Southland – You little beauty!
It began with a drive through the wild Catlins during a storm system, which was lashing the lower part of the South Island with strong winds, heavy rain and snow to low altitudes. We were actually lucky to have left Dunedin before the motorway was closed due to snow! We braved the elements at Nugget Point and were rewarded with some amazing scenery. The conditions deteriorated throughout the drive, the strong winds were pushing our Jucy van all over the road. Our arrival at the famous Bluff signpost was marked with snowfall.
Thankfully the gale force winds forecast had abated the following the morning. We checked into our flight with Stewart Island Flights at the Invercargill Airport, realising that the guy who checked us in would also be our pilot in the small 12-seater plane. Cruising at an altitude of 1000 feet ensured a smooth journey across Foveaux Strait to Rakiura (Stewart Island).
Halfmoon Bay is home to the township of Oban, the only service town on the Island. We were met by Matt, from Rakiura Charters (who I know as a former Abel Tasman Aquataxi driver) and Ulva, from Ulva’s Guided Walks. Matt invited us on board his custom built boat, Rakiura Suzy, which doubles as a water taxi and charter tour service. Whether you’re searching for a fishing experience, wildlife, natural and cultural history, pelagic or rare land birds, or spectacular scenery, these guys can help you out.
Our first stop was Ulva Island – yes our guide’s name was also Ulva. The Ulva Island open sanctuary is one of only a few predator-free sanctuaries for native plants and rare and endangered birds in New Zealand. Since the eradication of pests in 1997, the Island’s birdlife has flourished and several bird species have been released. The birdlife we encountered was unreal; kakariki, saddleback, bellbird, robin, greywarbler, tomtit, kingfisher and fantail just to name a few – as was the birdsong.
The island also contains the first post office on Stewart Island. We walked up to the Flag Staff, which is where the mailman would raise a flag to signal to people on the mainland that the mail had been delivered. This spot also provided a great lookout point. We then walked down into beautiful Sydney Cove.
Next on the agenda was fishing. Matt took us to Paterson Inlet and within minutes fish were going for our bait. It was immediate, unlike anywhere else I have ever fished. Blue Cod, after Blue Cod were caught. Massive ones at that. Any Blue Cod that were only just legal were thrown overboard. Unfortunately, I seemed to be attracting Red Cod and Lisa, Baracuta… But our haul was still impressive.
Matt dropped us off at ‘The Whaler’s Base’, which was used between 1923 and 1933 as a base for repairs by a Norweigian company whaling in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. The remains of relics include the old rusty workshop boiler on the beach, the foundations of the slipway and other buildings, and propellors. I managed to get some sweet aerial shots of this historic site.
Along the walkway, which lead us to another beautiful, secluded beach in Princes Inlet you will never believe what we encountered. I noticed a sneezing a noise coming from inside the forest ferns. What I thought was going to be a Weka was actually a Kiwi! Sam and I ventured into the bush to try and capture the iconic, endangered bird on film. Despite our rustling the Kiwi stayed put and we were able to get astonishing footage. I was in shock, seeing a Kiwi in the wild has been a lifelong dream of mine. And it was broad daylight!
Our time on Stewart Island concluded with feeding Albatross. Matt had filleted the Blue Cod we caught and kept the remains for the Albatross. Within no time they had crowded around the back of the boat. Their size is tremendous! It’s only when you see them sitting on the water beside you that you can truly appreciate their size. We witnessed a feeding frenzy before motoring back to Halfmoon Bay, escorted by gliding Albatross. Today completely and utterly blew my mind; the best day of this road trip so far.
When in Invercargill you must… Meet the famous Mayor, Tim Shadbolt. This guy is a legend, well known for his infectious grin, enthusiasm and sense of humour. We were escorted up to the Mayoral Lounge, where we admired his trophies, photographs and Endeavour model. Tim walked in the door and picked up his agenda for the day (which was the size of a couple of textbooks), and announced ‘the #greatkiwiroadie aye’. Sam and I briefed him that we wanted to film the outro for our Southland video with him, to which he responded ‘I will go and put on my robes and chains’. What a character! As predicted it was hard to get a word in once he started telling stories. He occasionally does Stand Up Comedy shows in small towns around New Zealand and I encourage you to go along to one if you get the opportunity.
It was a beautiful day to drive along the Southern Scenic Highway through Riverton towards Clifden, which is where Wairaurahiri Jet is based. We met the owners, Johan and Joyce, halfway along the road into Lake Hauroko (it was too icy for us to attempt in our van). Hauroko, with a depth of 462 metres, is the deepest lake in New Zealand. As we jetted up the lake we were flanked by beautiful scenery, native Beech Forest and snow-capped mountains. A strong wind was whipping across the lake adding to the excitement (and spray wash) of the ride.
Johan then took us down the Wairaurahiri River, which is classified as Grade 3 water. It was unrelenting, the rapids were constant and we were bouncing around all over the show. This is the roughest water that you can commercially run a jet boat operation on, which adds to the excitement of the ride. Due to the river being in flood we were unable to land anywhere so made a U-turn. Boy was the lake cranking on our return. Sam and I were saturated by the time we docked back at the jetty.
We continued on towards Milford Sound, passing through Manapouri and Te Anau. Snow lined the highway, making the drive even more scenic than it already is. The entire Eglinton Valley was also covered in snow. There was a brief stop at Mirror Lake before we tried to race the onset of darkness to capture stunning Lake Gunn. It is one of my favourite freedom camping spots in the country but unfortunately, there was not enough daylight to film. We continued onwards towards our accommodation at Gunns Campsite.
The collection of buildings located here were established in 1938 as a camp built to accommodate married men who were working on the Hollyford-Okuru Road, which would provide a link through to Haast on the West Coast. This project was an off-shoot of a larger project to build a road from Te Anau to Milford Sound. World War II was declared not long after the camp was completed and the roading work stopped so that men could join the war effort. In 1951 the camp was bought as a base for farming and tourist ventures.
Upon our arrival we were informed that the generator was not working. There is nothing like being in a remote location without electricity. After I got the pot-belly fire cranking we cooked the Stewart Island Blue Cod we caught yesterday. Seriously, does life get any better than that?
Boy was it windy the following morning. Thankfully the road conditions were better so we had no trouble getting through the Homer Tunnel. On the Milford side we were greeted by cheeky Kea. These Mountain Parrot’s are incredibly curious and smart, and well known for messing with vehicles. We stopped in to see the impressive waterfall at The Chasm on our way into Milford Sound.
While the wind was howling, it actually wasn’t raining. Although clouds were hanging low, obscuring the mountain peaks which surround the Sound. Our timing into Milford was perfect, passengers were boarding the midday Jucy Cruise. The skipper was quick to inform us that we were actually in a Fiord, not a Sound. Fiords are the product of glaciers carving out valleys, while Sounds are formed by rivers eroding.
The features are pointed out during the 90 minute cruise. My highlights were: Mitre Peak – One of the tallest mountains in the world to rise directly from the sea floor, Copper Point – At 620 metres wide it is Milford’s narrowest and windiest point and Stirling Falls – which is where the Sam and I stood under the 146 metre waterfall. You can check out our video of it by following this link.
After a mammoth drive we made it back to Queenstown, where we dropped off our Jucy Rental van. Those vans are so spacious and well equipped. I guess that is why we’ve encountered so many during our travels. We always got a wave from a fellow Jucy-er too, which I loved!