The weather can be very fickle in the South Island in early spring. But even on rainy days or when a cold wind is blowing, there is a lot to enjoy.
On our first morning in Wanaka it is cold but sunny. We put on our walking boots, merino jerseys, beanies, gloves and rain jackets and venture outside to explore the first part of three local tracks close to Wanaka at a leisurely pace: The Minaret Burn track which gently undulates above Lake Wanaka, Diamond Lake, and the Motatapu Track which links Wanaka with Arrowtown. The tracks are firm and not too steep and we enjoy sweeping mountain and lake views.
When we are almost at our first destination my partner takes a wrong turn, reverses and suddenly the wheels of our small rental car sink into a gaping hole where the road has collapsed due to the heavy rain. After a valiant but unsuccessful effort to lift the car out we refill the hole with gravel and he uses a large piece of wood to successfully lever it out.
On the following day we hire bikes from the local bike shop to take a spin around the Lake. As we cycle a drizzle soon turns into a torrent. When the wet weather shows no sign of abating we head for the DOC Headquarters at the edge of the town and spend time reading the displays about Wanaka’s early history. Nathaniel Chalmers, was the first European to make the journey to the lake in 1853. He was accompanied by local Maori and walked there from Tuturau via the Kawerau River. It would have been a hazardous journey and quite possibly in extreme weather conditions .They made the return journey floating down a raft on the Clutha river.
On the way back we spot the Mediterranean market (the Wanaka version of Nosh) and carry home soup and a baguette for lunch. In the late afternoon we walk along the Lakeside again. A cold wind whips the leaves around the cabbage trees. The grey skies obscure the mountain tops.
The next day the cold spell continues. We wake to gently falling snow and decide to stay cosy and warm inside. By afternoon the wind has dropped and the weather has cleared. We drive out to the Clutha River for a walk. The river is swollen but on its banks the willows are starting to show green. Apart from a couple of mountain bikers the track is deserted. It’s another easy walk, gradually uphill.
That evening we dine at The Spice Room which was rated “The best Indian in the South Island” by Trip Advisor in 2011. We are offered a seat next to a glowing fire. My partner has the special of the evening, venison in a spicy gravy. I choose the Scallop and Prawn Goan Curry which comes in a creamy sauce flavoured with ginger, tamarind and grated coconut. Both are served with poppadoms, naan and rice.
My partner is an avid skier so he heads up the mountain for a day while I amuse myself. The local Paradiso Cinema, where you can watch a movie sitting on old couches and enjoy cookies, pizza and a glass of wine at half time is unfortunately showing a movie I’d already seen the previous week in Auckland .So instead I explore the local shops full of outdoors gear and warm winter clothing.
The Salvation Army Family Store is having a half price day. I score an alpaca cardy in perfect condition, a couple of novels and a hand painted ceramic bowl by a well-known New Zealand potter, all for under $20.00.
On our last full day in Wanaka we are back on bikes. As soon as we get to the Lakeside my partner takes off at full speed. “There goes Rocket man!” call the cyclists behind us. I follow at a more leisurely pace. We reconnect for lunch.
That afternoon we take a drive to Matarora and enjoy breath-taking lake and mountain scenery. At one point we are delayed for a while as roadworks are still in progress to clear a landslip which had blocked the road for several days.
The next morning we resume our journey. As we drive the rain becomes more persistent. We stop and linger at Provisions in Arrowtown famous for their legendary sticky buns but we give them a miss and opt for delectable cherry and pear galettes.
When we reach our destination, The Lakeview Holiday Park at Te Anau (which we were lucky to book for ½ price on Wotif) they kindly upgrade us to a two bedroom unit. The Lake just over the road is grey, and the mountains are invisible behind a curtain of misty rainclouds. But inside we stay luxuriously cosy and warm.
It’s a rainy again on our first day in Te Anau so instead of hiking we head for the main street and discover Annabel Langbein is in Paper Plus. A long queue of women is waiting to have their copy of her latest book “Simple Pleasures,” signed.
The best way to discover where to find a great cafe is to ask one of the locals. This is how we discover Sandfly. The coffee here is good and the large servings of bacon, parmesan and vegetable frittata, and beef and mushroom pie both served with a sizeable side salad are very sustaining.
To fill in some time we visit the DOC Visitors’ Centre to view interesting displays about local Maori history, early explorers and endangered species .As we leave we bump into a couple of other visitors on the path
“Great Day for Ducks,” one of them comments.
That afternoon we walk to the Te Anau Wildlife Centre. This is a real treasure which is run by Doc. Here, in a park at the edge of the Lake, native birds which are rare, endangered or needing special care are on view. This is a rare opportunity to see flightless takahe.
On our return the mist finally lifts and we finally see the snow-capped mountain tops across the lake.
The following the weather is fine. It’s a perfect day for exploring part of the Kepler Track. We walk for three hours through a landscape of beech forest, ferns, lichens and mosses as far as Brod Bay where we stop for lunch and are attacked by a swarm of sand-flies. Fiordland is unfortunately renowned for them.
Then follows another drizzly and cold day so we go off to the movies to see Ata Whenua-Shadowland which lives up to its advertised promise as:
‘The Fiordland World Heritage Status Wilderness you would otherwise never see. Mysterious, evocative, exhilarating and utterly spectacular, filmed across extremes of season, climate and terrain, it will take you on an unforgettable journey through one of the most awe inspiring landscapes on earth.”
Our second the last day in Te Anau is another fine walking day. We warm up with a short 2 minute walk to the intensely blue Mirror Lake. Then climb the first uphill part of the Routeburn track and have just enough energy left to do the Lake Gunn walk, an easy 45 minute loop through red beech forest.
On our last day we walk another small part of the Kepler track starting from Rainbow Reach over a wobbly swing bridge and as far as a viewing platform. On the way we enjoy the native forest, the bird song, the river views and glimpses of Lake Manapouri.
That night we dine at the Ming Garden, a large Chinese restaurant which has been in Te Anau for over 20 years. The service is friendly and the duck exceptionally tender. It has been a great holiday so far.