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A Quick Trip to the South Island – November 2020

January 21, 2021

New Zealand’s borders continue to be closed, so international tourism has come to a halt. As a result, crowds are way down and in late November we decided to take a short break and visit the South Island.  Schools weren’t out yet and there were no crowds–travelling was both pleasantly relaxed and surreal.

This was our route—it was unusual because we wanted to visit some places we’d never been before and because of the geography and limited number of through roads in the South Island, we had to do some back tracking.

We flew in and out of Dunedin and when we arrived early morning it was cold and raining—more like winter than late spring!  We picked up the rental car and headed to our first destination, Te Anau Downs (midway between Te Anau and Milford Sound), and the weather cleared as we drove up.

We got to our destination nd as we were checking into the Lodge the manager said, “You’re the only people we have checking in today.”  We asked how many people were checked in and he said, “Actually, you’re the only ones here.  Pick whatever cabin you want.”

And here I am seated outside our cabin overlooking the lake.

We decided to explore the area and drove north towards Milford Sound. It doesn’t take long before the scenery changes as you approach the foothills of the Southern Alps.

One of the joys of travel in the South Island is the absence of traffic and that’s what we had this time—but it got to be a little unnerving because we weren’t seeing any other people.

Mirror Lakes, on the way to Milford Sound, is a very popular photo spot for visitors.

This is the car park at the Mirror Lakes —that’s our car.

The lakes reflect the mountains and as it was a calm day we couldn’t figure out why the water wasn’t flat.

But soon we saw the culprits!

Missing out on a photo op at Mirror Lake wasn’t a big deal, we already have photos from a previous visit to Milford Sound some years ago, and plus there was lots of amazing scenery on the drive.

We took a leisurely long walk by Lake Gunn.

The vegetation around the lake looked like something from Jurassic Park.

The next day we drove south, back through Te Anau to Lake Manapouri where we would start our overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound.  This part of New Zealand is called Fiordland because the southwest coast has a series of fjords which early explorers incorrectly named Sounds (e.g., Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound).

Both fjords and sounds are inlets in valleys that have been filled with sea water. However, a fjord is a narrow glacial valley with steep slopes, while a sound is a wider valley with gentle slopes formed by the flooding of a river—one of the many tidbits we learned on the trip!  Other than Marlborough Sound, all the Sounds in NZ are actually fjords.

Most of Fiordland is a national park and largely uninhabited and inaccessible except by boat or air.

Manapouri is the starting point for trips to Doubtful Sound. It is a small quaint settlement on the edge of Lake Manapouri.

 It has the smallest bookstore in New Zealand:

And a church and rectory that have been converted into a restaurant and bar!

Our trip involved a ferry ride from Pearl Harbour across the West Arm of Lake Manapouri followed by an hour long bus ride over a hair raising road through Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove where we boarded the Fiordland Navigator to cruise Doubtful Sound.

They had a GPS screen on the ferry which shows the route across the lake to Deep Cove.

With no overseas visitors, the ferry was not full.

And the 35 kms trip across the lake was beautiful and peaceful.

At the other side of Lake Manapouri we got off to board the bus to Doubtful Sound.

This is where the underground Manapouri Hydroelectric Power station is based.  Built in the late 1960s, it is the largest hydroelectric power station in New Zealand, and is noted for the controversy and successful environmental protests against raising the level of Lake Manapouri to increase the station’s hydraulic head.

On board the bus our driver’s talk included a lot of interesting trivia about native birds and plants and we stopped a couple of times on the way to check out the views and the vegetation.

Sphagnum Moss is plentiful here because of the high rainfall this area receives and it is commercially harvested for export.

 He also told us that the road was frequently impassable due to weather conditions and was one of the narrowest and steepest roads in NZ.  Apparently it cost $1 per centimeter to build, which sounds pretty expensive, but when you do the math it is pretty cheap when you consider the terrain.

A little over halfway through the trip we got our first look at Doubtful Sound.

We arrived at Deep Cove and we had our first look at our boat – Fiordland Navigator – where we would be staying overnight:

We checked into our cabin—not much to do there!

We were encouraged to explore the boat and could go anywhere we wanted.

You could even visit the captain on the bridge for a chat.

But I resisted the temptation to do a Titanic from the bow!

This was our plan for the trip.

After a warming soup, the boat anchored and they took us out on tenders to explore one of the arms of the Sound.

We got a close up look at the variety of vegetation on the slopes.

As we cruised along the edge we saw little tawaki – the Fiordland crested penguins, one of the rarest penguins in NZ, resting on the rocks.

After about an hour of exploring we went back to the boat and then sailed out of the Sound into the Tasman Sea.

Normally we would have turned around and headed back after about 10-15 minutes but we ended up spending well over an hour drifting around as we were surrounded by a group of four humpback whales.  It was impossible to get a good picture of them with our little camera, but we saw them breaching and blowing air.  The whale sighting wasn’t on the itinerary and dinner was delayed while the entire crew came out to watch the show.

After the whales drifted away, we headed back in to the Sound and saw many seals resting on the rocks.

The dinner on the boat was excellent and we met a lot of fascinating people.  Even though there are currently no foreign tourists in New Zealand, we met immigrants from all over the world and had some interesting conversations.  The beautiful sunset that evening was a wonderful ending to a fantastic day.

The next morning we explored another arm of Doubtful Sound and were treated to some of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen.  I apologize for the number of photos, but it’s impossible to pick the best because they are all so amazing.  The water was dead calm and reflected the surrounding landscape.

From the stern of the boat you could see the impact of our wake.

As an added treat, the captain shut off the engine and requested all the passengers and crew to be on deck and remain quiet and refrain from any activity (including taking any photographs) for the next 10 minutes. We all remained still and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the stillness and the awe-inspiring beauty and experience of just being in the moment.

The sails were up for our return journey to the dock.

Once the Fiordland Navigator docked at Deep Cove, we took the bus back to Lake Manapouri and then got the ferry back to Manapouri.  Onboard the ferry we had an interesting conversation with some professional fishermen who work in the Sound catching crayfish, which are basically the size of lobsters but with no claws.  They work several weeks on and several weeks off and make huge money because the export price of crayfish is astronomical.

From Manapouri we drove to our next destination and along the way we stopped at a bird sanctuary by Lake Te Anau.  Besides other native birds, we were also fortunate to see a family of takahe, which is a big deal because until the 1940s, takahe, which are currently New Zealand’s largest flightless birds, were thought to be extinct.

Today there are no takahe in the wild—they are all protected in bird sanctuaries.

We drove north through lovely countryside.

And small settlements–

We drove towards Queenstown and Glenorchy along the shore of Lake Wakatipu.  A lot of scenes from The Lord of the Rings were filmed in the area.

Lake Wakatipu was formed by glaciers and is long and narrow.  We approached from the southern end and followed the lake shore all the way.

Continuing up past Glenorchy, we drove to our next destination, Kinloch, which is on the northern end of the lake, literally past the end of the road,  as the sealed road ends when you round the northern tip of Lake Wakatipu and the rest of the trip to Kinloch is on a gravel road.

The only accommodation in Kinloch is a Lodge.

The only other structure is a boat dock as you can take a boat taxi across from Glenorchy.

After an idyllic stay at Kinloch we headed back to Glenorchy.  There is a turnoff to Mt. Aspiring National Park which is where the Routeburn track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks starts.

Although the actual Routeburn track walk takes several days, there are shorter parts of the walk you can do as day walks.

We set off to explore part of the track.

We crossed a few interesting bridges.

But due to the mild winter, the Bridal Veil Falls weren’t quite as spectacular as they normally are after the heavy snow and rainfall.

We also walked the Nature Loop walk through a beech forest and ran into a lovely octogenarian couple visiting from Auckland and spent over half hour chatting with them on a range of interesting topics.

After a very enjoyable long walk, we headed back to Glenorchy pausing along the way to enjoy lovely sights.

At Glenorchy, we explored the Glenorchy Lagoon and Walkway – a lovely wetlands track which included an elaborate boardwalk through the wetlands.

We basically had the place to ourselves and, ironically, the only other people we met were two women from Auckland involved with the travel industry who had just finished a conference on how to reboot the travel sector.

After the walk, we continued the beautiful drive along Lake Wakatipu back to Queenstown.

Queenstown has become New Zealand’s busiest tourist spot, and so we have avoided it for the past few years.  But with the borders closed and no overseas tourists, it was a lot quieter than usual, but still lively with lots of Kiwis visiting and taking advantage of the special rates offered by the hotels and other tourist attractions.

No, we did not bungee jump or do any other adventure activity, but did spend time relaxing and exploring the beautiful lakefront and the lovely Queenstown Gardens, and even managed to meet up one evening with our Auckland friends Barbara and Roger who were also holidaying in Queenstown that week.

Not far from Queenstown in a little town called Arrowtown.  Arrowtown was a bustling place during New Zealand’s gold rush in the late 1800s.  They have restored the old buildings and the place has a quaint and historical look.

During the gold rush, workers from China were brought in and their treatment is a dark page in New Zealand history.  There is a restored Chinese settlement on the site of one of the original settlements.

We stopped for a picnic lunch at Lake Hayes, known for its black swans.

We also visited Coronet Peak, which is one of New Zealand’s most popular ski fields.  Even though it’s closed for the season, you can drive up and enjoy the views.

And we even saw a wedding photo op.

After a couple of nice days in Queenstown, we headed back to Dunedin via a different route driving through Cromwell – New Zealand’s fruit growing district.  When we were in Arrowtown, we got chatting with a lady selling cherries and fresh cherry ice cream.

She told us that if we stopped at her orchard near Cromwell we could pick our own cherries and we thought that was a neat idea.

They had amazingly stable ladders and she pointed us to the trees with the most ripe cherries.

Needless to say, we ate a lot of cherries over the next several days!

We had a very leisurely drive to Dunedin on basically empty roads and enjoyed the scenery along the way.

The yellow flowers that you see on the hillsides are gorse and broome, two plants brought in by the early English settlers which have unfortunately spread uncontrollably and have become invasive weeds displacing native plant life.

In the late 1800s, Dunedin was New Zealand’s largest city and there is an amazing amount of fascinating historical architecture.

It is said that Dunedin’s railway station is the most photographed building in New Zealand.  It’s easy to see why and we added to the count of pictures!

No, the clock tower is not leaning – it was just challenging to get a picture of the whole building with our little camera.

The interior booking hall is covered in Royal Doulton porcelain tiles and has a mosaic floor featuring locomotive designs.

The building is now used for multiple purposes – sports museum, art gallery, restaurant and also caters for the Dunedin Railways tourist trains

Dunedin historically had a large Scottish population and, in fact, Dunedin is a form of the Gaelic word for Edinburgh.  So, it’s appropriate that there be a statue of Robert Burns in the town center by the University of Otago – the oldest University in NZ established in 1869.

During our stay in Dunedin we spent time exploring the Port Chalmers Maritime Museum, the Otago Museum of science and and natural history and also the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum which has displays about the cultural history of the area. There we saw this really cool Maori kite hand crafted from native plants – harakeke and toetoe:

The hotel we were staying in was right by the old Cadbury chocolate factory.  It had been a mainstay of Dunedin since 1930, but in 2018, to serve their shareholders better, Cadbury closed the Dunedin factory and moved production to a lower cost centre overseas.  The government has purchased the site and to serve the community, new Dunedin hospital buildings will be constructed here.

Our friend Janet who lives in Christchurch grew up in Dunedin and her parents still live there and she visits Dunedin often. So we checked to see if she would be in town so we could meet up.   She wasn’t, but suggested that we visit her parents, Gary and Margery Blackman, for a cup of tea.  We went over to their lovely home at 10am expecting to spend an hour, but didn’t end up leaving until after 2pm!!  They are both absolutely fascinating people with interesting careers—in addition to a career as a professor at the University of Otago medical school, Gary is also an award winning photographer, and Margery is an award winning weaver—both their works are on display in art galleries and museums in NZ and around the world.  We so enjoyed their company and could have easily spent all day with them.

We drove out to the end of the Otago Peninsula to visit the Royal Albatross Centre near where the giant albatross nest each year.

We decided to do a tour and after a lecture about albatrosses, we were taken to an observation deck to see the nesting birds.

We had experienced very calm weather during our trip but the wind picked up the very afternoon we were at the albarosss colony – which was a real blessing as we got to see a few albatrosses flying around the nesting colony.

You can’t get a real idea of how big albatross are from the distance you view them from—their wingspan is three meters!!

In addition to the albatross, there were seagulls and shags nesting.

The following day we drove up the inland side across from the Otago Peninsula to Aramoana.  At the end of the point there is a causeway out into the ocean.  Here is the causeway we saw from the albatross colony the day before.

And here is the albatross colony seen from the causeway:

We spent some time at Aramoana Beach and the Aramoana maritime conservation area.

During our walk to the end of the causeway we saw many seas birds and several sea lions sun bathing.

Our plan was to fly back to Auckland from Dunedin but the Dunedin airport is a fairly long drive from the city centre, so we headed south to Taieri Beach which is a spot on the Southern Ocean not far from the airport.

We checked into our B&B for the night and enjoyed the view over a cup of tea.

We took a walk down from our cottage for a long walk on the white sandy beach. It was a nice way to relax on the last evening of the trip.

We didn’t see any wildlife except for these foot prints – a good reminder of what we leave behind once we are gone.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2021 3:04 am

    This is gorgeous and I can’t take it in all at once, but I’ll have an obnoxious time to while away in a waiting room this afternoon and it’ll be the perfect thing to take my brain somewhere else. I love “Wee Bookshop.”

  2. January 22, 2021 4:49 pm

    What a great holiday and so special at this time, when we can’t go overseas to visit friends and family and they can’t come here. But it’s a perfect time to visit some of our own country and visit places we haven’t seen.

  3. Gail Robertson permalink
    January 23, 2021 11:28 am

    So many memories came flooding back. Tom & Mahrukh, thank you so much. In my opinion, no need to apologize about the number of photos. They add to the life of the tale, love Gail.

  4. Ruth permalink
    February 16, 2021 2:57 am

    Wonderful! So enjoyed our “arm chair” trip. Thank you for the captions and explanations of the photos. Only makes us wish, even more, for when we can visit again.
    Looks like it was a beautiful, restful trip which you both deserve so much! Love, Ruth and Tom

  5. March 14, 2021 3:14 am

    Wow…brought back a lot of fond memories of our 2005 N Z trip. Did both islands, taking the ferry over to the south island from Wellington and then driving down the west coast to Queenstown and then over to Milford Sound, Mirror Lakes and a lot of the area you visited. Spectacular is the only word I can think of. Stay healthy:)

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