Sunday 21st November
Danseys Pass apart, we found that Central Otago’s state highways were unexpectedly well-maintained and handily connected all of the area’s principal tourist spots. The Tolkein-esque scenery and Victorian villages were not the only points of interest en route, however, and our lengthy drives through the region took us through several other noteworthy locations. One trip brought us all the way out to the South Island’s eastern coastline, where we spent an hour exploring the famous Moeraki boulders, an extraordinary series of near-perfect spherical stones that stretch for hundreds of meters along KoeKohe Beach. Side-splitting photos of us pretending to roll the boulders along the sea front demanded to be taken.
A few miles up the coast, we discovered the delightful town of Oamaru, which boasts some of the country’s finest examples of Kiwi Victorian architecture and a street that rivals San Francisco for calf-straining steepness. While we were there, we stumbled upon an unlikely little art gallery housing fascinating exhibitions on Steampunk (think futuristic glass and steel cities re-imagined in copper and brass) and the 16th century woodcut etcher extraordinary Albrecht Durer - proof, if any were needed, that New Zealand can do culture every bit as well as it does countryside.
We were rather less impressed by the humdrum town of Alexandra, which came across as a budget version of one of Auckland’s less attractive suburbs, but the place was rescued for us by the picturesque views from its river-traversing Shaky Bridge, not to mention the delicious carrot cake on offer at its neighbouring café. In mitigation, we felt that we’d earned ourselves a slice after a particularly precipitous walk up the adjacent hill, visible from miles around on account of the gigantic clock face built into its town-facing elevation.
Sadly, there were no such treats to enliven our visits to the rather lacklustre Ranfurly and Dunedin, though we might have looked more fondly on the latter had we actually bothered to stop and explore rather than merely driving up and out of the main street. Perhaps one for our near-certain second visit to Otago, as I hear the art gallery there in particular is definitely worth a look. One place we probably won’t be returning to is Wanaka, a grey little town that serves as little more than a thoroughfare for travellers wishing to drive along the lake of the same name. Despite travelling some distance out of our way to get there, a fleeting sandwich stop in a local café that doubled up as a radio recording studio was the only thing we found worth staying for.
Our sojourn in Otago ended in the same place where it had begun seven eventful days earlier, the popular lakeside resort of Queenstown. While many travellers come here for the adrenalised thrills offered by the Shotover Jet and myriad bungee jump operators, we opted for the gentler pleasures of the TSS Earnslaw, a fully-working anchor steamship that cruises elegantly across Lake Wakatipu. It was well worth braving the near-freezing on-deck conditions as the views out over the lake and up to the aptly named Remarkable Mountains were truly spectacular. Our only real dalliance with Queenstown’s extreme sports offerings was a ride on the chairlift and luge at the summit of the Skyline Hill that looms high above the town. (Yes, I do realise the luge might only seem “extreme” to five year olds but 100 meter freefalls aren’t really our bag.) My personal highlight was the walk through Ben Lomond Forest we undertook to reach the luge - otherwise known as the budget alternative to the exorbitant Skyline Gondola. Though undeniably the more circuitous route to the top of the hill, the steep, winding path took us past some breath-takingly lofty trees that swayed monstrously in the high winds and created fairy tale canopies over our heads. Our walk was well worth the effort in any case, as the views from the summit out over Lake Wakatipu and its surrounding mountains were truly awesome.
I had mixed feelings about Queenstown itself. Though a great place to spend a couple of nights eating and drinking out, I thought it was clean and pristine to the point of being clinical and felt that it lacked the soul and character of some of Otago’s finer settlements. It’s a town unashamedly geared up for tourists and almost everyone we encountered there seemed to be either doing casual work, holidaying or escaping a life elsewhere. I was also rather surprised by the number of Brits we encountered there, and not always the sort I’d necessarily wish to be associated with. Two “pommies” we were happy to converse with, though, were the amiable girls we encountered on the last bus back from the nearby settlement of Arrowtown who had moved over here from the UK a few years’ ago and set up their own B’n’B. It was comforting to meet some fellow ex-pats who had made a life for themselves here and their amusing banter reminded me how much one’s affiliation to one’s home country is derived from a shared sense of humour.
Arrowtown was an altogether more atmospheric place than its larger neighbour and its historic streets, lined with enticing pubs and restaurants, set the scene for one of our trip’s most enjoyable evenings. After being dropped off there by an abnormally friendly bus driver (abnormal, that is, by the standards of their London counterparts, though probably not in comparison to their Kiwi colleagues, who, it has to be said, have been universally helpful and jovial), we spent an hour or so exploring the ruins of the old settlement on the town’s outskirts where a group of Chinese gold miners lived in dire poverty late in the 19th century. Having been suitably humbled by the sight of windowless dwellings that many of us wouldn’t even find suitable for a tool shed today, we took a lovely dusky stroll along the river before settling next to a roaring fire at a cosy local ale house. Later in the evening, we somehow found ourselves on the front row at a gig that was taking place at an Irish pub down the road. In typically awkward English style, I cringed as the harmonising duo covered a variety of supposed rock and country “classics” while Holly clapped along courteously. Thankfully, the group of middle-aged women next to us more than made up for our rather feeble attempts to get into the spirit of the occasion by cheering, whooping and yelping in such an excited fashion than passers-by would have been forgiven for thinking that the Beatles had reformed here for a one-off back-from-the-dead concert. New Zealanders, it seems, sure know how to party.
And so came to an end our week in Otago, though with such an abundance of sublime scenery, historical heritage and heart-racing thrills I’m sure it won’t be long before we’re back there again.