Finding the Wanaka

We left the West Coast and its evil sandflies behind for an impossibly scenic ride to Wanaka, taking nothing with us but memories and some very itchy bites. Wanaka is a resort town on a lake that everyone seems to fall in love with, and we were ready to be swept off our feet.

First impressions were definitely good: a great blue lake, snow-capped mountains all around, and lots of trees with fresh green leaves. However, we were not very sure what to do exactly. The town is very small and very quiet. The lakefront is full of perpetual brunchers with long hair and sunglasses, but the few other streets are a lot calmer. One of our goals was to hike in Mount Aspiring National Park, especially to see the Rob Roy glacier, but according to a lady in the Department of Conversation Centre the weather in the national park would be ‘poo’ for the next few days, whereas Wanaka was set fair. She told every person in the queue to do the Isthmus walk, a 16km return walk to the top of a mountain with views all around.

Obediently, we drove up to the start of a walk we had never heard of before and got going. Maybe it was because of our lack of expectations, but we were blown away. If walks would be scored on walkability, views during the walk and final views, the Isthmus walk would score high on all fronts. The path is a well maintained broad path that circles up the hills and over a ridge with a steady but doable incline. There were no fun bits of clambering that we experienced on some of the more woody and rocky walks, but instead we got an unperturbed view around us almost the whole way up. Even the switchbacks, normally a bit boring, were exciting because every turn brought a new group of high peaks in the distance to admire. Definitely a good alternative to the glacier, for now.

In the next few days, the DOC still said it was a bad idea to go to the glacier, so we kept ourselves entertained with shorter walks and Wanaka itself. We relieved some of the numerous outdoor shops of a bit of their stock, had some most decadent ice-cream at Pandora's cafe, and went to the cinema. It may not be the most exciting activity in the cradle of bungee-jumping, but Cinema Paradiso is not like other cinemas. You can sit on sofas, old dentist chairs or even in a 1950s car, and there is an interval to get you to buy freshly baked goods. Even at four in the afternoon we were far from the only ones to be enjoying Blade Runner 2049 and chocolate chip cookies.

During our wanderings we came past ‘That Wanaka Tree’ a couple of times. This is tree that is growing in the middle of the lake, apparently after a previous life as a fence post. It is quite photogenic, one tree in the lake flanked by mountains. But not quite photogenic enough to deserve the kind of attention it is getting. At any point in the day there are at least five people standing around it taking pictures. It has its own Instagram page, its own Google location… It is a motivational poster waiting to happen about how sometimes you need to stand out in order to bloom.

Lake Wanaka at the top of the Isthmus Peak Track

Another improbably popular attraction in Wanaka is Puzzling World, a place where you can do puzzles and look at optical illusions. It looks like something for kids, but after a bad weather forecast (which never materialised -\n we love you Wanaka) and recommendations from some very mature friends, as well as the grumpy Dutch guidebook we decided to give it a go. Surrounded by a lot of screaming children but also excited adults we looked at holograms, walked in a tilted house, stared cross-eyed at life-sized optical illusion structures and conquered a maze. As it turns out, it can be quite invigorating to have your suspicions confirmed that there is no reality and everything is an illusion.

This whole time we had been staying at a free campsite about a 15 minute drive from Wanaka. It was very scenic in the valley of some great mountains, and at the start of good walks. The only disadvantage was that there was only one toilet, a small green drop toilet that also gives the illusion of being bigger on the inside. At prime toilet times in the morning and evening everyone must have been watching each other from their camper van windows, because every time somebody left the tube the next person seemed to be making their way towards it.

The top of the Rocky Mountain Track, which started right where we were camping

The other thing we were watching constantly were the clouds in the direction of the glacier. The weather seemed pretty good most of the time. Were the DOC ladies leading people astray so that could have a lovely quiet picnic without pesky tourists? On the last morning, waking up to a morning so clear that there was a little frost on the windows, we decided to draw our own conclusions and head out there. After 40 kilometres of teeth clattering gravel road, we were the first to start on a cloud-free and dry walk to the glacier. On the way back we passed hordes of hikers in shorts. The walk itself is a fun climb mostly in the trees, with a great view of the glacier as a reward. A grey cliff, a big block of ice and snow, and some clouds clinging on to the top: a cool mix of textures.

After our walk we had planned to move straight on to Queenstown, Wanaka's bigger, more hectic cousin, but we couldn't quite say goodbye to Wanaka yet. We hung around for one more stroll, one more library visit, one more ice-cream with lake view… It was with heavy stomachs and hearts that we finally drove away. Wanaka, we will always love you.