The impact of this post will be largely lost, since I don't think my descriptive abilities are able to do justice to the things we've seen. But in the interest of staying up-to-date, and posting before I forget all the little details, here goes.
1) Nelson - Franz Josef
We left Nelson under cloudy skies, and headed south, past the neat little town of Murchison, and west through the Buller gorge. The river that forms the gorge is beautiful, and the steep sides are covered in gorgeous forest, only some of it planted. (They practice aggressive tree cultivation here, and it's very weird to see a whole hillside of mature pines, marching along in perfect rows.) Eventually, we hit the rain, and knew we had arrived on the west coast. They were forecasting 5 inches that day, and I'm pretty sure we saw in all fall through the windshield of the car.
Nevertheless, the coast there is very wild and beautiful. We passed lots of large braided rivers, and a very few small towns. We stopped for lunch in Hokitika, which is known for its jade and jade carvers. My mom bought a gorgeous pendant, and we saw lots of beautiful carvings. But you know me, I was most pleased about the yummy deli and cheese shop we stopped in for lunch, which seemed to be run by someone who truly appreciates food. They had a very pretty not-so-little refrigerated cheese room, and I got to spend a pleasant half-hour tasting and talking about New Zealand cheeses.
Eventually, we made it to the town of Franz Josef, which is positioned as it is because of the glacier of the same name. By the time we got there though, we were tired and wet, and so we holed up in our little room at Glow Worm Cottages, enjoying the free soup, and listening to it continue to pour outside.
2) Franz Josef - Queenstown
We braved the rain long enough to see the glacier in the distance. The downpour had actually tapered off to mere rain, and so we would see the ice flow spilling out of the valley mouth. Very cool. Then we soldiered on, turning off the coast at Haast, and heading east, past the northern edge of Lake Wanaka. That was when the countryside opened out, into vast vistas of steep hillsides and large glaciated lakes, and I fell in love. My mom loves the forests, but I likes me a VIEW! And what a view it was. I had a very hard time keeping my eyes on the road, and not staring around us constantly. The rain changed to a light drizzle interspersed with moody clouds, and the whole scene was very atmospheric.
Since we weren't certain yet if we were going to tackle the drive to Milford Sound the following day, we passed Wanaka by and pushed on to Queenstown. In the process, we passed through another wine growing region. This one is at the 45th parallel! We didn't stop, but I imagine their location makes for some very interesting wines. It's also very picturesque, with every row of vines capped off by a beautiful bush covered in dark red roses.
We stayed the night at the Queenstown YHA, which is huge, but wonderful. The big kitchen is very well set-up, and has a nice view of the lake. And people of all ages, sizes and colors all make themselves very comfortable. I loved the feeling there. My mom and I passed up the chance to make ourselves dinner in favor of a very yummy Thai place, and then wandered around the town a bit. The sky stayed light until well after ten, but it was quite cold. Nevertheless, I loved the lakefront, which has been very nicely landscaped, and the town, which is much more Scandinavian in aesthetic than your typical American ski town. (Queenstown is definitely a ski town.) There were also some very nice buildings that mixed old stonework with new construction, and I had a great time peering in the windows of the candle-lit restaurants, fantisizing about what I would do if I ran the place.
3) Queenstown - Wanaka
By this point, we were more than ready to have some time out of the car, so we scrapped plans to spend 12 hours driving to Milford Sound and back (which would also have necessitated two more 8-hour driving days afterward to get back to Christchurch in time). Instead, we decided to treat ourselves to a flightseeing trip to Milford, and we heard the best one left from Wanaka. Besides, our guidebook described Wanaka as "almost unfeasibly pleasant", which sounded just fine to me.
The weather had cleared as well, so we were treated to more of the wonderful, golden, syrupy sunshine. We got to Wanaka mid-morning and had a nice wander about the crafts fair that was on on the village green. Then we ate our sandwiches which watching the paragliders take off behind a boat, and circle in to land. They seemed to be fairly expert at it, certainly enough to avoid the cricketers, thereby ensuring peace was maintained.
Eventually, we decided to go for a walk, and so we headed west along the lake, to a sheep station that lets you tramp across their fields. We were headed for a secluded beach, but once on the trail we decided we weren't quite ambitious enough to hike all the way there, so we spent some time on a gorgeous hilltop, staring over the lake and marveling.
By the time we got back to the car, it was already six pm, and we realized how misleading the sunshine can be. It was the solstice, and the sun didn't set that night until 9:50. So we missed the office hours at the hostel, but still were given a warm welcome at Wanaka Backpaka. The kitchen was quite busy, filled with a mixture of young Germans, French, and Israelis, preparing for the first night of Chanukah. So we chilled out, and eventually made ourselves a nice meal which we ate, again overlooking the gorgeous lake.
4) Wanaka - Lake Tekapo (with a stop in Milford Sound)
I can't express the wonder and the luck. The west coast of the south island gets an absurd amount of rain. On average, 15 feet a year. So you can imagine, sunny days aren't so common. But somehow, we got one of them. And we profited!
We took a flight with Aspiring Air, which flies the 8-seat Britain-Norman Islander. Our pilot Kyle took us out along the western edge of Lake Wanaka, over the trail we'd hiked the day before, past Mount Aspiring,
where we caught sight of two hardy ice climbers, over newly snow-dusted mountains (all that rain, when it's cold, turns to snow), over glaciers,
and out along the coast before turning and flying straight up Milford Sound. Wow. I can't begin to explain the wonder...
We landed in Milford, and walked over to the ferry terminal, where we hopped on the Sovereign, for a cruise along the sound.
When we finally returned to Wanaka, by a more direct, but equally fantastic-when-viewed-from-the-air route, our minds were so blown we didn't want to move. So we headed back to Wanaka and sat by the lake to absorb more of the gorgeous sunshine. Eventually though, we had to press on, which nearly broke both our hearts. Wanaka is definitely a place to come back to.
We headed north along route 8, through more gorgeous countryside which slowly changed from the steep hills and sweeping panoramas we'd been in to something flatter, browner and more tussocky. We were now in the Mackenzie. After a short detour through the town of Twizel, thinking we'd see a lake or a mountain, or something, only to be disappointed, we pressed on. (In Twizel, there really is no there, there, and the streets all run in a circle, meaning that there's not even a corner for the locals 'hoodlums' to loiter on!) Then all of a sudden, there's Lake Pukaki, which is the exact color you'd get if you somehow filled a well-chlorinated swimming pool with corn starch. Bright, turquoise blue milk. It's wild.
Shortly after, we made it to Lake Tekapo, which is similarly colorful, and set into lovely hills. We stayed the night at the very cozy Lake Tekapo YHA, making it our third night eating dinner overlooking a gorgeous lake. I enjoyed watching a Dutch-Israeli couple light Chanukah candles as the sun set. Clearly a new couple, they nevertheless knew not only the same prayers but also the same songs, which I guess is kind of the point of organized religion. All I know is that they had whittled down three utility candles (the kind you keep for when the power goes out), found a nice flat river stone to use as a menorah, and were forever going to be hard-pressed to match the picturesqueness of their first Chanukah together.
5) Lake Tekapo - Christchurch
We really weren't in any hurry to leave. In fact, even as I write this, I'm fighting the urge to head straight back. We wandered around the town of Tekapo (not much more to it than Twizel, but much more charming) and then drove out along the lake. The "beach pixie" was feeling generous, and gave us a gorgeous little rocky beach to chillax on for a few hours. My scientist mom and I have been enjoying taking turns reading Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything aloud to one another, and that afternoon we got through his very entertaining section on plate tectonics. (Ok, that may not sound fun to you, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.) Then, with much reluctance and dragging of feet we headed north and east, back to Christchurch. As we did, we passed a lot of traffic headed south, as the wave of holiday-makers from Auckland finally made it that far south, towing trailers and boats and all manner of fun accoutrements, as if to rub it in that we were going the wrong way. But our bags were packed, we were ready to go, and we were leaving on a jetplane. It was time to discover the north island!