ilford Sound to Greymouth
February 6 - 16, 2010
After we disembarked from our boat trip to the Sound, we looked around for the hoped-for gas station that would allow us to add air to our leaky tyre. Alas, we didn't find it. Our tyre looked a little low and we worried that either it would go flat overnight or en route back to Te Anau. Our roadside insurance would not pay to bring the AA man all the way from Te Anau!
The next morning, we checked the tyre and it didn't look much worse than the previous night, so we packed the van, said goodbye to our backpacker lodge and headed out for the climb up to the tunnel. Our Serena was not a very good climber. It did get us there, but couldn't do it at great speed, so we had lots of time to admire the view as we climbed those switchbacks up to the tunnel. We breathed a sigh of relief once we were through the tunnel and just crossed our fingers that the tyre would hold out until Te Anau. And it did. So we pressed on toward Queenstown.
We didn't really want to drive all the way to Queenstown so had our eyes peeled for a place to stay. Just outside of Mossburn, we caught sight of a B&B sign and decided to give it a try. We rarely took places that were called B&B because they were usually way beyond our price range, but thought that in the country we might just be lucky. The elderly man who answered the door of the house confirmed our fears telling us his wife usually charged NZ$90. Undoubtedly a very reasonable price but more than we wanted to pay. His wife, Barbara, came to the door and hesitated a long time before accepting our offer of $65. She was probably wondering if it was worth her while to have to change the beds and clean up the room for such a low price. We told her we'd use our own towels if that would help? Yes, it would. She said yes and brought us in and gave us a cup of tea in the breakfast room. She explained that she was about to start stoning apricots that they had picked up on a trip to Cromwell. We offered to help and so her apricots were stoned in about a third of the time she would have taken alone. We hoped it made up for the discounted price. We certainly enjoyed passing the time of day with her and learning a little bit about her life as a young nurse.
We left Mossburn early in the morning, after sampling some of the previous year's stewed apricots on our morning cereal and stopping yet again in town to add air to our leaky tyre. Our first stop was at the southern tip of Lake Wakatipu at the former railhead at Kingston. Sadly, there was little to see: The resurrected Kingston Flyer service went bankrupt in 2008 and only a lone locomotive remains to remind one of what first was a successful trans-island service to Gore, Invercargill, and Dunedin and latterly a summer vintage service. Floods and modernization have taken their toll and the Kingston Flyer is only a memory.
Leaving Kingston, we had a lovely drive with lots of stops to admire the views along the east side of the lake to get to Queenstown. Since the lake is such a big part of the attraction of Queenstown, we were delighted that our chosen Backpacker had not only a room with a lake view for us, but also a patio with the selfsame view where we ate our evening meal sharing the view and a bottle of wine with a couple from Texas.
The next day, we took a walk up the hill behind the backpacker's to the gondola station. It was a steep and not very scenic climb, but at the top we got our reward with spectacular views of the lake and Queenstown below us. Wish we could be here in ski season. It must be a bit like skiing at Tahoe with the lake views and all.
Having arrived on a Saturday, we had to wait until Monday to drive over to Beaurepaires and give them an earful for a badly done repair. Happily, we didn't need to insist as they instantly said they would redo the repair for us at no cost to us. Great! This time, Gerry carefully inspected the work they had done, and happily from then on we had no more problems with the tyre. We had tried to extend our stay in Queenstown but they were fully booked and so instead we drove out of town towards Cromwell and Albert Town, stepping stones to Wanaka.
Cromwell and Albert Town
Driving into Cromwell we got waylaid by a sign advertizing two kilos of some kind of special cherry for NZ$12. Jan figured that if our hosts in Mossburn came to Cromwell for stone fruit, then it was probably pretty good, so on an impulse we drove in and got ourselves two kilos of cherries. Gerry wasn't impressed, but Jan loved the large size, deep ruby color, and meaty texture of the cherries.
As usual, we had called ahead and booked into a place from our BBH catalog. But when we got there, it was so unlike any of the other backpacker places we had stayed in we thought at first we'd come to the wrong place. Later we learned that the so-called backpacker's was a former camp for construction workers, brought in to build the Cromwell Dam. No wonder it seemed institutional. It was! Even if not terribly warm and cuddly, the room was clean and comfortable and it allowed us to spend the next morning visiting the old town of Cromwell that had been rescued from the rising waters of the dam lake and rebuilt on higher ground. And since there was no reason to stay on in Cromwell, we headed in search of a campsite for our next night.
The campsite we found was on the outskirts of Albert Town, on a large site overlooking the Clutha river. When we got there in time for lunch, the place was mostly deserted. There were one or two caravans parked, but their owners were nowhere to be seen. We picked a spot close to the cliff that overlooked the river and after eating settled down with our folding chairs to read and enjoy the river views. Once again we were unlucky with our neighbors. Whereas everyone else picked a spot as far from others as possible, we looked up from our reading to see that someone had pitched a tent not six feet from ours! There wasn't much we could do, but we did make it clear to them that we weren't very happy. The next morning, we packed up the tent and the car and then went for a lovely walk along the high ground that marked the river valley. We didn't ever get anywhere, just turned around when we thought we'd had enough.
The day was still young when we left the Albert Town campsite and headed towards Wanaka and its eponymous lake. En route, Gerry wanted to stop at an old mining settlement called Bendigo. Jan was imagining a cute old town with a nice cafe and a shop or two to browse. No such luck. Bendigo almost doesn't exist anymore. All that is left is a very rough dirt mountain road, that our poor Serena had a very hard time getting up, and one or two sad remnants of the human life that was lived here on the top of a dusty hill. We made the best of it by taking a short walk and then finding a flat rock for our lunchtime picnic.
After moving around a bit, we were looking forward to settling down for a few days in Wanaka. We had heard lots of superlatives about Wanaka and were looking forward to seeing it for ourselves. The backpacker's we had chosen, as always sight unseen, was very well cared for and had a nice garden with picnic tables that had a view of the town and the lake. It also had a rather authoritarian streak to it. This is the place that had "friendly helpers" sitting around looking like guests when they were in fact staff. But it did have a very nice garden with a view of the lake.
In Wanaka, we had the time and took it to get the bikes out and re-assembled. Then we took two lovely rides, one along each shore of the lake. The one along the west shore was very challenging with lots of hills, but the reward was that we got lots of lovely views. We came across a house for sale overlooking the lake on a high bluff and got to talk to the owner. The multi-million dollar price tag wasn't too much of a surprise given the view. Our ride along the eastern shore was more of a surprise, because the trail we followed ended up along the banks of the Clutha river, which flows out of the lake. On the other side of the Clutha, of course, is the Albert Town campsite where we had stayed just a few days earlier. The Clutha goes on through a couple of more lakes and ends up flowing into the ocean south of Dunedin not far from the small town of Balclutha, where we also camped one night in a park by the river.
Haast and the Glaciers
After a lovely drive from Wanaka, up to and along the western shore of Lake Hawea and then on to the northern end of Lake Wanaka's eastern shore, we headed up the divide and crossed over Haast pass to the western side of the island once more and to the tiny community of Haast. It is hardly more than a gas station and a roadside motel. We were happy to be there, however, if only so that we could dry out our tent, our mattress, and all of our bedding after a disastrous night camping in Mt Aspiring National Forest. The campsite at Pleasant Flat was lovely, but the weather did not match the campsite's name, at least not overnight when it deteriorated into a severe storm and our summer tent just could not cope. Had we known what was coming we might have started the night in the van, as it was we only ended the night there, having disturbed the entire campsite as we de-camped!!
Our goal the next day was the village of Fox Glacier where we planned to celebrate Gerry's 68th birthday (can you believe it?!) which had actually happened the previous day. But hey, what's a day between veteran travellers? We were blessed with gorgeous weather and found ourselves staying rather unusually for us in a holiday park. Luckily they had rooms as well as tent and RV spaces. We took a double room on arrival, settled in and then went over to the common area to make supper. Unfortunately, it wasn't as well equipped as most of the backpacker hostels we stay in, but we managed to have a decent meal and even got to watch some news on the big flat screen TV that was up on the wall.
After supper we went for a drive. We had been told that you could see Mt Cook and Mt Tasman if you drove west of town a ways. We did and sure enough, just a couple of kilometers west of the holiday park, we got our first glimpses of the peaks in our rear-view mirror. Having stopped for a photo, we drove on to Lake Matheson, which we had read was a great place to view the peaks. There we found the Lake Matheson Cafe and Gerry decided this was the place to celebrate his birthday the next day.
So, the next morning we got up and drove straight down there to eat breakfast with the lake and the mountains at our feet. We were very lucky with weather. The west coast is renowned for its rain and otherwise unpredictable weather, but we had sunshine the entire time we were at Fox and Franz-Josef glaciers. After a slap-up breakfast, we headed for the glacier and did the short hike to the glacier end. Gerry was physically in no shape to do a hike on the glacier itself and I chickened out too, as I had a cold and was afraid that I wouldn't be able to keep up with all of the younger folks for a four-hour hike. An hour would be OK even two, but four hours? I wasn't sure.
After a light lunch, we headed back to Lake Matheson to take the walk around the lake, which was absolutely delightful. The walk itself along the shore of the lake was pleasant with a small amount of climbing, but manageable for Gerry's knee. The walk was dotted with lookout points, mostly designed to catch great views of the snow-capped peaks of Cook and Tasman. On the walk we met people from Gateshead and from the US. The latter were doing a round-the-world tour by boat and had taken off for a couple of months in a rented camper van. Having completed the circuit around the lake, we were a bit peckish and so stopped in the Cafe for an early dinner. And so Gerry celebrated turning 68!
And then it was on to our second glacier, Franz-Josef. The speedy travellers among us might have done both in one day, but we slowpokes, moseyed on over there and settled into another backpackers for two nights that to our pleasure was equipped with a nice gas BBQ, where we cooked up steaks and sausages for one of our meals there. On our full day in FJ we did the usual glacier walk, but this time didn't get the lovely views from a distance that we had enjoyed at Fox Glacier. We had decent binoculars with us, so with them we had managed to follow a couple of tours around on top of the glacier. Not so here. The following morning we left FJ behind and in cloudy weather made our way north along the coastal highway towards Greymouth.
Hokitika and Greymouth
Never was a city better named than Greymouth. At least for the time we were there it was certainly grey. The rain started just before we arrived in the small town of Hokitika, which is famous for its Jade souvenirs. Jan wanted to do some shopping there and so we took a two-hour break from driving to look around. Except for the pouring rain, it looked like lots of small towns in the American west. The rain eased for a short while to let us go for a walk, but by the time we got back in the van it was raining heavily and continued to do so to and through our arrival in Greymouth at Global Village Backpackers.
Global Village is without doubt the best backpacker place we stayed in in New Zealand. We had a lovely spacious room with a king-size bed, two bunk beds, and a very nice private patio. We wished we could stay a month, and not only to sit out the bad weather, but to be able to take advantage of the free kayaks, the outdoor BBQ, and the collection of DVD's. Not to mention the cozy living room with its wood-burning stove. The first night we were there, it was cold enough to warrant lighting it and oh boy did that make the room feel toasty. In the end we extended our stay from two to four nights and took advantage of the neighborhood swimming pool a couple of times, the first time we'd been swimming in a long, long time.