unedin to Milford Sound
January 10 - March 27, 2010
After Dunedin, our next destination was south towards the Catlins. New Zealand is underpopulated compared to the rest of the world and the Catlins are underpopulated compared to New Zealand: Our kind of place. Not only would you like to visit but you'd like to live there. The coast of the Catlins is beautiful as are the inland rolling hills. Here we found deserted beaches, sea lions and seals, lighthouses, and one of our favorite places to stay, high up on a hill overlooking the ocean where we spent one of our "do-nothing" mental-health days. We sat on the little terrace, sipped chilled NZ sauvignon blanc, while we watched the sheep crop the grass and the clouds scud across the blue, blue sky.
Perhaps our favorite memory from the Catlins is of a picnic lunch on a sweep of sandy beach called Cannibal Bay that was occupied by just one other family. Oops, make that two: a sea-lion family had colonized the far end of the beach. We gave them a very respectful berth on our after lunch stroll. It was a bit of a windy day, producing some lovely whitecaps on the ocean and almost blowing our picnic gear away, but we didn't mind a bit. We were just so happy to have this lovely bit of nature almost all to ourselves. And that, of course, is the secret of New Zealand. There is so much of it that is so pretty, and especially on the South Island, you hardly have to share it with anyone else.
Another very pleasant afternoon was spent near Porpoise and Curio Bays. Our trusty Lonely Planet told us that we might see dolphins here and indeed Jan did get a brief glimpse of dorsal fins way out across the bay. Having seen all that we could see there, we took a walk over to the adjacent bay known for its petrified forest that is exposed at low tide. We were lucky the tide was indeed low, but it was not only petrified trees that were on disply. As we got to the clifftop, we noticed a group of people sitting on rocks, staring at the water. With our binoculars we explored the area they were looking at and spotted a penguin making its way into shore. We had done penguin-spotting up in Oamaru, where we had seen dozens of the tiny foot-high blue penguins risking their lives in the dark dashing from the water across a jetty and then a road and then some open land to get to the cliff face where their nests were. We'd also glimpsed the bigger but rarer yellow-eyed penguins at another nesting site close to Oamaru, but the cliff face there was much higher, the viewpoint was on the top of the cliff, and the nesting penguins much harder to spot than we would have liked. Anyway, by the time we got down the wooden staircase to beach level and to the rock where everyone was gathered, the penguin had made it almost all the way up to the beach and was just 10 meters or so from the cliff face. Yellow-eyed penguins stand about three-four feet tall and unlike the blue penguins, come back to their nests in the late afternoon rather than waiting until after sundown. This bird was clearly visible with the naked eye and so more than lifesize in the binoculars. We were thrilled and expected the show to be over once the penguin reached the cliff. Imagine our delight therefore, to see the penguin re-emerge accompanied by two chicks. Well, chicks isn't quite the word, because although they did have lots of down around their necks, they stood taller than the parent! We got to watch the parent feed them and then try and coax them further away from the nest and down towards the water over the rocky beach. One of them seemed quite willing to follow its parent but the other was much less comfortable and wouldn't venture more than about three or four meters from the cliff. The parent penguin tried several times to go back and encourage the reluctant chick to follow it, but did not succeed and finally gave up and led both chicks back to the nest hidden in the cliff face. We were thrilled to have been spectators at this little play. Definitely one of our most memorable NZ moments.
Invercargill and Bluff
After the Catlins, Invercargill seemed like a big city. Of course, it is only big for New Zealand. Anywhere else it would be a little backwater. But we were happy to get here and settle down for a few days of city-living, in a very comfortable backpacker place called Southern Comfort. We got the bikes out again and took a couple of short rides around town.
The only real outing we made from Invercargill was to drive out to Bluff, a windy point on the ocean that is famous in New Zealand as the site of the Paua Shell House. While in Christchurch we had seen a museum exhibit on the house. An elderly couple from Bluff were fans of the colorful Paua shell that can be harvested in many of the waters off the coast of New Zealand. They started collecting the shells and used them to decorate their home. The collection grew and so did the decorative uses they found for it. In the end, many of the walls inside their house were covered with Paua shells and they became a local curiosity. They were very friendly folk and if neighbors dropped by they would invite them in. Gradually, they got so many visitors, they found they were taking up more and more of their time. Eventually it became a regular tourist site except that it was still also a real home. In the end the couple died and gifted their collection to the Canterbury museum in Christchurch where we had seen it. We looked for and found the spot where the house was, now sans Paua shells and under new ownership who were refurbishing the place.
It was on the way to Bluff that we first noticed a problem with the newly repaired tyre. It seemed to be slowly leaking. We topped it up and would have had it checked out, except that our tyre repair company, Beaurepaires, didn't have a branch in Invercargill and so we would have to wait until Queenstown. Our only hope was that it would not get too bad before we got there.
Te Anau, its lake, and beyond it the road to Milford Sound, were our ultimate goals after Invercargill. En route, however, we made an overnight stop at another lake, Lake Hauroko, which is mostly visited by fishermen and jet-boaters, who take jet boats all along the lake and then downriver to the ocean. Lake Hauroko is at the end of a dead-end road that made a quite lovely drive. More proof of the advice that the further off the beaten track you go, the better it will be, At the end of the road, we camped in the official campsite which consisted of an open field. The only services were a pit toilet and a fire pit. We were prepared, however, for all of that and spent a very delightful late afternoon on the shore of the lake reading our books and enjoying the scenery. Unfortunately, we weren't quite prepared for what happened when sunset approached and the wind that had whipped up whitecaps on the lake suddenly subsided. The infamous sandflies appeared. We had heard stories about them, but had never experienced them in the numbers we encountered here. We covered up as much as we possibly could, but eating supper was a nightmare and we quickly repaired to the van and then the tent to escape them. Of course, it was impossible to get into either without bringing some in with you, so the first fifteen minutes after entry were always spent trying to kill as many of the blighters as you could find, because if not, you knew they would get you. Repellents helped a little but were no panacea.
We were a little miffed, when we did get back to our tent after our battle over supper with the sandflies to find that there were other unfriendly creatures around of the human kind. We had pitched our tent as far away as possible from the only other tent in the field. The next arrivals, however, had no such compunctions and not only pitched their tent very close to ours, but proceeded to make lots of noise for a couple of hours after dark, when we were trying to get to sleep. Thankfully inconsiderate fellow-campers weren't a frequent occurrence.
We had intended to drive all the way to Te Anau and spend the night there, but on our way into Manapouri, we saw a sign for a backpacker's called Freestone Lodge and decided to give them a call and see if they had room. They didn't have rooms in the house they said but they did have a cabin available. As we were at the bottom of their driveway, we decided to take a look and fell in love in an instant with the view from "our" cabin to the lake. The cabin had a kitchen and a nice deck, but no toilet. That meant a rather steep walk down to the shower building and back, but we figured the view was worth it. We liked the view so much that we settled down on the deck and didn't move until the sun started to go down. We cooked up a nice supper and watched the lake disappear into the darkness. We thought about extending our stay, but we now had a commitment to be in Wellington by the beginning of March and time was pressing on. In retrospect it was a very good decision because by midday the next day, I started to itch all over and suspected I had picked up bed bug bites. ugh!
Lots of people had praised Milford Sound, so we were quite curious about it. It certainly was hard to get to being not only at the end of a long, long dead-end road but also over the watershed to the west coast. Most people do a combined coach and boat trip from Queenstown or Te Anau. Having already spent a day at Lake Hauroko, we had decided to drive through Te Anau, stoppping only to fill up our gas tank and top-up our leaky tyre. We had been told that you couldn't get gas at Milford Sound, but we hoped we would find a way to get some air for our tyre should we need it. From Te Anau, the road is long and very gradually steepens until the last few kilometers when it climbs quite steeply up to the watershed. All along the steep part of the highway, you get stupendous views of snow-capped peaks. No-one can resist getting just one more photgraph, so the road is a bit of an obstacle course of parked cars and wandering pedestrians. And we were a part of it of course. Fortunately, you don't have to climb up to the pass, because the NZ authorities have built a tunnel through the mountain. What you do have to do is wait in line for access to the one-way tunnel. Once through the tunnel, you follow the steep winding road all the way down to the coast and Milford Sound.
We had called ahead and booked two places in a dorm for one night (private rooms were all full) as well as a passage on an afternoon boat on Milford Sound itself. When we saw the line waiting to check in, we were happy to have booked ahead and even happier when check-in and payment went lickety-split. We arrived having picnicked en route and with just enough time to move ourselves into our four-bed room before high-tailing it down to the wharf for our boat trip. We quickly learned that Milford Sound was just like Lake Hauroko as far as sandflies were concerned. They were biting mad and were at you the instant you stepped outdoors. Even our Australian anti-fly nets would not have been much good, because the blighters attacked any bit of uncovered skin, not just the face.
Luckily, they were not a problem on the water, so once we were on our boat out to the Sound, they left us alone. We had taken a cheapo option, but were very happy with the fact that that meant we were not on a giant boat. Apart from us there were only about 25 other passengers and we happily claimed seats on the open top deck. The weather at the dock was clear and sunny but we were warned that out towards the ocean there was cloud cover. Our fear had been rain, so that all sounded pretty good. We don't have anything to compare Milford Sound to, so don't know how it measures up against a Norwegian or a Chilean fiord, but we can say that we found it beautiful and interesting and well worthwhile. Our only regret is that we didn't see any dolphins or whales which we would have liked, but we did see lots of seals sunning themselves on the rocks partway up the sound. Jan had some trouble with motion sickness once we got to the ocean end of the sound, where the water was much more churned up than inland, but even this didn't prove too much of a problem given that on the top deck it wasn't too hard for her to keep her eye on the horizon.
Back at the wharf, however, we had a disappointment. In spite of a thorough search, we could find no evidence of an air pump. We would have to cross our fingers and trust to luck that we would get back on our leaky tyre. Then it was back to the lodge for a meal and an early night.
Next morning we got going early and slowly climbed back up towards the tunnel we had crossed through just a day earlier. We would have to cross the watershed to get back to Te Anau, then cross it again to get back to the coast at Haast. But first we had to get to Te Anau without a flat tyre. Gerry was driving and as usual we found that the Serena had a hard time pulling uphill. But we made it and wonder of wonders made it all the way downhill to Te Anau, where we could fill up with air as well as gas.