South Island - Week 3

Sunday 16th February

Drove from Wanaka to Arrowtown along the Crown Range Road, one of the south island's most scenic routes (according to LP). Narrow and twisty-turny for much of the way it was also a 'wow' around every turn, not to mention heart-in-the-mouth scary! Stopped to look at the Cardrona Hotel which first opened its doors in 1863, then on to Arrowtown. Wandered around this very quaint but touristy town that grew up in the 1860's during the gold rush and still retains many of its original buildings for an hour or so.

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Then on to Queenstown, very busy activities centre. We wandered along the lakeside, ate ice-cream, people-watched and enjoyed a free show on the lake by a guy on jet-shoes (?!). Back on the road again, we stopped at a little lakeside place called Kingston where we brewed a cuppa and sat in the afternoon sunshine enjoying the wide open space all to ourselves. We finally arrived at Possum Lodge in Manapouri late afternoon, and went for an early evening stroll through the woods to find the departure point for our trip on the Sound the next day.

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Monday 17th February

Doubtful Sound trip: Ferry across Manapouri Lake, coach through Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove, motor-catamaran tour of Doubtful Sound. Awesome vistas, waterfalls down sheer sides of sound, fur seals basking on the Nee Islands at the mouth of the sound, big waves visible on the Tasman Sea in the distance! Back to Deep Cove, onto coach, over Wilmot Pass and down a 2km tunnel carved out of granite under the mountain to the Manapouri Hydroelectric power station. Viewing of turbine hall. Back to coach, return ferry trip and home. Lovely day.

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Tuesday 18th February

Milford Sound trip: early start as told that we could get held up at Homer Tunnel (traffic lights) or caught behind coaches. As it turned out we arrived on schedule according to Google maps (been using them a lot for timings and finding obscure places - excellent and free what's more!) so had plenty of time for a coffee and bacon buttie. We'd read that doing an early trip was better as the tourist coaches from Queenstown did not arrive until lunchtime. We could soon see the potential, masses of coach parking and the ferry terminal was like an airport with 12 boarding gates!

We were soon underway on our monohull cruise ship with some added furling sails. Milford Sound is much smaller than Doubtful and has steeper sides and the skipper had the time to go out into the Tasman Sea which was much quieter than yesterday but still a bit lumpy. Most of the passengers wished he hadn't bothered as they soon became seasick! Once he'd turned round the small sails stabilised the movement and we headed back into the calm of the Sound. A wet, cloudy day made the vistas those of dark brooding cliffs shrouded in mist. Not much wildlife to be seen today, just a few fur seals, but plenty of waterfalls.

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On the drive back to Manapouri we stopped at The Chasm in the Cleddau Valley where water gushed over rocks worn smooth by its action, and had our first close encounter with Kea's (alpine parrots) in the car park. These over-friendly birds are known to peck the rubber seals off car windows! Down the Homer Tunnel and it is DOWN as the tunnel has quite a gradient, and a stop-off at the Mirror Lakes before heading back to Possum Lodge.

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Wednesday 19th February

Manapouri to Invercargill via the Southern Scenic Route. Stopped in Tuatapere, a small agricultural town apparently well known for its sausages, and bought some beef sausages to try later. Stopped to look at the Clifden Suspension Bridge, no longer in use, built in 1898-9, longest suspension bridge in NZ. On to Invercargill, checked into Top10 park who were offering 15% discount on trips to Stewart Island (small Island off the south coast of South Island), so we took advantage and booked a trip to fly there and ferry back the next day.

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Thursday 20th February

What a fantastic day! Arrived at Invercargill airport at 0730, and by 0745 we were seated right behind the pilot in a tiny twin-propellor aeroplane - a Britten-Norman Islander - ready for takeoff. With all nine passengers settled in and seat belts on, we were soon in the air and for the twenty-minute flight to Stewart Island had a magnificent bird's eye view of the scenery passing 1000 feet below at a speed of 125 knots.

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All too soon we were on the ground and transferred to a waiting minibus that took all of five minutes to take us to the main town of Oban. 350 people live in Oban, and we were taken on our tour of the town and surrounding bays by John, who is also the Postie. Clearly not a local,with his Northern English accent, but a very knowledgeable man who obviously enjoyed the role of guide.

Fish (blue cod) and chips for lunch in the cafe above the ferry terminal at the wharf, with magnificent views over the harbour. Then a 15 minute walk over the hill to get the ferry over to Ulva Island, a bird sanctuary. Completely predator-free since the eradication of rats and possums,the Island has seen the return of native bird species which have become rare in other parts of New Zealand. We saw robins, wekas and wood pigeons, and heard but could not see others!

After a few hours walking on the Island and listening out for and spotting birds,we got the ferry back to Stewart Island and walked back over the hill looking forward to an afternoon beer at the seafront hotel before catching the ferry back across to Bluff. Although the town was heaving with cruise ship passengers, we managed to find a comfy spot to while away the time until the ferry arrived. With very little wind today, the sea in the Foveaux Strait was calm and the hour trip back very pleasant. At Bluff we transferred to a bus that took us back to collect the car at Invercargill airport. A wonderful day.

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Friday 21st February

Decided to stay another day to look around Invercargill, but cabin not available another night so moved out and pitched the tent. It started raining even before we finished putting it up, and got steadily heavier. Drove into town for a mooch around and found the Hayes store with the display of motor bikes, the most famous of which was the Fastest Indian used in the film of the same name. Finally dragged Steve away from the old bikes and cars to buy some tent reproofing spray. Although the tent is new and it was the first time it had been rained on, water was leaking in through the zips - a design flaw as the flaps meant to cover them don't keep the rain off them. By the time we got back to the campsite the sun was shining and the tent dry so we gave the zips a good spraying. Hopefully that will solve the problem...

Saturday 22nd February

Packed up the tent (dry, no more rain) far more easily than expected as the wind was blowing a hooley. Set off along the Southern Scenic Route bound for Curio Bay in a region called the Catlins. Stopped at the lighthouse at Waipapa point and nearly got blown away walking up to it, then encountered an ENORMOUS sea lion blocking the path, so backtracked and took the long way round!

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Further along the route we stopped at Slope Point and walked out to the beacon that marks the most southern point of the South Island (not Bluff as is popularly thought). Again we had to lean into the wind to stop ourselves being blown over. It really blew the cobwebs away.

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We arrived in Porpoise Bay at the Lazy Dolphin Backpackers early afternoon, and having checked the tide tables found that the petrified forest would only be visible for the next couple of hours, so set straight off for Curio Bay (just up the road) to take a look. This was amazing. In the sand are fossilised tree trunks where you can make out the grain of the wood and rings inside the trunks. The forest was flooded 160 million years ago (Jurassic period) following a volcanic eruption and the trees soaked up the silicates in the water, effectively fossilising themselves in the space of a few months. And there they have lain ever since, exposed an hour or two either side of low tide.

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Back at the lodge we sat out on the balcony overlooking Porpoise Bay and saw Hector's dolphins playing in the surf. At dusk we returned to the petrified forest beach in Curio Bay and were rewarded with the sight of rare yellow-eyed Heiho penguins emerging from the sea and walking/hopping up the rocks to feed their young. Most of the young penguins stayed in their nests in the bush until the parent came close, and then we saw them emerge for feeding, but two slightly older babies waited on some rocks right by the water's edge. We were beginning to think they had been abandoned when, just as the light had almost faded, their parent emerged from the sea exactly where they were waiting. What an experience and a privilege to see these rare birds in their native habitat.

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