New Zealand Diaries #13 (Courtesy Laura McCullough)

New Zealand part 11: Crossing the Southern Alps

8 Jan. Up early at 07:00. We’re hoping to get back onto an earlier schedule. Today we are heading from east coast to west coast, over the mountains in the middle. There are only three passes, we are taking the middle one, called Arthur’s Pass. It’s great weather again! The drive is the usual stunning views of plains, mountains, hills, water, sheep, cattle. I am starting to see how the locals get blase about the scenery.

We stop at a few overlooks to enjoy the views, and then it is into the mountains. They are big! Not Rockies big, but much more than oversized hills. We’re either going up or down, left or right, or some combination. Flat and straight is not happening. It’s slow going but fun driving. We both love mountains a lot, so it’s a joyous trip.

At the top of the pass is Arthur’s Pass Village. We enjoy a late breakfast at a cafe. They have a GF egg frittata thing for me, Kelly has–you guessed it–a pie. Steak and cheese this time. In the parking lot we saw what looked like a parrot, but that seemed unlikely. It actually was. The kea is the only alpine parrot, according to a sign there. It’s dark green, smart, big, and they like to steal food. The cafe had signs posted: “do not feed keas” and “no refunds on food stolen by keas”. We ate outside and had to shoo them away. The table next to ours had been given a water squirt bottle; the keas knew what that was for. The woman just had to point it at the bird and the kea would move along.

Driving is slow and interesting. Curves, hills, views. Not a lot of traffic, thankfully. The whole country has a population of only 4 million, so once you’re out of the big cities there is not much going on. We need to stop to let others pass several times: we’re tourists enjoying a leisurely drive. A road repair vehicle goes by at high speed; happy to have that one in front of us! There are penguin crossing signs, but we see no penguins. Wrong season, perhaps.

We take a short stop at the Castle Rock formation. It’s really neat; looks like a ruin of something human-built, but it is entirely natural. The Maori used it for shelter. It reminds us of where the Fellowship hid from the crebain from dunland in FOTR. There is a stop for “Cave Stream” and a gentleman is stripping down to his skivvies in the car park. His patient companion has her arms full of diving gear. No thank you! It’s not that cold, but not that warm either.

The scariest part of the drive was getting down the west side of the mountains. A sign announces “Viaduct lookout and Death’s Corner”. So we stop at the overlook to see what we’re getting into. An enormously long bridge crossing a valley ends with both a steeper bit and a sharp curve. And the bridge itself is at a 16.5% grade. Holy %$!*! In the US, we mark things like 6 or 7% as steep. This bugger is STEEP. From the overlook we watch a petroleum truck go down in very low gear, maybe 15 mph, brakes on the whole way. It’s quite intimidating. A sign warns that all vehicles should use low gear. Having seen both the bridge and the end of it, I follow the recommendation. The car is an automated manual, so I can put it into second gear and not have to ride the brakes the whole way down. Here’s a picture.

We survive both the bridge and Death’s Corner, and breathe more easily as we pass into calmer driving territory. Along the west coast, we take a break at Punakaiki where there are some fun “pancake rocks”. They look like a tall stack of pancakes, dark grey rocks being less yummy though. There is a surge basin where the waves come in and crash against the far wall. We walk a natural rock bridge over the entrance to the surge basin. The paths to the ocean are hemmed in by lots of plants, mostly so tall you feel like you are in a hallway. It’s a nice design, curving paths and natural layouts.
We drive past a place called “Underworld Adventures”. Hmmm, we ate at Hell and somewhere we crossed the Styx river. Are we traveling farther than we thought? Oh, it’s a cave tour! And they have GLOWWORMS! We book for early tomorrow morning, and head just half an hour farther on to Westport for our night’s rest. We walk to the grocery store for brekkie supplies, put them away in the fridge (along with the ubiquitous milk). Then out to find dinner. Not too many places open, we end up at an Indian restaurant. It’s our first Indian of the trip! They have a “silver beet” pakora, and I ask if it’s really beet (which they call beetroot). The server smiles and explains it is a green leafy thing. OK, we try it. Very tasty! And papadums, and a sweet mild lamb korma for me. Kelly has very hot fish masala. His whole head is sweating by the time he’s done.

There must not be pedestrian laws here because cars wouldn’t stop as we tried to cross the road. 50 kph (30 mph) speed limit, and it is the state highway, but it’s going through a small downtown! We have to scurry across in the little gaps between cars. We try to get to sleep early because we are so excited about our glowworm cave tour tomorrow!

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I’ve been traveling in Hawaii and New Zealand and will be posting links to the pictures soon.

Whenever we travel my wife does a travel diary while I take most of the pictures. I use her notes as my references for later use for books and other things. She has been gracious enough to allow me to share them here on my site for those who are interested.