Best in snow: The Mackenzie region

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 05:00 26/12/2013
LAKE TEKAPO
Dominion Post

LAKE TEKAPO: Is eerily quiet, as if everyone has begun battening down the hatches for the big storm.

Salmon
Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/MCT
SENSATIONAL SALMON: A must-buy is Mount Cook Alpine Salmon, salmon so fine it's air-freighted to restaurants around the world.

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There'll be no star-gazing tonight. We could trudge up Mount John and visit the observatory and call it cloud-gazing, or snow-watching, but that doesn't have quite the same appeal.

There's a blizzard rolling in which doesn't bode well for budding astronomers.

It's a pity, because this is the place to see the night sky.

This area of the South Island is about halfway between Christchurch and Queenstown, is a "dark sky reserve", a place of hooded street lights and soft orange glows.

These measures are put in place to preserve the view up above, the incredibly clear blanket of stars and galaxies that would normally smother Lake Tekapo on a cloudless evening.

Not tonight. There were dark clouds on the horizon as the sunlight faded; fat, snow-filled billows making ominous passage towards the lakeside town.

They'll hit with a fury tonight.

By tomorrow morning we'll be waist-deep in white stuff, the roads will be closed and this luckless tourist will be confined to a hotel room with a bottle of local pinot noir and a failing internet connection. And it will last for days.

Clearly, this story is doomed to be one of could-have-dones, rather than dids. But that's the way it goes sometimes.

Lake Tekapo sits in the heart of the Mackenzie region, which you can think of as being the South Island's middle child, an area caught between the adventure capital of Queenstown and the urban hub of Christchurch. It's more charming than exciting, a place of subtle appeal.

Most people come through this region on their way to or from somewhere else.

The mountaineers know it, however, because this is the home of Mount Cook, the country's highest peak.

Star-gazers know it, too, because of the aforementioned observatory on the top of Mount John. Skiers should also know it, because of the small mountain resorts that dot the region.

I'm in Lake Tekapo right now, but my journey began in Aoraki, or Mount Cook, a tiny little community at the foot of the mountain.

I'd managed a small taste of what the region has to offer, taking a hike up into the wilderness to view that imposing snow-capped peak.

This morning, however, things started to go awry. I was all set for a helicopter flight up to the Tasman Glacier, where we would land on the ice and do a bit of snowshoeing.

But the weather gods grounded the chopper.

Onward, then, to Lake Tekapo, via a short stop for some salmon.

And not just any salmon - Mount Cook Alpine Salmon, salmon so fine it's air-freighted to restaurants around the world.

Here at the Lake Pukaki shop the fish is sold hot-smoked, cold-smoked, or sliced raw for sashimi.

It seems a strange dish to be eating as the clouds gather and rain begins to spit outside, but it's hard to turn down.

Next, I'm checking in to Peppers Resort in Lake Tekapo, the fanciest hotel in this town.

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Lake Tekapo is eerily quiet, as if everyone has begun battening down the hatches for the big storm.

I chat to one of the local astronomers who waxes lyrical about Tekapo's stunning night skies, about the constellations and galaxies and supernovas that he's viewed through the eye of a telescope but "I don't think there'll be much happening tonight, eh?".

Where do you go on a day like today, as the sun goes down and the clouds get darker, as the first snowflakes fall fat and heavy from above?

You go to one of the few places open: Tekapo Springs.

I feel like a stranger in a wild west film as I drag back the door and everyone stops what they're doing and looks up in surprise.

A customer! Actually there are a few other people here with the same idea as me and it's not long before we're all outside soaking in the hot springs, the naturally heated waters proving the perfect antidote to the snowflakes that are thickening around us.

Soon, however, they're thickening to levels alarming enough for me to head back to the resort and bunker down for the night.

You can't hear snow falling, of course, so next morning I have no idea what I'll find when I pull back the curtain.

Maybe a dusting. Maybe it will be knee-deep. I fling back the blind and gaze in wonder. It's almost waist deep, piles and piles of snow that are the result of a terrific storm that's still raging on.

This will be a journey of could-have-dones - I'm resigned to that now. It's just lucky I've got that bottle of pinot.

The writer travelled as a guest of Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

From Christchurch, Lake Tekapo is a three-hour drive. Omega Rentals has hire cars available from the airport; see omegarentalcars.com.

STAYING THERE

At Aoraki Mt Cook, the Hermitage has rooms with mountain views from NZ$169 a night. See hermitage.co.nz. In Lake Tekapo, Peppers Bluewater has rooms from $155 a night. See peppers.co.nz/bluewater.

MORE INFORMATION christchurchnz.com.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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