The end of our 4th week in New Zealand coincided with the arrival of 10 days heavy rain, strong winds and low cloud. I have been told that the West coast has amazing views but really all we saw as we drove was the low hanging mist, and the wild sea. Early on we had one moody stretch of drive with steep vertical cliffs either side of us as we drove along the river, with waterfalls rushing down the cliff faces, that really suited the weather conditions and I suspect it wouldn’t have been nearly so dramatic on a sunny day, but most of the time the rain didn’t add anything to the journey and was so intense that we couldn’t stop for many of the walks we had planned. The end result was that we covered a huge distance in a relatively short period of time.
Spending many hours driving was wonderful for me and Ben, enjoying listening to music, chatting and looking out, seeing the scenery from the front of the van, but it inevitably led, at times, to boredom and bickering for the kids sitting in the back. I had hoped the long drives would be opportunities for learning and long conversations together, but it is too noisy in the back to have a conversation with someone in the front, and unfortunately both Ben and I get travel sick after much time in the back, hence the children were pretty much left to their own devices a lot of the time. They played a lot of cards, mostly Hearts, Rummy and later on a new game invented by Jago at the Cameron’s Flat camping site on Haast Pass called ‘Flat’, interspersed with a song and dance called ‘Shuffle Mummy’ as the cards got passed backwards and forwards to be shuffled. They spent many hours having great hilarity at a ‘beauty contest’ which essentially involved them taking off their tops and stretching their armpit skin to see who was most beautiful. A great comment as we drove and told them to admire the view was ‘what view? All I can see is mountains…’. It was certainly a challenge spending so much concentrated time together in a confined space but thankfully we’re all still talking to each other at the end of it!
After leaving Abel Tasman National Park we stopped overnight at ‘Hope Saddle lookout’, a freedom camping spot on the road to Westport, where we had a hint of mountain views but visibility was only a few hundred metres. We carried on to Punakaiki, arriving early in the day, with the thought that at least Ben could take advantage of the weather to get some work done. Whilst he caught up with some bits, the kids and I donned our waterproofs and braved the weather to view the Pancake Rocks, stacks of rocks with strange weathering that has created the visual effect of piles of thin rocks piled on top of each other. We rewarded ourselves with some time indoors at the visitor centre and of course some pancakes for tea- delicious!
We had planned to spend a day walking around Punakaiki but decided to carry on travelling as the weather wasn’t up to much, and headed on to Franz Josef the following day, stopping at the kiwi centre in Hokitika where we enjoyed a couple of hours observing kiwis in their dark, dimly lit home, stroking eels and fishing for crayfish as well as seeing some of the jade that is famous in this area. We camped by the banks of Lake Mapourika, just outside of Franz Josef, one of many lakes in this area formed by melting glacier, and Jago couldn’t turn down the opportunity to swim in a rare 15 minutes without rain- brrr! We could even seen Mount Cook in the distance for a short while! Needless to say, nobody else joined him.
We explored Lake Mapourika further the next morning, with a guided kayak tour to make up for missing out on kayaking at Kaiteretere. It was incredibly quiet and serene, even with the children as companions, and a fabulous wet weather activity as we really didn’t notice the downpours once we were wrapped up in our lifejackets, waterproofs, gloves and hats! Cara was surprised at how much like hard work it was and I don’t think it quite lived up to her adrenaline-fueled expectations after all her zorbing, luging and white-water rafting, but we all really enjoyed it and it was definitely one of the best family activities we have done for entertaining everybody. It was so nice to be out and doing something again after just a couple of days cooped up in the van- it is a small space for lots of people when you’re not getting out much!
We had allowed a couple of days in our schedule to see the glaciers at Franz Josef and Fox, but again visibility was so poor with no signs of letting up that there didn’t seem any point in hanging around. One fine day of sunshine was forecast for the whole week, and we wanted to enjoy that day walking in Mount Aspiring National Park, so we again decided to press on with our journey down South whilst the rain continued. We stopped for a quick walk at Fox glacier (a shorter walk and you can get closer to the terminal moraine) and managed to get away with only a 10 minute downpour and a reasonable view of the glacier before heading on with our travels. We warmed up in a cafe further down the road, and then started the fabulous drive along the Haast Pass at early evening, just as the rain stopped and the cloud started to lift. The drive along a narrow river valley with sheer cliffs on either side, with waterfalls running down them, and snow capped mountains behind, was absolutely stunning and a wonderful reward after days of cloud and drizzle. We decided to stop on Haast Pass itself, freedom camping at Cameron’s Flat, a stunning lookout en route. It was absolutely freezing cold, and we awoke to fresh snow on the peaks, but it was totally worth it for the beauty and tranquility as we emerged in the morning to clear blue skies and the best breakfast view we’ve ever had!
Wishing to take advantage of the beautiful day we pressed on to Wanaka early on Monday morning, hoping to get a full day walking the Rob Roy glacier track in Mount Aspiring National park along the Matukituki valley. We stopped in at the DOC centre to pick up a map, who advised us that the walk would not be safe after so much rain and snow, and suggested we climb Rocky Mountain instead, a domed peak just outside Wanaka giving 360 degree views down the valley to Mount Aspiring, snow topped mountains and Lake Wanaka. We took their advice and had a very rewarding stomp upwards with the best lunch view imaginable. Perfect! We headed to a holiday park in Wanaka afterwards and booked in for 2 nights, knowing the wild weather would be returning again and planning for Ben to get a day’s work in once the cloud returned. We spent most of the following day hanging out at the campsite, although Cara and I managed to venture out for a very wet and windy bike ride around Lake Wanaka, feeling very virtuous and thoroughly deserving of the hot chocolate and cake that we rewarded ourselves with in one of the lakeside cafes. There was no sign of any of the mountains that had been there the day before, just low hanging mist once again! The boys stayed behind to play football and sword fight with sticks, their new favourite pastime. That evening Cara and I took advantage of the campsite hot tub and had some lovely relaxing girls’ time before bed talking about all our favourite things so far. It was amazing to think about how much we have done in such a short time and incredibly difficult to choose the highlights!
On Wednesday morning we awoke to yet more snow on the tops of the surrounding mountains after another freezing cold night, and more wind and wet weather expected. We decided that instead of continuing South to more mountains and Fiordland, we would head across to the East coast at this stage and loop back to Queenstown via the South coast, so that we would be spending the cold, wet weather on lower ground, wildlife spotting, and return to the higher ground when the cloud lifted. So it was that we left Wanaka on Wednesday morning bound for Dunedin. Despite the week not going exactly to plan, kayaking on Lake Mapourika, the beautiful night at Cameron Flat reserve, and the fabulous walk up Rocky Mountain in the Mount Aspiring National park are amongst the most wonderful memories of South Island so far. The scenery here really is awe inspiring, so long as you can see it!