Friday, March 23, 2012

Rainbow Reach to the Southern Alps

Foot Bridge at Rainbow Reach
Before we left the Manapouri area, we drove north towards Milford Sound, one of the most famous sights in all of New Zealand.  Since we had already spent a day on Doubtful Sound, we weren't all that excited about Milford and we got sidetracked to secondary roads and ended up hiking up to Key Summit.  The weather was threatening the entire way but even though it was cold, the rain held off until we made it back down to the car.
View of Marian Lake (center) from Key Summit

 It was about mid-afternoon by the time we got back in the car and we still had about 300 kilometers to get to Queenstown, our next destination.  I was always tempted to think, "If the speed limit is 100 kilometers per hour, we should be able to cover 300 kilometers in 3 hours . . . "  But it doesn't work that way in New Zealand.  Virtually all of the roads are just a single lane in each direction (Auckland does have 'motorways' - we call them 'freeways') and all the roads go right through the center of every small town, forcing you to slow down to 50 kilometers per hour.  Add to that the tourists driving big motorhomes, pulling trailers (called 'caravans' in New Zealand), farmers driving tractors with implements in tow and the routine truck traffic and a 300-click drive can take four or five hours.  It was raining when we pulled into Queenstown so we grabbed the first holiday park we came to and splurged by renting a cabin instead of pitching our tent.

Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu
Bungy Jumping from Bob's Peak
The next morning we spent an hour trying to find a parking spot in Queenstown and once parked, we took the gondola up to the top of Bob's Peak.  For some reason, Queenstown has become the haven for adrenalin junkies and there is no shortage of different ways to fill a thrill craving if you've got lots of money.  We were unimpressed and left after just a few hours.

We drove up through the Central Otago Valley, which is home to more than 75 wineries although we only stopped at one.  Driving along side the Kawarau River, we couldn't help but stop when we saw a sign for 'Roaring Meg Lookout' (Ruthie has a sister that goes by 'Meg').
Roaring Meg Lookout

 Our guide book mentioned a DOC (Department of Conservation) campground just north of the microscopic town of Omarama and since we had stayed in a cabin the night before, we were hoping to find a lower-cost (or hopefully free) place to spend the night.  It was late in the day as we turned off the highway onto a rough dirt road that went through a wide, dry riverbed.  The wind was howling and picking up thick clouds of dust from the riverbed we were driving across.  There were about a half-dozen campers and vans huddled against the trees but it was a very depressing campground.  We drove as slow as we could along a treeline and the road got worse.  Soon, we were well clear of the campground itself but we continued on driving down the two ruts that were rarely used.  We came to a steep berm that didn't look passable in our minivan but with the transmission in Low and a good head start, we charged it and made it over the top, through a grove of trees and though we shook everything up in the van pretty good, we didn't break a single egg.  But there, before us, was a beautiful flat grassy area surrounded by tall trees on three sides and the beautiful river on the fourth.  We had no idea where we were or even if it was OK to camp there but it was just too pretty, too calm and we were just too tired not to.

Mount Cook
The next day we had planned to rendezvous with our friends, Beth and Norm Cooper, who sailed from Mexico roughly the same time we did aboard Sarah Jean II.  They were traveling in their camper which had been named Gertie.  The DOC campground at the base of Mount Sherman was crowded but we lucked-out and found a great spot with a small grassy patch on which we could pitch our tent (of course, it was impossible to get the tent stakes into the ground as it was almost solid rock but we managed, bending more than a few tent stakes in the process).  It was very great to see Beth and Norm again - we swapped lots of stories of our travels, ate good food, drank good wine and laughed a lot.

The next day the four of us hiked up to Hooper Lake which is at the foot of a glacier.  There were literally hundreds of other hikers on the same trail but it was such a spectacular hike that we didn't mind.  Each turn opened another jaw-dropping vista and we'd all get our cameras out and say, "I gotta get a picture of this!"

Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand at 12,283 feet.  Sir Edmund Hillary, a Kiwi and the first man to climb Mount Everest, trained on Mount Cook.  It's a very technical and difficult climb - near the campground where we stayed there's a monument to the over 200 people who have died climbing it.  The mountain range is referred to as the Southern Alps where there are 22 peaks over 10,000 feet and there are more than 60 glaciers.

After our hike we drove to the village nearest the campground.  In the beginning of the last century, a hotel was built to house the tourists who flocked there even though it took days of arduous travel to get there.  It has been revamped many times and now is a luxurious 5-star hotel that has drop-dead-gorgeous views of the mountains.  We had a couple of drinks in their elegant bar.  Oddly, I bought a 2-liter container of ice cream from their gift store, which we decimated after our dinner that night.  The only good thing about saying good-bye to Beth and Norm the next day was knowing that we would see them again soon on the North Island.

Hanging Out in the Van at Cammeron Campground
We had to back-track a little from the Mount Cook area to get a road that would take us west across the Southern Alps.  It was a beautiful drive if a bit long and by evening we were eagerly looking for a campground.  Fortunately, in this area there were many DOC campgrounds to choose from and we would sometimes drive through one just to check it out.  This was the case of Cammeron Campground, which was empty except for a couple eating at a picnic table.  I could see them swatting a flies as they ate.  We continued on but ultimately turned around and went back to Cammeron.  It was completely empty, which struck us as odd, especially for that time of day (just about every campground that we'd been to fills up in the evening) but we pitched our tent anyway, thinking we might have the entire campground to ourselves that night.  Then we discovered why we were alone.  We weren't.

There had been fair warning.  We had been told about the notorious sand flies in New Zealand but we hadn't yet encountered them - until now.  Millions of them.  Biting, blood-sucking evil little creatures.  A little research told us that it's the female that bites as she needs the blood to be able to lay eggs; the male is able to survive off of sap from plants.  Whereas a good, strong insect repellent did keep them from biting they were so thick  that you could inhale a mouthful just by breathing normally.  We spent the evening sitting in the van.  Gradually, more campers arrived for the night and one young couple parked near us.  Not that we had a problem with that but they kept opening and closing the sliding side door of their van.  Now, Ruthie and I are patient people and we try to understand that other people may have issues of which we're not aware.  However, when this side door opening and closing continued on frequently up to 3:00am, I got mad.  Finally, I grabbed our very bright flashlight and shone it on their van, which suddenly gave them instant daylight.  The side door opened once more, the young man climbed out and came over to us.  In a heavy German accent, he said, "Our van has mice in it!  They're climbing all over us!  I don't know what to do!"  Being both angry and sleep deprived, I wasn't very helpful or polite.  The side door of their van open and closed once more.  The engine started and they drove away.

No comments:

Post a Comment