New Zealand: Auckland in midwinter

While the northern hemisphere is celebrating the summer solstice by touching Stonehenge and other rituals, the 21st of June is the midwinter solstice down here in the southern hemisphere. We drove from Hamilton to Auckland for our last few days in New Zealand. The sunsets just after 5pm behind the city so we walked down to the harbour to enjoy the evening light.

Someone I was at school with has been living in Auckland for many years and had invited us over to their house in Devonport for an evening meal. We took the 10 minute ferry with all the commuters returning home in the dark and had a very enjoyable evening. The following morning the forecast rain had arrived so we decided to visit the museum which sits in Auckland Domain and had a very wet walk there. The neoclassical building was constructed in 1929 and is Auckland War Memorial Museum. Most of the top floor is devoted to the war memorial collection. However, it contains many other gems. On the ground floor Maori and Pacific Islander artefacts are on display.

In the ancestral meeting house (remove your shoes to enter) a restoration project was underway.

Although New Zealand had its own potteries from the late 19th century, we found a link with home as Royal Doulton and a tile manufacturer in Hanley produced china and tiles with Maori decoration in the early 20th century. There were also silver teaspoons from Birmingham. Other exhibits were Wild Child: childhood in New Zealand, sections on volcanoes, natural history, 20th century Japanese ceramics and a very powerful photographic exhibition entitled Being Chinese in Aotearoa chronicling the experiences of Chinese people in New Zealand in over 90 photographs from the first settler in 1842 to the present day. Unfortunately, we will not be here to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition which starts on 7 July 2017. It was raining less on the return journey but the sky remained overcast and the Sky Tower was in the mist so not an evening to go up for the view.

On Friday morning, we were back on the Devonport ferry for a wander around the town. Close to the ferry terminal is Windsor Reserve with a very large tree that has numerous aerial roots. The New Zealand Tree Register identifies it as a Moreton Bay Fig, also known as an Australian Banyan.

Devonport has two bookshops, both on Victoria Road. Bookmark has secondhand books including a large section on military history in addition to all the usual sections. The shop on the other side of the street sells new books. On Queen’s Parade, we found a gallery selling antique maps and prints, Japanese woodblock prints and other modern prints and a few paintings but nothing to add to our collection. On a clear day, it would have been worth walking up Mount Victoria for the view but as the mist had descended, we confined ourselves to walking on the beach where I found some sea glass and had some conversations with the dog walkers, one of whom was originally from Northern Ireland.

As the city was shrouded in mist this was also not a day for the Skytower.

At the ferry terminal, I picked up a free copy of Paperboy, a free magazine published every Thursday and is a great guide to what’s on around the city. I spotted a photographic exhibition at the Trish Clark Gallery and would have loved to see it but the gallery opened so late that we could not manage it before a late lunch and the walk to Eden Park. We had a great lunch in the Indian restaurant opposite our hotel. A Fan Trail had been marked out for us to walk to the venue and entertainment was laid on along the route. These ladies were dancing to Amy Winehouse:

There were people dancing with fire, various bands (one of whom were doing a not very good rendition of UB40’s Red, Red Wine and people dressed up in all sorts of costumes. It took one and a half hours to get there and find our seat. Unfortunately the British and Irish Lions lost the match with the All Blacks so we slipped out early and caught the first train back to the city centre. Tomorrow we leave Auckland to start the long journey home.

New Zealand: Wellington to Lake Taupo

We spent most of the morning on Highway 1 dodging heavy showers and getting used to the new rental car. The road runs by the coast for the first few miles before continuing inland. We had a brief stop on the windblown beach at Pukera Bay with Kapiti Island in the distance.

Foxton was our coffee stop and as this area is not very densely populated, reminded us of many places on the South Island. We were the only customers in the cafe at the time. Foxton was a New Zealand flax-stripping centre, has a Dutch windmill in the town centre and a beach. As we drove on, listening to music on the iPod, The Stranglers’ ‘Something better change’ came on and seemed very apposite given the political situation back home in the UK.

Sanson sits at a road junction and that is all it seems on the map, so finding The Ministry of Books was serendipitous. This very large shop is well-organised, has a huge selection on all aspects of New Zealand and many other subjects as well as some antiquarian volumes.

By the time we emerged with a couple of purchases it was raining very heavily. The next big road junction was at a town called Bulls. In addition to a large black bull sculpture, a notice welcomed visitors saying it is ‘a town like no udder’. The next town on our route was Waioru which described itself as an ‘oasis in the Rangipo Desert’ at 792m altitude. It is a garrison town and entry to much of the countryside on the road through the desert is restricted as it is an army training ground. We had our lunch at the rain-soaked summit which is at 1074m and noticed several military police vehicles, a fire engine and ambulance passing us on the road, red lights flashing. A rainbow appeared in the sky

but the torrential rain continued and only a mile or so down the road we had to sit and wait for more than an hour until the accident was cleared. We then descended down to the lake and alongside it into Taupo and our hotel but all we could see was the rain.

New Zealand: crossing the Cook Strait

Just after sunrise and while the moon was still high in the sky, we were driving out of Nelson.

Highway 6 runs through the mountains and over a couple of passes before descending into the Rai Valley. We had breakfast there. Further on, the road crosses the Pelorus Bridge and can be closed when the river is in flood. At Havelock, there are two options to get to Picton where the ferry departs from. You can stay on Highway 6 and get there via Blenheim or take the windy and scenic route. We chose the latter and were only a little way along it when we came to a look–out with views back up the valley and over the Marlborough Sounds.

Eventually this road descends to the shores of Queen Charlotte Sound and we arrived in Picton. We had a little time to kill before the ferry so coffee, a look in Down Under Books, the local second-hand bookstore which has a good selection of books on New Zealand as well as all the usual sections. Before heading over to the ferry terminal we had a short walk around the marina to Shelley Beach. There are other trails around here for walking and cycling.

Our mileage so far on the South Island has been 1604 miles. We dropped off the rental car as they charge you £500 to take one over to the North Island. We had arranged to pick another up in Wellington the following day. The ferry was not too busy at all and you can check in your cases so that you don’t have to lug them around on board.

The crossing was smooth and the sun went down before we docked in Wellington.

After getting my fix of mountains and forests it was quite strange to be back in the city with concrete flyovers, skyscrapers and rush hour traffic. We took an electric taxi to our hotel and had dinner at a nearby Belgian pub. We finally had some venison for the first time here after seeing so many red deer being farmed on the south island and were served by a guy from Leeds. We have met so many young people from the UK and Europe who are working here. Most of the antipodean youth seem to head for London.

New Zealand: Queenstown to Fox Glacier

Today we continued on Highway 6 out of Queenstown and through the Karawau Gorge on the modern concrete bridge. The 1880 old bridge nearby became the world’s first commercial bungee jumping venture. You can still do this here if it is your thing. The road passes wineries and orchards. There is even a place called Bannockburn which is quite unlike the Bannockburn I know. When I was at school we could always remember the date of the Battle of Bannockburn as the local pub is called the 1314 Inn. We could have taken a more direct minor road over a 1000m pass to our morning coffee stop at Wanaka but in winter this is likely to be very icy or snowy as it goes past a ski area. Wanaka is a smaller, quieter and laid-back place than Queenstown and might be worth considering for any future trip in the region. It has a very pleasant overlook onto Boys Bay.

Further north, the road passes alongside Lake Hawes

over a small neck of land and then back alongside Lake Wanaka.

There was hardly anyone else on the road. Near Makarova we could see all the mountains around us.

The Haast Pass is a bit of a non-event. It is 564m but as it is in the middle of rainforest, there are no views. The early Maori had been using this route for a long time before the first Europeans appeared. It is named after a German Geologist, Julius von Haast but others suggest that Scottish Prospector Charles Cameron may have crossed it before him. The road was not opened to vehicles until 1965. Highway 6 follows the Haast River right down to the beach. Various creeks are crossed on the way but the one with the best name was Crikey Creek. I could hear the Tasman Sea waves before I could see them but we had a walk on the beach after filling up with fuel.

Mountains back onto the beach.

Back on the highway we were soon at Bruce Bay where notices warn drivers about debris being blown onto the road in high seas.

Our destination was the Fox Glacier. The Franz Josef Glacier a little further north is bigger but busier. Even at the Fox, you are advised to walk up the path before 8am or after 6pm in summer. There are numerous companies who will sell you guided walks on the glacier or helicopter rides but we chose the low key drive to the last carpark on the access road and then the walk up to it. The access road marks the face of the glacier in 1915 and 1935. It had even retreated and continues to do so since 2008. We made the 20 minute walk up to the viewing area a power walk as we had been sitting in the car rather a lot.

Afterwards we settled into our motel in the village and are preparing for the longer drive tomorrow.

Invercargill to Milford Sound

The guide book describes Invercargill as ‘flat and featureless’. It is flat and only has a few 19th century buildings but is a good stopping off point on the Southern Scenic Route as it has all the services for re-supplying if you are heading to more rural parts. It was raining as we left and I wondered if there would any views on the road at all and whether it would be raining at Milford Sound. It has the reputation for getting more rain per annum than the Amazon rainforest on more than 200 days every year. We did get a brief lull in the downpour on the windy Gemstone Beach near Orepuki.

Further on after the road had headed inland, we had a coffee in Tuatapere. It has a population of 555 just a few more than Smallwood and is mainly a logging and farming town. There was a sign by the road announcing that it was the sausage capital of New Zealand. The waitress in the café enlightened us and said that a local butcher had won a national award. At Clifden is New Zealand’s longest wooden suspension bridge over the Waiau River built in 1899. It is still used by pedestrians but the road uses a modern concrete bridge.

Near Blackmount, the Takitimu Mountains appeared on our right-hand side. Just outside Manapouri is the world’s first hydroelectric power station on the Waiau River. It was built to power and aluminium smelter in Invercargill.

The rain had now disappeared and in Manapouri we had a short walk on Fraser Beach.

At Te Anua we had our lunch by the harbour. Mount Titiroa (1710m) is just visible from the shore and looks as if it has snow on but it is granite shining in the sun. There were trees including South Island Kowhai by the waterside. It was then time to take Highway 94 to Milford Sound. We first passed Walker Creek and then the road follows the Eglinton River and Valley which is obviously glacial.

At Mirror Lakes, you can see the reflections of the Earl Mountains in the still water.

Just after the Lakes was a notice announcing we had crossed 45 degrees latitude. There are also signs saying that ‘New Zealand roads are different’ but to our mind they are very like roads in rural Scotland. Near the Divide was evidence of the wet climate as all the trees were draped with lichens.

Before descending into Milford Sound the road passes through the Homer Tunnel. It is three quarters of a mile long and was opened in 1953. For most of the year there is a traffic light system to control access but this is suspended in winter as they do not want vehicles standing in a queue outside the tunnel in a high avalanche risk area. We got through eventually and found our way to our accommodation in Milford Sound. In busy seasons you are advised to leave Te Anau at around 8am to drive to Milford Sound or you risk being stuck behind lots of coaches as it is New Zealand’s most popular tourist attraction. As we approached in the afternoon, most of the coaches were returning to Te Anau.

New Zealand: the scenic route from Dunedin to Invercargill

As we were having breakfast in a cafe near our motel this morning, an elderly gentleman walked by all wrapped up against the cold (it was frosty) eating a very large ice-cream. The thermometer certainly has not got up to ice-cream eating temperatures for me. Shortly afterwards, an elderly lady walked past holding a small branch with a few leaves on, in front of her. I have no idea what that was for.

Dunedin to Invercargill on the highway only takes about two hours to drive but there is a slower, scenic option which follows the coast and then through the Catlins where remnants of the original forest remain and have not been cleared for farming. For the first few miles the road runs alongside the ocean and this morning, Brighton Beach was empty.

At Taieri Mouth the road turns inland for a while and into the mist which was lying. Milton is a small town built on wood and wool and further on is Balclutha, the largest town on the road. The Clutha River is the largest in New Zealand by volume of water. We had a coffee here before continuing on our journey. While many of Dunedin’s central streets have the names of streets in Edinburgh’s New Town and some of those in the suburbs have Edinburgh suburb names, we assume that Balclutha was settled by Glaswegians as we had only just entered the town and seen streets named Glasgow, Clyde and Renfrew.

There are numerous diversions along the road. Walking trails start at various points, there are a few waterfalls, caves, horse riding and many others. One we did take was the road down to Nugget Point. There is a short walking trail to the lighthouse.
There are lookouts and short trails to hides as it is possible to see penguins, seals, sea lions and birds. We saw one seal at a distance today. There was a large party of several families with five rented camper vans at the lighthouse. We decided to make a quick get away in order to avoid being stuck behind all five on the narrow road on the point. Back on the scenic route we approached the Catlins and passed Catlins Lake which is in fact, a sea loch.
At Florence Hill Lookout you get a good view of Tautuku Bay and Peninsula with some of the old growth forest.
The information board said that the area was first inhabited by Maori arrived from AD 900-1700. It was sighted by Captain Cook and whalers and sealers arrived in the early 19th century followed by settlers from 1850 who started clearing the forest for timber and then farmland. Apparently, the road was not sealed until 2005. Grasses and flax border many of the roads and on Florence Hill one guy was spending ages photographing the grass seedheads. As the road approaches Invercargill it turns inland through farmland and bordering wetlands where there are a number of nature reserves and bird-watching centres. Having left Dunedin which lays claim to the steepest street in the world and have now arrived in Invercargill which is very flat. So not much energy will be expended looking for our evening meal.

New Zealand: dodging the showers on the north Otago coast

Waking in Timaru we saw snow had appeared on the distant mountains. A few hardy dog walkers were already on the beach and a badminton team who had been staying in the same motel were packing up to leave. Today’s journey was to head south on Highway 1. The southern part of the country had had heavy rain overnight and it was just reaching us so we were treated with intermittent showers and rainbows. The road initially parallels the beach and the railway line through farming country. Just before crossing the Waitaki River we pulled over as two guys were emerging from their camper van having spent the night there. Most of the rivers in Canterbury and this one are fairly low at this point in the year and there have been a few years of drought: irrigation equipment is standing in many of the fields.

Oamaru has a lot of late 19th century buildings, interesting shops and would be a great place to wander around had the rain not become very heavy. After a coffee we drove down towards the harbour where a rather wet Farmers Market was in progress. These birds were sheltering on the quayside, waiting for it to improve.

We decided it was too wet to walk to the lighthouse and knew the penguins would most likely be out fishing until late afternoon, so we continued driving. The Moeraki Boulders are about 30 minutes south of Oamaru and fortunately we had a brief respite from the rain to explore them. They are large spherical boulders lying along a stretch of Koekohe Beach, probably best seen when the tide is out. It was just turning and going out when we visited. The coastal trail continues along here and you could walk along here to Shag Point.

The road continues along the coast with a number of picnic sites to pull over in.
We took the turning to Shag Point which was an early settlement site and also a coal mining area until the 1970s. There are notices urging you to stay on the marked paths to avoid falling into a mine shaft. There are mining relics around but it is now a reserve where fur seals and yellow-eyed penguins can be seen. We saw several seals with more in the distance, gulls and an oystercatcher but a heavy hail shower ended the wandering and we did not get round all the paths.

The road then swings inland to Palmerston and down towards Dunedin, our next destination.