CHRISTCHURCH, Dec 18 — While the Rohirrim, horsemen of Rohan, rode across the vast plains of JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth on their trusty steeds, there is a better way to traverse the wild country that is New Zealand’s South Island: Rent a car.
Truly, going at it on our own, with no schedule to follow other than the one we decide, makes for a once-in-a-lifetime journey to see some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.
One such journey is from Christchurch to Mount Cook, approximately a five-hour or 250-kilometre drive via the Inland Scenic Route, that takes us past open Canterbury fields dotted with farms before the great lakes of Mackenzie Country appear and finally the mountains of the Southern Alps.
En route to Mount Cook, we drop by the Farm Barn Café, located conveniently on the corner of the Geraldine-Fairlie Highway. Driving would make anyone feel a tad peckish, and we are no exception. The café resembles a farmyard barn with its high ceilings, wooden beams and flooring, and a large fireplace.
Food is freshly made here, from home-baked Fairlie-style pies and custard squares to prepared-to-order toasties, rich with local cheese. A perfect stop for tea, especially when we look out the windows at the spectacular views of the rolling hills of the countryside.
From Fairlie, we next stop at Lake Tekapo, perhaps the most famous lake in this alpine region. Covering an area of 83 square kilometres, the lake is known for the stunning cerulean colours of its waters. A stroll along its banks rejuvenates us after the long, winding drive on rough terrain.
We make a pilgrimage to the Church of the Good Shepherd, located on the shores of Lake Tekapo. Built in 1935, it was the first church built in Mackenzie Country.
Designed by Christchurch architect R.S.D. Harman from sketches by Kiwi artist Esther Hope, it’s a slice of rural history. Inside, we peek through its altar window for a view of where the bluest lake meets the highest mountain in New Zealand.
Not far off from the church is a small bronze statue of a sheepdog. Commissioned by Mackenzie Country residents, the statue commemorates the role the helpful hound has in their lives, herding sheep.
Sharp eyes will observe where, on the sheepdog’s body, some tourists (and perhaps more than a few churchgoers with a Kiwi sense of humour) have rubbed earnestly, for luck or favour, we don’t know.
The next lake we encounter, near the tiny town of Twizel, is Lake Pukaki. At 178.7 square kilometres, it is the largest of the alpine lakes in the area. Fed by glacial waters, Lake Pukaki is a stunning blue with breathtaking views of Mount Cook to the north.
In fact, we spot several couples in the midst of their wedding shoots by the banks of the lake. Those pictures will be memories for a lifetime.
The highway towards Mount Cook has a bit of the Middle Earth magic to it, the prairie-like dry grasslands on either side of the road disappearing into the horizon as the Southern Alps, the mountain range running the length of the South Island, looms in all its grandeur.
We can imagine the wicked wizard Saruman summoning ice storms to block the path of the brave members of the Fellowship of the Ring.
The highest mountain in New Zealand, Mount Cook or Aoraki (as it’s known in the native Maori tongue), is a fearsome challenge for climbers who attempt the entirety of its 3,724-metre height. Aoraki (meaning “Cloud Piercer”), according to legend, was the name of the youngest son of Rakinui, the Sky Father.
During a canoe trip with his two brothers, they were stranded on a reef and frozen by the South Wind. The brothers turned into stone. Aoraki, the tallest brother, became Aoraki the highest mountain while his older brothers became the Southern Alps.
Less fantastical is the provenance for its English name, given in 1851 by Captain John Lort Stokes to honour Captain James Cook who circumnavigated New Zealand almost a century earlier. The famous captain’s name also lives on in the small Mount Cook Village, which is our base for hiking and exploring the mountain.
We stay a night at one of the lodges here; be prepared to take some groceries with you so you can prepare your own dinner as most do. (Cup noodles aren’t half bad when it’s the scenery you’re here for.) At night, when there are no clouds, the stars spread across the sky like diamonds on a magic carpet.
The next morning, on our way down Mount Cook, we pass by Twizel again. Just off State Highway 8, we spot a tight cluster of cars parked next to what looks like a farm floating on water. This is High Country Salmon, a working salmon farm that is indeed “floating” on the glacial waters of Wairepo Arm, a small lake in Mackenzie Country (what locals call “high country” hence the name).
High Country Salmon is one of three freshwater salmon farms in the area, and the smallest. Its size allows visitors a more intimate experience of feeding the salmons (though sometimes the ducks share in the bounty too), making it a perfect stopover for families with children. There’s a small child in each of us though, so adults have as much fun as the little ones.
While the majority of Kiwi salmon farms are salt-water, High Country Salmon’s style of fresh water farming has a more distinctive flavour that is tied to the waters of the region. Here low oil pellets are used so the fish grow more slowly and are leaner.
We certainly taste the difference in our lunch of salmon sashimi (with plenty of wasabi sachets for the indispensable kick) and smoked salmon (served with mayonnaise and cream crackers). More rustic, if you will, which is a pretty great way of describing New Zealand.
Departing the mountains and the lakes, we can’t wait to experience more of the Kiwi way of life, in all its natural beauty and fresh flavours. The roads never end in New Zealand; there are always more journeys waiting.
Farm Barn Café
4 Mount Michael Rd, Fairlie, New Zealand
Open daily 9am-4pm
Tel: +64 3 685 8271
Lake Tekapo, Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook
Off State Highway 8 (just follow the highway signs)
High Country Salmon
Off State Highway 8, Twizel, New Zealand
Open daily 8am-5pm
Tel: +64-800 400 385