Memories of Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo

lake tekapo church

DAY 1 of LOCKDOWN: Aside from my dream wedding at Hobbiton having to be postponed, my life is barely affected. As a writer, I’m used to working from home. As an introvert, I’m perfectly happy staying inside. All my anxiety is focused on others; I hope you’re okay.

lake tekapo church

As I sit in bed, notebook assailed by a jealous cat called Circe, the details of last year’s New Zealand campervan trip seem more difficult to recall than usual. Perhaps it’s because not being allowed to travel has made the walls of this house I rent with my friends seem more solid; more difficult to permeate, even in the mind. Travelling in a campervan is so freeing, even though it’s cramped at the back. The walls are psychologically permeable.

lake pukaki

I haven’t thought about it like that before. I remember feeling, when we were parked up for the night on the shore of Lake Pukaki, that the back of the campervan seemed at once both open to the world and cosy. I stared through the windows at the pine trees silhouetted against the turquoise water and the snow-capped alps. It was wonderful, but I didn’t want to step outside because the weather had just turned. This was a September campervan trip, after all.

lake pukaki

Despite the fact that we’d chosen to do the trip in September precisely so there wouldn’t be many other campervans around, the shore of Lake Pukaki was packed. So this was where every other campervan in the country had been hiding! You can’t blame them. The view of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Aoraki/Mt Cook, over Lake Pukaki is one of the most famously beautiful in the country. And the campsite on Lake Pukaki’s shore is free.

lake pukaki campervan

This is the view I’d been looking forward to:

lake pukaki mt cook

This, due to the aforementioned weather turn, is the view I got:

lake pukaki campervan

Still nice, but… Anyway, when we woke up the next morning, the weather was even worse, so we drove straight to our next destination, Lake Tekapo. Unfortunately, we were too early in the year to see the famous lupins blooming on the lake’s edge. Fortunately, the weather held just long enough for us to take a little walk and see the stunningly situated Church of the Good Shepherd.

lake tekapo church

It’s strange to see a church like this in New Zealand.

church of the good shepherd

It feels as though it should be ancient, but it was built in 1935!

The Moeraki Boulders

moerakiboulders

You’ve probably heard of the Moeraki Boulders, those strangely spherical rocks on that beach somewhere in New Zealand.

moerakiboulders

Well that beach is called Koekohe, and can be found on the South Island’s east coast, between Dunedin and Oamaru. The boulders are absolutely worth seeing, but be warned: they attract a lot of tourists.

moerakiboulders

When you turn off State Highway 1 at Koekohe Beach, you’ll see an enormous sign pointing left towards the Moeraki Boulders. It’s a trap. It leads to a crowded café and giftshop, and a stairway to the boulders that you have to pay to go down. Instead, turn right. That road leads to the public carpark, from which you can access the boulders for free.

moerakiboulders

The more you look at the Moeraki Boulders, the more they resemble enormous alien eggs.

moerakiboulders

The worrying thing is that some of them look like they’ve already had things hatch out of them.

moerakiboulders

Here, you can see the cliff giving birth to one.

moerakiboulders

The Moeraki Boulders are made of mudstone, formed millions of years ago on the ocean floor. As the cliff erodes, more and more are exposed.

moerakiboulders

The scientific term for them, and rocks like them, is septarian concretions.

moerakiboulders

The Moeraki Boulders contain calcite crystals, as well as quartz and sometimes dolomite.

moeraki boulders

They’re not unique to Koekohe, or even New Zealand.

moeraki boulders

You can see similar boulders in a seemingly more bizarre and even more magical setting in a forest near Taihape. They’re called the Whitecliffs Boulders. I’ll show you the pictures I took there another time.

moeraki boulders

New Zealand’s Magical Castle Hill

castle hill

There are places in the world that make you feel like you’ve tumbled through the pages of an epic fantasy. Castle Hill, in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island, is such a place.

Surrounded by mountains, but easy to get to, Castle Hill does not actually have a castle on it. You can definitely see why it was called that, though. The cyclopean stones atop it almost resemble ancient walls and towers, long since fallen into ruin.

castle hill mountain snow sheep new zealand

The approach to Castle Hill is rather idyllic, what with all the sheep grazing the adjacent fields. We went at the perfect time: it was sunny, but the surrounding mountains were still decorated with snow. The slope at the side of the path is strewn with colossal boulders, seemingly thrown there long ago by giants defending their hilltop fortress. Each one has a curious shape. No wonder tourists are keen to climb on them for photographs!

The hill itself is punishingly steep. Rocks looms dizzyingly over your ascent. I had to be careful not to slip, especially as snow clung to the shadows. Getting to the top is like finding your way through a maze. It really would be a fantastic defensive spot. Even if the enemy managed to make it to the top, they’d be exhausted!

castle hill

At last, panting, I emerged into a treeless glade of rocks. My immediate impression was that I had intruded upon an elvish encampment. I half expected figures to stand suddenly up from behind various boulders, pointing arrows at me. My second impression was that this would be the perfect place in which to perform some sort of druidic ritual. Just imagine LARPing there…

castle hill

I simply cannot believe it wasn’t used in the Lord of the Rings films. I think part of Andrew Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was filmed there, unless I’m remembering wrong, but I can’t recall anything else that was. It seems far too obvious. I mean, you can feel the magic in the air! The Dalai Lama obviously felt it too, as he once proclaimed it a Spiritual Centre of the Universe.

castle hill

The rocks of Castle Hill are endlessly fascinating, forming archways, altars and alcoves. And whenever you pause to look up, the mountains are looking back down at you. It reminded me of Castlerigg, a stone circle in the Lake District in England, surrounded by a ring of mountains. Certainly, a cosplay shoot there would be awesome. I didn’t want to leave.

castle hill

Now, when you go to Castle Hill, make sure you’re wearing sturdy shoes, and take water, snacks and a jacket with you. In fact, a family picnic there would be wonderful. It’s completely free to visit, and is less than an hour-and-a-half’s drive out of Christchurch. We stopped there on our way to Arthur’s Pass to see the kea. We certainly did see them, but that’s a subject for a future blog.

castle hill

Seals, Crayfish and Snow-Capped Mountains

kaikoura seal sign

Kaikoura: the only place where a meal from a van at the side of the road costs more than from a posh restaurant. To be fair, that meal consists of freshly caught crayfish. That’s what Kaikoura means, in fact: meal of crayfish – so you have to try some. The price, however, is why my fiancé and I settled for crayfish fritters, as opposed to a whole, or even half of one. We ate them crowded on a bench with other tourists, on a strip of grass between the road and the sea. It was actually lovely.

kaikoura seal

People from all over the world handed each other ketchup, exchanging smiles and travel advice.

“Have you seen any seals yet?”

“Yeah, there are lots down there.”

“We saw a dead one up the road.”

“Well, if you climb up there, you can see whales surfacing.”

kaikoura whale bones

The crayfish was lovely too. And the view: seals silhouetted against a sparkling bay, surveyed by a row of snow-capped mountains. That’s what Kaikoura’s all about, really. It’s a small town that used to be a whaling station. Now people go there to watch whales instead, as well as seals and other examples of marine wildlife.

kaikoura

There are some nice, little shops in the town, all aimed at tourists, of course. The selection of cafes and restaurants is decent, although the many roadside vans seem to offer a more authentic Kaikoura dining experience. The tourist activities are endless. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to marine safaris. I quite fancied going on a seal kayak tour.

Now, you’re not allowed to “freedom camp” in Kaikoura, but don’t despair, fellow New Zealand campervan travellers: we found a wonderful place to stay. It’s called Donegal House, which, aside from being one of the best Irish pubs in New Zealand, allows campervans to stay overnight in its carpark for free! Oh, and here’s the view from its carpark:

kaikoura donegal house

The food at Donegal House was sublime, the décor was genuinely interesting (and humorous,) and the barman was the epitome of Irish hospitality. He even offered us breakfast on the house.

kaikoura seals

As for the road to Kaikoura, it is open, but, as of time of writing, it’s still being repaired from that big earthquake. There’s a lot of waiting, but the coastal drive remains preferable to the inland one, both in terms of time and views. There are places to stop and observe seals along the way. We pulled over at one point, expecting to stay for a few minutes, take a few photos and be off again. Before we knew it, we’d been watching the seals for an hour!

kaikoura seals

The Dead Seal Sketch

On the evening we arrived in Kaikoura, we pulled over on the rocky shore to enjoy the light of dusk on the Pacific Ocean. In a distant rock pool, guarded by an adult, a crèche of baby seals was splashing about. Closer to the road, however, a fellow tourist had spotted something.

“Oh my God, look, a baby!” she squealed, pointing to a small, limp seal practically at our feet. “It’s so cute!”

“Looks dead to me,” I said.

“No, it’s just sleeping,” she replied, without a hint of irony.

I was unconvinced. I crept closer until I could see its face. Sure enough, I was greeted by a pair of empty eye sockets. Rather worryingly, a little further along the beach, there was another dead seal. Neither looked like they’d been attacked, but my fiancé contacted the Department of Conservation – as you’re supposed to do if you spot sick, injured or dead animals – just in case. Next to the second dead seal, I saw a gleaming paua shell, but I didn’t pick it up.

paua shell

Thankfully, we saw far more live seals than dead ones.

Apart from the seals and the crayfish, the thing I found special about Kaikoura was the backdrop of snowy peaks. I think it’s the only time in my life I’ve seen the sea and snow-capped mountains in the same frame, as it were. Even just wandering from shop to shop and looking up to see the mountains looming over the town felt special to me.

new zealand fur seal

We didn’t end up going on a whale safari, as our time and money was limited, but that just gives us an excuse to go back at some point!

The Road to the Door to the Paths of the Dead

putangirua pinnacles

Who shall call them from the grey twilight,

the forgotten people?

He shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.

putangirua pinnacles

These words are part of the prophecy recited by Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, before he, Legolas and Gimli brave the Dimholt Road that leads to the Paths of the Dead. In the extended version of the Peter Jackson film, it is Legolas, a.k.a. the Exposition Elf, who says them, as the heroes approach the Door. That scene was filmed at the Putangirua Pinnacles, on the south coast of New Zealand’s North Island, somewhere I had wanted to visit for years. This is the story of when I finally made it.

putangirua pinnacles

Darkness descended long before our rental campervan reached the car park of the Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve. It was a darkness so deep our headlights struggled to penetrate it, which was a little scary on the winding, coastal Cape Palliser Road, a section of which had crumbled into the waves! Our uneasiness did not abate upon arrival at the Putangirua Pinnacles Campsite: it was completely deserted.

“I don’t like camping somewhere so isolated,” my fiancé said, as though trying to call the narrative of an urban legend horror story down upon us. Then, sure enough, another campervan arrived, no doubt containing an axe murderer.

putangirua pinnacles

By some miracle, we survived the night. The grey light of morning revealed not only a friendly fellow campervanner, but our first sight of the geographical feature known as Badlands erosion. The cliffs visible from the car park were nowhere near as dramatic as the film had promised, but they were only a sniff of what awaited us, jagged and grey as bone dust. Forbidding columns emerged from them, slanted, straight and sharp, like the bars of an orcish prison. I’d never seen such a landscape.

The path to the ‘Dimholt Road’ was, to my surprise, a rocky riverbed. I should have researched it beforehand, because all I had was a pair of light trainers, when I could really have done with proper hiking boots. Ah well – I only fell over twice! I would have had an easier time of it if I’d just waded through the water, but I was determined not to get my feet wet. Thus began the most challenging game of stepping stones I’d ever played.

putangirua pinnacles

I lost count of the times we had to cross the stream. My freakishly tall fiancé could stride over the water with the confidence of an elf, but I was lumbered with the legs of a hobbit. At one point, I had to take a long, running leap… which resulted in me impaling my thigh on a broken blade of pampas grass that was sticking out of the opposite bank! The wound was a few millimetres deep, but it wasn’t painful enough to thwart the quest, so I resolved to carry on and remember to clean it thoroughly when we got back to the campervan.

Eventually, the riverbed began to rise. Being a hobbit, I struggled to climb it at one point. Then, after an exhaustingly steep section, the canyon walls closed in and I recognised the Dimholt Road. It was eerie. Seriously. I felt less like Aragorn and more like a red shirt beamed down to scout the planet of the week. The sci-fi feeling was not helped by the fact that some unseen person was flying their drone between the bone-dust-grey columns. The noise it made echoed around us like the buzzing of an angry, mechanical insect.

My fiancé walked ahead of me. He looked so small amidst the gloomy towers. My mouth hung open in awe. I was glad I hadn’t turned back when I’d realised how difficult the road to the door to the Paths of the Dead would be, or when I’d injured my leg. This was unlike anything I’d experienced before.

putangirua pinnaclesOf course, the alcove that contained the entrance to the Paths of the Dead in the film had been a set, but it was easy to imagine. There were many nooks and crannies between the crumbling columns. Some of the columns resembled crude spears, while others were more, well, phallic.

“Who shall call them from the grey twilight?” I whispered to myself. Pretentious twit.

The world was grey. The ground, the sky, the canyon walls… I’d never seen anywhere more suited to an army of ghosts. I kept expecting to see scraps of grey, sun-bleached fabric fluttering against grey skeletons.

We found the guy flying the drone. I gave him my email address so he could send me the footage. This is it:

Then, just as he put his drone away, the heavens opened. Luckily, we’d brought rain coats, but that didn’t make the descent down a riverbed now slippery with mud any easier. My feet skidded from under me a few times, but I managed to stay upright, my squeals ringing around the grey canyon.

putangirua pinnacles

It took an age to get back. I immediately sought out our first aid kit, which in retrospect, we should probably have taken with us on the hike. My thigh hurt far more now than it had when I’d pulled the stick out of it, and an interesting bruise had already formed. I rubbed disinfectant into it and hoped for the best. (It was fine, as it turned out. I would have gotten an emergency medical appointment at the first sign of blood poisoning.)

Now it was time to drive to Wellington. Little did we know we’d find Rivendell before we got there, but that’s a story for another time…

To Rivendell, where Elves yet dwell
In glades beneath the misty fell,
Through moor and waste we ride in haste,
And whither then we cannot tell.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

waimangu volcanic valley

Waimangu Volcanic Valley is the youngest geothermal system in the world. Tourists were flocking to the area before it was even formed, to see the Pink and White Terraces. Then, in 1886, Mount Tarawera erupted. Over a hundred people died, the Pink and White Terraces were destroyed, and Waimangu was born.

pink and white terraces

A painting of the Pink and White Terraces

Pronounced with a silent ‘g’, Waimangu means ‘black water’. It was named for a geyser – the largest in the world at the time – whose water was dark with mud and debris. Unfortunately, this geyser was only active from 1900 to 1904, but it saw many tourists during that time. Four people died in 1903, when the geyser took them by surprise, and another two in 1917, when an eruption destroyed a nearby accommodation house.

The ruins of the accommodation house weren’t pulled down until 1970.

As far as I know, no tourists have died since, though various eruptions continue to shape and reshape the valley.

waimangu volcanic valley

It’s quite expensive to visit Waimangu. My fiancé and I only did the self-guided walk and that was $42 each! It included a shuttle ride from the bottom of the track back up to the café/gift shop, but still… If you add the Lake Rotomahana boat cruise, it’s another $43 each. Lake Rotomahana is where the Pink and White Terraces were. There are a few bubbling hot springs and geysers along the shore that are inaccessible except by boat.

It turned out my fiancé and I couldn’t have done the cruise if we’d wanted to, as the boat’s engine had just given up the ghost. We got chatting to an employee about it as we were waiting for the shuttle. Apparently – and I apologise if I’m remembering this wrong – the boat had an ex-1950s double-decker bus engine, and, well, try finding a replacement one of those in New Zealand!

So, the walk. Upon leaving the visitor centre, we were confronted with this rather nice view…

waimangu volcanic valley

… and it only got better from there. As we followed the gravel path down the valley, towards Lake Rotomahana, a smorgasbord of geothermal delights presented themselves. First came a lake half smothered with pinkish red algae so thick it looked like a rubber mat.

waimangu volcanic valley lake red algae

Then came a lake that appeared to shiver in the sunlight, but was actually bubbling with heat. Wisps of steam eddied over its surface like spirits performing a dance.

waimangu volcanic valley cathedral rocks

Then there was the stream, steaming away in full technicolour.

waimangu volcanic valley

There were lots of other interesting geothermal features on the way to the lake, but the stream is what stood out to me.

waimangu volcanic valley

It takes about two hours to get down to the lake, which is why it’s nice to be able to take the shuttle back. There’s a total of three shuttle stops along the walk, so you don’t have to do the full track. The best stuff’s in the first two-thirds, not counting the beautiful lake views. Take sturdy shoes, sun protection and a drink bottle.

waimangu volcanic valley

So, I suppose the question is should you visit Waimangu Volcanic Valley over the many other geothermal sightseeing attractions available in and around Rotorua? If you’re short on time and/or money, no: there are places with more spectacular geothermal features than this. If you’ve already visited a few of those other places and are looking for something different, yes: it’s a lovely walk.

Highlights from Our NZ Trip

New Zealand continues to amaze me. Even after all these years, I’m finding new places to visit and being re-enchanted by old ones. My recent New Zealand campervan trip was a perfect example of this, a journey of discovery and rediscovery. I’ll be writing more detailed articles about each of the places I visited, but first, here’s a list of the highlights…

1) Waimangu Volcanic Valley

This is one of the many ‘geothermal wonderland’ attractions you can visit around Rotorua. I’ve been to a few of them over the years, but this was my first time at Waimangu. It’s a pleasing walk, following a steaming stream down towards a picturesque lake. The colours along the stream are beautifully psychedelic, as you can see.

2) Stonehenge Aotearoa

I only recently learned of the existence of New Zealand’s very own Stonehenge, and I have to admit my expectations weren’t high. I mean I’ve seen the actual Stonehenge, as well as Castlerigg, Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. I was pleasantly surprised, however. Stonehenge Aotearoa is totally worth visiting.

3) The Putangirua Pinnacles

I’d wanted to see the Putangirua Pinnacles for years, but they’re rather out of the way. I’m glad I finally made it, although the walk there was more difficult than I’d imagined! It was used as a filming location for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and is an excellent example of badlands erosion. Marvelling at a landscape so different from what one usually encounters makes for a great day out.

4) Rivendell

This is a place I didn’t plan on visiting, but when a nerd sees a sign reading only ‘Rivendell’ they can’t not follow it. The light was fading and there wasn’t much time until the park gate would be locked, so I rushed off to find the House of Elrond. Or, at least, the patch of forest they’d filmed it in. It was quite lovely, actually.

5) The Edwin Fox

I first saw the Edwin Fox on Neil Oliver’s Coast: New Zealand. It’s right next to the Interislander ferry terminal in Picton, the last surviving Australian convict ship in the world. It was built in India, saw service in the Crimean War and ended up retiring in little, old New Zealand. It’s really cool to explore.

6) Founders Heritage Park

Nelson is best known as the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park, but Founders Heritage Park is worth visiting too. It’s an especially pretty historic village, featuring a windmill, a church and a charming street of shops. I recommend taking a picnic on a sunny day, as the café only sells freshly baked cookies! Look out for event days.

7) Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum

This place is so cool – and I’m not even interested in planes! There are two sections – WWI and WWII – that you pay for separately. If you only have time for one, do the WWII bit, but they’re both awesome, with dramatic displays that bring the pilots to life. It’s all wonderfully atmospheric. Read more: Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum

8) Kaikoura

Kaikoura is famous for whale watching and crayfish eating, but my favourite part was going down to the beach and seeing the seals. The snow-capped mountains in the background were just a bonus! You can go kayaking with the seals, which I really wanted to do. They are some quite nice shops in Kaikoura too.

9) Castle Hill

My immediate impression of Castle Hill was it would be the perfect filming location for an epic fantasy story. There isn’t an actual castle there, of course – New Zealand doesn’t have any castles, but the natural rock formations are incredible. Adding to the epic scenery, the hill is surrounded by mountains. It’s now officially one of my favourite places in the world.

10) Arthur’s Pass

Arthur’s Pass Village in Arthur’s Pass National Park is the best place in the country to encounter wild kea. And boy did I encounter them! You can find out more about kea in this article, but basically, they’re super-intelligent vandal-parrots that like breaking into campervans. Here’s a photograph of one trying to break into a rental campervan’s roof hatch – directly above my head.

DSC_0781_edited

11) The Canterbury Museum

I only wandered into Christchurch’s Canterbury Museum because it was free. I ended up being quite glad I had. As well as a Victorian street, a gallery filled with antique furniture, ornaments and clothes, and various other exhibits, it has a replica of that mad paua house – know the one I mean? This old couple who lived in Bluff covered every inch of the inside of their house with paua shells, and left their collection to the museum!

12) The Giants House

The Giants House belongs to an artist in Akaroa. You can pay to wander around her garden and I highly recommend you do, especially if you’re a fan of Gaudí or Hundertwasser. The brightly coloured mosaic sculptures are simply delightful. My nana visited it years ago and she won’t stop going on about it!

13) Oamaru

Finally, I returned to Oamaru! The gorgeous Victorian Precinct has a steampunk art gallery, a museum in which you can dress up in Victorian garb, vintage clothes shops, an old-fashioned bakery, a whiskey distillery, and one of the best second-hand bookshops in New Zealand. On top of that, Oamaru has penguins, lovely public gardens and a cheese factory. I can’t wait to write more about it.

14) The Moeraki Boulders

I’d been to Moeraki Beach and seen the boulders before, but – damn – they’re cool, aren’t they? Like alien eggs about to hatch, as my friend put it. I don’t remember there being quite so many tourists on my first visit, though! It was difficult to get pictures without people in them.

15) Larnach Castle

I know I just said New Zealand doesn’t have any castles, but it has this colonial mansion on the Otago Peninsula. It’s actually worth a visit. There’s a café in the ballroom that does posh tea and scones, and the house and garden are fun to explore. It’s an odd but pretty mix of stately home and colonial villa.

16) Lake Tekapo

One of the loveliest sights in New Zealand is the small, stone Church of the Good Shepherd perched beside the bright, turquoise water of Lake Tekapo, against a backdrop of snowy peaks. When it’s not swarming with tourists, that is. You’d probably have to go at dawn to get a decent shot. I retreated, defeated.

17) Rakaia Gorge

Excuse the inevitable pun, but Rakaia Gorge is gorge-ous. The bridge is kind of iconic. I just passed through this time, but there’s a campground and a stunning walkway. All the braided South Island rivers are breathtaking.

18) Whitecliffs Boulders

Like the Moeraki Boulders, but in a forest – sound appealing? I thought so, and they were even more magical than I’d imagined. It was like walking around inside a fairy tale! Bugger to get to, but I guess I’ll write about that another time.

So those were the highlights of my latest New Zealand campervan trip. I had such a good time. Now it’s back to reality. Circe, my tortoiseshell-tabby kitten, hasn’t left my side since I returned!