MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “January, 2019”

Southland Roadie – Coastal Gems

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a desire to go to Antarctica. This desire has only grown stronger over the years, especially as it now remains the only continent I have not been to, and I’m particularly interested in the geological, climatological and biological studies that take place there. With the cost of travel there being prohibitive, the continent forever feels just out of reach and yet I am regularly taunted and teased with its closeness due to New Zealand having strong ties with the place. So when I found myself standing near Stirling Point, back on the mainland of the South Island, after a fantastic week in Rakiura (Stewart Island), witnessing the Heritage Expedition ship sail out of Bluff, I immediately knew that the lucky souls on board were at least going to the Sub-Antarctic Islands if not the great continent itself, and I was hit by a pang of immense jealousy.

 

It was a pleasant evening to watch it set out though as I stood by the chain link sculpture and way marker once more. I had a bit of time to head round the Foveaux Walkway around the coast and was aiming to make it to Lookout Point, but it was a longer walk than I thought and the light was reducing. I spotted a sickly looking mouse on the track that I presume had consumed something in the many pest traps around the place, and in the trees I saw a tui, a melodic song bird that I tend to associate with the north of the country rather than the south. At a wooden structure where I could see across to Rakiura on the horizon, I turned round and headed back to the car.

 

At the back of Bluff, a road leads up the hill to the Bluff Hill Lookout. By now late in the evening, there was barely anybody there. From this vantage point I could again see across the Foveaux Strait to Rakiura and it was also possible to see how narrow the isthmus of land that leads down to Bluff from Invercargill is. Bluff itself looked industrial as indeed it mainly seems to be, a frontier town that revolves around the comings and goings of the harbour. Heading north to Invercargill, it was dark by the time I found somewhere to park and reached my hostel. I’ve passed through Invercargill before and never really had any great desire to explore the city itself but it was a handy place to call it a night before hitting the Southland tourist circuit. Thankfully my hostel had its own restaurant and bar as I was hungry after all the fresh air.

 

I left Invercargill early the next morning as I had a lot of ground to cover. I headed north then west, cutting inland to cut round the back of the Longwood Forest Conservation Area. For the most part, I could have been anywhere in New Zealand, the rolling hillsides and fields being so typical of many parts of the country. As I neared Clifden, I took a detour off the main road to visit Clifden caves. The cave was in the middle of a sheep paddock and I negotiated the dung to reach the entrance and climb inside. This is very much an enter-at-your-own-risk style of caving, and as much I like going into caves, I tend to err on the side of caution when I’m on my own and never go beyond the lit section even though I had a torch with me. I’m an adventurer at heart, but the problem with solo travelling is that I often do things on a whim and nobody knows where I am if something goes wrong, so sometimes I have to listen to my brain when it tells me to be more sensible.

 

Back on the main road and it wasn’t too far to reach Clifden itself and here the back road joined onto State Highway 99 (SH99), the road that cuts down from Te Anau. I was now officially on the Southern Scenic Route, a tourist road that heads south along the Southland and Otago coasts and up to Dunedin, and I was excited to be driving it and visiting a part of the country I’d never been to before. The Clifden Suspension Bridge was the first stop on the drive and I was a little bit underwhelmed by it. Crossing the broad Waiau river it sits alongside the highway and is the country’s longest wooden suspension bridge. It was built to replace a ferry that used to carry stock across the river. On the track nearby, reams of sheep watched me as I walked by, crossing the bridge and then returning.

 

Reaching the Southland coast, under a grey sky, it was clear to see how wild this coastline could get. At McCracken’s Rest, a lookout over Te Waewae Bay, the sea looked calm with some steady waves rolling in, but the shingle shore and the battered dunes gave a hint of how bad it must get here. After initially having it to myself it wasn’t long before a group of motorbike riders joined me, and although this part of the country doesn’t get the level of tourists that some other parts do, I shared the many stopping points with plenty of other people, a stark contrast to the solitude and peacefulness of Rakiura.

 

Following the coast east, I pulled in at Gemstone beach. This time I was able to get down onto the beach itself and stretched my legs whilst looking for gemstones. I’m not very good at identifying rock types, so whilst there were plenty of mixed colour stones, I have no idea what any of them were. The surf looked rough here and the cliff behind it was heavily eroded. In one spot, someone had even built a house into the eroded cliff, a little part of it visible through a natural hole in the rock. This great sandy expanse is still part of Te Waewae Bay and at the very end of it was Monkey Island, a small bump of land that is connected to the beach at low tide. When I reached there the tide was receeding but it wasn’t quite low enough to get out to the island without getting my feet wet which I wasn’t really in any hurry to do. By the beach is a freedom camping spot so there was a lot of people around and being a Saturday, there were plenty of visitors on the beach too. I watched some motocross riders race each other along the sand and behind them, above the sandstone cliffs, low cloud hugged the mountains behind.

 

Keeping off SH99 for a while, I cut across some back roads and down a gravel track to reach Cosy Nook, a tiny fishing settlement snuggled into a small cove on the coast. The small houses themselves were sheltered but at the end of the road where it overlooked the wild coast, it was completely exposed to the brunt of whatever weather comes across the Strait. I could imagine the solitude being divine but I’m sure the residents have endured their fair share of storms blowing through here. Leaving it behind, it was time to find my way back to SH99 and keep heading east. By the time I reached Colac Bay, another broad sweeping arc of beach, the grey skies were starting to break a little and hints of sunshine were peeping through. Colac Bay is one of the region’s surf beaches and where the highway skirts the edge of the settlement, a giant sculpture of a surfer greets those passing by. Had it been better weather and had I had more time to explore, I probably would have taken a nice long walk along this beach, but as it was I already wasn’t covering as much distance as I thought I would so after only a brief stop to breathe in the sea air, I headed onwards.

 

On reaching Riverton, I took the road up to the Mores Scenic Reserve where I could see across to the start of the sweeping bay that cuts round to Oreti and Invercargill. I took the track through the forest to the Hilltop Lookout which overlooked the Riverton coastline below. This was a popular spot as was the Howells Point Recreational Reserve at the point which I drove to next. I had wished I’d brought a picnic as this would have been a great place to have it. Riverton seemed to be a popular place for holiday makers and campers and I could see why. I really liked the place, with several beaches to choose from and a really chilled-out vibe, and I could picture myself coming down here for a Southland break in the future. Even with a lot of ground still to cover before reaching my night’s lodgings, it was worth taking some time to explore further…

Ulva Island

My last day on the bewitching Rakiura, or Stewart Island as it is also known, was back to the familiar grey skies I’d experienced at the beginning of my trip. The ferry to take me back to the South Island wasn’t till the evening, and I was up early to head to Golden Bay to make sure I was near the head of the queue for the boat to Ulva Island. New Zealand has a fascinating ecological history, home to a large percentage of flightless birds. Sadly, many species have been made extinct or brought close to, by the accidental and deliberate introduction of invasive species. With the only endemic mammal being a bat, the evolution of bird life in the country took a very different path than similar species abroad, and after hundreds and thousands of years in balance, the quick and agile rodents and other mammals that came with the early settlers took hold, quickly overcoming the birds who couldn’t evolve fast enough to evade them. In modern-day New Zealand, conservation efforts have resulted in the creation of pest-free islands: off-shore hideaways where attempts to boost native populations ploughs on in earnest. Most of these are not accessible to the public but a few are, such as Ulva Island in Southland, Kapiti Island and Matiu/Somes Island near Wellington, and Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf. As a bit of a bird enthusiast, there was no way I was coming to Rakiura and not including a trip to Ulva Island.

Like Oban, there is an Ulva Island in my native Scotland which I’ve also been to, and whilst it would have been great to visit it in the sunshine of the day before, I was happy to be heading out even with the threat of drizzle. In my attempt to ensure I was guaranteed a spot on the first boat of the day, there was quite a bit of hanging around to do waiting for the boat to arrive and load up. The water in Golden Bay was still, producing reflections as I waited. The ferry crossing across Paterson Inlet was short and easy and the full boat disembarked at the pier where I bought a guide to the flora and fauna from the shelter nearby. Only about a quarter of the island can be explored as a visitor via a collection of trails criss-crossing across the top portion. With so many of us arriving at once, it was difficult to get away from the group initially, and so when I reached the viewpoint at Flagstaff Point, I was quickly joined by multiple people from the boat. From the lookout I could see nearby Native Island and the opening of Paterson Inlet, but importantly I could also get a hint of the bird song that would be the orchestra to my visit, and although I couldn’t yet see anything, it was a hint of what was to come.

 

My first encounter was with a South Island Robin whilst cutting through the forest to Sydney Cove. I love these immensely inquisitive birds and have been joined by them many times whilst taking a rest from hiking through the forest in various parts of the country. They often hop near you and look at you side-ways, jumping all around for a good view, often following you in the canopy for short distances whilst you walk. Whilst they don’t have the pretty colours of the European Robin that I’m used to from my former life in Scotland, their friendly behaviour means that I actually much prefer them over the Northern Hemisphere counterpart.

 

There was a light drizzle at Sydney Cove as I and several others trudged across the beach. Just offshore were a mix of gulls and strutting their stuff along the beach were some weka. Fringing the beach was thick bush and flitting amidst the branches were multiple small birds, some of which I couldn’t tell what they were, but I did recognise the Tomtit, another inquisitive little bird similar in size to the robin. Despite the other people here, it felt so peaceful with the calm waters gently lapping the shore.

 

Cutting inland, the tracks went in a figure-eight across to the far side of the island, so it was just a matter of picking one to cross over on, and the other to come back on. Never mind the birdsong, the bush was thick and gave a sense of what New Zealand used to be like before large sections of it were cut down and burned to make way for human development. At one of the track junctions I was again joined by a robin who watched me whilst I consulted my guide. As my chosen track gained a little altitude, I found myself nearer the canopy and suddenly the calls of kaka filled the air, and after only brief glimpses initially, I finally found the group not far off the track close by. An endemic parrot like my beloved kea, the kaka seem naturally more shy and with their darker colour are much harder to spot. Each evening I’d spent in Oban had involved listening to the screeching cry of the kaka as they flew over the settlement to roost, and I’d been startled by a pair near the hostel a couple of nights prior. Now finally, I was able to see them a little more closely and I stood for some time watching them dexterously handle food and branches in their talons.

 

On the western side of Ulva Island I found myself at Boulder Beach where the sun almost threatened to break through the clouds. A couple of weka sweeped through the seaweed litter that was strewn across the beach and even the robins were out too, constantly watching my comings and goings as I meandered slowly along the shoreline. Back in the bush I was this time accompanied by the squawking cries of kakariki, a type of parakeet, which tend to fly in loud, screaming flocks. I was constantly scanning the leaf litter as this is one of the few places where kiwi are seen during the day time. Every rustle or movement that caught my eye was scrutinised until I could see what was the source. Generally it was a weka scrubbing around with its feet, or occasionally it was the sound of a little bird hopping among the undergrowth. I was also keen to see the South Island Saddleback, a really rare bird who’s North Island equivalent I’d seen in Zealandia, near Wellington a few years ago. I could hear their distinctive cries every now and again but couldn’t find the bird that was making them.

 

Eventually I found myself at West End Beach, a beautiful strip of sandy shore with an island immediately offshore. I passed some people heading back along the beach as I followed it to the far end. A group of rocks seemed like a great make-shift picnic spot and I settled down to enjoy my lunch. Amusingly as I sat there, multiple wekas made a beeline for me and proceeded to goad each other whilst climbing up on the rocks beside me before eventually a particularly bold one actually walked onto my lap. They were effectively begging for food and clearly they’d been fed by people in the past. I kept my lunch to myself but enjoyed the encounter, becoming a bit of entertainment for others who were out on the beach too.

 

But unfortunately I had a boat to catch back to Rakiura. The best way to get the most out of a visit here would be to stop often at the areas designated for sitting and just watch and listen as the wildlife comes to you. The amount of bird song here was incredible and I would have loved to have done just that, no doubt seeing more things than I had done, but the last boat to head back wouldn’t give me enough time to make the ferry to the South Island, so I found myself a little pushed for time to make the return leg back to the pier to get an earlier one. I spoke to some people as I walked who reported their sighting of a kiwi in the undergrowth back up the trail I’d walked earlier in the day. It was tempting to head back but I just didn’t have the time. Enjoying the bush but making light work of the distance I found myself arriving to see the ferry heading over and my friends waiting for me to say goodbye. They’d come to Ulva Island on a later ferry and had a made a point of hanging around in order to see me off.

Because of the out-of-synch ferry times, I had a bit of time to waste in Oban so headed back to the little cafe in the settlement for a warm drink, and went round the couple of shops for the last time before grabbing my gear from the hostel and checking in for the Stewart Island Experience ferry. I took a last stroll along the waterfront and noticed some mollymawks, a species of albatross, bobbing around on the surface. Not quite as big as the Royal Albatross, the mollymawk is still noticeably bigger than your average seagull. Back at the wharf looking towards Oban, life was going on as usual, oblivious to the fact that I was leaving and how sad that made me.

 

Unlike the sailing from Bluff earlier in the week, the return trip to the South Island was much calmer and I was able to spend the trip out on deck. We sailed past several islands and we were almost constantly followed by some form of sea bird, from the small shearwaters to divers and gulls. Rakiura disappeared further away as the Southland coast grew nearer and before long the hour crossing was over and I was disembarking. It was evening but being February there was still a few hours of light ahead of me, and returning to my car, it was now time for my road trip to begin.

In Love with Rakiura

As I had been hiking my way back towards Oban on the last day of the Rakiura Track, my friends had flown overhead and landed on Rakiura for a holiday themselves, so once I was showered to rid myself of hiker’s aroma, I headed to one of the few eateries in Oban, a little cafe to meet them for a warm drink. It was one of those coincidental plannings where we unintentionally ended up at the bottom of the country at the same time, but it was great to see some familiar faces whilst away from home. We made plans to meet up for dinner the next day before going our separate ways that evening. I had booked myself on a kiwi-spotting tour on the off chance that I didn’t see any kiwis whilst out bush, and following my failed attempt to spot any whilst at North Arm Hut, I was glad that I made the booking. I walked along the Oban foreshore, admiring the stillness of the water in Halfmoon Bay before popping in to a restaurant for some dinner before heading round to the pier to board the boat. I had been looking forward to my first taste of paua, a shellfish that I’d never heard of before moving to New Zealand and here was one of the freshest places to get it. Unfortunately due to some diabolical service at the restaurant, not only did I never get my paua but the food that I did get was served to me half-frozen and nearly had me in danger of missing my boat.

 

When I finally got on board my tour boat, we first headed out of the sheltered bay to an outlying island in search of hoiho or the yellow-eyed penguin. As an immigrant to New Zealand, I have tried to incorporate the Maori language into my vocabulary and generally refer to the native wildlife by their Maori names, partly to be respectful to the first settlers of New Zealand but partly because the Maori names usually sound more interesting than the often bland English names. Of the 17 species of penguin that live in the Southern Hemisphere, I have been lucky on my travels to spot 8 of them in the wild across 3 continents and 5 countries. It isn’t something that I’ve particularly set out to do, but spending the majority of my life in the Northern Hemisphere, it is just one of those things that has happened as my life has moved south, and frankly who doesn’t love seeing penguins? As the boat arrived offshore at dusk, the low light and rocking motion of the boat made it nearly impossible to take a photo of the couple that we saw on the rocky shore line, and after a short while, we moved on, skirting round the Rakiura coastline and into Paterson Inlet.

Sailing past Ulva Island, a predator-free island which I would visit before leaving Rakiura, we cut down past the Neck, a north-pointing jut of land protruding from the southern coastline of Paterson Inlet, and into Glory Cove where we berthed in the darkness. At almost 47o south latitude, this is the most southern I’ve been in the Eastern Hemisphere (I’ve been further south in the Western Hemisphere) and as such the most southern part of New Zealand that I have visited. We were instructed to be silent and keep close together as we cut across the narrow isthmus from Glory Cove to Ocean Beach. There was potential to spot kiwis from anywhere within the bush or on the beach so we were all hyper-vigilant, but aside from looking for wildlife, we were as much making sure we didn’t trip over anything as we walked by torchlight through the bush. We reached Ocean Beach without spotting a thing, and now we were also on sealion alert as this beach is a favoured pull-in spot for them to rest up at night, and they are not a social creature with the potential to be highly aggressive if disturbed.

We had the length of the beach to walk and sure enough a sealion was spotted near the shoreline. We gave it a wide berth and kept going, ever watchful for signs of kiwi tracks. By the time we were approaching the top-end of the beach it was looking like a failed outing and I was feeling a little disheartened when suddenly the guide instructed us to turn off our headlamps. As we were plunged into darkness with only starlight to guide us, the guide put on a red light and motioned us to gather near him. Creeping closer we all saw the kiwi at the same time, sticking its long beak into the sand to grab the scarpering sea lice that ran around on the shore, completely unfazed by our presence. Finally my dream of seeing a kiwi in the wild had come to fruition, and I wasn’t disappointed. This particular species of kiwi is the Rakiura Tokoeka. I love that Maori names are so descriptive and Tokoeka means ‘Weka with a walking stick’. Weka are another flightless indigenous bird of New Zealand that are readily seen around coastal and peripheral bush areas, and the walking stick refers to the kiwi’s long beak. As we stood in silence in the near darkness, I happened to look up at the sky and realise that with the lack of external light sources, the sky was a brilliant array of stars, and right above my head sparkled the Milky Way. I only saw the Milky Way for the first time in my life in 2017 whilst in the Australian Outback and I was as enthralled about seeing it here as I was then. In fact, I was absolutely torn between watching the little kiwi on the beach and looking skyward at the expanse of the brilliant night sky above me. No-one else in the tour group seemed to notice the stars, and I loved that the vision was all mine. Out here in one of the wilder parts of New Zealand, I felt at peace and immensely happy. My only wish was to have had a camera and the skills good enough to photograph the Milky Way, but the memory will just have to suffice.

 

The next morning was the one completely gloriously sunny day of my whole trip. I had originally planned on going to Ulva Island, but since arriving on the island, it had been brought to my attention that that day was going to be ‘cruise-ship day’, meaning the little settlement wold be inundated with disembarking cruise ship passengers and many of them would make the journey to Ulva Island. Concerned about the place being overcrowded, I decided it could wait till the next day, and instead opted to get back out on my feet and explore more of Rakiura itself. I set off out of Oban later than planned, and already the little township was bustling with hordes of cruise passengers and bus after bus ploughed the main roads to take them on sight-seeing trips. It seemed so unnatural for such a remote place to be so suddenly overrun with people. Given that the weather was so contrasting to the day I set off on the Rakiura Track a few days prior, I decided to walk myself back to the start of the track and experience the views with clearer skies. It had been pretty enough even in the rain, but boy was Rakiura stunning in the sunshine. Past Bathing Beach and Butterfield Beach and across the hillside to Horseshoe Bay, the sand looked golden and in the case of the latter was actually sparkling.

 

Cutting across towards Lee Bay where the official start of the Rakiura Track is, I cut off just before this to hike up Garden Mound, a 164m hill covered in thick bush. After all the rain in the days prior, the lower sections of track were a quagmire. There wasn’t much of a view to speak of on the way up until quite near the summit where a sneaky peak through the foliage afforded a brief view back across to Halfmoon Bay. Just shy of the summit, a lookout gave a view across the Foveaux Strait towards the nearby Muttonbird Islands, as well as across to Port William, the site of the hut I’d stayed at on the first night of the Rakiura Track. Behind there in the distance, lay the rolling hills of the less-visited portions of Rakiura to the west. A lover of solitude and wilderness, it hadn’t taken long to fall in love with Rakiura when I’d first arrived and these views on such a glorious day reinforced my desire to return here and walk the longer trails.

 

Following the trail down the other side, it joined up with the Rakiura Track to follow the coastline. I had originally planned on walking all the way to Maori Beach and back but with dinner plans set with my friends for that night, and so much to see on route back to Oban, I soon realised that there just wasn’t going to be enough hours in the day for that, so when I reached the small bay soon after joining the track, I decided to sit there and just enjoy some relaxation in the sun. I sat on a rock near the back of the beach and watched the waves in the distance and a grey heron wading around the shallows. I was very quickly joined by a large bumble bee who seemed to find me irresistible and wouldn’t leave me alone, crawling all over me and then going inside the neck of my t-shirt which was rather disconcerting. After doing my best to just sit still and not disturb it, it was really hard not to want to move when it was walking on the inside of my clothing and threatening to disappear down between my cleavage. I had to give it a bit of encouragement to come back out of my clothing and after it still wouldn’t leave me alone, I decided it was a sign to get up and get moving.

 

Returning to Lee Bay where the Rakiura Track starts, I found myself hounded by yet more bees as I tried to take a photo of the chain-link sculpture that is the twin for the chain-link sculpture at Stirling Point. Clearly I picked the wrong colour of clothing to wear on such a gorgeous day. I cut onto the beach in an effort to escape them, walking along the shoreline until I noticed a police car drive onto the beach and come towards me. My immediate assumption was that I’d done something wrong although I didn’t know what it was. I hesitated, then as the car drew up to me, the policeman said hello out the window and then kept going before coming to a stop behind me. I presume he was either taking a break or making the most of his patrol to take in the view, and with the waves crashing on the shore below a blue sky, it was certainly a stunning one.

 

Cutting back across the headland to Horseshoe Bay, I meandered along the beach which was literally shimmering in the sunlight. The sand was a mix of dark sand and sparkly particles and it just glowed. Just through the heads at the entrance to the bay I could see the cruise ship moored off shore, its wide rear end pointed in my direction, the words ‘Like No Place on Earth’ emblazoned on the stern. As an introverted nature lover who likes to explore outdoor spaces in solitude, the thought of a cruise holiday sounds awful and is so not for me. It seemed so out of place here to see this behemoth of a ship.

 

At the far end of the bay, a trail cut out across the headland to Horseshoe Point. There was an alternate view back across Horseshoe Bay from the trail and on the shore below the path I could see rock structures that resembled the strange round structures of the Moeraki Boulders on the east coast of the South Island. From the Point I had a fantastic view across the Foveaux Strait towards the Muttonbird Islands and the South Island beyond, and now I was in full sight of the cruise ship. Once more I was hounded by bees whilst I sat there soaking up the view. I watched a fishing boat come into Horseshoe Bay, dwarfed by the cruise ship, and the shore boats that ferry the cruise ship passengers back and forth were busy on their return trips to the ship.

 

The track continued round to Dead Man Beach, a cute little sheltered cove, before cutting back up to the cliff edge above it to head round Bragg Point. I came across a kakariki, a little green parakeet, having a snack before it took off loudly. Eventually I reached Bragg Bay, yet another deserted white sandy beach that I had to myself. Back on the road I passed Butterfield beach and Bathing Beach once more before cutting round Hicks Point to return to Oban. The cloud was just starting to move in a little as I returned to the settlement which was thankfully now devoid of cruise ship passengers.

 

After freshening up from my sweaty walk I met my friends for a delicious dinner at the South Sea Hotel, the pub on the front strip. After devouring that we took a walk along the foreshore where we got our obligatory photos by the Oban sign and then it was time to retire for the night. Once darkness fell, I took my head torch out to the large playing field behind the houses where I’d been told was the best kiwi spotting in Oban, but after the amusement of being one of several lights randomly walking around in the dark, I spotted nothing and eventually gave up and turned in for the night. The next day was to be the day I would leave Rakiura and there was still plenty to do before then.

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