May 18, 2013
Driving to Christchurch
Today (we just posted our Franz Josef Glacier experience as today, but that was yesterday), we drove from the glacier to Christchurch, basically a coast to coast long haul drive and our longest on this trip. We were looking forward to it as we had cancelled our original plan to take the TranzAlpine train through this part of the South Island. After learning that the train goes through 19 freaking tunnels (especially a 8 km long one!) and reading some reviews that the drive is a better experience, we felt good about our decision. We also found out that we had forgotten our tripod at some point at the previous place we stayed at or the be prior to that; it's all a blur from so much packing and unpacking! Ah well!
We left the Glacier Country, heading north along the coast, leaving the coastal mountain range behind us. We passed quite a few lakes, some of them being so crystal clear and placid that they mirrored the surrounding forests so spectacularly! The drive went through some more forests and green pastures surrounded by rolling hills and gold prospecting country. Yes, there were several towns along the way that offered gold planning activities!
We stopped by a town called Hokitika by the sea to grab some lunch and let Kaelen stretch his legs, not to mention our own! We found the beach and let him run around and chase seagulls, while Penny looked at the knitted wool stuff a couple of old ladies were selling by the beachfront. It wasn't a commercial or touristy beach at all, as the water was crazy rough and the beach was of a dark chocolatey sand that felt like walking on a thick carpet. As well, it was littered with all sorts of cool rocks, which Kaelen and Karthik both enjoyed rummaging through. After a bit, we headed back to the car and continued on our drive, having bought some stuff from the old ladies.
We then turned due east somewhere between Hokitika and Greymouth, which is where the train departs for Christchurch and makes its way through Arthurs Pass and the Southern Alps. We were going to make the same journey by road instead. The flatlands and rolling hills started to give way to steadily claiming grades and sharp hairpin turns, as we approached Otira Gorge, a deep canyon cutting through the mountains. It was an awe-inspiring drive past a raging river and sharp drop offs to the valley floor below. After going through a rockfall "tunnel," which was actually just a steel structure overhanging over the road to protect from falling rocks, we started to wonder if there's tunnels on the road as well! We had asked around before leaving to make sure there weren't any and were reassured plenty! We figured this Otira Gorge is where the train tunnels 8 km through the mountains as we weren't able to spot the train tracks anywhere nearby.
We stopped off at a scenic lookout over Otira Gorge, and to our pleasant surprise, there were these two huge parrot-looking birds, which is actually the Kea, a native bird of New Zealand. Beautiful plumage! All shades of green, with bright orange patches you can spot when it spreads its wings. There we two of them, a mating couple perhaps, that were hanging about the lookout. They even went under our car and started to rip some parts off from the underbelly of the car! We just hoped they weren't essential! Kaelen got a huge kick from watching and chasing this Kea couple and we spent quite some time there.
We then drove over a long viaduct and then went off to another lookout that had views of the viaduct, and guess what, more Keas! At least a good 10 of them, squawking about and flying over and trying to pick apart this campervan that had also stopped with us at the previous lookout. Crazy stuff, these birds. But they're really cute and have a funny waddle when they walk. We left the gorge and headed towards Arthurs Pass. When we approached the pass, we could see why they make a big deal of this place. It's basically a massive gap (or passageway) between two distinct sections of the Southern Alps. We drove through it and along it for quite some time, looking at the two distinct sections from various vantage points. Honestly, it was a stunning sight! Whenever you're in some sort of flatland or valley or riverbed surrounded by mountains, it always makes for a "Oh Wow!" experience.
The drive so far had been sensational, but it only got better! After Arthurs Pass, we felt like we landed in some other planet. These mountains were quite starkly different from the ones we had been used to all this time on our journey through the South Island. Instead of being quite green and lush and topped by grey snow-capped peaks, these were more brown and covered with desert-like vegetation, short shrubs and purple bushes and the like. Some of them even looked like they had massive sand fields at their peaks instead of snow that were flowing down their sides, a sort of sand glacier if you will. Really, everywhere we looked and every curve and turn we took on the road, we were not disappointed! It was a crazy geological wonderland!
We then stopped by the vista of a lake with sheep grazing nearby that had mountains all around and in the distance, that was just superb! It was really the best spot we had encountered of all the drives we had done so far in New Zealand, no jokes! We didn't want to leave, but we had to. We then beheld some more strange sights - weird aberrant rocks jutting out of the mountainside, like the ruins of some ancient castle. They were everywhere on either side of the road, large boulders and smaller rocks just grouped together as if someone deliberately placed them there. This area was called Castle Hill and aptly so! It was insanely brilliant as far as jaw-dropping sights go!
We continued on our drive, wondering what other fascinating sights we would be witness to. We had been absolutely enjoying this part of New Zealand, however in a short while, these mountains were staring to diminish in grandeur and receding into the distance. We were making our way out of the Alps and onto the plains just before Christchurch. We actually felt sad!
After a fairly unremarkable drive through these parts, we approached the outskirts of Christchurch, a city devastated by a major earthquake not too one ago. You could see a lot of construction going on and we headed into the City Centre where our hotel was. It was already dark and we now just wanted to get to our room and eat and crash! But, what an amazing driving adventure we had today!
Tomorrow, we catch out flight out of this amazing country and head to Sydney, which we're actually looking forward to. It'll be a change for sure!