We awake to find ourselves in a small gold mining town tucked up in the Crown Range Mountains. The buildings have maintained their colonial appearance. Wooden facades, bold placards stating the service available, one main street running through the settlement. It would be easy to say little has changed. Plenty has. Most of the stores are selling postcards, jade stone jewellery, merino wool products, maori carvings and other exotic souvenirs. This is Arrowtown. It’s a pleasant place for a morning stroll but if you’re not interested in souvenirs there’s not a lot to keep you here. Lisa and Mum insisted on going in to every store, to look at the same things with slightly different price tags. Dad and I wondered further afield, leaving them to it.
We drove on into Queenstown to find it was more of the same on a larger scale. Beyond the draws of tourism, hospitality and farming I’m yet to see any signs of other industry in the South Island. On our way in we faced one of the bigger problems of travelling by camper van; finding somewhere to park it. Multi-storey car parks are an obvious no-go, most of the other open air car parks are already full. We’re fortunate to find a spot on the side of the road just beyond the city centre. Queenstown is a popular spot for people who have a questionable concept of fun. I think one of the few things we, as a family, were in total agreement on is throwing yourself off a bridge with only a giant elastic band to stop you from hitting the ground below is not something we would be doing for fun. We avoided the thrill-seeking. Instead we headed straight for the Skyline Gondola to take in the views over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu beyond.
You can forget the adrenalin rush. Queenstown’s location alone is more than enough to justify stopping by. From the Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve looking out across the town, the vast blanket of Lake Wakatipu fills the valley between the broken glass peaks of the aptly named Remarkables and the Bayonet Peaks. Fluffy white cumulus clouds floated over the mountains. I was experiencing plenty of pleasure just from standing there taking it all in. The desire to see it all rushing up towards be at break neck speed now seemed all the more ridiculous.
We stopped in the centre of town to have a quick look around. Wandering through we passed holiday homes, hostels, hotels, bars, restaurants. I can’t remember when I last saw an office block. It was the first settlement we’d come to large enough to justify a Vodafone store. Vodafone lead their sales and marketing with the travellers sim package which is a clear indication of the importance of tourism on the economy. I was sorted with a sim card. After a brief respite on the waterfront we decided there was little else we wanted to do in Queenstown and got back on the road.
What a road it was. We were starting a section of the Southern Scenic Route which we would follow to Te Anau and the start of the Milford Highway. Driving the length of the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu, the road twists and turns along the shore. Forested mountains rising directly out of the lake on either side. I saw a couple of hobbits in the trees, soon to escape the clutches of the Uruk Hai and break away from their travelling party. I don’t actually know where much of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed. Based on what we’d driven through so far, I don’t think you need to. You can get a feel for the scenery everywhere. A little imagination here will take you a long, long way.
The further we were from Queenstown the lower the clouds came. Having spent the first full days of our trip in glorious sunshine it was a little discouraging to find the weather on the turn. It’s not something I could have any genuine complaints about. Instead of bright cheerful mountains, we were now looking at dark, brooding half-hidden peaks. We drove through tiny townships, one cafe on the roadside providing the only sign of life. I wonder what the other people who live here do for a living? Te Anau was a moderate sized town. It is the last point of civilisation before Milford Sound. We stocked up on the essentials, ready to journey into one of the most remote corners of the reasonably well known world.
It’s little under 120km to Milford Sound. The guidebooks advise it will take two hours to drive, not taking into account any stops. We agreed it would be for the best if we made a start whilst there were still a few hours of daylight left as we had every intention of stopping, a lot. Lisa had found there were a couple of Department of Conservation campsites along the way so we shouldn’t have too much trouble in finding a spot to spend the night.
For a small fee we were able to pull up at Walker Creek Camp Ground. Sites like this operate on a first come first served basis. Fortunately there was only one other van when we arrived so we had a choice of the remaining spots. There’s an honesty box next to the information board where you pay your fee. There is a toilet, it’s a long drop, no flushing water. It smells a bit, there are plenty of flies but it means we don’t have to go in the van. The rule is you use it, you empty it. Nobody wants that job.
We’re a short distance from the Eglinton River. It’s running low. A few rivulets flow over the wide gravel track that marks its boundaries, crossing into and out of wider streams. I’m more than happy to pay a small fee for a night when the location’s this good. The clouds are still low. I can’t see the tops of the mountains across the river. For perhaps the first time ever, I’m looking forward to the prospect of being forced to leave somewhere the same way we came in. The weather might be different. I might not even have to wait until we return this way, in the morning perhaps everything will have changed.