NZ 2015: South Island – Wanaka and Queenstown

While we were sad to see the glaciers in our rear-vision mirror, Alyce and I were pumped for what awaited us. Our helicopter dropped us back to Franz Josef and we almost instantly jumped in the van for the long drive to Wanaka. The drive itself is about 3.5 hours, but when the sun is setting over the peaks and the lakes are throwing off crazy reflections, the drive takes much, much longer.

We were pushing it for time and wanted to make minimal stops along the way, but inevitably, we had to stop for fuel. I had seen a sign on the highway that outlined that there would be no more servos for 120km. I looked at the dash – 160km; too easy. We drove along, taking in all of the beauty of the south coast and finally pulled in to the service station with 40km left in the tank. I jumped out to walk around to the diesel and was surprised to meet an older lady walking towards me. She kindly informed me that ‘the pumps were off for the afternoon’, though she could turn them back on for an additional NZD20. There would be no fuel at this stop. I asked her how close the next diesel was and she shot back, “how much do you have left in the tank?”. Upon informing her that the dash read ’40km’, she was quick to congratulate me. “Perfect. The next servo is 35km away”. I’m not sure who would consider that ‘perfect’, but there was nothing that could be done (other than pay her 20-big ones). We jumped in the car and crossed our fingers and toes that we’d make it to the servo. Thankfully, there was actually another servo about 1km down the road. I was happy to pay the inflated price (which was way less than $20 difference), but only pumped $50 into the tank to save time. I didn’t want to waste a sunset at a servo!


Wanaka was almost as beautiful as it was stressful. The small alpine town is actually not too overrun with tourists and has so much beautiful scenery. I had planned to get to Wanaka with enough light in the afternoon to have a go at getting a nice photo or two of the famous ‘lone tree’. I had read about the tree; it sits just on the edge of the lake and I made sure it was our first stop in town. We raced down to the waters edge with our cameras and my tripod and got everything set up. I waded out into the lake to get a few shots without rocks in the foreground – how good are waterproof trekking boots! Here’s a few shots that I took – if you want to see all of my picks and edits of the tree, click here!


We had planned to spend a few days skiing at Treble Cone, one of the many ski fields roughly 30 minutes from Wanaka. After we had shot the tree, we grabbed a heap of ski-gear from the Green Toad. Those guys were great – they stay open late and open real early so you can get gear at any time of the day. They even managed to loan us some snow-chains for our wheels as we only just realised that we weren’t carrying any in the van. We woke up really early and started the drive up to the ski fields without checking what time they actually opened, so we ended up just driving back into town and grabbing coffee to kill some time. Treble Cone is about 20km from town and we were happy to see that we still had 100km left in the tank. We drove the 15k to the base of the ski-field and started the slow climb up the hill. Alyce and I were really quite anxious as we didn’t know if we would have to get out and put snow-chains on, or how to put them on if needed! We stayed in a low gear and crawled up the hill, allowing snails to overtake us as required.

When we were approximately halfway up the hill, I was shocked to see that we only had about 50km of fuel in the tank. I kept my eye on the gauge and noticed it was dropping. Quickly. By the time we hauled the huge van to the top, the dash was telling us that we only had about 40km left on the tank. Even after parking the van on a flat, the gauge read 40km. We skied for the day, trying not to let the anxiety of driving home get to us. The weather was perfect, and our skiing was back to last years level in no time! By the time we jumped in the van in the afternoon, I had almost forgotten about the low-fuel situation. I had reassured Alyce earlier in the day that the gauge was most likely reading inaccurately because of the upwards slope that we were driving on, and that when we turned the van around, it would probably read about 150km instead. We reversed the van and slowly headed down the hill. We stayed in a low gear and let the engine rev/brake for us. I watched the fuel – 40km – 36km – 27km. It was dropping. By the time we rounded the last bend on the way down the slope, the dash was informing us that we had 6km of fuel left in the tank. We quickly debated whether we should pull over at the bottom of the hill, or just head back towards town. If we parked, the van would be in a safe spot and we could get a cab/hitch in and out of town to get some fuel. If we drove, the van would likely run out of fuel on the long, bendy, single-laned road back to town. I also argued that it would be 6km closer to town for the cab ride back. We decided to risk it and just start the drive back to town.

We putted along using the least amount of fuel possible while staring at the dash. We were both feeling a bit sick from anxiety by this stage and had resigned to the fact that it would be a few hours until we were back in town and settled into our camp site. We were exhausted from skiing and stress. Then slowly, very slowly, the reading on the dash started to climb. 6km. 9km. 10km. 15km. By the time it read 25km I was convinced that we were going to make it back to down. The gauge must have been reading inaccurately from both the upwards and downwards slope of the van. We laughed maniacally all the way back to town, just in time for happy hour.


Here’s a few random snaps from our quick stop in Queenstown on the way to Milford – that post to follow shortly! More fun from Queenstown last year!


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