Tuesday 18 July 2017

Sunshine, snow and Southern Man

The day began with the novelty of having to sit in the car waiting for the windscreen to defog and unfreeze - it's been a while since I've had to do that. But what followed had me smiling with pleasure start to finish. I drove through Invercargill during the rush hour - ie the equivalent of Auckland at, say, 3am - and out onto the open road along Route 6 towards Queenstown. 
Yes, yes, of course it's State Highway 6 - but when I got to Lumsden I was so charmed by the Route 6 Café there with its genuine US diner booths and the shiny red 1955 Dodge Kingsway taking pride of place inside - not to mention the standard of its eggs benny - that I can't call it SH6 any more.
Lumsden is a cute little place, proud of its history (sadly not proud - or populous - enough to have its museum manned) and rewards a bit of a wander. It's school holidays and let-loose kids were enjoying the old railway engine by the former station, and the stocks outside the town jail. "Off with his head!" said the boy with the cricket bat. 
Venture Southland sent me to Kingston, at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu to see a man about an app - and though it's surrounded by snow-capped mountains and has killer views up the lake, they really can't blame me for taking the opportunity to nip over the boundary into Otago to visit Queenstown in its winter incarnation - a first for me despite having been there about eight times. 

I whipped up the Skyline gondola, sharing it with a girl from Sydney who had just done the paraglide down from Bob's Peak. She was going back up to reunite with her boyfriend, who claimed that it was too expensive for them both to do it - but she saw through him. "He doesn't like heights. I'll be surprised if he's even out on the terrace." I went there: this is the view -
And then I drove back down the lake as the afternoon wore on, and discovered at about 4pm that I had been wrong in thinking that the Southland sun is so low this time of year that the photographer's Golden Hour lasted all day - because the real Golden Hour began, tinting the snow and back-lighting the sheep, and it was gorgeous.
The day finished at Mossburn, a little town surrounded by farming country that most people in a rush to get to Milford Sound just flit through. Not me. I'm staying across the road from the sturdy brick Railway Hotel - no trains any more, but plenty of Red Band gumboots outside the door, and equivalent Southern Men in the bar. Each had a big bottle of Speights in front of him, and they talked about shearing and weather and hunting, liberally sprinkling the f-word as they chatted. Yet not so very macho: one of them had several unselfconscious goes at grabbing a soft toy with The Claw.

Monday 17 July 2017

Real Journeys Stewart Island cruise Day 6: Goodbye to the Milford Wanderer

There was actually a bit of cruise left today, and it began with a real treat: we were woken up well before 6am with the Tallyman song ("Dayo, dayayayo...") in order to go find ourselves a kiwi. Real Journeys runs Stewart Island's regular evening kiwi-spotting outing, but this was a special just for us. 

We were tendered over to Little Glory for a walk through the bush to the other side where Ocean Beach is a regular haunt for kiwi feeding on sand-hoppers in the washed-up kelp. Rustling along in the cold dark in all our wet-weather gear, we saw nothing in the bush, but on the beach found a big female busily prodding her beak deep into the sand.

The last time I did this, exactly on this spot, I was kicking myself for not bringing my camera because in fact, as it turned out, I could have got some photos of a torchlit kiwi. This time, I had the camera but couldn't use it because Jen, the DoC lady, was very fussy about the red flash of the focus light. What I was wishing I'd brought this time were my binoculars since, if they're good ones like mine, they actually work pretty well in dark conditions - so I learned when I briefly borrowed someone else's. Maybe, third time, I'll get it right. But hey! We saw a kiwi! Main thing.
After eggs benny we were out again, this time in the kayaks at Port William, one of the many foolishly-planned and soon-abandoned settlements of the late 1800s. All that's there now is a lovely bay surrounded by apparently untouched bush, the sea clear and blue against the white sand on the bottom, an inviting suspension bridge over a tannin-stained river, and lots of swirling kelp.
Then it was time to pack up all our dirt- and water-expanded clothes and get tidy again ready for our return to civilisation. As compensation, Stef served up his best lunch yet: tasty chicken and delicious vegetables, plus interesting salads and a truly great ceviche dish of local blue cod caught by Captain Chris. And cheesecake.
And then it really was over: we were back at the wharf in Oban, goodbyes said, watching the Milford Wanderer steaming off right away, racing off to the fiords for its next cruise ahead of a predicted storm. Everyone had written in the Visitor's Book, universally glowing recommendations and thanks to the crew; only a few of us [*cough*] succumbing to the temptation to refer to The Incident.
The Foveaux Express bustled up and very efficiently uploaded, transported and downloaded us to Bluff, where the waiting bus spread us around Invercargill never to meet again. Probably. It was a really good cruise, all the better for being so thoroughly Newzild in location, participants and philosophy. 

Sunday 16 July 2017

Real Journeys Stewart Island cruise Day 5: Inspected by Gadget

Today was our Ulva Island day - which means, lots and lots of birds. That's because it's pretty near predator-free, thanks to the sterling efforts of DoC and people like Sandy and her detector dog Gadget. They came aboard the Milford Wanderer to inspect us and our bags before we went ashore, just in case of sneaky hitchhiker rats, and Gadget was spot-on in finding the concealed mouse-droppings that had been hidden for her to find. Not, though, and curiously, the venison bones that Stef the chef hid unofficially. Hmmm. But bones don't kill birds, so let's give Gadget the benefit of the doubt.
We split into groups and combed the island, looking for birds and finding kaka, kakariki, saddlebacks, tomtits, cheeky bush robins, bellbirds, tui, obese woodpigeon, yellowheads and fantails - and being found by many curious and opportunistic weka, on beaches, in the bush, and at our morning tea stop.
The biggest thrill of the day, though, and the cause of a certain amount of politely concealed envy, was my group's coming across a kiwi just before lunchtime - right by the track, busy poking about for worms and such, and not especially spooked by us standing there with our mouths open, hardly daring to breathe. Of course, just like the leopard in Zambia, my camera was on the wrong setting, so all I got was this blurry, noisy photo. But it's a real, daytime kiwi, I promise!
After a huge lunch with three sorts of meats, we headed ashore again for more exploring and a demonstration of the fearsome rat traps that have been so effective on Ulva, and finished up on Flagstaff Hill where the postmaster used to hoist a flag when the post was delivered, so everyone could come flocking from their isolated homes around the bay and have a bit of a social time.
For our last night, instead of a talk and slideshow about history or conservation - which we had all found interesting - Richard conducted a quiz that very quickly disintegrated into cheerful argument and was all the funnier for that. I enjoyed it immensely, as did everyone else, and we all went to bed grinning.

Saturday 15 July 2017

Real Journeys Stewart Island Day 4: Playing

A beautiful day, is what it brought. As the moon sank, the sun rose into a clear sky, outshining Venus: well, what else would you expect when you spent the night in Glory Cove? It wasn’t such a great day for the beached sperm whale around the point, but on the other hand, the sea birds were pleased, so there you go.
We cruised happily along in the Milford Wanderer on a calm sea back towards Port Adventure, many of us crowded onto the bridge, the conversation ranging from (inevitably) plastic in the sea to how to cook a muttonbird (captain’s tip: boil it forever, then grill it). Fortified by morning tea (scones with jam) we headed ashore to visit a pristine beach and re-visit our youth. Truly: we played. There was no real plan, not much of a history lecture, a minimal conservation lesson: mainly first of all a red sand beach called Red Sand Cove and then, through the bush to the other side of the neck, a white sand beach called – Salty Beach. Ha! Fooled you. It was gorgeous, squeaky and scattered with washed-up strands of bladderweed that popped most satisfyingly when trodden on.
There were kiwi prints in the sand, and those of deer, and feral cats; paua shells polished by the sea and sand; and there was the sea, blue-tinged and transparent, lapping onto the sand in a convincingly tropical manner – though since it was only about 10 degrees, that’s where the resemblance ended.
Time passed as we mooched and fossicked and beachcombed or just lapsed into what Richard aptly called “screensaver mode”. Then we ambled back to the ship for another of Stefan’s irresistibly delicious lunches, before repeating the process at another beach. You could hardly get less demanding or more relaxed, and it was just lovely. There was even actual play here: beach cricket with a driftwood bat and a carved bull kelp ball – which is quite remarkably bouncy, you know.
We learned about sea lions vomiting digestive pebbles, saw a possum dead in a trap, picked up a bit of plastic – sadly, it’s everywhere on this planet, there’s no escaping it – followed more kiwi trails along the beach and then returned to the ship for a closer look at the whale which was definitely beached as, bro*, and a bit niffy with it. And that was the day – full of sunshine, long shadows, fresh air, clear water, good food, relaxation and not much else. What else would you want, actually?
*Don't get that reference? Then - with respect - you're not a Kiwi. One of the joys of this cruise is that it's only Kiwis who know about it. It's like advanced-level New Zealand travel, that common-or-garden (ie foreign) tourists don't discover. And - sorry - all the better for that. We have to keep some stuff to ourselves, you know.

Friday 14 July 2017

Real Journeys Stewart Island cruise Day 3: All's well etc

There’s a lot to be said for a bed that’s more than a metre wide. So we all woke rested, and full of hope for our possible return to the Milford Wanderer.This morning, though, we went ahead with our Village and Bays tour with local Bevan, who was full of praise for the life that Stewart Island’s 381 permanent residents are fortunate to enjoy – from a rich community interaction, to free ferry services for schoolchildren and university students, to virtually free health care.
We were also shown a series of beautiful golden sand beaches set about with rich native bush (97% of the island is National Park), and wound on narrow roads past cute cottages. We heard about the history, daily life, and possibilities for the future, and were not surprised to hear that Bevan has converted at least a couple of visitors to permanent residents. It was quaint to hear him referring to the mainland as “New Zealand” but that’s apparently a thing here, and quite unselfconscious.
Back in Oban, we were delighted to be told that the ship had passed inspection and we stood on the wharf to cheer its return, before being allowed back aboard to continue our cruise, although not quite the one we’d all signed up for.
This one has a Department of Conservation component that attracted everyone: there are three DOC people aboard, not one of them a Kiwi - so, clearly here because they wanted to be, and made the effort. They're certainly friendly, well informed, inspiring and hard-working, and we were very happy to give them a hand with the track and hut maintenance that forms half of their work load. Today it was using secateurs and saws to cut back vegetation along a path and around the remains of a whaling ship repair station from 100 years ago. It only took half an hour, and then we poked around the mossy foundations, looked at the iceberg-wrecked huge iron propellers abandoned on the beach, and had fun getting Swedish crew member Mike to pronounce the remarkably long name of the Norwegian engineering company that ran the show here.
I found kiwi tracks on the beach, which was good, but right behind it were feral cat paw marks, which was not. There are no mice, stoats or ferrets on the island, but plenty of cats, rats, possums and deer, so the birdlife is constantly under threat. Even so, there are around 20,000 kiwi here, so the chances of seeing them are good, especially since they are, unusually, diurnal. And, as ever, it was a thrill to see bottlenose dolphins on our way back to the Wanderer.
The final excursion of the day was a kayaking cruise around the inlet and I must say, this was the best and easiest kayak launching process I have ever had the great pleasure to take part in. I sat in my small kayak on a platform close above the water, was pushed out, and instantly was kayaking. The return was even more impressive: I paddled straight at the platform, Richard grabbed the bow and pulled me over a roller, Chris took the paddle and then I just stood up and stepped out. Magic!
So was the kayaking, on a calm, glossy sea at sunset, as we pootled around the shore, nosing into little bays, between granite outcrops and over mussel beds easy to see in the clear water. It was quiet apart from the calls of oystercatchers and shags, there was lush bush all around, and picturesque little islands with vegetation clinging on determinedly. The sky went pink, the Milford Wanderer’s lights glowed invitingly, and we gradually made our way back home. It was just lovely, and all the better for being totally fuss-free – no waivers, no instruction, just the assumption that we were all capable grown-ups who knew what we were doing. I was also impressed by the doughty attitude of the more elderly passengers, who saw no reason why they too shouldn’t be kayaking.
Dinner was delicious salmon, and afterwards chef Stefan made us Cointreau- and honey-laced manuka tea to have with our strawberry cheesecake. It all set us up well for Richard’s funny and informative history lesson, and Dan’s talk about New Zealand sea lions. And then we all drifted off to our narrow but nonetheless welcome beds, looking forward to whatever tomorrow will bring.

Thursday 13 July 2017

Real Journeys Stewart Island cruise Day 2: On the rocks

Sue was not a snorer, but David on the other side of the (thinnish) wall was. Mainly, though, the night was disturbed by the inevitable consequences of the passenger complement being Baby Boomers-plus, with all the bladder issues that that involves (it's a communal loo).
No matter. We woke to a cloudy pre-dawn – the sun gets up around 8.15am hereabouts, this time of year – and a departure from the North Arm of Port Pegasus along the inside passage to Shipbuilder’s Cove. Just as we arrived, we were being diverted by some sea lion activity in the water when there was a sudden loud scraping sound, a lurch that sent everyone staggering, and an abrupt stop. We’d run aground! On a rock, of which Stewart Island has many, and which all that fancy modern instrumentation apparently can only register once it’s below the ship, not directly in front. Which to me seems to be a bit of an operational disadvantage (especially since it transpired that this particular rock is uncharted by Maritime NZ despite having snared at least five vessels before us).

However. There was a long silence, some staff flurry, and then a sombre apology from the captain, for whom it was clearly suddenly his worst ever day. While they got on with checking for leaks and making arrangements for further inspection, we carried on with the plan for the day, which was to climb up Bald Cone. Richard assured us that, while steepish, it was do-able, and so most of us piled into the tender to go ashore.
I say “ashore” because it was technically true – but it was more of an assault. What we had to do was to step out of the tender onto a ladder propped onto a rock, and climb up it, thence to scramble up through dense bush over treacherously slippery ground. Prickly stuff in the face, feet slipping underneath, the gradient so steep it was more a matter of hauling up it rather than climbing – it was kind of shockingly challenging.
And so it continued, on up through the bush and then out onto an area of burn-out, the consequence, it was darkly suspected, of careless firework indulgence (unlikely as it seemed in such a remote area – evidence had been found). This meant clearer ground, but the remains of the bush were sooty, spiky snags, and underneath the soil was if anything even wetter and slipperier. We struggled up this for a while, stopping now and then to admire the ever-improving views of bare granite outcrops and precariously-balanced boulders, of green hills and distant bays, all set off by sweeping clouds of rain, shafts of sunlight brightening the colours, and rainbows.
Then we got to the granite rocks, which were, as Richard said, “grippy” (the other conditions of the day were “slippy” and “steppy”) and after just an hour we were on the top, enjoying both our morning tea and the spectacular views. And trying not to think about the return downhill.
It was, as feared, as treacherous and difficult as we expected, and most of us had at least one dramatic slither – but it was quicker, too, and soon we were back at the bottom where the Milford Wanderer was waiting for us, now thanks to the higher tide floating freely, but busy with divers who had been helicoptered in.
They found nothing to concern them, but sadly the official boringly responsible Real Journeys decision was that no chances should be taken, and so we were to be returned to Oban in a hired catamaran to spend the night in hotels. Cue much disappointment, dismay and discontent as we returned to our cabins to pack up. There was even some defiance, but it was professionally quelled.
And so we spent a couple of hours bouncing back along the coast in the dully conventional catamaran, our adventure seemingly at an end. Once settled, however, into our various hotels in little Oban (our arrival boosted the island’s population by 10%) and reassembled at the South Sea Hotel for dinner, with an open bar tab provided by the company, people began to cheer up again. Free wine and, especially, Bluff oysters will do that, especially when the entrée three turns out to be four, and the mains six is actually nine. Even better, we were given real hope that, after inspection tomorrow by Maritime NZ who wouldn’t even consider our remaining aboard until they had done their job, we may yet be able to return to our cabins and a version of the original itinerary.
So the day ended in good cheer, with lots of jokes about shipwrecks, compensatory tots of whisky “on the rocks”, being evacuees, and worse things happening at sea. There was animated conversation, from bedsocks to the Treaty of Waitangi via poetry and Machu Picchu; there was singing; and there was noticeable gelling of the group. In the end, the agreed rating for the day, running aground notwithstanding, was 8/10. Not bad, considering.

Wednesday 12 July 2017

Real Journeys Stewart Island cruise Day 1: Rock and roll

Waking to one degree and a thin but solid covering of white outside – sleety hail – I did wonder what I’d let myself in for, down here in the Deep South. In July. Foveaux Strait, between Bluff and Stewart Island, lived up to its reputation as a challenging hour, and the excited shrieks that met the whumping and rolling as we left the harbour soon died away. The staff were very solicitous and professional with sick bags, wet towels and tissues: the only smooth thing about the whole crossing.
Relief at arriving on the jetty at briefly sunny Oban was short-lived, though, as we were ushered right on to the Milford Wanderer, a no-nonsense vessel with two masts, a stack of well-used kayaks at the stern, and nothing in the way of spa pools, sun decks or quoits courts. In no time, we were away, introductions and lifeboat drill done, and were back on the waves, rolling and pitching along the rocky coast, catching glimpses of the snowy peaks behind. Meantime, some of the crew made themselves busy folding open a supply of sick bags, in a not-very-reassuring manner.
There was morning tea – porridge cake, very sustaining – and then, thankfully, a mooring at Port Adventure for lunch. It didn’t appear to live up to the name, being a secluded bay surrounded by bush, but Richard the nature guide/tour director gave us the history and the justification for it. I was actually more blown away by the lunch: home-made mushroom and cumin soup with good bread, then hot dogs, chicken and sundry salads. Just for lunch!
It didn’t matter – I only borrowed it. The three hours down the coast to Port Pegasus were too lively for determination and/or a Scopaderm patch applied too late to counter. But there was no shame: according to Richard, 90% of people get sea-sick, and the others are liars. He also recommended the one sure cure: "Stand under a tree". The huge swells breaking on the rocks were pretty (and) spectacular but I slept and missed most of them.
Everyone had recovered by dinner, which was a most deliciously moist and tender roast beef with a pepper crust, with real fruit jelly for pudding. The seating on the Wanderer is four-seater booths, and everyone seems friendly and ready to mix, so there was plenty of good conversation. Travel and Trump sums it up, really – as well as lots of praise for Real Journeys from their many repeat customers.

Afterwards, Bec from the DoC crew on board told us all about kakapo, our famous nocturnal flightless parrot. There are now 153 of them in existence, thanks to huge effort and great expense, but we won’t be hanging out to see one – none of the DoC people ever have. But there is a framed feather in the lounge.
And so to bed. The cabins are small, with slim single beds, one small porthole high up, and no unnecessary extras – this is an expedition ship, with no pretences to luxury. But it’s comfortable and I have everything I need – even a companion, for the first time ever on a famil. Sue from Brisbane. She claims not to be a snorer…


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