Queenstown to the Far South
The drive to Queenstown was spectacular. It took us through some of the most impressive scenery of our trip, as we entered Mount Aspiring National Park. Many of the scenes from Lord of the Rings were filmed here, and we could certainly recognize the terrain. Tim and I were both very relieved to see the sun again, and enjoyed several days of glorious sunshine in and around Queenstown. Our journey here from rainy Westland wound along the Haast Valley and over turquoise rivers before climbing high up into the mountain range. We could also see the Southern Alps, which were still covered in snow in the higher reaches.
The road twisted and turned dramatically, and round each bend we were greeted with another breath-taking view. The mountains were covered in tussocky grass, and not much else could grow on them. Soon we arrived at Lake Wanaka, where we stopped to fully take in our stunning surroundings. Then, we drove further to Lake Hawea, where more dramatic mountains rose spectacularly from the water's edge. We camped that night by this lake, and strolled around the lake and up into the village to admire the views. Our laundry that day was dried outside on the lines and was certainly mountain-fresh from the strong winds!
The drive from Lake Hawea to Queentown took us through some bizarrely flat farmland, before we were back in the mountains again. Just before we arrived in Queenstown, we stopped at an old wooden bridge over the Kawarau River, and had fun observing thrill-seekers entrust their lives to a bungee cord and plummet backwards into the valley below. Some chose to be dunked head-first into the chilly water of the river! We refrained from having a go ourselves, as we value our spinal alignment, but it was a giggle watching others part with $165 to have a go!
Queenstown itself is in a very attractive setting, nestled between the mountains of Mount Aspiring National Park, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. The town was heaving with tourists, all eagerly browsing the tourist shops selling bone and jade jewellery, and New Zealand merino and possum clothing, as well as booking thrill-seeking activities (at vast expense) such as jet-boating through gorges, sky-dives over the lake and of course, the utterly New Zealand bungee jumps. There were also numerous bars and restaurants, catering to all budgets, and enough guesthouses and motels to house half of Auckland. The town had some attractive areas, such as the park running alongside the lake leading into the town centre, and some funky-looking areas in the town itself. The views over the lake were of course stunning, over to the mountains on the other side, and we regularly saw people gliding out of the sky attached to parachutes. There was also an elegant old steamship tat meandered through the waters.
Queenstown was a very interesting place to go and visit, but Tim and I both felt the sheer volume of tourists detracted from the beauty of the area, and also diluted any sense of being in a New Zealand town, as almost everyone was foreign. The town seems to have become a money-making tourist capital. We both prefer the sleepy little towns we happen upon, which are in locations as stunning as Queenstown, but where we can take in the atmosphere without the frenzy. This said, we managed to find an excellent lake-side spot to stay 2 nights, just outside Queenstown, where we enjoyed one of the best views we have had so far from the van! As the sun set in the evenings, the light made the mountains glow pink, and I reminded myself how lucky we are to live in a home where we can have so many different views from the windows!
In order to get to Milford Sound, we had to do a huge dog-leg. This was unavoidable, because there is only one road to the Sound, due to the dramatic mountain ranges that are impassable. We felt it would definitely be worth the effort however, after seeing beautiful pictures, with Mitre Peak rising nobly from the waters, reflecting in the Sound with a mirror-like quality.
The reality for us was altogether very different! We endured several cloudy and rainy days on the journey into Fiordland National Park, and found ourselves once again wrapping up in windproof fleeces and Gortex jackets! However, the scenery really was very beautiful. We camped one night on the shores of Lake Te Anau, where at one point the sun broke through the thick cloud, and cast warm rays down onto the lake below. Unfortunately, the lake is clogged with didymo - a rapidly-spreading algae that is nicknamed rock snot. Te views over to the Fiordland mountains were impressive however.
We also visited Mirror Lake, so called because of the images of the nearby mountains reflected perfectly in the water. We waited for the wind to die down to appreciate this sight, and watched brown trout meander slowly through the shallows (much to Tim's frustration, as he figured it would be frowned upon to fish at this world heritage site!!).
One day, we took a walk up to Key Summit, where we enjoyed impressive views of the Humboldt and Darran mountains. They still had a generous covering of snow, drifted by the rocky, often vertical, ridges at the top. We also heard kea in the area - intelligent native parrots that are as clever as monkeys! We walked past manuka (tea tree) and various alpine plants and flowers such as mountain daisies, and the sun did actually come out for us when we reached the top. We could appreciate how the lush beech trees on the lower slopes ceased growing as the altitude climbed. I imagined how magical the mountains would look in the depths of winter, covered in deep snow.
The next day, we did the last leg of the drive to Milford Sound. It was hard not to feel like we were on a tourism conveyer belt, with all the traffic we passed being campers and motorhomes. We are of course tourists too, but we have spent so much of our tree in such secluded tucked away places, that it was a bit of a surprise to suddenly find ourselves in tourism central again!!
Milford Sound was indeed very beautiful, and despite the overcast skies, there was something very majestic about the place. What you don't see from the photos if that behind the famous views of the Sound is a backdrop of car parks, unattractive cafes and motels, and even a gym. It taints the essence of the place, but a short walk along the shore, and we could admire the impressive scenery without this blot on the landscape. The cliffs rose almost vertically from the water, and we gazed up at Mitre Peak, unable to see the top as it was shrouded in cloud. It was still very dramatic however, and it was hard not to be impressed. We felt disappointed we had driven all this way to see one of New Zealand's most spectacular sites to find it overcast and grey, but it was still very atmospheric. Maybe we can return one day in more favourable conditions! We did not go out on a boat trip through the sounds as they were fairly expensive, and it would not have been so enjoyable in such overcast weather, but it was still rewarding to admire from the shore. We were then forced to return to the van, because the Sounds are a haven for hungry sandflies.
For me, the highlight of the trip to Milford Sound was actually the journey there. The mountains became increasingly austere, bleak and dramatic, with less and less plant life clinging to the increasingly rocky and hostile surfaces, until mountains were huge walls of grey rock, rising vertically from the valleys. We saw waterfalls tumbling down, and at one point, actually went through a mountain in an impressively engineered tunnel. Just outside the tunnel were several inquisitive kea - the native green parrot - and we had fun observing them going from vehicle to vehicle in the hope of being fed! At one point, 2 of them sat on our van! They look very soft and strokable. In the lead up to the bleak mountains, we saw a fat arch of a rainbow, nestled in a valley that was so lush and densely forested that it was easy to imagine dinosaurs roaming through the thick undergrowth in this Jurassic-looking area.
As we drove away from Milford Sounds, the scenery gradually started to become easier on the eye once more. The mountains gradually gave way to rolling farmland, with flocks of damp-looking sheep grazing in lush fields with a mountain backdrop. We camped for a night at a site on the shores of Lake Manapouri, where time had stood still since the 1970s! The campsite was home to a lovely collection of old Morris Minors, and we met a glamorous older lady who proudly told us she was enjoying a 'granny gap year!'. She had bought a van and was travelling around New Zealand on her own! I loved the idea of a 'granny gap year' and hope to have one of those myself if I live to be old! We huddled in the van most of the day with mugs of tea and the papers, because it was pouring with rain, but in the evening the foul weather cleared just long enough for us to go outside and enjoy a spectacular sunset over the lake, with fat smears of red, blending into hot pinks and dusky lilacs. Beautiful!
The next day was a sunny one, and we went to admire views of the lake, and met a fascinating Cornish man who was a gold-panner. He told us stories of nuggets of gold he has found in Cornwall, Devon, Wales, Scotland, Spain and New Zealand, and had made much of the precious metal into jewellery for his wife! We do meet some interesting people on our travels!
Towards the Far South
We started making our way to the most southerly tip of New Zealand. I do find it amusing that our faithful map highlights various points of interest along the way, which are very often totally random. The 'highlight' along this stretch of road was some windswept trees!! The part of the south coast was very windswept, with massive sandy beaches pummelled by the South Pacific, with long, choppy breakers thundering towards the shore. It was good to see the coast again however, and smell the salty air.
We found a lovely spot to camp, tucked behind some sand dunes at Te Waewae bay. The sun eventually came out, and we took my Christmas stocking kite onto the beach to christen it. It was such fun, and the strong winds sent it soaring high into the sky above us. At low tide, we were able to walk across to Monkey Island and collected an enormous bag of huge mussels, which I made into a garlicky spaghetti for supper. They were some of the best mussels I have ever tasted! Southern right whales, orcas and dolphins frequent this bit of coast, but it was too choppy to be able to see anything.
The next day, we were obliged to stop of at Invercargill to stock up on food. Now, we had been told that there is nothing to recommend Invercargill, but Tim and I were determined to be open-minded and give the place a chance. The drive in revealed the city to be very dull, based on an unimaginative grid system. Absolutely nothing had been done to try and make the city appear in any way attractive, and once elegant Victorian buildings were now dirty and hidden in industrial estates with unattractive shop fronts underneath. The people of the city appeared to have absorbed the miserable atmosphere of the place. In fact, it was clear there was something rather strange about many of the people we saw. It seemed that the gene pool was spread very thinly as we saw some very odd-looking people, and the manners and language of some of the people we passed left a lot to be desired!! A drunk woman in the car park was screaming at another woman, and by the time we left, we both felt very agitated and despondent, as if we had absorbed some of the negativity of the place. It was clear there were significant social problems in the city, including alcohol misuse, and the supermarkets were not even allowed to sell booze. We could not wait to leave!!
After we left Invercargill, we headed to the most southerly point in the country, Slope Point. We walked over fields to stand on the cliffs and look out over the Pacific, and it seemed very bizarre to think that the next land mass was Antarctica! The equator was 5140km away, and the South Pole was 4803km (while home was at least 19000km from us). It felt very satisfying to know that we have travelled from Cape to Cape, and so lucky to have experienced so many wonderful and fascinating things along the way. I have enough memories to last the rest of my lifetime, and in case I become senile and forgetful one day, it is all lovingly documented in my diaries! Near Slope Point, we visited a gorgeous sandy beach with crystal clear blue sea, and saw an enormous sea lion relaxing in the sand dunes. I had not seen one before, and was impressed by its huge size. We were careful not to get between it and the sea, blocking its escape route!
Porpoise Bay and Curio Bay
The next day, we went for a lovely windy walk in the sunshine, along the vast sandy beach of Porpoise Bay. The attractive, curved bay is home to a pod of Hector's dolphins, the smallest (1.5 metres long) and rarest in the world. I kept my eyes fixed on the sea and did not see any while we were down on the beach, but just as we climbed back into the van on the cliff, Tim spotted them! All we could really see was their little curved dorsal fins appearing and just as quickly disappearing into the sea, but it was still special to see them.
The scenery in this area is very beautiful, with undulating green hills, golden sand beaches and a clear blue ocean - not as windswept and bleak as the west coast beaches. We visited Curio Bay, home to a petrified forest on the beach. It was most bizarre, seeing fallen trees and stumps on the rocks, touching the fossilized trees that were 160 million years old! We saw a large yellow-eyed penguin sitting proudly on its nest and playing with a long blade of grass above its head. These are the rarest penguins in the world. We also saw 2 penguins relaxing on the rocks. They seemed quite accustomed to the fascinated onlookers, and we were careful not to get too close.
This long, sandy beach backed by sandunes is a great spot for sea lions, recommended to us by some New Zealanders. I suddenly found myself feeling very vulnerable as we walked along a narrow path in the dunes, looking out for these enormous beasts! The males can reach 500kg, and I did not fancy taking one by surprise as they can move upto 26km per hour on land!! They have been known to attack people when threatened, and I decided I felt much safer walking along the beach where I could see if we were close to one! We could see fat pathways in the grass on the dunes, where the seals had hauled their huge weight into the dunes to relax.
We strolled along the sand, and could make up the hulking outlines of several seals, spaced considerably apart. We ventured close enough to get a better view, and I was amazed by their enormity! They were not the most attractive of creatures, unlike the pretty fur seals with their puppy-like eyes. Their snouts were short and compressed, and they grunted fishy breath. They looked very content, lying lazily on the sand, flicking sand with their fins over their bodies, to help keep themselves cool.
We visited the dramatic spit of land known as Nugget Point, on the far south-east coast. A walk along a cliff path perched precariously above an enormous vertical drop down to the cliffs below gave us views over the largest fur seal colony I have ever seen in my life! There must have been hundreds of them, of varying ages, all along the base of the cliffs, with young pups swimming playfully in the nursery pools. It was fascinating to watch, once we had tuned our eyes in as they are so well camouflaged.