First part of the Southern Scenic Route, September 2010
by MagdaDH_AlexH on January 14, 2011
We missed one of the highlights of the Catlins' Coast, the Cathedral Caves, by sheer lack of luck and planning.The Caves are only accessible at low tide and thus it's vital that you check for the opening hours/tide times the day before. I am normally very much for spontaneous exploration, but this one is worth a bit of planning as the access road (a charge of 5 NZD per person applies) is opened and closed approximately 2 hours before and after low tide (but not 7.30 am or after 8.30pm). The tide table is on the home page of their website http://www.cathedralcaves.co.nz/ for the whole year, so can be checked well in advance.
by MagdaDH_AlexH on December 15, 2010
The Southern Scenic Route is a tourist drive in the southern part of New Zealand's South Island. It takes the visitor from Dunedin on the east coast to Te Anau in the Fiordland, in a U-shaped curve that mostly follows the coast and takes in the Catlins, Invercargill, Riverton. The route is an official tourist attraction and is signposted with a distinctive, brown triangular road-mark. The full route is approximately 430 long, which doesn't take into account side detours for visiting particular viewpoints or other attractions on the way. Most of those are only a few kilometres away from the highway but some are more than 20km off. The driving time on the he Southern Scenic Route is around six hours, but the attraction lies in the many stops along the way, as the most attractive points are not on or directly by the highway. At least two days should be allowed for the whole route, and it could easily occupy more than that, especially if incorporating any longer tramps or visting Stewart Island.Starting from Dunedin, the next area of interest on the Southern Scenic Route is The Catlins' Coast, an area of rolling, green farmland flanked by rugged coast facing the Souther Ocean. This stretches approximately between Nugget Point in the north (just south-east of Balclutha) to Waipapa Point in the south (60km before Invercargill) and includes, in addition to the rocky cliffs and windswept beaches, large swathes of rainforest, waterfalls and copious wildlife. Nugget Point is a dramatic headland whose high rocks raise three hundred feet above the see, and just off the Point, jagged rocks stick up from the water. On the way to Nugget Point, Roaring Bay and Cannibal Bay are good for wildlife watching. Other interesting rock formations on the Catlins coast include Jack's Blowhole (on private farmland and closed in lambing season), Cathedral Caves (accessed at low tide only and via private road with an entrance charge) and Curio Bay (where Yellow Eyed Penguins, or Hoiho can be observed among the rocks of petrified forest). Purakaunui and McLean Falls are among the are the most popular waterfalls while Slope Point is the southernmost point of the South Island (there is a walk across the field to the actual point, and it's close in the lambing season). Invercargill is a Victorian town that has recently undergone something of a revival, with an influx of students as well as a stopping point on the way to Bluff and Stewart Island, but it has an interesting local museum and is a good place for provisions or a meal. Beyond Invercargill, Riverton is famous for its paua (abalone) shells and has a relaxed resort type feel, with a nice harbour, rock-strewn beach and excellent walks in the coastal forest, in the area known as More's Reserve (atop Richard Street), for views of the coast and the Foveaux Strait towards the Stewart Island. Tuatapere is a starting point for one of the newest New Zealand walking tracks, the Hump Ridge Track, a 53 kilometre moderate circuit that can be walked in three days and varies from lowland forests to sub-alpine tussock grass (and it has a private-walk luxury option with hot showers, king-sized beds and helicopters carrying the gear of the walkers). From Tuatapere, the Fiordland proper starts on the Southern Scenic Route and it's only about 100km left to Te Anau. That part of the route is very scenic just to drive, with high mountains and noticeably wilder landscape. There are several detours to mountain lakes, of which Lake Hauroko, although entailing over 50km detour (most on a gravel road) is probably the most interesting by the virtue of its isolation, beauty and being the deepest lake in New Zealand. Manapouri, 20km before the Route ends in Te Anau, has a beautiful lake, great walks and is a starting point for boat tours to Doubtful Sound. The Southern Scenic Route ends in Te Anau, the main tourist centre for exploration of the Fiordland and the begging of the famous Milford Road, a 120km route that takes the visitors through Alpine landscape to the most iconic New Zealand destination, the Milford Sound.
by MagdaDH_AlexH on December 17, 2010
Tourism in New Zealand is a funny, double-sided thing (and by the way, if you just want the practical tip, just skip to the next section past the three stars). On one hand, it's an industry par excellence, generating close to 10% of the country's GDP, and the marketing skills applied to creating the New Zealand brand are truly awesome. There are countless operators on the ground, companies which not only provide accommodation, food and transport to the visitors, but also sell EXPERIENCE: this is added value tourist industry at its most developed and subtle; New Zealand is not full of crass resorts or theme parks, but around every corner there is a company waiting to take you for an adventure. From bungee jumping (Kiwis invented that, surely the most expensive thrill on earth at close to 100 GBP for what is less than ten seconds of a jump) to heli-snowboarding to guided helicopter-transported glacier walking to private long-distance walks with hot showers, king sized beds and all meals cooked for you; Kiwis know how to package and sell their country. Tours are everywhere, and it takes some research and some cunning to avoid them. But, and this is the other aspect of the tourism-in-New-Zealand , it's also a country open to free (or almost free) exploration. The basic travel infrastructure, from motels to car hire, is affordable and easy to access. People are friendly, helpful and knowledgeable about their areas. Kiwis are proud of their country, they travel a lot themselves and will do their best to tell you what and where and how to see. And the official, government bodies, who on one hand encourage the commercial operators and organised tourism, are also excellent at maintaining facilities in many a scenic area and national park, and providing great quality information that is otherwise hard to find. ***i-site (official tourist information offices) often concentrate on booking tours and acting as agents for the commercial operators, but they also always have (either free or for sale for token amounts) the Department of Conservation booklet guides to interesting and scenic areas. These usually cost 2 NZD or less and often cover a particular route, area or national park, and, crucially and most importantly, they point out, grade and describe free to enter and access nature spots, walks and lookouts (which are often missed by commercial leaflets or brochures and too detailed to be covered by major travel guides). We have used booklets on Fiordland National Park Day Walks and on Southern Scenic Route and they were both excellent, to the degree that we didn't really use our main guide book at all while touring those areas.
by MagdaDH_AlexH on December 16, 2010
The last spot on the Catlins Coast before we make way inland to Gore our next couch-surf is at Curio Bay. The 'curio' of the title is undoubtedly the petrified forest that fills the cove. In the mid-Jurassic period this area was covered in the woodland which apparently was repeatedly (over a period of thousands of years) covered with volcanic debris from nearby fiery mountains. This resulted in the creation of one of the most extensive and best preserved areas of fossilized forest, which now stretches from Curio Bay for several miles towards the Slope Point. The fossils are best seen at low tide, but even now, and even to our untrained eyes, the strange, brittle looking rock formations below the observation platform have an organic look, a bit like coals glowing in an open fire (and what is a coal than another kind of petrified Jurassic – or Carboniferous rather – forest). It's living creatures though rather than the fossils that are a highlight of our visit as it's now dusk, the time for penguins to come back on land. There are several people already down on the stones below and a bloke on the platform confirms that there have been, indeed, sightings of the Yellow Eyed Penguins. We doubt it very much as there is a veritable audience now amassed of at least eight people, and Hoiho are supposed to be shy and easily scared, but we walk down, slowly, and keeping well back from where the birds are supposed to be (and the other people who are scurrying around with cameras). Amazingly, a penguin appears, walking out from behind a bush in the typical penguiny waddle and straight to sea, where it meets another one – one can't help thinking that they are a male and a female getting the daily catch to feed the chicks hidden in a nest in the coastal bushes (or, as the Older Child excitedly says, the Mummy and Daddy penguins with the tea for the baby ones). Family or not, the penguins are quite active and don't seem to mind the people watching them (most keep prescribed distance), diving into the water, coming up on land and doing other interesting penguin things. I don't know what is the nature of attraction of penguins (the same one that spawned many a mawkish and dreadful movie from Happy Feet to March of the Penguins), but even if not antropomorphised they are still rather interesting to watch, and so we do until our hands and faces get very cold and stiff and we get into the car to warm up (and attempt to see the Slope Point while it's still some light left).The turn-off to Slope Point is along another gravel road (this part of New Zealand is full of gravel roads, but they are well maintaned and our rental car is allowed on them as a matter of course, so all we are worrying about is flying chips on the windscreen), and the drive is scenic (as pretty much everything in this area), with more rolling countryside, dotted with wind-swept and wind-formed hedges and single trees, looking even more magical in the evening light.Slope Point walk is closed, alas, because of lambing (the point is on private land, and the accursed sheep that seem to infest every corner of Southland rear their ugly heads again: as I said before, tourism is big in New Zealand, but sheep farming is much bigger). We don't mind that much, though, as there is not much of the day left, the field is muddy anyway and the wind is cold – and we have seen real-life penguins, after all!
We hire a car in Dunedin and after a night in a motel in Balclutha, set off on the first leg of our Southern Scenic Route drive. This area is called the Catlins, or the Catlins' Coast and is renowned for being remote, beautiful, wild and rugged, one of the undiscovered gems of the South Island. Beautiful it is undoubtedly, which we can see even on a day that misses rain and sun, blue sky and storm clouds, downpours and rainbows. As far as ruggedness goes, things are a little bit more complicated, or maybe our expectation of wild and remote ruggedness are unreasonably heightned (after all we live in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands). The Catlins are an area of rolling, green farmland flanked by rugged coast facing the Souther Ocean. There are indeed not very many people or cars here, but there is an awful lot of farmland, pasture and sheep, sheep everywhere. The "rugged" is somewhat limited to the protected reserves of the coast, and even those are often cut off or surrounded by farmland. The more we travel, the stronger we compose a picture of New Zealand as land that, although quite sparsely populated, is cultivated to an astonishing degree considering that it was only taken over by Europeans in the mid-19th century. The coast here in the Catlins, is, however, stunning. Our first detour off the main route is to Nugget Point, a dramatic headland whose high rocks raise three hundred feet above the sea. There is a pretty lighthouse and in the water, jagged rocks – the Nuggest themselves (though we see a bear shape in the stone shapes too). The views down and up the coast promise more of the same wind-swept beauty and the weather is showing some mercy – and blue sky. We stop briefly on the way back to the highway to see if we can spot any penguins in Roaring Bay, but it's much to early (or to late) so we get back to the car and go on. There are quite a few places on the coast we can't access because of lambing (tourism is big in New Zealand, but farming is bigger), and after quite a few kilometeres of hoping for more coast and driving on gravel road (aka dirt tracks) leading through scrubby pasture and overgrown farmland to pretty much nowhere (or, as some signs inform us, to points of no turning), we stop at Pounawea. It's raining and it's got colder, but we emerge for a quick stroll on a windy, empty, wonderful beach strewn with driftwood and pieces of Bull Kelp, like little leathery trees or fallen legs of some alien creatures. The trees that we see here, lining the beach and growing on the surrounding hill sides, are formed by the weather, leaning sideways, with branches and trunks twisted by the force of the prevailing winds. The trees in New Zealand are somewhat different from Australia, with fern and cabbage trees quite comon as well as podocarp (southern beach of tiny leaves) and eucalyptus-like (in shape and bark at least) totara and rata. The whole ecosystem, and the feel of the place, is, however, very much similar to what we encounteerd on – literally – the opposite edge of the world, or (looking the other way), the opposite side of Pacific (albeit many degrees north), when we explored the western coast of Vancouver Island.Purakaunui Falls are the triple cascade known from many postcards, calendars and tourist brochures of New Zealand. The falls, at 15 meteres high, are not particularly big but pretty indeed and as they are only a few minutes' walk from the car park, we don't mind getting a bit wet (it's now seriously raining). Our hardiness won't stretch to a picnic in the rain and thus we eat our late-lunch snadwiches in the car before we set off on our way. Sadly, we miss the low tide at the Cathedral Caves which are only accessible for a few hours each day, but soon after that is a turn off for McLean Falls, and the rain has (almost) stopped. We drive along a rather muddy farm track for a good ten minutes, and then there is a wet twenty-minutes' walk along a slippery path by a stream, surrounded by woods full of fern trees and other native vegetation. We hear the falls first, and then see the lower cascades – these are pretty but nothing special. A few meters more, and the upper cascade, tumbling in a narrow, graceful curtain, appears. It's possible to clamber up almost to the waterfall, and although the stones are rather slippery, we all make it up there without falling into the water. This is a lovely waterfall, surrounded by dense native wood and attractively split into several cascades, well worth the walk and the detour drive. The day is drawing to the close and we need to think about getting to our accommodation, but before that we are going to head back to the coast for the last look at the Catlins coves and beaches, and try to spot some wildlife.
After a night in Gore, we drive back to the coast through the rather flat and only very mildly inspiring farmland. There is not many people, or cars; there are many sheep: but we are used to it by now. The day is beautiful, the sun blazing and for a moment, on a roundabout in Gore where signs point to Milford Sound we feel an urge to abandon the round-about route plan and go straight there. We will regret not having done that later when we embark on the Saga of Not Getting to Milford Sound, but as for now we continue our Southern Scenic Route drive, missing Invercargill (which we don't really mind) and Stewart Island (which is just a few dollars to far) and heading for Riverton and then the Fiordland.Riverton is a small town or a large village, a resort at the Jacobs River Estuary, with a picturesque harbour and windswept beach with views of what must surely be Stewart Island from a huge pile of large rocks amassed in one place. The highlight is, however, a walk in the More's Reserve, atop the steep (and mostly gravel) Richard Street. We park in a small car park and set off on a path (mixed earth and boardwalk) through the forest. Ten minutes later we emerge to a sweeping view of the coast (and the Foveaux Strait). There is also a rough path leading promisingly down towards the sea, so we take it and after another ten or so minutes we are rewarded with another, wilder and emptier view of the coast. Between us and the beach is a steep pasture and I start dreading the clamber back (and not only the clamber but having to encourage if not push the Younger Child up). And thus only Himself gets to walk on the empty beach and see the boulders balancing as by magic. All this exploration always takes more time that one thinks it would and thus as we set off from Riverton the light is starting to fade. We pass Colac Bay, renowned for its breaks among the surfers, and as most of the time the road passes near the coast and we have to restrain ourselves from stopping at many a picturesque lookout or beach. We do stop, however, at Monkey Island, where a small rocky islet just off the beach can be walked to at low tide (it's not low tide, but it still looks good from the distance), and then at McCarken's Rest, for the last look we are going to have of this side of New Zealand, where a small platform gives more sweeping views of this beautiful, rugged coast, now even more attractive in the dying light. We spend a night at a couch-surf near Tuatapere, in a small wooden house in desolate middle of nowhere; our host making (and drinking) his own hooch and regaling us with stories from his life of travels everywhere from Europe to the Antarctic. Next morning it's snowing, or sleeting, and very misty: and we are setting off for the wild west. It's only about 130km to Te Anau, less than two hours' drive, but we are going to take it slowly as it's our first look at the Holy Grail of South Island travels, the Fiordland.
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