New Zealand's Far South

April 6, 2004

Dear Friends and Family:

We just returned from a delightful seven days being tourists in the south part of the South Island of New Zealand. We were warned to take clothes for wet cold weather, and itís a good thing we did. We saw 40 knot winds and snow in the not-so-high altitudes.

Map of New Zealand

Sheep grazing and distant snow-covered mountains
Robert Burns statute, Dunedin We flew first to Dunedin, where we picked up our rental car. Dunedin is a very European city, with a vibrant student culture associated with the University of Otago. Used bookstores and good restaurants abound, and Gothic churches are everywhere Ė the Scots Presbyterians competing with the Anglicans for the biggest and the best. We stayed in a delightful bed & breakfast recommended by friends. Hulmes Court is an old Victorian house with high ceiling rooms, interesting art on the walls, a resident cat (who was to be found on our bed some of the time) and friendly student staff. The atmosphere reminded us as much as anything of a gussied up student coop from our Berkeley student days. We walked down an extremely steep hill ("View Street") to several delightful restaurants.
Our one Dunedin excursion was aboard the Taieri Gorge train. Passenger service to Central Otago was discontinued in about 1980, and the City of Dunedin bought the track, and has been running tourist trains on it every since. The route runs through an area that canít be reached by road. The landscape changes from sheep and horse pastures (at the beginning), to pine forests, desert canyon, and finally the dry high plain, with strange rock formations and remote sheep stations. We rode in an antique car with some Danish students, and made friends with some of the other travelers Ė mostly from Australia or Germany.

Train trestle in Taieri Gorge

Taieri Gorge train interior
We drove the next day to Arrowtown (a real tourist trap).  The most amazing sight in Arrowtown was a shop labeled prominently "Red Deer" and under that, in big letters, "Deer Blood" and a reference to "deer velvet."  Craig's curiosity got the better of him, and I followed him in.  Inside, there were boxes and jars stacked neatly on display tables, all labeled in Japanese.  Nothing in English.  No one in sight but a loud Japanese conversation in the back room.  Hmmm.... then on to Queenstown (a destination ski resort in the winter, with bungy jumping, river running, etc. in the summer.) We decided to avoid all the tourist hype, and went on to Mangonui, where we signed up for the boat-bus-boat trip to Doubtful Sound.

Youíll recall that Captain Cook named a bay in the North Island "Doubtless Bay" because it was "doubtless a bay." So in the South Island, he had a look at the entrance to the Fjord now called Doubtful Sound, and decided the wind would blow him in just fine, but it was "doubtful" that he could sail out again. Hence, he didnít go in, and exploration was left to Malaspina for a later expedition. (Yes, for those of you who are paying attention, this is the same guy whose name appears so often in British Columbia Ė he was a very significant explorer in the Pacific Northwest).

At one time we had contemplated sailing down to the South Island, and exploring all these fjords that look so fascinating on the map. But now that weíve seen Doubtful Sound, weíre glad we didnít. Although the vegetation is different, they look quite a lot like the fjords in British Columbia, but without the snow capped peaks, and without any facilities for yachts at all. (In fairness, the snow capped peaks may have been there, but hidden in the mists).  The sea is quite rough at the mouth of the fjord, and there are no sheltering islands while you pass from one fjord to the next. The water is tea brown in color because of the incredible amount of rainfall draining through the forest. Doubtful Sound

There are a few fishing boats, but otherwise, itís just tourist boats wending their way through the windswept, rain lashed fjords. Iím sure the sun must shine there sometimes (there is sunshine in the tourist brochures) but I gather itís not very often.

View from Florence Hill over Tautuku Bay The next day we drove across the island to an area called the Catlins. Rolling green hills covered with sheep, deer and cattle, march up to the edge of the sea, where precipitous cliffs are worn away by wild winds and waves. The weather seemed to follow us across the island, and we were constantly dodging rain squalls. We stayed at a delightful farm with the Burgess family, and learned about raising deer for venison and velvet (and why the Japanese want deer velvet) and about Pakeha-Maori politics.
Weíre back in Auckland now, and we have just a few weeks until itís time to head north to Fiji. The list of things to do seems to grow longer and longer, but we continue to hack away at it. We hope to find a few days to go sailing with our Australian friends, Chris & Margie, but otherwise itís nose to the grindstone!

Best wishes to all!

Craig & Barbara Johnston

S/V Sequoia


South Island sheep

Back to the previous report  

On to the next report