We took the opportunity to get out of town for the weekend. James’ colleague generously loaned us his Toyota 8-seater van. At the last minute we booked a house about 2 hours north of Christchurch; the booking was confirmed at about 5pm and we were in the van heading north less than an hour later.
Did I mention that it was raining, dark, and that New Zealand driving happens on the opposite side of the road?
James did a brilliant job of driving on State Highway 1, which sounds like a major road but is actually one lane, un-divided, and frequently without significant shoulder room. As we neared our destination, we turned off of the highway and onto smaller and smaller roads until finally, buffeted by wind and far from the nearest town, our van pulled up next to a pitch-dark building. While the kids and I waited in the car, James used a torch (flashlight) to locate the key in a lock-box, open the house, and start turning on the heaters inside.
It was about 45 degrees in the house, but the ubiquitous heated blankets made at least our beds warm. I daresay we’re getting accustomed to the interior chill. Although New Zealand winter hasn’t yet been to harsh, the lack of central heating in nearly any building makes for chilly living!
We all fell asleep quickly to the sound of the wind outside our little vacation home, not at all certain what the morning would hold.
When the sun started to rise, the remote vista revealed itself… the Pacific Ocean stretched out into the distance north, south, and east. To the north we could see hills descending to the water. Behind our house grazed a flock of sheep. The nearest houses did not appear to be year-round residences, although smoke did rise from several distant chimneys invisible through the woods and hedges.
After having (another) cup of tea and some breakfast, we excitedly got into the van to start the day’s trip, north to Kaikoura. But alas, the van battery was dead… one of the side doors hadn’t closed competely the night before.
James and I took a trek back up the road before finding a neighbor, who was friendly and willing to drive his truck down to give us a jumpstart.
For the first time ever (including our last trip to New Zealand in 2004 and our trip to Scotland in 2012), I drove!! (It felt surprisingly natural, though I repeatedly reminded myself to stay to the left. And I did flick the windshield wipers a couple times when I meant to use my turn-signal.)
It wasn’t long before the road took us away from the coastline and up through the foothills of the Southern Alps. Narrow, winding country roads led up through alpine forests, past pastures of cows, sheep, deer, and llamas, as well as through the shadows of snow-capped rocks.
We arrived in Kaikoura in the early afternoon and promptly passed a wild seal basking in the winter sun. The kids didn’t see it in time–and for a minute I worried that they might not have another chance. Those fears were soon allayed when we parked the car and immediately saw a half dozen seals lounging around, including one adorable, curious pup.
Our hike got a bit adventurous and tricky toward the end… (Evelyn is writing up her discription of our adventure hiking, which I’ll post tomorrow and link to here.) Here’s a teaser view from the top, though:
We returned to our little house on the bay for the evening. I could barely contain my excitement when the clouds from the night before cleared out to reveal a sky full of stars, including the brightest swatch of Milky Way galaxy I can ever remember seeing! After they gazed up at it for a minute or two and started shivering, the kids got into bed and James and I went out with hot tea to stargaze. After about 10 minutes we noticed the sky brightening–an orange moonrise over the ocean lit up the entire sky. Venus and Jupiter were also putting on their show in the western sky. It was extraordinarily beautiful.
(After making sure our van doors were all completely shut) we turned in for the night. On Sunday morning we “checked out” (by which I mean we put the key back in the lock-box and wiped down the toilet and uplugged all the electrical cords from the walls etc. etc.). Following the Alpine Triangle route, we drove about 2 hours northward to Hanmer Springs, an alpine village that grew up around thermal hot springs discovered in the 19th century. Only 840 permanent residents live in the town, but it’s a popular tourist destination.
The air temperature was probably in the mid-50s and there was also a breeze. We walked into the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pool resort (paying NZ$55 for a one-day family pass) wearing jeans, boots, and coats. The locker rooms were heated and we reemerged a few minutes later wearing swimsuits.
First touching the water, heated to between 95 and 108 degrees F, I thought it felt too hot. But we all quickly adjusted, even Cal, who had never been in a hot tub before! The cool air and beautiful mountain backdrop were truly refreshing and the waters relaxing (no pictures… sorry!).
The kids wanted to bop back and forth between the hexagonal spa pools and the much-cooler lap pool with a great little lazy river (which Cal called the “blazin’ river”). They also enjoyed a small water-playset and we had fun exploring the mineral pools with natural rock surroundings.
Our fingers were wrinkled when we finally left the pools, emerging only because we had both a hike and a drive back to Christchurch before day’s end.
After grabbing a quick late lunch at the Log Cabin Restaurant, we drove a few minutes out of town to do several short woodland hikes.
We were sad to leave the mountains to head back south to Canterbury, but I’m sure we’ll have other weekend adventures soon…