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Cheaper by the half dozen, pt II – South Island road trip

And we’re back for the second post about my most recent South Island roadtrip. Just in case you missed it, here’s a link to the first part. We pick it up from December 31st, shortly after arriving in Queenstown, which was booming and at the busiest I’d ever seen it. We booked accommodation back in June and could only find a room in Frankton, a neighbouring town, so we went there to drop our luggage and get ready for New Year’s Eve.

Once back in Queenstown, it was time to explore it. The town is famous for a reason, and it looked (almost?) as amazing in summer as it does in winter. It has somewhat of a different vibe than the other small towns in the South Island, and I understand why people pay a big premium to be able to live here. Doing a quick loop of the town’s biggest streets will allow you to get an overview of what it has to offer in terms of retail, food and things to see and do.

It was clear very quickly that not only locals, but also Kiwis from other places and overseas travelers all wanted to be in Queenstown to send off 2022. And given we were constantly on the road, it made more sense for us to go out for dinner instead of cooking something up ourselves. So, alongside accommodation, early on we booked dinner at a restaurant atop the mountain that oversees the town, one that is full of other attractions. You can ride a gondola to access these attractions, and from there you also get the most incredible views of the town, the lake, and the Remarkables mountain range. For those looking for an extra dose of extra excitement, this is also where you can go on Luge rides. 

It was then dinner time, so we made it into the restaurant. I can’t remember when I last had a fancy all-you-can-eat dinner, especially one with such great sunset views. The food was plentiful, varied and exactly what we were craving as the last meal for the year. We then came down at around 11PM and went straight to the lake front, where people were starting countdowns and celebrations. As midnight arrived, the usual fireworks show took place, everyone cheered, and follow-up parties were kicked off. What a great way to welcome 2023.

With a late start to the next day, we only made it to Queenstown for lunch time. And did you really go to Queenstown if you didn’t spend at least an hour waiting in line for a Ferg Burger? It’s borderline cliché at this point, but we just had to show my parents and in-laws what all the hype was about. I got them to try the Little Bambi venison burger and the fish burger, The Codfather. I love a good pun name, especially when the food is also great. Ferg has grown into a bigger business since the burger days, while still offering heaps of options for a fair price, so long as you are okay with the wait times.

We then started driving north hugging Lake Wakatipu, with two stops in mind: Bob’s Cove and Glenorchy. The first one was another place that felt completely different in this summer season, as we were used to having the whole lake to ourselves all other times we were there. This is a great spot to spend a summer day, as the lake has plenty of beaches and there are a few walking tracks you can take to get elevated views of the formations. 

This was a very hot day, so two features of the Carnival got to shine here: the remote start and opening for the sliding doors. The latter meant we could get doors open by the time the four rear occupants got to them, while the former allowed for cold air to be blowing when we were ready to go. 

The second place on the list, Glenorchy, is another small town with a very picturesque pier that is good for pictures, relaxing or maybe a quick dip, and a good café on the way to the centre. The drive there is not bad, either!

Before tackling this leg of the trip, we decided to fill the tank, and that’s when I had possibly the only bad experience with the Carnival, and it wasn’t even its fault. The rental company fitted the car with an accessory to ensure people would only fill it up with diesel. While I appreciate the effort and think of how many customers had to make “that call” for the company to decide to go to that extent to solve the problem, this accessory made the opening narrower, so not all nozzles in town would fit. 

Because of that, we had to do a hunt for a petrol station that had a compatible nozzle. Third time was the charm, even though that station was charging 10 cents more a litre. Gladly, we were not in a rush nor running on fumes, so learn from my frustrating oversight and check that as soon as you’re kicking off your road trip on a diesel rental! 

Back to Queenstown, we decided to try out the other spot that always had an enormous queue: Patagonia. The dessert shop is located at a corner spot just by the busiest walking street, it is impossible to miss. With a never-ending list of options of ice cream and sweet treats, it became the go-to place for everyone looking for something to grab and eat while enjoying the views from the lakefront. 

Fast-forward to the morning of the next day, when we went to the Kawarau canyon to try what is probably Queenstown’s most famous attraction after the bungy jump: the shotover jet boat ride. Powered by two V8 engines capable of a combined output of 450kW, the boat zips through the canyon at speeds up to 85km/h while in very shallow waters. This thrill ride is a great way to get the adrenaline running and I recommend it very much.  

It was then time to start the journey towards another highlight of the South Island, Fiordland and the Milford Sound. It is a long drive from Queenstown, which we try to break by staying in Te Anau whenever we can. On the way there, I started to reflect on my impressions on the car and think of this write up. The diesel engine sounded very truckish from day one, especially under load, but never felt so. I was so impressed with the level of isolation that I popped the hood to look for the engine mounts. They are massive and competently keep vibrations in check – holding my hand over the motor side of it would let me feel every single cycle of the engine, but the chassis side was steady as a rock. Great work, Kia!

In terms of its power delivery, again it was very old school diesel – just a hint of lag and then a big shove that pulled the Carnival all the way to the early upshifts. It never felt underpowered, and that’s considering that I almost always had six adults on board and our luggage grew bigger and bigger at each shopping stop. 

Our room for the night in Te Anau was close to the town centre, so we went for a walk around the area to see the sunset. By the main street there are a few stores and restaurants worth checking out, but as usual, the lakefront is the star of the show. With the sightseeing hydroplanes and the mountains as the backdrop, it creates a view that made my parents say this was the town they’d choose to live. Speaking of those mountains, that is also where you traverse the Kepler track, one that we had a great time doing a few months ago and I would definitely recommend to fellow trampers.

The road to Milford Sound is an attraction in itself with all the lookouts, bends and different landscapes. The 120km drive can easily take 3 hours if you stop at all the designated spots. We had the whole day to enjoy it so that’s exactly what we did. Most of these stops are well signed and easy to find, the only exception being the Pop’s View Lookout, which I recommend looking up beforehand so that you can get great views of the valley, including Lake Marian in the distance.

The Homer tunnel is another highlight of the trip, and with a bit of luck you can get the cheeky Keas to come and give you a show with their curiosity and intelligence. Once you cross the 1.2km tunnel, you’ll be faced with the fiord environment that goes all the way to the sea and you surround you until you make your way back up.

The roads become even more windy from here on now, which inspired me to do the unthinkable: switch a minivan full of people into Sports Mode. I wanted to see whether it would help with body roll on the bends and gearbox calibration on the steep descent. My impression is that just the gearbox is affected, with no changes to steering, suspension or throttle response. All to be expected as the Carnival has no pretension whatsoever of being a sporty car.

Once in the Milford Sound carpark, there are a few walkways you can follow to explore the area, but if you want to really experience the fiord and its grandiose, you need to hop of a boat cruise or a flight. We chose the former and spent 2 hours going all the way into the open sea and back, really helping to give a bit more perspective into how massive the whole fiord is. This is one of the regions in the world with the most rainfall, but this was my fifth visit there and I’ve seen nothing but dry days. Maybe next time! 

We enjoyed Milford as much as we could, which meant that the sun was setting as we were driving back. In a certain part of the road we kept going in and out of tree cover, and the car headlights would come on and off accordingly. Conscious that it could be annoying to the driver ahead of me, I switched them to the OFF position. A few kilometers later, the car notified me in the dashboard saying that it was dark outside and that I should consider turning them on. That stuck with me as a simple and effective way to avoid people from driving with their lights off, especially for car brands that have been guilty of using binnacles that are lit all the time.

Back to Te Anau, where we went to the last attraction in our checklist there: the Bird Sanctuary. My father likes birds and wildlife, so I wanted to give him the opportunity to see the Takahe they are breeding there. They were considered extinct for a long time before a group was spotted, restarting conservation efforts. There are now around 400 individuals, so it’s good to know this population is thriving.

It was then time to start making our way back to Queenstown, but this time we barely made it into the town. Both the rental lot and the airport are actually in Frankton, so we had lunch in a place called The Crown, and shortly afterwards returned the car and boarded our flight back to Auckland. The final impression is that the South Island is an incredible destination all your round and that even with very little competition, the Carnival is an amazing offering for those looking for a house on wheels that still manages to drive like a car and pack all the bells and whistles.

Thanks for following me along and see you again next time!

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