Chased by dinner
Teeming fleets of titi (last night’s dinner) surround our ferry, winning the speed contest and then either skidding to a stop on the waters of the Foveaux Strait or circling back for another go. No wonder they’re so chewy. Our captain explains that they’re after their sole meal: the fish churned up in our catamaran’s wake.
No wonder they’re so fishy.
A stunningly beautiful, sunny, and warm morning heralds our departure from Stewart Island, with the low fire of the sun blazing a sizzling gold across the remarkably still waters of the Strait. Long black strips of muttonbirds upon the water bracket our passage, and we receive occasional visits from one of the smaller cousins of the albatross family. The morning is as peaceful as it is nostalgic, and under clear skies, we can see Mt. Anglem – Stewart Island’s tallest peak – jutting towards the northwest with a necklace of cloud, and to its north the rough and rocky southern coast that is our destination.
Back in Bluff, our rental car roused from its rest and our bags once more stowed in the trunk, we shake off rusty driving muscles and begin a dreary drive northward towards Invercargill. The city itself is rather architecturally shiny, with a clean glow of urban renewal that kicks the sand of modernity into the face of its remoteness from…well, just about everywhere. I’m not sure it’s fooling anyone, though. It looks well worth a stroll, but we’ve got many long miles ahead of us today, and we – somewhat regretfully – leave the visit for another time.
The depths of higher ground
Route 99 starts just north of Invercargill, and describes a beautiful and – for New Zealand – surprisingly uncomplicated and drivable arc around the southwestern corner of the South Island, hugging the ocean for the greater majority of its length. We stop when the mood strikes us – a stroll to admire the perfect roundness of wave-eroded stones at Colac Bay and Pahia Beach, an overlook to admire the surprisingly nearby spur of Mt. Anglem and the low expanse of the uninhabited mass of Stewart Island, a pause to appreciate the endless sapphire of the sun-glinted ocean and the infinite sky reflected in it – and drive with contemplative speed in between. At Te Waewae the road turns decisively north, leaving the ocean for a drive full of solitude and growing majesty, the unapproachable peaks of Fiordland to the west and a less forbidding ebb and flow of mountain and farmland plain to the east.
The gentle breezes of the oceanside morning are gone, replaced by a variably gusty wind that is, at times, difficult to handle on particularly exposed stretches of road. We take a short, restorative break at Clifden, admiring the rough-hewn span of an historic bridge crossing the power-generating Waiau River (here little more than a wide, gentle stream), then turn down a dirt road for a half-hour westward diversion into Fiordland National Park and to a likely picnic spot.
Lake Hauroko is the deepest lake in New Zealand. It is unquestionably one of the prettiest we’ve ever seen, with unbelievably clear waters flawlessly reflecting the surrounding forest of peaks, yet transparent below the surface to the very limits of sight. We dine on a half-submerged dock, finishing odds and ends from our island sojourn with a little bit of wine from much earlier in the trip.
Kennedy Point 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Waiheke Island) – Shy, with gooseberry and grapefruit but showing decidedly less vivid than either the version tasted at the winery or a previous bottle. I’m not sure what’s up here. Low-level taint would be the natural suspect, but this wine’s under screwcap. Multiple bottlings? Another sort of taint? Barometric pressure? Gremlins?
North of the lake, winds pick up strength as the landscape becomes more recognizable as that of Fiordland: distant snow-capped peaks framing impossibly steep glacial lakes, and all around hilly, rocky fields good for nothing except meager grazing. At Blackmount, the wind is so strong that we can’t even open our car doors without a careful realignment of the automobile. A looming sense of altitude grows to the west, and begins rising in the north and east as well. Sudden emergence into the sparse civilization of Manapouri allows us a much-needed refueling break, and we rest by the cool waters of the town’s namesake lake – one with which we’ll become much better-acquainted in a few days – for a few minutes, enjoying the bizarre juxtaposition of icy mountaintops and waving palm-like fronds on the lakeshore. There are even a few intrepid beachgoers today, though the beach itself is an uncomfortable jumble of ground-up glacial rocks.
Primed for the last stretch, we slowly drive the few kilometers north to Te Anau, completing a full circuit of the Southern Scenic Route that was begun four days ago in Dunedin. From there, the roads are familiar, as we turn eastward through the semi-mystical un-town known as The Key, then turn northward again at Mossburn. It is, after all, the only road. Here, lofty green and brown waves of grassland are consumed in neck-stretching wonder, first by the vertiginous skyscrapers of the Eyre Mountains to the west, and then the aptly-named Remarkables on the east, as the mountainous slopes plummet at last towards the icy mirror of southern Lake Wakatipu.
Our road winds and twists, as difficult for its death-defying drops and turns as for its breathtaking scenery, and we stop as frequently as possible to admire views that are becoming increasingly familiar as we snake northward. And finally, around one last gut-churning bend, we see the growing sprawl of Queenstown, nestled against its protective hillside. We are, at long last, here.