minutes before we turn around. It’s a boring uphill slog along a wide gravel road. The only views are of barren logged areas…ick. Bill likes the bits of the water race, but otherwise this walk is a big fat bust (one hour, 2.38 miles).

Back on Lake Kaniere Road, we drive through the heavy forested scenic reserve. It’s such a pretty day that we decide to keep going to Hokitika Gorge, hoping for some good photos. We circle the lake, noticing that the rainforest comes right to its edge.

We follow the short Dorothy Creek track to the lake for some views, and explore the very impressive and thundering Dorothy Falls. It’s definitely pretty through here. By the time we reach Hokitika Gorge, the sun is gone, but we walk the 30 minute (return) track anyway, which we have entirely to ourselves. Even the sandflies are noticeably absent.

We next work our way towards Rimu to check out another track, finding ourselves in the middle of a herd of cattle being moved down the road to a different pasture. I never tire of watching cows and sheep on the move in New Zealand. This lot is a family affair, dad up front in a truck to warn passing drivers, a young kid on a quad driving the cows, his baby sister trailing him on her bike, and mom and another littlie bringing up the rear in another truck. We stop in the road and just let the cows veer around us. It’s fun to watch, but our car stinks of cow poop until we get another Kiwi car wash – rain.

Once at Rimu, we take in the views of the valley from above, but we never find the walk. Discouraged by the impending gloom and mist, we hang it up, and return to Hoki to wander the streets for a bit.

The Shining Star boasts a glow worm dell directly across the street, so naturally we have to explore once it gets dark. I’m told that glow worms don’t like the cold, and I reckon I believe it.

We return to Café de Paris for dinner; French Onion Soup for me, Carpaccio for Bill, the small plate of Poulet Mediterranean for both (baked chicken breast with sundried tomato and feta wrapped in prosciutto set on roasted potatoes). Dessert is a shared crème Brulee with caramelized bananas, a combination I thought a bit odd…until I tasted it; a lovely meal ($104 including wine and coffee).
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Jun 24th, 2013, 06:03 PM
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Day 9: Hokitika to Cromwell…and sunshine!

We sleep later than usual, lulled into oblivion by the waves crashing against the shore, waking to the soft twitter of birds…and more gloom.

We bid adieu to rainy Hoki and begin our estimated 6.5 hour drive to Cromwell via SH 6. The sun teases us; snow capped mountains come into view. As I climb out of the car to take a photo in Ross, several quacking ducks waddle right on up, as if they’ve been expecting us. Ross looks to be a nice little town, and not just because the sun is out.

We come to a dead stop on SH 6 for about 15 minutes while a crew works on a bridge, but we’re soon on the move again, negotiating some seriously squiggly roads as we enter Westland National Park in all its sun drenched glory. We hadn’t planned on stopping in Franz Josef, but the brilliant sunshine makes resistance futile. We drive out to the glacier and walk the track to the lookout for photos before continuing on to Fox Glacier, where we have a light lunch at The Cook Saddle.

We forge on, but soon give into temptation again, stopping to walk the beach at Bruce Bay; driftwood strewn and absolutely gorgeous.

We make short stops at Lake Paringa and Knights Point Lookout to soak up some more of those lovely clear sea views. We continue south through the ever changing landscape; one minute surrounded by towering snow capped mountains, permanently wind-bent trees and glacial blue rivers; the next enveloped in lush greenness, wisps of cloud hugging the ground, surreal and spooky. It’s a beautiful drive, all the more so because of the brilliant weather. Maybe we’ve finally shaken off the rain and gloom.

I’d hoped to explore the new Lookout Track at Haast Pass and get some photos at the Blue Pools, but there’s just no way. It’s near dark and we still have a long way to go.

The landscape changes once again as we work our way around big arsed Lake Hawea, now surrounded by jagged barren peaks and grazing deer, the roads still squiggly. Our stomachs convince us to detour to Wanaka for dinner at The Spice Room (Chicken Masala, Paneer Masala, rice, naan and two glasses of wine - $58 – very good).

Sated, we plow through the final 56 km to Cromwell, once again arriving in the utter darkness and struggling to locate our accommodation. Our 6.5 hour drive has taken us 10.5 hours. Too long, too much driving, too many potential stops/detours. I don’t recommend doing this, especially in the winter months.

Exhausted, we settle into our accommodation for the next two nights, a beauty of a place, River Rock Estate. My review can be found here:

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Jun 24th, 2013, 06:15 PM
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Day 10: Wining, dining and freezing our butts off in Cromwell

Why Cromwell? Because we love a good Pinot Noir and Central Otago is Pinot Noir nirvana. What we weren’t counting on was how much we’d like the dry Rieslings.

It’s cold, but gloriously sunny. River Rock’s cellar door is mere steps from our unit, so we have an early-in-the-day wine tasting there before heading to Wooing Tree across the street. We like every wine we taste at Wooing Tree, particularly the Blondie, made from Pinot Noir grapes, but a blush color due to minimal skin contact. Our next stop is Aurum, where we love their dry Riesling and Pinot Noir.

Then it’s on to Mt Difficulty in Bannockburn for a beautiful lunch overlooking their sunny (!) vineyard. Seared marinated sea run salmon with gourmet potatoes, snowpeas, Kikorangi blue cheese, Cloudy Bay clams and a dill Crème Fraiche sauce for Bill, which he proclaims excellent, especially the sauce ($32.50), roast pumpkin and coconut soup served with toasted ciabatta for me, very good ($12.50). Dessert is a fabulous baked chocolate fondant with black cherry, star anise, Pinot Noir compote and vanilla bean Mascarpone ($14.50). We share, but could quite easily have not. Incidentally, we also like the Mt Difficulty dry Riesling. I see a pattern here.

We then call in at Gate 20 Two, a small five hectare family owned vineyard, where we sample and make purchases in the foyer of the owner’s home….now that’s a boutique winery. They only make Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.

Our final stop is Carrick, for yet more lovely dry Riesling, after which we retire to our cottage to rug up and chill out on the porch, relishing every last bit of sunshine.

We’d been told that Feast was Cromwell’s best option for dinner, but nothing on the menu appeals, so we dine at the Cromwell Brew House instead (owned by the same couple who own River Rock Estate). Bill has the Tuesday Night Steak and Speights special of Porterhouse, chips and salad ($16); bacon corn chowder for me – good simple food ($40 with drinks and coffee).

Cromwell is a resounding success; I don’t know why it took us so long to get around to staying here, instead of just visiting as a day trip from elsewhere.
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Jun 24th, 2013, 06:30 PM
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Day 11: Cromwell to the Catlins

We leave Cromwell around 10 am, pointed south on SH 8, surrounded by barren mountains; the cold accompanied by a fierce wind that cuts through our fleece like a knife. With the notable exception of Lake Dunstan, this area vaguely reminds me of the Australian Outback…albeit a hilly version without red dirt…dry, desolate and crunchy.

We stop at the Clyde overlook so the engineer can ogle the largest concrete gravity dam in the country…then drive down the steep hill into town. Clyde is known for the Otago Central Rail Trail, a 150 km walking/biking trail, which runs from Clyde to Middlemarch following the old Central Otago railway line. As is so often the case, Clyde is quite a bit bigger than we remember.

After caffeine at the eclectic Bank Café in historic Clyde, we’re back on SH 8, soon passing through Alexandra and the aptly named Rocky Range, where the landscape is rather bizarre and inhospitable. Grey stacked lichen-covered rocks sprout from the ground, sheep graze on invisible greenery; brown treeless hills loom in the distance; the gloom of the day worsening the overall bleakness. It’s dry, drab and a bit depressing, yet strangely interesting.

As Lake Roxburgh appears to our left, a cat comes bounding down the hill to our right as if being chased. We cringe as we hear the thud; the poor thing never had a chance, it collides with the car in the opposite lane.
We enter Teviot Valley, detouring to Roxburgh Lake, where we drive across the reservoir and right up to the massive power station, so the engineer can get a good look, before forging on through the fruit and walnut growing town of Roxburgh, passing sad, naked fruit trees, the occasional abandoned apple clinging on for dear life.

The landscape begins to green up as we approach Raes Junction, the previously straight road now more winding and our surroundings much prettier. At Beaumont we turn onto the Beaumont-Rongahere Road, following the naked deciduous tree-lined Clutha River, (probably gorgeous in autumn) to Balclutha.

Thanks to a helpful woman at the visitor’s center, we enjoy a lovely lunch at Raj (yes, more Indian food…excellent Kadhi chicken and Shahi Paneer, slightly greasy garlic naan, and enough rice to feed four hungry backpackers $34). A lucky find, and I’m guessing much better than Wongy’s Cod and Tatties

Stomachs full, we continue our drive via the Southern Scenic Route, detouring onto Kaka Point Road and on to Nugget Point. The weather has turned seriously nasty; god-awful cold, raining and ferociously windy, but fools that we are, we don our rain suits and dash down to the penguin hide at Roaring Bay to watch for penguins. We see one come ashore and leisurely work his way up the embankment, but even protected by the hide we’re freezing our tails off, so we don’t linger. Back in the relative warmth of our car, we work our way to Mohua Park Eco Cottages, located 20 minutes south of Owaka. It should come as no surprise that our estimated four hour drive has taken seven hours.

My review our accommodation can be found here:

Melnq8 is offline  
Jun 24th, 2013, 11:14 PM
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Hi, melnq8

Through your eyes I'm reliving the area we love visiting and driving through, albeit in January, but not since 2009. Have you taken the road to Jackson Bay, past Haast? It's the furtherest south you can drive on the West Coast, and interesting - the best place to buy freshly-cooked fish and chips to die for!
The Rai Valley is a place where we often stop to stretch our legs, although not quite as energeticaly as you do! And I could go on about all the great places tucked away on the West Coast of the South Island.

Looking forward to the rest, melnq8. BTW, last night I posted a reply to your query about where I am going for 3 months - and it's not "inside"!
dottyp is offline  
Jun 25th, 2013, 01:07 AM
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Hey dotty -

Yes, we visited Jackson Bay a few years back, hoping to walk a particular track, but it was closed due to damage. I'd heard about the fish and chips place (in a roadside trailer, right?) but it was closed too. Such is life as an off season traveler.
Melnq8 is offline  
Jun 25th, 2013, 01:17 AM
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Just looked up the fish and chip place - The Craypot. Any idea if they're open in winter dotty?
Melnq8 is offline  
Jun 25th, 2013, 11:23 AM
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Melnq - thank you yet again for sharing your NZ experiences and experience with us.

one advantage we'll have over you is that we'll have more day light to play with in December, but even so, your warnings about travel times are being heeded.

and your accommodation recommendations; I just booked a night at the shining star! just nights 1,2,3,5,6,7,8,9,10 and 12 to go! [no 11 is at the Mount cook village].
annhig is offline  
Jun 25th, 2013, 03:43 PM
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Day 12: Exploring the Catlins – “Today it rained” (borrowed from a postcard in the Catlins visitor’s center)

Note: In 2008 we spent three nights in the South Catlins near Fortrose. We loved our accommodation, but discovered that we much preferred the beaches, waterfalls, and forest of the north over the seemingly endless pastoral countryside of the south. So, this time we opted to stay in the North Catlins. We then had to choose between staying near the beach or near the forest….the forest won.

We enjoy a peaceful night, secluded, cozy and warm, no sound other than the ticking of the clock and the hum of the much needed heat pump.

Still dark at 8 am; we sip coffee while watching dawn break through the floor to ceiling windows of the lounge room; the day doesn’t look promising through the gloom, fog and occasional downpour. It’s intoxicatingly silent, other than the birds and the rain. Yep, we’re in the Catlins.

We drive to Owaka for a hot breakfast, sadly disappointed with the Catlins Café. Even the coffee is bad ($43 of not-very-good food).

Then we’re off to Surat Bay, cows on the road in front of us running as if being chased instead of just getting off the road (well, they ARE cows). We walk through the bush and along the beach for about an hour, futilely looking for sea lions, finding nothing but creepy thick kelp. A rainbow coaxes me to free my camera from its protective condom and my hands from their mittens long enough to take photos. This is the famously fickle and windswept Catlins, one minute cold and windy, the next rainy and windy, then windy with the occasional tease of sunshine.

On to Jack’s Bay to re-visit Jack’s Blowhole, which we’d been told was very active due to the high seas. Indeed it is; between the rain and sea spray, keeping my camera lens clean proves impossible.

The track to the blowhole is much more user friendly than in 2008, as they’ve added steps and made some significant improvements. I still like Jack’s Blowhole, as much for the knee crunching walk and the fabulous views as for the blowhole itself, uniquely located 200 meters from the sea (1.88 miles, one hour return).

We’d missed the Cathedral Caves previously due to a bad weather closure and we miss them again. The caves are closed in June, July and August, a detail I’d overlooked. So it goes.

The sporadic sunshine encourages us to return to Nugget Point, where we walk to the lighthouse for some glorious views in the cold, blustery wind (1.21 miles, 40 minute return). We also return to Roaring Bay, where it’s still howling a gale, but dry and gorgeous, although too early for penguins. What a difference a day makes.

Our last stop is Purakaunui Falls, located 9 km off the main road. We follow the short track through the cold, lush, otherworldly rainforest to an impressive viewing platform. The thundering terraced waterfalls are spectacular and well worth the detour.

On the return to our accommodation we encounter a sheep traffic jam…the farmer waves us ahead, letting us round up the bleating mob, hoping they knew where they’re going.
Melnq8 is offline  
Jun 25th, 2013, 04:14 PM
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Day 13: A wet, soggy mess of a track

Morning brings more gloom. No sooner than I point out the few promising slivers of sunshine, it begins to rain. Back into the rain suits we go.

Naïve fool that I am, I suggest that we walk the five-hour Catlins River Track, of which I know nothing other than the trailhead is five kilometers up the road from our accommodation (Catlins Valley Road). Despite the cold and rain, the walk begins well enough, leading through the forest alongside a very full river….but it goes downhill in a hurry (figuratively speaking).

Every step becomes progressively more treacherous as we negotiate slippery exposed roots, moss and mud. The track is a wet, soggy mess, and it doesn’t take long for us to realize we’ve bitten off more than we want to chew, so we bail (2.2 miles). Note: We later learn that there’s a much easier access point and only fools try to walk this track in the rain. We live, we learn.

Back in the dry warmth of our car and curious about the opposite end of the track, we continue driving north on Catlins Valley Road, looking for The Wisp. A pretty drive this, rolling green pasture with a dusting of snow atop the hills. We follow Cloris Pass Road into the brooding and primeval Catlins Coastal Rainforest Park, and voila, there’s The Wisp, a muddy picnic ground devoid of tables, and the trailhead. The rain is back, the valley encased in fog, we give up on walking and picnic in the car.

Then back to Owaka, the sun making an appearance, sort of; bizarre how quickly the weather here changes. The bright green hills are speckled with white dots - sheep. Owaka’s only petrol station is unmanned, a credit card with a pin is needed, we fiddle with various cards for a bit, but nothing works, no gas for us.

Next we explore the settlement of Pounawea (Maori for Catlins Lake), which lies along the estuary at the junction of the Catlin and Owaka rivers. We walk a trail along the estuary, through the bush, alongside the settlement and back (easy, 30 minutes), then drive to Papatowai to buy gas, wondering what the heck the sheep are eating….some sort of big red root vegetable.

We explore a 20 minute walk at Maitai and Horseshoe Falls, making it back to the car just as the sky opens again. We press on to Papatowai Beach for a low tide walk amongst the ripe kelp. After gassing the Toyota (not quite as bad as expected at $2.20 per liter), we return to our accommodation to explore the tracks on the property.

We encounter owner Fergus as he’s walking down to collect the mail, so he gives us an impromptu tour, pointing out various trees, demonstrating his bird calls and telling us that The Catlins receives similar rainfall in summer and winter, but this week has been wetter than usual (it figures). We walk several of the tracks, one of which is memorably butt-kicking, and marvel at the striking contrast between the birdlife here, vs. the lack of birds in many other South Island forests.

Some track info for those keen on walking:

Melnq8 is offline  
Jun 25th, 2013, 04:37 PM
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Day 14: Green, green, green…Catlins to Te Anau

It freezes during the night. We’re up early, the stars clearly visible above the low clouds clinging to the hills outside our front door. This is the kind of NZ winter day that makes me happy – cold, yet clear.

The sun finally crests the rolling hills to the east, no moody fast moving clouds, no spiteful wind, no meager slice of sunshine…a promising day indeed.

Bill almost takes a spill on the ice covered deck as we load the car. We’re on the road just after 9 am, stopping almost immediately to photograph some frost covered cows, then we continue on to the Papatowi Highway, “where the forest meets the sea”.

We turn south, and call in at Niagara Falls Café, where we have a nice chat with the proprietor who tells us they make all their food from scratch, and don’t even own a deep fryer, bless ‘em. We regret that we only have room for caffeine; we’ve already eaten; the menu really tempts at this lovely little gem.

Back on the bitumen, we take the turn off to Slope Point and follow the gravel road for 13 km, then walk the 20 minute sheep poop minefield to the most southerly point on the South Island. We’re awed by the complete lack of wind, which unlike the last time we were here, belies the permanently bent trees. It’s a beautiful day. We detour to a nearby beach, get caught up in a Catlins traffic jam (two cars!) and work our way to Fortrose.

It’s green, green, green…gently rolling pasture as far as the eye can see, the South Catlins flatter than a flitter compared to other parts of the South Island; here it’s all about the farming.

We rejoin the Southern Scenic Route at Fortrose and begin the 46 km drive to an even flatter agricultural Invercargill; even the road is straight for a change.

Before long, we're back in the city, population 53,000. Funny how even a small city feels overwhelming after the peace and solitude of the sticks. We grab a bite and pick up some groceries, then wander though a couple of residential areas trying to find SH 6.

A milk bar beckons…Deep South ice cream lies within. Lemon lime and hokey-pokey for me, vanilla for Bill - $5 for two scoops each, yum.

Relishing our full day of sunshine, we’re soon back on SH 6, the topography changing as we approach Lumsden, the flat replaced by hills and distant mountains. We notice that the Southern Scenic Route continues west from here and our next trip to the SI is born.

It’s getting prettier and prettier, then some freaky looking clouds appear in the distance, we’re soon encased in a cold fog, the sun still above but completely obscured.

At Lumsden we turn onto 94 and begin the final 74 km drive to Te Anau, surrounded by a seriously creepy fog. Fifteen minutes later we emerge from the mist and the sun appears. Snow covered mountains can now be seen to the north, briefly, as the fog returns just in time for the sun to set, eerily shining through a sea of mist and illuminating the snow covered mountains with a strange orange cast. We pass many deer farms, and pull into Te Anau 8.5 hours after leaving the Catlins.

We call in for dinner at La Toscana – two medium pizzas for $27 and not up to their usual standards – then head to our accommodation for the next three nights – Birchwood Cottages. My review can be found here:

Melnq8 is offline  
Jun 25th, 2013, 06:56 PM
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I seriously had to get up and make myself a cuppa reading about your winter weather!
mlgb is offline  
Jun 25th, 2013, 09:33 PM
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Melnq8 is offline  
Jun 25th, 2013, 10:08 PM
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Guilty. I had to turn off the fan, too.
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