Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Logbook: NZ Scenic Routes

Scenicroutes1Betty and I hit the road pretty early on Thursday, at the very beginning of the Southern Scenic Route in Te Anau. We headed south throughout the morning, stopping every hour or so -- as has become our custom -- to take in a view, have a coffee or briefly explore an interesting (though usually over-hyped) roadside attraction. We hit the southern coast early afternoon and headed east into Invercargill where we checked in with Sandra at the Surrey Court, instantly reviving the happy hi-jinx I enjoyed the last time I stayed at her place. Betty enjoyed her day-trip to Stewart Island on Friday despite some rain along the way, while I took advantage of Sandra's wireless internet to Skype the world. Saturday was a road day as we continued east then north on the Southern Scenic route to its end in Dunedin. I can't really say much about the SSR except that it is indeed scenic and worth driving, a more enjoyable and not much longer route than the alternative "main" highway. An hour or so north of Dunedin we stopped for the night in Oamaru, the same overnight staging point I had stayed in a month.

Scenicroutes2Sunday was a very long road day as we headed out of Oamaru pretty early and stopped in Timaru for breakfast. Just north of that tidy little commercial town we again branched off the "main" highway and onto the Inland Scenic Route for a lengthy, very attractive by-pass of Christchurch. Although the ISR is a little longer than the "main" highway it is a far more enjoyable drive through seemingly endless stretches of farmland and forest, punctuated by mountain climbs, gorge crossings and the occasional very small town. You've no doubt noticed that I have repeatedly quoted the term "main" when referring to the highway here in NZ, and this is because despite its being the main road it is a far cry from what most people would probably envision as a major highway. For almost its entire length, it is a two lane road with occasional passing lanes. Carrying the bulk of the island's north-sout traffic -- including a staggering number of stock trucks, tourist RVs and the like -- the maximum speed of 100kph nets out to something closer to a blistering 80kph or about 50mph. Thus, although the Scenic Routes are longer and less developed than the "main" highway, they are also less traveled and can be driven just about as fast on the whole. Add in their substantially more attractive views -- including the chance to see untold numbers of fields full of sheep! -- and the Scenic Routes are definitely the way to go.

Just north of Christchurch, the Inland Scenic Route rejoined the "main" highway which soon became the Alpine Pacific Scenic Route. In this case it's still the "main" highway but it has been given a fancy name, partly in accordance with the country's practice of hyping things up but also in recognition of its beautiful mountains-and-shore scenic quality. Late in the afternoon we finally ended our very long road day in Kaikoura, a moderately seedy little seaside town that is NZ's mecca for every kind of ocean-based activity you can imagine, from surfing and fishing to whale watching and swimming with dolphins. I've been here and done that before, so I took the day off yesterday to have a leisurely breakfast, take a lengthy stroll along the beach, read, nap and generally rest up from a few long days of driving. Betty went on a whale watching flight in the morning -- actually seeing a few of them from the air! -- and did some wandering around town in the afternoon. We both concluded that Kaikura really isn't a very nice place to stay, but agreed that you pretty much have to swing by it for a day or so if you are interested in whales, dolphins or any of the rest of what it has to offer.

Scenicroutes3We were back on the road this morning for the last long road day in our south to north migration of the island. Although the Alpine Pacific Scenic Route technically ended just north of Kaikoura, the coastal scenery was spectacular all the way up to Blenheim. Turning west, we then enjoyed still more exquisite views as we travelled the length of the Wairau Valley and into Buller Gorge. Some of Betty's friends had strongly recommended the nearby swing bridge and zip line as a great pair of gorge crossings, so -- despite my experienced concern that it might not be as great as it was hyped to be -- we found our way to the proper establishment and bought our tickets. As feared, "the longest swing bridge in New Zealand" was actually pretty short, the zip ride back was even shorter and neither was really worth the money. We had a good laugh about how we'd fallen for the hype yet again as we made our way to the nearby town of Murchison and checked in for the night. All in all, we have had an excellent few days, enjoying extraordinary views on the Scenic Routes which are by far the best value in NZ! Tomorrow we will make a short drive to the north coast for our last few days of exploration on the South Island before we take the ferry to the North Island early next week.

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