New Zealand 2008 part 3 - Lake Wanaka

The Riverside B&B - our base in Wanaka

When we left Mt. Cook National Park, it was an overcast, blustery, rainy morning. As soon as we drove down out of the mountains though the wind dropped, the rain stopped and the clouds broke up. Within an hour of leaving it had turned into a nice day. We didn't have far to go, maybe two and half hours of driving, so we stopped near the town of Twizel for a bit of shopping. In New Zealand we had seen of lot of adverts for "Icebreakers". These were tops made of a very fine light wool that were similar in function to synthetic athletic tops that you can get in the US. But they definitely looked and felt cooler. So we stopped at a shop that claimed to be "The Home of the Icebreaker". Sandy found more yarn to get and did get an Icebreaker top. I found a good hiking guide for the Central Otago/Southern Lakes district we were going to for the rest of our trip. So it was a productive stop.


Wanaka is a resort town on the shore of the lake of the same name. We had reservations at the Riverside Bed and Breakfast which was just outside of town. Although we got in about noon, we decided to stop at the B&B to let the people know we were there before heading in to town. It was a really nice place. Our room had it's own bath and a separate entrance. Our room had a shaded patio area. As you'll read below the patio was a great place to sit and enjoy a glass of wine and the view in the evening after a hard day of hiking. Ok, maybe even if we didn't have a hard day of hiking. The people who ran the B&B were Lesley and Norman. They were very nice and made us feel very welcome. They also had a lot of good ideas and info for us about the area. I'm not a breakfast person but Sandy thought the food was great. She had Lesley's specialty, Eggs Benedict the first morning and liked it so well she made a special request for it again our last morning.

We spent our first afternoon wandering around town. Wanaka is more of a vacation destination for New Zelanders rather than for international tourists like Mt. Cook National Park or Queenstown. There were a lot of places to eat but it was mostly New Zealand faire. You could have anything you wanted to eat as long as it was lamb. We did eventually try the fish & chips at a brew pub for lunch and it was pretty good. And Lesley made reservations for us at an Italian restaurant for dinner that was very good.

There is a trail that goes quite a way around the lakeshore. We spent the afternoon walking along the lake. It was very pretty and the breeze off the lake felt really good. More of a stroll than a hike though.

A kea alongside the track

Our first real hike was Rob Roy Glacier. It was suggested by Leslie who said it was spectacular. From Wanaka it was almost an hour drive to the trailhead but that is really the best road access to the central part of Mt. Aspiring National Park. The first twenty kilometers or so went fast since it was paved. The road weaved in and out among the lake inlets and was very pretty. Then we reached the park boundary and the road turned to dirt. The last section went quite slowly. There were eight places (we counted!) where we had to ford significant streams crossing the road - no bridges. Sandy was a bit nervous but hey, it was a rental car so I just plowed through. Finally we made it to the trailhead which is the main access point for the central section of Mt. Aspiring National Park and Mt. Aspiring itself.

But that wasn't our objective today. We started up the West Matakituki Valley toward Mt. Aspiring. But after about 15 minutes we split off from the main track and crossed the river on a suspension bridge. Another fun, airy bridge. From there the track went into the woods and headed up the side valley coming from Rob Roy Peak (not to be confused with Roy Peak, which we climbed the next day). The track was steady uphill so it was nice to be in the shade almost the whole way. It followed a beautiful stream that came down from the glacier with lots of cascades and waterfalls as it fell rapidly into the main river valley from the high basin above.

The upper basin finally comes into view

At one rest stop we spotted a kea, an unusual species of parrot that lives only in alpine regions on the South Island of New Zealand. It used to be so common that it was considered a pest and bounties were paid for killing them. The population was reduced to the point where it is unusual now to see one. It's a protected species now. But from stories I have read by trekkers in New Zealand it is still a pest. It's beak can rip an unattended pack to shreds and can even open tin cans to get at food. This kea was hanging out right by the trail and didn't seem to pay too much attention to us. It was probably waiting for someone to stop to have lunch.

After about two hours we broke out of the forest and entered a high basin. There was a spectacular high waterfall just to our left. All along the left side and straight ahead the basin was lined with sheer cliffs that rose vertically to the upper slopes of Rob Roy Peak. And all along the top of the cliffs were huge hanging glaciers and ice falls that fell from a massive glacier basin on the upper slopes of the peak. There were a number of hikers in the meadow where the track ended. It was a great place to have lunch and stare up and admire the wall. And everyone was watching for ice avalanches coming off of the cliffs above. As we were hiking up the track through the woods we could occasionally hear them from up ahead - usually a loud crack followed by a sound like long rumbling thunder. The tough thing about spotting them was that since the ice cliffs were on the other side of the basin (probably about a mile away) the sound of the avalanche wouldn't reach you for about five seconds (speed of sound = 1100 feet per second if I remember my physics right). So when you heard an avalanche by the time you looked up, scanned the cliffs and spotted the avalanche it was just about over. But Sandy had the sharp eye and while we were eating lunch she spotted a big one just as it started. People we had talked to who had been up there before said they had watched but never actually seen an avalanche. So our luck was good.

I copy Norman's river photo

The hike down was pleasant in the shade. Norman had shown us a picture that he had taken on this hike of a particular spot with a huge tree trunk wedged across the river. We found what we thought was the same place and tried to duplicate his photo. And when we got home we compared. Sure enough - we had been able to find the place. It didn't take us too long to get down to the car and then we just had to ford the streams and drive the dusty road to get back to town. Since it was still only mid-afternoon we stopped in town to stock up on soda, wine, and snacks like cheese and crackers. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening on the patio at The Riverside.

Our last full day in Wanaka we were going to tackle Roy Peak. This is the highest point on the ridge that is just to the south of the lake and town. We had a great view of it looking right out the window of our room at The Riverside, and had studied it from the patio while drinking our wine the night before. Now it was time to hike up it. The weather had been warm for the past few days. Since the slopes had no trees we were expecting a very hot hike. But Sandy was gung ho to do it so we arranged with Lesley for an early breakfast to get an early start. We took lots of water - although that did make our packs heavy.

Lesley and Sandy at breakfast

This time it was less than a ten minute drive to the trailhead. The sky was perfectly clear - another gorgeous day. The walk was actually along an old 4WD road grade so it was wide, easy to follow, and not too steep. But it was relentless. We were at the bottom of a long slope and just had several hours of switchbacking up it ahead of us. I was a little surprised that Sandy was so anxious to do the hike, as it was 1400 meters of elevation gain. That's over 3900 feet (one guidebook with English measure actually said it was 4000 ft). The most we had ever done before on a hike together was 3600 feet. I think there was a slight possibility she had made a mistake in her mental arithmetic converting from metric units. But now we were on the hill and heading up.

Roy Peak - it doesn't look 4000 feet higher

The lower half of the hike felt like a true New Zealand hike - there were sheep everywhere. It was easy to spot the lambs from this spring, usually sticking close to their moms. It was easy to hear them too. As soon as mom wandered a few steps away to chew on some grass the lambs let her know about it! As we climbed we had a spectacular view over the lake. But our view of the main crest of the Southern Alps was blocked by the mountain itself. It wasn't until we were within a few hundred feet of the top that we came out onto the ridgecrest and could see the whole of Mt. Aspiring National Park to the west. From there it was only about 15 minutes to the summit. We weren't the fastest hikers - several parties had passed us on the way up. But we made it. Our time up was three hours and fifteen minutes, which didn't seem bad for almost four thousand feet of elevation gain.

The view was spectacular. The lake and town were right below us. We could see Mt. Iron, near our Bed and Breakfast, which is touted as a great viewpoint over the town. It was thousands of feet below us and looked like an insignificant bump. Lake Wanaka is very complex. It's not just a big oval. It winds among the mountains like an inland fjord. We never were able to see the whole lake at any one time, even from the summit of Roy Peak. We could see the Southern Alps stretching from way in the north near Mt. Cook through Mt. Aspiring National Park and south towards Queenstown (our next destination) and Fjordland. The day was perfect - not a cloud in the sky. We felt rather pleased with ourselves for making it to the top. It was time to sit down and have lunch and enjoy the view.

3 hours later - almost to the summit

The summit itself left a little to be desired. The actual summit area was fairly limited and had a small antenna on it. With a dozen or so hikers there it was a little crowded if you wanted to be on the absolute top and have a 360 degree view. And there were a few flies. Not bad - but it was the only spot on the whole trip where bugs were at all bothersome. Of course we never did make it down to Fjordland to face the world-famous New Zealand sandflies.

Then came the long walk down. It took us about two and a half hours. I will admit that I was pretty tired by the time we got back to the car. But we had a nice breeze all the way up and down and the hike was actually quite comfortable. We got down by mid-afternoon, in time to make a stop at the Rippon Winery just outside of town for a wine taste on the lake shore. We ended up buying a couple of bottles and took them home for our victory celebration.

After cleaning up we drove into Wanaka town and picked up a pizza to go. We sat out on our nice patio, ate pizza, drank Coke, and then enjoyed the local wine we had bought that afternoon while admiring the view of the mountain we had climbed. Norman and Lesley hadn't been up Roy Peak and seemend impressed that we made it. Norman said that he was going to give it a go soon too.

Hiking high on Roy Peak

The next day we had an extra long and big breakfast and a good chat with Norman and Lesley. Then it was time to pack up to head for our next stop. Before we left, I took some pictures with their dog Zach. He had been very friendly and been around us the whole time we were there. Now that I wanted to take pictures, he decided that he had much more important stuff to do. I think he caught the scent of some rabbits in the bushes so suddenly I wasn't very interesting at all. But he finally came over, we got the pictures, and then we were off.

Our stay in Wanaka was fantastic. We had perfect weather. The hiking was awesome. And we really liked the bed and breakfast that we stayed at. Our hosts, Lesley and Norman really made us feel like friends staying there and it was great.

Additional pictures

Lake Wanaka and Roy Peak