Sunday, 6 November 2011

NZ South Island 3 - The Catlins and the Sounds

Lake Manapouri

After Dunedin I drove to The Catlins, a national park on the southern tip of mainland NZ. Not exactly the most southern part of NZ as Stewart Island and some outlying NZ-owned rocks lie further towards the pole, and although remote it's not exactly what I'd call the wild frontier - Fiordland in the south west definitely takes that title. I drove through swathes of forest and farmland and around rugged coastline to get to Curio Bay, a cute, windswept hamlet with only a few backpacker places and a caravan park for accommodation. It was dusk and the local shop-cum-caravan-park-reception had a few packets of instant noodles, which were to be my only dinner option. The bay is the site of a petrified forest: some time in the Jurassic period, heavy rain fell on nearby volcanoes and the resulting ash-filled water swept through the forest, impregnating the trees with silica and turning them to stone in a matter of weeks. The wood didn't rot as it happened so quickly and therefore became preserved in situ. As if this wasn't a rare enough phenomenon, this tiny bay is also one of the few places in the world to see Yellow-Eyed Penguins, who nest in the bank and return from hunting just before sunset, like clockwork.
Yellow-eyed penguins

Petrified forest, Curio Bay
The following day I went deeper into the Catlins and walked some forest treks through to stunning waterfalls. I drove through Invercargill, the largest population centre in Southland (only 50,000 people!) to Manapouri, which I used as a base for a trip to Doubtful Sound. I stayed in a cabin with a log fire, and a gas bottle for cooking. No electricity. This was hardly the flashpacking that I'd been doing so far. I had to forage in the woods, yes.. forage for logs to burn as the temperature dropped. I resorted to speed-reading my copy of Newsweek in order to burn it for warmth. But wow, what a view! Bacon sandwiches and Otago wine on the terrace watching the sunset. That night I woke up to hear mice rustling around my bag and found that in the absence of food they'd eaten a blackcurrant flavoured rehydration powder sachet, which ironically would be quite dehydrating on its own. Serves them right.
Manapouri at dusk
Looking down to the start of Doubtful Sound
A Sound is technically where a river erodes the rock, carving a channel that is filled by the sea, whereas a fjord is similar but as a result of glacial action. The Sounds in South Island are basically all fjords with the exception of the Marlborough Sounds in the north. So Doubtful Sound is a bit of a misnomer, unless Capt Cook was making it known he was unsure of the specific erosion process when he named it. I took a daytrip, which involved sailing over Lake Manapouri, driving over the Wilmot Pass then an afternoon cruising on the Sound. Before the Wilmot Pass was built in 1959, only the most intrepid explored this region. The road was laid to facilitate construction of West Arm hydroelectric power station, one of NZ's most impressive engineering achievements.

The power station was conceived well over 100 years ago, which is staggering enough in itself, but it was deemed too costly to build at that time. When it was finally built in 1965, the Wilmot Pass cost £1 per cm at today's exchange rate - easily the most expensive road in NZ. Most of the energy from West Arm goes to an aluminium smelting plant - without this, it could power most of South Island.

Doubtful Sound
Usually Fiordland gets between 5m and 9m of rain annually and is raining on 2 out of every 3 days, but I was lucky enough to get a whole week of perfect weather. I regret not doing an overnight trip as the place was staggeringly beautiful. All you can hear is distant bird calls and the soft slap of waves against the shore. The place is true wilderness: this side of Lake Manapouri has a permanent population of 1 - a lonely warden in the most remote part of New Zealand.

I spent that night back in relative civilisation in Te Anau, in preparation for a trip to Milford Sound further up the west coast. Milford Sound is bit more touristy, mainly because it's more accessible but it was still a fantastic sight. The road to Milford was jaw-droppingly scenic and virtually deserted, with lonely creeks and a splendid mountain pass before dropping down to sea level at the start of the Sound. Both Sounds had waterfalls in abundance and I expect these would be even more impressive after a few days of heavy rainfall. The photos of the Sounds really don't do justice. It's so difficult to get a sense of scale from these pictures.
Milford Sound
155m Stirling Falls, Milford Sound

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