By Lynne Dickinson
Running as fast as my jandled feet would allow, I slammed my boarding pass on the bag drop desk just as the loud speaker announced, “The flight to Queenstown is now closed”.
Talk about cutting it close!
Unfortunately, the act of “cutting it close” became a theme song for the rest of our trip. It’s not that we hadn’t planned with care, it’s just we hadn’t quite calculated the level of distractions. On the first day it was an accident on the motorway that had us rushing and the rest of the time it was simply the incredible scenery that meant we were constantly stopping to take photos, and we simply ran out of time.
As a result, our six-day hiatus to the South became more like a wine tasting experience, just enough of a taste to give you an idea of what’s available, but leaving you somewhat wanting.
We arrived in Queenstown on a beautiful clear day and headed directly to Wanaka to pick up our vehicles for the week; a couple of 4×4 vehicles from Off Road Rentals, complete with a Fender Shelter on the roof of one and a converted wine barrel on the back of the other, and headed towards Timaru Creek on the Eastern shores of Lake Hawea. We found a relatively flat spot right on the water’s edge and set up camp (one of the benefits of having 4x4s). With the Feldon car-top tent and the barrel we were ready in a heartbeat and we sat back with a glass of wine while the boys fished. It didn’t take long before we heard the yells of excitement and fish was added it was added to the menu for dinner.
Waking to rising winds and hungry sandflies saw us packing quickly and heading straight to Clyde. We arrived at “Bike It Now!” still eating the breakfast buns we’d bought from the shop next door. Although we were running late again, Bike It Now! had our Trek Roscoe 7 bikes already set up, (complete with super comfy seats, plus tyres, water bottles and panniers), and we sat back to listen to the briefing. With only a morning to spare on our travels, Bike It Now! had suggested either the Roxbrough Gorge or a one-day section of the Otago Central Rail trail. As the latter was on our bucket list, we had chosen the section from Auripo to Chatto Creek, a biking distance of approximately 30km. We were driven to our drop off point, all the while being regaled with interesting background on the history of the region by our driver Warren.
The Otago Rail Trail opened in 2000 and covers 152km of the former Otago Central Railway which operated in the area from 1879 – 1990. With the steam trains unable to climb anything steeper than a 2% gradient, the trail makes for super pleasant riding with nothing too arduous.
We followed the trail from Auripo to Lauder in the Ida Valley, through the tunnels and viaducts of the Poolburn Gorge out to the Manukerikia. The scenery is spectacular, and you need to allow plenty of time to stop and take photos; this is old goldmining territory and much of the area is littered memorabilia from a time gone past. We found the cutest café in Lauder where we stopped for coffee and cake, before continuing to Omakau. With our riding speeds averaging around 18km/h we had time for the side-trip to Ophir, to see the place that boasts the largest temperature range in the country, over 56 degrees C. (35.2 degrees Celsius recorded in Jan 1959 and -21.6 in July 1995).
The town is quaint and it’s easy to picture what it would have looked like when it was a thriving gold mining town in the 1863’s. The Post Office that was built in 1886 still operates even though Ophir’s population has dropped to only 50 people.
From Ophir down to Chatto Creek was only a further 10km but by now the wind had increased and we had to peddle hard to get downhill in the head-on wind. However, a few minutes later the track double backed on itself and we found ourselves screaming along with a tail wind, seeing who could get their bikes to go the fastest. I think Tony clocked in at 46km/h. The Chatto Creek Pub was awaiting with cold beers, great food and without a doubt the best beer battered chips we’d ever eaten. It was the perfect end to an incredible day, and we waited here for the shuttles back to Clyde. We could have continued the rest of the way back by bike, however we still had a long drive ahead and once again time became our main constraint.
As we drove out of Clyde towards Cromwell the sky darkened and the rain began to fall. We’d intended to camp along the Te-Anau/Milford road but the further south we drove the heavier the rain fell, so we opted to find a place to stay in Te Anau before driving out to Milford Sound the following morning.
We were so glad we chose to do that as the drive to Milford Sound is not one to be rushed. It takes around two hours, however you could spend the whole day and longer along this section of the country. The road runs alongside Lake Te Anau before weaving its way to the Sounds. The grandeur of the drive out to Milford Sounds reminded me of Yosemite National Park, a place I consider amongst the most spectacular in the world, so to have this in our back yard was mind blowing. The road is littered with trails and tracks with two of the Great Walks, the Routeburn and the Milford track along this stretch.
With so much to see we found ourselves cutting it close timewise and we arrived at Rosco’s Milford Kayaks once again, just in time for the briefing.
Kayaking in Milford Sounds puts your place in the world into some perspective. You feel such a sense of insignificance surrounded by such grandeur and in a small kayak the fiord rises starkly from the dark ocean leaving you humbled by the sheer beauty of the place.
It is also extremely hard to get your head around distance here. Our guide, Ollie explained this as the “dwarfing effect”, where things look a lot smaller than they are since there is very little to compare it with. It’s was not until a large boat cruised up next to Stirling falls that it gave any perspective to how large the falls were. Stirling falls are 151m in height (that’s three times the height of Niagara Falls) but the mountain behind at 1,300m is so high it dwarfs the falls by comparison.
If you want to experience Milford Sounds, then a kayak is the best way to do it. It’s quiet, peaceful and enables you to explore everything up close. There was loads to see; waterfalls, inlets, birds and even some seals warming themselves on the rocks in the sunshine and the team from Rosco’s Kayaks were fantastic.
The next day dawned another bright and beautiful day in Te Anau, and with nothing planned we finally managed to slow things down and move at a more leisurely pace. With a whole day to play with we headed out to Mavora Lakes with the food in the trucks, fishing rod baited and beers cooling in the chilly bin.
Mavora Lakes is about an hour’s drive from Lake Te Anau, the last half an hour down a gravel road. Do not be put off, the drive, like everything in this area is worth it. Before we’d even reached the lakes, we had stopped numerous times to take photos and check out walking tracks for our “next” visit.
Do not make the mistake of thinking this is just another lake. The scenery is so diverse in this part of the country that you can explore Milford Sounds, Te Anau and Mavora Lakes and experience three quite unique environments. Mavora Lakes are made up of two lakes joined together by a small river and we set up camp along a secluded part of the river bank, lit up the barbeque, pulled out our camp chairs and fished the river. Although we could see the fish clearly, many of them breaking the surface as they looked for bugs, none of them took our bait, so we had to settle for sausages for lunch.
That night we got to explore Te Anau, which has turned into a bustling town with plenty of great restaurants and bars. While in Te Anau you must visit Habit Foods, Fiordlands first food trailer creating locally owned Kiwi kai with an Asian twist, delicious.
With only one day left in Te Anau we hooked up with Trips & Tramps to get the most out of our last day. We met our boat driver Sean from Fiordland Outdoors Company at Queens Reach, the boat ramp that accesses the Waiau River. This is the largest river in the southwestern corner of the South Island and the upper Waiau, which flows between Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri, doubled as the fictional river Anduin from The Lord of The Rings. Almost everywhere in the South boasted Lord of the Rings connections and you could certainly see why. The area is so dramatic and beautiful that it really does look like it’s from a fictional movie set.
The upper reaches of the Waiau River was the section that we were going to be fishing and holds one of the largest stock of fish in the country with drift dives confirming as many as 600 fish per kilometre of river.
The river is deep and clear and after our guide Sean gave us a few tips, it did not take long to hook our first rainbow trout. However, hooking and landing a trout are two different things and just as the fish got close to the boat it gave sharp twist and spat out the hook.
A few more drifts down the river and we hooked a few more, eventually landing two beautiful rainbow trout. After the boasting photos were taken, we returned the fish to the water and did it all again. The rest of the morning continued much the same and way too quickly our time was up, and we were back at Queens Reach to meet our guide and helicopter pilot for the next leg of the trip.
Mark, from Fiordland Helicoptors and Geoff from Trips & Tramps talked to us through the headsets pointing out landmarks and points of interest as we flew up the valley just above the tree line, before dropping us off at the Luxmore Hut in front of a half dozen or so worn and tired trampers. It was at this point that taking the helicopter to the top felt like a bit of a cop out, and the trampers laughed when we said we felt a little guilty. But without time on our side this provided the most logical and most spectacular option to reach the Kepler Track.
The Kepler Track is one of New Zealand’s great walks and as a result the tracks are well formed and easy to follow. The terrain ranges from lush native bush to tussock-covered ridges and alpine peaks. To complete the circular track of 60km would usually take 3-4 days but with only an afternoon spare we opted to walk the last 10 km down from Luxmore Hut to the lake edge at Brod Bay where we were to be picked up by the water taxi.
The start of the track from Luxmore runs along the ridge, covered in tussock with Lake Te Anau in the distance on one side, the mountain on the other. Behind Lake Te Anau is Mt Murchison, which rises 1,275m above sea level, and is where the last wild population of takahe, which for almost half a century was thought to be extinct, were found. (You can see the takahe at the bird sanctuary in Lake Te Anau, worth a walk around and it’s free!) It’s hard to describe how beautiful the area looks from up on that ridge, it is stunning. Our walk down took us through dense native bush and underneath sheer limestone cliffs until we reached the shore of Lake Te Anau.
As with all wine tasting experiences, there are some wines you like more than others and those are the ones you want to drink more of. In the case of our trip, all our “wines” were top quality and require much more time to really appreciate.
There is also a load of other things we simply didn’t have time for. One we had hoped to fit in was a trip out to Lake Hauroko with River Jet to jetboat down the Wairaurahiri River through 27km of grade 3 rapids. The river eventually takes you out to the South Coast where on a good day you can see Stewart Island and Solander Islands.
But time was not on our side and as we drove back to Queenstown for the flight home I had to laugh. We had come down to tick off a couple of things on our bucket list, which we had done, however, in doing so we’d found so many things we wanted to do that my list had got bigger! So as Arnold Schwarzenegger says in the science fiction film The Terminator, “I’ll be back!”
A huge shout out to the following people who helped make this trip so memorable. Although we have the internet at our fingertips to search for what there is to do, there is nothing that can beat local knowledge, and these guys were all worth their weight in gold!
Sarah McDonald from Destination Fiordland: fiordland.org.nz
Fletch from Bike it Now!: bikeitnow.co.nz
The team at Rosco’s Milford Kayaks: roscosmilfordkayaks.com
The team from Trips & Tramps: tripsandtramps.com
Sean from Fiordland Outdoors Company fiordlandoutdoors.co.nz
Fiordland Helicoptors: fiordlandhelicoptors.co.nz
Places to stay:
Off Track Rentals
Te Anau Lake View Kiwi Holiday Park & Motels