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Lake Pukaki

Image © Miles Holden

Roadtripping in New Zealand

Natarsha Brown and family rent a van, take a deep breath and road trip from Christchurch to Lake Wanaka.

We have just strapped ourselves into our rental van at Christchurch International Airport and Tommy, the youngest of the family, quoting none other than the famous hobbit Bilbo Baggins himself, utters excitedly, “I’m going on an adventure.” An adventure indeed.

Mountain landscapes in every direction, fjords that look like (insurmountable) stairways to heaven, ancient forests whose greens glitter as only the homes of fairies – or elves – ever could. Like the rest of the world, my family has witnessed the beauty of New Zealand on the silver screen many times over – we’re self-professed Tolkien aficionados – and we’re desperate to see its grandeur in person. We roll the windows down, turn up the tunes and prepare to be awed.

STOP ONE: Christchurch

Following the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, the ‘Garden City’ is bouncing back with renewed energy and no small amount of creative flair. Wandering around by foot we find a curious combination of old and new: vacant spaces, half rebuilt heritage buildings, stretches of parkland, walls covered in political street art and graffiti and, of course, Re:START, a pedestrian shopping mall made from colourful shipping containers and host to an array of fashion boutiques, gift stores, banks and restaurants. It’s a poignant experience and even the kids are somewhat silent, observing first-hand the resilience of the Kiwis.

Image © Miles Holden

STOP TWO: Lake Tekapo

It’s time to hit the road, and what strikingly flat roads they are. We are heading west on the Inland Scenic Route 72 through the pastoral perfection that is the Canterbury Plains and it is as if we have somehow stumbled into the English countryside; parallel hedges and rows of pines fence off fields of sunflowers, wheat and grazing dairy cows like a patchwork quilt of earthy browns and greens. We drive through one idyllic small town after another, and although this is not the ‘postcard’ New Zealand we are used to seeing, it has a countryside charm we all adore.

In less than four hours we arrive. Looking as if someone covered the bottom half of a canvas in highlighter blue, Lake Tekapo needs no Instagram filter and, with the backdrop of the Southern Alps, it is simply otherworldly. The lake gets its milky turquoise colour from the fine rock flour, ground by glaciers, suspended in the water. We all run to the shore, positively giddy at the sight, and dip our hands in, almost expecting them to surface the same hue as one of James Cameron’s Avatars. The Church of the Good Shepherd sits on the waterfront, the altar window framing a perfect view and providing a photo hotspot for visitors.

We stay at The Chalet Boutique Motel, enjoying gorgeous views of the lake. Lake Tekapo is also part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, making it the perfect spot for stargazing, and we decide to enjoy a night out on a Mt John Observatory Tour with Earth & Sky to discover the nocturnal world of an astronomer, peer through the powerful telescopes with our own eyes and contemplate the mysteries of the universe.

Image © Adam Bryce

STOP THREE: Mount Cook Village

Our drive the following day is more of a jaunt, just one hour to Mount Cook Village. Nestled between the glistening Lake Pukaki and the sky-scraping mountains of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, the village is truly a ‘village’, with a permanent population of only 250 people.

Although it encompasses 23 peaks that are more than 3000 metres high and includes New Zealand’s tallest mountain, the park is very accessible and a variety of walks are kidfriendly. We decide to hike the three-hour Hooker Valley Track, which leads us along a mostly flat path through meadows of wildflowers (our favourite: the buttercup), over rushing rivers on swinging suspension bridges, and ends with a grand vista of a glacier lake.

We had pre-booked into The Hermitage Hotel for the evening and spend the night chatting on our private balconies and basking in the spectacular views of the surrounding snow-capped alps and alpine forests.

STOP FOUR: Queenstown

Queenstown needs no introduction: sitting on the crystal-clear waters of Lake Wakatipu, The Remarkables providing one of the most stunning backdrops I have ever seen, it is also the home of the ultimate adventure bucket list.

However, the boys in my family aren’t much for adrenaline activities, so instead ... we eat. Stopping for the most delicious empanadas we have ever tasted on the lakeside at the Empanada Kitchen, we then take advantage of the free fudge tastings at The Remarkable Sweet Shop, before joining the eager crowds at the famous Fergburger. When planning the trip we asked Tommy what he wanted to do and his only reply was: “Eat a Fergburger.” So here we are, finally, and the line is almost a block long... at 4pm on a Thursday!

STOP FIVE: Glenorchy

Just a 45-minute drive from Queenstown, the rustic town of Glenorchy is the setting of the South Island’s most famous shooting spots, including for ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ and, of course, ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

The accommodation here is sparse and mostly involves house rentals, so we book a cottage for our stay online. We open a bottle of wine and feel right at home within minutes, gathered around a crackling fire, talking and laughing about our adventure so far, and looking out through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows at the 360 degree views.

Twenty kilometres from Glenorchy lies the town of Paradise. No, really. No one is entirely sure how it got its name – some say it was for its natural beauty, others for the paradise ducks that live in the area – all I know is, the only thing better than the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is the drive from Glenorchy to Paradise. It’s the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park, truly a dreamland of river valleys and beech forests that come alive with the sounds of waterfalls and birds. Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf in the LOTR trilogy, said of the area: “This is the Middle Earth I had always pictured.”

STOP SIX: Milford Sound

Called the eighth wonder of the world by Rudyard Kipling, Milford Sound lives up to its legend and is completely worth the four-hour drive from Queenstown. A lot of people choose to do it as a day trip, but not wanting to rush the experience – or tire ourselves out completely – we choose to stay overnight at Milford Sound Lodge.

Passing through the 1.2-kilometre long Homer Tunnel, you arrive on the other side to splendour of unearthly proportions. The towering cliffs rise 1200 metres or more on both sides of the fiord, creating a plethora of ever-changing waterfalls, and the sound is host to pods of dolphins and families of lazy seals.

We jump on a sightseeing day cruise with Go Orange, which offers four daily departures at the height of summer and free meals on board. We enjoy a breakfast of orange juice and BLTs on the early bird cruise and simply sit back and enjoy the out-of-this-world views... that’s until we stop beneath a cascade and get completely drenched head-to-toe!

Image © Rob Suisted

STOP SEVEN: Lake Wanaka

We drive to our final destination, Lake Wanaka, through the famous Crown Range. New Zealand’s highest road, reaching an altitude of 1121 metres, is complete with steep ascents and challenging twists and turns that have the kids playing the deadliest game of corners in the back seat I have ever witnessed – and, of course, spine-tingling mountain views.

Lake Wanaka proves to be a smaller, more laidback version of Queenstown, but just as scenic. The town itself has the atmosphere of a ski town, even though we are visiting in the summer, and its alpine surrounds make it a magnet for those wanting to experience the New Zealand outdoors at its best. We stop for a picnic at the famous Wanaka Tree, sprouting out of the lake like a photographer’s dream, and just let ourselves soak in the scenery, lost among the forests, clouds, mountains and endless skies ... Because that’s what happens when you are on the road, you lose all sense of time, and it’s divine.

This article appeared in volume 50 of Holidays with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

Image © Rob Suisted

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