Saturday, October 29, 2011

New Zealand Day Five: Catlins Wilderness

You know something fabulous about waking up in New Zealand? Most of the hotels have electric blankets on the beds, so when you awake in the morning, it's like you're in a toasty cocoon. I used to have an electric blanket on my bed when I was young, so it just brings back all these warm and fuzzy memories for me...and it definitely does not motivate me to get out of bed. It was especially hard to get up on the fifth day, when it was cold and rainy outside, but somehow we managed.

That morning we got right on the road and left tiny Owaka behind. The Catlins Wilderness Area is full of trailheads that start right along the side of the road. We pulled off right away and followed a trail back to some waterfalls. It was drizzling, so we had the trail completely to ourselves. It was peaceful, plus the rain left everything bright green and smelling fresh.
A rainy morning walk in the woods
Matai Falls
The falls further up...with a branch in the way

I'd been flying high since we got engaged a few days before. New Zealand is already the destination of a lifetime, so I would have been excited just to be there, but combine THAT excitement with WE JUST GOT ENGAGED euphoria, and poor Bryan had his hands full, with me skipping up and down the path to the falls and making him look at my ring every five minutes (as though he'd never seen it before...). Well, he can't say he didn't know what he was getting himself into!

After our walk to the falls, we continued driving along until we got super hungry, realized we were in the middle of nowhere, and had to tough it out for a while until we came upon the excellently named Whistling Frog Cafe. In the meanwhile, the drive was beautiful enough to keep our minds off of being hungry (mostly).
Pretty even in the rain!

One of my favorite things about the food in New Zealand is that they seriously know how to do vegetarian food! In the US, the one vegetarian option on the menu is often something wimpy- a freezer-burned veggie burger with French fries, or some spaghetti with marinara sauce. Not in New Zealand - there, the vegetarian options were always creative, fresh, delicious, and nutritious. It was refreshing. One of the Whistling Frog's vegetarian options was thyme pancakes with a filling of silverbeet, mushrooms, pine nuts, and feta. I've never had silverbeet before, but I'll tell you what, at The Whistling Frog, it tastes awesome. Bryan said his quesadilla was pretty great too.

We'd planned on taking some more nature walks, but the rain got heavier while we ate lunch, so we decided to keep driving toward Fiordlands National Park. The drive was pretty uneventful for the next few hours, except that once the rain stopped, we pulled in at a small cemetery to look around a bit. We'd passed a lot of little graveyards, and many of them looked really old. Sure enough, when we poked around, some of the gravestones dated back to the 1800's.
A pretty spot for a cemetery
No more rain
One of the oldest tombstones

We decided to go ahead and try to drive all the way to Milford Sound so we could spend the night there. We stopped in Te Anau for gas, and the nice man working at the gas station let us use his phone to call ahead to the Milford Sound Lodge, where they said they still had a room and they'd be waiting for us. Great!

The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound takes about two hours and it's really beautiful. At first, it's pretty tame, with lots of sheep pastures and fields. We stopped along the way so I could gush over some little lambs while Bryan took photos.
Quite a backdrop for a pasture!
Looks like a pretty good life for these sheep
Did you just say "AWWW" out loud?! You should have.

Along the road from Te Anau to Milford is a place called the Wilderness Scientific Reserve. We pulled off there and took a walk. It was a strange area that seemed sort of mismatched with the rest of the surroundings. The reserve was a scrubland, full of short, scraggly pines and other small plants that called to mind New Mexico more than New Zealand. Apparently bog pines and cicadas are two of the most common things in the reserve. It doesn't sound too exciting, but it was a neat place.
Layers of color
Bright orange scrub plants

As we got further along the road, the scenery got more rugged. There were turnoffs all over the place, where you could get out of the car and enjoy the scenery. We pulled off at a few of them and enjoyed the crisp, clean air. Sometimes it's nice to get a lungful of something other than gross Singapore air.

Big mountains!
Foggy but still impressive

One of the turnoffs had a lake and a long, skinny wharf. We walked along it and reached down into the water. As expected, it was icy cold.
Snow-capped mountains beyond the lake
Chilly scenery
We definitely felt like we were in the middle of nowhere

The road was well-maintained, but we saw piles of rocks along the road at a few points. Then we saw this:
For 5 km Avalanche Zone. Well, that's one way to get people to stay alert!

I suppose the fact that I'm writing this blog post lets you know that we weren't squished by any giant boulders. But I did start paying more attention to the mountains around us. And when we drove through this tunnel, I think we were both a little tense!
Yes, we are driving into the side of that snow-covered mountain
The light at the end of the Homer Tunnel

On the other side of the tunnel, the scenery was even more intense, with high peaks rising all around us, with waterfalls cascading down the sides. As you probably know, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in New Zealand, and the scenery we passed was definitely looking more and more like Middle Earth. There were fewer turnoffs and the road was a little more twisty and tricky, so we didn't take many pictures of that part of our journey. But it wasn't much longer before we reached the Milford Sound Lodge. The accommodations were basic backpacker rooms - ours just had a bed with a nightstand, and we had to walk down the porch to a shared bathroom. But the lodge was so scenic and homey that it made up for the shared bathroom.
The cozy lodge. That's our room on the end!

OK, I'll be honest- I took that lovely picture the next day. By the time we got to the lodge it was raining again, so we didn't take any pictures that night. We just dumped all our stuff in our room, then drove the short distance to the Blue Duck Cafe. It was located right on Milford Sound, and the view was outstanding despite the rain. The Blue Duck has huge windows, so we got to enjoy the view while we ate dinner.
Milford Sound from the Blue Duck Cafe

The service at the Blue Duck wasn't so hot, but we couldn't complain much, because when we'd told the people at the Lodge we were going there, they'd given us coupons for two free drinks. So, hey, free beer and mediocre service. I'd say we came out ahead.

After dinner, we went back to the Lodge and hung out in the common room for awhile, playing Citadels and talking about travel plans. After our little taste of the sound, I was very excited about the next day's agenda, which included lots of exploration!


  1. I think out of all the cool places I've seen you blog about, New Zealand really tops the cake (haw haw) in terms of awesome scenery.

    I can remember desperately wanting to go there when the LOTR movies were new.

  2. Yeah, the scenery there was really amazing! I don't think I'll ever look at LOTR the same ever again!

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