Exploring my big backyard

(June 2020)

Finally, I am writing about 2020 (just a week or two short of the end of the year lol) – I am sure I will not get so far behind in future!!

And what a year it has been, no one could have predicted that when I returned to New Zealand in early February, it was to be the last time in the 2020 that I would be out of the country!  Still, I am not mad about it.  As everyone is probably aware, New Zealand went “hard and early” when it came to our COVID-19 response.  We had a very hard, 5 week lockdown starting at the end of March, much harder than I have seen in other countries, and after a few weeks of lesser restrictions we came out the other end of it towards the end of May.  Since then, life has almost returned to normal and we have been able to move around the country relatively freely (and mask free).

We have had a few blips along the way with some community transmission in small numbers which has resulted in some localised lockdowns and mask requirements (mostly in Auckland) but I for one am enjoying exploring my own backyard.

I was fortunate to have lots of wonderful family camping holidays exploring New Zealand growing up but there are so many places I had not visited since then, so it seems 2020 was the year for re-exploring this wonderful country I am so fortunate to call home.

Of course, I am not the only one ‘stuck’ in New Zealand, and I discovered Venus Adventures (https://www.venusadventures.travel/) through an ad on Facebook.  Julie, the founder, is a Kiwi who now calls Egypt home and arranges tours for woman around the world.  She had been in New Zealand visiting family when COVID hit and she was stuck here.  When lock down finished, she looked at ways to keep her business going in this new world and came up with the idea of small group short getaways in New Zealand.

I joined one in June to the beautiful MacKenzie Basin, just a short 3.5 hours drive from Christchurch.  Of course, I could have easily gone there for a weekend on my own (or with friends), but I know I would have missed out on some of the quirkier activities we did so for me, it was definitely worth it. 

And so I joined Julie and a couple of other ladies from Christchurch on the road down to Twizel which was to be our base for the long weekend.  Our first stop was in Geraldine, a small town founded in the 1840s.  Fun fact, Geraldine was a ‘dry’ town until 1950 – that means no alcohol could be served!  Today it has grown up from its small farming beginnings and now has a population of just under 3,000 and is a hub for artists and artisans including some great cheese and chocolate (two of my favourite things 😊).

Back on the road and our next stop was in Tekapo.  Tekapo is one of the main stops on the normal South Island tourist route and it is normally packed all year round, mostly with international tourists.  It was eerie to see it almost empty. No tourist buses and campervan filling the overflowing car parks.  No queues of people waiting to take photos of the ‘insta-favourite’ The Church of the Good Shepherd, overlooking the lake.  It felt wrong not to stop and take a couple of snaps in these strange times.

We had a quick photo stop on the shores of Lake Pukaki.  It was a beautiful clear day and we could see all the way down to Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak at 3,724m.  We were heading back down this way in a couple of days so hoped to see it again then.

Sunset was on its way by the time we arrived at our accommodation on the shores of Lake Ruataniwha, just outside of Twizel, in the heart of the MacKenzie Basin.

The MacKenzie Basin (also known as MacKenzie Country) was named after a Scottish sheep thief.  He was imprisoned, escaped and recaptured numerous times and was admired as a rebel who challenged the wealthy land owners of the time.  The area is an outdoor adventurers dream, full of mountains, braided rivers and lakes.   Due to the extensive network of hydroelectric schemes in the area, there are also a number of man-made canals – often controversial, the hydro dams have altered the landscape, changing existing lakes and creating new ones.

As the temperature dropped, the moon rise was stunning from the house, and the morning was just as beautiful as the sun came up over the snow-capped mountains.  I made an effort to get up and out early to take some photos of that wonderful ‘golden’ hour and I am so glad I did as within 1 hour the clouds had closed in and it started to snow – and boy did it snow!

We started our days activities having a quick look through the small town’s shops (and avoiding the snow) and thankfully the snow had stopped in time for us to head off for our sightseeing.  First stop was the High Country Salmon Farm (https://www.highcountrysalmon.co.nz/).  Interesting to see the how the farm works, but I seem to have taken more photos of birds than fish lol.  Firstly, because it was far easier and secondly because they looked amazing on the crazy bright turquoise water.   Many of the lakes and water ways in the region are this colour (or similar) due to the glacial flour (extremely fine rock particles from the nearby glaciers) content – when the sun hits the surface at the right angle, it reflects off the particles transforming it to a brilliant blue.

We drove past a couple of the Hydro power stations (and lakes created by them), including Waitaki Power Station (built in 1928-34 and is the oldest of 8 stations on the Waitaki river) and Lake Waitaki and onwards to the small town of Kurow, just 8 kms from the power station.  A little known fact, Waitaki and Kurow are considered the birthplace of the world’s first social welfare system.  Doctors in Kurow developed a system to provide free medical treatment to the power plant workers and their families if they paid a small amount in to a ‘fund’.  Two of those doctors who were material in the creation of the ‘fund’, later became MPs and the national social welfare scheme was based on this in 1939.

Today Kurow has a population of just over 500 (when I said small town, I meant it!) and we were here to visit Ostler Wines (https://www.ostlerwine.co.nz/).  According to their website, “wine is liquid geography” and the wine grown in the Waitaki Valley is “38 million years in the making”.  As we entered the old Kurow Post office on the main drag, we were greeted by Commander in Chief Jim Jerram (an ex-doctor) and his wife Anne.  We were lucky enough to taste a number of their beautiful wines and enjoy one of the best platters I have had and it was clear just how passionate Jim was about his wines.  Such a gem to find in such a small town (give them a call in advance if you want to stop by just to be sure they are open).

As we drove back towards Twizel the scenery as stunning.  The combination of the magnificent lake, surrounding peaks and wide open skies are a dream for photographers and pose the difficult challenge of capturing the grandeur of the ever-changing landscape.

We also stopped briefly at Lake Benmore (New Zealand’s largest manmade lake), a lake created by the Benmore Hydro Station and Dam (New Zealand’s largest earth dam).  This power station alone generates enough electricity each year to power almost 300,000 homes and Hydroelectric power currently accounts for 57% of total NZ electricity generated, so you can see the benefits of these hydro systems.  We stopped for afternoon tea in a small park by the lake and took a few minutes to read all about the local hydro systems as described in a mural – from the construction of the dam and lakes through to the conservation efforts of Meridian, the company that operates them.

Another cold night, lead to another stunning morning – and I mean stunning, so of course I was out early catching the frost on the ground and the now more than snow capped mountains 😉.  It was beautiful day in Twizel as we headed out along the canals towards Lake Pukaki (another lake filled with that glacial flour) but as we neared Mt Cook National Park the cloud came down.

Our first stop in the National Park was the small but perfectly formed visitor centre.  It has a beautiful picture window looking out to Aoraki Mt Cook (or it would if it wasn’t covered in cloud lol) and also some stunning stained glass windows of native flora and fauna.  It was really interesting to see displays of early mountaineers (both Maori and European) and the outrageous outfits they used to wear for their mountaineering.  I guess some day our outfits will be displayed in a similar way and people with think them outrageous too!

From the warmth of the Visitor Centre and Café we headed up the valley and started out on the Insta-famous (made famous by Instagram influencers) Hooker Valley Track.  Despite the snow and the cloud, the walk was still stunning but unfortunately in our action packed day, we did not have time to do the whole walk.  We did however make it up to the Aoraki Mt Cook view point – of course we could not see it but to be honest, in this instance, it did not really matter as the journey was just as worthwhile.  Yet another place that is normally crowded with mostly international tourists, but today is almost empty. Driving back along Lake Pukaki, the cloud had cleared and the lake was that stunning blue again.

We had a picnic lunch in the Department of Conservation kitchen facilities at the start of the track before heading to Omarama – yet another small town (population of around 260).  Despite it’s size it is home (or near to home) to a couple of must see sites.

Next up were the Omarama Clay cliffs – now I had never heard of them, but apparently they are one of these wonderful sites we love to describe as “world famous in New Zealand” lol.  The ‘cliffs’ are on private land and there is a small donation box as you head into the carpark and it is then just a short walk before you are in amongst the spectacular and somewhat other worldly weather pillars – a quick geology lesson.  They clay cliffs considered “Badlands” terrain, pillars developed by deposits of grey and white sandstone and claystone formed in an ancient lake, and yellow and brown river silt from an ancient river.  Over the years (thousands or even millions of them), wind and rain have eroded the pillars to leave the formations we see today.

There are no specific routes or tracks, which mean you can wander amongst them as you desire, but don’t forget to also take in the view down the valley which is just as picturesque. I did get somewhat distracted by trying to take a photo of a fantail 😉 I love fantails and just can’t resist the way they flip around, catching insects on the fly and photographing them is such a challenge lol.

After a day out in the fresh air we headed back down to Omarama for a soak in the amazing Hot Tubs (https://www.hottubsomarama.co.nz/). They are filled with fresh water (replaced after every use) and heated by a wood-fire and each group get a private tub.  We had 1.5 hour to enjoy our BYO wines as we enjoyed the amazing view as the sun sets! It really was the perfect way to end the day.

On our final morning, Julie had arranged for us to visit Tasman Downs, a small farm on the shore of Lake Pukaki.  The farm is well known in The Hobbit fan circles as the location for some of the scenes in the movies, however it is perhaps more infamous for the “Quirky Farmer”, Ian Hayman.  Ian is known for his fabulous fashion and his shoe Ferris wheel – yes, that’s right, a Ferris wheel for his shoes (of course it plays “Blue Suede Shoes” as it rotates).  Ian took us on a tour of the farm in his equally quirky car, showing us around the farm, regaling us with stories of life on a movie set and that of a high country farmer – albeit a quirky one (how many times can I say quirky in one paragraph? Lol).  You too can visit Ian through his “Quirky Farm Tours” (ok, just one more ‘quirky’ lol.) (https://mackenzienz.com/tours/ians-quirky-farm-tours/)

All that remained for the weekend was the drive home, via Fairlie for a famous Fairlie pie (another ‘world famous in New Zealand’ if I am not mistaken.

It was definitely a great start to my year of re-exploring my big backyard.

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