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Travelling back in time: the South Island to ourselves

Mosgiel – New Zealand welcomed nearly four million tourists last year, then covid arrived.

We have seen very few tourists this year, but as far as driving goes, this story gets better and better.  Here goes:

We leave Christchurch in a covid two window – with no tourists on the road, no Australians and no Aucklanders, who are in level three lockdown. Heaven week for driving.

It felt like driving around a picturesque South Island in the 1950s and 1960s. Some days there are no cars to overtake at all. Never any long queues of cars behind caravans, campervans – no signs of tourist buses as at all. We saw less than half a dozen campervans or caravans over 1450km on the road.

Economic covid times may be tough, but people still save for special holidays to recharge their corporate batteries; for romantic getaways or both.

We stop on the first day and stare at the bright turquoise Lake Pukaki and were gifted one of the best ever views ever of Aoraki (Mt Cook).  The great maunga is often not visible from SH8 because it is cloaked in cloud. This was one of those days where Aoraki showed off all its majestic pristine beauty. Maori feel a strong bond with Aoraki, giving mana to their status as tangata whenua. This day, we understand why.

On to Wanaka and the road at times is totally empty but the scenery more magnificent as we tootle through the Mackenzie country, over the Lindis Pass, turn right past Tarras and to Wanaka. Like Queenstown, Wanaka is becoming too big, too over-populated. It made us think of geese and golden eggs.

So, we headed to the much photographed Cardrona Hotel, on the infamous Crown Range road. Oh my god, this ticked our bucket list. We stayed the night, swallowed up by the pub’s 157-year-old chequered history, along with its cool garden bar, before it got too cold.

The Cardrona township in its heyday was a prosperous settlement and a significant commercial hub for the area. Today it is a watering spot for visitors, mostly local skiers and their families between Wanaka and Queenstown.

Next day, we motored cautiously over the Crown Range to Arrowtown, possibly the busiest little tourist spot in Central Otago. But this is covid times when you can bowl a ball down the main street and not hit anyone.

The usual bustling atmosphere had dissipated and many of the town’s eateries were closed; it was very cold that morning. We felt for the struggling local hospitality businesses.

Further on at Queenstown, it seemed about half as busy as usual. It is such touristy town with more appeal for overseas tourists than Kiwis; apart from skiing at the Remarkables or Coronet Peak. What we did enjoy were the views, the grandeur of the amphitheatre and the mulled wine at Eichardt’s bar, overlooking the lake – and great haven for people watching.

On to Cromwell and we were immediately in awe of the old Cromwell town much of which was lost when the Clyde dam was built on the Clutha River from 1982. Like Oamaru, the signs to the old precinct are not big or clear enough for visitors to really notice.

We park up at Clyde for three nights, enjoying trips to Alexandra, Ophir, Lauder, Omakau, St Bathans, Naseby and Oturehua. The publican at Oturehua says when they are allowed to travel, Aucklanders wsill be given a jaffa with their coffee. He called them JAFAs – just another friendly Aucklander.

Clyde grew up around the former settlement of Dunstan during the Central Otago goldrush of the 1860s. The town was the most populous in New Zealand during the height of gold fever.  These days Clyde is the starting point for the 152km Central Otago Rail Trail – gruelling for many; easy for a few.

Our final stop is at Te Konika o te Matamata or Mosgiel, known as the pearl of the Taieri plains. We feel like we are back in civilisation and our serene covid-free trip has almost come to an end.

Mosgiel cabbage trees at sunset

Photo: Lake Pukaki and Mt Aoraki

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