Canterbury and Arthur’s Pass

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The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Inland Scenic Route: Canterbury and Rakaia Gorge

We woke up in Lake Tekapo around 6:30 AM and were on the road after filling up with gas again by 8:00 AM. The plan today was to drive the Inland Scenic Route (State Highway 72) through Arthur’s Pass. We had thought that today’s driving would be easier, at least the first part through the Canterbury plain, but it still had its surprises. In true New Zealand style, even Canterbury had its curvy, climbing and descending roads, more so than expected. By driving the Inland Scenic Route, we would bypass the Christchurch metro area. This part of New Zealand countryside is most like England with lots of pastures, farms, and lots of sheep, all backdropped by icy, snow-capped mountains—classic postcard views.

We made a short stop in the town of Geraldine for a potty break before continuing on SH 72 northward, till we reached Rakaia Gorge. The gorge is a very large gap in the landscape that opens up suddenly, steep grades on both sides. Flows a wide river from the Hutt Range. The water in the rivers is an intense blue, but the water was low, so the rocky bed of the river was visible. We guessed most of the water was still frozen up in the mountains, and in full spring and summer the melted water would flow more widely and freely.

Our last stop before crossing to the west side of the Southern Alps was Springfield. Signs warned that Springfield has the last gas station for 82 kilometers, so we filled up there.

Castle Hill

First we came through Porter’s Pass, where the landscape turned dramatically from the Canterbury plain view to a rolling mountain vista. We stopped at Castle Hill for lunch to explore the rock formations there. We could have spent hours there, as the rocks themselves and area were much larger than we had imagined, but we could only spend about an hour.

We were mistaken in thinking Castle Hill was a Lord of the Rings filming location, the place where the scene of Merry and Pippin are kidnapped by the orcs takes place, and Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are in hot pursuit, but that must have been a different, similiar location; it was actually used in a battle scene in the Chronicles of Narnia. We had fun acting like the characters in the Peter Jackson film nonetheless, pulling arrows from their sheath behind our back like Legolas or wielding our battle axes like Gimli.

The limestone rocks are very distinctive, all varying in size and shape, and almost look out of place within the surrounding mountain landscape, as if they might’ve been dropped there by aliens, but some ancient phenomena of geology had created them in this spot. It’s easy to see why it got the name Castle Hill, the way the rocks stand upright on the hills like a great fortress. And it’s easy to lose your way in the rocks, because you never see the same angle or combination of rocks twice. We looked at the rocks as if they were clouds, picking out different shapes, like Pac-Man, a walrus or manatee.

Arthur’s Pass

But we had to keep moving if we were ever going to make it through the challenging Arthur’s Pass before nightfall. Philip did an excellent job navigating the windy roads through the pass, as the landscape continued to change quickly and dramatically. Arthur’s Pass is rainforest again, as we had seen down in Fiordland, and the mountains were socked in mist and clouds. Welcome to the wild, wet West Coast! The curves and the ascents and descents became even tighter and faster.

One major crossing we knew we’d have to make was the Otira Viaduct. It’s a part of the road that bridges over a large valley gorge and the road takes a downward 16-percent grade. We wanted to stop and get a picture of it, but that required Philip to make a sudden pull off to the right, up a steep ramp to a lookout spot, a very tricky spot for our campervan to go, at a spot (perhaps a bit appropriately) named Death’s Corner. But we made it! After catching our breath from the scary moment, we were greeted by a couple of kea parrots. We had heard that it was common for keas to approach cars and campervans because they liked to peck at the rubber around the windows, whether that was true or not, they were definitely friendly, and made it a bit difficult to leave, as we didn’t want to run over a nationally-recognized bird on our way back down the ramp.

On our way out of Arthur’s Pass, we drove under an over-road waterfall that had a roof to fall over, and we were on the lookout for Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall as a potential second stop, but it came by too fast, and we felt the road was too narrow for us to turn back to find the entrance road. We didn’t feel too bad about missing that stop, as we think we caught a glimpse of the waterfall from the road (besides, it probably was an hour hike to the falls and back anyway).

Shortly thereafter we arrived at Jacksons Retreat Holiday Park in Jacksons. Jacksons was hardly a town, but we were glad to have found our spot for the night, and relatively early in the day. It seemed much later than it really was because the dimness the cloudy mountains caused. The woman receptionist, Tony, was warm and friendly and hilarious. She had a bird behind her desk, and told us some stories about New Zealand roads and how the workers who made them were paid more for curves—that’s why you don’t find too many straight roads in New Zealand. She told us about grounds—this campground was entirely kept and run by her husband and her and their family—and some nice hikes. She told us about a waterfall hike not too far away, and that at night we may be able to see some glowworms along the stream beds. She also told us with a wink that kiwis frequented their grounds, but not to tell the government, otherwise they’d swoop in with all kinds of regulations and such.

We tried the hike to the waterfall, but a big fallen tree blocked the trail about halfway there, so we decided to turn back. We weren’t too disappointed, because we got to see the rainforest even closer than we had in the Kepler Track. This one was even more overgrown and dense with all kinds of ferns, strange fungi, and stringy vines.

Jacksons Retreat was definitely at the top of our list of nicest facilities, maybe even better than Wanaka’s campsite. It’s on a hill, which made it a bit tough to walk around on our weary legs (we were still somewhat sore from Roys Peak). But the showers were excellent, and we finally did some laundry since we practically had the entire campground to ourselves—there was only one other older couple in a big RV, but that was it. The kitchen was huge and we journaled and folded laundry by a space heater in the common area. We decided to purchase one hour of Wi-Fi, since we hadn’t updated the parents in a while again. It was good we had such a restful spot since our next day would be our longest drive, to Picton, our final day on the South Island. Incidentally, Tony, told us a story about a time that she and her husband drove all the way from Auckland to Wellington, on the North Island, took a late ferry to Picton, on the South Island and drove all the way back home along the West Coast to Jacksons in one day—phew! And it made us not feel so bad for planning one six-hour driving day.

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