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Published: April 11th 2007
We had heard the refrain over and over from North Islanders: "If you think the North Island is beautiful, the South Island is gonna knock your socks off!" So, as we made 6-hour trip by ferry from Wellington (last stop on the North Island) then 3 hours more by coastal train to Christchurch, we were eager to see what awaited us in the wilder, more remote South Island.
The first trick was to settle into the rented campervan that was waiting for us. The van, a 2-berth diesel VW with standard transmission, is not one of those behemoth motor homes folks drive in the states, but it is quite herky and longer than we had hoped. Nonetheless, it is cleverly outfitted with all the needed gear: gas stove, small fridge, sink, toilet/shower and a table that converts to a surprisingly comfy doublebed. Gradually, we've become accustomed to adding water and propane and dumping grey water and you-know-what at the necessary intervals. And we haven't yet locked the one key in the van or driven off with the cord still plugged into the power pole! So campervan living is pretty easy--much easier than driving the thing on single lane roads
The Oamaru Express
This whimsical train took us to the Blue Penquin colony
carved into steep cliffs above the ocean. And much easier than parking the thing in the few congested urban centers we've been in. It sure saves money to pay modest campground fees instead of B and B costs. This is a segment of the trip when eating "out" means taking the folding chairs and table outside beside the van.
From Christchurch we headed south down the Pacific (east) coast where we especially enjoyed the town of Oamaru. Bill, a huge fan of trains of all kinds loved the ride we took on a handsome old steam train. We got back in time to attend the annual Oamaru Harvest Festival (April is autumn in NZ) in the nearby countryside. This is a central event for the community, and the local folks, young and old, dress up in authentic costumes from 1880-1900. There was live Irish music with impromptu dancing, wagon rides behind a team of bullock, plowing contests, a parade featuring bagpipers and the 2007 prizewinning sheep, storytelling, a footrace, and fabulous food--lamb shanks and beer, naturally! We were shuttled to and from the festival in a London-style double decker red bus driven by Oamaru's mayor, whom
Bill engaged at
Harvest Festival at Oamaru
Local folks dressed in costumes of Oamaru's heyday
length. We came home in high spirits!
Beginning in Oamaru, this Otago region has dazzled us with its wildlife, especially the rare and endangered species that are being carefully protected. At dusk above high cliff near Oamaru, we watched from behind a blind while the extremely rare yellow-eyed penguins made their way out of the rough surf and climbed through the brush to their homes in the high bush. These birds are supposed to be shy and fearful, but the little guys we saw came to within a few feet of us. Then, at a different spot, we saw dozens of little blue penguins (about 10" tall) also leaving the sea to sleep in the boxes build by the Department of Conservation to keep out stoats, cats, possum, and dogs--their main land predators.
The next day, it was on to Dunedin. Like Wellington, Dunedin is a bowl-shaped city with the central business district on the "bottom" and residential areas spreading into the highland all around--except for side that opens into the gleaming blue harbor. We were quite taken by Dunedin. Founded by Scottish settlers, it is characterized by handsome Victorian public buildings built of stone in a style
His name is Shrek
This prize winning sheep was the guest of honor at the Festival
more like Edinburgh than Auckland. The Otago University adds 20,000 college ("tertiary") students to the streets, making Dunedin feel very lively and youthful. The impressive Otago Museum was featuring a special exhibit on Antarctica, NZ's southern neighbor. The exhibit, called "The Big Ice," gave really compelling stories of the Antarctic exploration and natural history. (Did you know that fire is a serious danger in Antarctica because the air is too cold to store moisture?) We find it a little unsettling that Antarctica is being promoted as a destination for tourists. If Al Gore is right--as we fear he is--there is already serious polar melting, and tourism can't help but speed that up.
Another Dunedin adventure was a four-hour excursion by train into pristine wilderness on the Taieri Gorge Railway. The train winds through stunning remote areas high above a rocky gorge and silver river. It was a glorious day with the willows just beginning to take on fall color, and we were treated to a sunset on the return trip.
Just across the harbor from Dunedin city is the Otago peninsula with high rocky cliffs and staggering views of the Pacific on one side and the harbor on
His Honor the Bus Driver
Oamaru's Mayor managed a Double-Decker with ease....can you imagine Greg doing this?
the other. At the very tip, Tairoa Head, we visited the world's only mainland royal albatross colony. Before we went, what we knew about albatrosses was captured in "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner." But that must have been, well, fiction--or a very different kind of albatross-- because these guys are huge--much too big to hang around anyone's neck! From a glassed-in viewing stand, we could see 5 or 6 fledging chicks. They were about four months old and already enormous. (The photo of a ranger weighing one chick looked like he was holding an adult sheep!) Then one magnificent adult albatross, as though on commission, came circling by us five or six times! These birds have a wingspan of some 11 feet, and they're magical to watch in flight.
From the color and vitality of Dunedin, we drove west along the southern beaches to the tranquil Catlins Coast. The Catlins are known for their ancient podocarp forest (rimu, matai, and totara), and, yes, its wildlife. Podocarps are a more primitive form of broadleaf that is an evergreen. From our serene camping spot, we explored Curio Bay, where at low tide we could see one of the world's largest
This rare breed was not bashful around our camera
fossil forests. These petrified fallen log fossils give evidence to forests that lived 160 million years ago (sic), when what is now New Zealand was connected to the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland. Another excursion took us to Nugget Point, a rocky promontory high above the ocean in which huge jagged rock outcroppings are frequented by fur seals, seal lions, and elephant seals. We took the precarious road and path out to the lighthouse, and with the help of our REI binos, spotted plenty of those shiny guys dozing on the rocks. We especially loved the comedic seal pups splashing in the tide pools. Later, at Cannibal Bay, we walked a fair distance at dusk along a wide, glistening beach in search of the famed "Hooker" sea lions so common there. (Seductive name for a fairly fierce beast, do you think?) But the shiny, flippery lump we had seen in the distance proved to be a pair of sleepy seals. When we think of the Catlins, we will think of all these magnificent beings, but we will also think of the delicious solitude of our walks through rainforest-like canopies, and of the magnificent seabirds--especially the swooping harriers and the musical bellbirds
These perfectly round boulders appeared in the Pacific Ocean near Oamaru
that seemed to follow us everywhere.
Then, leaving the lush coastal foliage and beaches behind, we headed north from Balclutha, following the "mighty" Clutha River, first through farmlands and finally through orchard country. The farmstands stocked not only the produce we expected in autumn (apples, pumpkins, and squash) but also produce we associate with summer in the states: strawberries, corn, apricots, and plums. Naturally, we filled the van with orchard goodies. As we approached our destination, the vineyard area of Alexandra, Clyde and Cromwell, we enjoyed the huge round hillocks covered with red and gold tussock that seemed to glow in the autumn light, much as the Palouse does in eastern Washington and Oregon.
Then next day, Easter Sunday, we saw this area in great detail as we bicycled along a 35-km section of the famous Central Otago Rail Trail. The day was perfect: purple-blue sky and temps just right for a comfy bike ride. This full bike trail follows a 150 km stretch of the now-defunct railway bed, and riders doing the full length spend 3 or 4 days. As a win-win outcome, the more than 10,000 people a year who travel the trail have revived the
Dunedin Railway Station
You would have thought we were in Scotland
formerly struggling towns along the way. Now these remote villages provide a steady stream of year-round travelers with food, rustic lodging, snacks, and supplies. We helped by buying huge ice cream cones at the second stop!
Before leaving Otago, we visited a few of the wineries that are spreading through this region (and in other parts of the South Island). Our favorite was a pinot noir with the label Nipple Hill-- which we enjoyed with a picnic lunch under the hill for which it was named.
Summarizing this segment of the trip seems incomplete without a comment on an aspect of New Zealand that we continue to treasure: impromptu conversations with strangers. Almost every day, we end up having a significant exchange (or several) of 10 - 30 minutes with people we just happen to encounter. Some are Kiwis; others, like us, are travelers--often Europeans or Aussies. Our accents often draw attention and comment, and the inevitable conversation begins. We've heard some astonishingly candid life stories and are always struck by the genuine warmth, earthy humor, and good-heartedness of nearly everyone we've met here. A woman we met on the bike ride told us that there's an old
Willows in Early Autumn
This is a view from the Taeiri Gorge trainride
Maori saying here: "What's the most important thing of all? The people, the people, the people..." In New Zealand, folks do seem to live that motto.
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