It felt as unreal as Peter Jackson’s fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (2001-03). New Zealand, with its cattle-dotted fields, tussock-covered hills, powder blue rivers and clear lakes, seizes you with its ethereal beauty. A three-day trip from Christchurch to Queenstown on its South Island was all about hopping out of the car every few miles and soaking in the scenic contours of its enormous landscape.
On Day 1, as we left Christchurch behind, the road began to wind and the landscape became bushy and rugged. In the distance, patches of ice-capped grey mountains and the Waimakariri River bounded in and out of sight. Around 120 km from Christchurch, we made our first stop at Castle Hill. With its giant, wind-sculpted limestone tors, it catches the eye of those passing through the area in Canterbury High Country. On the edge of the highest rock, two women sat meditating. In the farm below, cows grazed lazily and the wildflowers leading up to the hill swayed in the wind. The Dalai Lama had called this place one of the spiritual centres of the universe during his 2002 visit. I could see why. Mindfulness came without much effort here, but that would hold true for most of New Zealand.
It started pouring as soon as we got down and started climbing the boulders. So we rushed back to the safety of the car. We crossed overlapping mountains, beech forests and entered Arthur’s Pass village, a good base camp for rock climbers. The native Maori were the first to travel in this region for transporting pounamu (greenstone) they quarried from the mountains. When gold was discovered on the West Coast in 1864, the English settlers of nearby Canterbury started scrambling to get there easily and quickly. Around this time, surveyor Arthur Dobson (1841-1934) heard about the pass from a Maori chief and work began soon after. It carried on through the chilling alpine winter and the road was built in less than a year.
Arthur’s Pass village has a population of 35 people and keas, the olive-green alpine parrots notorious for snatching anything they can get their claws on. It has two cafes, a store and ends as soon as it begins, like many villages and towns in New Zealand. Travelling through the country, the vast expanse and little sign of civilisation, barring the grazing livestock and deer farmed for venison, evokes a sense of wonder and an appreciation of space. That’s because its population is less than five million, which is approximately one-fifth of the number of people you find jostling for space in Delhi.
About seven minutes from Arthur’s Pass is Death’s Corner. It gives you an unobstructed view of the Otira Viaduct snaking over its namesake gorge and a photo opportunity with its resident kea. From here, we headed north towards Hokitika, where we planned to spend the night. It doesn’t take long for the terrain to change in this part of the world and in an hour’s time, the mountains had receded, and we were parallel to the Tasman Sea that shimmered in the late evening sun.
I found Hokitika to be unusually quiet for a tourist town. Our server at Stumpers Bar and Cafe, the only crowded restaurant, said that many store owners were on vacation during the Christmas break. I wondered if pandering to tourists really appealed to this coastal town that had seen far more exciting times during the Gold Rush.
On Day 2, the sun was shining bright, but its sprightful mood changed again. It was drizzling when we got to Franz Josef Glacier Village. The helicopter tour company cancelled the flight because of the weather, so all we saw was the glacier’s tongue peeping out of the Southern Alps.
On our way to the raw landscape of Haast, a Unesco World Heritage area and a transit point, we stocked up for the 120 km drive past lowland forest and the Tasman Sea. Our disjointed concrete-tin structure motel stood alone, amid mountains and grasslands. We didn’t see any staff, but you shouldn’t look for hospitality in Haast. It’ll offer you something far more gratifying — a feeling of oneness with its wilderness.
It’s hard to pick a favourite route in New Zealand, but if you had to choose one, I would recommend taking State Highway 6 (Haast Pass) from Haast towards Wanaka, which we did on Day 3. We hiked through the silver beech forest and crossed a swing bridge over the Makarora River to get to the popular Blue Pools. In the noon sun, they were shining the brightest azure I had ever seen. Thrill seekers were diving from the bridge suspended over the pools. I thought they were foolhardy, but then what’d the cautious know of their quest.
We had not driven far when we saw Lake Wanaka placidly ensconced among craggy Southern Alps on our right. On the other side, Lake Hawea filled up the glacial valley that got carved during the last Ice Age. White clouds grazed the deep blue sky. All we could do was stand silently, gaping at the beauty that surrounded us.
Reluctantly, we drove on. Half an hour later, we were in Wanaka, an all-weather resort town on the southern edge of the 192-sq-km lake. I enjoyed a glass of local Pinot Noir and a slice of almond apricot cake at Big Fig, one of its waterfront restaurants. The mountains in front stood still, but in the winter, the slopes come alive with zigzagging skiers and snowboarders. It was a town I would return to someday, but now was the time to quiz its adventurous cousin, Queenstown. I wanted to know where it got its dauntless spirit from. And so, cutting through purple lupine covered hills, I was off to seek my kind of thrill — that of discovery.
Richa Agarwal is a writer based in San Francisco Bay Area. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Lay of the Land’