Passing the Time

Monday, September 22, 2014 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Day 20:  Queenstown to Ashburton

Even though we eliminated Mount Cook from our itinerary, we decided to keep today's overnight stay in Ashburton.  Doing so would put us back on track and give us the opportunity to drive through Arthur's Pass on our way to the west coast.

Snow flurries were skittering past our window when we arose in Queenstown this morning, and last night's precipitation had significantly lowered the snow line on the mountains surrounding the city.  Though inclement weather was not forecast for any of the few towns along our 250-mile route today, we have learned that weather patterns seem to be very localized in this part of New Zealand.  With all the mountains around, we have often moved from blue sky sunny in one valley to fog with spitting rain or snow in the next valley.  All within the space of ten minutes.

So before leaving Queenstown, we stocked up on groceries, cash and petrol.  Following Highway 6 east out of town, we passed the Kawarau Bridge and were tempted to stop when we saw someone on the bungy jumping platform, but we resisted the urge and pressed on to the town of Cromwell, where we turned north onto Highway 8.

From Cromwell, the road took us up the eastern shore of Lake Dunstan (pictured above), the first of several immense glacier-fed lakes we would pass today.  With its turquoise water and the snow-capped Pisa Mountains as a backdrop, the lake was picture perfect, or so we thought.  Stopping at a rest area lakeside, we tried to implement some of the concepts we had learned in our photo safari yesterday, only to realize that, with our little point and shoot cameras, we are not going to achieve what we're looking for.  We will upgrade our equipment after we return home and hope we still remember part of what we learned.

Back on the road, we continued northeast, making our way through the mountains.  We weren't sure what to expect when we saw Lindis Pass on the map with no designation of its elevation.  Our first thoughts were of our experience last November at Wolf Creek Pass, a snow-covered, wind-blinding 10,900-ft. route through the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.  But this was another story completely.  Any amount of dread for Lindis Pass was misplaced.

Lindis Pass
At a modest 3,200 ft., the pass was no more than a gentle drive through hummocky rolling hills covered with tussocked grasslands.  No doubt, snow reaches this road at other times of the year, but it's spring here and today we had smooth sailing.  In fact, we stopped at the pass and ate our picnic lunch.

Further west on Highway 8, we passed through Omarama, a small village (pop. 230), which acts as a rural service center for the sheep and dairy farmers in the surrounding area.  Just outside the town, we passed a sign indicating "Clay Cliffs" 400 meters ahead.  Rising to the bait, we made the turn to learn that the Clay Cliffs were another 10 km away.  What the heck?  We were making good time, so we decided to go for it, soon finding ourselves on a gravel road ('unsealed' in the local parlance).

A few kilometers further we reached the first of two gates, indicating we were entering private property and inviting us to pay NZ$5 (about $4 US) per car to continue.  Actually the sign said we should have made payment at Omarama Hot Tubs on Highway 8, but since most of the people who enter there are probably unaware of this nuance and unlikely to drive all the way back to town to do so, a collection box was provided for the purpose.  We'd come this far.  Why not?  In we went.

Clay Cliffs
At the end of the road, another gate and a couple more kilometers further, we found a bizarre moonscape of pinnacles and ridges abruptly rising from the surrounding flatland.  Separated by deep, narrow ravines and made of layers of gravel and silt, the cliffs were built up from deposits left by rivers a couple of million years ago.  Well worth the drive and the cost of admission.

Back on the highway, a little further north, we stopped for a cup of tea at the bakery in Twizel before continuing east into the Canterbury Plains, a vast area of treeless grasslands which form New Zealand's largest area of flat land.  And we do mean flat. Kansas and Oklahoma flat.  
When English settlers arrived in this area between the Southern Alps and the Pacific Ocean in the 1850s, they found no barriers to protect their crops and livestock from the high winds that frequent the area.  On average, the wind gusts exceed 40 miles an hour for more than 50 days per year in these plains.  So settlers began planting hedges and rows of trees as windbreaks, or shelterbelts, as they are called here.

Canterbury Plains shelterbelts
Monterey pines and cypresses from California were introduced and became the most popular tree for windbreaks.  Encouraged by the government, what started as individual fencing became a massive defense system against the wind with almost 180,000 miles of living fences and shelterbelts.  To prevent shading on the adjacent pastureland, the shelterbelt trees were often pruned into perfect boxlike shapes, 30 feet tall and six feet thick.

After searching unsuccessfully for a letterbox in the little town of Geraldine, we arrived at our hotel in Ashburton, a layover more than a destination for us.  Tomorrow we will drive across the South Island to Greymouth on the west coast.
Daily Stats:
  • Started in Queenstown, ended in Ashburton
  • Mileage - 260  (Trip total:  13,914)
  • Weather - 31° to 50°, snow, sun, clouds
  • Gas price - $6.95/gallon
  • Trees planted on fence rows - 248,290
  • Vineyards north of Queenstown - 31
  • Fruit stalls - 23
  • Sheep - 9,761

Ken at Clay Cliffs
Lots of horses here are still wearing winter attire.
Tussocks near Lindis Pass
Road view