Our last few days in the South Island were spent at Lake Tekapo and Christchurch. The Southern Alps extend north from Aoraki or Mt Cook National Park to the Westland National Park, where the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers almost meet the sea. Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo and their rivers drain eastwards, running along huge U shaped glacial valleys. We had driven up Lake Pukaki hoping to see the majestic range of four peaks, the highest Aoraki.
The Maori have a legend that the mountains hold mythical properties and the spirits who inhabit them should be left alone. This of course has not stopped hundreds of climbers attempting to scale the peak from the 1860’s, many perishing in the attempt. The most famous, Sir Edmund Hillary stands guard at the Hermitage, a huge hotel complex.
We left Mt. Cook after lunch and travelled back along Lake Pukaki, constantly stopping to admire the now clear view of the spectacular mountain range behind us.
The alpine scenery we passed en route to Lake Tekapo was like a moonscape and as we approached the township, the lake itself appeared to be receding from the shoreline. We later learned from the caretaker at the Church of the Good Shepherd that the water level is the lowest he’s seen in 15 years, despite New Zealand having the wettest winter for some time. Three lakes, Pukaki, Tekapo and Ohau provide water for the Upper Waitaki Hydroelectic scheme and the canals joining them provide excellent breeding grounds for trout and salmon, thus making Tekapo a popular sport fishing destination.
Tekapo is also famous for its hot springs and its observatory on Mt. John. Mt. John has been chosen as the best observatory site in New Zealand due to its high ratio of clear nights and the stability and transparency of the atmosphere. A joint venture between the Universities of Canterbury and Nagoya, Japan. The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve has international recognition as a Gold Status Dark Sky reserve. At night, all street lighting is muted orange and faces down and our rented cottage informed us that Tekapo has regular blackouts to preserve the Dark Sky.
Mt. John is really just a hill, a great big lump of moraine deposited by the glacier, thousands of years ago. At the top is the highest post office in New Zealand and the Astro Cafe, all run by the university and selling special stamps with an astronomy theme. It was windy and misty on Mt. John so after a brief walk along the lake we adjourned to the hot pools, ranging from 35-38ºC. A two day pass went down very well, followed by a delicious Bento Box meal at Kohan Japanese restaurant, complete with local salmon sashimi.
Leaving Tekapo, we continued in Mackenzie country, which extends from Lindis Pass in the south to Burke’s Pass in the north. It is named after James (Jock) McKenzie, a Scottish shepherd and sheep thief, who took his flocks in the 19th century to the inhospitable mountain country, encouraging others to follow to the good pastures. There is a statue to the New Zealand sheep dog at Tekapo, in recognition of the indispensability of these working dogs to the pastoral industry. There was still snow on Mt Dobson on the lower alps and as we left Mackenzie country, we moved into the lush green Canterbury plains, west of Christchurch.
Our morning tea stop was at Geraldine where we sampled Talbot Valley Cheese – excellent blue and goat gouda – and Bartletts’ fruit jam and preserves. We were a little apprehensive returning to Christchurch as our last trip was only weeks before the devastating earthquake in February 2011. We had heard about the reconstructed cardboard Christchurch Cathedral but nothing really prepared us for the crumpled state of the stone cathedral and the razed buildings beside it.
Despite this, the hop on hop off tram was still circuiting the city and the Container Mall had quite a buzz about it. The containers are a legacy of the reconstruction of the city and they together with the caravan popup restaurants gave this rather conservative city a bohemian edge.
We wandered back through the huge and beautiful Hagley Park, which includes the Botanical Gardens. Here the spring flowers and blossoms were in full bloom and we passed by an avenue of huge sequoia – Californian redwoods and Japanese cyresses.
For our last meal on the South Island, we had hoped to sample a highly recommended Vietnamese restaurant in Riccarton, however after walking past what looked like boarded up shops, we came to a vegan Chinese restaurant, which was interesting to say the least. It was only on our return that we discovered the Vietnamese place tucked into a side street and brimming with customers. We did try a beer at the Japanese Bao Bar which served Baoger and Baorrito – Japanese fusion of burgers and burritos and a great breakfast at Park Ranger before flying over the Southern Alps to Auckland.