19 January 2012

Fiordland and the Catlins

For the holidays, Lizzie and I went to Fiordland and the Catlins, areas in the west and south of the South Island of New Zealand.  It was pretty amazing.

The drive was a relatively short one, for two Americans used to formidable road trips.  It was only three or four hours from our home in Dunedin to the little Fiordland town of Manapouri.  At the time, we thought that the scenery during the drive was spectacular: rolling green hills, enormous skies, and hawks gliding regally above.  But while that was certainly beautiful, it would turn out to only be a prelude to one of the most shockingly gorgeous areas to which I have ever been.

Our motel in Manapouri was the Manapouri Motel and Holiday Park.  It was recommended by the Lonely Planet guide, and the generic name made me expect a generic little motel: a few little rooms, concrete shower, etc.
It was not a generic motel.  It was a weird mish-mash of different cabins, chalets, and one old converted bus.  They had all been added at different times over the decades the owners had been there.  A row of old cars, all Morris Minors, stood to the rear next to the hand-built playground (underground tunnel, huge half-buried tire, rope swing).  In other places, strange relics were piled up or leaning against a shed: a pile of old bicycles as tall as me, an Israeli cab with papier-mâché driver, and so on.  It was strange and delightful.  Lizzie took some of these amazing images.

Our cabin was the first one they ever put in.  It was tiny and green, about the size of a queen-sized bed with a foot of room on either side - which happened to be exactly how it was composed: inside was a bed and just enough room to shuffle around it.  On a shelf beneath the big windows were a tiny counter area, with a hot plate and electric kettle for the winter months when you might not want to leave the room.  It smelled of wood, and was the soul of charming.

Manapouri itself is just a single street along the edge of Lake Manapouri.  It's not much to speak of - one restaurant, three motels, a few shops.  Sneeze, and you could miss it.  But the lake!  It was gorgeous.

Fiordland had been having a drought for three weeks, and it was getting pretty bad for them.  That area of the country relies on its heavy rains and high water, and it was getting so dry that the waterfalls over the lakes were dusty and still.  But it also meant that there was no mud, and that the sandflies - the much-dreaded insects that bite holes in the crowds of tourists - were entirely absent.  Good for us, even if it was bad for Fiordland.

The next day, we took a walk out to a local hill.  It was part of a section of land that had been cleared for development (the roads already in place) but was mercifully still empty.  It had an amazing view.

My brother gave us a pair of binoculars for Christmas, and we put them to good use, searching for hawks and watching sheep laconically chew.  I have been in New Zealand for more than a year, and still haven't gotten to pet a sheep.  It's ridiculous.  There are more than 40 million sheep, ten for every person, but not enough to let me pet one?

The sunset was awe-inspiring, night after night.  Really, every bit of the scenery was like something out of a painting.  Big skies, long white clouds, flat plains, blue lake, and golden mountains.  I took many pictures, but it was frustrating: the scope of things was beyond anything that could be captured on film.  I felt like I was trying to retain Guernica on a postage stamp.

We went to the town of Te Anau later in the afternoon.  It was just down the road, fifteen minutes or so, but it was a completely different experience.  It's the favorite destination in those parts, and it's a full-fledged town.  It had a gas station, supermarket, paved stroll next to its own lake, and all sorts of restaurants and shops.  Tourists crowded around, licking barbecue sauce off their fingers and fingering their maps.  It was very nice and very well-kept and completely inferior to Manapouri.  We went back.

The next day, we were set for a hike.  We were going on the Circle Track, a nine kilometer hike to the top of a nearby mountain and down.  To get to the start of it, you need to cross a river.  You can hire a taxi, but Lizzie really wanted to hire a rowboat.  We did, and she rowed us across like a professional.  It was sunny and beautiful on the water, and we didn't rush.  The current was with us, so it wasn't hard.

The Circle Track wasn't too bad of a hike.  It was surprisingly well-maintained.  Worn places were reinforced with wooden steps, and fallen trees had been cut up into sections with a chainsaw some poor ranger must have hauled up on his back.

One strange thing we immediately noticed were the birds.  They seemed to have no fear of us, and flitted around a handsbreadth away from us.  What the hell was wrong with these birds?  Hadn't they learned any lessons from their cousins the now-extinct moa birds?

They were fantails, mostly, and they would flutter and bob around our heads.  They were, as Lizzie commented, exactly the sort of bird you'd see in a Disney cartoon.  If we had wanted to, we could have just reached out and caught ourselves some fluttery little lunch.

There weren't any other animals that we could see, although the beginning of the trail had a placard warning us that poison bait had been put down for stoats (an invasive pest).

It was a hard hike up - we seemed to have taken the steepest part first.  Still, it was worth it when we reached the plateau at the top.  There was a cliff, overhung with trees that hadn't gotten the message about their crumbling home.  I felt a little queasy as I looked over the edge.  It was a straight drop down for hundreds of feet, broken by rocks below.

The cliff provided not just vertigo, but also an amazing view over the mountains and valleys of Fiordland.  They filmed part of Lord of the Rings here, and it's immediately apparent why they chose it.

The hike down was easy, and we were cool in the shade of the trees.  We ate udon noodles back at the motel, prepared in the shared kitchen.  Nearby, a raucous pair of kiwis vacationing from Auckland argued about the future price of mutton and the benefits of exporting to China, and a visiting Dutch couple offered me some of their beer and talked about human trafficking.  As it grew dark, rain began to fall, restoring parched Fiordland and turning the Circle Track into mud.  We'd been fortunate.

The next day was a big deal, because it was the day we'd booked our trip to Doubtful Sound.  It was the only official, paid tour we were doing, and it was expensive.  It felt like a serious investment, because Lizzie and I are loathe to spend money on anything so touristy.  But this was one time we couldn't forge our own path, and after getting out there, we didn't regret the expense.

It was a complicated trip.  First of all, we took a small boat from Pearl Harbor at the junction of the river and Lake Manapouri.  It dropped us at a small information center near a big hydroelectric power plant.  The company that owned the plant was still eager to demonstrate everything they did to preserve the local wildlife, because during the 1960s the Save Manapouri campaign became the first major environmental movement in New Zealand, dedicated to preserving Lake Manapouri from a proposal to raise its level by a hundred feet.  That would have destroyed much of the surrounding area, and even though the proposal was canceled and the lake saved, Meridian Power still seemed pretty nervous about seeming like the villains.

The tour guide loaded us onto a bus, and we descended three kilometers down a gently curving road, down into the earth and into the power plant.  The most remarkable event of the day was the bus driver's ability to completely turn the bus around within the narrow tunnel - at one point, he had literally six inches of clearance at either end as he juttered the bus to and fro in the dark tunnel.

What we actually could see of the Manapouri Power Station was one big room, supplied with seven generators that hummed loudly.  An educational display, covered in smeary plastic, informed us about the wonders of the technology and the many workers who died during its miraculous construction, fifty years ago.  A majority of the produced power goes to an aluminum smelting plant in Winton.  By coincidence, we happened to have at home a detailed topographical map of Winton, bought for decoration from a secondhand booksellers.

After we left the power plant, it was over a hill and onto another, bigger boat.  And then: Doubtful Sound.  It's so named because Captain Cook, on his exploratory voyage nearby, decided not to sail into it and examine the area.  He judged that it was doubtful whether or not the tides would permit him to leave, if he did.

Strictly speaking, it's not a sound at all.  Doubtful Sound is a fjord, carved out by the scraping action of a glacier.  The water is opaque, strangely enough, because the surrounding mountains receive a great deal of rain that is strained through the trees and moss that cling tenaciously to their surface.  Like a big bowl of tea, Doubtful Sound is darkened with tannin leeched from that plant-life.

The tour guide explained to us that this was just part of the unusual environment here.  The dark waters encourage certain algae, seaweed, and creatures to thrive just below the surface, when ordinarily they'd require the deep depths of the ocean.  They're fooled into thinking they're a fathom from the air.

The trees that grow on the sides of the mountains are mounted onto what is almost bare rock.  First, a thin moss darkens the stone.  After it has thickened for years, a few shrubs take up root in the moss itself.  And after the passage of decades, trees begin to sprout in the moss and shrubs.  Eventually, a bit of stone slides, or the rain falls too heavily, or the tree gets too big.  Then it falls free, scraping clean a great swath of mountain, so the cycle can begin once more.

One might think that such a remote place would be teeming with wildlife - fish, at the least.  But it's a very delicate system, and fishing has always been heavily restricted.  It wouldn't take much to throw things out of whack and eradicate the ecosystem here forever.  There are seals, however, and a small group of them bobbed in the water just off the boat's prow.

We were lucky that it had rained the night before, because the waterfalls, which had been dry for weeks, had erupted back into life.  Streams of water tumbled from the mountaintops, where clouds swept in from the ocean had been caught and drained.

All of that beauty was a little draining.  Once you've seen a dozen stunning panoramas of primeval beauty, you start to feel like you need a nap.  So that's what we did on the trip back.

The boat/bus/boat combination was repeated, although there was an interesting novelty in the swarm of insects that had taken refuge in the bus during our absence.

Worn out, Lizzie and I got fish and kumara chips from the one restaurant in Manapouri. We took a short walk, and watched the sun set.

I think that everything we'd done so far was pretty much what we expected: hikes, sunsets, and boat trips.  But one thing that was sort of a surprise event was that the rodeo was in town in Te Anau.  It was the New Zealand Rodeo Finals, and everyone had their spurs on.

As it turns out, rodeos in New Zealand are a lot like rodeos in America. There's roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing, bronc riding, and bull riding.  There were tents with refreshments, an inflatable bouncy castle, and drunk women who were a little too old to be wearing belly shirts.

As is usual, they scheduled the most exciting things for the end of the competition.  Lizzie and I ate doughnuts and watched the roping competitions, team roping competitions, and steer wrestling.  A pair of grizzled old cowboys rode the arena, tracking freed steers out to the pen, but even they couldn't ride down all of them quickly enough, and the crowd got a good scare every so often when a scared steer, nostrils snorting, would crash bodily into the fence in a bid to escape.

I was able to sneak out around the back and see the pens.  They were filled with cattle, horses, and sheep.  Most of them had been trucked down from the northern part of the island, and some of the young steers had never seen a human being until the day before.  They stomped in the dust and butted up against each other for comfort.

One curious event that I hadn't seen before was the children's sheep-riding competition.  It was about what you'd imagine: they plunk a child on top of a sheep and let it go, and time how long he can hold on.  As it turns out, children are just terrible at this.  Each time, they'd go tumbling off onto their heads, more often than not bursting into tears and getting hastily carried out by one of the wranglers.  They probably had lamb chops that night, for revenge.

We sat on the grass to one side of the arena.  Sitting in front of us were six or seven little kids, all dressed up in their cowboy gear.  It was cute to hear them talk about how scary they thought the bulls, or how pretty the horses.  A child with a New Zealand accent could threaten to kill me and I'd still think it adorable.

With the rodeo over, our time in Fiordland was done.  We packed up, regretfully, and headed back east.  We'd be taking a looping route, though, swooping down through the Catlins.  After all, who knew if we'd ever get a chance to get out here again?

Curio Bay was a great place we popped in to see.  It's home to a whole fossilized forest, visible when the tide recedes.  It was almost eerie, with what seemed to be long trees half-sunken into the rock.  But even better were the penguin duo we spotted, heading from the bay back out to the ocean.

I am not a scientist, so I can't vouch for the exact measurements, but I am fairly sure that penguins are the second-best animal, coming just behind monkeys (objectively the best, by general agreement).  These ones toddled their way along the rocks, hopping over gaps, on their way to go feed.

Our last stop was Parakaunui Falls, one of the icons of the Catlins.  A short walk through the woods brought us there.  The air was cool and heavy with the smell of the falling meltwater.

And then we headed home, finally, dirty and tired and happy.  We'd finally gone on a trip around New Zealand, and seen the wildest and richest parts of the South Island.  It was beautiful and majestic.  But as always, we were happy to be home.  We snuggled up under the blanket and went to sleep.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Beautiful, thanks for sharing. :) Not everyone can say they've been somewhere with such a unique name as Doubtful Sound. Pretty cool trip!