01.01.2011 - 07.02.2011 20 °C
Leaving the lush rainforest of the Fiordlands, we quickly enter into rolling pasture land along the southern NZ coast. Our mission, as we head towards Invercargill, is to find a third person to fly to Mason Bay, located on the western side of Stewart Island. Mason Bay is a huge stretch of remote beach that is only accessible by 3 days of hiking or the easy way, via an hour long plane ride. The entire island is kiwi central and Mason Bay is one the easier places to spot the rare nocturnal bird. Part of this is because it is one of the few places in NZ where the birds are also active during the day. We can't find anyone for the Mason Bay mission after a few quick stops at a couple of Invercargill hostels. So our plan for Stewart Island is quickly changed to plan B, the Rakiura Track.
There isn't much choice for campsites in Invercargill so we decide to head further south to the Catlins region. But before leaving Invercargill we watch the nearly extinct native Tuatara bask in the sun at the Info-Site. It's looks like a lizard but is the closest living relative to the dinosaurs. It is one of the few living relics to have survived since the Jurassic era.
As we get closer to the south coast we cross over the Titiroa River lined with small whitebaiting huts along the shores. Whitebaiters are extremely territorial and most have been fishing the same area for decades. Our map shows a sea lion colony at Waipapa Point so we head in this direction. Upon arrival the incredibly windy beach is void of these large creatures. Moving on with aching ears from the howling winds, we arrive at Slope Point Backpackers to camp for the night. Slope Point is the most southerly point on the South Island. Chatting over dinner with a friendly gentleman that just explored the Catlins area, we get the low down on must-sees and locations of dolphins, seals, penguins, and the fossilized forest. We are eager to walk around the fossilized remnants of a 170 million year old forest at low tide tomorrow in Curio Bay.
Low tide is early, so up and out we go. The fallen trees of the petrified forest are frozen in rock with the wood grain visible in logs and the rings visible in stumps. The trees were turned to stone by silica in the ash-filled floodwaters, a result of steady, heavy rains on ash-covered volcanoes. The entire logs and stumps were preserved because the silification took place within the space of months after the flood, before decay had set in. It is incredible to be able to view such a significant forest completely frozen in time.
Julie and I meander up and down the coast taking pictures of the pre-historic when suddenly a yellow-eyed penguin, a Hoiho is its Maori name, pops up before Julie. This species is one of the rarest penguins in the world, so Julie snaps on the zoom-lens. The penguin must have a nest in the coastal plants along the cliffs past the rocky shore. The parents take turns feeding at sea, while the other stays near the nest to protect and nurture the chicks.
We move on to Porpoise Bay searching now for Hector's dolphins, sea lions, and elephant seals. The magnificent sandy beach is lined in part with steep cliffs over-looking the sea and is perfect to spot marine life. I suddenly spot something moving across the bay, so we grab the binocs and race to the edge of the water hoping for a sighting of the rare Hector's dolphin. Nope, just snorkelers. We leave the area without any signs of marine mammals. Our next stop is at Niagara Falls, named by a comical explorer familiar with the Niagara Falls in Ontario.
The day is flying past and we need to get back to Invercargill to stock up on supplies before heading to Stewart Island. We have decided to take the ferry in the morning to the small island. We pick up groceries and head south from Invercargill towards Bluff, stopping along the way to scope out a good freedom camping area to transform our car into a luxurious hotel on wheels. We decide on a perfect beachy spot before continuing on to a look out point of Stewart Island in Bluff.
For some strange reason, we get thinking about just hoping on a ferry today and staying in a hostel on Stewart Island tonight. The last ferry leaves in an hour, so we scramble about stuffing our bags with four days worth of gear, food, and supplies. The ferry is only for people and not cars, so we had to make sure to bring everything necessary. It was stressful but Julie did a wonderfully calm job of sorting out meals and making sure everything we needed was checked off. We only had to make one last minute dash to the car before jumping on the ferry for the hour long voyage.
First thing I noticed as we took our seats was that everyone had plenty of barf bags. The Captain quickly warns of high swells as we leave the calm harbour. Julie's stomach isn't tossed about so easy and she falls fast asleep. I, on the other hand, focus on the horizon when I could see it to keep from queezing. I check my watch repeatedly before Half Moon Bay (Oban) on Stewart Island was in focus. We gather our bags and walk across the small town headed for Stewart Island Backpackers Hostel to set up our tent.
Stewart Island or the Maori name Rakiura, means land of the glowing sky, and the sun is setting on the small sub-antarctic island. We decide to check out the sunset from Observation Rock overlooking a tranquil Horseshoe Bay. The skies are lit up as the warm sun drops behind the rugged hills in the distance leaving us shivering in strong cool winds. We make our way back to the hostel along the cute side streets of Oban and through a damp dark forested area. We notice signs posted along the roads warning drivers to watch for kiwis as this island is supposedly full of these birds. We head to our tent to rest up for our three day, two night trek around the Rakiura Track starting in the morning.
We rise to light rain sprinkles before the cloud passes and the weather becomes mainly fine. Before removing ourselves from society for three days, we have to stop at the DOC office to fill out an intentions form so they know where we are tramping and when we are emerging from the bush. With our packs loaded we follow the road to Lee Bay and the start of the Rakiura track. The Rakiura National Park comprises 85% of Steward Island, enclosing lush native rainforest and beautiful beaches. I talk to a pair of trampers that experienced a kiwi popping out of the bush and across the trail right at their feet just hours ago. After an easy three hour hike through lovely native rainforest along the coast the trail spits us out onto Maori Beach. I really wanted to fish the mouth of the river flowing into the north end of the beach, so Julie relaxes on the gorgeous waterfront while I go and attempt to catch dinner. Fishing was fun and that's about it.
Later in the evening we walk the beach and hang out in the woods listening for the high pitched kiwi call. The forest is thriving with life and we listen to many unique birds, including the parakeet. New Zealand has no native land mammals apart from a few species of bat. Birds have ruled this landscape, many evolving to be flightless. The large Moa and other species were driven to extinction as a result of humans arriving on the islands. In addition, introduced mammals such as stoats, rats, and possums have drastically plummeted many other bird species populations causing them to be extinct, endangered or at risk. The native birds are very plain and colourless but their extraordinary song greatly exceeds anything we have ever heard. One bird's song sounds like part of the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star! As we come out of the bush the only bird we haven't heard seems to be the kiwi. It's about 10:30pm as we curl up in the tent but it is still very light out. As we fall asleep the sound we have been waiting for vibrates through the night air and we listen to the high pitch whistle of the male kiwi and coarse rasping notes of the female far off in the dark of night.
Day two takes us through virgin podocarp forest, with some sections which were logged in the early 1900's. A few relics from mills and log haulers still remain and are slowly rusting away as the track follows old tramlines once used to carry logs to their various destinations. It is a long hike to Sawdust Bay (about 17 km) and much of the track is under construction. The rainforest along the sides of the track have been cut and disturbed and in only a few places is the forest lush and beautiful right to the track's edge. We also notice that the current trail improvements include covering up the natural track of soil, mosses, and tree roots with gravel. Thus, in our opinion, changing the track from a wilderness tramp that is quiet and soft under the feet, bringing you closer to nature into an easier walk that is noisy and arduous on the feet. It seems that most of the Great Walks in NZ have been 'improved' in this way. As we tramp nearer to our destination the old boardwalks which lead us above thick muddy track sections have been removed. We are very lucky the last few days have been void of rain because while at the hostel we had heard of knee-high mud in places. We walk through with no crazy mud-engulfing stories to share with you.
Sawdust Bay is very shallow and has a very gradual slope which creates a huge tidal swing and a great opportunity to search for cockles. Julie opts out of my cockle feast so I share them with Dave, a new friend we just met at Sawdust Bay camp. His family of 6 has been tramping the North-West Circuit for seven days and this is their last night. They are a friendly bunch from Auckland and invite us for dinner when we are in their neck of the woods. Dave also mentions that they've seen eleven kiwis and they give us a couple pointers on how to spot one. The sunset over Sawdust Bay is phenomenal with glowing skies reflecting off small tidal puddles left from the receding tide. Throughout the night the call of the morepork echoes over the bay in an orchestra of sound.
Our last day on the Rakiura Track is through more muddy sections of trail with the old boardwalks removed. Progress is slow as it is now raining and we are trying to avoid deep mud. After three hours (about 8 km) we hit a gravel road that leads us back to Oban and the hostel for hot showers. The rain gets heavier in the afternoon, as we dine on take-out fish and chips and relax on the couches. As the rain slows and the sun is dropping behind the mountains the cloud clears to reveal a magnificent double rainbow. We gaze at the complete rainbows from end to end, a perfect vision of colour.
The rain returns throughout the night and into the morning and threatens to cancel our fishing trip on an old vessel around Patterson Inlet. We use cash from various family Christmas presents to fund the outing and would like to thank our families again for this great gift. The sun finally breaks through the clouds by 8am and we are on the boat heading out of the inlet just past 9am. The skipper John and his son Daniel, prep the boat for 4 passengers including Julie and I, and we are soon off in search of blue cod. After a short demo we drop our fishing lines made of rope, garden hose, and massive hooks baited with octopus, caught the day before, to the bottom of the ocean. Soon enough we are hauling in cod. Heavy rain and wind come and go but the fish keep biting and we have a great time. Julie pulls up the only full house, catching three cod on her line at one time. These are added to the bucket of cod we catch, some of which are cooked up for our savoury lunch. We also enjoy devouring some raw blue cod seasoned with vinegar and lemon pepper. This is the freshest sushi we've ever tasted. As we fish, some of us pull up seaweed such as bull kelp and attached to this are sea tulips, an invertebrate. We decide to give these a taste test and Daniel scoops out the insides so we can indulge. The texture is mushy and it tastes like the sea. We didn't ask for seconds. Huge Mollymawks and gulls jockey for position along the boat waiting for fish carcasses to be tossed over board. Just before we're ready to head back to shore I catch something huge....turns out to be Spiny Dog Fish, a small shark! We have a great time on the boat with many laughs and we leave with a bag of fresh fish.
We head back to the hostel to pack up the tent before we meander through the artsy town and catch the 3:30pm ferry back to the mainland. The ride is choppy but Julie sleeps and once again I focused hard on the horizon to keep the cod down. After a quick stop in Invercargill for a few veggies to go with our days catch we look for somewhere to camp and relax for the night. An incredibly forceful south wind is blowing so we stop at a Holiday Park to use their kitchen to get away from the elements. We can't find anyone in the office to pay for the use of the kitchen, assuming this is an option, so we head in and start cooking and will pay on the way out. That was a mistake. The owner did not take kindly to us helping ourselves, she demands us to leave immediately and pay for a nights accommodations. After some crappy negotiating on our part we pay 15 bucks and get the heck out of there. We have a good laugh afterwards while eating another meal of cod and learn a valuable lesson. Our night ends sleeping in our car along the beach in Riverton, a friendly town west of Invercargill. Here we will be wwoofing for the next week.