There’s fog and a heavy dew on the Taieri as we head south. John spots a quietly smoking bonfire that he swears was burning last time.
We stop at Berwick and hand a bewildered Bert over for a few days of dog whispering. It’s a bit of a wrench so we stop at Lake Waihola to make coffee and devour slices of sticky grape focaccia made with end of season grapes. A hundred or so swans make a black swan lake tableau, elegant walking stick necks poised for action.
A ploughed field is dusty with lime. Conifer hedges of a blackened green and shadowy patches of forest segment the round hills. We have a close encounter with an upwardly mobile hawk and get a good look at its rich chocolate plumage. The darker ones are younger, so perhaps it’s inexperienced in the ways of vehicles.
At Gore we buy some 80% DEET insect repellent then pay our dues at the Salvation Army charity shop ($3 for a pair of two year old’s red suede jodhpur boots).
Out of Lumsden we cross the Oreti River last seen at Invercargill, then there’s Mossburn, and beyond that it turns to steep country with tussock. The jagged mountains up ahead are like the teeth of an old crosscut saw. Deer are the main stock here including big silvery wapiti (elk).
The vast modern toilet complex in Te Anau must be the best in the country, taxing busloads of tourists at $1 a head. On the lakeside, with a glorious view and hot water, it’s cheap at the price.
Lake Manapouri is glassy. We stop for the night at a new camper van park just out of town. It offers a kitchen, bathroom and company – a couple from the Waikato who know some of my family up there. It’s a very small world back in New Zealand.
The birds are busy next day. A flock of honking Canada geese circles while another flock flies towards them, they wheel around then merge into a huge V and set out in a convoy, all sixty of them. Four spur-winged plovers and a hawk are having a go, and a huge flock of starlings expands and contracts across the sky.
At Rainbow Reach we cross the Waiau River (last seen at Tuatapere) on a swing bridge and venture a short distance along the Kepler Track. What looks like white flowers on the trees from a distance turns out to be heavy lichen. It’s beech forest with fantails.
After we leave Te Anau we enter the green tunnel of beech and moss which is the Fiordland National Park. Then the Eglinton Valley opens out to river flats of native grass, with high mountains glimpsed behind low cloud.
In this glacial valley the grassed over humps on the flats are the remnants of the moraine. The mountains are stark in their sheer rockiness, like the original mountains in some Eden. The road kill possums have black fur.
We walk around Lake Gunn, through red beech. Inside the trunks of fallen trees you can see the red flesh. The ferns come in a variety of forms and we learn that bats live here as well.
At the Cascade Creek Dept of Conservation camp we find a good spot beside an outdoor fireplace. I haul out my completely waterproof new gumboots and wade across the river to collect firewood. We build a roaring fire and share it with a young Dutch couple in a camper. I make fried rice with smoked chicken and peas. In the night there’s heavy rain and moreporks call out.
In the morning the rain clears with a double rainbow, we put on our gumboots and I notice that my hair is turning into smoky dreads. We make toast with bananas and jam for breakfast, cooking on our gas stove on top of the barbeque. It’s bliss to wander around in the wet grass with so much space and no-one around, after months of sneaky freedom camping in Europe.
We change out of our gumboots before driving to Milford, not wanting to look like the cow cockies from Waikikamukau.
A side trip down the Hollyford Valley Road brings us face to face with the grader coming the other way. You forget the joys of a shingle road. The pungas (tree ferns) are dripping wet. At Gunn’s camp we have a look in the museum with its guns, saddles, tools, photos and documents, and tales of lives lost in this inhospitable place.
The rugged Homer Tunnel with its exposed rock interior gets the adrenaline going then we descend down steep hairpin bends towards Milford Sound.
It’s pleasantly subdued when we get there with just a few camper vans and busloads of tourists. We take the Nature Tour on a large boat whose skipper is an ex fisherman who fished this area for years. There’s been no rain for ten days so the waterfalls are small, but on the plus side, you can see everything. The annual rainfall here is about seven metres.
The fiord is short so we reach the Tasman Sea in no time and plunge out into the ocean. Fortunately the sea is calm. We see small albatrosses, muttonbirds (sooty shearwater) and gannets.
In the late 18th century Captain Cook sailed past in the Endeavour, but he judged it unsafe to venture in. It wasn’t discovered by Europeans until about 1812 when a Welsh sealer named it Milford Haven after his home town. Maori had enjoyed the place for centuries, calling it Piopiotahi (a single thrush) from a legend about Maui in which a now extinct thrush fled here to mourn mankind’s immortality. Stunning Mitre Peak (1692 metres) which rears up in the middle of the fiord also has a far more evocative Maori name, Rahotu. I won’t offer a translation here but it’s a more graphic observation than the English name given in 1851.
On our return journey we stop for the night at Deer Flat, another DOC camp. We find a spot beside a mound about fifteen metres high, covered in beech trees and moss. We have to admit that it’s as beautiful as anything we saw in the Lake District. The Eglinton River flows past, deep, clear and swift. A black and white South Island robin latches onto us. Described in my bird book as inquisitive and confiding, it also has a far nicer Maori name – toutouwai.
I make a new version of frittata for dinner which I call Deer Flat Frittata : cooked potatoes, garlic, smoked chicken, a can of peas, four eggs and black pepper.
Next morning we hear bellbirds and paradise ducks, and three robins stick very close. I go down to the river for a bucket of water to wash the back window of the van which is caked in fine shingle and mud which has set like cement after our drive on the unsealed road. There’s a tidemark of shingle and mud halfway up the sides of the van.
We make a mad dash home for an appointment, only stopping at Gore for pies and coffee. Bert is none the worse after his dog whispering, with a few bad habits still up his sleeve.
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