Trip report: Christchurch/Lincoln, Queenstown, and Doubtful Sound

Posted by Patrick Lam on Thursday, June 6, 2024

Table Of Contents

We had moved our Cascade Saddle trip from March to May, but we thought the weather might be questionable in May, so we moved it again to December. So, we had another week in Queenstown where we could do more outdoors activities.

Christchurch & Canterbury Open, May 17 to 19

On this trip, I first went to Christchurch (well, Lincoln) to referee at the Canterbury Open, with a stop at Uprising, the bouldering gym, on the Friday.

It turns out that 6:35AM flight to Christchurch was cheaper. I can’t remember how much cheaper. At least with a 6:35AM domestic flight one can take the Airport Express bus and not just sign over the fare savings straight to Uber.

Anyway, I got to Hotel Give in Christchurch at 8:40am. Early check-in was available. The hotel staff at first quoted $40 for check-in before 9 and $20 for check-in between 9 and check-in time. I said I’d wait till 9, but then he checked me in early for $20 anyway. Thanks! Then I had a much-needed nap in my room before walking around Christchurch in the afternoon.

Hotel Give is run by a charitable trust, the Kind Foundation (which used to be YMCA Christchurch but left the Y movement). It was pretty busy. The standard of the rooms is good. I had a non-ensuite room but it was a bit weird: it’s like we really had our own bathroom, but it was just outside our door. Also, what’s with noisy auto-slamming doors? I figured out how to not slam them, but it takes effort.

Cleaning the baby sheep (šŸ“· MP); wall art at TÅ«ranga; abandoned shoe; Bluff oysters; CHC tower.

MP came on Saturday and visited Willowbank again while I was reffing the kids on Sunday. The Canterbury Open was pretty small this year and I was back in Christchurch by noon on Sunday, exactly when MP made it back from Willowbank. (She had some trouble getting there on the bus, with delays and misconnects, and the Uber she eventually took was just as long as it would’ve been from the hotel, oh well. Go figure.)

We wandered around Christchurch some more (Hotel Give is centrally located, which is nice), getting Bluff oysters at Cellar Door before taking the bus to the airport and flying to Queenstown. The Air New Zealand CHC lounge was good as usual.

Queenstown outdoors, May 20 to 23

There are a lot of “adventure” activities in Queenstown but we’re not really into e.g. bungee jumping. We have tried riverboarding but MP sure didn’t like that.

We stayed at the Chalet Queenstown, which is pretty boutique (7 rooms) and good. Breakfast there would have been pretty expensive but never fit with our schedule anyway.

There was a couple in the room next to us having an issue. I would be very wary of calling in, say, the Montreal police, but, on the advice of the women’s shelter (and some racial profiling on our part), we called them in, and the NZ Police actually dealt with the situation really well. Unlike Ontario municipal police forces, who essentially just get to dictate their budgets, the NZ police budget is probably not high enough.

Boutique Queenstown hotel: Chalet Queenstown.

Anyway, our planned activities were Ben Lomond and riding bicycles around. The weather forecast suggested that Tuesday would be a better day for Ben Lomond, so we swapped the days, and Around the Basin was cool with that.

Queenstown Trails biking to Gibbstown, May 20

Biking from Queenstown to Gibbston was, according to MP, just pure Type 1 fun. Nothing sketchy at all. The 300m of elevation gain along the 45km was a bit harder for me, even though the bike I’d rented was better than my usual commuter. MP’s ebike made things very easy for her. There is really good off-track bicycle infrastructure around Queenstownā€”the Queenstown Trailā€”and the routes along the rivers are highly scenic.

Fall in Queenstown; Walter Peak across Lake Wakatipu; Caution—Steep Slope!; a Remarkable; Kawarau River; Kinross Winery.

Around the Basin runs trips to Arrowtown or Gibbston (and, more importantly, pickups from those places), but we’d just been to Arrowtown a few weeks ago, so we went to Gibbston. It has quite a few wineries but doesn’t feel like a place, or even a village. We chatted with the staff wine guy at Kinross who had moved to Gibbston from UAE, I think, and somewhere in Asia before that. Yes, Gibbston is highly scenic, even if there is no “there” there.

These tourist businessesā€”Around the Basin, Tamaranui Canoe Hireā€”do have a lot of infrastructure, and guys driving vans around a lot. It is definitely hard to avoid needing to drive vans around when there is inadequate public transit. Moving canoes is hard anyway, but moving bicycles shouldn’t necessarily need so many vans.

Ben Lomond, May 21

This turned out to be a beautiful day for a Ben Lomond hike. We left at 7:55, slightly before sunrise, given the 1400m of elevation gain and short days. Back in town by 16:15, an hour before sunset and in time to get to the airport to pick up the rental car by 17:00 (though GO rentals does do after-hours pickups and we actually had set ours up as one).

Skyline sign before dawn; hiking pole assembly; almost clear view of Ben Lomond summit; lake Wakatipu and track and slopes; many valleys (Moke Creek?); us on Ben Lomond summit.

The Tiki Trail on the way down wasn’t much fun. Apart from that, the trail was really well-maintained between the top of the cable car and the Ben Lomond Saddle, and then just well-maintained (despite the “maintained trail ends here” sign) through to the summit. I looked into one-way gondola rides, but the Skyline website does not talk about that.

We brought ice axes and crampons but they didn’t help and we gave up on the crampons pretty soon. Some others before us thought they would be needed and turned back, but they totally could have continued. The dozen Nepalis just walked up the mountain very fast.

Ben Lomond summit pic 2; snowy; NZ pipit on kea sign (35mm lens!); toilet and Lake Wakatipu; hill with cloud behind.

Welcome Rock, May 22 to 23

After that, we went to Welcome Rock, which is another easy and relatively flat, though long (25km), private track. We did most of it on the first day, looping around the long way to the Slate Hut. It’s impressive that the track was constructed with hand tools, though there isn’t the terrain of the Paparoa to contend with: there was only a small amount of rock moving to do. I would be a bit worried about doing this track on a bicycle (kind of narrow at times), but it’s well graded for walking.

The scenery was epic, especially near sunrise/sunset. Since we were walking until sunset, we did get to appreciate that scenery too.

At Welcome Rock trailhead; Eyre Peak (?); helicopter at work; not working wagon; clouds under us; snowy hills; snowy shaded; disconnected pipes; MP; gentle slope; one of 3 waterfalls; Mud Hut; inside Mud Hut; gently sloping landscape (again); moonrise; mound; MP; MP at Slate Hut; sunset; stars (Orion).

The mattress in the Slate Hut was comfortable. The prefab hut was wired for electricity, but there wasn’t any. The stove was a bit ghetto (it had fewer than 4 legs), but everything worked, and again, the view was epic. There was another car at the parking lot when we got back there, but we encountered 0 people on the track, just some cars (and a helicopter) on the road part of the walk.

Slate Hut kitchen; Eyre Peak; morning mountains; MP; Slate Hut from Welcome Rock; bowl of underclouds; cows.

On our way from Welcome Rock to Te Anau, we stopped in Garston for breakfast at The Coffee Bomb, since we had decided to not have breakfast at Slate Hut (didn’t want to deal with water, gas, and cleaning). Highly recommended. We had thought about going past Te Anau to walk the Lake Marian Track, but that would have been a lot of driving. So, we did our laundry at the Te Anau TOP 10 Holiday Park, which was good to do before going on the boat for 3 days. We also stopped by the Punanga Manu o Te Anau / Te Anau Bird Sanctuary to see more takahē as well as brown teal/pāteke (both at Zealandia, though I hadn’t seen the male breeding plumage) as well as the Antipodes Island parakeet (not at Zealandia; insurance population).

MP with the takahē statue in Te Anau; pair of brown teals/pāteke; Antipodes Island parakeet; one of a half dozen takahē; starling (introduced); sparrow (introduced).

Doubtful Sound, two nights, May 24 to 26

Back in December 2020 we did a day cruise to Doubtful Sound. That’s not long enough given how hard it is to get there (ferry over Lake Manapouri, bus over the Wilmot Pass, then the Doubtful Sound boat itself). Real Journeys’s Fiordland Navigator operates 2-night cruises in May (usually they do 1-night cruises), so I signed us up for one when we decided to change the trip. We had a great time on board, even though I’m not usually one for cruises. Well, this is a small boat, just 40m.

We had thought about getting off the Welcome Rock track and proceeding to Lake Marian, but that would have been a lot more driving, so we just went to Te Anau and stayed there for the day. On the way, The Coffee Bomb in Garston had excellent sandwiches (and coffee, but that goes without saying in this country, but I don’t drink coffee anyway).

Since the boat left Manapouri at 12:30 the next day, I had scheduled some calls with my grad students in the morning, and took those from the holiday park and from the corner of a (the?) surprisingly busy cafe in Te Anau. Then we drove over to the Lake Manapouri boat. We were on Doubtful Sound by 2:30, after taking pictures from the usual viewpoint on the Wilmot Pass Road.

I have a lot of photos from this cruise. It’s going to take some time to sort through them. I discovered that the 12mm lens is actually pretty useful here, because one is often too close to the fjords. And the 100-400 is indispensable for albatross pictures. But most of the time I was using the fixed 35mm (on APS-C, so 52mm equivalent).

Skipper Dave (with an open-bridge policy, so I dropped in to say hi a few times) arranged it so that we’d be out on the Tasman Sea around sunset on both days. You can definitely feel it when you’re on the open ocean. There were about 10 Buller’s mollymawks, a few shags, and a couple of bottlenose dolphin encounters.

The ship’s naturalist, whose name eludes me now, had a good radio voice, and explained many facts about where we were. He helped drive the boat at times too. Dave didn’t quite have a good radio voice.

The skipper mentioned on several occasions that Real Journeys was a good company to work for. They’d been family held until the pandemic, but needed capital to re-launch when tourism started again, and took investment from Milford Asset Management. Nothing had changed so far (kind of like MEC, which has maybe even gotten better under PE). He had been one of the few to be driving boats during the lockdowns to transport power dam workers as an essential service.

There was a mix of people on the boat, with some pro photographers and a handful of serious amateurs; mostly New Zealanders, I think, with some Australians living in New Zealand, and some from overseas (notably the US). There was a distribution of ages, too, though it probably skewed older than the population average. May is not high tourist season in NZ.

We stayed in a “family-share cabin”, which was going to be renovated away as part of scheduled maintenance this winter. It had four beds (two times two bunk beds). Not fancy, but comfortable. There are going to be twin-share and double cabins next season, apparently all with ensuites. We had, again, shared bathrooms and showers, which were totally fine, really.

Day 1: to Christmas Cove

The first day was just motoring around to the Tasman Sea (way farther than Crooked Arm, which is as far as one gets on a day trip), looking at the scenery and at the wildlife, and then heading back to Christmas Cove (Precipice Cove on the map) to moor for the night. We went through the Malaspina Reach and Thompson Sound, for a total of 80km on the Fiordland Navigator.

Once we docked, Cesar and his kitchen staff had prepared one of our two amazing dinners on the boat. The first day included mussels, beef, ceviche, and tasty salads.

On Lake Manapouri; Manapouri hydro station and infrastructure; my bunk; Navigator's ship's bell; underway on Doubtful Sound; Chamberlain Falls; some peaks; weird visual effect; shag; cliffs; bottlenose dolphin; Tasman Sea coastline (with bird).

Day 2: water activities and then through to First Arm

While Day 1 was bluebird, Day 2 was cloudy, and it had rained overnight, so we got more waterfalls. But first, we paddled around Christmas Cove for 5km (or some people took the tender and got narration). There were seals and there was a double rainbow. When we drove around to waterfalls, I found that I was often too close for 35mm, but 12mm captures more of the walls. Also, there was swimming. The water was cold.

Apart from that, we navigated around to Crooked Arm, Patea Passage and the Tasman Sea, then behind the Shelter Islands for more albatross spotting, and in to First Arm for the night. That is a total of 92km on the day, plus 5km in a (not sit-on-top!) kayak.

Rooms below deck; MP paddling off; tree trunk; MP and rainbow; seal; MP and Navigator; furled jib and rainbow; mast and three falls; more falls in Crooked Arm; to the Tasman Sea again; underneath stormclouds; Buller's mollymawk; looking out; mollymawk.

Our second and final dinner was delicious again, with slow-cooked meat and a seafood mix, and of course salads.

Day 3: back to civilization

We left before sunrise and motored over to Hall Arm (where the day cruise goes). We saw the day cruise sailing out as we came in to Deep Cove, actually. All of the Real Journeys trips do a Sound of Silence in Hall Arm, so we did that, and heard bellbirds and, I think, a kea. I’d also heard bellbirds on the kayaks.

Then we reversed the journey, back over Wilmot Pass Road and Lake Manapouri, taking us back to town at noon as advertised.

Behind Elizabeth Island; Mount Troup; slab; entering Hall Arm; kayak landing/campsite; end of Hall Arm; on Lake Manapouri, dusting of snow towards Lake Norwest; back at Manipouri Village; Southern Alps from the air; Kaikouras.

Two hours of driving later, we got to Queenstown, returned our car, and took our flight back to Wellington without any complications. Well, getting gas is always a bit annoying, but not a huge complication. Arriving at 5pm it’s easy to take the number 2 bus from WLG. Sometimes one can even transfer to the 21 and avoid the walk up the hill.