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South and East: Bluff, Catlins, & Dunedin

Tuesday:  Queenstown to Dunedin

To say that we took the scenic route today is a bit of an understatement.  The most direct route from Queenstown to Dunedin will take you east/southeast on SH8 over a distance of just under 170 miles (280kms).  Instead, we decided to drive due south on SH6 to Invercargill and finally on SH1 to Bluff (the end of the highway on the South Island), then head east on the Southern Scenic Route through the Catlins, and then meet back up with SH1 somewhere around Balclutha heading into Dunedin.  This made today a 500km (300 mile) day, but it was enjoyed every single minute.

The drive due south brought us to Bluff, the end of National Highway 1 in New Zealand.  Only a couple weeks earlier, we had arrived to Cape Reinga, at the top of the country and had reached milepost 0.  2000 kilometers later, we had reached the southern end of a most amazing and inspiring place.  Though we didn’t travel this highway exclusively, we had covered the entire distance north to south (and more!) via coach, car, or ferry during our time here.  A fun milestone to have achieved during our stay here.

From here, we turned east and headed onto the Southern Scenic Route to take us through the Catlins, a region of remote farms and scenic beauty, of which the largest town, Owaka is less than 400 people.  It was an amazing drive that took us through many beautiful spots and the remoteness of this area means encountering very few cars, a couple of kind locals, some gravel roads, and sheep, cows, and farmland as far as the eye can see.  Considered putting up a hammock on the side of the road at least twice, but knowing that there was even more ahead, just kept the spirit of the journey moving us forward.

Our first stop along the way was Waipapa Point, a lighthouse on the western end of the Catlins, where we not only found the lighthouse, but a couple of New Zealand sea lions just lazying away on the beach nearby.  Along the way back on the single lane gravel road, we encountered our first runaway sheep.  Apparently, he had gotten through the fence, and ended up on our road.  Locked in on two sides by wire fencing for the two respective sheep farms that the gravel road straddled, he got spooked by the car, and just kept running down the road ahead of us.  Apparently, this is a normal occurrence, but to the two Americans, we’re sitting in the car trying to devise a plan to get this sheep back home… (Silly Americans!)  Open one of the gates and let the sheep back in was one thought, but we figured that we would let more sheep out than get the one back in…  Honk the horn and maybe one of the farmhands might hear it and come out and round the sheep up was another — given that these farms can extend for several kms in every direction, our chances of finding anyone human were extremely limited at best.  So, ever so slowly, we drove this single lane gravel road with a terrified sheep running in front of us, until we got to a clearing and we could pass him safely.  We left him behind hoping he would find his own way home, and continued on to our next stop — Curio Bay.

Curio Bay is a petrified forest on the edge of the ocean, along with a nature preserve for penguins!  Though the penguins wouldn’t arrive until dusk, we enjoyed this rocky coastline and the view of the surrounding area.

A fairly steady rain fell for the next hour, freshening the air but limiting our ability to take a short bushwalk into a nearby waterfall, so we continued on.  Along the way though we just missed two huge farm movements.  As many of these huge sheep and cattle farms are on both sides of the local roads, from time to time, the farms need to move their animals from one side to another and so with 4 wheelers, dogs, and farmhands, these massive groups of animals are rounded up and moved from one massive pen to another, usually using the highway as a connector.  We saw a sheep move about to begin with thousands of sheep lined up at the gate of one edge of a farm, and just missed the completion of a large cattle move at a ranch further up the road.  These undertakings, though massive in size, scope, and scale to us, are probably just another activity in the daily routine of these farms.

From here, we headed to the southeast coast of the Catlins and arrived in Nugget Point, were you can see beautiful formations of rocks in the raging surf below.  The drive in was also enhanced by the fact that the previously mentioned rain turning into a sun drenched afternoon.

A short while later, we were back on the main road and working our way into Dunedin, our home for the next 3 days.  We arrived late that afternoon/evening to our accommodations for the stay.  To all the Harry Potter fans, I kid you not — we we’re staying at Hogwartz Backpacker and Coach House.  A converted Catholic Bishop’s residence, this place is loaded with charm, a wood burning fireplace, and a very neat vibe of a small community of folks that like a place that lacks the sterile feel of a hotel.  We actually stayed not in the main residence, but in a newly remodeled and converted unit right next door, called the Coach House and without anyone in the downstairs unit, we had a one bedroom fully equipped apartment all to ourselves!

It was a late evening, so we made a quick run to the grocery to stock our kitchen, had a quick dinner and crashed as we have a lot planned for the next couple days…  Looking forward to it!

Wednesday:  Dunedin

Wednesday morning, we headed down to the Octagon — downtown Dunedin, a headed to the local visitors center (or i-Site) and met up with a good friend Darin hasn’t seen in person in over 11 years!  Pete, now one of the administrators at the Dunedin Visitors Center works tirelessly, along with a team of colleagues to keep visitors to Dunedin and the region up to speed on all of the activities, accommodation, and options available to folks arriving for the day on a cruise ship, a longer holiday, the 2011 Rugby World Cup, or longer!

Given that it was a workday, and didn’t want to pull him away from critical prep for the upcoming World Cup, he was kind enough to help us review an itinerary for our stay in Dunedin and assisted us with placing our reservations, and setup a meet for dinner and brews along with a tour of Speights, “The Pride of the South” brewery for Thursday night after work.

Then we were off to our first stop of the day, the Cadbury Chocolate Factory!  Though no photos were permitted inside the facility, we can tell you that it was Darin’s dream tour…  First, it was an entire tour and factory dedicated to chocolate and candy.  Second, at the start of the tour, the guide hands you a goody bag with a chocolate fish (chocolate covered marshmallow goodness!) and then tells you to keep the bag handy as it will be filled throughout the tour (Better than Halloween!)  Finally, after touring the factory, learning about the amazing secrets behind dozens of varieties of chocolate and other candies made by the factory, you are led into a massive purple silo.  Darkness envelopes the room as you are asked to take positions along a circular handrail towards the center of the room, and then as the lights come on, a massive 1 ton container (2000 pounds) of liquid chocolate drops in a huge waterfall from the ceiling to a collection drum in the floor below.  Needless to say, it was a lot of fun!  (Note to self:  Do not stand so close to said chocolate waterfall as you will have liquid chocolate splatter on all of your clothing as a secondary souvenir to remember the event…)

After the tour, we headed back to the Coach House to prepare for our afternoon/evening tour with Elm Wildlife Tours.  Their Peninsula Encounters trip takes a group of passengers (11 of us today), along with 2 guides out to the Otago Peninsula to experience the Royal Albatross Center, Papanui Beach to see Yellow Eyed Penguins and New Zealand Sea Lions, then over the ridge to watch fur seals, all in their natural environment.

Our guides for the day Tony and Sean picked us up from our accommodation, and after one final pickup nearby, we were off to the Otago Peninsula.  A 45 minute drive from downtown Dunedin, this peninsula is home to small communities of people and a number of nature preserves, scenic and historical sites.  Our first stop today was to the Royal Albatross Center, a place that is working to continue to protect the Royal Albatross, a very endangered species and one with a single mainland nesting site in the world.  As we arrived, we met up with our guide Mark and made our way quickly up the hill to a specially designed viewing area, so we could have maximum time with the animals.  Right now at the preserve, there are 5 recently born chicks that are quickly approaching maturity and will soon be headed out to sea to fend on their own.  While we viewed these amazing birds (and their massive 9 foot wingspan!) we were also crossing our fingers to see one of their parents gliding in from the ocean to feed them.  This was the harder event to predict as the timing varies on weather and other factors.  As we only had about 45 minutes in the view house, Mark provided us with a lot of great information as we watched the birds and observed some of their quirky personality traits along the way.  As we neared the end of our time, a huge albatross parent swooped into view and we got to see an adult gliding around the preserve working to make a wide landing on the opposite side of the hill.  It was a great opportunity and one that will not be forgotten.

From here, we made our way along a number of one lane gravel roads out to Papanui Beach, a private landowner’s property which is shared with our tour provider for access to the nature preserve on the land.  Here, we climbed down a huge hill to the beach and saw sheep, sea lions, and penguins, all in their natural environment.  Though we were extremely cautious about any disruption to their natural course, we were able to still get quite close to all of them as the pictures show!  We got to spend well over an hour down here at two different viewing areas to see the sea lions and sheep, and as we got later into the afternoon, the penguins began emerging from the ocean and got to see them hop up the beach and move their ways into the hills to meet up with their mates as nesting season is almost ready to begin…  It was an amazing experience and the ability to be so close to the animals with expert guides was a great opportunity.

From there, we climbed back up the hill (it was a monster!) and then once we got to the top, we went back down it (a different direction this time) and arrived at the fur seals colony where we were able to see dozens of pups (and a few moms) on the rocks below our lookout.  We received some insight to these playful and engaging animals and better understand the dynamics of their life and interactions with one another.  Following this visit, we headed back up the hill one last time (see — we are getting exercise on this trip!) and made our way back to the van for the trip back to downtown Dunedin.

It was a wonderful day, capped by a great homemade dinner at our apartment and then called it a night.

Thursday:  Dunedin

Thursday morning we awoke to sun and blue skies as we were planning on a trip to Larnach Castle today.  Within minutes, as we were eating breakfast, it began to rain, followed by a little snow, then sleet, then hail (seriously — within a 10 minute period) and then 30 minutes later, we were back at sun again.  We decided to just go with the flow and head out to Larnach, and what an amazing morning it was.

Larnach castle is located on the ridgeline of hills along the Otago Peninsula.  The castle, the only one in New Zealand, was built for the Larnach family, one with a troubled history, scandal, and enough twists and turns to build a season of soap operas.  The castle and its grounds were designed to be a monument of building that would rival that of relatives back in Europe to show that New Zealand could be as impressive, lavish, and fitting a place for such a “royal” house.  The house came into new ownership in the 1970s by a husband and wife, who purchased a dilapidated, falling down, overgrown, property that needed immense amounts of TLC.  The Barkers provided that and more and today, the castle and its grounds are a monument to not only great history, but also the power of the human spirit to restore some lost relics of the past.

From here, we took a run to Baldwin Street, “The Steepest Street in the World” and then onto the Dunedin Railway Station, “The Most Photographed Building in New Zealand”, so we did the tourist thing and saw both locations and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon.

At half past 5, we headed down the street to the Alehouse and met up with Pete for a pre-Speights tour glass, and Darin was introduced to Summit Golden Lager, the first of many great beers from the Speights brewery.  Trevor, our guide at Speights walked us through the process of ingredient selection, brewing, fermenting, and packaging of the “Star of the South”.  We then moved to the tasting room where we got to try a Pilsner, their Golden Ale, a Porter, Cider, and more!  After a half hour in the tasting room (where we could “sample” as much as our hearts desired, which is in a word — awesome), we headed over to our 7:30pm dinner reservation and enjoyed a great 3 course meal, conversed, and enjoyed a great evening.  Two of Pete’s friends joined up with us later and we all hung out until we closed the place at 11:30pm.

It was a great three days in Dunedin — a wonderful coastal town with a lot of great options and activities to enjoy!  Tomorrow morning, we head north and towards Christchurch, our final stop for New Zealand on this pass.

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