It was inevitable that one of the first places we would visit in our brand new van would be Lake Wānaka. The town is just a short one-hour zip over the Crown Range from Queenstown or a ninety-minute journey round through Cromwell. If you are people like us (you know, the type who like to drag out every holiday and take in all the sights and sounds no matter how many times you’ve seen them before), I advise you to take the long way round.
We arrived in Wānaka and the blue glacial lake greeted us as we rounded the corner and descended down into the town. We parked up our little home on wheels and did the usual. Grabbing a coffee, browsing the shops and pacing the pavement as we eagerly awaited our kayak tour.
It was glorious. The sun was beating down, the lake was glistening and it was time to explore on the water. There is something pretty magical about paddling out into the middle of the lake, you truly feel consumed by the towering mountains and vast landscape. We met our guide, Austin; an epic dude who was ready to impart his knowledge and show us around his backyard.
Heading out in the boats, we took a left turn and headed straight for the Wānaka Tree. Did you know there is a tree just randomly in the lake? Let me tell you more… New Zealand’s most photographed tree, but it’s not just any tree. Its delicately curved trunk appears right out of the lake, but unfortunately, this is not some kind of natural miracle. Once upon a time, a farmer built a fence along the shores of Lake Wanaka. It is said that the fence that rose from the ashes and took a root in the lake soil, sprouting new branches and growing into the tree we so dearly love today.
We continued paddling along learning all about rogue tree roots, and spotting mystical ladies hidden in the ridgelines of the surrounding mountains, powering on for half an hour under the baking hot early summer sunshine. A quick stroll around Ruby Island peppered with historical facts and we continued our paddle mission. We were on the home straight, heading into the wind but it didn’t stop the fun. As the sun so perfectly set over the mountains, we pulled up on the shores of town and saluted farewell to our new mate Austin.
All that paddling had me hungry, tired and hanging out for a good brew. We set the van up in record time just before dark at the Glendhu Bay Campground. I knew we were in close proximity to the lake and I couldn’t wait to see what the view looked like in the morning.
I got up bright and early with the birds and other fellow early morning campers. I politely nodded as I shuffled my way to the shower block and back to our pitch, which by the way, was way closer to the lake than I thought and so picture-perfect that my lens cap was off before the kettle started whistling. Cups of tea and a slow breakfast brought us to life ready for another activity.
Okay, so one thing you need to know about me. Ya girl LOVES a quad bike.
I don’t know why, when, or how my love for quad biking came but there is something so exhilarating about pulling that throttle and going mental on a dusty track. We arrived nice and early at Cardrona Horse Treks and Quads.
Today was all about the horsepower behind the Yamaha rather than the beautiful creatures I could see down in the paddocks. Briefing over, helmets on, it was time to hit the hills. We followed the group carefully through the cow paddocks, stopping to listen to our guide and learning all about the local area. As soon as we hit the incline, we were on.
We made our way up and up and up further above the Cardona Valley, the views in just the first half-hour were incredible. We hung back to give the group some space from the dust tornados being produced from our wheels and it was in this time I put the pedal to the metal and buzzed out all the adrenaline I had cooped up inside.
Amazing, incredible, and so totally worth every second of inhaling the dusty ground. Safe to say when we finished the tour we looked like we had dropped out of the wild west. If quad biking isn’t on your New Zealand bucket list, let me heavily advise you to change your mind!
The day wasn’t over, in fact, we had time for a shower, a quick snack, and relax before hitting the road towards Mount Aspiring for one last activity to end the day.
Wānaka is famed for its epic hiking trails, but all-time favourites like Roy’s Peak and Isthmus Peak were off the cards due to lambing season so we chose to sunset hike on what I believe is one of the most underrated tracks in New Zealand. Rocky Mountain Diamond Lake is a circuit track with varying times and distances. We chose the Rocky Mountain Summit Track totaling 3-hours return, and a distance of 7 km.
Get ready for epic views down into Lake Wānaka township and Glenduh Bay, plus on a clear day you can also see the road winding through into Mount Aspiring National Park and the Treble Cone ski area. The area’s landscape has been carved by Ice Age glaciers, and the hills are now covered with native forest and shrubland nestling into bluff systems and it is stunning. This hike is relatively easy and well worth a spot on your Wānaka summer hiking list.
The sun went down and the grumble of hunger got stronger. We raced back into town in search of a feed to calm the beast. We stumbled across Red Star, a burger joint to rival you know who over in Queenstown (wink, wink) Honestly, hands down one of THE best veggie burgers I have eaten in my lifetime. I’m not sure the two portions of kumara and hot chips were necessary but you bet I did my best to eat the lot. Safe to say after a day of adventuring it went down a treat and a well-deserved sleep was in order.
Who said Sunday was a day to relax? We had one last activity on the itinerary and it was the one I had been excited and nervous about. Who knew that hanging off the side of a cliff, under a waterfall with Lake Wānaka below could be terrifying and equally therapeutic. I never thought that climbing my way up a mountain, putting my life’s worth and trust in a single carabiner clip would bring me so much calm, but it did and I will tell you why.
Mark picked us up from the campground (excellent service I may add) and drove us out to the Wildwire site. Wildwire is a via ferrata, a term that originates in Italy. Via means “way or path” and Ferrata means “iron”. Put together, you have an iron pathway. It’s a climbing path up the rock face. You follow a well-marked and planned route, clipping yourself onto the cables provided and using the metal rungs, pegs, and ladders to ascend the face to the very top.
It started at the bottom. The bottom of a 60m high waterfall nestled in the hillside en route to Mount Aspiring National Park. We practiced on a small boulder, clip 1, 2, 3, 4 and move on. The process of via ferrata was drilled into us, in order to keep us safe while climbing the rock face.
Practice done, we hit the hill. A short walk up the hill leads you to the door into the Wildwire experience. An actual physical door – yes. Clamber through, clip-on and we were away. Five hours of climbing and pushing our physical limits await. The first level was easy, for us anyway. Enough height and manoeuvring to get your heart pumping, but relatively easy in what was about to come. We peaked at level two after crossing a three-wire bridge and shuffling our way up towards the waterfall. It was here we took a break and a breather. An overwhelming sense of calm washed over us all, we had nothing else to think about. Just clip 1, 2, 3 ,4 and move on. That, and don’t look down.
Wildwire was the gift that just kept on giving. A tremendous effort from the whole squad and epic feeling of achievement as I unclipped the last iron rung on level 3 and double high fived our guide, Mark. A small gap in the rocks allowed us a view down to the ground and Lake Wānaka looking even tinier in the distance. We stood under a canopy of trees as a river flowed beside us. It was like stepping into a woodland fantasy movie scene, simply stunning and otherworldly. So wild to think hours earlier we were hauling ourselves up a rockface and now at the summit, all I felt was calm.
It was epic. We just kept going, and climbing and clipping and climbing. We completed levels 1, 2 and 3 and managed the hour hike back down in record time. Seven hours to be precise, but seven hours of pure challenge and goodness.
Our jelly legs hit the ground and as I collapsed into the van cushions there was nothing more I wanted than a chill night by the lake. So guess what? I booked an extra night at the wonderful Glendhu Bay Campground, threw the back doors of the van open, and cracked a beer in celebration. I cheers’ed the air and the ever-wonderful Lake Wānaka for yet another memorable adventure.
I have said it before and I will say it again team: I’ll be back Wānaka, I will be back.