|Posted on November 25, 2012 at 7:30 AM|
By Magda D. Healey
It's only about 130km from our accommodation to Te Anau, and if done in one go, less than two hours drive on a sunny and dry day. We are planning a whole day, taking it slowly as it's our first look at the Holy Grail of South Island travels, the Fiordland.
It's misty as we leave, but past Tuatapere the sky clears and although it's still cold and very windy, the sun is shining on the landscape of the south-western corner of New Zealand. From Tuatapere to Te Anau the road goes almost directly north and as we drive up the change of land is subtle but unmistakable. There are high mountains visible to the west, and there is more woodland and less farming (though farm animals don't ever seem to disappear completely in New Zealand). But even with pasture and livestock, it's very attractive country; on an island blessed with scenic routes and beautiful vistas, this is seriously raising the gorgeousness stakes. There are mountains – proper, Alpine looking mountains - on every side, and beyond the farmland, what seems like enticing woodland.
Our first detour on this last stretch of the Southern Scenic Route (this bit is dubbed World Heritage Highway, in reference to the Te Wahipounamu - South West New Zealand World Heritage Area) is Lake Hauroko. This is the deepest lake in New Zealand, reaching 462m below the sea level and as it's surrounded by steep hills (not unlike Fiordland's sounds) which funnel wind, known to raise very rough and high waves very quickly.
The turn-off for the lake is near Clifden, and the signs warn of a 30km detour, over 20km on gravel roads. Our rental car has already done a lot on gravel roads, but it's always a worry as our insurance doesn't cover the windscreen, and as these unsealed roads are genuinely gravel rather than plain dirt-track, we always worry about chips.
Still, it's the deepest lake in New Zealand, so off we go. The first few kilometres of tarmac pass quickly and after that the road becomes truly dreadful, covered in what seems more like pebbles than gravel, and rough too. We pass some farms, and we drive through a sea of sheep (not an unknown experience in Britain either). The road improves after a few kilometres of the pebble and sheep horror, becoming more of a solid dirt track (wouldn't be much fun in serious rain) and enters a woodland area. Eventually, after at least a 45 minute drive, we reach the lake car park which contains two cars (one a trailer for a jet-boating company) but no people. It's even colder and windier and it's kind of raining, despite the sky being blue.
We wrap up well and go exploring. The lake is surrounded by high, steep, forest-covered mountains, just like the ones seen on images of New Zealand fiords. It stretches far, though only some of the shores are visible, the rest disappearing in the mist and the clouds. A wooden jetty sticks out from the shore and, over the opposite bank, a flat arch of a rainbow curves above a lower hill. The rainbow is clear, strong and so low that you can see the hill beyond that; and it remains like that for the duration of our stay, with the rain and sun alternating and mixing in the sky above us.
We go for a little wander around the woodland, but the shorter forest tracks don't appeal, while the three hour bluff lookout path seems too much, especially for the Younger Child in the cold and wind. We are drawn repeatedly to the lake; the rainbow is still there, and the hills on the shores appear and disappear behind the moving mist and clouds.
It's empty, and even the jetty, washed over in its lower part by the raising waves, looks picturesquely abandoned, as if part of a set designed for taking moody pictures.
We manage to get back through the 30km of the dirt track without any noticeable disasters and we are soon parking next to the Clifden Suspension Bridge, constructed in 1899 to replace a wire ferry and used by traffic until 1978. Now it stands as a national monument, impassable even by pedestrians, but still attractive construction spanning two high banks of the Waiau River.
Lake Monowai, along the Borland Track, is not as beautiful and deserted as Lake Hauroko (we pass what appears to be a camp of schoolchildren in tents), but has a lovely walk in light-filled beech forest and is still a pretty spot, worth the detour of twelve or so kilometres
After that, it's straight to Manapouri, past the Takitimu Mountains glowing with their snowy caps in the falling dusk. After a quick look at the darkening lake, burning red in the setting sun, we start looking for accommodation (no couch surfs here). In the process, we learn that Milford Road has been closed all day today due to avalanche danger and snow higher up, and that it might stay closed tomorrow. We settle in the wonderful Acheron Cottages (the children very excited to have their own bedroom for the first time in months) and go to sleep in a fine flurry of falling snow.