Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand, roughly translates as ‘the land of the long white cloud‘. Somewhere, at some point, I’m pretty convinced something was lost in translation however, as it clearly should have been ‘the land of a lot of little white clouds‘. Sheep. Everywhere you go, there’s sheep. In a country of around 4 million people there’s about 60 million of the buggers; the highest ratio of humans to sheep anywhere in the world it seems, how’s that for a dull fact?
While a landscape filled with countless sheep and cute but very edible looking lambs is very much a consistent view, far less consistent is the landscape itself. For a country not massively great in size, the diversity of it’s make up is rather impressive, a land of ice and fire alone it is not. Aside from the volcanic and mountainous areas New Zealand is best known for, it seems there’s a great deal more to see here as well.
Leaving Mount Cook we took a South Easterly route back towards the coast, and quickly the mammoth grandeur of the mountains made way for new landscape #1; a barren land of emptiness. On roads that once had cartographers reaching for their rulers, we toiled our way forward while either side of us, dusty plains rolled away to a distant hill crowned horizon. Small towns equating to road side diners and a petrol station came and went every once in a while, scintillating scenery this was not. Imagine the excitement then when we saw signs for original Maori rock drawings then! History and culture is tricky to find in New Zealand at the best of times, so it was with great anticipation that we parked up underneath some imposing limestone rocks, only to discover that 90% of the drawings were missing, replaced with some helpful signs instead telling us what was once on show. Fantastic. Things did improve from here however; as abnormalities appeared in the form of some Elephant Rocks in Waitaki, before we soon hit the coast and came upon the perfectly spherical Moeraki Boulders scattered across a glorious sweep of sand. Both a Geology teachers wet dream, both curiously impressive in their own way.
We’d now reached landscape #2; a rugged coastline allegedly jam packed with all kinds of wildlife – a selection of Penguins, Leopard Seals, Whales, Sea lions – you name it, it’s there. How much of it did we see? Take a guess. Our first failed attempt was at Moeraki itself, before Shag Point proved just as unsuccessful. Fear not however, we were heading for the Otago Peninsular, wildlife capital of New Zealand. Having taken in the surprisingly pleasant Dunedin as guests of Jamie’s incredibly welcoming long lost family, we first made for the only mainland Albatross colony in the world. Closed for renovation. Undeterred, we parked up an hours walk from the Sea Lion stomping ground of Victory Beach just around the corner. We did not see lions, a victory it was not. Sandfly Point they said! Penguins all over the place they said, you can’t miss them they said. Oh yes we can. Spirits broken, we limped half heartedly out of the Otago Peninsual, and made for The Catlins National Park.
Landscape #3 then. More shipwrecking coastline here, but this time cushioned inland by thick, temperate rain forest. Having heard great things about the area our hopes were high and oh my, we weren’t let down. A last minute decision to swing out to an isolated spot called Roaring Bay had us roaring with delight as we finally found some of the few hundred Yellow Eyed Penguins seen in this part of the world, before a return the next morning to Nugget Point next door saw Sea Lions and from the lighthouse we looked out over a hardy collection of jagged rocks stretching out to sea. Every bit as impressive as Australia’s Twelve Apostles, somehow not nearly as iconic.
From here we headed South, lunching at Cannibal’s Bay before walking over dunes to the stunning Surat Bay – both isolated aside from more slumbering Sea Lions. Well, slumbering until chief photographer Jamie coughs in their general direction until they’ve been disturbed enough to pose sufficiently for her photos. Attenborough would be ashamed. Every so often when travelling you realise you’re experiencing something you’ll look back on in 30 years time and smile about. Eating freshly picked mussels cooked in the embers of our beach side fire that night was one of them, with the campsite at Purakanui Bay offering striking panoramic views. As the sun set behind us; we looked out over a vast beach laden with native wildlife, as a salty wind dramatically whipped crashing waves up against towering cliffs. Cliffs upon which stood the finest New Zealand sight of all. Baaaaaaa.