Checking out of the place in Queenstown at 10 am and not able to check in to the new place until 2pm gave us four hours to fill. Now, had we been in Colorado, we undoubtedly would have been parked in front of the TV with family watching the Broncos in the Superbowl. But, you are reading a blog about our adventures in NZ , a place where most don’t even know what the Superbowl is, let alone care to watch it. When the day dawned with clear skies and it looked to stay that way, we didn’t put forth too much of an effort to find a venue that might be showing the game. Paul was off for the weekend getting out to explore more of what we’d come to see held more appeal. We opted for a drive along one arm of Lake Wakatipu up to the little town of Glenorchy. This drive ranks high of my list of most scenic in the country, well worth traveling again. At the end of town where the Dart river enters Lake Wakatipu we found a carpark for the Glenorchy lagoon walkway. We spent part of the afternoon walking the track through wetlands watching dragonflies and black swans on the lagoon with snowcapped mountains as a backdrop.
For lunch we walked across the street to a quaint, cute café where we also found some “smoke and fire” peanut butter. (Yep, it tastes just as yummy as it sounds.) From there we drove into Wanaka to the wonderfully spacious house we’d booked for us and our friends.
Paul and I had a day to get situated and stock the fridge before picking our friends up from the airport in Queenstown. We were happy to arrive and find that we were able to watch the last part of the Superbowl and see the Broncos win. After which we headed to the supermarket. It’s worth noting that during the trip to the supermarket in Wanaka, we possibly saw as many people in that one store as we’ve seen in most of the places we’ve visited thus far combined. The place was swarming with people. Navigating the produce section was like bobbing for apples in language stew. I couldn’t begin to imagine how many different languages were being spoken in that little bit of real estate in the heart of this pacific island. It was fascinating to simply stop for a minute and watch and listen. Though it quickly became a bit overwhelming and challenging attempting to maneuver through the crowd in an unfamiliar store and still be able to find the items on our list. Finally we wiggled our way into a line at the front of the store and eventually made it outside, where the entire side of the store was lined with young people staring at their phones, a sure sign there’s free wifi nearby.
The house was amazing, one of the more luxurious places we’ve stayed. Since we’d booked for four of us the place was much more roomy that what we’ve been staying in . The next day we drove into Queenstown to pick up Rick and Ruthie. Such a fine day for a drive and wonderful to be here to welcome them back to New Zealand. The first item of business was food, they were both famished.
We stopped in historic Arrowtown for a nibble to hold them over till dinner. Then we had a wander around hoping to give the travelers time to stretch their legs before sitting in the car for another hour. It was one of the warmest days we’ve seen and awesome to get out and soak up some sunshine. The drive from Queenstown to Wanaka offers some fantastic views over the Gibston valley, plenty to keep the weary travelers awake.
I made good use of the spacious kitchen, while Paul was on Grill (BBQ as the kiwis say) duty. We’d planned and prepped to have most of the meals at the house. I enjoyed having little extras that we don’t get as much in most of the places we stay. The highlight for me in this kitchen was the handy dandy, hands free milk steamer with the Nespresso machine. During our leisurely morning while making cashew pancakes (still one of my faves) I realized there were two more coffee lovers in the house. Yippee!!
I’d mapped out a driving route for the afternoon for us to explore a bit of Mount Aspiring National Park, more virgin territory for Paul and I. The first stop along Hwy 6 out of Wanaka was at a place labelled “Blue Pools.” Eagerly we took the short walk to the pools. We even got to cross a fun swing bridge. The stunning, appropriately named blue pools were under the second swing bridge.
While gazing at the bright blue water our attention suddenly shifted in the direction of a huge splash and whoops and hollers of a group of youngsters. One had jumped from the bridge into the chilly water. Then we noticed a girl, apparently next in line for the jump, standing outside the handrail of the bridge nervously clutching the cable. She could only muster a wiggle and a glance down when the group encouraged her. She clung to that bridge and kept clinging. She stayed there even with more prompting from her friends. By now a crowd of curious onlookers both from the lower riverbank and on either end of the bridge waited anxiously for her to take the plunge. Finally a splash followed by an eruption of applause from everyone around. We turned to make our way back to the car and scooted past the group as another one stepped over the rail. Seeing the pools was enough for us. On up the road we passed over the summit of Haast pass and began descending in the direction of the West coast. Shortly we arrived at Fantail Falls. We could hear the roaring water as soon as the car doors opened and it was only a matter of a few steps through the forest before we stepped out on to a rocky riverbed. Surprisingly it wasn’t the falls that caught our attention first. The riverbed, as far as you could see in either direction, was absolutely covered with cairns. There were tall ones, tiny ones, piles built upon piles, odd shaped rocks in some. Each and every one was unique. Maybe what made the whole scene even more intriguing was realizing how transient this scene was. As soon as the next heavy rainfall came the river would surely rise and reorganize the stones, toppling and scattering them by nature’s design. Yet there stood literally hundreds of the little statues, like monuments to each visitor who’d come before us. It was like getting a snapshot of some enchanted fleeting moment. There was a sense of wholeness; a comprehensive presentation of “now” as all that is necessary. Fantail Falls was delightful to look at, but it certainly was not the highlight of this stop at least for me.
We decided that this would be the pivotal stop before returning to Wanaka. On the return trip we pulled over at the Haast pass summit and decided to walk up to check out the view. The climb was longer than expected but all four of us pushed on and kept going until we reached the top.
The expansive view of surrounding mountains gave a great perspective on the Beech forests and how they look so much more dense from up above because of the canopy. Once back at the house we enjoyed another wonderful dinner together.
Plans for the next day involved staying closer to town and taking a break from the car. Morning was casual and offered the opportunity for some relaxed conversation. It’s wonderful to have friends to chat with and bring a new perspective to the table. We departed on foot for the Rippon winery where we sipped wine and nibbled on a platter lunch while overlooking the vineyard above the lake.
After that we took a different path into town along the water’s edge and had a look around town which included sampling some decadent Patagonia ice cream. We made one more brief stop at the supermarket and just carried the groceries to the house. It was refreshing to simply walk, chat and relish company.
We set out for more sightseeing on our last full day in Wanaka. This time we followed the road to Treble cone ski area. The gate was closed for access to the mountain so we paused in the carpark to watch several paragliders sailing overhead. After watching a couple of them land gracefully making it look so easy, we continued up the gravel road toward Mt. Aspiring National Park. As we rumbled along movement caught our eye. There were sheep dogs out working a herd of sheep. It was like our own private little show. There were at least 8 dogs all working as a team and responding to short whistle commands from the guy standing by his pickup. It appeared he was just working with his dogs, not necessarily gathering the sheep. The whole scene was fascinating to watch. We drove up a short distance further before turning around. On our way back we pulled in to check out a track around Diamond Lake and started up toward the lake and the lookout over Lake Wanaka. After reaching Diamond Lake, the track began climbing dramatically. Many stairs later, we paused for a look down over Diamond Lake.
The incline of the trail promised better views further up so we pressed on. The view from the next lookout was worth the effort. Down below you could see the undulating shoreline of Lake Wanaka, little peninsula’s jutting out and a couple islands. Far in the distance the township was visible and coming toward us were two bi-planes flying side by side. They turned overhead and separated. One flew back toward town, then rose up and up and up before diving and twirling down through the blue sky. We breathed in the scene for a few more minutes, and then descended the trail to where we’d begun. Picnic lunch at the next stop, where we found another perch looking out into the beautiful blue water of Lake Hawea.
The next day we left Wanaka, going south to the Catlins area. I’ve been anticipating seeing the Catlins for quite some time. We put off packing until morning, which wasn’t the best choice because it was the first attempt at fitting all four of us, all of our luggage, the kitchen, laundry room items and Paul and my winter clothes into Zed. Now Zed has a big boot but we sure tested the limits. Just at checkout time, as the cleaning crew pulled in we managed to get in the car to leave. It was apparent to all of us that it’d be worth it to invest a little more time into packing more carefully. Catlins, here we come. Along the road down to Alexandra, we passed a winery Paul and I had visited in December and at that time commented on wanting to bring Rick and Ruthie back. We didn’t realize we would be driving right past it. That was the first stop of the day. From there we continued along the Clutha river. The landscape changed noticeably from dusty dry brown hills to an area with rock outcroppings everywhere before we entered green hillsides and stone fruit orchards. The temptation was too much for fresh fruit, after driving past several roadside stands we pulled into one and purchased an assortment of peaches, apricots, cherries and plums. These were the perfect accompaniment to peanut butter sandwiches for a picnic lunch alongside the river. Eventually we rolled into Balclutha and stopped at the supermarket for a few groceries. Then it was just a few minutes to our destination of Kaka point, a small little town sitting right on the southern coast, just minutes from Nugget Point Lighthouse. There is something exhilarating about seeing the ocean again after being inland for a while. All of us peered eagerly out the windows for glimpses as we drove along. Our place in Kaka point sat on a hill, just up the road from a short track that led to the town’s only restaurant. This is where we had dinner the first night. We went early enough that luckily we were able to get a table before those who had bookings began arriving. The view was amazing. Of course, we had to make time for at least a short walk on the beach, the ocean beckoned us.
Welcomed back to the cottage with the song of a Tui we settled in to the cozy little place to reflect and rest. The Catlins fill a large portion of the southern part of New Zealand and in an effort to explore as much as we could, we planned a couple day trips from Kaka point. Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay were on our list as well as Cathedral Caves and a couple of waterfalls and lighthouses. Since Curio Bay was the furthest, we decided to venture to that spot first. This meant more driving, but at least we weren’t quite as cramped, as we could leave the majority of our stuff at the house. Following the Southern Scenic Route we wove through hills, watching the sheep graze and toetoe grass wave alongside the road and around the rivers. We stopped at a lookout high over a beautiful beach, and continued on toward Curio Bay. When we turned to drive into the carpark we had to make our way through the campground. Each site was lined with dense flax bushes taller than Zed.
What a perfect privacy fence, though reading the signs warning of sea lions sleeping in the flax made me reconsider it as a great idea in a campground. The carpark sat high on the cliffs overlooking Curio Bay to one side and Porpoise Bay to the other. It was a delightful place to have lunch. The maps indicated a petrified forest nearby so after a stop at the toilet, we set out to find it. We didn’t have to search long as it was just up the hill from the campground. We’d arrived with the tide out far enough that we could see the petrified trees from the overlook.
This was quite an interesting geological formation. As we were eating lunch we’d seen people walking on the hill across Curio Bay so we walked on past the petrified forest to find the trail. There wasn’t a trail to be found. We walked up the road a ways, turned around and started back to the car. We walked up to a driveway for a little church with welcome signs, Rick had gone ahead of us and next thing we know he’s waving us to come join him. The minister welcomed us in and pointed the way up the hill through the sheep paddock behind the church. Thanks to Rick’s inquisitiveness we soon found ourselves atop another hill with breathtaking views. “Trespassing with permission,” as Ruthie put it.
On our way back through the church the minister gave us a map of the Catlins and pointed out some of the “must see” attractions. It was pretty awesome to get input from a local. Two of the places he mentioned were already on our to-do list but he added some additional valuable information about when to visit and what to expect. He confirmed that the Cathedral caves were only accessible at low tide and suggested we check at the visitor center for the exact times for when the gates would be open. Once we found out, it was apparent that we would not be stopping there on our way back, that adventure would have to wait until tomorrow. We weren’t ready to call it a day yet, though. Before we left Curio Bay we ventured down onto the vast sandy beach at Porpoise Bay.
Colorful orange, red and white seashells stood out against the beige sand brushed by the gentle waves sent in from the turquoise water. Periodically, if you paid attention you could catch a glimpse of the hector dolphins swimming and jumping in the bay. On our drive back to Kaka point, we detoured off the main road a short distance to take the walk to Purakaunui falls. Pictures of these falls are almost always shown in advertisements for the Catlins region and they were of course even more stunning in person. I found it a perfect photographic opportunity.
Next item of business was dinner in the little town of Owaka just up the street from the teapot garden. One of those, strange yet adorable little attractions along the road that catch your eye. Daylight remained through dinner and was only beginning to wane when we left the restaurant as we were further South and in the middle of summer. Literature and signs indicated there were a few places that we might have the chance to see yellow-eyed penguins and that the best time was late afternoon toward dusk. That meant it was prime time to drive to Nugget Point to check it out.
We abandoned the walk to the lighthouse in favor of going to the blind erected for tourists to view these penguins. Sure enough, we could see one standing in the grass down by the beach as we approached the blind. We didn’t have to wait long for a spot at a window and over the next hour or so we peered out scanning the sea for penguins coming ashore after a day of fishing to feed their young. We were treated to seeing about six. It was fascinating to observe them in a natural environment. With that, we decided to call it a day and go back to the house for some rest.
The next morning, we planned our day to accommodate a visit to the Cathedral caves at low tide. This meant we had some time in the morning. First order of business was coffee from the local shop/restaurant–yep it was all one business, they just operated out of one side for morning and afternoon and the other side for evening meals. Coffee in hand for the three coffee lovers we drove back to Nugget point, this time to check out the lighthouse. It was a wonderful walk on a well maintained track along the cliff. One of my favorite features of the track was the poetry inscribed in stone in several spots describing the location, the geology, weather patterns and animals that inhabit the area. Once we arrived at the lighthouse it was the “nuggets” that stole the show. The lighthouse was picturesque from a distance but standing there at the base of the building, all senses were bombarded from the sea. On one side waves came crashing into a small bay with a stony beach, the cliffs acted as an amphitheater and the roaring of the stones being tumbled by the waves demanded attention. Around each of the rocks sprinkled out from the point, layers of bull kelp swirled about in the water as the waves came and went. Seals sunbathed and slipped in and out of the ocean playfully swimming and chasing each other. I believe we all could have stayed there for the entire day but the Cathedral Caves were calling and the tide would not wait.
We stopped at the house for lunch and then piled in the car to visit the much anticipated caves. Upon arrival, Rick went and paid our small entrance fee and came back to inform us that the woman assured us we would get wet. Well, that information would have been helpful a couple hours before so we could have come prepared. I was the only one with a change of clothes. That was only because I didn’t want to get caught by changing weather and dropping temperatures. We’d come this far, might as well check it out. As we descended the track to the beach, we encountered many smiling faces and many of those faces on folks with drenched pants. I could not imagine what we were getting into. I didn’t have to wait long. We stepped out on the sand to see several people wading out into the waves coming and going around a rock wall. Uh?! I guess the cave is around that way? I swung my backpack off and began stuffing my jacket inside. I figured I’d leave it on the rocks to stay dry. Then if, I mean when, I got soaked, my stuff wouldn’t be too. I looked over to see the other three rolling up their pant legs and also preparing for the adventure.
Off we went to walk and wade our way around the rock wall sticking out toward the ocean. As expected, there was the initial shock of cold water lapping at my legs, what was not expected was the larger wave that snuck up on me and washed up over my waist. Whew! Now that was a wakeup call. Soon I didn’t notice the cold water as much, I got used to it, or my legs went numb, not sure which. With one eye out to sea, watching incoming waves and one on where to place my foot without stepping on a rock or in a hole, I managed to make it around the rocks, and thank goodness there really was a cave as promised. The huge arch in the rocks opened up to a sandy beach, now beginning to welcome the waves inside as the tide was starting in. We stepped inside and snapped a few photos then turned back to face the waves again. Again we turned to make our way further down the shore, there were lots of people coming from that direction, so there must be more to see. There was indeed more to see. Around the next rock wall was another sandy beach at the entrance to a second cave. What we didn’t find out until later is that you can walk in one and out the other. This we did not attempt and likely wouldn’t have completed anyway, as there was reportedly a 6 ft deep pool to swim through at the back. After a couple more photos and of course a selfie we all began working our way back to the track. All of us, our bottom halves soaked, laughed together. I’d bet we looked like a bunch of kids caught jumping in puddles. I am certain that Rick and Ruthie would have chosen something different than blue jeans to go wading in the ocean, had they only known.
It was a chilly, soggy ride back to our house with one short stop at a tiny convenience store to get veggies for BLTs for dinner. I easily found the tomatoes but the “L” became a “S” as the only green leafy item I could find was silverbeet. Why not make dinner an adventure too? The BST sandwiches were a delicious adventure topped off with divine chocolate treats we’d saved from our trip to the Patagonia chocolate shop.
As you would expect, wet clothes and shoes do not dry very quickly in a cool humid seaside environment. We tried everything we could think of to help the process but we still had to pack a few wet clothes for the trip to Invercargill the next day. This was the first morning since we arrived that we woke to clouds. We were extraordinarily grateful for this. The Southern coast is not known for abundant sunshine. How fortunate we’ve been to see the Catlins with such favorable weather. Our course to Invercargill took us back along the Southern Scenic route through the Catlins. It gave us one more chance to make stops at places we’d skipped over during the previous days. McLean falls was the first stop. The walking track took us through some beautiful forest along a stream with moss and ferns covering much of the ground. The track had a much gentler incline than some we’d done so far. The walk itself was beautiful even before coming to a spot where we could walk out on stepping stones into the stream. It made you feel like you were standing in the middle of the running water, just down from a rock embankment where the water was tumbling over.
We continued on up the trail and in the distance you could hear the roar of another waterfall getting louder and louder. Soon we stood at the base of the falls looking up in awe. The boys clamored up another section of rocks to see the upper falls while Ruthie and I stayed to enjoy the view from the bottom. We were all grateful for the timing of our arrival because a large group of kids walked up only after we’d had a few moments to enjoy the falls undisturbed.
Once we wedged ourselves back in Zed we drove on, past Curio Bay and on to Slope point. We decided to stop at this Southern most point of the South Island because we were so close. It was a convenient stop for a chance to stretch our legs. In contrast to the previous walk, this one was a mostly straight path along a fence through a sheep paddock with no trees at all. Instead of watching for slippery rocks to avoid we were avoiding for slippery piles of poo. The track ended abruptly at the cliff edge where we took scenic shots of the coastline and interesting plant life.
By this time the sun had burned off the morning cloud cover. For lunch, we picnicked at the next stop at Waipapa lighthouse.
The strong ocean breeze created a bit of a challenge for the picnic, but kept the sandflies away. Dunes covered in beautiful tufts of grass provided a picturesque foreground for the lighthouse. All along the route we’d marveled at the trees. Many, by their shape, showed evidence of nearly constant wind. Entire groves of trees looked like they were leaning because the southern side exposed to the weather was bare and the opposite side carried all the foliage. These gave the landscape a unique character.
It seemed there was always something different to feast your eyes on. You’d think they would eventually get saturated with scenery. Our overnight stop in Invercargill was mostly to break up the trip from Kaka Point to TeAnau, but we still had a couple places in the area we wanted to take our friends. After we checked in and unloaded some of the stuff out of the car, we took the short drive down to Bluff to see the overlook there. It was a clear afternoon and Stewart Island stood out clearly across the Foveaux Strait. Oreti beach also looked stunning. It seemed like you could see to forever in all directions. Paul got us back to the hotel and then took a break from driving. We found a restaurant we could walk to for dinner. Half of Rick and Ruthie’s trip was history, but the most anticipated stops still lay ahead.