NZ South Island road trip – part III: Queenstown to Te Anau to Milford Sound to Fairlie

From Wanaka, there are two ways to get to Queenstown, both apparently quite beautiful, but the Crown Range Road is renowned for being the extra scenic one. We did a bit of reading online and found out that the Crown Range is not recommended for those not familiar with New Zealand roads and that there had been a serious accident a couple of days previously that closed the road. Oh, and it was my turn to drive and the clouds were building up. But my gut and brain seemed to be in contradiction – deep down I felt it would be a shame to chicken out and miss out on the panoramic vistas. So… off we drove to the Crown Range! 

Despite regular signs warning drivers to slow down at accident/death black spots, the road was beautiful, winding its way through the brightly coloured lupins, and climbing steadily. It was narrow and bendy but perfectly manageable. And when we reached the top, there was Queenstown, nestled amongst the foothills, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Absolutely beautiful. But of course, if you go up, you must go down. And boy was that interesting! Hairpin after hairpin as the road sloped steeply down towards the plains below. We made it in one piece, though, and managed to snag a sneaky parking spot just outside our hostel.


After a quick explore of the town, which turned out to be much smaller than we expected, and the most decadent melted hot chocolate, we lined up for the world-famous Ferg Burgers along with what feels like the rest of New Zealand. The wait wasn’t too bad after all and we gleefully grabbed the large bag of food to go and sit by the lake in the evening sun. The burgers tasted bloody good but I have to be controversial here, I’m not sure they’re the best I’ve ever eaten. Went nicely with a cold cider though. 


After an eventful night involving a stinky (literally and figuratively) Trump supporter sleep-shouting, we headed out for coffee at Vudu and boarded the Earnshaw, a steamboat as old as the Titanic, for a blustery crossing of Lake Wakatipu. The rest of our afternoon was then spent in the (slightly underwhelming) city gardens and going up the gondola for some fantastic views. Sipping on delicious gin and cucumber mojitos, we watched all the kids gearing up to storm down the hill on their bikes and it made me think that Daniel would enjoy Queenstown very much. 


We eventually headed back down to freshen up and make our way to the Public Bar & Kitchen for our dinner reservation. Fine wine and delicious locally sourced food as the sun set was the best way to end another top day. And we finally got to try some New Zealand staples such as lamb and pavlova!


The next morning, it was time for our next destination, Te Anau, so we hopped into Rexie and enjoyed the relatively short drive. The weather was a little gloomy when we arrived but that was quickly forgotten with our visit to the glowworm caves, one of the most magical experiences of my life. A biggish boat took us across the lake where we entered the cave system through a metre-high gap in the rocks. This is not something I would usually feel comfortable with but the site was very well equipped and our guide, Ripple, super friendly. As we went deeper into the 12,000-year-old caves, both of us were baffled by the sheer power of the water, carving its swirling way through the rock. We then boarded a Harry Potter-style small boat and Ripple turned off the lights. I still get shivers now thinking about stunningly beautiful it was. 


The ceiling was carpeted with twinkling glowworms, scintillating like diamonds in a velvety darkness so deep I lost all and any sense of direction, the only hints of spatial awareness being the thunderous rush of the falling water and the soft glow illuminating the childlike awe on the faces of all on board. Sadly, I have no photos as it was forbidden (a rule which was surprisingly well respected) but I will treasure the memory of this fairytale constellation.


Back at our hostel, in our little self-catered apartment (no more dorms for us!), it was time for a kiddy dinner made up of various leftovers and an early night. The next morning, we set off bright and early for Milford Sound. The drive was beautiful, varying from powerful waterfalls rushing down slanting cliff faces like streaking veins to rolling green hills and dark, eerie forests. We made a couple of stops at the Mirror Lakes and the Chasm, as recommended by the Kiwis we met in Franz Josef, before we came across the Homer tunnel, which felt like the mouth to hell. A steep downhill 1.2km tunnel with no lights and questionable road surface in the driving rain and fog – I will have certainly broadened my driving experience on this trip!


We arrived in Milford Sound well ahead of time so made the most of the little cafe and went on a couple of nearby tramps, looking like weird hunchbacks in our red rain ponchos. We may or may not have even invented a song and a jig on the foreshore tramp… Good job no one else was around! But, as we climbed up to the viewpoint in the drizzle, the clouds started to part and the sun finally broke out, giving us amazing views and the best weather we could have hoped for for our cruise. 

The waterfalls were huge following the downpour but the clouds had lifted so we could actually see the tall peaks towering around us. We even got to see dolphins and lazy seals sunning themselves on the rocks. What a treat! And did you know that dolphins still swim in their sleep? They simply turn off a part of their brain. We were also very pleased with our choice of boat, a small vessel with only 18 of us on board, that took us right to where the Tasman Sea meets the Sound (technically a fjord) – the swell was pretty big to say the least. 


On the way back, the boat went right up to one of the waterfalls, out of which a bright rainbow was jutting, and got all of us outside absolute drenched – we were warned but none of us expected it to be quite so powerful!


After such an eventful day, we were ready for an early night before our epic drive up to Fairlie the following morning. We had to retrace our steps back to Queenstown, where a fresh dusting of snow adorned the peaks like icing sugar, and then got to enjoy the scenic Cromwell road. On and on we drove, over the incredible Lindis Pass and up to Pukaki. 


Because of the weather we’d had on the West Coast, we had unfortunately not seen the famous Mt Cook but this time luck was on our side with air so crisp you could see for miles. As we rounded a bend, we suddenly caught a glimpse of tall, snow-capped mountains and as we got closer there was the mighty mount, standing proudly behind the unbelievably turquoise glacial lake. Mona will attest to the fact that I was so stunned by the vast beauty of it all that I got a little emotional. I know, I feel too much, but it’s the end of a pretty big journey too, you know?


After stopping to gawp and take a few pics, we drove on to the next lake, Tekapo, a different yet still amazing shade of blue. We strolled down to New Zealand’s most photographed chapel, along with hordes of other tourists, and soon gave up on trying to get a people-free shot. At that point, sitting down on a quiet bench with an ice cream was much more appealing than battling the crowds. 


Finally, after a long day’s drive (thanks, Mona!), we arrived in rural Fairlie and had what has to be the most comical reception. We’d booked into one of the only hotels in town and followed the signs to reception only to find ourselves, two young blondes with all our worldly goods on our back, in a grotty old pub full of local men who pretty much all stopped and stared as we walked in. The landlord was super friendly if a little run off his feet so got his son who can’t have been much more than 10 to show us to our room. The old-fashioned but clean hotel was spookily quiet and had a bit of a Shining feel to it (REDRUM) but it turns out we were just the first to arrive.


It quickly filled up and we were very glad to have booked a table at one of the two restaurants in town, where we enjoyed a well-deserved glass of wine to celebrate the end of what has been an incredible road trip, full of laughter, chats, beautiful scenery, tasty food and amazing memories with a dear friend.


So that’s it for our road trip! More soon on the North Island 🙂

Love,

Jx 

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