After Makarora the final sections of our New Zealand trip explore the fiords, mountains and lakes of Southern South Island ending in Dunedin and the Otago peninsula. From Manapouri we spend an amazing 24 hours on Doubtful Sound before heading back to the Lakes District for a great few days walking the hills around Arrowtown. Then, after a bit of Central Otago wine tasting we are off via a bit of Otago high country to Dunedin, Edinburgh of the South.
We are sorry to say goodbye to our wonderful hosts at Wild Earth Lodge as we start the drive to Manapouri via Queenstown. The drive takes us past some of New Zealand's most spectacular lakes. First Lake Wanaka (below left) and then over a short pass to Lake Hawea. From Wanaka we take the old Crown Range road over the mountains and past the quaint old hotel in Cardrona. There is a skifield here although it is hard to see where - hardly Val D'Isere! The Crown Range road is pretty busy as we go over the pass at 1080m passing masses of lupins along the roadsides. Even busier are the cars coming out of Queenstown. This is super crowded - real tourist central as we had been warned but we still have a look around and a rather good Nasi Lemak and crispy squid at Madame Woo's where we also bump into a familiar face from England. Then a drive along another long lake - Wakipitu before a cross country stretch to arrive looking over lake Manapouri and the mountains of fiordland (below bottom).
We had been warned about two problems with Fiordland - rain and sandflies. When we wake there are thick clouds over the lake but these burn off as the day progresses. We are really lucky to get more good weather as it does rain over 200 days per year here. Sandflies are another matter - we stop for a picnic on a walk along part of the Kepler trail and immediately these tiny black flies from the lake are on us. Despite copious amounts of insect repellent our arms and legs have numerous small red bites after three days. A visit to Te Anau for beer and wine provides an opportunity to visit the rather good Bird Sanctuary (see birds of New Zealand blog) but we decide not to drive on to Milford Sound as it is a long way and likely to be very touristy. Besides we will have 24 hours in a more remote Sound the next day...
The tour to Doubtful Sound (which is really a fiord) is only possible because in the 1960s the NZ government built an extraordinary road over the Wilmot pass which links the west arm of lake Manapouri to the fiord. This was in order to bring in heavy equipment to build a huge underground hydroelectric station at West Arm to provide electricity for an aluminium smelter further south. The lake is 180m above sea level so the water is fed from the lake to turbines deep underground before flowing along a 10km tailrace tunnel and out into the Sound.
With the road in place, high speed catamarans take visitors across lake Manapouri to West Arm. Here we are met by Jason, our captain, who drives us in a minibus over the pass for a first view of the fiord (above left) before descending the steep, windy road to our boat, the Southern Secret. Five or six boats operate day and overnight cruises on Doubtful Sound. We have opted for a smaller (and more expensive) boat with only six cabins and a crew of two. We are not disappointed. We are with a jolly group of six Dutch and two Americans and looked after wonderfully by captain Jason and his assistant/cook Kirsten. We are soon cruising along, past steep slopes covered in ferns and trees with spectacular waterfalls and seagulls following our wake.
As well as the amazing scenery there is plenty to do and see. After a buffet lunch with great crayfish we cruise along the fiord exploring some of the side arms. As we get closer to open sea (see the map above) Jason gets out fishing rods and we fish for our supper. This involves dropping the sinker to the bottom at around 30m, reeling in a bit and waiting. The sandflies arrive in swarms but we brave it out and catch blue cod, a Jock Stuart (above) and a tarakihi all of which contribute to a delicious dinner later. I am excited to see that an albatross is among the seabirds interested in our fishing.
After watching some seals we find a buoy and haul up a pot full of crayfish. Jason shows us how to measure the crayfish, throwing back those with too small tails as well as most of the females. The professional fishing boats will catch hundreds of crayfish, sometimes storing them in holding pots depending on current prices, and then sending them out by helicopter. While Kirsten prepares supper we watch some lively bottlenose dolphins swimming under our bow and leaping out of the water. An amazing sight with the backdrop of mountains. There are around 70 dolphins living in the fiord.
Next morning the engines starts around 6.45 and we grab a light breakfast before exploring some more arms of the fiord on the way home. Jason points out tree avalanches where strips of the rocky mountainside are bare rock. Slowly the mosses grow back before creating enough soil for ferns and then tree ferns to cling on until eventually trees are able to grow back. We cross back over the Wilmot pass to catch a cat at 10.30 which takes us back to Manapouri ready to head off to our next destination - the South Island Lakes District.
Arrowtown sprang up in the 1860s during the gold rush. The first two prospectors found huge quantities of gold in the Arrow river and the word soon spread. Soon there were thousands of prospectors staking claims along the river and up into the hills. They were joined by immigrant Chinese who proved very effective at extracting more gold from claims that had been abandoned by their original owners. Today the high street retains an "old style" look and many original cottages, now tarted up by new owners, are scattered around the town. Busy with tourists during the day in summer it is still much quieter and smaller than neighbouring Queenstown.
On our first full day in town we set out on one of the many fine walks in the area. The "Sawpit Gully" trail runs up above the Arrow river (above left) before swinging up a steep stream gully and then traversing more open country. We are surrounded by flowers - daisies and dandelions, foxgloves and lupins. Higher up we see hydrangea and wild roses. The hillsides are dotted with dead pines where "rewilding" is taking place and we get some fine views of lake Hayes and the Remarkables. After a steep descent, and a rest, we meet an old friend in the pub and then for a delicious dinner at Aosta.
Arrowtown is in Central Otago, a wine growing area famous for its Pinot Noir. So next day we head off towards Gibbston stopping at the Chard Farm winery in a spectacular position above the Kawarau river (winery is in the distance on the left of the lefthand picture above). Generous and friendly staff let us sample a number of their wines and we particularly like the "Closeburn" chardonnay, a Gewürtztraminer and a couple of the Pinot Noir reds. We move on to Kinross to try a few more Gibbston local wines and eat a tasty lunch. Then back to Arrowtown stopping at the Kawarau bungy bridge. This is apparently the original of all bungy jumping locations and is now a pretty sophisticated operation. We watch one guy hurling himself off followed by a woman who really looks like she doesn't want to jump. She does.
From Arrowtown we head off to Dunedin via Alexandra. We arrive at our friend Judy's house where she and her kids are recovering from her lodgers celebrating Chinese New Year the night before. She is taking us up into the Otago high country near the Poolburn reservoir where kids Max and Jessie are going to catch crayfish for our picnic. This is really off the tourist route. Stunning moorland scattered with eroded schist bolders and tors. Having just driven through Cromwell fruit growing country and the big fields of the Ida valley it is pretty wild. This is where NZ realist painter Grahame Sydney paints his big skies. Some of the "riders of Rohan" Lord of the Rings scenes were also shot up here. After a relaxing afternoon we stop off in Ophir for a light supper at the "Pitches Store" hotel and restaurant before driving another two hours to the coast.
Dunedin, the "Edinburgh of the South" is our final stop on our tour. We have chosen to stay by the beach in St Clair in an old seaside apartment block that has been tastefully redecorated - Majestic Mansions. The sun is shining again as we sample the local cafes on Sunday morning before heading out to the nearby Otago peninsular. We have planned a circular walk around Sandymount followed by some more wildlife watching. Views from the walk are again spectacular (top above) - this is such a beautiful country. After lunch at the pub in Portobello we head out to sea on a one hour Monarch cruise. The knowledgable guide talks us through the nesting birds - shags (aka cormorants), seagulls and the Northern Royal Albatross. There are also lots of seals and pups on the rocks under Taiaroa (or Pukekura) Head. We then get more close-up views of the albatross from the Albatross Centre on top of the cliffs where we also get a very interesting talk and film. I have updated my "Birds of New Zealand" webpage accordingly.
Central Dunedin is also interesting to visit with its Edinburgh street names and Victorian architecture funding by the goldrush. There is also a terrific museum - Toitu Otago Early Settlers - which has been beautifully curated. Right next door to this is a surprising Chinese Garden like something straight out of Shanghai. We finish our mini-tour with a wander around the streets of the warehouse district which have some spectacular grafitti.
This has been a fantastic five weeks exploring this stunning country. From my hundreds of photos I have pulled together a small gallery here. A big change coming up next as we head off to French Polynesia and more diving ...
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