From the Sublime to the Ridiculously Beautiful - Queenstown, Wanaka and the Haast Highway

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March 2nd 2017
Published: March 4th 2017
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View of Glendhu Bay and Tititea / Mount Aspiring from Roy's Peak
Leaving Fiordland behind (Saturday 25thFebruary) it seemed we had also left the good weather behind, as we headed first east and then north from Te Anau towards Queenstown, following the south-eastern shore of the lightning bolt-shaped Lake Wakatipu for the final fifty kilometres.

If there is one destination in New Zealand that is more hyped than any other – especially in backpacker circles – it would have to be Queenstown. But as we arrived under leaden grey skies, the town's appeal wasn't immediately apparent; so after heading back to nearby Frankton to stock up on groceries, we passed straight through Queenstown and made our way out to the DOC campground at Moke Lake, located high up in a steep-sided valley to the north of Lake Wakatipu.

And there by the shores of Moke Lake, we were greeted by the sound of hundreds of sheep on the neighbouring hillside constantly bleeting – which though somehwat annoying was certainly understandable once we discovered that the sheep in question had all had their lambs taken from them and moved to a different paddock only the day before. Nevertheless, this was one day when counting sheep would be more likely to keep us
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Queenstown Beach
awake than send us to sleep...

Waking to a mostly sunny day the next morning, we were soon on our way back into Queenstown, where the town's natural assets could no longer be denied. With a picturesque beach occupying a sheltered inlet between the compact town centre and a small finger of land jutting out into the beautiful blue expanse of Lake Wakatipu (occupied by the Queenstown Gardens) there can't be too many more naturally gifted towns anywhere in the country.

Add in a second peninsula - parallel to the first - sticking out into the lake on the opposite side of the Frankton Arm, and surround the entire lake with an almost unbroken chain of mountains that reach up to two thousand metres above the lake in the jagged profile of the Remakables, and you find the sort of panorama that justifies all the hype. In fact the combination of (inland) sea and mountains reminded me of my summer explorations in Vancouver five years ago, and given the fondness with which I reserve those memories that is high praise indeed!

But as impressive as the scenery might have been from the shoreline, I couldn't help wanting
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Queenstown's waterfront
to get a better view; so after a leisurely wander through the Queenstown Gardens with Linda I said my goodbyes and set off in the direction of the Skyline gondola, bound for Bob's Peak – a forested hill-top on the lower slopes of Ben Lomond, over-looking Queenstown from 450 metres above.

Being both actively-inclined and on a tight budget, I decided to forego the cost of the gondola and instead make my own way up to Bob's Peak, via the steep, switch-backing Tiki Trail. With zipliners flying through the treetops and mountain bikers zooming past at ground level, there was no escaping the fact that Queenstown is an outdoor activists mecca; and in fact the town bills itself as the 'adrenalin sports capital of the world'.

But with slightly tamer (and cheaper) pursuits in mind, I sweated my way up the 450-metre climb in just over half-an-hour, before emerging at the top gondola station to be greeted by an awe-inspiring panorama of lake and mountains – even if it was a view that was already familiar to me from my facebook news feed, courtesy of countless friends who have all been there and done that before me!
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Capturing the view from Bob's Peak

Admiring the view with a triple-scoop chocolate ice cream in hand, it would have been impossible not to smile – even if the temptation to press on all the way up to the summit of Ben Lomond a further thousand metres or so above was quietly nagging away at me! But given that our road-trip is destined to end in Queenstown in just a few short weeks anyway – at which point I have already set myself the aim of making it up to the 1748m summit of the mountain – I snapped a few postcard-perfect photographs and made my way back down to the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu for a belated (but no less scenic) lakeside lunch.

After spending another night out at the Moke Lake campground – this time without the accompanying farm soundtrack, but with a sundown shower-substitute swim in the lake instead – we left Queenstown via the super-scenic Crown Range Road (the highest sealed road in New Zealand, reaching an elevation of over 110 metres) bound for Wanaka, on the shores of it's namesake lake.

While lacking the near-hysterical backpacker buzz of Queenstown, Wanaka nevertheless holds a similar allure for travellers to New
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The beach at Glendhu Bay
Zealand – blessed as it is by a spectacularly-scenic location beside a serene lake over sixty kilometres in length and three hundred metres in depth; and with stark mountain ranges rising up dramatically in almost every direction. If there is one main difference between Queenstown and Wanaka that was immediately apparent to us – at least as far as their respective locations go – it is the comparative spaciousness of Wanaka, which occupies a much broader and flatter basin than it's upstart sibling, and features seemingly boundless expanses of parkland fronting Lake Wanaka.

If I was impressed, Linda was in love – Wanaka had won her over at first glance, and wasn't about to relinquish it's grip on her heart anytime soon! And the love affair was cemented that afternoon, when after splashing out on a campsite at the outstanding Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park, we headed out of town to a small sheltered bay tucked away in the south-western folds of the lake known as Glendhu Bay, which we had heard about from a couple of older English ladies whom we had met a week or so earlier on our travels through coastal Otago.

Wading out into the
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In the water at Glendhu Bay
surprisingly warm, waist-deep water of Glendhu Bay, with rugged mountains rising up in all directions (including the glacier-clad summit of 3033m Tititea / Mount Aspiring) reflected in the lake's surface, we experienced one of those magical moments that spring up from time to time during a holiday such as this; and it was at around this time that I decided we really ought to adjust our route back down through the mountains during the final week of our trip, so that we could pass through Wanaka again on our way back to Queenstown.

But I wasn't yet done exploring for the day, so after dropping Linda back at the holiday park so she could make use of the spa and sauna (not a luxury she's been able to indulge in too often on this trip!) I headed just outside of town to tackle the hour-long loop trail up and over Mount Iron, which despite standing just 250 metres high offers an outstanding panorama that takes in the whole of the broad Upper Clutha Valley, from Lake Wanaka and the mountainous peninsula that almost divides it in half to the equally mountainous isthmus that separates Lake Wanaka from it's close
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View from barely a quarter of the way up Roy's Peak
neighbour Lake Hawea to the east; and all the way around past the Crown Range through which we had passed on our way in from Queenstown to the line of peaks that rise up out of the western shore of the lake – one of which, Roy's Peak, I hoped to climb the next day.

The climb of Roy's Peak will live long in my memory, thanks to the combination of beautiful sunny weather and truly outstanding scenery. Starting out from the already crowded car park at around 10:30am (not my smartest move since it meant I would be hiking during the hottest part of the day) the impressive views of Lake Wanaka began about five minutes into the walk – at about the same time as I started sweating profusely in the unrelenting sun!

Starting out at just above the level of Lake Wanaka (277m) the trail climbed almost 1300 metres to the summit of Roy's Peak (1578m) in just eight kilometres, and with the temperature reaching the mid-to-high twenties and the sun shining in full force for the entire day, it was anything but a relaxing holiday stroll – in fact it was probably as challenging
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The spot that people were lining up to get their picture taken at on Roy's Peak
as the most difficult day-hikes I had undertaken in Switzerland seven months earlier – but with every step I took the views improved, so that the reward was most definitely worth the effort.

About two hours into the hike I reached a viewpoint where people were literally queuing up to have their picture taken high above Lake Wanaka, but with a few hundred metres of vertical climbing still remaining (and having agreed to meet Linda in town at 4pm) I left the crowds behind and proceeded up the summit ridge, finally arriving at 1:30pm after three hours of gruelling hiking. And there at the summit of Roy's Peak I was greeted by one of the best views of the entire trip, with Lake Wanaka's full 60km-plus length spread out below and mountains of all shapes and sizes rising up from the horizon – the most impressive of which being the unmistakable profile of the pyramid-topped Tititea / Mount Aspiring, the highest mountain in New Zealand outside of the Mount Cook area.

Lingering on the top of Roy's Peak to catch my breath, tuck into a well-deserved feed and survey the incredible panorama, it wasn't until well after two
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Finally on the top of Roy's Peak after three hours of unrelenting climbing
o'clock that I finally started out on the return walk to the bottom – though with both gravity and a near-empty backpack in my favour the descent ended up taking just an hour-and-a-half (half the time it had taken me to reach the top) so that I was back down at the campervan with plenty of time to spare before my scheduled rendezvous with Linda... which I ended up turning up late for regardless, after getting stuck at roadworks for ten minutes on the way back into town and then stopping off at a lakeside beach for a much needed (and well deserved) cooling swim.

Picking Linda up in town, we hit the road straight away to polish off the hour-long drive to our next overnight stop, following the super-scenic highway 6 alongside the western shoreline of Lake Hawea, before crossing the isthmus between the two lakes at it's narrowest point (appropriately enough known as The Neck) and then following the eastern shoreline of Lake Wanaka toward it's far end.

Coming hot on the heels of the incredibly scenic drives along the Te Anau – Milford Road, the lakeside drive alongside Lake Wakatipu to Queenstown, and then the
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View of Lake Wanaka from the campground at Boundary Creek
Crown Range Road over the mountains to Wanaka, this was quite simply the icing on the cake; and when Linda commented that it was “like driving through a postcard” I was caught somewhere between nodding in agreement and shaking my head in disbelief... but in a country full of scenic roads, there was no doubt that in the past week we had been blessed with not only some of the very finest scenery of all, but the most amazing weather with which to enjoy it.

And so a relaxing evening was spent at the Boundary Creek DOC campground, not far from where the Makarora River flows into Lake Wanaka. It was this river that we would follow upstream on Wednesday, as we bid the mountainous interior of the South Island a fond farewell and travelled over the 530m Haast Pass bound for the sparsely populated West Coast. But with plenty to see and do along the way, our journey along the Haast Highway would turn out to be an all-day affair – much as I suspected it would be!

Stopping first at the Blue Pools, it was hard to determine which natural phenomenon was the more astonishing –
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View from the swingbridge over the Blue River
the dazzlingly blue pools of the expertly-named Blue River (only metres upstream from it's confluence with the Makarora) or the swarm of super-aggressive sandflies hanging out at the swingbridge directly above the Blue Pools! Usually the sandflies in this country like to fly around and annoy the shit out of you before they actually go ahead and bite you, but these impatient little bastards just went straight in for the kill the moment anyone set foot on the swingbridge! Whether this is merely an adaptation to the fact that the Blue Pools are merely a momentary diversion for most passing motorists - and that the sandflies in question therefore have precious little time to sink their mouth parts into unsuspecting victims – I'm not quite sure; but suffice it to say noone was hanging around for too long enjoying the view!

From there we made our way up to the crest of Haast Pass – where a short but steep hiking trail led to a viewpoint overlooking the forested upper stretches of both the Haast and Makarora Valleys – before dropping down into the Haast Valley on the western side of the divide and checking out the beautiful Fantail Falls, where Linda and I couldn't resist crossing the river and then clambering about on the rocks to get a closer look at this multi-tiered marvel of nature.

After an all-too-brief stop to check out the long and slender form of Thunder Creek Falls (thanks again to the voracious sandflies) and a lunch stop spent swatting away even more of these repugnant little creatures, we made our final stop of the day at the Roaring Billy Falls – where we chose not to cross the Haast River for a closer look, but contended ourselves instead with an extended stone-skimming session instead... as it seemed as though every single stone lining the riverbank (and there were thousands, if not millions, of them) had been specially designed to be used for just such a purpose!

Unfortunately the turbulence on the river's surface prevented any double-figure skimming tallies from being racked up, but our enthusiastic efforts had soon inspired everyone else on the river bank – young and old alike – to get in on the stone-skimming act! And for once there weren't quite so many sandflies to contend with...

As we got nearer to the mouth of the Haast
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Thunder Creek Falls
River the weather got progressively darker and gloomier, as if to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that all of the rainfall figures and 'rain-shadow effect' theories we had read about regarding the West Coast's wet and wild reputation had been spot on. But with all of this rain comes lush vegetation, and no sooner had we turned onto the coastal road north than we were surrounded by dense rainforest, which made up for the resulting lack of mountainous views.

An hour-and-a-half later we were turning off from the highway at Fox Glacier village, bound for the DOC campground at Gillespie's Beach twenty kilometres to the west – and twelve kilometres down a narrow, winding gravel road. But having already experienced our fair share of rough and tumble roads on this trip, there was no way this one was going to slow us down – and after a long-ish day of driving we finally arrived at the beachside campground to be greeted by... yep, you guessed it – more bloody sandflies!

Thankfully someone had the idea to get a fire going in the campground fire-pit - though I'm not sure this was strictly following the rules -
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Sunset over the Tasman Sea from Gillespie's Beach
and as a small crowd of fellow travellers (consisting of Australian, American, German and French campers) slowly gathered around the campfire the resulting smoke seemed to provide some measure of relief from the sandflies; as travel tales were told and observations about this beautiful and unique country were offered.

And then just as the grey afternoon sky threatened to fade away into darkness, a most unexpected thing happened: the sun suddenly re-appeared – for the first time all day according to those who had spent the day on the coast – treating us all to a magical sunset full of oranges, pinks and purples. As if compelled by some magical force our happy crowd of campers abandoned the campfire en masse, re-assembling moments later on the driftwood-strewn beach to watch what for many of us (Linda and I included) was our first – and quite possibly last – sunset over the Tasman Sea.

We might have left our favourite part of New Zealand (so far) behind, but if this was a taste of things to come, then the West Coast was going to be every bit as awesome!

Additional photos below
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View from Queenstown Gardens - take one
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View from Queenstown Gardens - take two
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View from Queenstown Gardens - take three
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View from Bob's Peak - take one
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View from Bob's Peak - take two
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Our breakfast spot beside Moke Lake on the first morning
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Moke Lake campground

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