Locale: New Zealand
Distance: Approximately 750km
Date: August 2017
Style: Van Life
Day 1 – Saturday. Arrive Queenstown.
We departed early for a 6:00am flight, meeting at the airport around 4:00am. Mostly this was because it was simply the cheapest airfares, but as the plane was passing over the coastline of New Zealand we realised a whole other reason why it was good to fly at this time.
The view flying into New Zealand is amazing. We’d definitely recommend flying during the day and getting a window seat if you can. If you can’t, it’s probably not much of a big deal because from this moment out, pretty much every view was always beautiful. Even Queenstown Airport has amazing views.
Queenstown is a fine town. Very much fits the typical alpine ski and adventure sports town mould – like a smaller, more relaxed Chamonix. 2 Degrees Mobile is a good place to go for SIM card data packs.
We walked up to the top of Te Tapu-nui (otherwise known as Queenstown Hill), which is a pretty significant hill and in about 10 minutes on the trail you quickly forget how close you are to the town centre. At the summit there are amazing views of mountains and lakes and a fine view down into Queenstown.
It is a summit of special importance (the name actually translates to mountain of intense sacredness). About halfway up there is a corner of the trail covered with cairns. We couldn’t figure out the exact meaning of this, so if anyone has any ideas please let us know!
That night we drove to Moke Lake Campground. The road there was quite narrow but fairly solid. It was mostly dirt so could be tricky in wet conditions.
Day 2 – Sunday. Queenstown – Milford: The First Attempt
Over the course of a trip we somehow made a habit of driving into a campground after night. The result of this was we never saw our surroundings until morning – making the initial drawing back of the curtains a pretty rad way to wake up.
Our expectation was to try and make the 2:55pm boat out into Milford Sound, however, due to our typical style of winging it, we missed it by five minutes. This meant repeating the several hour drive through the tunnel through the mountains from Te Anu to Milford Sound.
We didn’t mind. The drive is beautiful. You start by driving through a flat valley – Eglinton Flats – with mountains rising up on either side of you. Mountains in the South Alps always feel so close to you. Our one anxiety was the amount of fuel that the van was consuming struggling up the steep and winding mountain roads. There isn’t any petrol stations after Te Anu, but there are plenty of campsites. We stayed the night at one of these to try get the boat tomorrow.
Day 3 – Monday. Cascade Creek – Milford – Wanaka
Today we made the drive back to Milford Sound to attempt catching the boat again. We could see the weather beginning to change and repeating the drive was an entirely different experience, this time through rainy, misty mountains. For the past couple of days we had heard of bad weather battering the East Coast. Luckily, where we were was protected by the mountains but the weather this day was just a taste of what was to come.
Milford Sound is a wonder – though technically a “fjord” (Read our post on what the difference between a fjord and a sound is). You can catch a boat that goes the length of it, turning around just at the mouth of the Tasman Sea. We booked in the Mitre Peak cruises, who offer smaller group sizes and travel out into the ocean more. Highly recommend.
Now with the afternoon free we stopped off at a few of the hiking spots along the way. The road from Milford to Te Anau is loaded with many hikes. We didn’t fully try any as we didn’t have the time, so we stopped off at attractions like The Chasm.
The Chasm is exactly what it sounds like: a deep chasm carved into the rock by a strong waterfall. If you look carefully there is an unofficial, unmarked path that leads off the main route through some pretty gnarly forest hiking down the steep embankment to the beautiful pools below.
That night we drove back through Wanaka to stay at Lake Outlet Campground. This was our first hot shower in days. Campground is reasonably priced and showers are only $1 for a LOT of hot water. Again we arrived at night so couldn’t see the location…
Day 4 – Tuesday. Wanaka – Roys Peak Track – Albert Town (Wanaka)
…Turned out to be absolutely beautiful. What a surprise.
In the morning we drove back through Wanaka to the start of Roys Peak Track. This is a fairly popular hike up to Roys Peak and it is popular for good reason. It took us about 6 hours round trip (including a stop at the summit) so it isn’t a big commitment.
The hike itself is rather repetitive as you snake up the face of the mountain, however, it is extremely satisfying as you start almost at sea level and hike the entire way up to an amazing summit. In August the start of the track is through grazing fields, which quickly turn icy and very muddy and then turn into full snow at the peak – the transformation of the landscape keeps the hike very interesting.
The summit offers a 360 degree view of beautiful mountains.
We returned to Wanaka to have our most civilized dinner of the trip as we caught up with our friend and the absolutely fantastic photographer, @farleyflex. We went to the lake to get some night shots of one of the most photographed trees in the world: The Wanaka Tree.
That night we drove to campsite at Albert Town for the night.
Day 5 – Wanaka (Albert Town) – Lake Paringa
Day 5 was was mostly a travel day for us. We stopped at a few places on the side of the road. The most significant one of these was Blue Pools. The rainy, misty weather had continued through to this point, making the normally clear, blue waters of Blue Pools quite dim and not as nice as we expected. It is, however, a very short walk from the road and the standout for us was being able to get down into river, where we could see a clear path through the trees. This offered some stunning views of low clouds mingling amongst the trees.
By the time we got to our planned campsite at Lake Paringa, the rain had picked up. It rained and stormed heavily all night as we worried we might become affected by road closures (luckily New Zealand has some great websites for this so you can plan ahead).
Day 6 – Lake Paringa – Arthur’s Pass
We had planned Day 6 to see the glaciers: Fox Glacier and Franz-Joseph Glacier. Unfortunately Fox Glacier access was closed due to flooding so we only got to Franz-Joseph.
The walk to Franz-Joseph Glacier is very nice. It is well worth the visit and besides the glacier itself, the glacial valley holds some stunning views and fine waterfalls. Unfortunately, however, the walk probably has to get longer and longer each year. Seeing the Franz-Joseph glacier is, these days, the story of seeing any glacier: the most noticeable attribute is how big it used to be. Something we saw vividly on Mont Blanc, we were now seeing it on the other side of the world. The bare tract of rocks left in the wake of the receding mound of ice.
From here the drive to Arthur’s Pass was slow and anxious. The van got up the steep mountain pass and the roads were maintained well enough to not need us to use the tire-chains.
Day 7 – Arthur’s Pass – Christchurch
Once hitting Arthur’s Pass, we were surrounded by snow for quite some time, only stopping a couple of times along the way for photos.
One of the more notable of these was Cave Stream Scenic Reserve. This is essentially on a mountain, just next to a river valley that conceals a system of caves. These are large enough to, in warmer months, traverse from one side to the other. To attempt this you must be prepared to walk through waist high water. As temperatures were around zero when we were there, this was not something we could do, but explored as far into the impressive caves as possible.
Finally – for this trip we used a Jucy van. It served us well in some pretty trying conditions. And the local wildlife loved it.