Otago Peninsula to Aoraki/Mount Cook
The Otago Peninsula has a lot to offer and we still had time for a walk, we chose one that promised sea lions, penguins and albatrosses.
Okia Reserve, an area of sand dunes and wetland slacks where the native vegetation is regenerating, was established in 1991. We scrambled up a small hill, known as the pyramid, and peered through our binoculars, nothing moved out there.
Closer to hand, a motionless xxxxxxxx lay sunning itself on a rock.
There was an easy path down to the beach. On the way, we passed a Dutch couple we recognised from ‘1806 Café’.
“Did you see any animals?” We asked.
“Nothing at all.” They replied, disappointed.
The beach was very beautiful but there wasn’t a lot to be seen.
“If I were a sea lion, where would I hang out?” ... we set off towards the rocky cove in the distance. Sure enough, a sea lion was lying on the sand just below a large boulder, then we spotted another on top of a rock. The more we looked, the more sea lions we could see, they were everywhere, just well camouflaged.
We watched them for a while, pleased that we had found them, it had been worth the walk. We got back to the van just as it started raining.
Phil and Lynda had drawn arrows on our map of South Island, marking points of interest. Port Chalmers, a small town north of Dunedin, had an arrow but there was no explanation. It was the first white settlement in the area and the Lonely Planet guide was complimentary:
“Little Port Chalmers is only 13km from central Dunedin but it feels a world away. Somewhere between working class and bohemian, Port Chalmers has a history as a port town but has long attracted Dunedin’s arty types. The main drag, George St, is home to a handful of cafés, design stores and galleries, perfect for a half-day’s worth of wandering, browsing and sipping away from the city crush.”
It sounded lovely, I could almost taste the rich moist chocolate cake I was going to choose to go with my organic fair trade coffee, at one of the arty cafés. Franco was dubious:
“I could see cranes from Portobello, it’s a commercial harbour,” he insisted.
He was right. We drove up Main Street, everything looked closed, it was only 3:15. We turned the corner, on our right shipping containers were piled high, and giant dockside cranes loomed overhead. Surely, we were missing something, was this what Phil and Lynda wanted us to see. I picked up the phone and dialled Phil’s number.
“Hi Phil, we are in Port Chalmers, you recommended it, but it’s a dump. What are we doing here?”
There was a pause on the line. I thought maybe I’d upset him, maybe it’s his favourite place in the whole of New Zealand. (We later found out that it is where Phil and Lynda’s yacht Windora was built.)
“Phil, are you still there?” I enquired tentatively.
“You need to go and see Ate and Colleen.” Phil boomed.
While Phil arranged for us to park up in Ate (a Dutch name, pronounced ‘art’) and Colleen’s drive, we checked out the cafés. Every single one was closed. The only place open was the corner store, in addition to the usual groceries, it served takeaway coffee and homemade cake.
“All the cafés are closed, lucky for us, you are open!” We praised the guy behind the counter.
“All the cafés are closed? Lucky bastards! I’ve been working 17 hours and haven’t had lunch yet!” He replied, tongue only just in cheek.
Ate came to find us and guided us back to his home. They already had plans for the evening but we were still able to enjoy several hours in their company. Ate went to sea fishing when he was 16 and spent his whole career in the trade. He retired a few years ago and passed the business on to his son, he has since represented the industry on various government fora. It was fascinating listening to his perspective on ‘no-fish zones’ and learning about fishing regulations in New Zealand. Ate and Colleen own a motor cruiser and hope to sail to the North Island soon. We look forward to meeting them again.
Ate’s parting comment was “Make sure you give Phil a hard time!”
The next morning we awoke to the ‘pitter patter’ of rain on Jumbo’s roof and the weather improved only slightly over breakfast. We drove up the coast looking for surf, there wasn’t any, just wind-flattened spume.
Karitane, a reputed surf beach
In the grey countryside, we spotted a vivid flash of colour, it was a red-crowned parakeet. Since they are extinct in the wild on South Island, we presumed it was an escaped pet as they are bred in captivity. The road and the railway ran parallel to the shore, but the chief engineer, bored or out of a sick sense of humour, had constructed them criss-crossing in figures of 8. In New Zealand, rail crossings seldom have barriers or lights, so each time we crossed, it was with our heart in our mouth. The only ‘train’ we saw was this one:
Line maintenance vehicle switching from road to rail
Katiki Point was worth a visit but first we stopped at a tavern in Moeraki and shared a portion of fish and chips. The barman warned us to watch out for sea lions as it is easy to step on them. Our experience so far was that they are rather shy.
Sea lions at Katiki Point
An extended Chinese family were taking photos of their two sweet little kids in front of the Katiki lighthouse. We met them again on the way to the point. One of the older women used a wad of tissue paper and dropped it on the ground.
“Excuse me, but you can’t leave the paper on the floor, you have to take it away with you.” I explained.
Much to my surprise she said:
“Sure, I pick it up”. And she did. I had expected her not to understand why it was a problem but she knew she wasn’t supposed to litter. In some ways it made it worse.
She bunched up the paper and walked towards the cliff. Franco saw her just as she was about to throw it over the edge.
“Not there either, you have to take it away.” He said.
It’s a strange thing, this littering. I’m forever collecting up other people’s rubbish (much to Franco’s annoyance, as I fill the van) or burning their toilet paper (faeces long dehydrated). We fail to understand the thought process involved in deliberately discarding waste in the environment. Where do they think it goes? Do they believe someone will pick it up? Or don’t they care that the beautiful landscape they have travelled to see is strewn with plastic, poo, and paper?
The barman’s warning was good advice, sea lions were lying in ambush in the long grass. They peered up at us through their gentle eyes. Step on them, and they might not be so benign.
Sea lion with gentle eyes
The road seemed endless, there wasn’t much of interest and still no surf. The next town was Oamaru. It is proud of its Victorian heritage which, for New Zealand, is considerable. The buildings survived because the town hit hard times and there was no drive nor money, to redevelop. (Old Valparaiso in Chile survived for the same reasons.) We walked around for a while but were running out of steam, we were bored with the grey weather and the flat east coast that looks like England. A sign read “Wanaka 2,5 hours”, we could be back at Gareth and Carol’s by tea time so we turned our back on the sea and set off inland.
The opera house
Victorian steam enthusiasts HQ in Oamaru
Gareth was away for work and Anna out gallivanting but Carol was at home and we spent a great evening together. Franco collected his jumper and the next morning we headed north once more.
On the road to Lindis Pass, north of Wanaka
A free DOC campsite on the road to Mt Cook
River by our camp
Mountain weather, Mt Cook is lost in the clouds
The road came to an end, we had arrived in Aoraki, the Maori name for Mount Cook. It was 22 December and the forecast for the next few days was perfect.
As the sun went down, the cloud cleared, revealing Mount Sefton (we think)