After Healtherlea, the South Island days were numbered. Eamonn and I had planned a whirlwind trip to hit the final few must sees before catching the ferry to the North Island. We left Winton on Tuesday and drove first down to a small place called Bluff. Bluff is on the end of a peninsula, is a tiny town and is famous for “bluff oysters”. A few Kiwi’s had told us that Bluff was worth the minor detour. While the town itself wasn’t anything exciting, Bluff hill and it’s view was amazing. First of all Bluff, despite not being super tall, was incredibly steep. Our poor car, dubbed Arlene, struggled to climb the incline. It was petal to the metal and Arlene only managed 30km! We were happy when we rounded the final corner and crested the hill.
Once at the top there was a short, spiraling walkway to the peak. The view was stunning. It was an unhindered 360 degree view of the surrounding sea, Stewart Island, other distant peninsula’s and the farmlands to the North. It was also wonderful because there was a map telling us the names of what we saw as we looked in a certain direction. There is something mesmerizing about looking out over the vastness that is a sea or ocean.
After feasting our eyes on the view, we climbed back into our weary car and headed along the south coast to an area called the Catlins. Again, the Catlins were recommended to us and while they were on the way, we thought why not. A few of the stops in the Catlins include; Slope Hill (the Southernmost point in all of the South Island), a petrified forest, Cathedral Caves and lots of walks and lookout points. The Catlins landscape was rolling hills with farms, coast and windblown trees. It was beautiful, like many places in New Zealand. I enjoyed stopping at Slope Hill and gazing into the ocean knowing that the next landmass was the Antarctic!
The petrified forest wasn’t so much impressive as just fascinating to think about. The petrified forest was a beach made of rock that was formed out of ash. In the ash as it formed into rock there were fallen trees whose trunks can still be distinguished. It was nothing like my imagined towering stone trees…but it’s was interesting to read a bit of how it was formed and that petrified forests are a rarity.
The light was failing, so us weary travelers decided it was time to head to our chosen campsite. We drove and drove and realized we had missed the turn off! We turned around and found the most pot-holed road in the whole of New Zealand. The road wound through farms and kept leading and had a sense of leading to nowhere. After much too long on that terrible road, we came to a fallen tree that had been hastily chopped in half to allow a car to squeeze through. This campsite was looking good….not.
Right inside the campsite, we were greeted by two warning signs: “Caution, Bovine Tuberculosis” and ‘Poisons in use”. The whole place looked and felt abandoned. The ground was saturated with water and it wasn’t a place we wanted to stay. We hopped back in the car and suffered the pot-holed road again. We found a campsite further on owned by a couple who owned a farm and had made a pasture into a campground. They had flush toilets, would cook a hot meal (for a price), had running water, AND had free Wi-Fi! It was hilarious and incongruous to be sitting in a tent in a sleeping bag checking email.
We woke the next morning to find ourselves surrounded by a thick mist. We could barely see the sheep and horse that were in the pasture next to us (we had heard the horse munching, sighing and peeing all night- rather startling noises when trying to sleep). The fog didn’t start to rise until early afternoon, so our morning drive along the corner of the southern coast was shrouded in mist. We didn’t get to see much of that coastline!
Our next stop, before heading inland towards Mt. Cook, were the Moeraki Boulders. They are a bunch of spherical boulders that ended up on a beach. We were lucky and managed to arrive at the beach at low tide so we were actually able to see the boulders. It was a pleasant stop to stretch our legs and take some pictures, but it was really just very touristy and full of people.
After that brief stop, the long haul began. It was a 4 or 5 hour drive inland over plain and by lakeside. We arrived in the Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park. The village was smaller than Hanmer Springs and didn’t have much to offer, except for spectacular views of snow capped peaks.
We arrived in the early evening, found the campsite, set up our tent (yes our tent! it is the beginning of winter over here), and made ourselves a quick dinner. We each had at least four layers on. It was FREEZING! Surprisingly, we weren’t the only crazy ones sleeping in a tent! There were two families with children in tents and a few other loonies. It was a long, cold night.
The next morning air was crisp and cold. We woke up with the sun, had our breakfast and headed onto the Hooker Valley Track. It was a three hour track and it took us through the Hooker Valley to a lake at the end of the Hooker Glacier. The track was relatively flat, but was under construction in a few places and the detours were over semi-dry stream beds. There was a bit of scrambling on boulders involved as well.
As we neared the end we saw the sun glint of Mt. Cook’s snowy peak and enter the valley, striking the frozen lake. Yep, the lake was completely frozen and bits of glacier where sticking out of it like white sand islands. It was a lovely place and a great walk, but the people who were hanging out at the end of the track were a touch distracting. Smoking, chatting and taking up the entire bench. They couldn’t ruin the view though!
We treated ourselves to a hot drink in Mt. Cook Village once we finished the track. It was nearly noon and we hopped back in the car to drive to Lake Tekapo. Lake Tekapo is a crystalline turquoise lake. It has a famous observatory and church. We didn’t go to the observatory, because it was daylight, but we did go visit the church. I had seen pictures of the church and they have always been perfect. Sunset bathing this quaint little stone church as it overlooks the blue waters of Lake Tekapo….well, that isn’t what I got to see. It was a lovely little church, which wasn’t nearly as old as it was made to look, but it was overrun with tourists and the angle to get both the church and the lake in the same shot, was nearly impossible to get. Oh well, a mental picture sometimes is better than stressing over the perfect photograph. We had thought of doing a lovely walk around the lake, but it was getting late and we were still weary from our earlier trek.
Our trusty atlas has a good number of campsites marked, either as a private or a DOC campsite and we had one chosen that looked to be a bit in the middle of nowhere. After our experience a few nights before, we were a little hesitant, but were willing to give it a try. We turned down a winding gravel road that was lined with pastures full of cattle until we arrived at a lovely stone gate labeled “Pioneer Park”, the name of the campsite. We turned down it, still dubious. The gravel road narrowed and became potholed. Not looking good. Then there was a stream. Not a wide stream. Not a deep stream. But a stream. Our car is low to the ground and is overloaded, so even lower to the ground. There were big stones in the stream.
Eamonn hopped out of the car, stepping stoned over the stream and ran up the road to check out the campsite before risking the cars underbelly. I got bored waiting and joined him. The campsite was lovely. Lush green grass, a babbling brook and autumn covered trees. There was another small stream (this one paved) before the campsite. There was one other group collecting firewood and hanging out their laundry to dry.
So, back to the car to ford the stream. Oh wow. What a horrendous noise! The scrapping and general nail-on-chalkboard sounds made us cringe. Despite that, we didn’t loose any important parts and we set up our camp while there was still daylight.
We were delighted by how much warmer it was, still chilly for sure, but nowhere near as cold and frosty as the night before at the base of Mt. Cook. I could have stayed at that campsite for another night, but we had a Zombie Interactive Theater event to get to the next night in Christchurch. So off we went the next day to Christchurch.
When we were staying at our WWOOF hostess’s home near Queenstown, we met her actor son who was a part of this Zombie Interactive Theater called Zombie: Red Zone. Since he had told us about it, Eamonn and I had wanted to see it. So we planned it into our trip.
We spent the afternoon wandering around Hagley Park in Christchurch identifying trees, or trying to. It was a lovely crisp autumn day and the park wasn’t overly crowded. But more on the in Goodbye South Island Part 2!