On the Road to Lake Tekapo

When Yen and I first arrived in New Zealand, we decided that we would maximize our time by spending the weekends traveling. So after Yen’s long week in the lab and my long week hanging up clothes, we decided to take our first trip out on the open road to Lake Tekapo.

Before setting off, our first task involved getting a hold of a vehicle. Hiring, or renting a car in NZ is, I suppose as simple as it is in the US. Once you obtain a driver license, you just sign your scribble scrabble in various places, constantly nod your head pretending you understand all of the terms and conditions that are being thrown at you, check your rental vehicle for previous suicidal rabbit damages, and then you’re well on your way to an upgrade from Need for Speed video games to big boy pedals.

Now remember how I said you pretend and nod your head and inspect your vehicle? Well, given that I drive manual cars as well as a flying kiwi, an obvious thought would have been to check what transmission my rental was. Nope. I did my bobble head nodding, sat in ready to go mode and… quickly realized that we were about to go off in a nice manual 1992 Nissan Sunny. But ‘why didn’t you ask for an automatic?’ you might ask. Oh, believe me, we did the touristy thing and asked, but we were told straight up that all of the automatics were booked. If you think your first time driving a manual car, on the other side of the road, in another country is easy, you might want to call Geico and ask them to up your premium. I, on the other hand, didn’t have that option.

Once I was able to Parkinson our Sunny out of the parking lot, I drove on the wrong side of the road, stalled repeatedly at intersections, and my trusty navigator, Yen, got us lost (while reading a paper map upside down). Finally, after much stooging around, we finally found our way out of the city and onto State Highway #1.

We were on the road again and almost out of nowhere, the landscape burst into sheer euphoria. Every inch of the scenery in sight was vivid. Rolling hills collided like ocean waves trying to overtake one another, with vibrant colors of emerald, gold and maple blended throughout. In the distance ahead to our right, there were massive snow-capped mountains standing like giant cityscapes. Fading in the sunlight and blue sky like skyscrapers drawn with water paint, the rugged cliffs facing the road zigzagged uphill and downhill. These were quite frightening to drive along given that there weren’t many guardrails around. I suppose the idea is that they pretty much just leave you to it and the true driving test involves navigating these steep, hilly roads.

With a convenient 1:10 ratio of 40 million sheep to 4 million people in this country, we definitely saw our fill of sheep and even ate our fill (McDonald’s lamb burger…I love you). One of these burgers filled both Yen and I up. The thing is so big the box reads ‘the serious lamb burger’ and it comes with toppings like red beets, fried egg, and red onions.

MMMMMMMMMM……oh yeah. Anyhow, the two and a half hour trip to Tekapo is completely masked by how much your senses are occupied by what is in front of you…and what four-legged food is all around you. Now, if you’re sitting there wondering how to pronounce the name of this place, it’s not (tea-ka-po) but rather exactly as it sounds, (te-ka-po). Derived from the Maori word taka (sleeping mat) and Po (night), I can tell you first hand, I don’t know how in the world that describes this place, but what I can say is that the area is breathtaking. The lake itself is fed by melted glacial waters and this natural cycle has produced some of the most chilling turquoise water I’ve ever seen. Surrounded by mountain ranges, the beaches of Tekapo is completely littered with rocks. They all vary in size, but are very smooth as if they had been polished and placed there just to add to the lake’s elemental effect. Though it was too cold to enjoy the beach, we’re already planing to return when the weather is warmer.

Once we were done marveling at the beach, we made our way to the hot springs. Soon enough, we discovered that the water used in the manmade pools are sourced from natural alpine springs (which tasted super salty). To enjoy the hot pools, it’s 20 NZD/person and extra for the sauna/steam room…NOT WORTH IT. Paying for the sauna was almost like paying for Sprite and getting carbonated water. The steam room was as cold as the plunge pool which was 8 degrees Celsius, and the sauna was…nothing more than a sauna. You would better save your money and use it on food at the cafe. And if you do, I would suggest getting their spicy wedges with sour cream and chili sauce. I only have one verb to describe this dish…..salivate.

There are three pools ranging from 38-40 degrees Celsius, and they are all shaped in the image of the regional lakes (Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo). Unfortunately, during our visit, only two of the three pools were open for use. Regardless, that didn’t really matter because along with the stunning view, the water was beyond suitable for relaxing after a long day of chasing hamsters. It was a real treat to be in a pool sized bathtub lounging, swimming around, and just kicking up my feet to stare at the snow-capped mountains in the distance.

If you ever find yourself wondering what to do on any given winter weekend in NZ, one might say you could jump in a Sunny and head to Tekapo Springs for a bath you won’t soon forget.

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