Itinerary for Melbourne, The Great Ocean Road & New Zealand... and how everything went awry


Wooden One-Lane Bridge over a Flooded Rakaia River

With a time difference of 5 hours between Singapore and New Zealand (NZ), I thought it best to take a few days off to get over jet lag before launching into our driving holiday. With family to visit in Melbourne and the draw of a sunset tour of the Great Ocean Road, it was an obvious choice to begin our journey in Melbourne before flying over to Christchurch.


After months of research, I finally decided on the following 16-day itinerary:


- Melbourne on 3, 4 and 5 December [Accommodation: Novotel Melbourne South Wharf].


- Christchurch on 6 December [Accommodation: Novotel Christchurch Airport].


- Rakaia Gorge, Geraldine, Fairlie, Lake Tekapo and Twizel on 7 December [Accommodation: Twilight on Tekapo Drive in Twizel]


- Lake Pukaki and Hooker Valley Walk (Mount Cook) on 8 December [Accommodation: Twilight on Tekapo Drive in Twizel]


- Arrowtown and Queenstown (Shotover Jet) on 9 December [Accommodation: Novotel Queenstown Lakeside]


- Glenorchy, Queenstown (Skyline Luge Ride) and Te Anau on 10 December [Accommodation: Blue Mountain Getaway in Te Anau]


- Milford Sound and Te Anau (Glow Worms Cave Tour) on 11 December [Accommodation: Blue Mountain Getaway in Te Anau]


- McLean Falls, Florence Hill Lookout Point, Purakaunui Falls, Nugget Point Lighthouse, Kaka Point and Dunedin on 12 December [Accommodation: City Views on Rattray in Dunedin]


- Dunedin on 13 December [Accommodation: City Views on Rattray in Dunedin]


- Auckland, Pokeno and Taupo on 14 December [Accommodation: The Lake House in Taupo]


- Taupo and Turangi (Whitewater rafting on the Tongariro River) on 15 December [Accommodation: The Lake House in Taupo]


- Wai-o-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland, Rotorua and Auckland on 16 December [Accommodation: Heritage Hotel Auckland]


- Auckland on 17 and 18 December [Accommodation: Heritage Hotel Auckland]


Our journey would take us through cities and countryside. We would feast our eyes on the aqua blue of the ocean, lakes and waterfalls, the rolling greens of the farmlands, the white bleating sheep, and the purple and pink wild lupins. We would experience the thrills and spills of the Shotover Jet, luge ride and whitewater rafting. There would fun and excitement for young and old; never a dull moment. The drive would be manageable with 2 drivers taking turns behind the wheel and adequate rest-stops along the way. At most places, we would spend 2 nights each, and didn't have to pack and move daily like on a conducted tour. Everything seemed perfect, but of course, Murphy's Law applied and everything that could possibly go wrong did!


Unbeknownst to us, it had rained for weeks prior to our arrival in NZ, and water gushing down from both sides of the Southern Alps had caused the worst flood in NZ in 20 years. Sunshine had followed us from Singapore and we awoke to clear blue skies in Christchurch on the morning of 7 December 2019. We happily picked up our Toyota Hiace minibus from Hertz, and were on our merry way south towards Lake Tekapo. It didn't occur to us to check the weather report, road conditions or local news. Little did we know that trouble was looming in the horizon.


There were 2 routes to Lake Tekapo from Christchurch; the quick and boring Highway 1 or the slightly lengthier but much more picturesque Inland Scenic Route. Both routes had to cross Rangitata River (which we didn't know had already flooded) at some stage, to continue south towards Lake Tekapo. With time on our hands, we picked the Inland Scenic Route.

Lush green farmlands. Enroute to Rakaia Gorge.

I had factored in a pitstop at Rakaia Gorge for a 1.7km one-way trek to the lookout point to see the stunning blue waters of the Rakaia River. I figured we'd need an hour to complete the round-trip trek. When we pulled up at the car park at 0945 hrs that morning, ours was the only vehicle around. A jetboat company operating from the Rakaia River appeared to be deserted, but more telling that something was amiss was the thunderous roar of the usually calm river, and muddy water appeared to be spilling into the carpark. Blur as sotong, we continued our walk. When we got to the wooden one-lane bridge overlooking Rakaia River, we were taken aback by the raging brown mess churning angrily beneath us. Fallen trees were being washed away by the rapidly flowing, muddy river. We could feel the wooden bridge shaking under our feet. Pale-faced, we hurried back to our vehicle.


About 50km further, we arrived at Mayfield at 1120 hrs. A line of cars was parked on the main street, and there was a flurry of activity at Cafe Mayfield in the otherwise sleepy, little town. "I must have missed out some must-eat dish at Cafe Mayfield in my research", I thought to myself.


Hubby and I let the family out of the bus at the cafe before proceeding to the gas station opposite to refuel. We started chatting with the friendly cashier about the frightening scene we'd witnessed from Rakaia Bridge, and she was the first person to alert us to the flood and road closures ahead. She had found out from passing motorists that there was no way to travel further south as the Rangitata River had overflowed, flooding both bridges across it. No wonder cars were lined up along the main street. The motorists were stranded! We rushed to Cafe Mayfield to look for the rest and hurried them up the bus. At that stage, there was still no indication whatsoever on GoogleMaps of any road closure. Unsure of where the exact closure was, lost and irrational us decided to turn into a bumpy farm road to see if it would lead us to a detour. Obviously not! It led us right back to Cafe Mayfield after 30 mins. By then, the traction control of the bus appeared to have gone out of whack and the bus kept pulling to one side.


Hungry and frustrated, we returned to Cafe Mayfield to get some lunch. The cafe was packed with stranded motorists waiting for their fish and chips. We met a group of fellow Singaporeans who had planned to see the glaciers on the West Coast but were forced to abandon their plans because of road closures in the West Coast due to flood and severe landslides. They were on their way to Lake Tekapo like us that very morning when they encountered more road closures. We googled the situation and realised that the NZ government had announced the closure of both bridges over the Rangitata River at 1104 hrs. Had we picked up the rental bus an hour earlier or so, we might have found ourselves swirling in flood waters on the bridge.


We contacted the owner of the property in Twizel we had booked for the following 2 nights, and the news of the road closures took her by surprise too. We were discussing our options over lunch when a local resident chimed in that she had heard rumours that the bridges over the raging Rakaia River we had crossed earlier might have shut too. In a panic, we fled to our bus and made one last effort to cross the flooded Rangitata River. We drove 20 mins to the closed Arundel Bridge and were turned back by the officers at the road block.


For the third time that day, we passed Cafe Mayfield on our way back towards Christchurch, praying hard that the bridges over Rakaia River were still open. We took the fast and boring Highway 1 this time, in a bid to return to Christchurch as quickly as we could. The orange traction control fault light remained on and we fought to keep the bus straight for the 115km to Christchurch. We made a beeline for the Hertz counter at Christchurch Airport. Upset travelers were harassing the staff for refunds. We tried to find out if an airport south of the flooded region had a similar bus we could switch to. If we could fly to that airport and get to that vehicle, we could still salvage our travel plans. Unfortunately, there were no minibus available anywhere. We could only wait out the night in Christchurch and hope that the roads would re-open the next day.


By night, news came that the government would re-assess the closed bridges at 0700 hrs the following morning. The suspense made it hard for me to rest that night, and restless me checked for updates constantly. Our meticulously planned vacation had turned into a nightmare.


At 0930 hrs on 8 December 2019, the government announced that the bridges would remain closed for an indefinite period. Although flood waters were receding, the bridges had sustained damages and repair works needed to be done before they could be re-opened. We were devastated.


We hastily searched for flights to Queenstown. Prices had gone through the roof overnight. Miraculously, we managed to snag seats on a 1650 hrs Jetstar flight that very afternoon from Christchurch to Wellington, and a 0835 hrs Jetstar flight on 9 December 2019 from Wellington to Queenstown. We would need to spend a night in Wellington, but the early morning flight on 9 December 2019 would get us to Queenstown at 0955 hrs, in time for us to make our pre-paid jetboat ride on the Shotover River and continue with our travels.


The question remained whether Hertz could get a replacement rental vehicle at Queenstown Airport though. All minibuses were unavailable when they checked the previous day, but we were hoping that cancellations owing to road closures would bring us some relief. Unfortunately, it was not to be so. The best Hertz could do was to switch our original booking to the biggest available vehicle they had in Queenstown - a 7-seater Toyota Highlander. There were 8 of us, so we had to book a second vehicle to carry the 8th person and all our luggage. Instead of having 2 drivers on rotating shifts for one vehicle as planned, we now had no backup drivers at all, as both vehicles had to be in use concurrently. The situation was not ideal, but we really didn't have an alternative at that stage.


View from flight to Queenstown

On 9 December 2019, the sight of the beautiful snowcapped mountains in the Remarkables range on our scenic morning flight to Queenstown ignited fresh hope in our hearts. When we approached the Hertz counter at Queenstown Airport, we had renewed confidence that Lady Luck was shining on us. And she was. Someone had indeed returned their Toyota Hiace minibus ahead of time and we could have it! The bus had yet been cleaned by the staff, but it was otherwise in pristine condition. It was a newer model than the previous bus and handled way better.


Just as we were moving our luggage into the bus, we received news from Shotover Jet that that afternoon's ride had to be cancelled due to dangerous river conditions. Spillover effects of the flood we reckon. With the cancellation by Shotover Jet, we seized the opportunity to drive north to visit Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo, the 2 lakes which we almost had to miss out because of the road closures, before returning to Queenstown in the same day. That 550km was the most we drove within a day, but it was well worth it.

We would subsequently see that the flood had indeed affected other parts of our travel plans, but from Queenstown on, we were more or less back on track. Our 16-day itinerary thus became:


- Melbourne on 3, 4 and 5 December [Accommodation: Novotel Melbourne South Wharf].


- Christchurch on 6 December [Accommodation: Novotel Christchurch Airport].


- Rakaia Gorge, Mayfield and Christchurch n 7 December [Accommodation: Novotel Christchurch Airport]


- Christchurch and Wellington on 8 December [Accommodation: Novotel Wellington]


- Queenstown, Arrowtown, Twizel, Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo on 9 December [Accommodation: Novotel Queenstown Lakeside]


- Glenorchy, Queenstown (Skyline Luge Ride) and Te Anau on 10 December [Accommodation: Blue Mountain Getaway in Te Anau]


- Milford Sound and Te Anau on 11 December [Accommodation: Blue Mountain Getaway in Te Anau]


- McLean Falls, Florence Hill Lookout Point, Purakaunui Falls, Nugget Point Lighthouse, Kaka Point and Dunedin on 12 December [Accommodation: City Views on Rattray in Dunedin]


- Dunedin on 13 December [Accommodation: City Views on Rattray in Dunedin]


- Auckland, Pokeno and Taupo on 14 December [Accommodation: The Lake House in Taupo]


- Taupo and Turangi (Whitewater rafting on the Tongariro River) on 15 December [Accommodation: The Lake House in Taupo]


- Wai-o-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland, Rotorua, Waitomo (Glowworm Caves) and Auckland on 16 December [Accommodation: Heritage Hotel Auckland]


- Auckland on 17 and 18 December [Accommodation: Heritage Hotel Auckland]

Drop Me a Line, Let Me Know What You Think

© 2023 by Train of Thoughts. Proudly created with Wix.com