SOUTH ISLAND - FIORDLAND AND STEWART ISLAND - robmellors

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So there we were, adrift on the Anduin River, being pursued by Saruman’s Orcs and facing a choice; to venture into the Dead Marshes and run the risk of being captured by a Nazghul, or to push on to the Misty Mountains and thereby escape into another story – The Hobbit. Or, we could just walk part of the Kepler Track, which is, indeed what we did. We’d left Queenstown and made our way to Manapouri, the only settlement (you couldn’t call it a town) on Lake Manapouri. It’s quite incredible that you can have a huge lake (Windermere x10) and yet have only one village on it. Imagine if every lake in the Lake District had just one small place with a pub, a village store, a petrol pump and a ‘restaurant’ (well, café really). That’s what you get in New Zealand. Actually, we could have stayed in the much more bustling, hyper active (well, active) almost township of Te Anau (on Lake Te Anau, of course) 26 kilometres away but chose the quieter option. And it was a good choice. Once again we had booked a ‘bach’, a three bedroomed home with a big kitchen and plenty of room to spread out and somewhere we could relax and play our music without disturbing the neighbours. Just like home, really. Manapouri was to be our base for exploring Fiordland but first we had to experience sunset over the lake. And I do mean experience because down at the lakeside, away from all the houses and lights, all you had was a view of the lake, the mountains and the setting sun. It was quiet, contemplative and entirely beautiful, moving Jane to tears. Or perhaps that was the sandflies which manage to find the smallest micromillimetre which you haven’t managed to cover with insect repellent; and even some that you have. They really are a pesky menace and have us itching all night long. Anyway, after the beauty of sunset and a night filled with stars we woke to another glorious day and decided to walk part of the aforementioned Kepler Track (the whole track takes beween 2-4 days to complete). We crossed the river which feeds Manapouri lake (used in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film to represent the Anduin) and walked through wonderful Beech woods, our intention being to get to a salt marsh area (The Dead Marshes in the same film) looking for birds. There were, plenty of birds in the forest, in particular fantails and the engaging South Island Robin which came within a few feet of us to collect insects that our feet had kicked up. The track wove up and down through the woods and it was a great walk but after about a few hours we grew tired of the trees and decided to return to Manapouri early as we wanted to go to Te Anau and arrange some trips and more accommodation for later on in our trip. A couple of hours away from Te Anau is the world famous Milford Sound which we wanted to see and sail on. Some people travel from Queenstown to do this trip, either flying in or coming by coach on a 5 hour journey both ways. All for a 1.5 hour journey on the sound. By staying in Manapouri we could get an early boat and avoid some of the crowds and have a drive through some of the most magnificent scenery in the world. The road winds through tree cloaked hills, past sparkling lakes, along beautiful wide open grassland valleys with clear streams running through them and into high, snow-capped mountains. And the bonus was that we started out as the sun rose, making it an even more memorable sight. To get through to Milford Sound you have to go through the Homer Tunnel, a very dark, downward sloping, narrow affair which is a bit disconcerting to drive but which has the most glorious view coming out the other side. You can see the whole valley running down to the sound way below you. A quick geography lesson here. Although called Milford Sound, it’s actually a fiord. Sounds are formed by rivers carving out a valley which then fills with sea water; fiords are formed by glaciers doing the carving, so it should really be called Milford Fiord, which sounds a bit like an American movie star. Anyway, back to the story. We’d booked a trip on one of the smaller vessels, capable of taking only 70 people instead of the 300, as on some of the big ones. In fact, we probably had only 40 passengers on board so we were able to grab a place at the front and stay there the entire journey. Milford is, in fact, one of the shorter sounds but it is impressive, with high mountains hemming the water in on all sides. The impressive Mitre Peak is the first thing that hits you (figuratively speaking, unless the captain is drunk) as you leave the jetty. It is shaped exactly like a mitre, at least seen from one angle. Out in the sound there are impressive waterfalls, which would no doubt look even more impressive after some rainfall. And, of course, the captain edges his boat right underneath one fall for a close view (and a lawyer’s warning to avoid getting your camera wet!). There are fur seals to see and some seabirds, though the wildlife is not that prolific. It’s a very busy waterway and at one stage a huge Japanese cruise liner hove into the fiord; It didn’t stop – just sailed in, turned around and sailed out again. It was a very pleasant 1.5 hr cruise, a little too touristy, perhaps but a nice introduction to Fiordland. The road between Te Anau and Milford Sound was so scenic that we decided to drive it again the following day in order to do a hike on part of the Routeburn Track which goes all the way to Glenorchy near Queenstown. We just wanted to hilke one small section up to it up to Key Summit at a place called The Divide. This marks the division between the Western part of Fiordland at Milford Sound and the Southern part at Te Anau. The track rises to a summit at nearly 3500 mtrs and it was quite a steep climb. From the top you can get views down towards Milford Sound and into the mountains, valleys and lakes surrounding the mountain. That is, you can if the cloud isn’t enveloping the summit. For one brief moment and we sat exhausted at the top and ate our lunch the clouds parted and we caught sight of what it might look like on a clear day. And then it was gone. Still, we enjoyed the day and for once returned to our bach in plenty of time to pack the bags for the morrow. Because the following day we were off on an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, so called because when Captain Cook first saw it he said that if he entered the sound, it was doubtful he would find a way out again. Allegedly. Still, if he didn’t know it was really a fiord not a sound what do you expect. I don’t know how he managed to find his way back to England. Anyway, we departed, not from Plymouth but from Manapouri to cross the lake and reach the hydro-electric power station at West Arm. The power station uses water from Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau (which are connected via control gates on the aforementioned Anduin River) which are above sea level. The water then passes through massive turbines which generate power and the outflow goes through enormous tunnels cut through solid rock down to Doubtful Sound. In fact, one of the tunnels still has the rock boring machinery in it. They took out the expensive computer hardware and other valuable pieces but left the rest in there as it was cheaper than extracting it. At the ferry terminal we boarded a bus for the 1hr journey to the Sound. Our driver, Dave, was also the captain of the boat. As we drove down the second steepest road in New Zealand (the steepest is apparently in Dunedin) it was comforting to think that if the brakes failed and we ended up in the drink Dave might, at least, know which way was up. There were no life vests aboard the bus so I guess brake failure is a rare event. We had chosen a small boat for our trip with a maximum of 12 people and as there were only eight of us there was plenty of room aboard the MV Tutoko 2 (I did ask what had happened to Tutoko 1 but Dave was unforthcoming on this). We were soon of and away and motoring down the fiord. The only other crew member was Alex, who rustled up a lovely lunch for us as we started our cruise. The mountains around Doubtful are not as towering as Milford but it is a much bigger fiord (yes, I do know the proper spelling is fjord – it’s just that the Kiwis don’t!), with many ‘arms’ to explore and we had a lovely cruise in and out of coves, getting tight up to waterfalls, etc. It would be even more impressive in rainy, overcast weather but, hey, what a terrible thing to be plagued by blue skies and wonderful warm weather in the middle of February. At one point, Alex, our chef, cleaner, fixer and general factotum, got into her wet suit and dive tanks and went overboard to look for our evening meal’s entre – Crayfish. Now, crayfish in the UK are those tasty, but somewhat scarce, riverine crustaceans for which you need a bucketful to make a decent meal. Crayfish in New Zealand are lobsters and they are big. Alex spent about 25 minutes in the cold waters of the fiord before merging with seven of the blighters, one of which was tossed back overboard as it was below legal size (there are strict size guidelines and quotas in place). I’ve never bought a live lobster so I don’t know how to kill one. I know that some chefs simply put them into boiling water whilst others reckon that a quick knife through the head is the less cruel method. In New Zealand both methods are banned. Instead the crayfish are drowned. So, how do you drown a creature that lives all its life in water? Well, you put them in fresh water not saltwater; they are sea creatures and without salt they simply can’t exist. Which method is the least cruel I’ll leave you to cogitate on. After picking up Alex and her bag of tasty seafood (which we all avoided watching peg out) we headed out of the fiord into the Tasman Sea for a spot of sea fishing (NZ is definitely a huntin’, fishin’, shootin’ place). Our captain loaded up some rods with bait and all the blokes plus Jane took up the challenge of landing the prize catch of Blue Cod. I have to say it wasn’t exactly the most difficult fishing I’ve ever done. Dave found a spot likely to have decent fish, we dropped our hooks baited with fish (cod are cannibals, really) about 40 mtrs and waited for the bites. Pretty soon we were landing fish, and not only Blue Cod. All, that is, but for Jane who kept dropping her bait only to have it stolen by the fish before she could hook one. Just goes to prove that MAN is the huner/gatherer. (Or that us blokes were just lucky. It sure wasn’t skill!). So, that was dinner caught (and, of course, we needed a woman to cook it for us!). So what was next on the menu. Well, it was coming on late afternoon by the time the fishing contest was declared over so we motored to a nice sheltered spot to anchor up for the night. And out came the Kayaks. This was our chance to get onto the water ourselves and go for a paddle. Luckily, it was very calm in the fiord so were able to spend a lovely peaceful hour just paddling about, looking at the view from water level and relaxing in the gathering dusk. Or, it would have been relaxing had there not been bl***y sandflies trapped in the kayak with us and eating the only part we hadn’t smothered with insect repellent – the souls of our feet! Those bites still itch a week later. There was one final challenge laid down by Dave – to dive of the ‘helideck’ into the Sound. I say helideck but please don’t get the impression the our boat was some millionaire’s floating gin palace. It was just a 14 birth (two for the crew), roomy but hardly salubrious working vessel. But it is hired out on charter and Dave assured us that some customers do, indeed arrive by helicopter and he showed us a picture to prove it. Personally, I think the chopper was Photoshoped in! Anyway, at the very top of the vessel was a sturdy and large aluminium platform at 20 odd feet from the surface of the water. So, of course, us huntin’, shootin’ fishin’ blokes just had to jump off, didn’t we? There wasn’t a Tim Daly amongst us but Andy (from Guan) led the way, followed by Holger (from Germany) and yours truly in the van. We all jumped in feet first, arms flailing. No ponsy two and a half somersaults with forward twist for us. Just straight forward jump before you had time to think about it and, oh my god, how cold is this water, I can’t wait to get out and where’s my wedding tackle gone to? So after that it was our banquet meal of half a crayfish tail each to start with and Blue Cod to follow. What a meal. What a day. And the night, with the moon out and the stars shining down was just wonderful. A really great trip. So, how could you follow a journey like that? Well what about another boat journey to the most southerly part of NZ (if you discount the Chatham Islands which are very, very difficult to get to). Thus, we found ourselves overnighting in Bluff, near Invercarvill, where the ferry to Stewart Island departs. There isn’t much to say about Bluff save that it bills itself as ‘The Start of the Road’. For it is in Bluff the Route 1, which goes from here right to the top of the North Island, starts; or ends if you’re a northerner. Bluff’s other claim to fame is that it is the site of Rio Tinto Zinc’s aluminium smelter. Remember the power station on Lake Manapouri I told you about? (C’mon, how could you forget such interesting stuff so soon?). Well, the reason that the plant was built in the first place was because RTZ said they would build a smelter if the government would build a power station to power it. Manapouri produces 15% of NZ electricity and as the smelter is slowly shutting down due to lack of demand and competition from China the country will soon have an excess of power capacity. Not a bad thing in this day and age. Anyway, you get the impression. Bluff is not a place to linger and nor did we as we took the 9.30 am ferry to Stewart Island the next day. The crossing to Stewart is reputed to be the third worst sea crossing in the world as it lies directly in the ‘roaring forties’, the area of 40 degrees south which experiences some of the wildest weather anywhere on the planet. So it was with some trepidation that we boarded the ultrasleek, ultra-modern twin hulled ferry for our hour long crossing. Well, let me tell you the roaring forties is a pussy-cat. Swell? I’ve seen more swell from my sandfly bites. It was a millpond. Without the waves generated by a mill. So we got to our accommodation (another bach, engagingly called the Tree House Crib), dumped our bags and went for a walk looking for wildlife. Stewart Island (and its many outlying islands) have been cut off from mainland NZ for eons and have developed their own character and eco system. The islands are covered in the native bush which once abounded throughout the whole of New Zealand and human habitation and interference has been largely confined to one small corner of the main island. Hence, there is more native flora and fauna on Stewart than the rest of NZ and far fewer introduced species. Our walk took us through to the ‘capital’ of Oban and out around the headlands. We were looking in particular for the diminutive Little Blue Penguin which breeds around the island. We didn’t find any but had a great walk. We returned back to the tree house which lives up to its name by being set on a little hill with tree tops all around and a great view from the front decking overlooking Golden Bay. Coming out of the shower I had a surprise. No, not a full length mirror but a Kaka on the table outside. The Kaka is a large, gregarious browny green parrot. It was soon joined by 2 mates and, being the principled naturalist that I am, I found some peanuts and started feeding them to the parrots. What can I say. I’m as big a sucker for a begging bird as anyone. The other bird for which Stewart is renowned is the Brown Kiwi, that most emblematic New Zealand bird. The Stewart Island archipelago has about 20,000 of these birds but they can be very difficult to spot. They tend to forage only at night and so it was that I dragged Jane out at 11.30pm to walk down the very dark, very remote ‘Back Road’ where we had been told Kiwis had been seen recently. Alas, after an hour we gave up and headed back to our crib. The following day we were up early to get the ferry to one of the islands just off the coast called Ulva. (Don’t blame me, I don’t name these things). Ulva is completely predator free and has been so for a long time. The DOC still put out traps to catch any stray rats, possum, stoats or the like which swim across or stow aboard boats that visit. They even get the very occasional deer making the short swim. As a result of being predator free the birdlife is prolific. It’s a very small island and its tracks can all be walked in about 1.5hrs, if you don’t stop. A sign indicated that the first track to West End Beach could be walked in about 45 minutes. It took us 3.5 hrs! There was just so much birdlife to see and hear. Bellbirds with their ringing song, Stewart Island Robins which come and take the insects from around your feet as you scuff up the soil, Red-Crowned parakeet, Saddleback and many more. At one point we met a DOC man carrying a rather large wooden crate. ‘Have you got a Kiwi in there?’ I joked. He replied no but told us he was meeting up with two colleagues to try and find some Kiwis to take back to the main island. Apparently, all the kiwis on Ulva come from only 4 ancestors so the gene pool is rather weak. So the DOC take some Ulva kiwis to Stewart and replace them with Stewart birds. They also radio tag kiwis to study them. We were glad we dawdled over the West End track because a few hours later we met the same guy with his two colleagues plus 3 tracker dogs which sniff out the Kiwi burrows. And they had a surprise to show us. A real live juvenile female Kiwi. We were able get a really close up view of the bird, stroke its soft feathers and appreciate the size of the thing. This one was half grown at about 2.5 kilos. Hard to miss in the daylight but very easy to do so at night. We had a fantastic 7 hours on the island and even got to see some albatross as we were waiting for our ferry back to Golden Bay. We had a great two days in Stewart but had now reached as far south as we could go without bumping into Antarctica. It was time to head north up the east coast and towards civilization. But then again, perhaps there was just one more out of the way place we could go. But that’s for the next BLOG 

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