- "Carmina Burana", Carl Orff
THE LONG WHITE CLOUD
The day breaks clean, crisp and blue, with the sun making a welcome appearance by midmorning.
This morning’s adventure takes us up to Mt John’s Observatory, 300 meters above Tekapo. The four massive telescopes on the summit are in active use today by scientists from around the world, and in 2003 discovered a Jupiter-sized planet orbiting a star several thousand light years away.
Only twenty minutes up the road, the town looks like a minature train set from here. I understand why the Maori named this land ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ as I look out at the bright blues of lake, sky, and distant mountains and sip my flat white at the Astro Café.
The amazing interstellar imagery captured in the postcards on display is enough to convince me to return and to do the stargazing tour. There are images of distant galaxies, comets streaking across the Tekapo night sky, and even of the Aurora Australis shimmering behind and dwarfing the distant peaks.
COMING DOWN FROM THE OBSERVATORY
As we wind our way back down the hill, my thoughts drift into the scenery - I’ve never seen such massive spaces - the glimpses of wide open nature that I’ve caught always seem to be interrupted too soon by the harsh grid of civilzation. As I look out at miles and miles of blue lake, brown plains and snow-capped peaks, there are no other towns visible in the distance.
I glimpse a farmhouse here, a small cluster of buildings there… and a now-familiar feeling wells up inside. It is the same exhilleration that I feel when embarking on a road trip, eating up the endless open road… except these spaces ignite a yearning to be back on foot, tramping and camping with my backpack and a tent, a tiny speck wandering in wonder as the vast landscape swallows me.
SOMEWHERE ALONG THE ROAD TO WANAKA
There is also a peace of mind, a stillness that is stirred as I drink in the clean air and blue nature all around me. Surely only nature could evoke such contrasting emotions with such a deft stroke of her brush.
I’ve no idea how long my thoughts have been wandering when I actually notice the canal that we’ve been following for the last half hour. The water is still the same glacier-flower blue that was Lake Tekapo, except that it is eddying and boiling in a fast flow, rushing to get somewhere in a hurry. This road appears to be on a man-made embankment ten stories high that is so precisely engineered that I am reminded of one of those virtual roller coaster rides where you are going down down down into darkness and the track jerks and jolts you around unforseen corners.
IS THAT THE SAME LONG WHITE CLOUD WE SAW IN TEKAPO!?
The mountains and lake are still our backdrop one hour later, and the I am sure that the long white cloud skirting the mountain is the same one we were looking at up at the observatory. Suddenly the flume opens up into a squarish pool, and the road turns away from the water.
A sweeping curve starts our descent, and as we round the corner, massive pipes can be seen plunging out of the embankment towards the lake below. We must have stumbled across one of New Zealand’s hydro-electric plants. It is impressive; the energy coursing down through those pipes is almost tangible.
CRISPY SKINNED SALMON W/ PESTO ON WARM SALAD
Before we know it, we come to the Wanaka turnoff and decide to check the place out before we hit Queenstown. I highly recommend the detour: we share the most amazing Salmon filet with pesto over warm rosted veggies with a couple of locally brewed, preservative-free beers from Kai Whakapai.
The road to Queenstown from Wanaka winds through rocky brown and black hilltops that bring to mind images of Mordor as the sun is getting low in the sky and casting long, dramatic shadows. We gradually climb higher and higher until patches of melting snow appear, turn a corner and the hilltops here are mottled with snow. Another corner, and the hilltops are now mountain peaks. Another corner, and LakeWakatipu greets us silently, the grandeur of this view demanding a full orchestra but only getting static on the radio in response.
COMING OVER THE MOUNTAIN PASS TO QUEENSTOWN
The sun has disappeared behind the mountains but has not yet set, muting the hues below and backlighting a dramatic skyscape. We must be a couple thousand meters above the valley floor as the van picks its way down the switchbacks, stopping every kilometer or so to take in the changing views.
Queenstown, here we come!
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