Granted, the lush, green headlands and wind-tossed cliffs along the coastline of Catlins Region are stunning, but when the wind reaches a velocity of 100kph and the gusts literally blow you of the bike, even the most determined cyclist has to accept his inevitable defeat and make use of some motorized help. Our lifesavers on this horrible day came in the form of Dave and Diane, who created an artistic masterpiece by tying our bikes to the saw blade sculpture on their trailer to Invercargill 🙂
Invercargill is a flat and somehow featureless town that hasn’t much more to offer than satisfying all key requirements as a pit stop between the Catlins and Fiordland, although it does boast a handful of historic buildings and the undoubted star in town is patriarch Henry, a 111-years-old-and-counting but still lusty tuatara, New Zealand’s unique miniature dragons.
Accompanied by some hungry seagulls and our old, ever-present enemy – the wind – we followed the rugged coastline to Riverton, where we became world famous thanks to a delightful old lady who interviewed us for the Western Star, New Zealand’s newspaper with the widest circulation – in this tiny area 😉
Passing boggy tops and stunted trees we silently crossed the boundary to Fiordland National Park, a jagged, mountainous, densely forested landmass ribbed with deeply recessed fiords reaching inland like crooked fingers, appealing its few visitors with a special end-of-the-world feeling. With an average of 200 rain-days per year, we too weren’t spared from the permanent fine yet ice cold drizzle and even though it doesn’t seem much at the beginning, after some hours you are completely drenched despite all the super sophisticated high-tech fabrics and even our beloved merino shirts develop this unique “wet dog fragrance”.
So we were all the more relieved when reaching Manapouri and finding an affordable little cabin with a fireplace that thanks to Gui’s industrious efforts quickly turned the hut into a sauna like dream that quickly dried all our gear and our frozen toes. A rain free window allowed us to stroll on the first kilometers of the Kepler Track, on of NZ’s Great Walks, that leads through a magically moss-draped forest and surprisingly colorful marshland. We shared the little cabin with another couple and confined to the cramped inside for some days by the constant rain and due to outstanding French Cuisine, we became friends fast and they gave us a lift for the scenic route from Te Anau to Milford Sound.
This road meanders through rolling farmland atop the lateral moraine of the glacier that once gouged out Lake Te Anau and heads up into the high-country valley, at first pocketed with sheepy pasture, then reaching deeper wilderness immersion as it crosses the Divide, the lowest east-west pass in the Southern Alps. The road then climbs further through the cascade-tastic valley to the Homer Tunnel, framed by a spectacular, high-walled ice-carved amphitheater of Gertrud Saddle. One way, dark, magnificently rough-hewn and dripping with water, the 1270m long tunnel emerges at the other end at the head of the spectacular Cleddau Valley that finds its climax at the photogenic 1692m high Mitre Peak, the gate to Milford Sound.
Sheer rock cliffs rise out of still, dark waters, forests cling to ridiculously steep slopes and an average annual rainfall of 7m (in words: seven meters!) fuels innumerable cascading waterfalls. Half a million tourists raid this stunning fiord per year but out on the water all this humanity seems tiny compared to nature’s vastness. The unique ocean environment replicates deep-ocean conditions, encouraging the activity of marine life such as dolphins, seals and even penguins, though the latter might be a tourist myth as we haven’t seen one all over the South Island 😉
Around the Mountains
After three warm, cozy nights close to the fireplace and in a real bed (the first one since we left Christchurch) we were heading back to heartland New Zealand and followed the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail that circumnavigates the Eyre Mountains. The bumpy gravel road led us to the isolated area around the Mavora Lakes, two remote stretches of water that are deep blue and clear enough to see trout cruising the many bush clad bays and inlets. Thick beech forests ringing with bird calls fringe the lakes and mirrored in the glassy surface you see the distant snow-capped peaks of the Livingstone Mountains.
As the road is winding further over the golden valley floor along a meandering stream with a perfect backdrop of tussock-covered ridgelines, towering mountains and rugged hinterland, the resemblance to the secluded high plateau of Tajikistan was stunning. The closer we got to the enormous Lake Wakatipu, the more the landscape turned back into the typical NZ stereotype of lush green meadows with grazing sheep flocks and towering peaks until we reached Walter’s Peak, an early settlement and nowadays the jetty for the TSS Earnslaw, a restored, coal-fired steamship with all the brass-work and varnished timber you associate with a vintage ship nearly a century old. The engine room is visible and you can watch the pistons and valves chugging away amidships and the passage to the harbour of Queenstown passed in no time.
Queenstown & the Wakatipi Basin
Surrounded by the soaring indigo peaks of the Remarkables and framed by the meandering coves of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is undeniably a marvelous place to live. But famous as New Zealand’s ‘Global Adventure Capital’, it is bristling with young, mostly German adrenaline junkies that spend hundreds of dollars for jumping off a bridge or out of a plane and queue up by the dozens to grab one of the giant, famed-by-Lonely-Planet Fergburgers.
Despite this unappealing tourist crowds, we had a great time in Queenstown which is the sole merit of David, a warm-hearted fellow cyclist that invited us into his home – and what a home that was! We were literally speechless when we finally reached his address and found ourselves in front of the luxury Rees Hotel, a five-star holiday complex featuring astonishing views on the lake and the mountain range. It turned out that we didn’t get lost and David indeed owned a flat in this glamorous complex and forthrightly and welcomingly opened his doors for two filthy and stinky cyclists 🙂 It was also him that took us on a tiki tour to show us the jewels of the Wakatipu Basin, gave us the opportunity for a family Sunday lunch – something we didn’t have since months – including self-made Pevalova cake and the best coffee we hat in whole New Zealand and organised a reunion with the world’s most ambitious dart team ^^ Thanks a million for your generosity and kindness!