Northwest to Lake Tekapo

March 21

Heading inland again, we travelled through pastures, along rivers and around lakes with hydro-electric power plants to Lake Pukaki for our first stop of the day. The visitor centre at the bottom of the lake provides wonderful opportunities to photograph Aoraki Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand – on a clear day. We were fortunate to see the summit through the hazy clouds.

On to Lake Tekapo for more beautiful views of the Southern Alps beyond the lake. We hiked Cowans Hill through pastures and forests back to the village of Tekapo. A soak in the hot pools at Tekapo Springs eased weary legs and feet.

The Church of the Good Shepherd is a popular photo subject on Instagram. We tried to capture it on a cloudy night with the full moon rising and during the day with busloads of tourists tours all trying to do the same thing.

The observatories at Mt. John are staffed by faculty and students of the University of Canterbury, Christchurch. This area is a dark sky reserve, making it ideal for astronomers. Star-gazing tours are offered at a couple of observatories in the area. The views during the day take in Lake Tekapo, the Mackenzie Plains and the Southern Alps.


The Otago Peninsula and Oamaru’s Penguins

March 19

Steep hills dotted with sheep, tiny bays and inlets, wild sandy beaches and winding coastal and high roads are features of the Otago Peninsula, a recreational area for the city of Dunedin. Tours to view the albatross nesting site and penguin colonies are popular tourist attractions.

Looking across the harbour to Dunedin

Allan’s Beach on the Pacific coast of the peninsula

An albatross uses its 3-metre wingspan to glide effortlessly on the wind.

On the drive from Dunedin to Oamaru, we stopped to see the Moeraki boulders, a geological curiosity. These are almost perfect spheres of gray rocks, about 3 metres across, scattered along the beach, half-buried or emerging from the cliffs.

Further north, Oamaru’s little blue penguin colony is the must-see attraction in town. The penguins are protected and studied to learn more about their current status and survival. We waited patiently in the viewing area with many others until, after 9 pm, the penguins clambered up the rocks heading for their burrows after a full day at sea. They are small birds, weighing a kilo or less. This photo was taken at a rescue facility in Christchurch as photography was not permitted as the birds came ashore.

We learned that farther down the shore at Bushy Beach, a small colony of rare yellow-eyed penguins have been seen. Fortunately, a monitor was on site to provide some info about the birds and how to see them. Access to the beach is restricted after 3 pm; we watched from trails and viewing platforms high above the beach.

Steampunk HQ is a quirky museum displaying Victorian sci-fi creations.

Dunedin and the Taieri Gorge Railway

March 18

Dunedin Railway Station is a treasure of a building with its gingerbread exterior, Royal Doulton mosaic floor tiles and wall ornamentation. When it opened in 1906, it was the largest and busiest station in New Zealand, the hub of the commercial centre.

Taieri River is the third longest river in NZ. The Wingatui viaduct and twelve tunnels are required for the train to travel from Dunedin to Pukerangi. When originally constructed, the train delivered miners to Central Otago and moved produce and livestock on the return journey to Dunedin and north.

Scenes of Dunedin:

A needlepoint panel depicting the settlement of Otago hangs in First Church, the most impressive 19th-century churching New Zealand. Depicted from left to right are the two Presbyterian churches in Scotland where the founding minister served, the ships bringing the settlers to Otago, and First Church with the town and countryside in the background.

Signal Hill overlooks the city and the Otago Peninsula. Even though the weather is misty, the spire of First Church is easy to spot on the right, the railway station with its red roof in the lower left.

Cadbury has a presence in Dunedin.

Across from the railway station is the building housing the Dunedin Law Courts.

The Otago Museum is one of the best I’ve visited. Wonderful displays on natural history, Maori and Pacific cultures, and eclectic collections, among others, are beautifully presented. We spend some time in the tropical rainforest butterfly house with species native to the Philippines and the South Pacific.

Invercargill to Dunedin via the Catlins Forest Park

March 16

Invercargill is a town of 55,000, providing access via ferry to Stewart Island from the nearby port of Bluff. It was founded in 1856 by Scottish settlers and thrived on farming, lumber, coal and wool until the mid- 20th century. A highlight is the Queen’s Park Gardens for greenery, vivid blooms and a stumpery. We’ve spotted stump fences in sheep pastures on our drive through Southland.

The biographical story of Invercargill bike racer, Burt Munro, and his record-setting Indian motorcycle was recounted in the film, The Fastest Indian in the World. We visited E. Hayes Hardware store to see the movie replicas of the bike which set land speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah in the late 50s and 60s. Hayes Hardware has allocated much of its floor space to displays of vintage motorcycles and cars. Visitors are welcome to wander the store and enjoy the collection.

Invercargill marks the southernmost point of our adventure. From here, we’re starting northward to Dunedin, planning to arrive in Auckland in early April. The scenic drive through the Caitlins wanders along the coast, through rolling hills and pastures to the Forest Park. We stopped for a short hike to see these popular falls. Because of the low rainfall, the water flow is reduced.

The falls in action

Here’s the song of the tui with the sounds of the waterfalls in the background. The tui is a large honeyeating bird that can mimic human sounds and often seems to be following along on our hikes.

Te Anau to Southland

March 15

The ‘downtown’ area of Te Anau is home to this statue of a takahe, an endangered, flightless bird that was thought to be extinct until 1948 when a small group were discovered in the Murchison Mountains across Lake Te Anau. A lakeside hiking track offers a pleasant way to access the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary where a small population of takahe and other endangered birds are maintained in a park setting. Find news about the latest chicks on their blog:

We spotted these beauties along the trail.

For our evening’s entertainment, we chose to visit the Te Anau glow worm caves across the lake. The atmosphere inside the caves is rather surreal as crouching to navigate some areas is required, the lighting is very dim, the sound and echo of rushing water is disorienting, and the final excursion in a small boat with 8 passengers is silent. Lights and photos are not permitted as the worms are sensitive to light and sound. Check out this rather disjointed video of the experience for an idea of the topography of the Te Anau area and the size of the main lake:

A small beach in a secluded area on the far side of Lake Te Anau, only accessible by boat.

From Te Anau, we drive south through rolling hills of pastures, farms and small towns at the base of the Southern Alps, hazy in the distance.

Once at the South Coast, we make stops at Gemstone Beach, Monkey Island (only accessible on foot at low tide) and the town of Riverton (which is referred to as the Riviera of the South). The area is known for its fabulous, secluded, long and wide beaches with overhanging cliffs, beach stones and seashells and brisk winds from Antarctica.

Doubtful Sound

March 13

Doubtful Sound is less frequently visited than Milford. Access to this fjord from Te Anau involves a short bus trip to the village of Manipouri, then across Lake Manipouri by boat. From the small visitor centre we travelled by bus over a 1-lane dirt road to the departure point for our cruise on Doubtful Sound. Interesting to learn that our luxurious new coach for the second part of the journey had just been transported by barge across the lake to provide service on this rough road. Landslides and washouts are common; our driver assured us that she was in constant contact with the base in case of any problems. To board the boat, a set of heavy metal staircases and a wharf have been fastened to the cliff face. There’s no luxurious departure lounge with souvenirs and washrooms here as Milford offers.

Although the day dawned with scattered clouds in Te Anau, heavy rain set in for our trip across Lake Manipouri and down to the cruise boat. It gradually stopped and clouds lifted to reveal cliffs and mountaintops. With all the rain in the past 24 hours, waterfalls were streaming off the cliffs. With fewer tourists and boats, the fjord is eerie and silent. Due to its remote location, this is the same scene that Captain James Cook would have viewed on his Tasman Sea voyage in 1770. He named it Doubtful Harbour as he doubted whether it was navigable under sail.

As the mist clears on our return from the Tasman Sea, a ship appears from the channel around Secretary Island. The Golden Princess is circumnavigating New Zealand; eventually we will travel homewards from Auckland to Los Angeles on board this ship. Cruise ships have restricted access to Doubtful Sound and are not permitted in Milford Sound.

At the main wharf near our departure point, the Fiordland Navigator is taking on provisions and passengers for an overnight journey. This 3-masted cruise boat provides nature photography sessions, kayaking and even swimming for the hardy as part of the itinerary.

The skies are clearing on the eastern side of the Alps as we cross Lake Manipouri for the trip home.

Back in town, we have clear skies over Lake Te Anau at sunset.