Christchurch – from ‘Kent’ to ‘Dorset’

Mountains are the beginning and the end of all-natural scenery.” ~ John Ruskin

Leaving Omarama was so very hard to do but Christchurch was our next destination and along Highway 8 were the promised delights of two lakes, with a last chance to view Mount Cook/Aoraki. This elusive mountain had hidden itself in cloud whenever there had been an opportunity to see it and as we arrived before-mid-morning at lake Pukaki, the overcast sky threw an opaque light over the whole silent scene.

The meaning of the name is obscure but, according to a legend, Raikaihaitu (who dug out the Southern Lakes), noticing the bulging appearance of the outlet, gave this name, meaning “bunched-up waters”.

But there it was – Aoraki Mt Cook and the Southern Alps dominating the end of this turquoise ribbon of a lake that filled an elongated ancient glacier-carved valley.

According to Ngāi Tahu legend, Aoraki and his three brothers were the sons of Rakinui, the Sky Father. While on a sea voyage, their canoe overturned on a reef. When the brothers climbed on top of their canoe, the freezing south wind turned them to stone. The canoe became the South Island (Te Waka o Aoraki); Aoraki and his brothers became the peaks of the Southern Alps.

Whiling away the time there, the light changed again, fully revealing an out-of-this-world turquoise blue to Pukaki’s waters- a hue that is due to suspended glacial particles or ‘flour’. Little wonder that this was the chosen setting for for ‘Lake-town’ in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

A little way away and almost parallel to Pukaki is lake Tekapo, another captured glacial lake. Here we stopped for some more landscape gazing though the light was less kind but still this highland location and setting in the Mackenzie basin has to be seen to be appreciated.

Imagine the panorama – for these 2 images belong end to end, top right to bottom left

‘Tekapo’ derives from the Māori words Taka (sleeping mat) and Po (night) which is perfectly suited to the fact that on nearby Mt John is the observatory – the site selected as the best in New Zealand with its high number of clear nights, remoteness from bright lights and transparent air.

a lovely place to lunch too

After our lunch break we headed out on Highway 79 from Fairlie to Rangitata that runs through rolling hills, isolated farms and pine plantations. My sensitive nose picked up the scent of something burning and sure enough about 1 mile further along, air and ground fire crew were putting out the flames of a small forest fire. This was February, the height of summer, and fire hazard warnings are everywhere in this tinderbox country.

Joining State Highway 1, we visited the underwhelming Oasis tearooms for a much appreciated coffee stop before crossing the vast Rangitata river gorge. Renowned for white water rafting with its grade 5 rapids this braided river in summer is relatively tame. And the highway has another epic sight further along, at the crossing of New Zealand’s largest braided river, the stunning Rakaia.

When opened on 25 March 1939, the Rakaia River Bridge was New Zealand’s longest bridge, and it has retained that title. The bridge is 1.8 kilometres in length, comprising of 12.2 metre spans.

Heading into the Canterbury plains , the landscape has such a quintessentially English look that its little wonder the settlers named places along this stretch after the Kent and Dorset county towns of the mother country.

Christchurch/ Ōtautahi is the largest and oldest city in the South Island. The Avon River flows through the centre [as it does in Dorset’s namesake city] with an urban park located along its banks.

And it was to that park that we made our way the following day – a hot day and a planned rest day. Eschewing the city’s myriad sights and attractions (and the remarkable urban recovery from the 2011 devastating earthquake) we chose the green shady space of Hagley park’s Botanic Gardens- (named after the Worcestershire country estate of Lord Lyttelton, chairman of the Canterbury Association in 1850).

It was definitely not the weather for ducks but all of us appreciated the cool of the river Avon…
…and a long lazy picnic in deep shade.

Next time: Following the seismically active coast via Kaikoura to the last stop before Picton.

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