Kiwi Guide Stories - The Far South
MoaTours Kiwi Guide Matt has been exploring the Far South of the South Island for our brand new Far South - Hidden Treasures tour. Read his travel diary as he journeys from Dunedin to Bluff and Riverton then into Lake Hauroko in Fiordland.Then along the "back road" to Queenstown via Mavora Lakes to Mt Nicholas Station and Lake Wakatipu. A real adventure into some of the hidden treasures of the South Island.
The Far South with Kiwi Guide Matt
I just love exploring new places and the Far South of the South Island is a real favourite. I first discovered its delights way back in 1976 when I spent a month based in Invercargill during my student days. I have grabbed every opportunity to visit frequently since then, so when MoaTours asked if I would lead this particular new tour, I leapt at the chance.
It’s probably not the best place in New Zealand to get a suntan, but perfect for anyone looking for dramatic scenery, heroic heritage and cheese rolls – one of the delights of Southland cuisine!
Day 1 - Dunedin – Otago Peninsula – Dunedin
Our tour starts in Dunedin and we head out to the peninsula with its tales of early Maori, whalers, pastoralists and enterprising Scots settlers, culminating in the story of William Larnach – what a tale of triumph and tragedy he was! And his castle – the only one in New Zealand at the time - is a highlight of the itinerary on the first day.
The views we get from up on Highcliff Rd are just fantastic, as we can look across the harbour, south along the coastline and right back to the city itself.
Day 2 - Aramoana – Orokonui Ecosanctuary – Karitane – Matanaka
Our second day is spent touring around Port Chalmers and Aramoana, site of a terrible tragedy in 1990. It is heart-rendering to comprehend that in such a beautiful place such a tragic act could occur.
Then it’s back through the port before crossing over the hills to the wonderful Orokonui Sanctuary. Over 300 hectares of habitat is being restored, predator trapped and managed for the indigenous wildlife, with easy walking trails leading to native skinks, kaka, takahe, kereru etc. It has a stunning entrance building combining expansive views and re-created habitats for a brilliant experience.
And further around the peninsula is the Truby King Reserve where the famous Seacliff Hospital was. Renowned author, Janet Frame, was a patient at Seacliff during the War years. Although now a reserve with few reminders of its past, Truby King was once a household name and revered by many women for his formation and advocacy of the Plunket Society. We continue to Karitane a place which combines Maori history, Truby King’s home and magnificent views along the stunning Otago coastline. I’ll have a little more detail about Truby King for the journey around this area.
The old farm buildings of Matanaka are a favourite of mine. Situated on a headland that commanded views of the coast and the passing whales, Johnny Jones, pioneer whaler, farmer and businessman of Otago, built his farm settlement here with prefabricated buildings – the first permanent European settlement in the South Island and they’re still there!
Johnny Jones was a real character. His entrepreneurial spirit, his outrageous claims to huge areas of Otago after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, his authoritarian command of the settlement and his extensive business empire in Dunedin all combine to make him one of the great pioneers of Otago. So we’ll be exploring some of his story during the day’s travel.
Day 3 - Dunedin – Balclutha – Bluff – Invercargill
Today we head south along to Brighton – no, not the English seaside resort, but named after it. This is the lesser travelled route south of the Scottish city, down past Taieri Mouth before we emerge back onto SH1 at Waihola. And a tale here of the mysterious New Zealand otter - reputedly seen here but sightings more numerous inland ... but wait, there’s more ... when we get to Otautau.
Through the lush green farming landscape of Southland we make our way to Bluff and the famous signpost at Stirling Point. Now Bluff was founded on maritime activity, built its reputation on oysters and survives today as a major shipping and fishing port. So a visit here means a visit to the Maritime Museum with its collection of fascinating artefacts recording the stories of the town. They’ve even got a fishing boat mounted at the entrance there!
And across the harbour we can see that object of so much controversy during the recent election campaign – the massive Aluminium Smelter. Importing the ore from Australia and dependent on Manapouri generated electricity, it plays a pivotal role in the economy of the South. But its days may be numbered as owners, Rio Tinto, have said they plan to close it.
And our accommodation for the next two nights is at the excellent Ascot Park Hotel with its sprawling grounds and very comfortable amenities.
Day 4 - Invercargill – Winton – Nightcaps – Otautau - Invercargill
Now a feature of today is the Bill Richardson Transport World. The first time I went here I was smitten – my wife, Linda, and I had intended an hour or so and three hours later we’re still wandering the rooms, each with its own surprises, unique vehicles and amazing transport related features. This place is just wonderful and there will be items of interest for everyone in here. Most of you, I’m sure, will spend the time here recalling many of the vehicles and exhibits as part of "normal" life in your younger days, bringing back memories and reminders of people and places, events and incidents. Aaahh, nostalgia – it sure ain't what it used to be!
Then it’s away to the heartland of Southland, through the pastures that have generated the wealth of the province since the 1880s and the rural towns that produce, process and provision the populations that do the work. We’ll have some stories of the productivity of the Southland Plains and their role in New Zealand’s agricultural scene before getting further into the hills around Ohai and Nightcaps. Here they dug for coal and it is still ongoing. We may be able to manoeuvre to get a view of the operations – there are a couple of side roads which we can get down to see the workings.
And at any time on the Southland Plains we’re never far from the bush. (Don’t panic – we will stop at the public conveniences as well!) However, the pioneers had a great love of clearing the indigenous forest and then giving the new settlements names ending in "bush" eg. Groper’s Bush – what were they thinking? So, we’ll hear about that and some of the more well-known of these "Bush" settlements.
Day 5: Invercargill – Riverton - Orepuke – Tuatapere – Lake Hauroko – Te Anau
Our touring today is one which takes us into the very remotest of Southland’s scenic splendours. We start by heading west from Invercargill to the very first establishment of the European settlements at Aparima/Riverton. Here Capt. Jackie Howell in 1836 established his shore-based, permanent whaling station, married into the local Maori community and became an extensive pastoralist, businessman and patriarch – he did father 17 children, after all!
When I visited the Te Hikoi Museum here a year or so ago, I was absolutely blown away at the quality of the exhibits and the manner of telling the stories of the region. This museum is simply brilliant – personal narratives, brilliant recreations, genuine artefacts and extensive coverage of so many aspects of Southland’s history, told through exhibits, film, photos and audio visual.
And all about are the reminders of Riverton’s past life as a whaling port and agricultural base for the Province. As a centre for Maori settlement in pre-European times there are frequent reminders of its importance to Ngai Tahu – the islands in Foveaux Strait, the names recalling their heritage and sites of significance – Omaui, Awarua, Ruapuke Island, Te Waewae Bay and others.
You’ll be impressed with the quality of the homes that extend around the coastline fringing Oreti Beach, along the road to Howells Point, now popular as a retirement location for the Seniors of Southland! The area is deservedly popular for the seascape views, fishing and shellfish collecting. Retirement can be tough in Southland!
As we head west towards the far distant Fiordland Mountains we pass Roundhill, once a thriving Chinese gold mining centre (the largest settlement of Chinese in New Zealand in the 1880s) and the southernmost settlement of Chinese in the world. If we get out of the Te Hikoi Museum in time, we might be able to do a short side trip to have a look at the remnants there. We’ll stop for lunch at Orepuki where local initiative has seen the restoration of an old house into a warm and welcoming cafe with a deserved reputation for quality food. So good, in fact, that in 2018 it won the New Zealand Cafe of The Year title! If it’s that good, we have to stop there.
There are intriguing stories of the area around Orepuki – how it was once named after an assassinated American President, the site of New Zealand’s only platinum mine, the semi-precious gemstones on the beach. We’ll hear more when we get there!
Te Waewae Bay, best viewed from McCracken’s Lookout, is an important site to Maori, regarded as the landing place of the Takitimu canoe that gives its name to the impressive ranges further inland. For me it has a special memory as the launching place for friends and kayakers, Paul Caffyn and Max Reynolds, who we pushed off from here to become the first people to kayak around the coastline of Fiordland in 1978/79. Paul later paddled the entire shoreline of New Zealand. And then again, in 2019, Linda and I walked along the western end of Te Waewae Bay on the final day of the Hump Ridge Track walk. It was a long finish to a long walk, but relieved by the easy beach walking and the prospect of a hot shower and a cold beer at the end.
Then it’s inland from here to Tuatapere, where we spent a fortnight in our caravan back in February 2019. Loved the area, the sights, the encounters with nature, wildlife and the people – sometimes all three-in-one!
The most exciting off-the-beaten track exploration we made was into Lake Hauroko. I first went in there in 1979 when the road was rougher than the proverbial goat track, but now it is a decent, though partially unsealed, drive in. Lake Hauroko is New Zealand’s deepest lake. For many years it was thought to be Lake Manapouri but surveying in the 1980s revealed even greater depths in Hauroko.
However, it is the discovery of a Maori woman buried in a cave on Mary Island, the largest of two in the lake, that most interests me. She may have been placed there up to 300 years before and I’m excited to hear that local jet boat operators, Johann and Joyce, will be taking us past the site and telling us the story of the woman in the cave. For many New Zealanders it is a little-known but important aspect of our cultural history.
Hauroko is surrounded by stunning mountains – we are, after all, in the midst of the Fiordland mountains – and clothed in the lush rainforest vegetation of the area it is a dramatic and impressive landscape. Our jet boat trip will take us around parts of the lake so we can see and hear the stories of the area. Now, all we have to do is pray for good weather!
Back out to the main road and over the Clifton Suspension bridge, a much photographed and iconic symbol of the area. And also the location of a number of sightings of the waitoreke – the fabled New Zealand otter that supposedly inhabits the region. Maybe, just maybe, we may be the ones who get the definitive photo that settles the controversy!
Further north along the road to Te Anau is Lake Monowai but we may not have time to visit there. It is the site of one of New Zealand’s earliest HEP schemes and has an interesting tale, particularly in regard to its influence on the "Save Manapouri Campaign" in the 1970s. We’ll certainly be talking about it even if we don’t get to visit it.
Day 6: Te Anau – Mavora Lakes – Mt Nicholas Station - Queenstown
Our journey into the Mavora Lakes takes us back to what I regard as one of the most beautiful, scenic roads in our country. Here we travel from Te Anau to the Mararoa River and follow north to the South Mavora Lake, nestled in a beautiful valley surrounded by southern beech forest. Once seen, one immediately comprehends why Peter Jackson in his "Lord of The Rings" movies chose the area for filming of a number of scenes – the Fangorn Forest, the Silverlode River and the Nen Hithoel forest lake.
But it is from here on, further north along the road, that we encounter iconic New Zealand, high country landscapes – large tussock flats, the enveloping hills, the icy-cold waters of swiftly flowing mountain streams and the patches of remnant beech forests that dot the lower slopes. Descending down a long, sidling road takes us alongside the Von River and the drive down the idyllic valley.
Along the valley floor we follow the river out to the coastline of Lake Wakatipu and down to Mt Nicholas Station. The place names recall the early pioneer settler of this side of the lake – Nicholas von Tunzelman, who partnered with William Gilbert Rees to settle the Wakatipu Basin. Legend has it they drew straws to see who would get which side of the lake and von Tunzelman ended up over here. Neither lasted very long – Rees bought out by the Government when his land around Queenstown was declared a goldfield, and von Tunzelman overrun by rabbits within a few short years of taking up his lease.
But it is the beauty of the landscape which impresses. On my first visit it was a wonderfully clear day and I gazed in awe directly up the northern arm of Lake Wakatipu to the stunning and lofty ice fields of Mt Earnslaw (over 9,000ft!) at the head of the lake. The clear, blue waters of the lake sparkled in the sunlight while the lakeside hills framed the mountains in the far distance. What a magical view!
And from the Mt Nicholas side of the lake you are staring at a view back east that is seldom seen by fellow New Zealanders, although a few more may be here soon given the restrictions on travelling further afield. Autumn is surely the perfect time to be down here among the mountains of Central Otago – the poplars with their golden hues, the colouring exotics and the long, mild evenings. Aaahh, bliss.
You’ll finish the day with a boat trip across the lake to the town – a rather different approach than the normal one into Queenstown. To cap it off, we’re staying at the Novotel Hotel right on the shore of the lake and next to the beautiful Queenstown Gardens for anyone desiring an evening stroll amongst the colours and sights.
While the events of 2020 may have impacted on the numbers into Queenstown, nothing can take away its beauty.
Day 7: Queenstown – Arrowtown – Home
On the final day in the Far South you will have time to try a little shopping in the boutique booths of Queenstown before we wind our way out to the Shotover River, cross the famous Edith Cavell bridge where you’ll hear the story of the brave English nurse who’s execution caused worldwide condemnation of German behaviour in WW1.
We’ll climb the slopes of Coronet Peak so we can get brilliant views over the Outer Wakatipu Basin. Visiting Queenstown at this time of the year is a real bonus. The autumn colours are beginning to appear, while the warmth of summer still lingers, and the long summer evenings, such a feature of the lower South Island, means twilight lingers into the late hours. It can be gorgeous.
And then onto Arrowtown. I love this place, where the history has been retained in the old buildings, the stories are available on photo boards and information panels and the shops provide a wonderful range of souvenirs. There will be time to wander the streets and especially to take in the old Chinese remnants down near the banks of the Arrow River. And by the time we get there, the autumn should be advanced enough to make a walk along the avenues of oak and plane trees a real delight.
When we leave Arrowtown it is a short drive to the airport and your return home. You will have been to places few other New Zealanders get the opportunity to visit, seen familiar sights from new angles, explored little known aspects of our heritage and have new tales of old places.
Explore the Deep South yourself
The Deep South is one part of the country that so many of us have on our "bucket-lists" but have yet to make the trip. Even for me as a tour guide with decades of experience, I visited places for the first time and learnt things I didn't know. That's what our Small Group Escapes are all about, plus of course sharing these adventures with some like minded folks and creating some great travel memories.
Our 7 day Far South - Hidden Treasures tour is a brand new trip for us here at MoaTours and we're so excited to be sharing this with guests and I know a quite a few of our Kiwi Guides have their eye on it too, but rest assured, I'll be leading the very first one in February 2020 so come join me.