January 20-23 South
There are two routes to and from the Banks Peninsula: the Summit Road which we took on arrival and the lower road which we depart by.
Leaving Le Bons Bay, we climb up into the hills, looking down on these amazing fjord-like bays and inlets, the deepest turquoise reflecting the blue-blue sky above. At the turnoff to Akoroa we head down, taking the lowland route west.
This takes us into the Canterbury Plains which basically run between the Rangitata River in the south and Rakaia River to the north, with the Southern Alps to the west and the ocean to the east. Its a land of patchwork fields, demarcated by the colours of the crops as well as the tall dark trees planted in soldier-straight rows to provide shelter to crops and livestock.
The small towns we pass through are clearly agricultural in their purpose, with large yards full of tractors and farming equipment for sale. There are agricultural supply stores, selling feed and fertilizer and herbicide. In one shop we spy a display of brightly coloured tags. The farmer picks his colour, then has the name of his farm imprinted, along with serial numbers for stock. These tags are then clipped to the ears of cattle, making them easy to identify at a glance. Dave told us that these can be accidentally torn off when cows poke their heads where they don't belong, so each cow also has a small permanent metal tag clipped on as well, but these bigger tags are easy to read at a distance.
The clothes in these shops are rugged and interesting. I am very drawn to the soft, moleskin trousers but settle on some thick woollen socks for considerably less than what is being charged in the touristy wool shops.
We pass a field full of very big bulls and are so struck by what we think we read on the sign, we have to back up for another look. I have seen tourists do the stupidest things with animals, including a woman I saw trying to put her arms around the neck of a wild seal lion for a photo ...so I guess it's a good idea to give them fair warning that bulls are not to be trifled with. I'm wondering if the message isn't a tad subtle though. First photo below is the field of bulls, the second is the sign.
Evening finds us in Oamaru, an interesting coastal town full of historical buildings. Oamaru is also noted for its penguin colonies, so we head off at dusk too see these.
First stop is the Bushy Beach Reserve for the yellow-eyed penguins. These medium-sized penguins come ashore as the afternoon wanes, making their way, one by one, to nesting sites in the cliffs above the beach. There is an excellent walkway with several viewpoints and an enclosed hide for viewing the penguins. From the hide we could see and hear them in the distance, but on returning to the walkway, two of them walked right up beside us. It was as if they wanted to have a look at us.
The Blue Penguin colony arrive home in full darkness. You view them by going to the observatory, at a cost of $15 per person. This gives you a seat in a kind of stadium. They have special lights focussed on the beach area where the Blue Penguins come in, so you can easily see their arrival and movement.
These little penguins are actually known as “fairy penguins” because of their small size. They have white chests and bellies that seem to undulate in the light as they waddle back and forth. On their back there is a thick, head-to-tail streak of iridescent indigo-blue. “Apparently” because of course we only see them at night when the blue doesn’t show.
After passing through the well-stocked souvenir shop we find seats in the stadium where a young lady dispenses penguin facts. She tells us that these little birds leave the rookery every morning at 4 am and travel together in “rafts” for safety ...swimming some 28 km out to sea where they then put in another 78 km swimming back and forth, fishing all day. They can hold their breath for two minutes and dive to 60 metres. As dusk creeps in they form up in rafts again and head for home.
Once it is dark they land on the beach and waddle up to the cliffs. There they huddled together for about fifteen minutes until some leadership emerged. One fellow started moving up the cliff ....very stealthily, head down, creeping furtively over the rocks. His back was covered by three mates who followed on his heels. When they got to the top of the cliff they huddled and looked around for another ten minutes or so. Then they darted across the path and made a run for the rookery on the other side of a fence, squealing all the way.
Meanwhile, the mob stayed huddled below, debating it. They didn’t move until another raft arrived behind them and they were forced up through the rocks. Over another thirty minutes they crept up through the rocks and eventually made it into the rookery and the nesting site.
We were there for over two hours ...and during that time over 100 blue penguins arrived. Most of the observation was very boring ...these birds are so furtive and stealthy about moving up from the beach that you just want to scream at them, “You are in a conservation park ...no one is going to hurt you! Get moving.”
In fact, after nearly three hours at the park we finally left. In the parking lot we ran into several small blue penguins that had done an end run on the organized approach and were coming up through the parking lot. Could have saved our money by sitting out there and seeing them up close!
In the morning we went down and had a look at the historic buildings on the Oamaru waterfront. This section is much larger than one usually finds in these smaller towns, but being a port city it must have had many mercantile and commercial buildings. Fortunately no one bulldozed these over because they are truly magnificent. The buildings are made from Omaru stone, a kind of limestone that when quarried is soft and lends itself to the architectural imagination.
There seems to be a real resurgence of interest in the area now and the buildings are coming to life again as shops for collectibles, crafts, furniture-making, and the like. I went into the Corner Collectible Shop and enjoyed poking around all the old things. It’s more like a museum of 20th Century life than it is a shop. Here were all the common items of everyday life over the past 100 years, with a special focus on children’s toys.
There was a doll’s pram so much like the one that I pushed around my grandparent’s farm carrying not only dolls, but kittens, ducks, dogs, baby brothers and pretty much anything I could catch and confine within it. I think it was actually my aunt's doll pram before it was mine, so it was a real oldie.
The fellow running the shop had a large collection of metal pedal cars, most of them not for sale. But he did have a mint condition 1978 Holden sitting in the centre of the shop. I believe this car had 87,000 original km on it. He proudly noted that the car is not restored, it is in pristine show room condition. Yours for $15,000.
Continued on from Oamaru down the coast, taking the Kakanui diversion. This brought us along through gentle green meadows that slid off into aqua blue seas. Reminded us of Prince Edward Island, a gentle, idyllic landscape unlike anything we’d seen elsewhere on this trip.
We stopped at Moerki Boulders. These are some interesting rock forms that have eroded out of the cliffs and now sit, up to 2 metres in circumference on the beach. We enjoyed the walk out to the them, picking up iridescent little shells enroute. Followed up with a climb up the cliff to the restaurant where we had cappuccinos and a date scone, which seems to be a speciality on the South Island.
In Dunedin we’ve decided to take the Taieri Gorge train, a four hour trip that runs from Dunedin to Pukerangi. It starts off by travelling through the outskirts of the city, past the debris of suburbia like closed cement factories and auto grave yards, past the hobby farms, past the serious farms, and finally, into the wilderness.
The route follows the Taieri River Gorge, through tunnels and over trestles, all rugged terrain. Couldn’t help noticing that there are a lot of geese in the river, white, grey, black. They look like a domestic flock that got loose and partied because there are geese everywhere you look. I guess they don’t have a natural predator out here.
The river, at this time of year was fairly shallow in most places, with reasonable looking rapids. Looked like it would be fun to run in a kayak. Just enough white water to make it fun but not enough to require the great skill I don’t have.
On return to town we drove up the steepest street in New Zealand – unfortunately a dead ender. You go to the top then you have to turn around and come back down. Not my cup of tea. If I’d realized that was what Steve was up to I would have gotten out at the bottom.
Final stop on the Usher tour of Dunedin was a drive to the top of Signal Hill for an overlook of the city. Nice view. The place is spotlessly clean, but the cement work and statues are literally falling apart. It was built in 1940 and could use some attention.
This morning we took the scenic coastal route south. This is called the Catlin Coast and offers spectacular sweeps of beach ...light-coloured sand, turquoise water ...just immense sweeps. There was a good surf up and the surfies were out.
We enjoyed a walk out to Nugget Point. This is a lighthouse set out on point with resident seals, seal lions, and penguins. Lovely walk with sweeping ocean views and lots of craggy rock formations.
Next stop was Purakaunui Falls. To get there we had drive into the back country ...very rural, with decrepit barns, woolly sheep, lush rolling hills. The falls themselves are an exquisite 15 minutes walk into the rainforest – towering old-growth kauri trees, tree ferns, and lush foliage. The falls descend in several tiers and are pretty spectacular. Really enjoyed the walk in – it was well worth it.
Continued on from there to Cathedral Caves. Steve really wanted to see these as they are supposed to be spectacular and can only be entered an hour each side of low tide ...according to the signs. At the time we start up the road we are already well past that hour ...but he persists and the money-taker says he can continue ...that he’ll be fine. It costs $3 to go down.
The caverns are humongous, extending several hundred feet in, but nothing spectacular to look at.
We carry on to Tokanui where we decide to check out the “motel unit” sign we see at the side of the road. The sign says “ask at the tavern” so we do.
It is absolutely charming. A brand new, stand alone cabin on the edge of a farm. The sheep are chomping away no more than five feet from our front porch. The unit has a kitchen/lounge/dining area, a beautiful bathroom and large bedroom. There is also a free laundry facility.
We fall asleep to the sound of sheep munching. Don’t they ever stop eating?
Carried on to Invercargill this morning – passing and seeing dozens of restored cars – some antiques, others 1940s and 50s era. There is some kind of car convention, a gathering of the clan. We’ve noticed these restored old car all over New Zealand, it seems to be a very popular hobby for retired guys. They restore them, then they drive them all over the country.
Riverton is the paua shell capital. These are beautiful blue/green pearlized shells that so much of the jewelery is made of here. Stopped at The Factory and bought a few gifts. The prices were considerably cheaper than we’d seen elsewhere. The paua shell is that gorgeous iridiscent green and blue that is used in so much of the jewellery you see in the South Pacific. Being the “Paua Shell Capital” and all, Riverton has a twenty-foot shell on display as you enter town – constructed I am sure.
From there, its on to Clifden, where we saw a very old suspension bridge. Steve goes through guide books and brochures and writes the “sights” on stickies which he attaches to the right page in the mapbook and then when we come to that place, we don’t miss anything important. Like very old suspension bridges or caves. We never miss caves.
Just down the road from the bridge was the Waiau Cave. There Steve teamed up with some young people from Israel and went caving. As it turned out, the young woman was claustrophobic and Steve had to talk her through – he’s had lots of practice doing that with his mother and then me. But this cave is one I would not have gone into. It is a natural cave ...no lights or guard rails or anything. Three ladders have been put in, the longest about 14 feet ...there is lots of squeezing through very tight spaces in the dark, lowering oneself over rocks and ledges into water, climbing steep and slippery embankments ...all in the dark. And what does Steve have for lighting? My headlamp and a small dimestore flashlight. Neither of them very bright or designed for caving.
Steve said there was lots to see in terms of limestone formations – small stalactites and stalagmites as well as shawls, the wavy sheets of calcite which hang from cave walls and ceilings edges.
On exiting, Steve was filthy - covered in mud and wet to the bum line. But he was grinning with happiness. I think the only thing that would make him happier would be if our boys were here to share these adventures with him.
Tomorrow we are off to Lake Manapouri and Fiordland. Traveling through
that area, home of the famous Milford Sound, is something I’ve been
looking forward to from the day we started planning this trip.