After the glow worms – and especially Milford Sound – we couldn’t help but suspect that we’d seen the best of New Zealand – the enchanted far south. But as we drove from Te Anau to Wanaka there was more excitement than sadness. How could we be sad when simply driving is so much fun and we had so much more to see?
All along our journey around this planet, people ask us, “What has been your favourite place?” It’s a natural question, but any answer feels contrived. It’s like being asked “who is your favourite child?” . . . awwwwkward.
The world is a big house
As we’ve traveled, I’ve started to think of the world like a big house. Every country is a different room with it’s own climate, character and culture. Within each room there are alcoves to explore, closets to throw open, artifacts to marvel at. New Zealand is like this – so many nooks and crannies, and a trusty Toyota minivan to take us there.
And so we drove from Te Anau to Wanaka. The first pleasant surprise on our arrival was the AirBnB we had booked. Those who know us will know that Linds and I have a thing for homes – their design, aesthetic, and function are both fascinating and important in how we live our lives. Traveling has given us an opportunity to experience many homes and it has opened our eyes to possibilities we never would have considered if we hadn’t traveled. We love New Zealand’s clean, modern aesthetic in general, but this AirBnB was particularly appealing to us. Not just beautiful design, but rational – everything in it’s place, nothing wasted.
Queenstown is the mecca for adventure-seekers with cash to burn in New Zealand; Wanaka is Queenstown’s little brother; imitating and emulating the heart-pounding thrills – just a little less established. But we had neither cash to burn, nor, truth be told, much interest in squeezing every last drop of adrenaline from our adrenal glands. So, instead of bungee jumping or jet boating, we went for walks. And you never know what’ll happen on a walk . . .
On this particular day, we drove out to the Mount Iron Loop Track – an easy hike up a small mountain with views of the town and Lake Wanaka. Part way up the incline, we struck up a conversation with an older man who was hiking alone. For the next few hours, Eef, a Dutch immigrant to New Zealand, and I walked and talked about everything from politics to parenting to woodworking. At the end of the loop he insisted on taking us to meet his son who lives at the base of the mountain and has also traveled extensively.
Since then, we’ve had the pleasure of staying in touch with Eef and his wife, Annick by email. Linds teases that this trip has made her introverted husband chatty. That might be true to some extent, but I feel it as an opening up to other people’s stories and perspectives, taking advantage of opportunities to learn from them and make some interesting friends.
The long(er) drive to Kokatahi
Our plan was to drive from Wanaka to a small town outside of Hokitika called Kokatahi, roughly halfway up the west coast of the south island. Unfortunately, a bridge along the only highway connecting these two places had been washed out the weekend before so our already long drive became even longer. The kids were troopers for the ten and a half hour journey that took us inland and eventually through the majestic Arthur’s Pass.
We finally reached our destination after dark: a very simple and rustic Airbnb; the “kitchen” consisted of a refrigerator and a microwave and the coal-burning fireplace was too far from the bedrooms to offer any heat at night. But our hosts, a family of four who lived next door, did everything they could to make us feel warm and welcome.
The dad was a Kiwi, born and raised, and had great stories to tell of the years he spent as a helicopter hunter of red deer (considered an invasive pest in NZ). The mom was a sweet Thai lady who brought us a crock-pot the next morning to make up for the kitchen (yeah, chili!). They even invited us to spend a day with their family exploring a geothermally active riverbed where the kids could dig out their own hot baths!
Hokitika itself was an interesting little seaside town. We got the impression that it was once busier than it is now, but that didn’t stop us from having a great time exploring the rocky coastline and visiting the National Kiwi Centre which is home not just to the nocturnal Kiwi, but giant eels that the kids got to feed by hand!
Onward to Hanmer Springs
A few days later we hit the road again, this time to the resort town of Hanmer Springs. On the way, we took a little detour north along the coast to see the bizarre rock formations of Punakaiki – affectionately referred to as “Pancake Rocks”. They reminded us of The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland – amazing how the forces of the earth can sculpt rock over millions of years.
Hanmer Springs is known for it’s hot springs, and we might have indulged if we had an extra $100 lying around and hadn’t already been to The Secret Lagoon in Iceland . . . Alas, our frugal selves opted yet again for fun and free option: hiking! Directly from the main street of town we ascended a series of switchbacks that took us to the top of Conical Hill; an easy hike which we extended by taking the long way back through Woodland Walk Reserve.
Our last stop on the south island was Picton. Here we lucked out on accommodations again with a sweet little place perched at the top of a hill overlooking the town and the harbour.
Even though we were a little tired, we looked into some activities in the area . . . then we found a Monopoly board in the cupboard and the decision was made. Red wine, barbecued lamb burgers and the possibility of real estate domination? Say no more – we’re staying in!
Two nights in Picton, then we caught the ferry across Cook Strait to the north island. And that is where we’ll pick this up next time . . .