Still shivering and wet from my unexpected dip in the Kawarau River, I collected the usual souvenirs (DVD, tee, photos, etc) and we were on our way again. It's one of the more interesting diversions I've taken on a road trip, that's for sure.
East across Otago to Cromwell at the junction of the Kawarau and Clutha Rivers, along the north edge of Lake Dunstan (the result of construction of the impressive Clyde Hydroelectric Dam), then following the Clutha River through Alexandra and south overlooking spectacular rugged landscapes of native grasses irregularly punctured by rock fragments. The river contrasted by the beautifully bleak landscape is something that you don't get tired of seeing, while the road winds and eases, following the natural contours of the valleys. Past the Roxburgh Hydroelectric Dam and through Roxburgh itself, then more directly south to Beaumont, Lawrence and Milton nearer the coast where a turn north directs you towards Mosgiel and Dunedin. By the time we arrived there it was evening and a good opportunity to find somewhere to eat and stay for the night. Dunedin feels like a smaller Brisbane to me, with the charm and style of Melbourne (pronounced by its position at the end of the Otago Harbour); it oozes history and heritage.
The next morning it was time for some more exploration and it was difficult to resist a tour of the Cadbury Chocolate Factory, located near the city's centre just outside The Octagon - a concentric series of streets in an octagonal layout containing many historic buildings and public resources. The tour was interesting and worthwhile, however no photos can be taken upon entering the factory. It has a very Willy Wonka feel to it!
Dunedin is also home to the world's steepest street, Baldwin Street. It's quite an effort to get to the top, as can be attested to by the guy catching his breath while I was taking this photo...
Beginning the journey back to Christchurch, where we had only stayed briefly (on the night we arrived, then again on the way through to Queenstown), we left Dunedin and travelled along the coast. There are towns scattered the entire length of the east coast, so the journey takes quite some time as you make your way slowly through many of them. However, there's a lot to see!
Out through Waitati, Warrington, up and around to Waikouaiti then following the plains to Palmerston before nearing the coastline once more.
After Palmerston and just before Hampden is the small town of Moeraki. It's a spot to get out of the car and take a look, if only for the Moeraki Boulders, the unbelievably-natural giant spheres of stone which are slowly being revealed by erosion on the Koekohe Beach.
Up to several metres in diameter and weighing several thousand kilograms, these natural wonders formed approximately 60 million years ago (around the time the dinosaurs died out).
It's another great example of just how many unique and unusual features New Zealand has to offer!
Leaving the coast, travelling directly north via Hampden and Herbert before edging back towards the ocean through Maheno, Oamaru and Glenavy, the plains became increasingly snow-covered. The snow from days prior was still causing havoc for residents and farmers of the Canterbury Plains, with widespread power outages, communications difficulties and water supply issues.
For much of the way to Timaru the fields as far as the eye could see were white, with the theme continued through Temuka and up to Ashburton (now tracking north easterly).
The consistently cold weather would retain the snow for many more days.
Further across and over some amazing rivers, their waters generated by the mountains to the west, the trip concluded through Rakaia, Dunsandel, Burnham, Rolleston and Templeton. Back in familiar-yet-unfamiliar Christchurch we settled in to get some good food and a good night's sleep. Tomorrow involved another early start and our last full day in Aotearoa (Land of the Long White Cloud), with a trip on the TranzApline through the Southern Alps to the west of South Island and back again!
After having lunch and looking around it was time to head out of Queenstown, destined for Dunedin on the east coast. The landscape dramatically transforms and it's not long before dry and barren mountains are cutting up on either side. Making its way through the arid valley is the bright Kawarau River, fed from Lake Wakatipu. Not far from Queenstown and crossing it in a 100 metre span is the famous Kawarau Bridge, the world's first bungy jumping site.
43 metres above the river (roughly the equivalent of a 13 storey building), the view might bring up nerves for those who are uncomfortable with heights. Common sense, which ordinarily I'm in agreement with, says that strapping an elastic cord to your legs and jumping off a bridge isn't a very safe thing to do, but something about it made me decide that this is something that I wanted to try. Maybe the cold was affecting my brain. A few minutes later I'd signed my life away and was standing outside the structure of the bridge with my toes hanging over the edge, staring down into the vast expanse of nothingness between me the river.
There was really nothing left to do except jump...
Obviously this photo wasn't taken by me (I'm the one hurtling through the air); it's one of the photos taken during the freefall by the team at A J Hackett Bungy.
It's difficult to describe, but it's a huge rush! The first freefall is over in just a few seconds before you're yanked back up by the bungy cord. The experience is fantastic! After you've bounced around a fair bit and started to regain your composure you come to a rest hanging upside over the rushing water before being "rescued" by a two man team in a boat. In case you're wondering, yes, my head ended up dunked in that water and yes it was extremely cold!
You can't go to Queenstown without taking the Skyline Gondola to get an elevated view (or to try the luge, or at least watch other people nearly cause themselves serious bodily harm on the luge).
As our tour of Milford Sound came to its conclusion the rain intensified and it was time to start the journey back to Queenstown. The drive back is just as interesting as the drive there, giving you the opportunity to experience all of the amazing sights from another perspective and in a later light. It's like one long oil painting, starting with the rough terrain of white and slate mountains, down through lush forests traced by turquoise rivers, along the golden plains of wind-swept tussock, through fields of fences and snow laden grass.
In the evening we arrived in Queenstown where finding accommodation wasn't as easy as you'd expect for a location which at any given time has more tourists than residents. Queenstown is pretty, sitting along one edge of Lake Wakatipu, but also extremely busy. Its tangled and ad hoc grid of narrow one-way streets and malls is alive with foot traffic, contained only by the ubiquitous array of pubs and stores primarily aimed at Generation Y tourists (and their wallets). Personally I think it's too busy.
During the day when most of the transient population are nursing hangovers and/or away at one of the several nearby ski resorts, the place doesn't seem that bad. You can hardly complain when you wake up to a view like this...
... and this ...
Known as the "Adventure Capital" (perhaps "Adrenalin Capital" would be more appropriate), the scenery is what I enjoyed the most. With The Remarkables cutting the sky on one side and the lake stretching out on the other, it's difficult not to be impressed.
The trip from Queenstown to Te Anau felt like quite a long one due to it being after dark and after such a slow day waiting around in airports. Still, the landscape under a partial moon, with recent snow luminous in the fields, was a relaxing and interesting sight. There was almost no traffic which seems to be a regularity in New Zealand; with a population of around 4.1 million people and so many roads it's not that surprising. Milford Sound itself has no accommodation so Te Anau is a good place to stay, being situated about 1.5 hours from Milford Sound in good driving conditions. During the winter months the road suffers from ice so the trip can be significantly slower, but the road is well-marked and maintained. Avalanches are also a problem, so from Falls Creek (not to be confused with the Australian ski resort!) to The Chasm - the majority of the trip - there is no stopping allowed.
A feature of the drive is the narrow Homer Tunnel, a 1.3 km hand-carved and unlined road tunnel that takes you through to the other side of the mountains. In summer traffic lights operate at both ends of the tunnel because it's narrow width and almost semi-circular profile make it difficult for large vehicles travelling in opposite directions to get around one another. In winter however you just take your chances - the avalanche risk at the entrances means that stopping or queuing is prohibited.
With snow scattered everywhere and sleet falling as we rapidly reduced altitude on the west side of the tunnel it was clear that the weather was going to be rainy, but this is an advantage at Milford Sound, where rain equates to waterfalls!
As soon as you arrive at Milford Sound the 4 hours of driving are instantly forgotten. Photographs just don't do justice to it! Milford Sound, which is actually a fjord, is both unbelievably enormous and gorgeous. You have to see it for yourself to get a real understanding of the scale of things here, because words and photos can't convey how impressive and imposing it is.
We booked on Red Boat Cruises for a trip through Milford Sound and it was a great experience!
The sheer cliffs and colossal U-shaped features, the result of glacial erosion over thousands of years, rise dramatically up from deep and emerald waters to over 1600 metres in height.
A number of huge waterfalls had rushed into action because of the recent rain. There are much larger examples than the one in this photo but again the scale is difficult to capture in an image, so I'll leave them as a surprise for when you go there yourself! (If you've ever thought of going to New Zealand, make sure you go to Milford Sound. In fact, go to New Zealand just to go to Milford Sound!)
When it's raining the light and the clouds are constantly changing. Just when you thought things couldn't look any more beautiful you get a pleasant surprise around the next corner.
The next morning in Rotorua it was off to the airport and into the morning sky to the South Island. The view was nothing short of spectacular, with the blizzards from the previous days laying thick snow on the mountains and, further down the coast, the plains as well. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so...
The plan was to fly directly from Rotorua to Queenstown, however that didn't really happen. It was missing from the itinerary but the flight included a stop-over in Christchurch, which, like every other city on the east coast, was covered in snow to sea level!
I've never seen anything like it before; it's how I imagine the Swiss countryside would look.
The end result of all this snow was that the connecting flight to Queenstown had been cancelled because the scheduled plane was stranded in Dunedin. After hanging around for a while in needlessly-disgruntled queues we were shuffled out and informed that we were part of a lucky few who had been transferred to a flight later that afternoon with another airline. Everyone else was going to have to either stay in Christchurch for several days before seats became available again or make their way slowly by road instead, so this was excellent news. Checked back in, lunch, waiting around for a few hours, a couple of games of pinball, then boarding the new afternoon flight where staff were more than a little confused regarding some of the transferred passengers' status on the flightplan. Then up, up and away - better late than never.
The flight across the South Island was again an experience in itself, the windows dominated by dusted plains and mountainous landscapes of gold, white and blue in the glow of an aged sun. Descending into Queenstown is a fantastic ride, spiraling into the valley with peaks towering on all sides and then a hot landing at the end of the bay.
Touch down, picked up the rental car and it was already just reaching night time, a brief look around Queenstown plus a mix-up with the chain hire before driving straight off into the countryside to reach Te Anau for an overnight stay ready for a trip to Milford Sound the following day.