Road Trip - Episode 1

Trip Start Jun 04, 2009
Trip End Sep 06, 2010

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Friday, October 23, 2009

Hello and welcome to what can only be described as the most daunting blog I have written to date. The sheer amount of things I have to tell you all about means that I am sure to leave out something I will kick myself about later and before I start I'm already aware that I won’t be able to do justice to what we were lucky enough to see and do this week.  However with three eager photographers in tow taking over 14GB of photos in total I think we could make a 'flip-book’ to illustrate it for you!  Looking back through that mass of photographs I like to think that I know how Peter Jackson felt when he had all his footage for the Lord of the Rings films and suddenly realized that editing it all down was most likely going to take longer than shooting it all in the first place!  Seeing as he allowed himself the privilege of three films to do the story justice I am also going to split up our trip into three blogs entries to give you (and me) a break between them.

Our tale begins in Sutton, England where my Dad began his epic two day journey to Queenstown via Los Angeles and Auckland.  For this part of the trip Steve and I were preparing things at our end by baking muffins and flapjacks and generally relaxing ahead of the busy week to come but Dad was suffering by loosing two nights of sleep and going through a 12 hour time change.  Unbelievably however when he finally set foot in Queenstown he seemed more awake than I was, the magical mountain air can do wonders.  Then for the final leg of his journey Dad was very brave to have me drive him back to our house in the rental car which appeared deceptively the same as a UK car until I tried to indicate and turned the wipers on full speed and couldn’t figure out how to turn them off again - having the wipers and indicators reversed became an ongoing point scoring competition throughout the trip with Steve and I adjusting fairly soon into the driving and Dad still not getting the hang of it by the time we returned the car.  In any case we arrived at the house safely, packed a picnic and headed for a lakeside walk in the sun and a relax by the open air jazz concert that was happening on the green.  I was sure this was just about all Dad would be able to handle after such a long trip but once our picnic was finished Dad was full of beans (and half a bottle of wine) and keen to explore so we decided on a 2 hour hike up Queenstown hill to catch the views before meeting Steve after work.  En route Dad picked up a great ‘Gandalf’ style walking stick which added to the ambience of the walk nicely.  We got some nice breaks in the cloud while we were at the top and then scurried down to meet Steve for a jug of beer by the fire in Brazz, one of our local favorites.  At this point I was sure Dad would keel over any minute with exhaustion but no he was still going and we went for a walk in the Queenstown Gardens and had a quick go at some frizbee golf before we decided to retreat home for some dinner and packing in preparation for the early start on the road the next day.  Finally Dad did drop off to sleep but unfortunately it was at the point when he had a cough sweet in his mouth and nearly managed to choke himself!  Not long after we all crashed out with eager excitement like kids on Christmas Eve.

The next day started like all great days should, with big chubby American style pancakes piled with strawberries, bananas, chocolate chips and golden syrup (for those of you who have stated a particular interest in the food we have – I don’t like to disappoint!).  Without a cloud in the sky and the sun nearly blinding us we headed out of Queenstown for our first time and it was stunning scenery in all directions.  We drove though the mountains, vineyards and rivers stopping at bungy jumping bridges and view points en route until we reached the coast.  Now beautiful white sand beaches and craggy rocks jutting out to sea spread out in front of us with the sun still very much on our side.  Our picnic spot was at the Moeraki Boulders where we walked along the beach for a while before coming across these bizarre perfectly spherical rocks sitting on the beach.  I personally believe them to be dinosaur eggs but apparently Steve and Dad read a more scientific/boring explanation as to how they got there - great fun to play on though whatever their story is.  On the way back to the car we were walking down the deserted beach discussing our luck at having it all to ourselves when up ahead a seal waddled out of the water to have a sunbathe right in front of us!  Camera’s at the ready we all went into wildlife documentary mode and made a model of our new friend who seemed quite willing to pose and indulge us for as long as we wanted.  Eventually we dragged ourselves away to the car to continue on to Dunedin where we were staying the night.  We stopped off at a couple more view points and saw seals again from a distance before checking into our fantastic hostel called Hogwartz which I highly recommend for anyone visiting Dunedin, but we only had a quick turn around here before heading out again along the Otago Peninsula to try to see the elusive rare penguins that come onto shore at dusk to nest.  The peninsula is also renowned for being the only place albatross nest on the mainland but unfortunately we were told that you can’t see them during October as they stay in their nests.  In any case our great penguin hunt had begun and we zoomed along the beautiful road out of Dunedin with the sea on one side and the cliffs on another admiring the views…until we realized we’d gone the wrong way for the penguin beach!  Tragically it was prime time for spotting them and we were directly the wrong side of the peninsula.  Just when I was about to start cursing our luck we had our first sighting of an albatross!  Even though we only stayed for 5 minutes, as we had to rush to the penguins, we saw at least three of them – It’s not like they are hard to spot.  Huge wing span and rather intimidating, I’d like to see one alongside the condors from Peru and measure them up.  So with renewed faith in nature spotting we headed off to Sandfly Bay, and the penguin hide that we planned to sit in until dark to maximize our chances of spotting one of the little wadlers.

When we first clapped eyes on Sandfly Bay I think we all made a different sound but all of which roughly translated as WOW.  From the carpark at the top of the cliff we all ran down a huge sand dune to get onto the beach which we could see was being used as a suntrap by about 20 sealions all itching to be our latest models.  Even if they had not been there it would have been impossible to rival the beauty of this spot, jagged rocks with turquoise waves smashing against them in the dusky light and perfectly white sand turning more and more golden as the sun came down.  We all just felt so lucky to be there.  After a good long while of taking photos of the sealions (and repeatedly warning Dad to not keep getting closer after Steve got chased off and had to leave his shoes behind) we remembered the penguin hunt we were on.  The penguin hide was right the other side of the beach so we had to negotiate both sleeping and fighting sealions to get there but once we did the binoculars were out and….nothing.  Well you can’t have everything!  Rather than spend the last of the light sitting in a hut, and not wanting to walk past the sealions in the dark, we headed back across the beach soaking up every minute of this beautiful place before we reached the bottom of the sand dune that we had run down so carefree earlier and now had to climb in a one-step-forward-two-steps-back-fashion to reach the cliff again but were rewarded with a beautiful sunset when we got back to the car.  Once back at the hostel we broke out the wine and toasted to a fantastic first day on the road while sitting up in a loft/balcony area of beanbags and fairy lights before having a huge dinner and crashing out before another early morning.

Sunlight filled the room again first thing in the morning which was our first treat of the day, another chance to play spot the cloud while we drove all along the coast stopping at secluded beaches to play on the rocks, look in the rock pools and watch surfers taking tumbles in the big waves.  Our picnic/beer stop for the day was at Nugget Point where we walked along the cliff to a lighthouse out on the rocks and could watch seals playing in the water below amongst the fantastic rock formations and crashing waves.  It’s worth pointing out that there were about 5 other people we saw at Nugget Point because other tourists were about as rare as wildlife sightings so we were incredibly lucky to have all these amazing places almost entirely to ourselves for the majority of the time.  From here we did two walks to different waterfalls before getting to our accommodation for the night which was an event in itself.  We were staying at a beach house on Curio Bay which quite literally was a tiny house on the beach with three rooms and a big living area with windows all around looking out into the sea.  We almost immediately set off for a walk along the beach and cliffs as this area is where you can see dolphins and….penguins!  Well technically you can see them, we didn’t.  However once again going on a penguin hunt did not leave us disappointed as we had some amazing views and a great clamber along the rocks out to sea.  On the way back we watched and laughed as a sealion was trying to make it’s way in to someone’s tent.  Back at the house we fired up a beachside barbeque and opened up the wine once again while the sunset.  Stunning!  After a fair few glasses of wine we decided to make the most of our location and have a moonlight stroll on the beach and look at the stars, however there were a few clouds at this point and we couldn’t see quite as easily as if the moon had been visible.  Luckily my ever prepared Dad had bought a head torch so we had that to guide us in places as we wandered by the shore.  Suddenly Steve heard a noise and before I had time to panic that we had just disturbed a sealion three penguins jumped up a foot in front of us!  Our somewhat tipsy state only intensified our excitement and as Dad and Steve hadn’t bought their cameras it was up to me to capture the moment – which I didn’t really do as I know you shouldn’t use flash near penguins so couldn’t get the camera working and Dad’s head torch in the right place to capture anymore than three fleeing figures in the dark!  Oh we were in good spirits after that though.  The penguin mission complete we headed back up the sandbank to our house and just as Dad was leading the way with the light a small figure waddled along the path directly in front of him.  This little guy did not seem in the least bit interested in fleeing and far more interested in Dad so the pair of them spent about 10 minutes checking each other out while I again failed to really take a photo until the last minute when he shuffled into the bushes for a nap (the penguin not Dad).  Another amazing day topped off with hot chocolate and cheesecake by the fire for good measure once we got back to the house!

Despite not getting to bed until about 1am the night before I just had to set my alarm for 6am to see if there was a sunrise on the beach worth getting up for and luckily enough there was.  In fact it was so good both Steve and Dad got up too and we were back on the beach with the cameras but this time the beach was covered in red, pink and orange light to really show off for us.  To Steve’s absolute horror Dad and I came in from the beach and started making breakfast where as he thought he was going to get to go back to bed for a while – foolish boy.  We did however reluctantly leave this little gem of a place where we could have stayed for a lot longer, did I mention it’s only 13 a night!!  Next time we go there I’m sure we’ll get the dolphins too who are quite happy to have people swim with them in the bay, but I think it needs to be a bit further into summer before I brave the waves myself.  We started with one of the longer legs of driving we had to do which got us in and out of Invercargill without stopping as we haven’t heard a nice word about it since we got to New Zealand.  With the clouds finally turning against us and it beginning to rain we braved a stop at Monkey Island (misleading name) and ran out to the island that can only be reached at low tide for a quick photo on the windy view point before jumping back in the car and driving further up the coast to McCrackens rest where we looked for dolphins from the car in the rain while eating a scrummy picnic of huge baguettes.  The road then left the coast line and started heading up into Fjordland where we were treated to being back in the mountains again and therefore rather more unpredictable weather.  We had a really fun stop at some limestone caves in the middle of nowhere, there was a sign outside saying each person should have at least three sources of light on them before entering and not to go in if there has been rain as they can flash flood.  In any case we walked past the sign in the rain with just Dad’s reliable head torch on us for a bit of an explore.  I would usually apologize to parents for such reckless behavior but as we were accompanied by a parent I take no responsibility for our actions!  We managed to scramble into the caves only about 50 meters before it was completely black and we were squashed against either the floor or wall (it was hard to tell) when Dad turned his torch off, apart from being reminded of numerous horror films, we were thrilled to see glow worms twinkling at us for our own private viewing.  Being bent double for too long doesn’t do my back any favors and I wasn’t keen on pushing our luck by going further in without equipment so we backtracked banging a few heads and elbows on the way but it would be great to go back and explore them as they go on for quite a few km’s.

On the way to tonight’s accommodation we stopped a few times at wetlands and some cloudy view points but owing to previous days events we had become truly spoilt and as the weather was less than perfect we decided to head on to our accommodation and relax for a little bit for a change.  Tonight we were staying between Te Anau and Manapouri in our own cabin on a deer farm.  Once again it was worth the trip just for this, we had a cabin with en-suite perched on the edge of the hill with views over the valley and into the mountains below while the main building was a huge converted barn with two log fires around the dinning area and an upper area with pool table.  I’d booked us on to a tour that evening to take a boat out to some glowworm caves – although of course we had managed to get a sneak preview already it was still an exciting expedition.  We braved the windy cold deck for the trip across the lake and then were divided into small groups who were taken into dimly lit Goonie like caves with very impressive waterfalls before being hushed to silence and plunged into darkness before boarding very small boats in a cramped tunnel then descending into what would be absolute darkness.  The only reason it was not darkness of course was the presence of thousands of glowworms lighting up the inside of the grotto like the night sky.  Quite a unique and slightly eerie experience having to keep completely silent in the dark and not move around incase you hit the walls of the cave, it was a bit like I imagine how being kidnapped by fairies would feel.  It became a lot more eerie when we left the caves and watched a DVD about glowworms who are in fact quite creepy looking insects and thinking about being shut in a cave with that many of them!  After a boat ride and short drive back to the deer farm we gorged ourselves once again and rounded off the long day with pool and banoffee pie – mmmm!

 Phew two and a half days down, five to go!  Time for a breather…

Lots of Love

Amy, Seaside Steve and Driving Dad

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