We began the New Year at the most Southern town in New Zealand, Bluff. Marked by a signpost highlighting just how far from home we are from home, 18,900km, Bluff sits on the edge of the coast with just Stewart Island sat out in the distance. From here it was on to the next part of our trip and working our way back up North.
We headed into the Catlins national park, a mix of hills, forest and coastline, on the South-east corner. We stopped at beautiful lookouts like Florence hill, perched above stunning sandy bays, and at the Purakaunui Falls. The waterfall is apparently one of the most photographed in NZ but following the dry weather was exhibiting more of a trickle, than its usual rushing water, for us.
Out on the coast we stopped at Nugget Point Lighthouse, on a particularly windy day the cliff top paths made for an exciting walk but the views from the point were worth it. Layers of rock have been left as isolated stacks dotting their way out from the lighthouse, and make an excellent playground for the fur seals below.
Just on from Nugget Point is Roaring Bay, home to a group of yellow-eyed penguins (or Hoiho due to their loud calls) which are some of the rarest penguins in the world. Only native to New Zealand it is though just 6-7000 remain. We quietly made our way to the hide, spending some time patiently watching the cove. We couldn’t believe our luck as one lone penguin returned from sea and hopped up the beach into the grasses where they nest, a real treat to see the penguin in the wild and to have timed our visit well. We couldn’t believe our luck!
The following day was one of our busiest as we headed to the Otago Peninsula and Dunedin. First stop the Royal Albatross Centre. We met our guide for a bit of an introduction to the world’s largest seabirds, the Royal Albatross have a 3 metre wingspan and are the third biggest in the albatross family. The albatross return each year to nest on the peninsula and when we were visiting there were four albatross sat on eggs. It was particularly interesting to hear the stories of each bird which they monitor over their life span. As the albatross mate for life it was sad to hear that one male has been waiting for weeks for his partner, who they think may have died at sea. His neighbour accidentally crushed her egg and will now have adopted chicks from a pair of young albatross who abandoned their nest. It was an impressively well managed centre with little interference but great outcomes for the chicks born here. Also from the observatory we could see seals, shag, spoonbills and some red billed gulls that only live in NZ, unfortunately the latter managed to poo in my ear so I wasn’t such a fan of them!
After our visit to the peninsula we wound our way back along the idyllic coastal road, weaving around bays and past boat sheds on the sheltered estuary, and into Dunedin. The city is laid out much like Edinburgh in an effort to attract Scots over when they created the city, there is more British-style architecture here making it quite different from the other towns and cities we have visited. We headed for the Speight’s brewery where we had a tour through the factory. It was interesting to hear how the beer making process has changed and see all the original machinery, best of all at the end we had a tasting of whichever beers we wished!
Heading out of Dunedin we stopped briefly at Baldwin Street, the world’s steepest street, it was pretty ridiculous and we walked part way up which was definitely all it needed before continuing on our way.
Further north we stopped on route to Oamaru at the Moeraki Boulders, the stretch of beach is dotted with perfectly spherical boulders of varying size. We had timed it perfectly with the tide too as the water was lapping around the bottoms of the rocky spheres as it retreated. Some have split open with erosion and reveal a hollow middle but also a centre of yellow looking quartz. We spent some time paddling around the boulders, a great side attraction, before reaching our destination for the evening Oamaru.
Staying at the Harbour Tourist Park, we had lucked out with great views, and an unexpected bonus that they have little blue penguins nesting in the park! That evening we headed to the Blue Penguin Colony and sat in the stands waiting for the penguins to return from the days fishing. The penguins return in ‘rafts’ (something of a safety in numbers approach), before hopping up the rocks and making a dash for cover. There was a big fur seal sat just by the hole in the fence to their nest boxes, causing some comedy penguin scattering, but he was otherwise unfazed by the attention of the crowd. Once home there was much squawking and squabbling, we were able to stand on the boardwalk between the nest boxes with penguins just an arm’s reach away! The final penguin count for the evening was 236 and that didn’t include the many we saw on the walk back, in a warehouse doorway, on the rocks, under a boat, and then little fellow I startled in our campsite when I came back from brushing my teeth! We thought we were lucky with our one yellow-eyed penguin, now we felt like Sir David Attenborough!
After a night spent penguin spotting from the roof tent, and then trying to sleep through the squawks we packed up and, like the penguins, went on our way again. Passing through the eclectic mix of regency buildings, and steampunk styling of Oamaru, we dipped inland for our next visit. Leaving civilisation for rolling hills we stopped at the Elephant rocks, a field of large limestone boulders once part of the sea, now lie randomly in a field. Although smoothed and shaped by erosion, these do not as the name suggests look like elephants. This was a fantastic playground for climbing and hiding, with some of the larger boulders being over 10m wide and 5m high. A great stop for a bit of fun exploring.
Soon we entered Mackenzie Country and drove the edge of the gorgeous Lake Pukaki that sits below Mt.Cook. The lake is glacial and as such has the bright blue waters we saw around Franz Josef, in the sunshine it was a glorious scene of lake, mountains and winding road to draw the eye. Mt. Cook itself sits dominant above the other peaks, surrounded by glaciers with huge rocky arêtes piercing the ice flows. We began the scenic walk of the Hooker Valley track, this is one of the shorter and more popular routes. The track is mellow and obvious and we wound toward the first of two suspension bridges. Crossing a full flowing river, taking in the scenery of the mountains, glaciers and lakes around us, was a beautiful way to spend an afternoon in the national park. That evening we camped with views to Mt. Cook and the stars and moon were so bright they were casting moon shadows around our tent.
Heading away from Mt. Cook the following morning we passed the edge of Lake Pukaki once more, before continuing to the neighbouring lake of Tekapo. Having been to Pukaki, Tekapo is a smaller slightly less majestic version but with more of a town. We had a paddle in the cool glacial waters and many people were out in boats or swimming. In town we visited the beautiful Church of the Good Shepherd; the simple stone chapel on the shore of the lake has an incredible view through a window above the altar. Nearby the statue of a border collie also commemorates all the canine companions of the areas farmers without which farming in this area would have been impossible. In fact the Canterbury plains reminded me of the British countryside, once we were out of sight of all the mountains that is.
The drive through to Christchurch was relatively straightforward, a stop at the oddity of Burkes Pass (a town of US memorabilia including cars, signs and antiques), the bright blue of Rakaia Gorge river and finally arriving to our wonderful Airbnb in Christchurch for the last leg of our trip.