In 2012 I retired again and we are traveling in Europe. In 2009 Ron and I retired and we volunteered at Quaker Meeting House in Wellington, New Zealand for a year.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

South Island week two

Although Invercargill has some interesting old buildings, the whole point of coming here is to go to Stewart Island. We had some rain overnight and the morning was quite chill, but the forecast wasn't too gloomy, so we got up early to catch the 9:30 ferry. I think maybe I had been envisioning a boat like the Inter Islander ferry, but this was a smallish passenger boat (maybe 70 people?). Luckily, we just hadn't been hungry when we got up, so we didn't eat breakfast. There were 10 foot sea swells coming from the cold south, so it was an uncomfortable one hour crossing. I was pretty gloomy about our Stewart Island experience when we arrived. However, coffee and scones in the South Sea Hotel perked us up, and we set out for some of the walks that lead out of town. First we went over hills through typical rain forest type NZ forest with ferns and moss and tree fuchsia, which can grow to 12 meters high. We climbed to the top of a lookout hill, then went down to a trail which lead around the coast line of the island. Eventually we stopped for a picnic lunch near a memorial for an early German missionary couple. Interestingly, the Maori had mostly lived on a much smaller nearby island, probably because it was more defensible. The missionary monument looked out over the straight to that island. We walked back around to the town and hung out around the exhibits at the Conservation Center until the afternoon ferry left at 5. The ride back was much easier since we were going with the wind and waves. I felt much better about Stewart Island by the end of the day. It helped that we stopped for a nice Thai dinner in Invercargill.

The next morning, after a brief look around the Invercargill botanical gardens, we went to the Anderson Park Art Gallery near our campground. It is a Georgian Style mansion built by a rich business man in the 1920s and now converted into a gallery. It seemed much more livable than Larnach Castle and did not have its tragic history. Apparently what makes it Georgian is that the entrance is on the side and the main hall runs along the back of the building, so all the main rooms look to the front. It had a nice display of New Zealand art works, ceramics and sculpture. The docent was chatty and friendly. Some of the furniture was very nice too. Then we were back onto the Southern Scenic Highway, which had brought us down to Invercargill and which ends at Milford Sound. We had a very nice picnic lunch in Riverton, overlooking the Strait to Stewart Island. Our last stop before we left the coast was Colac Bay, which has a statue of a giant surfer riding a wave. We cruised past Lake Manapouri, the first (or southernmost) of the great alpine lakes. There is a huge hydropower plant there, which was the site of much political protest 25 years ago when it was first conceived. The eventual compromise was that they built the power plant in such a way that the water level of two lakes - Manapouri and Te Anau - did not have to be changed. It did steal a lot of water from the outflow river, up whose valley we had been driving, but eventually they figured out a way to restore its flow to a more sustainable level also. Let us hope that the NZ public continues to fight for their environment. The current government wants to start mining in various national parks. It is hard to tell at the moment whether the opposition will be strong enough. We reached Te Anau town, on the south end of Te Anau Lake in the late afternoon. All of these lakes are huge, nested at the eastern feet of the Southern Alps. You cannot see one end from the other because they curl around hills and have many branches. We enjoyed walking along the lakeshore and exploring the unpretentious tourist town.

We headed out early the next day to Milford Sound to avoid the tour buses, although tourism right now is certainly less than in the summer. We went about half way up Lake Te Anau and then turned to go around a hill and up a different valley. The famous Milford Track starts where we turned off. You have to take a boat across the lake and then end up going down one of the feeder rivers to the sound. This follows the old Maori track for gathering greenstone. But they decided that the road could follow a different track. It goes over the lowest pass in the Southern Alps, except for the fact that to actually make it work, they had to blast a 1.2 K tunnel (the Homer tunnel) through an inconvenient ridge. They are very good at tunnels on these mountainous islands! We made one stop on the other side of the tunnel to hike up to the Cleddau River Chasm. This is not a deep chasm, but very narrow, where the river has carved tunnels and spun rocks around until they create holes and bowls in the boulders. The path went through green, moss covered forest.

Milford Sound is as spectacular as you have always heard. The visitor end looks out at Mitre Peak and up a couple of river valleys as well as the Sound. We had decided to camp there overnight to have better luck on catching clear weather. The afternoon looked good, so we booked onto the last cruise of the day, leaving us time to do a little walking around on the shore. There were 13 other people on our cruise, which left at 3:30, and we had very good views, although the captain assured us we would have had even more spectacular waterfalls if it had been a typical rainy day. There were a couple of points where we saw baby seals napping, waiting for their mothers to return. Just as we turned back into the Sound from the ocean, a couple of the other tourists spotted some dolphins playing in our wake. We had nice sunset colors over Mitre Peak when we returned back to the Lodge.

It was amazing to wake up the next morning and get out of the van to a view of high cliffs just getting touched by pink morning sunshine, a small crescent moon in the sky, and the sound of the rushing river. The morning was even clearer than the previous day. We took another walk around the flat area and then headed on out. On the other side of the Homer tunnel we took a nature walk at Lake Gunn through a black beech forest. It was one of those places that is totally green - moss and fern on the ground and up onto the tree trunks until you get the green of the leaves. These Southern Hemisphere beeches resemble Northern Hemisphere ones, but are not related. They are related to the beeches we saw on the top of a mountain in New South Wales, and to fossil beeches from Antarctica, so the family dates back to Gondwanaland. We also walked around little Mistletoe Lake in the dry hills away from the tall mountains. Back in Te Anau for a second night we saw a very good film about Fiordland National Park. It was conceived by one of the helicopter pilots who fly tourists into the Park, so it has lots of those views where suddenly the floor of the valley drops away over a thousand foot cliff. It showed us lots of parts of the park that we will not see. One of its best effects was showing the valleys filled with fog and likening that to when they were filled with glaciers.

The drive from Te Anau to Queenstown goes through high country pasture like much of the intermountain region of the US. By the time we got to the south end of Lake Wakatipu, it was just scrub. The lake is shaped kind of like this: '-, with Queenstown in the central portion. We never got to the northern half. We ate our picnic lunch in the main park in Queenstown, but avoided the rest of it because of its excessive tourist reputation. We drove onto Arrowtown, which was just too cute as a restored mining town, so we continued on to the scenic route to Lake Wanaka. This turned out to proceed up a huge number of tight switch backs over a high dividing range with some great views and scary precipices. Lake Wanaka is another large alpine lake at the bottom of Mount Aspiring National Park, which was hidden by clouds from a storm that was hitting the West Coast. All we got were high winds and an occasional drizzle. We took a nice 2K walk along the lake into town and back. Mt Aspiring is the second highest peak in New Zealand, after Mt Cook.

The next day the mountains were still overcast, so we drove down to a trail along the Clutha River which drains Lake Wanaka. The river is wide and swift and cuts a little gorge through the dry valley. It was lined with willow trees, which looked very natural, but I think must be introduced, because I couldn't find anything like them in my NZ tree book. We turned around after 1-2 K when we came unexpectedly to a gold panning area, because basically the terrain wasn't that interesting and wasn't going to change. We then drove to the neighboring Lake Hawea. The two lakes were probably part of the same glacier, but are separated by a high enough ridge that when the glacier melted, it formed two lakes. We drove as far as that ridge and looked over at the top half of Lake Wanaka. The road continues on to the Haast Pass and the West Coast, where it still looked very dark and wet. We ate lunch at a different park at the south end of Wanaka and hiked along that shore for awhile. Finally, late in the afternoon, it looked liked the weather was clearing enough that were drove up towards Mt. Aspiring and got a couple of peeks and pics of the peak.

We drove the next day to Omarama, gateway to Mt. Cook National Park. The weather was still not favorable for the mountains, so we drove down the highway towards the coast as far as Duntroon, which turned out to be really interesting. Nearby is an area called Elephant Rocks. These are an exposed part of the underlying limestone of the area which has been eroded into large and interesting shapes. It was used as one of the sets for the first Narnia movie. Between Elephant Rocks and Duntroon, there is also a limestone cave - more like an overhang - that has Maori drawings in it that are still well preserved and legible, including a picture of a European sailing ship. The town itself has a pleasant geological museum. Geologists and paleontologists from Canterbury come up frequently because the area is rich in fossils, so the town folk started up this museum. It features dolphin and penguin fossils, boulders full of sea shells, and "rattling rocks," which are mudstone which had pebbles inside which hollowed out big enough spaces before the rock solidified that they can rattle when you shake them. So Duntroon was an unexpectedly satisfying side trip at the end of our second week on the road in the South Island.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

South Island week one

March 31 we headed out of Wellington on the ferry. Alan P. was kind enough to drive us to the terminal at 7:15 am, which apparently is also part of the Kiwi farewelling tradition. We took the train to Christchurch, which was a lovely way to travel there. We went through hilly farm country at first and then past a big salt flat where they make a lot of the NZ salt. Mostly the train goes right along the coast, and we occasionally saw seals. The Kaikoura mountains come down close to the sea. These are the mountains we had been surprised to see the year before from the south coast near Wellington. No snow on them yet. Then the train headed back inland and we went through the dry and California-like Canterbury plains.

We picked up our camper van the next morning and headed down the coast to Oamaru, which turned out to be a great place. The camp ground was very nice, and right next to the city park and an easy walk into town. We decided to book the penguin tour that left from the campground around 6:30 pm, and it turned out to be really good value. The bus went through town with the driver explaining about a lot of the buildings. Oamaru was a very prosperous early town and has a very nice cream-colored limestone that is quarried nearby. Since trees are very scarce, most of the old town is therefore built in stone, which they decorated with lots of Corinthian pillars and such like. Eventually the economy faltered, shipping went elsewhere, and the buildings just sat there until the town started to remake itself as a tourist center.

The next stop on the tour was a colony of yellow eyed penguins, so called because of yellow feathers in a band around their heads. They are quite rare, but this group was quite comfortable, practically underfoot along the viewing platforms. They build nests in burrows high up the cliffs to avoid sea lions. The chicks have left the nest now and the adults are entering their moulting season when they lose all their feathers and have to stay on land for a month.

Then the bus took us around to the blue penguin center. These are the smallest type of penguin, sometimes called fairy penguins. Oamaru has built up a big nesting site for them in an old quarry right off the ocean, building them nesting box burrows, which they really like. The colony can number two hundred. There is a big grandstand where all the tourists get to sit at sunset, and the beach is lit with orange lights. As far as the penguins are concerned, we can see them but they cannot see us. At first small groups, called a raft, came ashore, and then eventually a group of about twenty. Each group would hesitate as it came to the top of the ramp and had to cross an open area to get to the nesting area. Finally one or two would venture across and then the whole group would rush over, since nobody wanted to be last either. Meanwhile, the rangers are telling us all about the penguins and the work that is being done there with them to increase their numbers. I don't know of any other locale doing such a good job of helping the penguins and making them accessible to people. We couldn't take photos there as flashbulbs seriously freak them out, but we could photograph the yellow penguins, because they come to their burrows earlier in the evening.

The next day we took some of the walking tours of Oamaru. Its other claim to fame is as a childhood dwelling place for Janet Frame, and we got to see her house, and had a good conversation with the docent there. Frame lived there during the thirties and early forties, so she is a slightly later generation than Katherine Mansfield. She was nominated for, but did not receive, a Nobel prize. I mostly know of her from a Jane Campion film version of her autobiography called "An Angel at My Table". A lot of her other writings relate to her childhood in Oamaru. The house did a good job of relating the work to the place, much like Katherine Mansfield's birth house in Wellington.

The next day, as we drove down the coast, we stopped at a bizarre and perhaps unique Kiwi icon, the Moeraki rocks. These are a collection of round, meter-wide boulders in the surf which are apparently (via Wikipedia) accretions around calcite crystals in the mudstone, sort of like mud pearls. I found the most interesting ones to be the ones that had split open along veins, called septeria, of purer calcite. The morning fog added its own mystery to the setting.

We arrived in Dunedin about noon, and walked the 2 kilometers from the campground into town after lunch. The center of Dunedin is an octagon shaped park with a statue of Robert Burns occupying a prominent position. His great-nephew Thomas Burns was the first Presbyterian clergyman in town. We took a historic walking tour around town, with a major stop at the Otago Settlers Museum. Its most interesting feature was a room filled floor to ceiling with portraits - paintings, drawings, and photos - of early settlers.

Sunday morning we went to Meeting for Worship, and saw several people that we know from their visits to Wellington. In particular, we were pleased to receive an invitation to dinner from Elizabeth T. and Elizabeth D., whom we have had many interesting conversations with. We passed the afternoon in the Otago Museum. I particularly enjoyed the Victorian Attic, which is filled with natural history exhibits - skeletons and stuffed animal and insects. We also enjoyed their butterfly environment - a 3 story tropical rain forest. When we got to the Elizabeths', our most fun activity was that they took us out to a glow worm area they had heard about but never been to either. It was about a ten minute drive and a ten minute walk up a trail along a stream and then we were in an area with steep muddy banks on both sides with lots of glow worms. It was probably a good thing that there had been a good drizzle the night before. The worms, actually the larval stage of an insect, are about the size of a pin and have a blue pin point of light at their rear end. They suspend little ropes of sticky stuff from their bodies and capture and eat insects that are attracted to the light. It had also changed into a clear and starlit night, so there were white points of light peeking through the trees and blue points of light all around. Quite magical.

The next day we drove out onto the Otago Peninsula. Our first stop was the Larnach Castle, built by a rich banker/politician about 1871. He called it "The Camp." It is really a beautifully made building, not too big, about four rooms per floor with a wide glassed-in verandah around the first two floors. The workmanship in wood and plaster around the ceilings and walls are marvelous. There is a high tower above the third floor with a panoramic view. We also enjoyed walking around the extensive gardens. The story of the first owner ends tragically. He had five children, one of whom died around age twenty. His first wife also died fairly young and he married her sister "to be a good mother for the children." After she died, he married a younger French woman. There were then rumors that she and his oldest son were having an affair, and he shot himself at the Pariliament building in Wellington. The Castle stood mostly unused for a long time, and then a young couple bought it in the early Sixties. The wife did a lot of the restoration herself until she could afford to hire help. She stills lives there and her kids run the business.

After the castle, we drove out to the tip end of the peninsula where there is an Albatross Center. We enjoyed the displays there, especially about recent efforts to work with fishermen to limit the inadvertent killing of seabirds during long-line fishing. We were too cheap to pay for the tour out to the nesting sites, so we walked along the public cliffs and did get to see one albatross that was soaring around for a short time.

The next day we drove to Invercargill via the Southern Scenic Route, which goes along the coast through an area called the Catlins. Lots of forest and rugged coast and sheep farms. Rain threatened on and off all day, so we picked our scenic stops based on whether it was actually raining at the time. After a surprisingly nice lunch in Owaka at the Lumberjack Café (shades of Vernonia), our first stop was a short hike to Purokaunui Falls through old forest. The second was a board walk out into an estuary and seeing several new birds (finally saw some Bellbirds) on the walk back. Finally we stopped at Curio Cove where the ocean has exposed a petrified forest. There are several large blown over trees and many stumps. The trees were covered by a large mudslide of volcanic ash 160 million years ago. The tide was out, which made it easy to walk out onto the large mudstone ledge. The waves were very big, crashing onto the rocks and making large clumps of kelp sway most enticingly in the coves.

Thus ends our first week on the South Island. It turned very cold (overnight lows in the thirties) towards the end of the week with occasional rain, but none the less we saw lots of good stuff. We love our camper van, especially with the extra duvet and hot water bottle that we were sensible enough to order for this fall camping. More to come!