Travelling from Wellington to Queenstown by car takes two days. If you want to get there faster, you have to get on a plane. An added complication is that you have to cross a body of water, Cook Strait, apparently one of the most challenging in the world, where a lot of water tries to get through a narrow strait very quickly. This means a ferry, although you could swim if you were so inclined (someone has recently, both ways). I’m not, even less so when it would involve towing a couple of bags and a bike behind me. Maybe that’s the next challenge for someone with a more adventurous spirit than mine.
We pitch up to the Interislander ferry terminal the requisite one hour before sailing, bikes hanging off the back of the car, bags in the boot stuffed with cycling and hiking gear. Then we sit for over an hour as sailing time comes and goes, watching a lorry with trailer do the same on the ramp to the ferry a couple of times, presumably due to a loading issue. It finally stays on the boat and, with a couple of hundred or so other cars, we join it.
The ferry trip is a pleasant few hours, unless you happen to hit Cook Strait when it’s angry, in which case waves up to ten metres can cause a few minor issues (a lorry once toppled onto a few cars). It takes about an hour to get out of Wellington harbour, an hour to cross the open sea, and an hour to cruise through Tory Sound to dock in Picton, at all times in sight of land. Thankfully, our crossing is smooth and incident-free.
The road south is, like most in New Zealand, single lane (each way) with occasional overtaking lanes, generally when you don’t need one, so patience is a necessity. But there’s plenty to look at; rolling hills merge to sharp-peaked mountains, long straights become twisting roads clinging to the sides of deep gorges and mountain passes. This is peak tourist territory and we are in high season, but the constant caravan of campervans we would normally encounter are snoozing in rows alongside dusty airport runways awaiting the return of overseas tourists, and we see a mere handful of them over two days.
Marlborough is brown, the grass dry and colourless, as though an artist has drawn a sketch for a painting but hasn’t yet got around to filling in the colour. Dull beige sheep blend in, and the only colour is the green of long rows of vines and the pink splash of the Lake Grasmere salt pans. A sign for Historic Bridge as we approach the Awatere River sparks mild curiosity until we see it alongside the new crossing. ‘That’s your bridge!’ says Neil. We pull over and I get quite giddy, remembering our first experience of the one lane bridge, traffic light controlled and shared with a railway line, that gave the title to my memoir of our migration to New Zealand (which might even get published one day).
We drive through small settlements, some only a couple of houses, most with a stone war memorial. Tiny streams trickle through wide riverbeds of gravel and pebbles; when it rains in the hills and mountains to the west they will flow bank-to-bank within hours. The sea is bright to our left, a translucent opaqueness that reminds me of an opal. In Clarence I try to think of something clever to say about being cross-eyed when Neil wonders aloud if there’s a Lions club in town (it’s an age thing; google it). Nearing Kaikoura, where the 2016 earthquake shook half a mountain onto the road and ripped the rail line from its foundations, massive earthworks and walls with metalled artwork atop them shore up the steep hillside. Across the road a new promenade juts out along the rocky shore that was the seabed, where waves lapped the edge of the road, until the same shake lifted it.
Day two begins in low cloud, misty rain sweeping into the windscreen, which soon clears to reveal silhouettes of hills to the north, dark masses hanging in valleys between them. A snow-streaked Mt Hutt behind catches a ray of sun and a rainbow briefly arcs across the cloud. We stop for coffee in Geraldine at the cutely named Running Duck café – when I ask where the loos are I’m told to follow the duck feet! We leave the flat of the Canterbury Plains and plunge into the hills, dipping in and out of small tree-filled valleys. Burkes Pass reminds me of the top of the Snake Pass in England, its windswept flats wild and bleak. We swing around Dog Kennel Corner (apparently so named in recognition of the importance of the sheep dog in the area) for the first glimpse of the Southern Alps and Tekapo sits before us, the church isolated on the banks of the blue-green lake. Today it is as quiet as it was nearly two decades ago when we were last here. Whilst I would never wish for a global pandemic, I’m glad I can enjoy the peace without the constant stream of tourists that usually crowds it, and who caused the church to close due to people fighting to get the perfect picture through its famous window.
Through the high Mackenzie country cow-scattered fields, incongruously green, share space with matagouri-speckled yellow-brown tussock. The latter is the natural landscape, the former achieved only through irrigation – we count twenty-eight spans on one long pivot-irrigator. Boxes of beehives are nestled amongst the tussock, and small dark green wilding pines have taken firm root. Lake Pukaki doesn’t glow with the same inner light as Lake Tekapo, but as compensation has the distinctive shape of Aoraki/Mt Cook behind it complementing the view. On the Lindis Pass the gentle curves and folds of low hills close and rise, tightening into steep-sided rough cliffs, square rocks that look almost machine-cut teetering above the road.
We drop down to the expanse of Lake Dunstan, created decades ago by damning the Clyde River further downstream, and swing over the bridge into Cromwell, with signs for vineyards at every junction – Central Otago pinot noir is amongst the best in the world. In the Kawarau Gorge we pause to look at Roaring Meg (reportedly named after a barmaid who, during goldrush times, used the force of her voice to maintain order in her bar), where the gorge narrows and the turquoise river, glowing against the rocks, storms through the gap. Grey ghosts of pines line the sides, the first step in the removal of these wilding pests.
Queenstown is apparently suffering from the lack of overseas visitors but to our eyes is still busy. We lock our bikes into the container owned by a friend (well, her dad’s company) and check out long term parking for the car; we will need neither for the next five days as we walk the Milford Track. We are halfway through dinner when the restaurant is filled with the piercing notes of cellphone alerts: there are more community cases of Covid in Auckland and the city will move to level three at midnight, the rest of the country to level two. It’s a sobering reminder that, although we are on holiday, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic and many, including our friends and families in the northern hemisphere, are under strict restrictions. A level change will make little difference to us but, about to enter Internet and phone-free territory – something I don’t mind at all – it’s a strange feeling that we will not be able to catch up with news when so much is happening in the world.