Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Southland and Fiordland National Park

After leaving Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, we made a coastal circuit from the town of Oamaru on New Zealand's east coast, down through the funky college town of Dunedin and along the Southern Scenic Route up to Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park.

Dunedin was a great college town full of good restaurants, two excellent (and free!) museums and--like any college town worth it's salt--a few breweries. We toured the Speight's brewery which we've dubbed the New Belgium of New Zealand. Not quite as good nor extensive in their offerings, but it's a solid drinkable ale with a few very good craft beer offerings. Such a welcome relief after the tasteless lagers of Asia and even a lot of the more common Budweiser-type offerings here. Interesting little tidbit: Speight's bottles their beer in Christchurch, a few hours north of Dunedin so all the beer leaves their brewery in tanker trucks most bound for the bottling plant. However a few local taverns take deliveries directly from these tankers (think gas station delivery trucks) into their 5000 liter tanks. This unpasteurized beer only has a shelf life of a couple of weeks, but the thirsty students of Dunedin have no problem finishing it off well before it's expiry date!

We've mostly been trying new wines. New Zealand produces an impressive number of varietals, but by far the best has been Sauvingnon Blanc from Marlborough and Pinot Noir from Central Otago. Once we started buying in the appropriate price bracket (about 25 NZ$) they have all been excellent!

On the Otago Peninsula we saw all sorts of marine wildlife - yellow eyed penguins, albatross, sea gulls, scags (cormorants) and NZ fur seals. We also enjoyed nice walks in the rural countryside filled with sheep grazing right next to the ocean. It's hard not to look around and ponder how all of this would be filled with second (third or fourth) vacation homes in the US, all the good views blocked by 5000 sq. ft. "cottages." But here, it's just some sheep working frantically to keep the grass short.

The coastal route was beautiful indeed, and we took our sweet old time, cruising at the van's moderate pace, and pausing along the way wherever our interests dictated. Lots of wind, rugged coastline, more penguins and even some Hector's dolphins. We've been having some great luck seeing wildlife on this trip.

After a few days of lounging around in our personal "beachside cottage" (re: our van), we headed inland to Fiordland National Park which together with Mt. Cook and Westland National Park make up the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Conservation Area (a UNESCO World Heritage site). These national parks make up 10% of New Zealand's land mass...pretty impressive. We hiked the Kepler Track, dubbed one of New Zealand's "Great Walks." The Kepler was created to take some pressure off the immensely popular Milford and Routeburn tracks. It's a wonderfully designed track, built in a loop (unlike most tracks here) with a low grade and long switch backs. In the forest it was almost like being on I-80 - the track was straight and flat, Chris and I could walk two abreast and gape at the forest without running into each other. The forest is similar to the northwest in that it is a temperate rainforest ergo it is wall to wall green moss shag carpeting. But the trees are mostly deciduous - these very small-leafed and gigantic beech, and their ferns are so big they're trees! The alpine views from the Kepler were amazing--impossibly steep mountains falling right into a deep narrow lake. You kind of have to stop and pinch yourself every so often because the scenery is so much to take in.

The day after getting off the Kepler track, we headed up to the infamous Milford Sound. Words can't do this justice, so I will let our pictures do the talking. We took a cruise around the fiord and out to the Tasman Sea. There, dolphins greeted us like we were at Sea World - flips, leaps out of the water in pairs, they were everywhere. Very uncommon, and absolutely amazing. Luckily it rained cats and dogs the next day because I was on sensory overload and needed a day of reading in the van to process everything I'd seen.

To round out the fiord tours, we went on a overnight kayak trip in Doubtful Sound - so named because when James Cook passed it in explorations of New Zealand was "doubtful" he would be able to turn his ship around and sail out if he went in. Indeed it's very narrow and the wind is squirrely. We had perfect weather the first day and rain the second which gave you a good feeling of the place by seeing the contrast in weather and mood. The kayaking was wonderful, the scenery was amazing and our guide was excellent.

Now we're in amped up Queenstown, off to hike the Routeburn and Caples Tracks -- another 4 day circuit. The weather has taken a turn for the colder so we'll see how we fair on this one! Enjoy the pictures!

As always, click on the pictures for a full screen slideshow.


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