Following my two days on the East Coast of the South Island of New Zealand in Dunedin, it was time to head towards the West Coast by car. The plan had been to head towards Fox Glacier via Lake Wanaka, but unforeseen circumstances meant that I’d soon be taking an impromptu road trip around the West Coast and the Southern Alps over the next 3 days.
Day 1: Dunedin to Lake Wanaka via Middlemarch (5 hours)
There are two routes to choose from to get from Dunedin to Laka Wanaka by car. Based on my Airbnb host’s recommendation, we went via the northern route (highway 87 and 85 rather than highway 1 and 8) which allowed us to drive past the Rock and Pillar Range. This area of high hills were caused by two parallel fault lines, leading to the formation of a range with a very flat top but steep sides, with some rather strange rock formations along the way.
Passing through the small towns of Middlemarch, Ranfurly and Alexandra, we soon reached Clyde, where we had a brief rest stop at the Clyde dam and power station lookout.
Continuing further west, we arrived at the town of Cromwell, where after passing numerous signs advertising apricots, cherries, plums (and other stone fruit) for sale, we stopped at an orchard to get some fresh fruit blended ice cream (yum!). We later found out that the town of Cromwell is famous for growing fruit due to its fertile soil and a particularly suitable microclimate.
We arrived at our final destination of Lake Wanaka at about 4pm where we were greeted with a very cloudy and drizzly environment. After checking into our Airbnb accommodation for the night in Luggate and taking a couple of hours rest, we headed back to the Wanaka town at 6.30pm when the clouds started to clear and the sun showed up.
Following an amazingly decadent large scoop of fig and honey ice-cream from Tangos Cafe & Ice-creamery, I went for a pleasant 1.5 hour walk by Lake Wanaka, from the Eely Point Recreational Reserve towards and past the Beacon Point Recreational Reserve, and then back again. Ice-cream or not, the mouthwatering smell of Aussie barbecues along the way were very enticing – what a great spot to grill some meat in the open with friends and a view of the lake in front of you!
Day 2: Lake Wanaka to Fox Glacier via the Haast Pass (5.5 hours)
Although my initial plan had just been to arrive in Wanaka, sleep and head off early the next morning to Fox Glacier, I was surprised with Wanaka town itself and how much I liked it there. It reminded me of a better version of Queenstown, as it was less touristic and had more of that small-town feel which I quite like.
I therefore decided to spend the morning in Wanaka, doing the mountain walk up Mount Iron (about a 1-1.5 hours loop) to get some beautiful panoramic views of Lake Wanaka and Albert Town. As you can see, it was another cloudy day which was a bit of a shame, but it did at least make my walk uphill a cooling one, rather than a hot and sweaty one!
Morning walk over, we got back into the car and continued on highway 6, driving through the Mount Aspiring National Park. Rain started falling very heavily as we drove through the Haast Pass Highway, which meant more difficult driving BUT more awesome waterfalls. We made sure to stop at two of the nearer falls of Fantail and Thunder Creek. Whilst it was a bit of a shame that the weather wasn’t better and the mountains were clouded over with fog, the rain did mean more ferocious streams and rivers as the water flowed down from the top of the mountains. It was all very spectacular.
Finally arriving at Fox Glacier in the late afternoon, we were informed of the very bad news that all glacier hikes would be cancelled the following day due to the extremely bad weather. As this was the sole reason for my coming to the West Coast, I was utterly gutted and started plotting my next course of action.
Based on the weather forecast for the following two days of areas of interest in the vicinity, I settled on Mount Cook. This would mean backtracking through the Haast Pass and a second continuous long day of driving but I just didn’t see the point of spending one day doing nothing in the rainy Fox Glacier town.
Knowing that I would be leaving early the following day, I decided to stretch my legs by doing a cold and drizzly loop walk around Lake Matheson, famous for its reflective views of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. The thick and low clouds unfortunately meant that not much of a reflection could be seen in the lake, but it was still eerily beautiful nonetheless.
Day 3: Fox Glacier to Mount Cook National Park via Arthur’s Pass (9 hours)
Waking up the following morning, we were met with further bad news – the Haast Pass was closed due to the immense amount of rainfall overnight and the danger surrounding the Diana Falls. This meant that we had no choice but to reach Mount Cook via the longer northern route, passing through the Westland National Park, Franz Josef glacier, Arthur’s Pass National Park, Geraldine and finally Lake Pukaki. All in all, it was going to take around 9 hours of driving.
Despite the long drive we were going to have to do today, there was no way that I was going to leave the area without first catching a glimpse of the Fox Glacier. Braving the heavy rain, I donned my thin rain jacket and did the short walk towards the glacier viewpoint. As you can see from the photo below, the view wasn’t all that clear due to the mist and rain, but I managed to see the glacier so I left happy (and wet!).
Our first few hours of driving was tough due to the very heavy rainfall on our route. There was still much beauty to be seen however, with the dark storm clouds covering the lush mountain peaks and waterfalls (large and small) flowing down into fast-flowing rivers all bringing a sense of dramatism to our surroundings.
The weather did a 180 degree flip when we reached Arthur’s Pass, to our delight. The rain stopped, clouds cleared and the sun finally made a welcomed appearance. Looking around us, we saw some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes I have ever seen in my life. My photos unfortunately do not do it justice but driving through the Arthur’s Pass National Park was one of the best things to happen to me on the trip that had been unplanned.
We were pretty happy when we finally caught sight of Lake Tekapo as we got into the late stages of the afternoon. We couldn’t quite believe the milky aquamarine colour of the lake when we first set eyes on it. The same went for Lake Pukaki. The distinct blue colour is caused by grounded stone particles (from when the glacier formed the lake) refracting the sun’s light.
From that point, it was a relatively short drive to the Mount Cook village where we would be spending the night. It had been an extremely long day of driving that had been quite unexpected but as it turned out, we weren’t all too upset about it as the sights we saw more than made up for it. This impromptu road trip has in fact, given me some of my best images of New Zealand so far, with more to come (I was sure) in the form of Mount Cook, the National Park of which I had wanted to include in my original itinerary but could not find the time for. This was clearly meant to be.