South Along the Coast
Dawn brings clear skies and the helicopters rise into the air across the street from the hotel. We head south down Route 6, Eric at the wheel, gray and orange clouds breaking up behind us as the sun warms the mountains to our left. The road winds through a flat plain between two dark green mountain ranges; there are lines of small clouds hugging the peaks as close as possible without touching, casting black shadows in the hard hazy sunlight. At one turn in the road we wheel below a lone cloud that’s detached itself from one of the ranges… it’s maybe a few hundred feet above the car and I watch the little eddies of mist along its edge slowly curl in the warm air.
The road jogs back toward the coast and we stop at the Munro Beach trailhead, willing to make the one-hour hike in the hope of seeing the rare Fiordland crested penguin which is known to appear at the beach. The damp, flat path winds through lush rainforest along the stream that drains Lake Moeraki to the sea. Squat palms and jungle shoots abound – the towering trees form a dark canopy above, letting through a few blinding patches of yellow-green sunlight. Ferns grow on everything.
We pass some hikers making the return trip – no penguins. The best time to see them is between July and December, during the breeding season.
In a Planet of the Apes moment we break out of the rainforest to the crashing surf of the ocean. The stream cuts a wide curve in the sand… and stops, drying out a few feet from the sea.
The sand at Munro Beach isn’t quite finished. The smallest grains are sizable pebbles, and a handful leaves no dust on the palm. We crunch along the shore for a half hour admiring the smooth, glacier-etched pebbles. Eric slow-pitches beached starfish back into the surf.
A fantail flutters alongside us as we walk back to the car, enticing us forward every few feet with a twitch of his tail feathers. These birds feast on the bugs stirred up by hikers, and use their plumage to encourage more footfall. (Very cute, but we were headed that way anyway.)
A few miles south of Munro the road turns inland, and we stop in Haast for lunch before our assault on the Gates of Haast. The has a fairly sophisticated menu for what looks like a lodge cafeteria, and we eat well watching race 5 of the America’s Cup along with a few dozen locals (Haastafarians). The race coverage features some spectacular 3-D modelling of the yachts and their strategies, and I understand none of it.
The guide book speaks in foreboding terms of the mountain road through Haast Pass; Cindy takes this as a challenge and grabs the wheel. The road’s not that bad – it was finally paved in 1995, and maybe the bad reputation will fade with time. We stop at the one-lane bridge over the Gates of Haast to look way down at the roaring blue torrent crashing over the gray boulders far below.
As the road begins to drop toward Lake Wanaka I find myself marveling at the way plants find a way to grow on any surface. The slopes on either side of the road are almost sheer cliffs of granite boulders, yet moss grows thick over the vertical faces (not too surprising) and trees grow out from the moss, the trunks poking out horizontally from the cliff face before angling up toward the sun.
We have no set plans for the next two nights, and as we drive along Lake Wanaka we debate where to stay tonight – the nearby town of Wanaka (WAH-nuh-kuh, you heard me) or the bigger Queenstown (maybe an hour past Wanaka). We decide to see what Wanaka has to offer and pull into the little downtown area by the south tip of the lake, stopping at a local travel agency.
The agent at the desk sets us up at the new hotel within walking distance of downtown Wanaka, and Melanie makes arrangements for our next few nights in Te Anau and Milford Sound. I buy a pack of Lemon Ruskis at a store around the corner – the TV behind the counter is showing the victory celebrations in Auckland for the now-victorious Team New Zealand, who get to keep the America’s Cup for a few more years.
The rooms at the Moorings are comfortable and look out over the lake. Eric sits out on the patio waving at passersby, and Melanie takes a book and a beach towel down to the water. I join her a little later, and find the large stones on the beach hard on the feet – the water’s not so inviting all of a sudden. Of course this doesn’t stop Eric from diving in. I jot a few notes in my journal and watch a parasailor approach us down the length of the lake, detach a few hundred yards from shore and float gently into town as the sun drops below the western mountains.
After sunset we walk back to the little plaza where we first stopped, and get a table at for yet another excellent meal. $165NZ gets the four of us a full three courses and wine (Church Creek cabernet – very good); a local cat wanders through the open storefront and rubs at our ankles. We’re all cat people, so this is a good thing.
Dawn arrives with broken clouds and we watch the sun slowly paint the mountains across the lake a bright orange. Melanie and I decide to tackle the 800-foot climb up Mt. Iron just outside of town, and it’s a fairly brisk hike up dusty switchbacks to a wonderful 360-degree view of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding countryside and cloud-dappled mountain ranges. I put my digital camera to work and take a full panorama of the scene:
From the top of Mt. Iron we look down on a building that sports a parking lot in front and a large walled maze in the back. We make note of it on our way down the south slope, and head back to the hotel to collect our belongings. We’re a little behind schedule and ask at the desk to bump checkout to 11AM – I guess it’s the biggest favor in the world to ask, but we manage to get an extension. I take the time to call my dad’s cousin John Dolan, an English professor in Dunedin. I had hoped to visit with him, and mistakenly thinking he taught in Christchruch I’d routed us through the wrong town. Dunedin’s not that far as the crow flies but the roads are a different story, a lengthy trek treacherous after dark. We chat about New Zealanders (reserved, more like the British used to be) and about being an expatriate (after eight years he’s finally thinking about heading back to the States). I let him know that my Aunt Betsy will be hitting the South Island in a few weeks, wish him well and start loading up the wagon.
We don’t drive too far. I pull into the parking lot at Puzzling World, determined to make sense of the giant maze we saw from the top of Mt. Iron. True to its name, the attraction houses an assortment of puzzling activities and oddball exhibits – for a small fee visitors can walk through one of the world’s largest collections of giant holograms: a huge hammer, parrot, 10-foot trombone, all following your gaze in spooky rainbow-colored silence. There’s a room that slopes at 15 degrees, where the billiard balls and water run uphill and Melanie frets about vertigo. At the end of the tour is the Hall of Following Faces – a matrix of giant concave faces (Einstein, Beethoven, Mandela, more) whose stares all point toward the viewer and track every move. It’s like being on trial in some science-fiction Court of the Ages.
But we’re really here for the maze. All red barn slats and gravel footpaths, the challenge is to visit each corner tower (red, blue, green and yellow) and then find the exit. There are bridges which cross over portions of the maze and offer an overview, but somehow the view is always less than expected. If frustration sets in, there are many emergency (cheater) doors which offer quick escape from the insanity. The average time to successfully complete the maze is posted as a half hour.
Melanie, Eric and I split up in a hurried crunch of footsteps. I quickly take the green, blue and red towers. Eric gives up and starts cutting diagonals across the maze using the emergency doors. I keep low to avoid detection by Melanie, but I get lost and lose precious minutes trying to find the yellow quadrant. Melanie beats me to the fourth and yellow tower by about fifteen seconds.
Yeah, well, we still gotta get out of here. I know that exit’s right around… another dead end. It’s been ten minutes since I found that yellow tower. The others are waiting for me, and this isn’t so much fun anymore. After one more dead end I throw in the towel and decide to take the next emergency door; just like that I find the real exit. Still, I found it in a state of defeat – call it a draw. 38 minutes.
After a little lunch in the puzzling cafeteria I take us south toward Te Anau, where we’ll stay the night before catching the bus to Milford Sound. The scenery is gorgeous, with the sharp gray mountains of the Remarkables range crashing straight into clear blue lakes. The roads have taken a beating, however, and there are plenty of washouts that collapse into hundred-foot drops. The road rises and falls at an alarming rate, and at one point Melanie braces herself, asking me to please slow down. My foot’s mashing the brake but the loaded car will not respond, and we take some downhill turns a little too quickly for comfort.
- Drive gently in the Remarkables
As the road levels out Melanie takes the wheel and guides us west to Te Anau.