Day 8: Franz Josef to Queenstown
For maybe two hours we drove south from Franz Josef, until we came to a town called Haast, and the start of our journey through the mountains via Haast Pass. This was serious fantasy scenery, going through so many transformations as we travelled south-east that I've lost track. It was a pretty spiritual experience, seeing this stuff up close. Makes you feel microscopic.
The trip up the gorge was spectacular in the immensity of the mountains. With us still at roughly sea level (and slowly rising), the mountains look too steep to stand, as if the surface should just crack and slide away. We thought we’d seen these mountains before, but driving into them...They're so tall that you could press your face to the window and only just see the snowy peaks. And it was all framing a massive alpine river, at times broad and flat, a thin stream through fields of white stone; at other times, narrow and roaring, crashing down rocky gorges and erupting from crevices in explosive waterfalls and violent whitewater. And the gorge river is fed by waterfalls thundering down these mountains.
We stopped wherever we could, but the roads – though well maintained – are often narrow, with sheer cliffs and dense forest bordering, and when we did find a lookout or resting place, they were usually unsigned so we’d passed by before we realised. There's not many opportunities for a U-turn :( But at some point we decided on another random stop at a place called "Blue Pools", and took a 30 minute bushwalk down to the river, where the alpine water settles into quiet, aquamarine lagoons. We’d liked to have stayed for a few hours, but it was a long trip so we moved on fairly quickly.
Eventually we came out of the pass, and into the highlands, and here everything changes again. Rainforest gives way to dense pine forests in places, and rough scrub that looks a million years old (we walked through it on the way to the Blue Pools, and it was like something out of a children's fantasy pictue book). Foothills give way to lakes and rugged fields of grass and stone. And still, always, the snowy peaks surrounded us.
We passed maybe 4 different lakes, each of them vast, and each of them stunning. We stopped at a lake and took some pictures, wandering along the rocky shore. The water was freezing, but absolutely crystal clear.
And after nearly 7 hours of travel - every minute of it interesting and beautiful - we suddenly arrived at the outskirts of Queenstown.
Instead of beating around the bush, I’ll say it: Queenstown is the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life. It feels simultaneously rolling-green-countryside, lake-side-village, cosy-pine-lodges and STUNNING mountain views. The outer suburbs were like English countryside, the city itself a collection of little villages all stacked together, with forests on the foothills and sweeping mountain views, so damn BLUE. And it's all arrayed around a huge, crystalline lake.
In all seriousness, if we’d known what Queenstown would be like, we would have flown in here and spent our holiday here. Done an overnight trip to Franz Josef, and another to the Sounds (Milford and Doubtful), with day trips to Mount Cook and Lord of the Rings country – you could seriously spend a couple of weeks in this one place, travelling to the surrounding areas and back, and it’d be the most amazing holiday. I’d recommend to anyone who wants to come to New Zealand: Just come straight to Queenstown, because every kind of landscape is close enough to drive, and the city itself makes me think someone picked up a bunch of quaint little Swiss villages and dropped them in the middle of some fake, fantasy landscape. I step outside and I see to my right an enormous foothill with the Skyview restaurant on top (we’re going tomorrow night). To my left I see a sweeping green slope covered in cottages, and behind them, the alps as far as the eye can see. I’ll take photos tomorrow, right now I need to snooze because the 4.5 hour trip from Franz took us 7 hours after all of the stopping.
Once again: Come to Queenstown. And don’t leave. We want to live here SO bad.
Be back tomorrow with photos. *sigh* *looks out window* *sigh*