After three days hiking the Hollyford Track, and another day on a jetboat safari on the Dart River, combined with throwing my body off ledges like some young adrenalin junkie, I was ready to leave behind all the Queenstown activities for a week and take to the open road.
The day I departed Queenstown, a huge layer of fog covered the Wakatipu basin, like a long silk Tibetan prayer scarf billowing in the breeze. Layered above the fog, was a clear blue cobalt-coloured sky.
The start of a journey is always exciting, never knowing exactly where one will end up at day’s end. On the way to Cromwell, I made the first of many detours to cross the Crown Range to Wanaka, a route I had intended to take later.
This is a beautiful drive, even on a cloudy day, with twisting switchbacks, high alpine fauna and windswept moorland. Its summit is at 1,076m and, when completed in 2000, it became the highest sealed road in New Zealand.
The first Europeans to cross this path were W. G. Rees and P. Von Tunzelman back in 1860 as they searched for fresh sheep pastures. By 1863, the pass had become famous as hundreds of gold seekers used the new route to reach the Arrow and Skippers gold diggings. By 1867, the first of many horse drawn tourist coaches had began journeying over the rough hewn, pickaxe trail to glimpse views of the promised land way below them. Nowadays, it’s mainly used by locals and holidaymakers in summer or by skiers in winter heading to Cardrona or the cross-country Ski Farm.
Earlier that first day I’d picked up my Maui campervan at Queenstown airport. I’d requested something small and functional; a vehicle with a fridge, stove and a bed – I didn’t think a shower and toilet were necessary. They gave me the keys to a Toyota Spirit 2 Grande, the perfect size vehicle for me to scoot around the Southern Alps region at leisure.
Wanaka has to be one of New Zealand’s prettiest towns, with the foreshore of the lake a natural water sport playground nestling below the backdrop of dramatic mountain ranges. From Cromwell to Clyde the landscape changed. The hills were rock strewn and as brown as a handful of parched coffee beans. Above it all, a hawk glided back and forth seeking out prey among the tussock. Clyde is at the head of the Clyde dam and, along with its many historic stone houses, it has a really popular biking trail.
Beyond Alexandra I entered inhospitable Bronte-like Wuthering Height’s moorland bleakness, broken up only by sheaths of rock strata jutting out of the earth’s crust. The Historic Gold mining town of Lawrence made me smile again, with its main street of Victorian houses and two storey structures from a long forgotten era, a dozen or more historic churches, and an information centre and visit-worthy mining museum. The little old lady in the information centre remarked, as I gazed at an 1861 picture of over a 100 heavily bearded men from the district: “If your great, great grandfather is in that picture you’ll be hard pressed to recognise him – they all look the same don’t they?”
The road from here turned to rolling hillsides and meadows, fruit farms and orchards, roadside stalls and organic produce, and plenty of sheep. At one funky organic cottage I bought a dozen free-range eggs for $5 and thanked the gritty, earth-toiled man in smeared overalls.
My aim was to explore the untamed Caitlin coastline – once considered the “Forgotten Coast,” it is now one of New Zealand’s most ruggedly beautiful locations on the Southern Scenic Route.
Mist turned to rain and the wind was howling its fury as I finally spotted the wave-battered beach by the seaside village of Kaka Point. On such a nasty day, all that was left to do was plug the power socket in at the sparse-looking local motor camp and set to work on my steak dinner.
I awoke the next morning in darkness to more rain. The forecast was rain and showers. It was 1st March – the first day of the Bluff oyster season, so I thought: “that will do me, I’ll head to Bluff.”
At Jack’s Point I was going to hike to Jack’s Blowhole, but when I couldn’t see the beach or the local ‘cribs’ for the blinding rain, I skipped the idea and carried on driving – I was sure Jack would have understood!
The small hamlet of Papatowai claimed it was “Where the forest meets the sea” … who was I to argue?
After turning onto more slick and rain-soaked gravel roads, I found solace at Curio Bay. On the incoming tide, huge tentacles of kelp, resembling giant slithering eels, were being tossed onto the rocks – in some macabre way, it reminded me of an alien movie. Yet this bay is home to the rarest penguin in the world – the Hoiho or yellow-eyed penguin. On a rocky outcrop where petrified wood was exposed, there was just one lonely fella grooming himself. I counted myself lucky as this coastline access is one of only a few places to get close to this magnificent species.
I finally found a sheltered lunch spot overlooking the southernmost point in the south island, Slope Point. Two hours later, as the wind knocked the van around, I settled into my site facing Bluff Harbour. The forecast out in the Foveaux Strait was for gale-force winds. I could feel the force in the campsite, and retreated to the warmer climes of the first tavern I could find, a stale ale carpet joint full of fishing blokes. As luck would have it, the local fish and chip shop had ordered 20 dozen Bluff oysters, so dinner was taken care of – a dozen bluffies and chips!
The next morning, in a cold southerly, I pulled out of the campground and headed north to escape the weather. No doubt it was a sign of the wicked winter to come. I gassed up in Invercargill and moved on. Riverton was a lovely little place with a big beach, a pretty fishing port and an old-fashioned one-lane town centre. A few miles further on was Cockle Bay, a small settlement at the end of a long crescent-shaped beach and a free camping spot at the point.
With another detour, I found New Zealand’s deepest lake – Hauroko. In Maori it means “the songbird of the wind.” It reaches a depth of 462 metres and drops below sea level, but with no campground I needed to find an alternative. The head of Lake Monowai looked promising as the map indicated a DOC campground. There also appeared to be some good hiking trails and, more importantly, it allowed campfires – a must to ward off Fiordland’s black sand flies!
Early in the morning, I drove out on a winding gravel road from Monowai for 22km to an area known as The Grebe Valley. Here lies one of these rare wonders of nature, a completely uninhabited valley of striking beauty that was formed 13,000 years ago when the last of the great ice glaciers retreated. The region is so named as it is one of the last places where the rare Crested Grebe still survives – there are perhaps just a few dozen remaining in Fiordland.
After a night at Manapouri and Milford, I finished my journey where I had begun, back in Queenstown, a world away from the rugged wilderness and isolation of New Zealand’s wonder country.
The weather may not have been brilliant, but the scenery more than made up for it.
Maui Camper Rentals: $1340.00 for 6 nights/7 days
Highlights: Easy to maneuver and a sharp turning circle; ideal for two people and well-stocked; great on mileage, cheap diesel; having a fridge, running water and a stove
Downsides: The head-high upper bed base when fully extended is trimmed with stainless steel. Within an hour of my first night stop I was stemming blood from a gash in my eyebrow. In the Spirit 2 Grande, you can’t get to the living area from the front seats without going outside. Power sockets only work when hooked up at a campground. The sliding door handle is difficult to open due to the position of the towel rail.
Extras: Bring a sheet of Mozzie netting to use across an open sliding door and plenty of Mozzie repellant.
Places to park up:
– Kawa Point Motor Camp
– Curio Bay Motor Camp
– Bluff Motor Camp
– Lake Monowai DOC Campground
– Manapouri Possum Lodge and Campground