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Lake Gunn, New Zealand, December 17

Log Entry:

New Zealand (Part 4)


Leaving Shag Point the next morning, we drove to Dunedin on the Otago Peninsula to do some grocery shopping and check our email. After lunch, we headed south along the Southern Scenic Route (www.southernscenicroute.co.nz). This marked set of roads covers much of the coastline in the Southland region and offers 46 points of scenic and/or historical significance. We did not have time to see them all, but over the next several days we covered as much as possible. The route is somewhat off the beaten path, as it is not indicated on the main New Zealand visitor's guide map and it is mostly inaccessible by public transportation. Along the way, we found the coastal landscape alone was worth the effort.

Our first stop was Tunnel Beach where a twenty minute descent through some steep sheep pastures followed by a hand-hewn stone tunnel lead us to a beautiful secluded beach surrounded by high sandstone cliffs. After exploring the cove for a while, we slowly made our way back up through the tunnel and sheep dung minefields. At the top Sue cheerfully reported to two new arrivals, "Dudes, it's beautiful!", while skipping merrily to the van. I did my part by collapsing on the ground, gasping for breath. That night we camped near the beach just north of the mouth of the Taieri River.

In the morning we took the campervan through some dusty gravel roads to explore the Alison Conservation Area and Cook's Rock. After refilling our water, gas, and cooking fuel in the small town of Milton, we drove out to Nugget Point where a narrow trail leads along a steep, high ridge to a working stone lighthouse built in 1869. As the sun was setting, we walked a short distance to Roaring Bay on the other side of the point. We discovered an observation hut where people can hide and watch the yellow-eyed penguins coming ashore on the beach below. We figured that since it was getting dark (around ten o'clock in the evening, by the way), we had missed them. Just as we were about to leave however, three adult penguins hopped out of the waves and waddled up the rocky beach to their nests in the brush. We later learned that dusk is actually the perfect time to see the penguins returning from a day of feeding on fish in the ocean. Before calling it a night, we again walked out to the lighthouse to see it in action. We stood on a small platform below the lighthouse, listening to the waves crashing against the enormous rocks in the darkness hundreds of feet below us. Between the pulses of light from the giant bulb, it seemed as if we were standing at the edge of the earth. Making our way back along the trail in the dark, we could hear the grunts and barks of fur seals on the rocks far below. (We could also discern their presence by the telltale stink...)

Our next stop brought us to Tunnel Hill, an old 246 meter railway tunnel that had been excavated by pick and shovel. It was completed in 1895 and remained in use until 1971. The information sign near the parking area advised visitors wishing to walk through the tunnel to bring along a torch. As we approached the tunnel entrance, Sue asked, "Who is really going to be carrying a torch with them?!", referring to the medieval wood, tar, and fire variety. As I pulled my flashlight from my pack Sue saw the light, so to speak, and we had a good laugh.

Further on the route, we drove down into the Purakaunui Bay area and stopped by to see Jack's Blowhole. This large blowhole (140m x 70m) was similar in function to the one at Dolomite Point, but the thing that makes this one really special is it's location - 100 meters from the ocean in the middle of a sheep pasture! The opening was formed when the roof of a sea cavern collapsed. We next stopped for a short hike to the Purakaunui Falls, and then headed to the Catlins River area for the planned highlight of the day, the Catlins River Walk. We had planned to drive along a logging road next to the river to get to the good part of the walking track near a camping area called The Wisp. We made it up the narrow, muddy, slowly ascending road for a couple of kilometers before coming to a locked gate. Disappointed, we had to gingerly get the campervan turned around on the narrow road, being careful not to get stuck in the mud. We made it back down to the base of the trail at Tawanui and considered camping there, but since it was still midafternoon, we continued on. By late afternoon we reached the town of Papatowai along the Tahakopa estuary and camped at a little park near the beach called Picnic Point. After dinner, we took a walk out along the estuary to the beach. The tide was low and way out. The dark silt flowing out of the remaining tidal pools into the river mouth created remarkable designs in the light colored beach sand. We even saw some more oystercatchers...but this time we kept our distance.

The next morning we went to the Cathedral Caves at the north end of Waipati Beach. These are a fairly big draw among the Catlins scenic areas so we actually had to pay a couple dollars to make the 20 minute hike through the forest and across a spectacular beach to see them. The caves are quite large with ceilings over 30 meters high. They are only accessible at low tide, so inside the sand is wet and pools of water collect on the floor. After spending some time on the beach enjoying the sun, we stopped off to see another Catlins waterfall, the 22 meter McLean Falls. We drove out to Waipapa point, the site of New Zealand's worst shipping disaster in 1881, to have lunch. A lighthouse now stands on the point. After eating, we took a walk down to the beach surrounding the lighthouse. We were quite shocked to see a Hooker sea lion mother looking after her two pups on the beach a few meters away. Actually, the mom seemed to be taking a nap while the two pups were busy wrestling and throwing sand on each other. They started getting a bit too rowdy and the mother ended up having to throw her weight around...literally. We were amused by the show for quite a while and took some great pictures.

We drove on to Slope Point to see the landmark at the southernmost point of the South Island. A walk down through some sheep pastures leads to a signpost on a cliff pointing the ways to the South Pole and the Equator. Notable in the area were the stands of macrocarpa trees, nearly blown over sideways by the strong southerly winds along the Southland coast. Needing to do laundry once again, we checked in at the Curio Bay campground in the afternoon. The laundry facilities consisted of a 1950's "ringer" washing machine, cold water only. Basically, the clothes get sloshed around in a big round tub and you take them out, one piece at a time, and then run them through a couple of rollers to squeeze the water out. Efficiency was not a part of this operation. After Sue pulled the clothes through the ringer, she would hand them to me to wring the rest of the water out by hand and then hang them on a clothesline. Approaching stormclouds almost made this whole effort pointless, but thankfully they passed and the late afternoon sun came out in our favor.

Curio Bay is home to another yellow-eyed penguin colony, so around dusk we took up a position at the penguin watching area with a few other people. The bay is also home to a fossilized forest of 160 million year old trees on the bedrock tidal platform near the penguin colony. A set of stairs lead down to the beach near the fossil area a couple hundred meters from where we were. According to the camp proprietor, those stairs may be used by the penguins returning from the ocean, so keep clear. He jokingly added that if we see anyone walking on the beach around dusk we should tell them to get off. Sue decided she was going to walk around the bay to the top of the stairs for a possible better view. We would keep in contact via our short-range walkie-talkies. A few minutes later some penguins emerged from the water below where I was and started slowly waddling up the rocks toward their nests in the brush. By the time Sue had reached the top of the stairs I could see that a few people had gone down to the beach to look at the fossilized trees, apparently unaware of the penguins. (We had learned in our previous encounters that yellow-eyed penguins will not come ashore if they see people on the beach.) Sue and I began conversing about the progress of the penguins via our walkie-talkies. Dressed in her khaki pants, the people around her on the stairs assumed she was a park ranger. Sue stepped right into the role, holding forth about the habits of the yellow-eyed penguin. Before long, she had everyone rounded up off the beach and watching intently for other penguins. We ended the night with a scramble around the rocks overlooking Porpoise Bay on the other side of the point on which we were camping. The tide was high and it was very windy. As the sun was going down, we watched set after set of enormous waves crashing into the rocks below, sending clouds of spray into the air.

The next morning we took a walk down to see the fossilized forest. It basically looked like a bunch of eroded stone tree trunks and stumps embedded in the rocky beach. We then drove to the town of Invercargill, our plan being to finish doing our laundry there before heading to a scenic area to the south called Bluff. The visitor center in Invercargill is co-located with the Southland Museum and Art Gallery near Queens Park. Shortly after we arrived, a torrential rainfall started coming down. As we were wandering around separately, Sue discovered that the museum is home to the largest public display of live Tuatara in the world. Tuatara are scaly prehistoric reptiles that are only found in the wild on predator-free islands off the coast of New Zealand. A museum employee explained to Sue that the oldest Tuatara, Henry, was over 100 years old. At one point the museum introduced another Tuatara, Albert, into Henry's habitat. Shortly thereafter, Henry chewed Albert's lips off. Henry now lives alone again.

As Sue was observing the several Tuatara, a very nice woman from the area informed her how lucky she was because the Tuatara are actually hardly ever seen outside of the holes they live in. But that day, they were all out of their holes, possibly to enjoy the natural rain that was falling on them through the roof of their habitat. When we found each other, Sue showed the Tuatara display to me and then we went to the visitor center to try to find out where there was a laundromat. As we were working that out, the woman who had told Sue we picked the right day to see the Tuatara started chatting with us again. Her name was Sharon and she introduced us to her husband Peter, one year old son Jared, and Peter's mother. After a bit of conversation, we worked out a friendly arrangement to do laundry and check our email at their house in return for a ride to their car on the other side of the park. (It was still raining quite hard.) Sharon and Peter were very hospitable and we learned from them, among other things, the proper way to eat Vegamite, the benefits of a fresh "kettle beast", and about the famous Buzzy Bee. They invited us to stay the night, which we did, glad to have a break from the less than perfect bed in the campervan. We were also treated to an authentic New Zealand barbeque, complete with fresh steak and new potatoes.

The following morning, a Sunday, we said goodbye to Peter, Sharon, and Jared and attended the service at Cornerstone New Life Church. Afterward, we met several members of the congregation and were invited for lunch by our new friends, Dean and Marina. At their house we met their children Karli, Hayden, and Joel. Dean surprised us by cooking up a very American meal - hot dogs! Sue made a big hit in demonstrating the proper application of mustard; the finished product exactly resembling a hot dog illustration in the children's book about New York City. Dean and Maria gave us some good advice about the stores in town and after saying goodbye we spent the afternoon shopping downtown.

Since our travels in Australia and New Zealand began, we had been hearing and reading about a popular meringue dessert called "Pavlova", allegedly named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. The origins of the Pav is actually disputed between Australia and New Zealand, with each claiming creation rights. Up until then we had not found any, but were eager to try it. Dean and Marina advised us to avoid the supermarket variety; homemade is best. So it happened that during our afternoon of shopping I came across a small bakery. One woman, presumably the owner, was working inside. I inquired about Pavlova and she said that she did not currently have any, but she would make some that night if I would be around the next day. I explained our campervan situation (and our tiny refrigerator) to which she tossed a "no worries" and told me to stop by the next morning. (Sure enough, the next morning she had some mini-Pavlova ready to go, complete with travel sized plastic containers. Four dollars fifty, thanks. Think that would ever happen in New Jersey?)

Late in the afternoon we drove out to the town of Bluff. I did a bit of hiking around Stirling Point while Sue napped in the van. That evening we watched the sun setting over Stewart Island from the car park of the observation tower on top of Bluff Hill. We camped there for the night.

In the morning we drove out of Invercargill a short distance to Wallacetown where we had been invited to visit by Terry, another church member we had met the day before. He treated us to a homemade New Zealand specialty - whitebait. These are small, translucent fish, the young, immature stage of several different species. The whitebait are mixed in with batter and cooked into a golden brown pattie. Served on buttered bread, they were delicious. Terry described a good catch of whitebait as "New Zealand gold". Being an accomplished hunter and fisherman, he showed us photo albums full of amazingly successful outings. He also entertained us with some great stories and historical details about the Southland region. Before we left, Terry generously gave us a large bag full of fresh vegetables from his extensive garden.

Back on the road, we travelled through the coastal town of Riverton where we followed Terry's advice and bought some fresh blue codfish to have for dinner that night. Continuing on we followed Terry's directions to some out of the way destinations at Colac Bay and Cosy Nook. Further on we came across a side road that I recognized as the place where Terry had said he has a fishing hut. We drove down the dirt road for a while and found his hut, noting that the landscape of the coast matched the pictures he had shown us earlier. Knowing he would be there the following day for a fishing trip, I actually considered waiting for him so we could try for the trout that had eluded us in Lake Taupo!

As we reached the edge of the rugged Fiordland National Park on the west coast of the South Island, the road turned northward. We passed through the town of Tuatapere and a bit farther on turned off the main road onto a mostly dirt and gravel track leading to Lake Hauroko, the deepest lake in New Zealand. For more than twenty kilometers we made our way down the choking, dusty road. Even with the windows rolled up and vents closed, the fine dust was seeping into the campervan. We actually had to cover our mouths and noses with bandanas in order to breathe without inhaling the dust. By the time we reached the lake our eyes were itching and a fine film was covering everything in the campervan, including outr teeth.

The lake area we had reached was somewhat disappointing. There was not much to see but a boat launch and a narrow view of the lake. However, that turned out not to matter much as we discovered a new feature of the area - the infamous biting sandflies. It did not take long for a horde of them to locate us. I was peeling potatoes on a picnic table outside the campervan as Sue was cooking the blue cod inside when they arrived. I had to actually run around the table while peeling to prevent them from landing on me en masse! I felt like Pigpen from Peanuts. Getting back into the van was an adventure. It involved running into a field about one hundred feet away, then sprinting back to get clear of the horde by a few feet. As I was approaching, Sue would slide the door open, slamming it shut as I jumped inside. This was followed by several minutes of hunting down any clever sandflies who happened to sneak in and then taunting the angry horde which had settled on the outside of the van, awaiting their next opportunity.

We sat down for dinner and were both amazed at how fresh the fish must be because it did not give off the normal cooking odors you would expect from fish. It didn't even smell fishy when it was raw. For that matter it didn't even really look like any fish we had seen. It was certainly a very different, meaty type of fish. Sue was wondering about it. I looked at it and declared that it was definitely blue codfish and that it looked fine. As I took the first few bytes, I couldn't believe how chewy and juicy it was. "Sue, this fish is great, you have to try it!" I also couldn't believe how much it didn't taste like any fish I had tasted before. In fact, it sort of tasted like chicken. The thought suddenly dawned on us... No, couldn't be! We had been taken for a ride?! They sold us chicken instead of fish! "No", I said, "she must have just given us the wrong bag by accident - they probably keep their chicken next to their fish." Hmmm...unlikely. As I was shifting emotions from confusion to anger and contemplating driving back to Riverton, Sue suddenly opened the refrigerator and pulled out a small white plastic bag. The blue cod. And lying on the counter, another identical small white plastic bag... Seems that it was us who kept our fish next to our chicken. Could have happened to anyone...right??

The next day we traded our sandflies for another covering of fine dust as we made our way back to the main road. Heading north once again, we came to the town of Te Anau, on the shores of Lake Te Anau. We cleaned up a bit at the visitor center, had lunch, and then did a bit of hiking to the control gates above the dam leading to the Waiau River. Back in town we did some shoping, then headed out toward Milford Sound in search of a good camping area. We ended up at a somewhat secluded spot some fifty kilometers before Homer Pass along a river near Lake Gunn. We made dinner and at dusk walked through the beautifully eerie moss-covered forest.

In the morning, I celebrated the five day anniversary of our last proper shower by going down to the riverbank and bathing in the freezing cold water. Sue was not quite as game, but she did help out by videotaping the event, regardless of my protests. As I was dunking my head and trying not to hyperventilate, I noticed that two older couples had come down to the riverbank with their morning coffee a few meters away. Caring more about being clean than being civilized, I gave them a smile and a wave. They pretended not to notice and fled shortly thereafter.


Pasture near Tunnel Beach

Descending to Tunnel Beach

Looking north from Tunnel Beach trail

Rock formations at Tunnel Beach

Big Rocks, Little Sue

Tunnel Beach cove

Stone tunnel leading down to the cove at Tunnel Beach

Tunnel Beach bird's nests

Dave on top of Cook's Rock

Cook's Rock

Sheep Country

Wool and No Wool

Lighthouse at Nugget Point

The Nuggets at Nugget Point

McLean Falls

Cathedral Caves (Inside)

Cathedral Caves (Outside)

Purukaunui Falls

Larry, Moe, and Curly

Mom and the Kids

Did not! Did too!

I can't hear you, I can't hear you, I can't hear you...

Don't look, but that guy is taking our picture.


WHEW! What did you have for lunch?!!

Arf, arf, arf Arf, arf, arf Arf, arf, arf, arf, arf (To the tune of Jingle Bells)

They say we look just like our mother! Oh, um, well, maybe not...

Ouch. Quit it. Ouch. Quit it.

All together now!

Uh...a little help here?

Is that a smile?

Such well-behaved little lambs...

Until they're hungry!

Slope Point

Using the ringer machine at Curio Bay

Yellow-eyed penguin flapping it's wings (Curio Bay)

Another penguin

Doobee Doobee Do...

Henry the Tuatara, Invercargill

"No Lips" Albert, Invercargill

Peter, Jared, and Dave (Invercargill)

Sue, Marina, Hayden, Dean, and Karli

Signpost at Bluff

Sunset over Stewart Island (1)

Sunset over Stewart Island (2)

Dave, Terry, and the 14-pointer

The rocks at Riverton

More rocks at Riverton

Eeyore (Colac Bay)

"Long Drop Lodge (Short stay only)"

Macrocarpa Trees (Near Cosy Nook)

Oi, McCracken!

View of Fiordland National Park from McCracken's Rest

Clifden Suspension Bridge

Comparing feet with the Takahe, cousin of the Foothanded Pukeko (Te Anau)

River bathing (Lake Gunn camping area)