The white van habit is hard to break and we manage to find one which is as dodgy looking as the Mercedes, but this time with side windows. We throw an unreliable airbed in the back along with a duvet, gas cooker, stove top espresso, some home brew and an industrial size bacon and egg pie in a roasting dish.
We’ve decided to drive up the Waitaki Valley and as we take the road north out of Dunedin the white hawthorn is prolific while the hillsides are yellow with gorse and broom. Dust hangs in a cloud around a tractor ploughing. Paddocks have been cut for silage and the lambs are out.
Bert is The Man sitting up between us, his eyes fixed on the road ahead.
After stopping at a farm to buy a kilo of asparagus we notice some whitebaiters by the Shag River with a rough camp reminiscent of Gypsy camps in Europe.
We’re heading to Mt Cook so we turn off the main highway and take a short cut through Weston and Ngapara. It’s limestone country with rocky outcrops and little hills, lots to look at but slow travelling.
At Duntroon the war memorial reminds us of the immaculate ones we’ve seen in every little town in France. The two countries have that much in common.
Coming into Kurow the shelter belts are a work of art with tall trees a foot apart. We continue to Lake Aviemore and cross the dam to the Fisherman’s Bend campsite which is huge and empty. Bert is ecstatic about the smells and leaps through the tall grass like a maniac.
Next day there are harriers and skylarks, the birds of the high country. We stop to look at wild flowers on the roadside: orange Californian poppies, pink daisies and dianthus, tiny white flowers similar to gentians, sweet briar, and purple ones we can’t identify.
The Ahuriri River near the road is clogged with beautiful pink, mauve and purple lupins, a fabulous sight but clearly a growing problem. We chat to a Polish couple in a camper van then continue past a massive new dairy farm just before the Wairepo Arm. Dairy farms up here have transformed the landscape and can only survive with a large dollop of irrigation. They are on an industrial scale and highly controversial, but because New Zealand’s economy is very dependent on dairy exports, the environmental costs are tolerated.
We turn off and the road follows Lake Pukaki which is varying shades of turquoise. Spiky pines are in the foreground, then there’s a strip of water, behind that flat green hills, and at the rear a range of mountains half covered in snow. Above is a strip of blue sky topped with grey clouds.
We’re wondering if we’ll get to see Mt Cook as the high mountains in the distance have their heads in the clouds.
At Mt Cook village we check out the historical photos in the Visitors’ Centre which is heaving with tourists. Aoraki/Mt Cook isn’t visible today so we drive to Tasman Lake which has been formed recently by the retreat of the Tasman Glacier. It has small melting icebergs.
Our drive back along the lake is dominated by its turquoise glacial water.
We turn off at Lake Wardell where there’s a large park with trees and a toilet, beside the Pukaki/Ohau Canal. There are a couple of other campers and the grass under the trees is littered with perfect open pinecones. Bert has a swim in the lake and plays with a fellow spoodle.
Next morning we fill the duvet cover and pillowslips with cones for the fire then set off for home.
At Omarama a red biplane takes off and circles, and gliders are getting an airing.
Kurow is the only place we know where you can buy the legendary merino pies, low fat and delicious. We stop to get a couple for lunch, boil the kettle for a cup of tea then head to Oamaru to visit a friend. She takes us to an exhibition, Steam Punk, a difficult concept to explain. Have a look at the pictures.
We tell ourselves we’ll return to the Waitaki Valley in the autumn when the colours of the old hydro scheme trees will be stunning. It seems a long way off but there are salmon to be caught in the harbour over summer, and the vege garden to tend.
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