Invercargill is not much to see, however it does has an airport, if you need. Invercargill is an industrial little port town full of Longshoremen. It seemed everyone was wearing the “Invercargill uniform” of bright orange with reflective strips. We needed to get fuel, food and an extra blanket for the van to keep warm. It was nice to hop on wifi for the first time in a week at the New World and warehouse. I also got a fresh salad for lunch…. a rare treat in New Zealand Town. Other than stopping in for the necessities, there is not much to do in Invercargill.
We walked all over town, passing storefront by storefront looking for a blanket, and I felt like I was back in the architecturally handicapped Los Angeles again. We finally found an op shop and got the best fleece blanket for $2 nzd. They were having a half off sale that day, so the place was bumping!
From Invercargill, we took a short trip to the Bluff. It’s about a 30 minute drive to the famous Instagram sign. This sign boasts to be the most southern point in New Zealand, but then again, so did Slope Point. That’s the thing about new Zealand. Every town is “the most,” “the best” or “the coolest little” in New Zealand. There is a nice walk around Bluff point with views of Stewart Island.
Left: me posing Above: The bees on the South Island are mostly HUGE but super peaceful
From Invercargill it is a short 40km drive to Riverton. Riverton is a quaint little town; a good place to stop, eat and take photos of the boats on the bay. We stopped at a park to stretch our legs and play around a bit before getting back on the road.
Not far from Riverton is Colac Bay. This is a crystal blue bay, similar to many of the bays along the Southern Scenic Route. When the light hits the water, it shimmers green and clear. You can almost always find someone riding the waves in Colac Bay.
After Colac Bay, I wanted to stop at Gemstone Beach. This beach promised a plethora of natural precious stones and beautiful views of snow capped mountains. I had been missing the mountains since we left Queenstown, and I’m always down for scavenging natural treasures from shorelines, so I was looking forward to Gemstone Beach.
We got out of Jim in cloudy weather, so the blue of the water had turned a reflective gray. The beach was littered with garbage, even though this was a rare spot in New Zealand where you will find a public trash can. It must be that this is where the currant carries in garbage from the Sea.
The instant we got to the shore, we could smell death. I’ve smelled this smell before on the beach in Santa Barbara, California, when I unintentionally set my towel up for the day 10 feet from a dead seal disguised as a rock. Sure enough, without walking for too long along the beach we found the culprit. It was a dead sheep that had been decaying for a while. Jordan thinks he must have fallen off the cliff right next to the beach where there are lamb farms. Needless to say, we did not stay at Gemstone Beach for very long.
We said good-bye to the Ocean and headed up the Southern Scenic Route as it curves up along the border of Fiordlands National Park. Jordan found a free campsite on Rankerz that was quite literally the parking for the Clifden Suspension Bridge. This was a cool spot. We unintentionally got to see a bonus site we weren’t planning on stopping at. This was one of the first suspension bridges built in New Zealand in1899. Today it is only open to pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Campervans can park in the gravel parking near the bridge, and tent campers can set up on the lawn at the base of the bridge. There is one very very nice smelling drop toilet, and a water tap near the bridge as well. I don’t recall seeing any barbecues, and there are definitely not fire pits.
We spent the night with one other campervan in the lot, and one tent camper at the bridge base who was cycing around the island. A very loud and very sociable chook woke us up at the crack of dawn, as he hollered right outside Jim’s window. We ate breakfast with the chook nipping at the ground and had classic New Zealand views of the sheep and deer farm on the other side of the parking lot.
** chook video
The first adventure of the day was the Clifden limestone caves. It is advised not to go in these caves after heavy rain, or if heavy rain is predicted as there is a danger of flash floods. These caves are some of the only limestone caves in Southern New Zealand. At least that’s what we were told. The cave entrance would be impossible to find if the DOC hadn’t marked them for us. Really, the entrance could have been any of the rocks that dot the green and sheep covered hillsides.
We bundled up and put our headlamps on – prepared for some exploring and caving! These caves are much smaller than we expected. It would be relatively easy to get lost inside if you don’t follow the reflective trail markings that the DOC so kindly put in place for you. I’m sure an experienced caver could go off course, however I did not want to do that.
The DOC path through the caves was incredible. You have to duck, crawl and climb to get through to the hole in the hill on the other side of the path. Once out of the caves, you see how close you are to the first marked cave entrance. Classic New Zealand fashion, we were the only people exploring these caves at this time.
From the caves we headed to Lake Monowai, where we heard there were many trails and a basic DOC campsite if we wanted to stay. The walk to the lookout was beautiful, and rewarded us at the end with views of rolling mountains that drop into the lake. The weather changes significantly at Monowai, as it is now on the West Coast and in the Fiordlands.
The drive to get to the Monowai campsite is about 30 minutes on gravel. As we were driving, we drove straight towards and under a full rainbow. The sun was shining as we drove under the rainbow and towards the cloud that we knew had made home on top of the lake.
We chose to camp at the lake. I rested my knee and battled swarms of sandflies while Jordan went along one of the longer walks by the lake. That night, three big RVs pulled into the camping driveway, along with one more campervan. The RVs were full of a family vacationing from OZ. They were moving their RVs around so much, like a cat trying to get comfortable before it lays down to take a nap, that I suggested Jordan offer to move our van so they could be next to each other. As a thank you, the family gave Jordan a beer (Mac’s Three Wolves, one of this favorite New Zealand beers) and invited him to join them for dinner.
The other campervan driver also joined the campfire and it was a lovely night of exchanging stories by the fire. It made me want to go on a large family vacation – where everyone talks late into the night and young cousins run around together while the adults swap family stories. The other camper was around our age, also on a holiday work visa. He was working as a part time bicycle carriage rider and part time topless waiter in Auckland for a couple months before he left the city to explore the Southern island. He said he hikes about 7 hours everyday, except on his off days where he will only hike for about 3 hours. He had not done a great walk, nor will he get to. He is a prime example of how many trails there are in New Zealand – all you need to do is go into an i-site or find an i-board and you can find a long, scenic hike just about anywhere.
The next morning we woke up early and headed toward lake Manapouri. Lake Manapouri is the gateway to the Doubtful Sound, and the first snowcapped mountains resting over lake that I’d seen so far in the Fiordlands. We walked along Fraiser Beach and soaked in the beauty. This lake has 33 small islands. Taking a boat ride here would be beautiful, if you found something inexpensive on BookMe.
From Manapouri, we took the short 20 minute drive to Te Anau. The entrance to the Kepler track is along this drive, if you want to stop on the way to Te Anau for a taster of one of the 9 great walks.
Te Anau is the gateway town to the Milford Sound Road. Te Anau is the last stop to fill up on gas and get groceries before heading along the 240 km round trip road to Milford Sound.Here you can enjoy walks, drinks, food, shopping and a wonderful movie about the Fiordlands at the local cinema.
We stayed in town at the Lakefront Backpackers, that has a very nice lounge area overlooking the lake. You can connect to wifi at the public library in town if you need as well. Jordan and I spent almost two hours sitting by the lake watching the birds burry holes in the beach and the people coming and going off boats that were taking them for sunset cruises or to the Te Anau glowworm caves. This was the first time I’ve sat for so long and really just watched nature – free from electronics. No music, not computer, no tablet with which to keep my nose in a book. Not only was I happily content watching these birds, I didn’t get the inner pull that I had to be somewhere else, doing something else. I was happy to just be where I was.