57. What life is this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare

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July 15th 2009
Published: December 5th 2009
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 Video Playlist:

1: Milford Sound 19 secs
2: Hollyford Valley 16 secs
Penguin CrossingPenguin CrossingPenguin Crossing

Oamaru, South Island

By the start of July, we had both stopped working, as our visas had expired. We spent the first day of the month cleaning and packing up the flat into boxes, throwing some warm clothes into a couple of smaller cases because the next morning was my birthday and we were flying down to Christchurch to start on the 2nd part of our South Island trip.

You know you’re getting old when…the first birthday present you open from your partner is a tube of ‘deep wrinkle corrector’…! Fortunately the presents got better from there, and I am now looking forward to a snowboarding lesson when we are further south. Also to celebrate, we upgraded from a hostel for the night and stayed in the futuristic Hotel So, with its capsule-style feel and mood lighting, and had a great curry for dinner - I had never tried chicken karai before, and recommend it to all curry aficionados.

The following morning we were due to travel south east, skirting down and around the southern alps. However, in 3 places, the road was snowed in, so we were delayed by 24 hours. Almost 2 years ago to the day we were
Beer on my birthdayBeer on my birthdayBeer on my birthday

Twisted Hop brewpub, Christchurch
snowed in too, stuck for 3 days in an out-of-season town in South America, trying to go over the Andes from Chile to Argentina; but today it was not as bad - we went back to Hotel So to take advantage of its sauna and wireless internet (not at the same time)! Whereas that time in Chile, we only had completos (oversized guacamole hot dog) to tide us over.

The following morning, everything was sweet (as they say over here). We left Christchurch in the sunshine, passing along Oxford & Cambridge Terraces on the banks of the River Avon, the weeping willows and stone buildings making the place look like guidebook England. A couple of hours later, we started to gain altitude. It was still sunny but snow appeared on the ground, first thinly then more deep. The hardy sheep were still on the hillsides, which soon became big old foreboding mountains, but we passed smoothly through, including over Lindis Pass at 965m above sea level, which had been the main snowed-in place the previous day. The fir trees were covered in snow and it looked just like an alpine Christmas.

The journey took 7 hours in total, skirting the Southern Alps, and we arrived in the small town of Wanaka in the evening, a place that is popular both in the summer and the winter due to its striking mountains and deep alpine lakes. We spent the one day that we had here on a walk up a hill formed by glacial action, Mt Iron, a couple of kilometres out of town. At one point in time it was underneath 1000m of ice! Although it was not particularly cold at the foot, by the time we approached the summit and made it to the top (545m above sea level), it was bitter. There were views over to Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, as well as the locally famous Cardrona Valley, and across to plenty of other peaks.

In the afternoon, we visited the much-praised Puzzling World, with its illusion rooms and large outdoor maze, before catching a bus south to Queenstown, from where at dawn the following morning we rejoined the Stray hop on hop off bus service that we had used in March. We were headed for Milford Sound, one of NZ’s most popular natural attractions. Although called a ‘Sound’ (which is a river valley flooded by the sea), it is actually a Fiord because it is an ice-carved valley formed by glaciers; however, this is a mistake by the early settlers that has not been thought worthy to correct.

The bus journey to Milford was spectacular; the alps towered over us to the right and left, their peaks covered in snow. We were fortunate enough to have sunshine which made the ice glisten and the blue sky backdrop was awesome; it is rainy on 2 days out of 3 here, and is one of the wettest places in the world with up to a massive 7m of rain per year (one inch per day!). On either side of the road to Milford, the landscape is cloaked in cool temperate rainforest, as dense as a jungle.

The perfect conditions were especially visible at Lake Gunn, where the water was so calm there was a sharp reflection of the snowy peaks in the water.

Milford Sound is 16km-long and one of the most visited places in NZ, with a reputation for scenery that is dramatic, powerful and pristine: as if that wasn't enough, snow-capped peaks, crystal-clear lakes, spectacular waterfalls and ancient lush rainforest are thrown in for good measure. The 90-minute boat trip we took through the Sound was stunning. The water zig zagged out from land to sea, so the boat headed this way then that, between huge mountain faces whose scale was most appreciated when another boat sailed past and looked like a small white speck at the bottom. The biggest of these mountains was the mile-high (1,695m) Mitre Peak, so called because it looks like a bishop’s mitre, although the Maoris gave it a completely different name (alluding to something much more anatomical).

On each side, a number of waterfalls tumbled down the mountain faces to the water, crashing into the green sea. Passing a big rock which was home to a wallowing seal colony, we sailed right up to one of the waterfalls so that we could appreciate the noise it made and feel the splash of the spray on our faces.

On the way out of Milford, we stopped for a walk along a forested path to a place called The Chasm; here, thousands of years of flowing water from the welsh-sounding River Cleddau had moulded the soft boulders into odd shapes punctuated by huge holes.
Mitre Peak, Milford Sound, South IslandMitre Peak, Milford Sound, South IslandMitre Peak, Milford Sound, South Island

See the boat for an idea of scale
Difficult to describe and not done justice by the photos, it was an impressive sight. Also in this area we saw a couple of large green kea, which are the world’s only alpine parrots, with their distinctive olive-green feathers and bright orange flashes under their wings.

That night we were staying in somewhere very remote; 8km down an unsealed road was found the very traditional, “ultrarustic” Gunns Camp, a series of 1930s wood cabins, each with authentically old stove for both heating and cooking, and generator electricity until 10pm. Paula and I had a cabin to ourselves, and it was fun for a while trying to get the right combination between wood and coal in the oven, and it reminded us of Paula’s great aunt in Ireland who still uses a similar oven. However, it wasn’t long before everything in our little place smelled of coal and raw onions and the novelty soon wore off.

Being so remote, it was a great place to see the stars. It was almost a full moon, it gave a real blue hue, bouncing off the snowy peaks. The following morning it was minus one degrees and the ice was a thick
Milford SoundMilford SoundMilford Sound

One of the many waterfalls
crust across the bus windscreen. On the way from Gunns Camp, we passed by Mirror Lakes where the peaks reflected in the millpond surface (see photos).

We decided to spend the next 3 days in the lakeside town of Te Anau, a great place to kick back (it is a tiny place; the memorial to its fallen soldiers from both World Wars had just 3 names in total. It also made us smile a couple of times, although we are not sure if humour was always intentional, with its street signs “Cemetery Lane - No Exit” and “Wong Way”, and the windscreen repairers whose sign shouted “Show us your crack”!). We were still in the region of Fiordland, visited by James Cook in 1773, and whose descriptions attracted whalers & sealers who formed the first European settlements of NZ. The first permanent resident was a canny Scot named Donald Sutherland in 1878, who began the tourist industry in this part of the world by greatly exaggerating the height of a waterfall, spreading rumours about it, and building 3 huts (which he called “The City of Milford”) to cater for curious visitors.

Fiordland - lying on the boundary of the Pacific and Australian Plates - today is largely the south west corner of the South Island, a 3-million acre World Heritage area. Ancient trees dominate this heavily-forested area, with several layers of progressively younger trees and ferns, with thick moss an indication of the highly moist atmosphere - it is the definition of primordial rainforest. Fiordland is also home to many world-renowned walking tracks, including the Milford Track which is supposed to be one of the best walks in the world. We satisfied ourselves with walking along just part of another well-known ‘tramp’, the Kepler Track, whose full length is 60km and which takes 3-4 days. At this time of year, with its icy temperatures and short days, you really would have to be super-keen.

We started at the information centre, where as well as giving practical information they sold all sorts of useful outdoor gear including a Poo Pot to help manage your waste! Walking along the lakeside, we were struck by the silence, the songs of the exotic birds and the dramatic mountains rising up as a backdrop. There was the gentlest-ever tide on the lake which made the quietest possible lapping noise against the pebbles. From there, you wouldn’t expect that its great size and depth (417m at its deepest) make it NZ’s 2nd largest lake.

After about an hour we came across a bird sanctuary, doing a great job of saving some endangered species of parrots and parakeets, then we came to the Kepler Track itself, which took us through the densely-forested hillside. This part of the world is very damp, moss hung from the trees and underfoot the path was made up of wet leaves and mulchy wood, with plenty of ferns and cabbage trees (trees which look like short thin palm trees with a yucca-type plant at the top). We came to a deserted small beach called Dock Bay where we had lunch and took in the views again before heading back along the track, which hugged the lake, behind which the heavily wooded hills arose; and behind them steep dark mountains dominated the area. Their peaks were snow-covered, but not pure white, as plenty of rock face pierced through it. Sunset was very picturesque as the dying sun threw red hues over the lake.

For the other days that we were in Te Anau, we had a lot of fog which is very common; misty clouds clung to peaks adding an eerie mystical air. We watched the locally-famous nature film Ata Whenua, with its cinematic views from across Fiordland in all seasons.

We spent the weekend in and around the South Island’s 2nd biggest city, Dunedin, which is apparently the Gaelic name for Edinburgh. Although first inhabited by Maori in 1100 AD, the Scottish settlers who founded the city in 1848 have left a solid mark on it; plenty of beautiful old Edwardian and Victorian stone buildings and even a bronze statue of Robbie Burns. Perhaps appropriately, it is said that Dunedin is most remote city in the world from London (19,100km away).

Upon arrival we went to an espresso bar that supplies most of the coffee beans to Dunedin cafes. We stayed in a little cottage owned by one of my former work colleagues, Lara, just outside the centre of town, in a tiny village called Portobello, in the middle of the long finger of land known as the Otago Peninsula, which stretches out 30km into the sea from Dunedin. Lara took us along the top of the peninsula to give us views over the city, and many of the trees at the top were bent over backwards following the violent gales that sometimes blow across.

We hired a car on Saturday and went to visit Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world according to the Guinness Book. The street's steepness was unintentional. As with many other parts of Dunedin, and indeed New Zealand, streets were laid out in a grid pattern with no consideration for the terrain, usually by planners in London. Charles Kettle (1821-1862) surveyed the city, and was apparently aiming to create a "Romantic effect", but it's the steep street that sticks in the memory.

Having hiked to the top and back down again, we drove north through the beautiful green hills up State Highway 1, to the coastal village of Moeraki, to see a load of rocks. Not just any rocks though, these were the famous Moeraki Boulders, giant spherical stones that are estimated to be 60 million years old. Looking closely at their grooves and indents, they seemed as old as the hills, which they were; the scientific community believes that they spent a long time underground before rising to the surface. Their roundness made them very curious-looking; a few had split open over the course of the centuries, and looked like a 3D jigsaw puzzle.

Further up the coast, we stopped in Oamaru, a place literally built on a type of limestone called whitestone. Several of its streets were lined with buildings made from this impressively white stone, making it look impossibly grand. Oamaru was not just a pretty face; there were several reasons for coming here, including the award-winning Whitestone Cheesery. We have been to several cheeseries in NZ but this was, in our opinion, the one with the best tasting range of all, enjoying as we did all the flavours of their Creamy Havarti, Totara Tasty, Livingtone Gold and Highland Blue! That was actually the second cheesery of the day, the first being the much more rural Evansdale Cheesery where we purchased some of their delicious pepper-corn brie (but also recommend their manuka-smoked variety, if you’re passing through).

Another great reason to visit Oamaru is to see the ever-so-rare yellow-eyed penguin. We parked the car and walked to the hideout about 3:30pm, as they are known to come out of the water around dusk, to spend the night in their nests. The sign asks
The long-awaited penguins!The long-awaited penguins!The long-awaited penguins!

Oamaru, South Island
people to vacate the beach by 3pm, as they won’t come ashore if they see or hear humans. Over the next hour or so, we began to wonder if we would see any at all, although fortunately as well as the beautiful scenery to look at, I had The Greatest Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to keep me entertained. Shortly before we were about to give up, two small yellow-eyed penguins beached themselves with a wave and waddled about 10 metres across the orange-gold sands and disappeared behind the rocks into the bushes. We waited almost 90 minutes for that 10-second experience and it was worth it.

So because of all the travelling we have been doing, we haven’t spent time indulging in flash restaurants. But back in Moeraki, on the jetty, there was Fleur’s Place, recommended by Rick Stein for its ultra-fresh seafood. By the time we got there, we weren’t sure we would get a table but we ended up actually meeting Fleur herself and sitting at a table by the bar that doubled as her writing desk when the restaurant is not open! The food was delicious: Paula had artichoke soup and Cajun blackened salmon while I
Royal Albatross ColonyRoyal Albatross ColonyRoyal Albatross Colony

Otago Peninsula, South Island
had Aotearoa (New Zealand) Scallops with bacon, creamy Pernod sauce and Maori-style bread - delicious. After dinner, we could see just how seriously the freshness of the seafood was taken - there was even a launch for boats from the rear of the restaurant building straight down into the sea.

On Sunday morning we went to the tip of the 30km Otago Peninsula to Taiaroa Head. In Maori times, around 700 years ago, this was a fortified hill, and then in the late 19th century all the bush was cleared for it to be a military base where large guns were positioned in anticipation of a Russian invasion. When the military moved out, serendipity stepped in and royal albatross birds found that it was the perfect breeding ground, and today it is the only mainland albatross breeding colony in the world; there are about 150 birds. From the observation room, we saw 3 large chicks (weighing about 8kg each!), which will sit there until one day in September when they will waddle over to a cliff and fly off; and an adult flying overhead, from where we could appreciate its huge wingspan of around 3 metres. We also had a chance to see the gun placements, including the intriguingly-named Armstrong Disappearing Gun, (built 1886 in Newcastle UK but not arriving at Taiaroa Head till 3 years later!), which was housed underground, and rising up to fire into the sea before quickly redescending out of the line of fire.

That evening, we took an evening bus to the southernmost city in New Zealand, Invercargill, and stayed in the great-named Southern Comfort Hostel, located in a colonial-style villa. We had a 4:30pm ferry to catch, so spent the morning wandering amongst the grand Victorian buildings of the city. In the museum, they had tuatara in large tanks; these animals look like lizards but are not; their species is one of the oldest, estimated to be 225 million years old, and outside the museum were a few rocks from a petrified forest; the trees were alive around 160 million years ago, then were covered in volcanic ash. The wood perished and was replaced by minerals in the exact mould of the tree, and now to touch them is to touch stone.

It only took one cardboard sign and 15 minutes of thumbing before we had picked up a ride with a couple of girls heading the 30km further south to the ferry port of Bluff, at the southern tip of the South Island. We got there an hour before the boat, and so managed to fit in a lunch of “shark and chips” in a classic kiwi pub.

Our destination was Stewart Island, known as Rakiura in Maori and NZ’s 3rd largest island, most of which is uninhabited and covered in a combination of native bush, sand dunes and wetlands (85%!o(MISSING)f the island is a national park). We arrived at Oban, the island’s only village, at dusk, and not long after were at our YHA accommodation. Expecting just one room in a hostel, it was a great surprise to find we had a single-storey house to ourselves, complete with large balcony. The next morning, we awoke to the very definition of “sunshine and showers”, and headed out into the bush armed with a simple map. The island itself is quite large, being about the same size as Singapore. but with a somewhat smaller population (400 souls versus 4.5m citizens, a multiple of more than 11,000!). There are a few sealed roads but most of the island is a
Paula and a dark beer, South Seas Hotel, Stewart IslandPaula and a dark beer, South Seas Hotel, Stewart IslandPaula and a dark beer, South Seas Hotel, Stewart Island

Well deserved after putting up with Nick's preference for a 8km tramp in the rain
nature reserve, and almost everywhere we went there were the squawks and chirps of all sorts of birds, thriving in the largely predator-free environment. We are not bird-spotters and no doubt our indelicate urban tramping frightened away much of the wildlife before we got to see it, but we still managed to spot fantails and the national songbird, the tui. Our walk took us to Observation Rock, from where we could look over into Golden Bay and Watercress Bay, and onto Iona Island. The sun shone on the water and the trees and ferns, which covered all the ground we could see. Little did we know that the best of the day’s weather was already upon us, and it had already started to spit when we got to the start of the track to Ryan’s Creek, an 8km loop that would take us back to Halfmoon Bay and home. It started muddy and at times was like walking through a bog. More trees, ferns and birdsong with frequent views into the bays (and rain) were our constant companions. Three hours later, considerably more sodden (locals do refer to visitors as ‘loopies’), we were in New Zealand’s southernmost pub, the South Sea Hotel, built in 1890, with its old B&W whaling photos. The night views of the stars from Stewart Island are stunning, so typical of places with no outdoor lighting.

The following morning was sunny, so we did another walk which gave really good views of the island’s clear waters and sandy bays, and over towards “New Zealand” in the distance…


Additional photos below
Photos: 101, Displayed: 36


Southern vistaSouthern vista
Southern vista

On the way to Wanaka, South Island

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