Day 3 – Drive from Christchurch to Mt.Cook (Part 1)

Our plan for today was to drive across Canterbury to Mount Cook, with stops at Tekapo and lake Pukaki. Then, we also wanted to do a walk in the Mount Cook area, if time and weather permitted. When planning our NZ trip, we had seen videos and pictures of lakes Tekapo and Pukaki. What we saw then was perhaps the biggest convincing factor (the clincher) for our decision to visit the South Island; we were just amazed by the natural beauty! So, we were very eager and excited to make this road trip, which we thought was going to be the highlight of our entire South Island trip.

It was going to be a long day, packed with multiple stops and walks that we wanted to do. So we had to leave early (8:15 am) from Christchurch. Checking out from the YMCA was quick and easy. Our first leg of the journey was a 3.5 hour drive to the town of Tekapo. There are two routes from Christchurch to Tekapo, one is the inland scenic route and the other is via Ashburton. The inland scenic route takes longer, and from my research on google street view, isn’t spectacularly scenic (at least in the summer). So, we decided to take the route via Ashburton; that way we reach Tekapo early and get more time to spend by the lakeside. Along the way, the Canterbury plains and the rolling hills were a treat to the eye. The dry yellow grass contrasts beautifully with the green trees and patches of green farmland. We made a few photo stops along the way. Also, we had to go at a reduced speed of 30 kph along multiple stretches of the highway, where road construction was underway. But that did not cost us too much time, and it was a peaceful and easy drive overall.


                                            (kiwi farm)


               (sheep outnumber humans by 6 to 1 in NZ)


                             (canterbury rolling hills)


                                  (view point en route)



Once we started getting closer to Tekapo, the mountains of Mount Cook national park began to appear on the horizon. There were patches of snow on the mountains and the landscape was tailor made for any photography enthusiast. We reached Lake Tekapo around 11.45 am, about 3.5 hours after we left downtown Christchurch. There was a large number of tourist buses going in and out of the parking lot. The lake side as well as the Church of Good Shepherd were filled with tourists from all over the world (but mostly Chinese and British). Suddenly the calm of the Canterbury countryside was replaced with the hustle and bustle that is typical of a major tourist attraction. But it wasn’t too bad, as it was past the peak season, and it was a weekday. I cannot imagine what the place would feel like on a Sunday afternoon of late February.


                          (Mount Cook in the background)

We found one of the last few spots of parking and stepped out for a walk along the pebbled and rocky shores of Lake Tekapo. The lake was very calm, and we saw small fishes swimming about in the water. Lake Tekapo is also known for its iconic purple lupins. But thanks to an ongoing drought, the purple lupins near the lake looked dried and dead. Perhaps late summer is not the most scenic time to visit Lake Tekapo. On the upside, it was a clear and sunny day. There is no way we would see the beautiful aquamarine blue colour of the lake in cloudy weather. After taking in the views and also some photos, it was time to check out the Church of Good Shepherd. Near the church, we were amazed to see quite a few Chinese groups, dressed in bridal wear and all kinds of other elaborate dressing, having professional photo sessions. I guess in China, this place must surely be very popular. The church itself is small, but the atmosphere is stunningly beautiful. There is a window on the back wall of the Church through which you get the most incredible view of the blue waters of Lake Tekapo. There is lots of sunlight that comes through and brightens up the interior. However, there is no photography allowed inside the church.


                                            (lake Tekapo)


                                           (lake Tekapo)


          (clear aquamarine blue water of lake Tekapo)


                    (lake Tekapo and surrounding areas)


                     (purple lupins that were still alive)


              (church of good shepherd with window)

After about 30 mins, we headed out to our next stop, the Astro Cafe on top of a hill overlooking Lake Tekapo. There is only a one lane winding road that goes up to the hill top. There is also an option of walking all the way up, but it would take a few hours! So we drove up the twisty and winding road, routinely stopping to allow buses and other cars approaching from the opposite direction to pass by. The narrow road means that you have to be extremely careful while driving and go real slow for safety reasons. This road actually has hours of operation, and it closes around 6 pm in the evening. After a good 10-15 mins of slow driving, we reached the top. We were richly rewarded for our patience and caution, as the views from top were really stunning!! We could see two lakes, Tekapo and Alexandrina. We could also see Mount Cook in the background and the vast flat terrain of the Mackenzie basin, surrounding the Tekapo area. It is truly incredible natural beauty. There are interesting dome shaped structures on the hill top. These are actually used by astronomy professionals and scientists to study the night sky. Tekapo is one of the few places in the world which has minimal to no light pollution. So, the stars at night are clearly visible, thus making this area a great spot of astronomy research and astronomy tours.


                  (lake Alexandrina from the hill top)


    (flat terrain of Mackenzie basin with Mount Cook in background)


                           (lake Tekapo and the town)


                                      (star gazing centers)


                                              (lake Tekapo)


                       (the winding road to the hill top)

We headed to the Astro Cafe, a small hill top cafe with muffins, bagels and sandwiches on its menu. We ordered a vegetarian sandwich (which was quite big) and local kiwi-made organic juices. I decided to try the Fejoa juice, as Fejoa is a fruit found only in NZ and South America. Sitting on outdoor tables in the Canterbury sunshine, we ate the most scenic lunch of our lives, overlooking lake Tekapo and the town by the lake. After lunch, we headed down the hill (very slowly) and made a quick stop at a Merino store near the town center on Highway 8. The merino store is in a small strip mall-like area, with food and souvenir shops lined up along the highway. There is also a petrol/gas station there. So, understandably, the place is crowded with people and cars. In fact, it was so crowded in the afternoon, that we could not find a place to park, and had to do so a few hundred feet away! We wanted to buy some merino products during our trip, as it is a speciality of NZ. However, all the merino places that we previously visited were very expensive ($200 for a jacket!). Interestingly, at this particular Merino store in Tekapo, we found some great deals on Merino socks, beanies and gloves. After picking up a few items, we headed for our next stop, Lake Pukaki. So far, the journey was living up to its high expectations.


                  (amazing lunch overlooking the lake)


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