Being so staggeringly beautiful, many roads in New Zealand are billed as “one of the most scenic drives in the country!” My futile attempt to sample ultra-fresh seafood the famous Fleur’s had forced my hand in route selection, since I’d already bypassed the first and most direct turnoff in the Queenstown direction. Instead, I backtracked 20 minutes to Palmerston to get on the much more circuitous Route 85 through the little town of Ranfurly and its eventual intersection with Cromwell. Though not mentioned in any of my guide books as a “most scenic!!” this turned out by happy chance to be one of the loveliest journeys of my trip.
There was no stunning alpine scenery or waterfall filled crevasses, just the amazing, steeply rolling hills dotted with sheep that characterize much of the country, seguing into dusty ridges stippled by eroded limestone escarpments, giving way to undulating pastures demarked by stiff lines of coniferous windbreaks reminiscent of central Italy. I could drive for 40 minutes without seeing another car or house. It wasn’t rugged or even lonely, exactly: just hypnotically beautiful and soothingly solitary. I would have happily pulled off the road at some scenic point and lived in my campervan, gazing out the windows, until my water supplies ran out.
Just as the sun hit the apex of its slow, slinking path behind the mountains, I reached the outskirts of Q’town and screeched off the main highway onto a dusty, single lane vineyard track tacked precariously to a mountainside overlooking the deep gorge of the Kawaru River – this was the Lord of the Rings set location for the Anduin River and the ancient towering statues of the Argonath (where Aragorn says, as the companions’ little boats bob along, “Long have I desired to gaze upon the faces of my ancestors…”)
Hugged tightly to the innermost edge of the bumpy lane that looked terrifyingly prone to collapse into the ravine, I situated myself for some photos, clinging to branches to keep my footing, executed a nine-some-point turn to safely get my van facing back in the proper direction without straying too close to the crumbling edge, and proceeded to town.
Dinner was a couple glasses of wine and tapas in the tiny, chi-chi bar overlooking Lake Wakatipu at Eichardt’s Private Hotel (voted by the London Times as one of the world’s top ten bars with a view).
I had mint, green pea, and Haloumi cheese fritters (tasty, but a bit dry and bland – they wanted some chutney or something), and the bacon and duck liver pate (delicious but, unsurprisingly, quite heavy).
After dinner I returned to Pog Mahone’s Irish pub for drinks, and bumped into the musician, Dan, who I’d met during my last stop in Q’town. A good Irish lad, he was celebrating his 28th birthday in the time honored style of getting blindly pissed. Though I made no attempt to catch up with him, I joined him in his tippling endeavors, getting a good earful about American politics the entire time. He was playing a gig the next night and invited me check that out, so I passed a sneaky overnight parked on the street alongside the town’s rugby fields, worked the next day by the lake, and went to happy hour to see Dan in action. I’d misunderstood him and thought he’d be playing with his band, but it was just him and an acoustic guitar. I admittedly don’t know much about music, but he was great – he has an amazing voice that, chameleon-like, took on the appropriate character of the cover songs he played – and it became crystal clear to me how he could actually get a visa to stay in the country and earn his living just from being a musician. He was deeply hungover, however, from the prior night’s birthday indulgences, so after a short set we had a couple of beers, and then it was time for me to reassess my plan.
It was late in the day, and my next stop was to see Aoraki (Mount Cook), a 12,000 foot high mountain at least a solid two-hour drive away, but I didn’t want to just lurk in Queenstown another night – I was ready to make progress. Despite my rule of not driving at night (so I didn’t miss scenery) I decided to try to hustle it there as best I could in the waning hours of sunset. The landscape for half the drive glowed faintly in the stubbornly pink waning stages of dusk, which finally gave grudging way to a twilight gloom. After a false turn or two (I feared I’d overshot my turnoff onto the road that only goes into and out of Mount Cook Village; in NZ, sometimes even major tourist stopoffs can have deceptively tiny and easy to overlook signage) I finally found myself in utter black of night at the start of Route 80 to Aoraki, some 50 km long. The road was freshly backtopped and painted, well-studded with reflective markers – in short, a breeze to drive on, even in dead darkness… except for the bunnies.
This road was the earthy embodiment of the inevitable result of the hackneyed phrase ‘breeding like rabbits.’ A profusion of bunnies wriggled and hopped everywhere – culverts, bridge edges, nibbling grass on the road shoulder, huddling on the highway. Now, I will do anything to avoid squishing even small critters like toads when I drive, but it rapidly became apparent I’d have to get out and push the van slowly by hand if I wanted to avoid the guilt of coney carnage. They weren’t just ubiquitous, they were dumb as rocks. I tried initially slowing down and honking occasionally, but several of the rabbits, instead of getting off the road, proceed to run in a straight line away from the predatory Mazda Bongo – meaning they stayed right in the lane and just tried to outrun the van. Swerving to get around one, I caught another with the opposite side’s tire as it leapt directly out onto the road from surrounding shrubbery and into my wheel well. It was a blizzard of kamikaze bunnies – like moths flying into the grille, attracted by the glow of headlights, and no way to avoid them! I made it through with – I think – only two casualties, weaving madly like I was hopped up on a combination of meth and serious psychedelic drugs, honking periodically in the hopes of chasing away the ones that had enough brains to align themselves on the proper side of Darwin. Harried and guilty, I reached the DOC site (drop your $4 in coins and registration in the honesty box) just before 11pm. The site was crammed full of slumbering tourists in tents, minivans, and RVs. I crept along as quietly as I could using just my running lights for illumination, eventually squeezing myself into a tiny parking spot. I was ravenous, and hopped out to heat up some soup on the van’s propane stove.
Mount Cook is, as previously mentioned, at the end of its own little road well over an hour from the nearest town, Twizel, which was pretty small anyway, and bordered in the north by the national park that encompasses the mountain. Mount Cook Village is composed of just a number of houses and the famous Hermitage Hotel, but doesn’t even have a real gas station – more of a small outpost than a town. It is, in short, in the middle of damn nowhere in a country that has a LOT of nowhere. And even with light-spoiled eyes, when I jumped out of the van, I was nearly knocked over by the view of the stars. They were EVERYWHERE, millions of them. It was like a light rain had fallen, and each tiny drop of mist had turned into a shimmering point of light. I could see the Milky Way. And in the clear night air, everything looked just touching distance away. I hastily slurped down my soup, turned off all supplementary light sources, pulled out the double bed in the van, opened all the windows, and wedged my pillows under my head to allow me a view of the swirling, glittering sky overhead as I fell asleep.