01/12/2009 65 °F
Eagerly awaiting to see with my own eyes the fantastic scenery that Lord of the Rings displayed, we arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand late afternoon. Dawn and I had planned an ambitious trek across the southern island of New Zealand (there are 3 main islands, the large north island containing Auckland and the capital Wellington, the large south island which we would be traveling, and the smaller Stewart Island). I couldn't wait to get started, but first we had to go through customs.
The Christchurch airport made RDU look gigantic by comparison, but that meant customs seemingly had 3 officers for every traveler. Dawn got flagged for having a "brown substance" (which apparently only looks like dirt to the untrained eye) and had to have her shoes sanitized. The Kiwis are very concerned with introducing foreign bacteria and other organisms into their ecosystem. In 2004, an invasive algae was found for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere in New Zealand. Didymo, also flatteringly referred to as "rock snot", poses no health risk, but it will cover river and lake beds. This algae can spread from a single drop of water, so all outdoor gear must be absolutely dry before entering the country. They X-ray every bag (I guess to make sure you are not smuggling rabbits or some other uncontrollable pest in your bag). I waited for the dust buster to come out to vacuum the dust in the unused pockets in my bag, but customs declared us sufficiently clean to enter the country. Our trip had begun!
As in Australia, cars in New Zealand travel on the left side of the road. I had never driven a car on the "wrong" side before, but thought after becoming accustomed to this for the last 2 months that this wouldn't be a large issue. However, my confidence was dropping with every step to the rental car counter. By the time I picked up the keys and walked out to the car, my heart was thumping, my knees were weak, and my mouth had dried out. We put our bags in the car, Dawn dutifully settled in as copilot, and I began to stall turning the ignition. Questions like "Where do we go once we leave the airport?" and "I wonder if the tires have enough air in them" and "Are you sure you don't need to use the bathroom" only worked for so long before Dawn emphatically told me to start driving. A feeling I hadn't experienced since I was 15 suddenly came rushing back. While praying that we wouldn't meet a car on the road for the next 7 days, my heart skipped a beat when a car came flying down our isle in the parking lot. I swerved to left, slammed on the breaks, wiped the sweat off my brow. The car was still 100 yards away and traveling 5 mph, but I waited until it passed. Slowly, but surely, I made my way out of the airport and onto the highway headed west.
Dawn and I decided to skip Christchurch for now and immediately get on the road. Our first day of driving would take use 380 km (235 miles) west across the country. We left Christchurch (A) and headed towards Lake Tekapo (B) along the Inland Scenic Tourist Route and stopping for the night in Mt Cook (C).
Dawn was doing a good job giving me directions, but when I looked over at the map, I realized she was using the map that showed the travel times between various cities in the entire country of New Zealand (the least detailed map in a 150 page atlas). This would be like using a map of the east coast to tell someone how to get to Charlotte from Raleigh. She claimed she "liked seeing everything at once", but after some convincing she switched to a map that was more local to our immediate travels. The Inland Scenic Route was a state highway that traveled along the northeast edge of the Southern Alps (the range of mountains that nearly span the entire southern island). Now when I say state highway, keep this in mind: there are two types of state highways, sealed and unsealed. Not really knowing what this meant, we eventually found out that this is synonymous to paved and unpaved. Some portions of the major highways across New Zealand are unpaved. So when I say that we are on a state highway, you should think of a 2 lane (sometimes 1 lane) country back-road in the US. Another feature of New Zealand highways is the single lane bridges. You'll be cruising at 100 kph, turn a corner, and then be presented with a single lane bridge. This isn't a big deal until you miss the sign indicating the oncoming bridge and accidentally start playing a game of chicken with a "road train" (Mack truck with multiple trailers behind it). At the first bridge (displayed below) we nearly ran into this exact situation, but through the mercy of God I had to slow down due to a turning car right before the start of the bridge and the truck zoomed right past us. I didn't miss a one-lane bridge sign for the rest of the trip.
In early evening we arrived at Lake Tekapo. Since New Zealand is so far south, the sun is up from 5:45 am to 10 pm. Thankfully we still had plenty of daylight, Lake Tekapo was our first glimpse into the beauty that New Zealand had to offer. Lake Tekapo is fed by mountain streams coming down from the Southern Alps. It has a clear blue color that seems to blend directly into the sky. The water can appear a little milky too, which is from the "rock flour" from the glaciers and streams smashing rocks into one another.
There is a church on the edge of Lake Tekapo called the Church of the Good Shepherd. It was built as a joint effort between early Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Catholics. The church doesn't need stained glass, it has a clear window above the altar that looks out on the natural beauty of the lake. It's really the only feature on the lake, it's hard to believe that houses don't surround the lake. As we traveled this would be a common theme in New Zealand, it seems like most of the natural landscape has been left untouched. At the end of the lake you could possibly see Mt Cook, the largest mountain in New Zealand, but the clouds hide the mountain from view. After taking in the splendid view, we reluctantly got back in the car and headed towards Mt Cook so we could see the approach to the mountain while there was still sunlight.
With Lake Tekapo behind us, we continued heading west. About 30 minutes later we started a wide arc around another mountain lake, Lake Pukaki. This lake was just as beautiful as Lake Tekapo, but had one advantage. The clouds had cleared and Mt. Cook appeared the far end of the lake.
The air had turned colder and we hadn't passed a car in ages, so I decided to change into long pants while we stopped to take pictures. Of course, 20 seconds later two cars skidded Dukes-of-Hazard-style onto the gravel patch where we were parked. Caught with my pants down, I used the opportunity to ask one of the new arrivals to take a picture of me and Dawn. After putting on my pants, we had a picture snapped, and then drove on to Mount Cook.
Recently in an agreement with the Maori people, the government of New Zealand is making an effort to call the landmarks by their Maori names. Mt. Cook is called Aoraki by the Maori, just in case you were wondering why Aoraki keeps popping up. Aoraki is the tallest mountain in New Zealand standing at over 12,000 feet. It looks small in the pictures, but that's because it is still so far away.
We drove for another hour directly towards the mountain to arrive at Mt. Cook village. Tiny does not even begin to describe the size of the village. It has a population of 250 in the summer, 150 in the winter (when they are often isolated due to snowfall). Our hostel was on the "far" side of town, but still offered a great view of the mountains (the picture from our room is below). We settled in for the night, planning on tackling the mountain hikes early in the morning.