New Zealand’s South Island

I found the South Island to be less industrial, colder, less populated by humans and over-run with sheep. The scenery is also much more dramatic and beautiful with deserted rock strewn beaches and rugged snow-capped mountains.

My journey in the south began in Christchurch followed by a drive south along the coast to Dunedin, then west into the central highlands wine producing region of Alexandra, Clyde, and Cromwell, Then on to the tourist and extreme sports town of Queenstown and finally a long drive back north to Christchurch through the foothills and over Landis Pass.

Once back in Christchurch I traded the rental car in for train and ferry tickets on the Coastal Pacific Scenic Train from Christchurch to Picton followed by a ferry crossing from the South Island to Wellington. A Saturday night in Wellington then another day on the Wellington to Auckland scenic train. And after one final night in New Zealand a morning flight to Fiji to make like a seal and warm myself in the sun on the beach.

Christchurch suffered from a devastating earthquake a few years ago and is still recovering all these years later. According to my taxi driver the city was built on a swamp and the lack of solid foundations contributed to the devastation. So, since most of the historic buildings are no more or modern rebuilds – spent very little time in Christchurch and headed straight for the historic city of Dunedin.

The highlights of my time in Dunedin was a visit to the Taiaroa Head underground coastal fort, Larnach Castle, the Royal Albatross Colony at Taiaroa Head, and an evening Blue Penguin Viewing Tour. The low lights of my time in Dunedin was the Taieri Gorge Scenic Train Tour and the Seasider Scenic Train Tour.

The Royal Albatross

First the good, I had no idea I would enjoy watching and learning about a damn bird. I was surprised to find the Royal Albatross Tour absolutely fascinating. The colony on Taiaroa Head is the only colony found on a mainland anywhere in the world. All the other colonies can only be found on extremely remote barren rocks hundreds of miles out in the South Pacific.

Let me begin by describing these incredible birds. An adult albatross stands about waste high and weighs 22 to 28 pounds. They have a wing span of 3 meters and can fly at speeds of around 75 miles per hour. These birds mate for life and produce one egg every two years. A female will produce off springs from her 5th year thru her mid to late 20s. Albatross’ are a true solitary seabird. They live their entire lives at sea except for the brief period every two years for courting, mating, hatching and feeding their fledglings.

Once the mating couple have successfully launched their fledgling they go their separate ways for two years circling the globe at the southern extreme never approaching land or their mate or other albatross. Once the fledgling reach 7 months they are ready to fly and leave the nesting area and do not return to dry land for 4 to 6 years.

They say that superstitious sailors believe the albatross are the souls of drowned sailors.

I’ve included photos of both chicks in the nest and mature adults flying and gliding on the winds. Albatross can fly incredible distances in a single day only stopping to feed on sea life and to float on the ocean as they sleep.

The Blue Penguin

The Viewing Tour of the Blue Penguin was a night time affair. It seems these little guys spend all day at sea feeding and only return to dry land and their nest after dark. The Blue Penguin is the smallest of all the species of Penguins and the Otogo Peninsula is home to one of the largest colonies. They have a white front and blue back which perfectly camouflages them from predators at sea. To any predator looking up from below they blend in with the sky above and any predator looking down from above the blue blends in with the sea.

The photos attached are not that good because they were taken at night without the use of a flash which is prohibited

The Fort

New Zealand became a British Colony in 1840 and up until the 1870s was responsible for providing protection to the colony. In the 1870s Briton made New Zealand responsible for its own defense and a series of coastal defenses were prepared to cover the major ports.

The effort was rather lackluster until a Russian Warship showed up during the Crimean War. This one ship had more fire power than the entire nation of New Zealand. After the shock of the Russian War Ship’s fire power the politicians got serious and Fort Taiaroa was constructed in 1885. By the turn of the century over 100 soldiers and militiamen were living on Taiaroa Head and 6 gun batteries had been installed with ranges of between 3,500 and 4,000 yards.

The pride of the fort was the 6inch Armstrong Disappearing Gun with a range of 8,800 yards. This gun was the cutting edge of military technology in its day. It used compressed water to raise the gun into firing position then the gun’s own recoil would reverse the water pressure in the opposite direction and the gun would immediately lower itself out of site. The entire firing sequence from beginning to end was one minute and the breach loading gun could fire on a 360degree axis.

Within 20 short years this new gun technology was totally obsolete. With the coming of the airplane a gun that could not be raised skyward was useless and lowering a gun from site of ships on the sea was totally ineffective with a plane flying above. BTW this gun was never used in conflict and only shot about 450 shells in practice. Unlike most forts of the day this fort was entirely underground and during World War II 40 percent of the coastal defenders were women.

Larnach Castle

Larnach Castle is a grand estate and testament to a rich guy’s vanity. Lanarch was a wealthy banker, landholder, gold speculator and salvager of ship wrecks that spent a fortune on this property. He imported artisans from all over Europe that spent years, finishing stone, carving and etching wood paneling, moldings, and banisters into mahogany, teak, walnut, maple and oak, plasterers and tilers creating masterpieces in the floors and ceilings.

My favorite innovation though was how over 100 years ago Larnach had horse manure piped underground from the stables to a purpose built chamber outside and directly behind the Music Room and below the privy so that the human manure was added to the brew of horse manure. This resulted in methane gas which was captured in a glass bubble and then pumped up to the Castle by a boy working a foot pump and was used to light the chandeliers. Wonder how the crap pumping boy identified this job on his later resumes.

High tea at Larnach

Apparently old William Larnach was not the greatest of humanitarian in the world. While visiting a local heritage museum in Dunedin I came across an account of how a ship of poor immigrants floundered near Dunedin. Larnack’s Marine Salvage Company stripped the ship and pilfered the surviving immigrants meager possessions including any clothing not on their backs.

One funny thing about leaving the Castle grounds – parked next to my car was the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine Van. ZONKS!!! I’m sure old William’s ghost was muttering “Curses, and I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling kids”

Now for the low lights or bad.

The Taieri Gorge Scenic Train Tour turned out to be 4 hours in seats on the wrong side of the train staring into the side of a mountain. The other side of the train had spectacular views but my side not so much. In fact the “scenic” tour was so bad I used my time to write my last two blogs once I gave up on trying to find anything worthwhile to see or photograph. The only bright spot in the trip were the 4 lovely sisters sitting across the aisle from me on the good side of the train.

Heather, Mary, Wendy, and Lucy were on holiday from their homes in Nelson. They ranged in age from 90 to 78 and they all moved back to Nelson once their husbands passed. They helped make the time pass listening to their commentary and sparring back and forth. Interestingly all four ladies had been mountaineers in their younger years and one even climbed a season in Nepal. I would love to see a photo of the 4 in their prime.

So to sum up – in four hours I saw maybe 4 minutes of interesting scenery, completed two entire blog posts, and met 4 lovely ladies. Oh yes and one final unfortunate thing about the 4 hour tour to nothing – it ran late so I missed my afternoon Scenic Seaside Rail Tour. Hot tip – if anyone ever suggests a scenic train tour – DON’T DO IT!!!! You will never get those wasted hours back.

And now for the truly ugly!

Our premium picnic lunches that I had ordered at considerable expense turned out to be not simply a disappointment but perhaps the foulest food I have ever attempted to eat. The picnic box included a small roll stuffed with a spoon of barb-b-que covered in apple jam, a frozen finger sandwich of egg, cheese, and mystery minced meat on white bread (it all blended together to taste like wet cardboard), a meat and cheese pie the size and consistency of a corn bread muffin with a fingernail size piece of mystery meat and one cheese curd inside, a piece of fruitcake (who eats fruitcake except at Xmas and only in front of the senile aunt that bought it), and an apple the size and hardness of a cue ball. Clearly this crap was not intended for human consumption. The cardboard picnic box was much more digestible.

On a better note, I left the train wreck of a tour for the wine country of the Alexandra Basin. But more about Wine, 100-year-old steam ships, a long distance train ride across both islands of NZ, a Ferry across the Strait between islands in foul weather and dramatic mountain scenery in the next blog.

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1 Response to New Zealand’s South Island

  1. Nancy says:

    Your train trip and food is why I don’t like to travel. That pretty much sums up every trip I’ve ever taken.

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