Day 1: The alma mater, beautiful lakes and mountains

On Day 1, we travelled from Christchurch to Lincoln University, Lake Tekapo, Lake Pukaki, Mt. Cook Village and ended up in Omarama, driving a total of 433 kilometres.

We spent a night in Christchurch before we started our 6-day drive around NZ’s South Island. After picking us up from the airport, our local driver Graham took us around Christchurch, showing us remnants of devastation that the 2011 earthquake had left on the city.

ChristChurch Cathedral – ruined after the 2011 earthquake

Graham reached his hand out to the dashboard compartment and took a postcard from his leather organiser. It had a picture of the cathedral before it was destroyed by the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that killed 185 people. It has been 7 years since that calamity but till today this world heritage building has not been rebuilt due to the ongoing public debate regarding funding for the work. Graham mentioned that an agreement has finally been reached and 2018 will be the year when reconstruction will finally happen.

Postcard of the cathedral before it was destroyed
Cardboard Cathedral

To serve the spiritual needs of the locals, a cardboard cathedral was erected not far away. The designer of this transitional house of worship is Japanese architect Shigeru Ban who specialises in the construction of structures from cardboard tubes for disaster areas.

The “faulty” GPS

Our boracay blue Holden Trax

The following day, we went to pick up our rental car. We got a Holden Trax 1.4L SUV in my favourite colour, blue. However, as we left Christchurch to head to Lincoln about 20 minutes away, I noticed that the NavMan GPS unit which the car rental gave us wasn’t charging when plugged into the dashboard and the battery level was nearly nil.

This wasn’t good at all, it would be unsettling to drive around South Island without the GPS unit working because who knew what the cellphone reception was like in the more remote locations if we had to rely only on our phone maps. I called the lady at the car rental who suggested that the car cigarette lighter point was faulty because she had taken out a second SatMan thinking that the first unit she set up was faulty (so essentially she gave us a faulty car without thinking too much about it). We agreed to return to the car rental and swap for another vehicle. Tip to remember for next time, make sure you can charge your GPS navigational unit (if it’s not a built-in one) before leaving the car rental parking lot!

Lincoln University

This drive around South Island trip has been a life-long dream for my dad who went to university in Lincoln in the 1960’s but never had the time back then to undertake the long journey. So naturally, he wanted to make Lincoln the first stop and walk down a bit of memory lane.

We met up with a man named Mr Ian Collins from alumni services who took us around campus. During a trip to the dining hall, Mr Collins took out a long framed black and white photo and showed my dad a group shot of new students (including my dad) during his year of admission, 1963. My dad had never seen that photo so he was very excited about it.

Dad and mom, with his class photo of 1963

We then walked to the Ivey Hall, during which I saw my dad skip and joyously clicked his heels – he never looked happier! He claimed he felt like a young man again. My mom and I chuckled to see my dad so animated and excited to be back at his alma mater.

Ivey Hall was a university administration building where my dad went to every day to check and send letters. This place was his precious connection to the world outside of Lincoln back in the days when e-mail and mobile phones were not in existence.

Mr. Collins showing mom and dad Ivey Hall
Souvenirs from Lincoln University

We then visited the building where my dad’s dorm room was, it’s now been converted into a pantry. After we were done walking around campus with Mr Collins, we said thank you to Mr Collins and bade farewell as we had a long drive ahead of us.

 Mr Collins gave us some parting gifts in the form of leather credit card holders with the Lincoln University logo emblazoned on them (two pink’s for mom and me, one black one for dad). We then started to make our way down to Lake Tekapo.

Lake Tekapo

We headed out westward along State Highway (SH) 1 about 214km to get to Lake Tekapo. This is a lake where the colour of the water is an unreal milky turquoise blue that you won’t ever forget.

While on SH 1 heading to Lake Tekapo, we drove on the longest road bridge in NZ, the Rakaia bridge. We then turned right from SH 1 to merge with SH 79 and drove through Geraldine to reach Fairlie which had this magnificent stop and breathtaking view.

Stopover at Fairlie in Mackenzie region

After navigating through mountainous roads, we started to approach the township of Lake Tekapo. Your jaws will drop at the first time you see this lake from the highway, a view of pure turquoise beckoning you seductively from the distance.

First view of Lake Tekapo – stunning!

Nearby there is a church and the view from there is equally amazing. While to visit Lake Tekapo is free, there is a coin box at the church entrance if you would like to give a donation.

Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo

The lake is so beautiful, you feel like you could stare at it forever.

Me walking at Lake Tekapo
A bridge at Lake Tekapo that takes you across to a souvenir shop and some restaurants
Us across the bridge at Lake Tekapo with the church now behind us

Lake Pukaki

As much as I wanted to spend more time here, we had to keep on moving as we still had to get to Lake Pukaki, which is another 40 minutes away. Just like Lake Tekapo, this lake was a shimmering milky turquoise caused by reflection of light on small particles of glacier flour (or finely grounded glacier rocks) in the water.

Panoramic view of Lake Pukaki, with Mt. Cook in the horizon centre
Panoramic view of Lake Pukaki, with Mt. Cook in the far horizon (centre)
Another view of Lake Pukaki

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Lake Pukaki is a very long lake, we probably drove around 30 kilometres along it to reach Mt. Cook National Park Village. We originally wanted to stay there for one night but because it was fully booked out, we had to bunk in Omarama. Nonetheless, we still wanted to drive up to the village to see the village and Mt. Cook closer.

It was during this drive along Lake Pukaki that I first encountered my first one of many one-lane bridges of New Zealand on which only cars in one direction could pass at a time (traffic on the other side will have to wait their turn), which freaked me out a little bit. But because there were few cars travelling to Mt. Cook Village at the time, navigating that first bridge was relatively stress-free. As there are many rivers and creeks to cross in the countryside, NZ makes these type of road bridges because they require less maintenance and are more cost-effective.

Mt. Cook Village

Mt. Cook (or Aoraki as it’s known in Maori, meaning ‘cloud piercer’) is New Zealand’s highest mountain standing at 3,724 m. In the national park, there is a village at the foot of the mountains called Mt. Cook Village. To get there you will definitely have to drive along the length of Lake Pukaki.

Here are some of the scenic views of our drive to Mt. Cook Village.

The view enroute to Aoraki/Mt. Cook Village
The view en route to Aoraki/Mt. Cook Village
Driving along Lake Pukaki
Mt. Cook as seen from the road

At Mt. Cook Village, we took a bathroom break and stretched our legs while admiring the snow-capped mountains that stood majestically before us. I really wished we had more time to spend here but alas that was a sacrifice we had to make on this trip. I noted a few walking tracks that were nearby and told myself that I had to come back again another time to go for these bushwalks.

View of the mountains from a car park at Mt. Cook Village
Some walking tracks at Mt. Cook Village – Governor’s Bush and Red Tarns

Some other activities in our itinerary that we had to miss out at Mt. Cook was to head out to Tasman Valley for a lake cruise to view 500-year-old glaciers and also, visit the Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, a tribute (museum cum planetarium) to the late New Zealand explorer. Sir Hillary was one of the first two known climbers of Mt. Everest in Nepal (the other one being Nepalese mountaineer Tenzing Norgay).

It was then time to make a U-turn at the village and drive along Lake Pukaki again in the opposite direction, southbound so that we could reach our night accommodation at Omarama which was more than 90 kilometres away.

The map of our driving on Day 1: