Having given up on Milford Sound (reluctantly but in a fairly good humor, it's only now that I really regret not making more effort, it's strange how a mindset changes when traveling for a long time), we set off for this other South Island tourist Mecca, the skiing, partying and adventure capital of New Zealand, Queenstown.
It's not far form Manapouri to Queenstown, a total of 170km which shouldn't take more than two, two and a half hours to drive, even allowing for toilet and cigarette stops. We take half a day: this is the beauty of this place, where a scenic spot follows a spectacular view with a regularity that borders on inane.
The first part of the drive, though, is fairly mundane. The weather is still mixed, and although there are some attractive patches on the road between Manapouri and Mossburn, with appealing rugged areas covered by red tussock grass (and no livestock for a change) it's only as we pass the Dome hills and drive into an area which feels distinctly colder, drier and higher that we start to oh and ah again.
This is, in addition to all the scenic beauties, Lord of the Rings land. Many of the sweeping panoramas of Peter Jackson's epic have been filmed (to be later computer-edited) in Central Otago and a lot of the time one has a feeling of faint memory, not quite a deja vu, but a recognition that goes beyond memory of tourist brochures.
We stop for lunch at an elevated rest area, with sweeping views of the Eyre Mountains. It's sunny, crisp and very cold. The mountains, and the fields below, are all around us, a perfect combination of pastoral and wild. One almost expects the band of the Fellowship to come galloping out of one of the valleys.
Soon we are nearing the Wakatipu Lake, a long and narrow, z-squiggle shaped mountain loch in the central part of which Queenstown spreads. We can't resist stopping every few miles (or maybe even more often) for a photo, for a look, for a view. Each view is different, each is breathtaking, each spectacular; dark crags crowned with shining snow raising from the water into the cobalt sky.
We manage to find our host, a fifty-something snowboarder, biker and a tour guide with a new agey streak. We get set up and then go back to the center of town: fish and chips, and a play park, and a view of the lake in the falling light, the steam excursion ship TSS Earnshaw returning to town's harbor.