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Published: March 6th 2016
We were intending a circular route round South Island; well, it had worked for Tasmania so why not here? Our initial stop in the Twizel area was due to its proximity to Mount Cook. Twizel is pronounced 'Tw-eye-zle' but Steve recalled a TV puppet show (must have been before my time because I had no recollection of it at all) featuring a character called Twizzle and that was more amusing so we referred to it as that. We embarrassed ourselves on more than one occasion when we forgot that we were in the company of others and still referred to it as Twizzle.
Twizel was purpose-built in 1968 to accommodate construction workers on a hydroelectric project, building a nearby dam. At the end of the building project the plan was to demolish the township but that met with such huge opposition from those who had settled there that it remained and has grown. Fittingly, Twizel showcased a huge digger and other vast items of construction equipment as its town 'emblem'. It seemed odd to me that I was staying in a place that was younger than I was and it seemed there was no escape from having my advancing years
pointed out to me, now even by inanimate geographical places! We called in at the local Visitor Centre where we collected lots of useful information. I learned that the Duke of Bedford had donated half a dozen or so of a sheep/goat/antelope-like animal (a bit hard to tell from a statue on a rainy day!) called a tahr to NZ in the early 1900s and that they were so successful there they became a menace and were culled. The existing, thriving population is still hunted (legally) to this day. I think I may have seen some on a hill but the mist was too thick for me to be absolutely certain so maybe not. I also learned that Edmund Hillary was not British as I had thought but hailed, in fact, from New Zealand and practised his climbing on Mount Cook before moving on to Mount Everest and apparently Captain Cook never saw Mount Cook but his surveyor named it after him anyway. Just goes to show.
The day started cold and grey and didn't get much better, though the temperature rose from 12° to 17°C so there was that. We should have been able to see Mount Cook
for miles around but the lowering skies and grey cloud reduced visibility such that we couldn't see much higher than ground level. We drove along Route 80 and the journey provided tantalising glimpses of high peaked mountains popping out of the top of the clouds but we had no idea which mountains they were or if, indeed, one of them was the one we were looking for. The journey itself was pretty though, and we admired all the landscapes and flora as we skirted the sides of lakes, vast in size and pretty in colour. The road stopped completely at a small village with one hotel and a statue of Edmund Hillary and, presumably, Mount Cook but we couldn't see it due to all the mist. We followed the other few cars that there were and parked up at what we think was the bottom of the mountain, just to say we'd been there then turned around and set off again, more than a bit disappointed.
NZ didn't seem as geared up for tourist travel as Australia had been. We saw no signs of the equivalent of a Greyhound bus and we saw many, many hitch-hikers using the tried
and tested method of cheap travel. I'm guessing it was safe, as we neither saw nor heard of any trouble these travellers might have experienced, but it must have been hard going as we passed a couple of girls trying to get to Mt Cook on our way there and they were still there, though somewhat wetter, on our way back. There were also lots of cyclists, of the pedal-pushing variety, again looking wet and tired and presumably taking a cheap and readily available travel option. There were many more campervans to be seen - we thought they might have been a bit cold at night in the frigid temperatures in the mountains. The streams were once again named after people, though I couldn't think they would have been named after people who lived nearby - there were no signs of recent or past habitation in this wet and wild outpost. So, Fred's Stream and Jack's Stream were inexplicable but I could quite see how Dead Horse Stream might have got its name.
As we travelled further the cloud lifted a little and the beautiful scenery began to reveal itself. We had to stop at one point because a
possum had decided to have a rest in the middle of the road. I tried to shoo him to safety by clapping, waving, jumping up and down and making loud noises (there wasn't a stick to be seen), desperately hoping no other vehicles would round the bend to either a) squash him dead or b) see me dancing like a dervish in the middle of the road. In the end he ambled off to the verge of his own volition - I don't think he was very well, bless him. We eventually joined the Lindis Pass and onto the Otago Goldfields Heritage Trail where signs informed everyone of the extreme fire danger and the total fire ban - in the grey drizzly weather this seemed more than a little unlikely but, hey, what do I know? The goldrush started in the mid 1800s and attracted lots of settlers to the area, seeking their fortune. Many old hotels and coaching houses built at that time are still standing. There's lots of remaining evidence of the prospectors' endeavours, initially panning in the rivers before moving into mining as technology progressed and it was a hard life.
We were starting to appreciate
the wonderful scenery NZ had to offer and wished the weather were better so that we could appreciate it in a more positive light. As we approached Cromwell we began to pass vineyards and orchards and the absolutely vast Lake Dunstan, together with a couple of rivers. The beehives became more numerous but seemed to be randomly scattered; if they belonged to anyone it was never apparent and I suspect everyone in the area had a stake in them for their pollination activities in this 'fruit bowl' area of the country. Like Twizel, Cromwell's town emblem was unusual, in that rather than being an animal, insect or reptile this town proudly displayed the fruits it grew and for which it was renowned. In keeping with all the other town emblems we had seen it was big and garish but at least it was harder to be scared by a giant peach!
Cromwell was a bustling, thriving town. As well as capitalising on its produce by offering tours of its vineyards and wine tasting, for example, it also offered extreme sporting activities on and around the wonderful lake and rivers so it was attractive to young and old. We stayed
at the Asure Central Gold Motel which was lovely, offering private gardens to the rear of each room and free laundry facilities, together with the now almost compulsory electric blanket on the bed! Cromwell also recognised its past history and had a wonderful Heritage Centre on the shores of Lake Dunstan where coffee and craft shops sit side by side with museum displays and we passed an enlightening hour or two there.
As we were about to leave the town we stumbled across an old graveyard, dating from the 1800s. I couldn't help but be moved by some of the hidden stories on the gravestones. What had driven them to leave their homes and families behind, what hardships had they endured, why did the children die so young, were they successful, why did so many move from Ireland, were they driven by the potato famine, was their life better here? That one graveyard held so many stories and prompted so many questions I couldn't tear myself away. These, to me, were the real intrepid travellers, not us with our comfortable modes of transport, speedy journeys and known destinations.
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