Upon arrival in at midnight, I felt the chilled dry air of New Zealand upon my face. After 10 months of travel through Asia and Australia, it was a relief to feel cool again. My first stop was Christchurch, the largest city of the South Island. The city had suffered a brutal earthquake 5 years ago, whose shallow tremors shook many buildings to collapse, and with them cost many lives. The city is spaced with pockets of nothing where buildings used to stand, and construction work continued everywhere.
I had little desire to spend much time in the city, and after a day I met with my new travel companion, Rosie. I had posted an ad on Facebook looking for transport, and she had recently bought a van and was looking for someone to join. We left that afternoon, and headed west towards lake Tekapo. The van Rosie owned was named Dorothy, as it was old and slightly creaky. And although Dorothy was by no means fast (or efficient), she had a gritty spirit and always grafted up the steeper slopes towards higher ground.
Although we are in the middle of summer in New Zealand, that by no means cloudless skies and sunshine. We could expect frequent showers, and sometimes stronger rain would keep you inside much of the day. Still, unpredictable weather just added to the drama of the stunning scenery around.
The landscape evolved in front of our eyes as we ventured inland. From flat grassy plains to steep yellow hills, the road offered us plenty to feast our eyes upon. Out of the horizon, a wall of mountains birthed into view. Then suddenly, huge bodies of water appeared; glacial lakes of luminous turquoise blue. The colour arises from “glacial flour”, or sediment picked up by the glaciar on its journey. We paused regularly, enjoying the shimmering colour from every angle. Waves formed on the surface due to some ferocious gusts of wind, and heavy clouds loomed above, waiting to inevitably drop on us.
The days are long with the sun rising early, and setting late around 9:30pm. Our first night was spent next to Lake Tekapo, which stretched for miles with endless blue. We found a nearby campsite, nestled next to a smaller patch of water, Lake McGregor. Far from any unnatural light sources that would cloud the stars, we were illuminated by piercing sky. A full moon rose above the mountains at around 11pm, and lit up the surrounding landscape. With our rough combined astronomy knowledge, we sat around and guessed at constellations. Although it wasn’t long until the air became sufficiently crisp to force us into the tents. In hindsight, I wish I had stayed up longer that night; I wouldn’t have a cloud-free night for a long time after. The storms were coming.
We drove towards the Mount Cook National Park the following day, where the highest snow-peaked mountains of New Zealand lived. The National Park was guarded by Lake Pukkaki, which we navigated around via a road with hugged both the shore and the steep mountainside. After 30 kilometres of lake, we entered a bare and flattened area inhabited only by a few trees and bushes.
A glaciar, fed by mountain snow, would have grated along the earth to create the uniform stretch of land. Wind raced down the mountain slopes bashed against the side of Dorithy. We sauntered our way through the valley of mountains, where our destination would remain shrouded in mist until we got inside the village of Mount Cook.
Entering the National Park was like driving into a ball of fog and rain. Before reaching the mountain range, we walked to the Tasman glacier, which was fronted by a deep lake. There were even icebergs organically bursting from the surface, and a few chunks fell off and disappeared into the water whilst we were watching. The persistent rain had become increasingly strong as the afternoon progressed, and developed into a downpour when we reached the campsite.
At least this would be the first proper test for my tent, I nervously thought. Whilst Rosie had the security of the van for the night, I manically assembled the tent before burrowing myself in there for the night.
The sound of rain clattering against a roof is always surprisingly comforting as long as you’re safely locked inside. We spent much of the next morning huddled around the stove making plenty of coffee and porridge to warm ourselves. Sadly the rain meant most views were covered, and any walking plans fell apart too.
We in fact heard that a “bomb low” about to hit much of the west coast, which in short meant it was going to rain. A lot. After a quick discussion, we took the informed decision to run away, and set our course for the east coast. Upon exiting Mount Cook, the rain once again cleared, and even blue sky could be seen again. The view of the misty mountains were left fading in the rear-view mirror.