Southern Loop

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Oceania » New Zealand » South Island
November 21st 2011
Published: December 30th 2011
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Skies OpeningSkies OpeningSkies Opening

After the snowstorm passed, the skies cleared to reveal our spectacular surroundings.
With school finished and flatmates packing up and heading on their own adventures or back to Canada, we loaded up Jose, said our goodbyes and departed on our 4-week driving tour of the south island.The first week of our journey had us heading south from Christchurch along the interior to the tip of the island and then looping back up along the east coast.

Aoraki/Mt. Cook

Day one of our journey took us into Aoraki/Mt. Cook national park. Unfortunately the weather was not fully co-operating (an overriding theme for our travels) with rain and ten-degree weather greeting us as we pulled into the small mountain village. As we trekked along our first path looking to see a glacier and some icebergs the rain turned to snow, and visibility was nearly eliminated. We were able to get a close look at some icebergs floating in a glacial lake, but the inability to see more than a couple hundred feet limited our ability to enjoy the scenery around us. We headed to the campsite in the village, deciding to forgo our other hiking plans for the day, made ourselves some dinner and receded to our car for the evening. Before the sun
View from AboveView from AboveView from Above

Although the climb was difficult, the reward was just.
was finished for the day, the snow stopped and the clouds parted to reveal to us that our car and our campsite were nestled in between many beautiful snow-capped mountain peaks. We quickly geared up and managed to get in a short walk that showcased Mount Cook, the adjacent glacier and the valley that it had eroded. Pleasantly surprised with the turn of the weather, the end to the day, and the scenic surrounding we found ourselves in, we huddled into our car for the night as the air was frigid and the ground not fit for a tent.Luckily Jose was versatile and functioned quite well as a bedroom in addition to being a car.

Sunshine greeted us Tuesday morning and following breakfast we decided to try and tackle a hike that would take us straight up a mountain. We climbed more than 1000 m over a period of 1.5 hour to an altitude of over 2000 m. As difficult as the hike was, the feeling of completing the journey as well as the panoramic view that greeted us made the work worthwhile. We made the return trip and then retraced our steps on the previous days hike now
Iceberg Ahead!Iceberg Ahead!Iceberg Ahead!

Liza looking out over the Tasman Glacier
that we were able to see the vistas that were surrounding us. We saw a lake speckled with icebergs, the glacier that was feeding it, and the surrounding mountains that provided a stunning backdrop for every photograph we took. Very pleased with the first leg of our journey, we enjoyed the sunshine as we took the highway out of the park, every glimpse in the rearview mirror providing a wave goodbye from a snow-capped mountain.

The Catlins

At our stopover in Gore on our way to the southern coast, the lovely old lady at the campground advised us to avoid taking the back roads to our destination. Despite being much shorter in distance (60-70 km shorter), everyone gets lost. Deciding against taking her advice we did some advanced research using google maps and our trusty map book that came with the car and made it to our destination without incident. Arriving earlier that we had anticipated due to our skilful driving/navigating combination, we decided that we had time to check out what we were informed was a beautiful beach. We carefully scaled down to the beach and wandered in solitude among the fresh sand and the rising sun. Luckily
Looking BackLooking BackLooking Back

As we departed Mt. Cook Natl. Park we had one last glimpse of the lake and mountains behind us.
enough, we had our first of what would be many wildlife encounters as we came across a Hooker Sea Lion sleeping through the morning. Not liking our intrusion, he made his way into the ocean and joined two of his friends. We walked back along the beach to our car and continued on to our first scheduled point of interest. This point of interest in the Catlins was a fossilized forest only visible at low tide. Approximately 75,000 years ago a volcano erupted. The ash filled the coastal forest so quickly that the trees were fossilized before they were able to decay. Apparently this is very rare. We wandered around the tidal floor, observing what looked like intact trees, tree stumps, and fern leaves. Very cool. From there we made the short ten-minute drive to a place called Porpoise Bay, named for somewhat obvious reasons. A popular surfing spot, the long, crescent-shaped beach is one of only a few areas called home by the extremely rare Hector’s dolphin. We wandered the beach, encountered another sea lion, but were unable to find any of the aforementioned dolphins. Disappointed, we drove up to an elevated point adjacent to the beach and relaxed
Lonely Sea LionLonely Sea LionLonely Sea Lion

Walking along the deserted beach as the sun rose, we met an newly wakened friend.
in the car as we looked out into the ocean. After getting the energy up to wander around the point, we were delighted to see a huge pod of dolphins (likely between 10-15) feeding in the shallower waters. Although quite far out, their dorsal fins gracefully swooping out of the water was an unmistakable signature. After our fill of dolphin watching, we continued on the road to MacLean’s Falls. The waterfalls were a 10-15 minute walk from the car park but would have been worth a walk 5 times longer. The water fell close to 20 metres onto a shelf-like rock formation which held the water briefly until its second large descent. The rain had yet to cease for the day, so we stopped at a roadside cafe for some delicious nachos and a game of cribbage. Unsatisfied with the weather and knowing that we had another day in the Catlins, we bee-lined for a campsite along the coast. A dirt road wound us 10km from the highway to a gorgeous beach framed with high cliffs on either end. Once the tent was up, we made use of the environment surrounding us and walked along the beach/rocks for quite some
McLean FallsMcLean FallsMcLean Falls

A beautiful multi-tiered waterfall.
time, coming across a few more Hooker Sea Lions. We relaxed as the evening approached and hunkered down for the night.

The following morning had us up with the sunrise. The joys of camping on the east coast! We ate our usual breakfast and packed up Jose for the day ahead. Our first stop for the day was Jack’s Blowhole. Best seen at high tide with strong winds, we arrived on a calm day at low tide. Despite the poor timing, we trekked inland along the path not entirely sure of what we were going to find at the other end. 200m in from the ocean there is a crater-like hole in the ground close to 40 deep. It was attached to a tunnel leading out to the ocean, and the water would come pounding in and explode off the walls with a deafening boom. Although we didn’t experience the full effect of the water spouting skyward, we were impressed with one of the many marvels that nature has been able to create. The last stop on our Catlin tour was Nugget Point. Aptly named, Nugget Point features numerous nugget-shaped rock protrusions popping out from the ocean. A winding
Nugget PointNugget PointNugget Point

The lighthouse and the nugget-shaped rock protrusions made for a scenic backdrop.
path led to a lighthouse and a viewing platform that showcased the beautiful rocky coastline with a more than 270 degree view. Leaving Nugget Point, we enjoyed the stunning coastal drive as we made our way back to the highway and towards Dunedin.


We arrived in downtown Dunedin, and after finding a McDonald’s to use their free internet (a common target for us as we traveled the country) we consulted the tourist info office for some advice on how to best take in Dunedin and the Otago peninsula. We were pointed in the direction of the peninsula, where we wandered over and down a number of large sand dunes to the ocean. We followed the beach along, passing many large Sea Lions as we went before spending an hour sitting in a hide, waiting for Yellow-Eyed penguins to return from their days work at sea. Unfortunately we were too early, so we made the return walk to the car and decided to find our sleeping spot for the night. Much to our dismay, as we were on our way back into town Jose decided that he had done enough driving for the day and quit on us.
Baldwin StreetBaldwin StreetBaldwin Street

We worked mighty hard to get this photograph.
It was fortunate that we happened to be in a tiny village at the time, and were able to pull off the road into the parking lot of a convenience store. Unsure of what to do, we took a few minutes to decompress and let the situation sink in. We wandered around talking to various town-folk before coming across three ladies working in the community hall packing Yellow Pages for delivery as part of a charity drive. One of the ladies offered us her backyard to sleep in for the night, and then drove us and our belongings there where she introduced us to her husband. They fed us tea and cookies and referred to us a mechanic that might be of assistance. We spent a windy night in our tent, but slept surprisingly well considering the weather and our circumstances. We awoke the next day and said our goodbyes to Helen and Chris. Two people we did not know two days before, who showed us kindness and helped us on our way. We contacted the mechanic and had Jose towed, and spent the morning and early afternoon perusing the Dunedin Art Gallery and taking in some Thanksgiving day NFL
Returning HomeReturning HomeReturning Home

After a long day at sea, this Yellow-Eyed penguin made it safely to shore.
football in a downtown bar. We picked Jose up in mid-afternoon with a tuned-up alternator and took him on his way. We then met up with Cait O’Donnell, a friend from our times in Halifax. We walked the Botanical Gardens, a large park in the north end of town. After a lovely meander through the garden we made our way back to the Octagon (downtown Dunedin is shaped like an octagon, hence the commonly used name for the downtown area), grabbed a drink at a road side pub, found some good old fashion pub grub and caught up on everything that’s been going on since we last crossed paths.

The next morning we awoke to not-so-sunny skies, but hell-bent on tackling a world record. Dunedin is home to Baldwin Street – the steepest street in the world! The street climbs, on average, 1 m for every 2.6 m of straight-line distance, a measure that is not doubted when seen in person. We huffed and puffed our way up the street and marvelled at the local drivers/pedestrians that called it home. We then made our way to the Otago Museum to further enhance our collective knowledge. We saw some
I SpyI SpyI Spy

A Yellow-Eyed penguin hidden in his nest, high up on the cliffs.
fascinating exhibits on Maori history, the history of the Otago Daily Times through pictures and headlines, a mariner’s exhibit, but we were most enthralled by the trinkets on display around the museum previously owned and used by Sir Edmond Hillary. His life, expeditions, and triumphs were neatly displayed on the walls as you walked up the stairs. The care and details of the items shown only attest to the pride that New Zealander’s had in Hillary. Satisfied with our adventures and misadventures in Dunedin, we piled back into Jose on a quest further north. After only just being brought back to health, we were a little weary of stretching Jose’s legs on the extremely steep hills that mark the exit from the Otago region but he passed the test with flying colours and delivered us to Oamaru.


Part of our excitement for our southern adventures lied in our expectations for wildlife encounters. To this point we had seen Seals, Sea Lions, and Hector’s dolphins, however the penguins had eluded us. Our journey to Oamaru was meant to atone for that. Oamaru is a nesting place for both the Yellow-Eyed and the Blue Penguins, and we had a goal to see both. Both species of penguins spend the entire day at sea, leaving before 5 am and returning to their nests as the sun is going down. We arrived in town far too early to see the penguins returning, so we wandered the quaint streets in town and found a lovely place for dinner. At around 6:30 we parked among a sea of tourists and ventured out along a path some 50 m above the beach. We waited patiently as slowly the Yellow-Eyed penguins returned home after their day of fishing. Unbeknownst to us, these penguins roost high up on cliff walls and we were shocked to find them nesting only meters below the path we were on. Over the course of 1.5 h we saw several penguins being thrown onshore by the crashing surf, scramble up the beach and climb the steep hill. We even got to see a parent feeding a baby only 20 feet from us. Pleased with our encounter with the Yellow-Eyed penguins, we made our way back to the Blue Penguin colony closer to town. A much easier and more reliable viewing, a conservation area has been set up in Oamaru where they have created safe nesting areas for the penguins and are able to study and look after the endangered species. We waited patiently as ‘rafts’ of penguins, black speckled clouds on the water, returned to shore. The tiny, 1 foot tall birds scampered up on shore and hurried through a barricade into their nesting area. We laughed at the ‘Pengiun Crossing Area’ signs in town, but apparently these penguins are apt to wander about after dark and it is not uncommon to find them on the road or underneath parked cars. One after another we watched the rafts of birds come in and smiled at the comical manner in which they paused before crossing the road, sometimes heading back towards the water before one courageous bird would lead the charge to safety. We stayed until nearly 10 o’clock and saw over 100 Blue Penguins wiggle their way back to their homes. Armed with a cup of coffee and some road music, we made the 3 hour trip back to Christchurch. When you are used to being in bed at 8:30 pm, driving until 1 am can be a challenge. Luckily the goal of spending a night in a bed under four walls and a roof kept us going and we made it safely.


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