The drive from Te Anau to Wanaka was probably one of my favourites. Whilst the Te Anau Highway to Milford Sound gets you up close to the mountains and icy peaks, almost immersed in the most that surrounds it, the narrow winding roads requires a lot of concentration to drive and can be pretty tiring. This part of State highway 6, however, which links the north and south of the South Island along the west, has less bends and is much wider and flatter, offering peaceful and constant views of farmland around you and the Queenstown mountains up ahead. The late-afternoon sun was also shining, basking us in heat and highlighting the edges of the mountains from the backdrop of blue sky.
Claire and I had both been huge fans of Queenstown so there was probably the fond, familiar feeling of driving back towards it, plus we made a pit stop at Frankton and picked up some cheap CDs from The Warehouse, so the final leg of our journey into Wanaka was punctuated by blaring 80s music and singing-like-nobody’s-listening at the top of our lungs in wailing cat style to classics such as Perfect, Nothing Compares To You and Time After Time.
We arrived at Lake Hawea Hostel – our accommodation for the night, just outside of Wanaka and, unsurprisingly, right alongside Lake Hawea – around 6:30pm on a bit of a high. We spent the rest of the evening lounging around in our room chatting to our roommate, Esther, drinking $5 Handles (schooner size for you Australians and a nothing size for you Brits; basically in between a pint and a half pint) in the bar and eating fish and chips before going for a wander down to the lake and attempting the classic Billy Elliot foot-to-foot leap. Like I said; giddy.
We checked out of our accommodation at 10am as we had a different hostel in Wanaka booked for our second night and drove first to Wanaka Wastebusters; a recycling site just on the side of the highway where you can buy second hand gear. I’d had my sights firmly set on finding hiking boots ever since the Catlins – with all the tramping we were doing in NZ and all the long walks I have planned for South America, they are starting to feel like a necessity but, as always with travelling, money is a big factor so the cheaper the better. Unfortunately I didn’t find any here in my size but I would definitely recommend a visit to this place even if it is just to browse!
We then drove through the centre of Wanaka and continued on for another hour to the start of the Rob Roy Valley Track in Mt Aspiring National Park, but not without drama. You actually reach Mt Aspiring National Park after 15 minutes but continue on the road along the edge of it to reach the correct car park, and halfway there the road turns to gravel track, which is ridiculously bumpy and vibrates the entire car even going at a slow speed.
Along the way there are also signs alerting drivers to Fords – water that runs over the road in a small ditch, in this case caused by water falling off the surrounding mountains and into the nearby river. Some of the fords were mainly dry but with a lot of rocks, some were relatively pond-like but mainly gravel rather than rock, and then we came across one that was a huge puddle with big rocks in it. We umm’d and ah’d until I, as the driver, made the super smart decision to attempt to drive across it, getting the car wedged on a big rock right in the middle of the ford.
Brilliant. Claire jumped out and attempted to push the car back out as I threw Hilary into reverse, but she just wouldn’t budge. No one was around to help and I started to panic. A Jucy van then approached from the same direction and, after flailing my arms around in the air, pulled over – out came a Japanese man who, without uttering a sound, walked over to the other side of the ford to proceed to stare blankly at our stuck vehicle, not saying a single word. Helpful. Thankfully a 4×4 drove up moments later and out came a kiwi couple – the man retrieved a tow rope from his car and attached it to both vehicles while the woman reassured us with offerings of polos, before he towed our car out by driving his 4×4 in reverse and Claire doing the same in our vehicle (I didn’t dare get back in the driver’s seat just yet after feeling so much guilt for getting us stuck there in the first place!) After successfully retrieving Hilary from the ford we decided not to drive any further so we parked up and the lovely couple offered us a lift the rest of the way to the car park, the two of us getting cosy in the back with their Nans! Some people are so wonderfully kind (especially the Kiwis!) and restore your faith in humanity.
We’d already had a pretty eventful and tiring day by the time we made it to the car park but after all it took for us to get there we were determined to do this walk, despite the drizzly rain and cold winds. The walk was estimated to take 4 hours return, starting by walking alongside the mighty river before crossing it on a suspension bridge and heading into the bush, gradually climbing up the mountain through trees and passing waterfalls.
About an hour in we reached the first lookout point over Rob Roy Glacier and the waterfalls, and then it was approximately another 30 minutes to reach the higher lookout point that was literally facing the Glacier; a mountain peak topped with bluey-whiter and sandwiched between other mountains, somehow punctuated even more by the green of the valley below. It really was a stunning view and well worth the walk.
The trek back probably only took just over an hour, even with me stepping onto a loose rock and losing my footing to fall right on my arse into a bush (I managed to remain vertical for the entire duration of our sludgy, slippery Catlins walk, but this is where I am defeated!) Once we were crossing back over the suspension bridge with only the walk along the river back to the car park we were feeling pretty smug and relaxed, which was when the world decided our eventful day wasn’t done with us just yet.
As soon as our feet touched the other side of the bridge we were struck by what I can only describe as gail force winds. I have never before, in my 30 years of being on this earth, had wind actually PUSH me along, where I have been unable to remain footed on the ground and literally carried forward without any effort on my part. And it was brilliant – Claire and I were both squealing with delight like children and secretly hoping it would continue to happen, which it did, guiding us along the valley all the way back to the start (sometimes in the wrong direction, but whatevs).
Back at the car park we popped to the rest rooms and munched on a snack in the shelter as the rain came pelting down, pushed diagonally by the force of the wind, before braving the 2-3km on-road walk back to our car, hoping Hilary would not have been blown back into the deadly ford. We braced ourselves for the wet and cold and started trundling down the road, heads bent for protection, secretly hoping someone would drive past and take pity on us. About 1km in our dreams came true and a lovely Asian couple in a campervan stopped alongside us and offered us a ride to our car, which we naturally accepted without hesitation (we didn’t even bother to play it down with “oh are you sure?”) and quickly scrambled into the back to find 2 Australian girls whom had run into the same situation as us. There are good people in the world!
Back at our car (Hilary in one piece) we took the bumpy, gravelly drive into Wanaka town to check into our accommodation for the night – Base – and pick up some supplies at New World before having dinner and walking 1 minute across the road to Cinema Paradiso.
We had pre booked tickets for the 8:15pm viewing of La La Land for $15 each at this retro-style “national treasure” cinema that is run by enthusiastic locals where the screens are equipped with comfy sofas and pillows to snuggle up in while you watch your movie, plus you can purchase freshly baked cookies in the interval (that’s right, like old-school movies the screen goes black halfway through the film for a 15 minute interval to grab food, drinks and a toilet break) for $4. It was a cute evening and made for a comforting, cosy, chilled break amongst all the driving and tramping ahead of our journey to Franz Josef the following morning.