Trolls and Fairytale Lakes

Let the Official South Island Roadie begin! A couple days after Christmas, we set off very early one morning for the ferry across the Cook Strait, the car packed to the brim and Higgs in the back seat. It was finally time for our long awaited adventure to that other island. We’d booked everything back in July, not knowing what the Covid situation would be like but hoping for the best, and we were very fortunate that it all went ahead without a hitch (thanks Jacinda!).

Our first destination was the Maruia/Springs Junction Area just near Lewis Pass. We first had to make it across the often sickness-inducing waters of the Cook Strait though. With Higgs secured in the car with his comfy bed and water, we whiled away the time on the upper deck of the ferry, looking out at the view. It’s not too bad as you leave Wellington Harbor, but it gets pretty boring once you’re out in open water. There was a choppy portion in the middle where I couldn’t read and felt a bit green around the gills, but we made it to the Marlborough Sounds in one piece and pulled into the port of Picton at the end of our three and a half hour journey. The islands are only 22 km (13.7 miles) apart at the narrowest point, but the ferry has to go slow in the harbor and sounds, and Wellington and Picton aren’t the closest points on either island, just the ones with the most practical ports.

Here’s a map with an X marking Picton at the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound. From there, we stopped in Blenheim for some food, and then headed south. It was just over three hours to our destination of Springs Junction, where we’d stay for two nights at our first Airbnb of the trip.

After stocking up on groceries in the quaint town of Murchison, we were on our way. Just outside of Maruia, we pulled off at Maruia Falls. As we’d encounter at a lot of spots, there was a sign saying “No Dogs,” so Andy and Higgs waited in the car while I quickly nipped down to get some photos.

It was a pretty incredible spot, carved by the powerful flow of the Maruia River.

We arrived at our Airbnb in the afternoon, a beautiful dog-friendly spot (of course), with lots of sunshine and views out over farmland and hills. It was the perfect place to put our feet up and spend the rest of the day relaxing after several hours of traveling to get there.

The next morning, we had a nice breakfast and Higgs got a walk before we set out for a hike of our own, which sadly wasn’t dog-friendly. Because we were in the Lewis Pass Scenic Reserve area, as we’d find with most conservation areas or national parks, dogs understandably aren’t allowed. This is because of the vulnerable species that the NZ Department of Conservation works very hard to protect, like kiwi, and on the coast, penguins, which can be easily killed by dogs that aren’t under control. With Higgs settled in comfortably at the house for a wee while, we made the short drive higher into the pass and parked at the trailhead for the Lake Daniell Track.

The hike is 17 km (10.5 miles) return, so about four hours or so, depending on your speed. It was so peaceful walking through the rainforest, alongside the rushing river. Birds were flitting through the trees around us, and we came upon quite a few South Island robins, keen to see what insects we were turning up with our footsteps. Here’s one of the especially curious ones who came up close. So cute!

The Alfred River, running down from the mountains, was crystal clear and looked so refreshing, though surely freezing cold.

Just when I thought things were going smoothly, there was a troll in the path. The sign said not to feed him, but he was carrying my camera bag, after all.

Having promised to feed the troll when we got to the lake, we went happily on our way.

Lake Daniell was more than worth the two-hour trek to get there. When we emerged from the forest, we were welcomed with the most incredible view!

It was so peaceful, with hardly anyone there, and everything was quiet except for the wind in the trees and birds singing all around. We sat in the sun and enjoyed this mountain paradise. There’s a hut on this site that you can stay at overnight, Kōhanga Atawhai – Manson Nicholls Hut. It just opened a few months back, replacing the old hut from 1976, and sleeps 20. Lots of families were coming and going on the trail and I imagine it would be a wonderful place to stay. The stars on a clear night must be incredible.

The lake would be a great swimming spot too! With how shallow it is for quite a distance, I bet it’s fairly warm in the summer. We didn’t have enough time to test that out since we wanted to get back to Higgs, but we had a quick snack (I’d promised the troll, after all) on the nearby picnic bench before wrapping up our brief time at one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. It almost seemed too perfect to be real, like someone dreamed of what the ideal lake was and it just appeared in the middle of the forest, a fairytale body of water.

Farewell, you magical mythical Lake Daniell!

Of course, the beech forest certainly makes the fairytale scenario seem even less far-fetched. Where are the elves?

Down by the Alfred River, the turquoise waters glinted in the sunlight, begging us to stop for a break, but we kept on.

The path followed the river back, thankfully mostly level which is fairly rare when it comes to NZ trails. By this time, we were starting to feel ready for a rest and some lunch.

Besides the lake, one of the most impressive parts of the whole hike is right near the start, a sort of gorge formed by the Maruia River, right where the Alfred River flows into it. The deep turquoise color is just incredible.

At the beginning of our hike, there had been a group of teenagers preparing to jump off the bridge here into the water, though I’m not sure if they did it in the end. It’s a long way down, and you’d have to swim a bit to get out, but I’m sure plenty of people do it. I’ll just stick with pictures, though!

Back at our car, we headed to the Airbnb and had some lunch and a chill out with Higgs. That evening, we’d booked in at the famous Maruia Hot Springs, where we’d go for a soak in the natural hot pools and an amazing dinner. It was perfect for our muscles after a big hike, and we even had a private spa pool complete with champagne and chocolate for an hour.

I’ll leave you with some photos of our fabulous spot in Springs Junction. The “town” is really nothing more than a stopping off spot for people to refuel or grab food when they’re heading on to Westport, Christchurch, Nelson or other destinations. It truly is a lovely place to stay for a night or two though, to explore somewhere like Lewis Pass and stop at the springs.

Stay tuned as we travel along the wild West Coast and head to our next destination, Franz Josef.

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