Queenstown has been sunny and sparkling. After a joyful day in the woods we caught a coach to the Dart River at Glenorchy.
Glenorchy is a small township that nestles in Maori land. It is surrounded by a few farms and a lot of film sets. We were shown stills from, inevitably the Tolkien franchise and Wolverine as well as adverts for Coors beer and Milka chocolate and then pointed out the tree or mountain top in the background. Not as exciting as Hobbiton, I’m afraid.
The coach driver took us across the dry river bed to an indigenous beech wood, which isn’t beech. Well, not the fagus we know in Europe, but nothofagus (false beech).
The original botanist was having a bad day or something but he called them beech and left it at that. They have been renamed false beech of which there are three varieties here – silver, mountain and red. The red are the biggies and the oldest one hereabouts is said to be 800 years old. We climbed inside one – they die inside out apparently – and stared up the chimney core trying to imagine its birth before the Maori came.
The guide talked about conservation, about the traps stopping the introduced pests, of the Maori preserving the land for its descendants, all of which felt a touch ironic given the next element of our day.
A jet boat trip up and down the Dart at vast sped in a V8 shallow draughted speed boat.
The noise, the crashing bow waves, startled wildlife, all makes one wonder at the previous insistence that this was preserving heritage, securing the future. But, and I’ll hold my hand up here and admit it was tremendously enjoyable, swerving through the channels and carving 360 degree spins to be covered in spume.
On our return to Queenstown we tried another Ferg burger – the Al – so huge that even the Lawyer had to share it, before we set off on our drive south to Te Anau, our most southerly point.
As we joined State Highway 6 we picked up a hitch hiker. It has been a feature of this trip, the number of hikers and we’ve always stopped, apart from once when the back of the car was drying our laundry. I hitched as a youngster, as most of my generation did but it has gone from most British roads. Which is a shame because everyone we have picked up has been cheerful and pleasant. It is a small payback for the many kind souls who gave me lifts eons ago. Today’s hiker was Gabrielle from New York, a former ballerina who gave up a career on pointe to climb mountains. She is here to earn a crust, try some peaks and eventually move on to India and Nepal for a more challenging environment.
Te Anau is set on the lake shore and is a holiday destination. The hotel was no more than functional which was a shame for most of our accommodation has been either quirky or homely and sometimes both. That said, we slept like logs and were ready for another coach.
This time the journey was coach – boat – coach – boat taking us to Lake Manapouri, across to the Western Arm where the under-the-mountains power station starts and onto Doubtful Sound at Deep Cove, one of the most famous (with Milford) of the Fiordland Sounds and the biggest. The fact that hereabouts there is monster rainfall creates its own unique ecology and with the lack of topsoil and regular tree avalanches a constant turnover of vegetation.
Throughout the drive across Wilmot Pass is spectacular with the mix of staggering cliffs and impenetrable vegetation. It used to take 12 hours to hike across the pass to Doubtful but now it’s a leisurely thirty minutes drive.
The vegetation changes as you cross the pass. The rainfall increases and washes away a lot of the acidic beech foliage, leaving other species able to compete. One, the Rimu, a podocarp, was used by James Cook to brew up a beer to help combat scurvy – spruce beer is still made to the same recipe. All around are tree fuchsias, tree ferns and podocarps in abundance, true signs of the temperate rain forest.
Cook didn’t like the look the fiord, calling it Doubtful Harbour because he didn’t think he’d get in and then out against the prevailing westerly wind. Hence the name.
Out into the Sound the cliffs loom large on both sides. Side Sounds sneak in and open out especially on the southern side and in one spot we saw some rare colour, the local mistletoe a bright red splash against the unremitting green.
Eventually our fast moving catamaran emerged between the southern land and Secretary Island out into the Tasman. 900 nautical miles to the north east is New South Wales. Due west is nothing until Argentina. It feels isolated. The penguin population had just deserted their nesting grounds for the deeper water and better food now the young have hatched. But we saw one. Not sure if you can pick it out.
We had better luck with the New Zealand seals, a sea lion in fact who were sunbathing languorously in the warm sunshine.
We turned for home, picking out Coronation Peak along Bradshaw sound. The peak was first climbed in 1953 hence the name.
If you look carefully at the next picture, you will spot a large scar on the cliff side going into the sea.
This is a classic Tree Avalanche site and must have made an extraordinary explosive splash as the wood crashed into the water.
We left the main sound for Bradshaw and then Crooked Arm Sound. It was gorgeous but the images are deceptive as, if you land, you will be eaten alive, not by a long lost Maori tribe but sand fly. The southern hemisphere equivalent of the Scottish midge.
I’m sure this place is a true wilderness. For all sorts of reasons you have to be intrepid to try and bush-bash your way in. We glimpsed it from the safety and sanctuary of a modern boat but what I wouldn’t give to tramp through some of it.
Here are a few more images.