Day 3: NOREASTERS
The day began with an early morning wake-up at 5am. I knew we had a lot of driving to do this morning so the early start was necessary. However, we still had about 90 minutes left from the four hours of Wi-Fi Internet we purchased yesterday so Julie took advantage of that.
At 6:45am, we finally left our motel in Christchurch and faced the cold of the morning. Similar to yesterday, the weather promised to be sunny and clear skies. We sure hoped it would stay that way for we would be staying in Mt Cook (also known as Aoraki in the Maori language and the tallest peak in New Zealand) tonight.
The drive out of town went for a while as we zoomed past suburbs and even a town called Ashburton. Eventually, the Nuvi told us to make a turn at some point and make an entrance to the Peel Forest even though we didn’t see any directional signs on this route. I guess the GPS must have deemed this particular route to be the shortest, but it probably wasn’t what the folks that put up the signs had in mind.
Even though we entered the Peel Forest as indicated by some friendly-looking DOC signs, we just as soon left the forest and continued along the road following the river towards Mt Peel. Apparently, we must’ve overshot the trailhead for Acland Falls, which was the first falls we intended to visit today.
It wasn’t until 8:50am when we finally found the Acland Falls trailhead. However, we couldn’t figure out where we were supposed to park the car so we just parked it on the lawn in front of the trailhead. And from there, we quickly ascended the very steep first 15 minutes of the walk. At the apex of the steep climb, the trail joined up with some other trail as well as started to descend again as we proceeded towards the waterfall.
The descent only lasted some five minutes, but at the bottom, we could see that we had to do a little stream walking, which fortunately was in very shallow water and nothing our Gore-tex boots couldn’t handle.
A couple minutes later, we arrived at the base of the 14m Acland Falls. It was thin and wasn’t terribly impressive. Still, the surrounding ferns and dark cove in which the falls fell into was very quiet and charming. And after taking the obligatory photos and movie, we quickly headed back to our car (somewhat fearful that our parking job was illegal).
At 9:40am, we returned to the car. And 10 minutes later, after a futile detour across some stream and up towards some residences on an unsealed road, we finally took the Lookout Road briefly towards a car park at the base of a steep narrow gravel road. An earlier attempt at going up that road in search of a place to park the car closer to the trailhead (which was part way up that hill) turned up empty. Besides, the road was quite steep, and I wasn’t comfortable taking the rental car up here at all.
The hike continued in the sunny weather (it started to get hot, though 22 degrees Celsius was hardly a heat wave), and the uphill hike up the road to the trailhead turned out to be a bit of a foreshadowing of what was to come.
For once we got onto the official trail, it crossed a bridge then started to climb steeply for the next 20 minutes or so. Julie wondered what is it about the Peel Forest trails that have these steep ascents.
Anyways, once we got to the apex of this climb, there was a signed fork for Rata Falls, which was another 45 minutes from here. But considering our research suggested the Rata Falls hike involved some extensive boulder scrambling in the stream, we proceeded onwards for Emily Falls which was said to be another 30 minutes.
And as we continued on the Emily Falls track, the trail did a little more climbing before descending steeply towards a pretty loud creek. Once there, we knew we had to cross the creek at some point. In fact, we ended up crossing the creek two more times before we saw the reassuring arrow pointing the way out of the stream hiking. It was a good thing we were wearing our hiking boots.
From there, the trail once again climbed steeply up some muddy stairs and rocks before leveling out somewhat. Then, the trail undulated briefly for a couple of times before making one final descent for a couple minutes ending near the shady cove where Emily Falls fell right in.
It wasn’t easy getting a decent look of the falls from the end of the trail so we crossed the creek just a tad downstream from the falls before scrambling up some slippery rock for a decent view. Our hands and our pants wreaked of mud, but we weren’t going to be denied a decent look at the falls after all the trouble we went through to get here.
The falls itself was probably not much more than 10m tall if that. For all that trouble to get to such a small waterfall by our standards, it reminded us of the trouble we went through to visit the Enbas Saut Falls in St Lucia.
And so after getting our fill of the falls, we hastily made our way back to the car thinking that weather like this wasn’t going to last forever especially since we’re supposed to be seeing the usually hidden-behind-clouds Mt Cook this afternoon.
So we decided not to spend another couple hours going for Rata Falls.
And by 11:20am, we were back at the car. And from there, we made haste to leave the Peel Forest and head straight for Mt Cook, which was around 200km according to some signs.
By about 11:50am, we were in the town of Geraldine. It was bustling with tourists and tour buses. Julie and I decided to make a brief stop here to eat some meat pies for lunch. She also picked up a crepe as well as a lemon marengue; none of which we were that impressed with.
At 12:10pm, we left Geraldine and continued to head closer to Mt Cook. We were surprised that 90.9 ZM was still getting decent reception this far out from Christchurch, but we weren’t complaining since this was the closest thing to Triple J that I guess New Zealand has, though it was a bit of a mix with some popular stuff that say LA’s Star 98.7 FM used to play.
At around 1pm, we saw stretches of highway heading to the snow-capped Southern Alps. It was easy to imagine them as the Misty Mountains in the Lord of the Rings because these mountains were certainly dead wringers.
At around 1:15pm, we started to see turquoise glacial lakes fronting the majestic snowy mountain range. And not long thereafter, we saw signage pointing the way to the Church of the Good Shepherd, which was a famous stopping point for visitors to this area.
Not surprisingly, it was crowded. So we didn’t quite get the desired church and Lake Tekapo shots. But we spent some time here trying to compose the wildflowers with the glacial lake or trying to use the sun’s angle to shoot the church away from the lake.
So the long drive continued as headed north on the Mt Cook Road not long thereafter, and then followed and passed a few caravans of campervans and slower moving cars en route to the Mt Cook Village. We also made a stop at Peter’s Lookout which showed Mt Cook towering over Lake Pukaki. And at about 3:20pm, we finally arrived at the Hermitage Hotel where we checked in and promptly dropped off our luggage before heading out again.
At 3:50pm, we were heading for the Tasman Valley even though we had just learned that we were too late for any boat rides to get closer to the Tasman Glacier. The road through the Tasman Valley was on a dusty gravel road. Along the way to the car park where a few walks could be taken, we saw Wakefield Falls against the sun.
I knew not why there weren’t more photos of this falls because it certainly looked like a pretty impressive alpine cascade. Except this one seemed to exhibit a bit more volume than most of the run-of-the-mill mountain cascades fed by snowmelt.
At 4:05pm, we arrived at the Tasman Valley car park. We decided to do a walk up to the top of the nearby bluff, which was stated to take 15 minutes each way. But after about twenty or more minutes of climbing, we concluded that the sign was a lie.
In any case, the view at the top provided a pretty commanding view of the silty glacial lake resulting from the melting of the Tasman Glacier, which looked more like a rock quarry than a glacier thanks to its dirty covering concealing the ice beneath.
At around 4:45pm, we returned to the car and headed back towards Wakefield Falls. Even though the lighting wasn’t up to snuff (we were practically looking against the sunlight), we seized the moment and took photos of the falls anyways not knowing what tomorrow would bring.
It wasn’t easy photographing this falls because one part or another of the falls was always hidden by the cliffs around the falls given its twisting and turning action. At least we had our mind made up to try again tomorrow morning under more favorable lighting conditions despite the difficulty in getting a real satisfying view of the falls.
At 5:05pm, we were back in the car and decided to check out the Hooker Valley even though a slow campervan in front of us was making us bite the dust it was kicking up while on the unsealed Tasman Valley Road.
We made a few brief auto stops photographing some impressive glaciers that look like they could tumble at any minute down some of these rock faces. Again, this was scenery reminiscent of Patagonia, which also featured high snowy peaks and turquoise blue glacial lakes all within a normally dry climate in the rainshow of the towering mountains.
At 5:45pm, we made it back to the Hermitage. And fifteen minutes later, we called it day and spoiled ourselves at the Panorama Restaurant in the Hermitage Hotel. There, we had an expensive but quite delicious meal, which lasted about two hours (something that tends to happen in fine dining establishments).
After dinner and getting cleaned up, Julie and I noticed that the color of the snow on Mt Cook was changing colors as the sun was setting. So we seized this moment trying to get photos from our room at around 9:30pm. We figured late sunsets are the norm in very high or very low lattitude areas.
By the time the sun had finally set, we could hear the annoying cries of the mischievous keas (alpine parrots native to NZ) from time to time, but they weren’t in the same quantity nor anything like the noise and mischief they caused throughout the Milford Track and Arthurs Pass when we encountered them five years ago.
One thing that caught my eye as the warm glow of the sun had long since gone was that the sky behind Mt Cook was a strange light purplish color. I don’t think sights like this were very common so I seized this opportunity to take more photos of the country’s highest peak under these circumstances.
And so ended a rather busy sightseeing and driving day. My tank was only half-full at this point. Tomorrow, we’re making the long drive south to Dunedin. We’ll see how things play out over there.