My first task when I arrived in Dunedin was to buy a tent to replace the shredded canvas dumped in the back seat of my car. Thankfully Dunedin boasted what is reputed to be one of the best outdoor stores on the South Island and, within five minutes of walking through the door, I was walking back out again with an absolute bargain of a tent. I was very happy with my acquisition and even happier when I discovered that the local campground was one of the friendliest and best equipped that I had visited for several months.
With my house built for the evening it was time to head out to see the penguins and I decided to take the campground manager up on his suggestion that the best way to see them would be to visit the Penguin Conservation Preserve. At $35 it certainly wasn't a cheap option but it was all in a good cause so I handed over my cash and boarded the rickety old bus which would drive us out to the network of hides which they had built adjacent to the beach. I had somehow expected hundreds of penguins to be confidently strutting about the beach so was disappointed to learn that we weren't guaranteed even to see a single penguin - a fact only explained to us after we'd paid for our ticket! But, having waited in the cold for half an hour, we finally caught our first glimpse of one of the world's rarest animals: the Yellow-Eyed Penguin. It turned out that they are actually very nervous animals and we had to remain perfectly still and not make a sound in case we scared them off. We would eventually see a couple of dozen penguins and, although they were further away than I would have expected, I was delighted to finally discover that New Zealand had some cool wildlife after all!
Before setting off towards Milford Sound I decided to have a look around Dunedin - a town that I liked a lot. It boasts the World's Steepest Street (at 35 degrees it is significantly steeper than San Francisco's Lombard Street) and I managed to earn myself another certificate for climbing it. Quite why I decided to climb the street was a mystery but it is far more understandable than the 19-year old student who decided to ride downthe street in a wheelie-bin in 2001. She was killed instantly when the bin hit a parked car and, stood at the top looking down, it is hard to imagine what was going through her head (if anything) as she set off on her quest to earn herself a Darwin Award. To be honest I felt more than a little apprehensive about the idea of going down it in a car so, naturally, I headed back down to collect my car to find out what it would be like... the answer is it was a little scary!
The Southern Scenic Route is a heavily promoted driving route from Dunedin to Te Anau - the gateway to Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound. It was labelled by Travel & Leisure Magazine as "one of the world's greatest undiscovered drives" earlier this year but, apart from a few interesting stops, I was positively underwhelmed by the whole experience and was glad when I finally reached the sign announcing my arrival at the end of the route.I don't know how many superlatives you can get away with in a single paragraph so I will hedge my bets and split my thoughts on the sublime Fiordland National Park and the exquisite Milford Sound (there are two to kick off with) into multiple paragraphs. What can I say? From the moment I arrived in Te Anau I was smitten. I defy anyone to visit and not fall instantly in love with the place; even the most veteran of seasoned-travellers. They say a picture paints a thousand words: well, I took several hundred photos and still didn't come close to doing the place justice. I think even David Bailey would struggle to capture the beauty of the place in a few photos - you absolutely have to experience it for yourself.
The sign on the wall of the campground office said it all: "The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is the most dangerous in New Zealand. You will face ice, snow, sudden flash floods, avalanches, rockslides and; most dangerous of all, visitors suddenly swerving onto your side of the road as they reach for their camera." I chuckled to myself but, within half an hour, I found myself on the wrong side of the road as I reached down for my camera. Stupidity, I know, but the road is breathtaking and, particularly as you exit the Homer Tunnel, it is an impossible temptation. The road is just 119km long yet I took six hours to drive it. As they say, the drive to Milford is half the fun.
I went to sleep excited that, if I'd only had half the fun so far, the next day was going to be a real experience. It was. The three hour cruise down Milford Sound was - despite the massive amount of rain falling - one of the most memorable experiences of the past eight months. I had considered the scenery in Glacier Bay to be awe-inspiring but it wasn't a patch on Milford Sound. The low cloud and heavy rain possibly added to the experience by creating innumerable waterfalls seemingly cascading water down straight from the clouds. Awesome is an overused word but one which is entirely justified when describing Milford Sound.
After a stop at the Milford Deep underwater observatory we re-boarded our boat and headed out towards the open sea. With the rain stopping and the clouds miraculously being replaced by sun the mood on board changed and people were to be seen strutting around the deck in shorts and T shirts... something that they would live to regret shortly after when the boat lurched sharply to the right and headed straight towards the huge sheer rock face. There were a number of panicked faces onboard but those of us who had read the literature knew exactly what was coming when they announced our arrival at Stirling Falls. Rather than slowing down the captain opened the throttles and, as we rushed out on deck to get a better view, forced the bow of the boat right into the base of the falls. I had donned my waterproofs once again but it made little difference: with water plunging straight down onto the bow of our boat (and onto those of us mad enough to be stood on it!) I guess it wouldn't! The noise was insane and the feeling of the cold water falling from 150m above our heads was invigorating to say the least.
With the doors back into the cabin securely locked, those of us out on the front of the boat started to wonder if we might drown but, with perfect timing, the engines re-fired and we found ourselves backing away from the torrent of water. As we made our way back into the warm of the cabin we were welcomed back by smiling members of crew who handed us warm dry towels and invited us to tuck in to a tasty buffet which had been laid out for us. Whilst we ate the boat continued on its merry way out into the Tasman Sea and we didn't need an announcement from the commentary to notify us of our arrival when the ride suddenly became incredibly choppy. No-one was in any hurry to leave the free food and drink in the warm cabin but some of us felt we should. Which was lucky as, having arrived on deck, a shout went up: "dolphins to the left!" With these sightings a daily occurrence for the crew it was obvious to see why they loved their job.
The return journey could easily have been an anti-climax seeing that we should have seen all the sights on our journey out but, once again, the low lingering cloud had done us a favour and we were able to see another side of the fiord: where before it had felt sinister and menacing, it was now friendly and welcoming. The imposing Mitre Peak was now clearly visible and Fairy Falls were bettered only by Bowen Falls as we approached our berth back at Milford Wharf once again. It seemed a shame to rush off and leave the new friends that I'd made onboard but I was determined to beat the tour buses out of the car park for the long drive back to Te Anau. Once again the drive along Milford Road was quite amazing and I couldn't resist stopping numerous times for photos: getting stuck behind the slow-moving tour buses in the process!
After another night in one of the cheap cabins offered at the Fiordland Great Views Holiday Park it was time to head off to the fabled town of Queenstown. As I skirted Lake Wakatipu and approached the town along the road known as the Devil's Staircase I couldn't help but feel a little apprehensive. Queenstown has invented itself as the destination in the southern hemisphere for adventure tourism: it is Queenstown where many of those previously mentioned stupidities - such as bungee jumping, zorbing, canyon swinging, jetboat canyoning and blo-karting - originated. Add its raucous nightlife to the mix and it was going to be a real change of scene from the beauty and serenity of Milford.
In the end I spent just a few short hours in Queenstown. Maybe I was on a downer before I arrived but, having parked my car and wandered towards the centre of town, I saw a young girl throwing up in the gutter within a couple of hundred metres of my parking space. This did nothing to sell the place to me but everywhere I went all I saw were hostels and bars offering cheap booze. It was Darwin all over again and, with it being apparent that drinking here is a very competitive business, I decided on the spot that it wasn't for me. I stopped at the Shotover Jet office to try and rescheduled my ride on their jet boat through the narrow Shotover Canyon but was out of luck so I pressed onwards across the Crown Ranges towards Lake Wanaka. This is the highest road in the whole of New Zealand and offers some memorable driving and unforgettable vistas. Until a couple of years ago it was still unpaved for much of its length and, although it is now covered in lovely smooth tarmac along its entirety, I felt a little sad that it was: compared to all the hype of Queenstown that road would have been the one true adrenaline rush available to visitors.
Having covered such a large amount of ground I wasn't in the mood to stop when I reached Wanaka. I restocked with food and supplies and then hit the road once again as I made my way towards Haast Pass which would lead me through Mount Aspiring National Park to the tiny fishing town of Jackson Bay where I would set up camp for the evening. Such is the nature of the South Island that I was just a hundred kilometres or so north of Milford Sound yet it had taken me a full day of hard driving to get there. It had been worth it though as, apart from my Queenstown folly, it had been an enjoyable and rewarding trip. Mount Aspiring in particular was memorable for its numerous short hikes off the main highway. I personally think that it should be renamed Mount Inspiring.
The plan for the following day was to head north up the coast to the Westland Tai Poutini National Park where I hoped to organise a heli-hiking trip to one of the two glaciers within the park. Of course I had seen many glaciers on my trip but everywhere I had been people had raved about these two and, well, there was another certificate on offer...! One thing that I have learned on this trip is that if you plan too much you will end up disappointed so it was only to be expected that my day would be thrown into chaos somehow. It turned out to be the weather gods who were against me this time following a night of torrential rain.
I passed rivers which had broken their banks, drove through flood waters and struggled to see where I was going through heavy rain and low cloud but finally arrived at Fox Glacier to discover that it was inaccessible due to flooding and washed out roads. I had heard rumours of problems before my arrival so, unperturbed, I confidently pressed on to the Franz Josef township, where I felt sure I would be able to get myself onto a heli-hiking trip out on to the nearby glacier of the same name. On my arrival, much to my disappointment, I would discover that there would be no flights that day due to the inclement weather. I had to decide whether to wait around for a day or so in the hope that the weather would clear or head onwards towards Abel Tasman National Park. With no guarantee of a change in the weather I decided to head north; spending the night in a warm dry motel in Greymouth with a bottle of wine, fish & chips and live Premiership football on the TV. After roughing it in a tent for the past week it was pure bliss to be reminded of home in this way.
It had been a welcome bit of luxury but, when I woke the following morning, something had changed inside. My first thought when I woke was '19 days til home.' This was quickly overtaken with a second: that I really shouldn't drink so much wine on my own. And finally a third: ‘I'm done, I want to go home. I'm finished with life on the road.' But, of course, I wasn't finished. I had another couple of weeks in one of the most picturesque countries on the planet (not to mention five days in China). I was just not sure I wanted it - with thousands of people being put out of work all over the world each day, talk about ungrateful! I figured I would try and get through this feeling by keeping busy and spent the day visiting not one but four national parks. First I backtracked to Arthurs Pass NP, then headed north to Paparoa NP on the west coast and then back inland once again to Kahurangi NP and, just in time for sunset; Nelson Lakes NP. But the feeling wouldn't pass. My first thoughts the next morning? '18 days...' Oh, dear.
To those of you reading this that've never been to New Zealand, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the South Island is full of national parks. It isn't. But there was one final park to visit to complete the set: Abel Tasman NP. Many people would say that I'd saved the best til last. I'd arrived in NZ not really knowing too much about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see but there were three recurring pieces of advice that I'd bought with me: sail Milford Sound, hike the glaciers and kayak Abel Tasman. I arrived at the park planning to sign myself up for one of the ferries which takes you out into the park but, as with my other plans previously, it would never happen. There was no space onboard that day - nor the next -and I didn't have time to hang around until the next opening. I had another ferry to catch... the ferry to take me across the Cook Straight from Picton to Wellington. The North Island beckoned.
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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