I’m writing this from the most amazing camping location I can imagine! When we picked up the campervan, we grabbed loads of maps and leaflets from the hire place, including a Department of Conservation (DOC) booklet listing all their campsites. Jess and PK had tipped us off to them, and two or three people we’ve met here have also told us about them. Basically, the DOC has campsites all over the country which are incredibly cheap, and incredibly beautiful, as long as you don’t mind being a bit remote and not having many facilities.
So, tonight we decided to aim for a DOC site in the Catlins, at Tawanui. It’s in a clearing by a river, about a 5km drive along a gravel road through the forest – it really is in the middle of nowhere. When we arrived, we paid our $6 (£3) camping fee via an honesty box on the gate, and drove in to find a space – only to find we’re the only people here tonight! There are (quite basic) loos and running water, and a bin, and a couple of picnic tables, and lots of beautiful grassy corners to camp in. So we had a drive round the whole place, chose a spot at the optimum distance from the loos (learned from Glastonbury experience… close enough to go in the middle of the night, but not so close you can smell them!), and have settled in for the night! Absolutely amazing. And for £3 a night!
Starting where my last post left off – we stayed in Lake Tekapo that night and went on the Mount John observatory tour, which was absolutely brilliant. It started in the office in town, where we got given Antartic explorer coats to keep us warm on the mountain, then we got bussed up to the observatory (no headlights most of the way, so as not to disturb the telescopes!) It’s primarily a research facility, but one company is allowed to run tours there, and the guides were incredibly knowledgable. The Chinese tour group we’d so enjoyed sharing a plane with earlier in the day were also on the tour, but thankfully they had a separate tour guide speaking Chinese! So in our group it was just us, a German couple, a Kiwi chap, and four Gurkhas who had been on a training exercise in the Southern Alps and were having a few days R&R before they left.
The guides told us lots of interesting facts about stars and galaxies and physics and astronomy, and pointed out constellations with a laser pointer, and then we looked at different things through the telescopes – absolutely amazing, we saw Saturn with all the rings, and the moon in huge detail, and all sorts of things. It was cold up there, but it was worth it! One of the guides brought round hot chocolate for us all halfway through, which was lovely.
We woke up in the morning and enjoyed the stunning scenery – we were camped right on the lake – and then drove up to Mount Cook, which was a beautiful drive, along the shore of Lake Pukaki. We were thinking of going on a boat trip on the Tasman glacier lake, which looked very cool, but when we got there the trips were booked up for the next two days! So we wandered around the Hermitage hotel – a bit sterile and overpriced for my liking, but has a long and illustrious history of supporting climbers, and a very interesting display of memorabilia at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine collection – Mount Cook was the first mountain he climbed, and he obviously had a strong connection there, and was apparently a regular visitor until he died. Then we drove down to the Tasman glacier car park, and followed a 25-minute hiking trail up to a viewpoint over the glacier lake – beautiful, with icebergs floating in it, and we could see the couple of boats zooming around that we hadn’t managed to get on!
We parked up in the valley to have lunch (so easy when you’re driving around with all your food and cooking stuff in the car with you!), and looked at the map and skimmed our Lonely Planet and decided to take a circuitous route through the Central Otago countryside, rather than the most direct route to Dunedin. It was a lovely drive, and we stopped a couple of times, bought some wine, and took some photos – it started getting dark and we realised we weren’t going to make it as far as Dunedin, so we stopped for the night at a campsite in Lake Waihola, an hour or so from Dunedin.
This morning we got up early and drove to Dunedin, and wandered around seeing the sights – we parked near the train station, which is a beautiful old building with stained-glass windows and mosaic floors, and walked into town, and wandered around the cathedral, which is also beautiful. We also drove out to Baldwin Street, officially the steepest residential street in the world – 1:2.4 gradient! We parked at the bottom and got out, and watched in awe as a chap jogged past us, up the hill and then back down again! I was happy to walk a bit of the way up, say ‘Wow, that is steep’ and then walk back to the car and drive away – but Chris decided it would be fun to see if we could drive a campervan up such a steep hill. Yes, is the answer, but it’s quite scary! Even scarier when you get to the top and realise the road doesn’t go anywhere, so you’re going to have to turn around and drive back down again – I think even Chris got a bit nervous then! Anyway, we gritted our teeth and went for it, and it was fine, of course. Good brakes on our campervan!
We decided to go for a drive out around the Otago Peninsula, which was absolutely stunning – the road hugs the coastline all the way round the harbour, no pavement, hardly any verge, just the road and the edge and then the water! We drove all the way out to the head of the peninsula, to the Royal Albatross Centre, and went in to find out about tours. It turned out the tour was $40 to see some pictures, have a lecture, and see a nesting chick, but no guarantees about seeing an adult albatross flying – so we decided not to bother, as that was what we were really interested in! We watched from a viewpoint near the car park for a while, hoping to spot something, but no luck – so we drove back along the coast road and stopped at the aquarium.
It was absolutely one of the best presented places I’ve been – I love it when you go to a random little place that you don’t really expect anything of, and it’s really well done. They had really interesting displays about the marine research being done there – the aquarium is part of a research facility for the University of Otago – and a fantastic little simulator of a deep-sea submersible, where you went in and watched a video display and commentary of all sorts of deep-sea marine life. Then we went into the actual aquarium bit, and bumped into a chap with a bucket, who told us he was just moving a baby shark into a tank – born yesterday, and he told us all about the breeding cycle, and walked us around showing us different ages of shark, and telling us about the release programme – absolutely fascinating. Then, because he had an audience, he went and got a bucket of plankton and fed the seahorses, and told us all about them, and went round from one tank to the next chatting about the contents – absolutely amazing, a private tour!
We left there about 3pm, and stopped for an ice cream on the way down to this campsite, where we arrived at 6pm, just before dark. While we drove, I read the Lonely Planet sections for the drive we’re planning tomorrow, through the Catlins to Invercargill, so we’ve got a vague idea of what we want to see and do. Lots of exciting stuff to do tomorrow!