Lake Tekapo – Discover New Zealand


Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

A surprising delight in a city with a touristy reputation…

(This is the fifth post in a series. Missed the first four? Click here to see them all.) I have an early morning bus ride from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo. When I arrive at the station, a bus is there, and I ask if it’s for Lake Tekapo. The driver tells me it’s not. I step away, but a few minutes later, I look at the time and can’t believe it’s the wrong bus. I head to the front, and, indeed, it is going to Lake Tekapo so I check in with the driver, again, and this time he allows me to board. Perhaps it was a language barrier. This is the first bus ride where the driver doesn’t give us comments about the road we drive on. When we pull into Lake Tekapo, it’s in front of some sort of night observatory museum, and it’s raining. I ask the driver if he knows where the YHA Hostel I’m staying in is located. To my delight, it’s only one block away.

I find a small line at the check-in desk. Eventually it’s my turn. The staff is lovely, super friendly, and full of great information. It’s barely noon, and my room won’t be ready until 2pm. They have me leave my bags in the luggage room (the key is adorable and has a stuffed dog attached to it) and I go into town for a bite of lunch. This is the first bad weather I’ve had in a while, and it’s a bit chilly. I walk around and discover Lake Tekapo is about three streets long, full of only tourist shops and a few restaurants. I’m a bit disappointed, but more hungry than anything. The restaurant I’m told to go to by the locals is The Greedy Cow. They say it’s great for coffee, but I’m hoping to find some food. When I check out the menu, it seems more like breakfast options. Also, it’s packed, and there’s noplace to sit. So, I go to the only other place that pops out at me, Mackenzie Bar and Grill. I just want a burger and this looks like the place to have it. There’s a lovely view, and it’s not too crowded. I get seated and, ages later, a waitress comes by. At this point, I feel forgotten and have almost decided to leave, but I finally place my order.

A peacceful view of Lake Tekapo, New Zealand.

Photo by Heather Markel, copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

When it arrives, decades later, by which time the restaurant is packed, likely because it was the only place in town with open tables, the waitress drops it off and leaves quickly. The fries are cold and the burger, which I ordered medium, looks like one of those frozen patties and it’s been burned to a crisp. It takes me another 5 or 10 minutes to see the waitress again and flag her down to tell her about the fries. She takes the whole plate, though I contest that I don’t want the burger to be cold when she comes back. As expected, it is, and the fries are only slightly better. I decide they just can’t handle the business and rather than complain, eat a little. It was awful, and I do not recommend this place. I pay my bill, happy I don’t have to leave a tip, and make my way back to Greedy Cow for a coffee. When I return, there’s finally space at a table and I enjoy a nice cup of coffee before returning to my hostel to get my room.

One of the homes in the Chinese settlement in Arrowtown.

Photographs by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020

I decide to go to the Tekapo Hot Springs. Since it’s raining and I’m not sure how long a walk it is, and they offer a free shuttle, I decide to take it. While waiting, my hostel desk lets me know that Billy the Baird will be conducting an astrology evening if the weather is good enough. “You can’t miss him,” they tell me, because he wears a kilt and has a Scottish accent. I want to get some photos of the night sky, so decide to think positive thoughts that the clouds will clear for later tonight. The hot spring is not a long drive away, and I decide to go for the sauna and steam room as well. I start out in the hot spring pool and it’s lovely to just relax in the warm water on a not so good weather afternoon. I meet an American couple and we talk about how much of the world we’ve each traveled and they’re happy to hear I’ve been a nomad at my age and are eager to read my feature in The New York Times.

“I’m absolutely delighted with my time in Queenstown – a beautiful city with a happy vibe.”

One could stare at this lake forever.

Photos by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

Eventually I head to the steam room and I meet three people from Switzerland. We discuss how crazy everyone’s going about this Covid-19 virus. It’s March 4th and we can’t believe people in some places are wearing masks. I learn they were just in Vietnam, near the border of China, and they said nobody was making a big deal about the virus. We agree it’s strange how different countries are handling this thing so differently. (Two days later I learn, from an Italian friend, that the government has issued a one meter distance order. I’m shocked and can’t imagine people spending their day trying to stand a meter apart.) I learn that when I fly out of New Zealand, I may have to pay to get medically certified that I don’t have the virus. I’m not sure if my insurance covers that so I make a mental note to find out. I head back to my hostel in the shuttle since it’s getting late, and have a cheap dinner at the Ramen Tekapo. It’s pretty damn good as well as being reasonably priced. I return to my hostel and phone my insurance company to find out if I’m covered for this medical exam I might need.

Take your breath away view of Lake Tekapo.

Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

I’m shocked to find out that, though they will cover the test, they will not cover me if I need treatment for the virus, unless I’m in my home country. Since I signed up for the policy while I was living in South Africa, I think they consider it my home country. I’m now considering flying direct to South Africa, as soon as possible, if that’s the case. I check out the case numbers and it doesn’t look too bad. I’ll figure this out later. Now it’s time to meet Billy the Baird! 

As expected, he shows up dressed in a kilt, and takes four of us out to a serene spot under the stars. One of the people in the group is from China. Again, those awful thoughts are in my head, and I’m worried about how close he is to me, so I move away a bit. Billy teaches us some local legends about the stars and local constellations. He recites a few poems and teaches us a few local chants of thankfullness to the stars. Afterwards, I take some photos of the night sky, but the moon is already about a third full, so it’s too bright to get the photos I want. I return to my room and go to sleep.

Stones at Lake Tekapo. Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

The next day is gorgeous and I’m right next to Lake Tekapo and what awaits me, astounds me. It’s like a vision of perfect beauty. The sun reflects off the water which is some amazing green-blue color and my camera actually picks it up radiantly. I spend the afternoon taking photos and staring at this amazing beauty. There’s also a small church. I go inside, say some prayers, then walk outside. It’s the perfect place to sit, stare and contemplate life, and I’m grateful for this experience, because I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of running around and having one main tourist attraction that’s also free, is a perfect respite. This is, so far, one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in New Zealand. Later on I head out to dinner at another place recommended by the locals – Kohan Japanese restaurant. It is fabulous. I’m blown away. At the table next to me, I meet John and Tina. They’re from Perth and have traveled much of the world and were very smart about it. They spent their younger years traveling far and wide so they could use their older years to travel closer to home. They are married 50 years and a lovely couple. I tell them I will probably be in Perth on my way to South Africa and they invite me to stay with them when I’m there.

Can’t get enough of that water in Lake Tekapo, New Zealand.

Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

Tomorrow I have a late-afternoon bus back to Christchurch where I’ll be staying with my new friend Deb again as well as seeing an Argentinian friend now living there. I grab a chicken burger at Our Dog Friday and oh my GAWD it is amazing, and also not so expensive! They also have awesome coffee and good wifi and I can sit outside in the sun and work on my computer while I enjoy it. All-in-all, though the town of Lake Tekapo has the feel of a tourist trap, it’s lessened by the ungodly beauty of the lake, and, if you eat where the locals tell you to go, you pay less, and get some really great food. The hot springs are wonderful and, I forgot to mention, there are a couple of hikes around it – one where you can go around the lake, the other where you can head to a higher up lookout point. I’m really happy with my stay here, though it’s definitely not a place I’d spend more than a couple of days. I’m looking forward to returning to Christchurch and, with my cough getting a little better, to having a few drinks with Deb who also enjoys red wine!

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