We have zipped around the south coast and west coast of the South Island now. I am writing this post from Ruby Bay which is about a half hour from Nelson. We have been house sitting for the past six days. We are a thirty second walk from the beach but today there is crazy winds and rain. Unlike my last post though we have actually had some nice weather… Until today that is.
After the Easter weekend we left Dunedin heading south. Between Dunedin and Invercargill at the far south is the Catlins. The Catlins is actually rain forest meets the ocean coast. We drove and stopped often as we drove through the Catlins. Our first stop was at Nugget Point. This is only about an hour or so from Dunedin. There is a lighthouse at Nugget Point that is about a twenty minute walk from the car park. The sight here though is the large rocks off the point that have been eroded by the waves and resemble nuggets of gold.
We stayed that night at Surat Bay. From our cold accommodation we walked up the beach just before sunset. We saw a single sea lion laying on the sand. He seemed to careless that we were there. I call it our cold accommodation because there was no heat in our room. It was one of the coldest places we have stayed yet.
The next morning we went Jack’s Blowhole. This was close to Surat Bay. It is a large sinkhole down to the sea which has eroded the land underneath and now flows 200 m inland and under the ground. The water comes in under the land and the waves crash and splash in the air which is visible from a lookout overlooking the blowhole. It is called a blowhole because it resembles the blowhole of a whale but the water does not splash out of the hole.
After the blowhole we went to the Cathedral Caves. We had to get there at low tide… Actually 1.5 hours before low tide. That was 1:45pm that day. The caves are carved into the coastline by the tides. During low tide you can walk along the beach and walk right into them. The ceilings are about 30m high. We walked in one entrance which you actually have to climb over some rocks to get in without walking through waist deep water. Then you walk in to the end and out the other entrance/exit. I was taking a picture of the west entrance and did not notice the tide creep up behind me and soak my shoes.
That night we stayed at a park called the Whistling Frog not far from Cathedral Caves. Our room was a little cabin about 8′ x 10′. It was a cute little place. Once we checked in there we went up to MacLean Falls. One of the highlights of the Catlins is the numerous waterfalls. The walk is a forest walk to a stunning set of waterfalls. Once again it was wet and cold as we did this. Perhaps to be expected in the rainforest.
The following day might be described as a day of waterfalls. First we backtracked a bit. Purakanui Falls was back towards Surat Bay. We had missed it the previous day because we were trying to get to Cathedral Caves by low tide. These falls are definitely picturesque. It was a much nicer day as well so good day for sightseeing. We stopped at Wilkie Lake which seems to be more of a pool than a lake. The water is completely still making for great reflection pictures. Next we stopped at Matai Falls which is a series of cascading waterfalls, each of the stops is a short hike in to see the site.
The same day we were into the south Catlins. We had hoped to stay in The Curio Bay or Slope Point area but it was Anzac Day and things were filled up. We did some more sites through here though. In Curio Bay we went to the petrified forest. This is an ancient forest along the beach area that is now fossilized. The area is roped off so you cannot go far. Down the beach we saw one solitary penguin but it was quite a distance. We hiked around a bit and then drove over to Porpoise Bay. At the right time of year you can see Hectors dolphins here. Needless to say this was not the right time of year.
We also stopped at Slope Point. This is the southernmost point of the South Island. You can go further south in New Zealand if you go to Stewart Island, which we did not. After Slope Point we decided to head to Invercargill, or more accurately to Bluff (outside of Invercargill). Unfortunately the weather when we got to Bluff was not good and we really saw nothing. Same with Invercargill the next day.
We were now done with the Catlins. We more or less drove the following day. We went from Bluff all the way to Milford Sound. It rained pretty much all day. The weather forecast for Milford Sound showed some sun for the next day surrounded by days of rain. The next day would be our best and only chance to see Milford Sound. We stopped briefly for lunch in Te Anau. Again eating out is very expensive.
The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is an experience in itself. The weather was improving as we progressed. The area is mountainous. While we could not see the tops of mountains through the clouds you could see the valleys which were quite lovely. At one point you go through a tunnel through the centre of a mountain. You have to wait at a stoplight for the oncoming vehicles because it is one lane only.
On the far side of the tunnel there were a couple of kea hanging around people outside of their cars. Kea are large flightless green parrots. They can be naughty birds so you are not supposed to give them anything. These people apparently did not hear that. They can cause damage to cars by pulling at the rubber around your windows or on your windshield. We did not see that though.
On the far side of the tunnel you have several kilometres of switchbacks as you descend towards Milford Sound. The weather on this side was notably clearer than the other side of the mountain. The last stretch into Milford Sound was quite picturesque.
We spent that night in a dorm room at a lodge. Nicola likes to point out how cranky I get in dorm rooms. When we came to NZ I was feeling like I was done with dorm rooms. I admit I get cranky but in my defence I have done them for the past ten months. The only dorm rooms we have stayed in NZ are when there has been no other choice or the cost is ridiculous for our own private room. It has only happened a few times.
We stayed in a dorm room at Milford Sound because there was no other choice. We could have stayed in Te Anau and come to Milford Sound early the next morning but we did not want to miss our only clear day. This dorm room made me crankier than normal. For one thing it was incredibly smelly in it. The other 6 people had been on long treks and they smelled. Also, it was brutally hot in our room. I was on a top bunk and I am sure it was 28 degrees up there. I found out the next day that it was Nic who had turned the heat up but could not turn it down in the dark room because the control was behind one of our roommates beds.
The next morning we were up early and heading for a 9am boat. Milford Sound is famous mostly for its boat cruises through the fjords. There are several companies running cruises. We picked a company called Jucy. The cost was $45 each. This was for the first boat of the day. Each time has a different price we think to encourage people to book the less busy cruises. The Jucy Cruzes also have a Pita Pit on board and the first cruise included a free pita. Nicola also found a coupon for 10% off so we paid about $40 for our cruise including breakfast.
The cruise is an hour and a half long. It goes all the way out to the inlet of the sound at the Tasman Sea. Our plan to get here this day paid off for us. The day was beautiful. The day before had been terrible apparently. Milford Sound is one of the most beautiful areas we have seen in NZ so far. Don’t get me wrong, NZ is beautiful everywhere we have been but this was spectacular.
After our cruise we began our drive back to Te Anau. We had a beautiful day to stop and enjoy the scenery. We did not see it like this the day before. Now the weather was cooperating and we took our time getting to Te Anau. We stopped at many lookouts to take pictures and stopped a couple of times for short hikes. Our big stop however was for a 3 hour return hike up to Key Hill. At the top there was a lookout spot where you can see Marion Lake. It is a lake high in the mountains.
We spent that night at a YHA in Te Anau. There are two main choices for backpackers in NZ… YHA or BBH. There are some others but these two seem to be the best choices. YHA are nicer hostels but are more expensive. BBH is cheaper but there are many more of them. This was our first YHA. We joined BBH which got us a discount but we may end up having paid more for our membership in the end. Who knows? This was the only place that seemed to be available.
We now had a bit of a time crunch for ourselves. We had agreed to house sit in Ruby Bay and needed to get there by the 30th. This gave us three days to get up the west coast. That was a bit faster than we have been going but we were looking forward to the house sitting nonetheless.
We drove from Te Anau to Queenstown the next day. We planned on a couple of days in Queenstown. It is a very beautiful town set amongst the Southern Alps and on a lake. Most of the kids in the backpackers come to this area for adrenaline activities. Queenstown is famous for skydiving, bungy jumping, jet boating, parasailing, and more. I must say that it is all very expensive though. I am not sure how they can afford these activities.
We did none of those things though. We enjoyed wandering around the gardens and the town. One thing they do in Queenstown that I might have tried if we stayed longer is frisbee golf. I think we should do this in Fort Smith. Maybe we could set it up at the RCMP golf course. It looks like lots of fun.
After a couple of easy days in Queenstown we began two good days of driving. From Q-Town to Ruby was about 900km. It is throughout the mountains however so some of it can be slow going. We picked Franz Josef as our middle point and stopping point. There are two glaciers along the west coast that are on the back side of the same mountain range as Mt. Cook. Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. We stopped for lunch at one point and made ourself a picnic lunch. We learned from a bus load of Chinese tourists that the road between Haast and Fox Glacier was closing at 5pm. That could be a problem.
Over the Easter weekend much of the island was hit by a bad storm. We had just left Oamauru in time and gotten to Dunedin in time to miss it. The west coast and north coast were hit badly. Roads were closed for days. Bridges were damaged. Thousands of huge trees were uprooted. We saw the results about a week after as we drove the west. We got to Haast at about 4pm and needed gas for the final 120km to Fox Glacier. The road was closed or more accurately closing. The guys who were closing it let through some vehicles but when we got to the road closed signs they were gone. We took a gamble and went around the signs.
The road was almost empty. Occasionally we passed a car or two but saw none going our way. We knew that we would not have to go all the way back to Haast because we saw some lodges along the way. We were within about 30km of Fox Glacier when we came upon a bridge that was being closed. It was 5:20 pm… 20 minutes after the time we were told it would close. We had no idea where it would close. We were worried that it would be closed for days because it would be a long drive around to get to Ruby Bay. We were literally the last car they allowed through before they pulled a large truck onto the bridge to make repairs. We barely made it… Thank goodness we did.
We got to Fox Glacier around dusk. We stopped into the view point for the glacier. It was a 20 minute hike into the view point. We got there as the sun was setting and created a beautiful red glow on the glacier which is the back side of Mount Cook. If you recall from our earlier travels we went to Mount Cook on the other side but never saw it. It was cover in cloud and rain. Now we were seeing Mt. Cook and it was beautiful. Oh, and of course, we were seeing the Fox Glacier.
Once we made it to Fox we could relax a bit. I mean the rush was off. We made it through and we sighed a collective sigh of relief. We drove another 24km until we got to Franz Josef where we stayed the night. It was not the most beautiful hostel but it was only $60 for a private room and you could see the stars in the clear sky above the mountains. The manager told us tomorrow would be a beautiful day for seeing the glacier.
We got going earlier than normal that day. We planned on a hike up to the glacier before finishing our drive to Ruby Bay. We actually did three hikes totally almost 3 hours. The first one was to the face of the FJ Glacier. You get within 500 m of the face I guess. Then we hiked to a hilltop view of the glacier. And finally to a lake called Mirror Lake. I think I liked Mirror Lake the best because you can take amazing pictures of the mountain and glacier reflections in this glass-like lake.
We did not take the shortest possible route from FJ to Ruby Bay. We actually went through Westport so that we could see the Pancake Rocks along the way. We got to the Pancake Rocks in the early afternoon. We made ourselves some lunch and sat in a park eating our sandwiches. There were wekas hanging around. These are weird flightless birds. One of them grabbed a piece of Nic’s sandwich out of her hand. She screamed… I laughed.
The Pancake Rocks are coastal limestone rocks that have formed in a strange layered structure that might look like stacks of pancakes. There is no fully agreed upon explanation of how this happened. The prevailing thought is that between the layers of shells and molluscs that solidified into the rocks there were layers of more mud like substance and so as the rocks were forming it was not in one contiguous matter but rather into alternating layers of materials of different density. That is my understanding of what I read anyway. The rocks line the coastal area now and are being eroded by waves and weathering. There is another area here called a blowhole. Same idea as Jack’s Blowhole.
We made it to Ruby Bay by about 8pm that evening. The lady whose house and pets we are looking after had made us a beautiful home cooked meal. It was so nice to eat a home cooked meal because it has been so long for us since we have had one. Her name is Lesley Evans and she entrusted us with her hoe, her dog, and her cat for six days. We are steps from the beach and have two very affectionate animals in our car. Rez, the border terrier, is very funny. He gets very excited and does this weird little dance up to us to get some lovin. Andy, the cat, sleeps on our bed with us and regularly hops up on our lap right in front of the iPad screen.
One day we went for a good long drive up through an area known as Golden Bay. There is a big national park in this area known as Abel Tasman. We did not go to the park for a few reasons but decided to drive up to the most northerly point on the South Island. Without our trunk and back seat filled with our stuff,mew decided to pick up a couple of hitchhikers. Hitch hiking in NZ is very popular with travellers. It is very safe and rarely do they have to wait more than 10 or 15 minutes to be picked up.
The couple we picked up were from France. They were going to camp at the top of the island. They ended up sightseeing with us a bit as that is what we were doing. We stopped at a beautiful fresh water spring called Te Waikoropupu Springs. The water is so incredibly clear. It is amazing. We then drove on up to a place called Farewell Spit. There are beautiful shorelines and golden beaches in this area. At one of the beaches we saw a mother seal with her pups relaxing on some rocks. We watched one of the pups breast feeding for a while.
After we dropped off this very nice young couple, we picked up a couple of Austrian boys. They were very nice but this may be why they say not to pick up hitchhikers. They had been camping and had B.O. We drove with the windows open most of the way even though it was pretty cool. We stopped a couple of times to buy some fresh fruit on the side of the road. This area is a fruit growing area. We bought apples and pears and something called fejoas. We also bought some kumara which is kiwi for sweet potato.
On another day we drove into Nelson. It was a beautiful day but we only went in for a few hours. It was Saturday and went to the market. It was a good sized market. We bought some more fresh fruit and vegetables. We just wandered about but didn’t buy anything else.
After the market, we walked to an area in Nelson known as the Centre of NZ. This is a hill in the middle of town that some say is the geographical centre of the country. It is about a 20 minute zigzag climb to the top of the hill. At the top you are rewarding with an amazing 360 vista of the area. We just sat there and enjoyed the beautiful sunshine.
The sunshine seems to be done and Lesley will be back tomorrow. We are going to head to Picton for a day and then take the ferry to the North Island. We are house sitting again north of Auckland in about ten days. That only gives us a little time to explore the south half of the North Island.
That’s all for now… More updates soon. Cheers.
PS. Day after I typed this it is sunny and hot. Go figure