Although having to leave Queenstown was a shame, if we'd have stayed longer, our budget would have come under an unacceptable amount of expensive temptation, so it was time to pack up the van and head south to the farming city of Invergargill and the continuation of our New Zealand adventure.
The route away from town took us directly alongside the Remarkables mountain range. Dunc briefly offered that they looked even more spectacular up close, especially when juxtaposed against the calm shores of lake Wakitepu. However, he stopped himself mid-thought when he instead concluded that no-one should ever be able to use such a ridiculously pompus word as "Juxtapose" in a sentence whilst keeping a straight face unless they work in interior design and wear frilly shirts. Vickie meanwhile was registering her interest in the scenery through the firmly shut filters of her eyelids as she dozed quietly in the passanger seat.
All too soon, the terrain flattened out as we left the southern alps behind and broke into pastureland. There were varying species of bovines everywhere we looked, and it all got rather rural on us the closer we got to our destination. Invercargill is not usually on peoples New Zealand tourist routes to be fair, but we were meeting up with Renee - the other half of Rich and Renee, our kiwi friends whom we'd met in Fiji- and her little daugther Maja at their place under the promise of somewhere to stay for a night and a steak for dinner. Suitably motivated, we made good time and arrived in town in the early evening for a cup of tea and general chit-chat with Renee before making our way to a nearby campsite for the evening.
The following morning, after a small amount of procrastination, Vickie arranged to meet up with Renee at her place of occupation - a small preschool - to pass away a couple of hours being entertained by a gaggle of three year old children. Dunc was left to his own devices to meander arround the staunchly blue-collar surroundings of Invercargill city centre in the meantime. Having pretty much run out of sights to see within about 30 minutes, Dunc filled in the remaining time until he had to meet Vickie by sidling into various bookshops and newsagents, before furtively reading as much of as many mags as he could until someone came over and told him that this wasn't a library and he could either buy said mag or stop thumbing through it. He would then merrily repeat this process with the next shop a couple of doors down until it was time to go and pick up his playmate.
A quiet yet practical afternoon of e-mailing, supermarket shopping and subway lunches followed before we made our way hungrily over to Renees place, where a barbeque filled with assorted meat goods was sizzling away temptingly for us. An evening of gorging, conversation and teasing the resident cat and dog ensued before we waddled back to our van (parked on the driveway, our home for the evening) and collapsed in a meaty heap into bed. As morning broke, we came to the conclusion that, apart from our friends, Invercargill didn't really have a lot more for us to see, so we elected to pack up and move with a purpose into the nearby south-west coast and the prehistoric wilderness of Fiordland - apparently one of the most strikingly beautiful areas of the country.
Our journey along the southern scenic touring route took us through such pretty little townships as Riverton on our way to the Fiordland tourist jump off town of Te Anau, where we would spend the night prior to making our way up the Milford road and into Fiordland proper. Arriving at our campsite, and after a small amount of one-sidedly smiley negotiation between Dunc and the sour-faced check in woman had secured us a lakeside view site for no extra money, we fired up the gas grill and tucked into some very tasty meat leftovers that Renee had kindly foisted on us as we left Invercargill. A steak, sausage and burger dinner, complimented by the polishing off of our duty free gin and the bright sun shining majestically over the clear shores of lake Te anau, ensured the afternoon passed in a very satisfied haze. Each of us were in fact so comfortable, that the only conversation that needed to take place was the occasional grunt or sigh, often followed by something along the lines of "Ooo, i've eaten too much" or "well, this is very nice indeed".
Before heading into Fiordland, we struck out for a walk along the Kepler track, one of New Zealands three famed "Great walks" - a succession of multi-day treks in the same mould as the previously mentioned Routeburn. Fortunately, we got a little further than the parking lot this time, and stoutly resolved to make it to a checkpoint about 5kms into the walk, before sunbathing for a bit and heading back. Life was good as the sun shone down chirpily from above. So much so that the realisation that we'd absent-mindedly left the canvas attatchement to our van back at the campsite - necessitating a 15 minute round trip to red-facedly pick it up - was greeted with grins and "oh dear me's" instead of the usual muttered curses about how useless we both were.
If the weather was proving to be more than satisfactory, then unfortunately, the walk was something of a let down. A flat, well defined track was a definite plus, and we were in no doubt that, had we done that walk about 4 months previously, we would have been slack jawed as the bright sunbeams burst sporadically through the forest canopy causing bright speckled patterns to reflect from the ground as we walked. It was pretty, there could be no doubt about it, but the fact that the scenery didn't change in any significant manner for the three hours or so we were walking, giving us the feeling that we could have been wandering around in circles the whole time, meant that we were ho-humming a touch by the time we reached the checkpoint and perched on the beach to relax. In fact, the main entertainment we gleaned from the whole experience was pausing occasionally to compare the texture of the forest floor to a wide and varied range of breakfast cereal. Probably the most accurate description came from Vickie, when she kicked a huge pile of material in front of her before boldly announcing "It's just like museli without the raisins!". Dunc had no choice but to defer to her seemingly boundless knowledge of cereals and their physical compositions, so nodded sagely in agreement and carried on walking.
Returning slightly listlessly to the van, we saddled up and made haste to Fiordland along the Milford road. True enough, the surroundings wer outstanding and in some areas, reached jaw-dropping magnificance. We regularly stopped to attempt to capture some of the brooding ancient grandeur, well aware that our puny camera couldn't hope to it justice. We decided on attempting to secure another free night by hunkering down at on of the several DOC campsites scattered liberally along the roadside, and picked one snugly contained within some glorious mountain views. Dunc hopped enthusiastically out of the car and brightly suggested whipping the chairs and table out and having an evening watching the sunset. Vickie however, was rather more circumspect, having heard rumours of the volume of sandflies known to inhabit the Fiordland area, and thought we'd be better off waiting for a bit to see if they surfaced.
Sure enough, within 10 minutes of us pulling up, the LABs descended on us like an invertebrate version of the Hitchcock classic, "The Birds". They swarmed determindly around the van, repeatedly battering themselves on the window as they attempted to reach the fleshy pink blood sacks cowering within. The fact that we had the back of the van up and the canvas attachement on gave them just enough tiny gaps to squeeze through if they were sufficiently enterprising and persistant. It was as though getting into the van was a kind of "TopGun" initiation test, with only the finest insectoid "Mavericks" or "Icemen" being good enough to get in. Unfortunately for them, they failed to realise that Vickie was waiting for them on the other side, armed with a bug-splattered 2004 New Zealand Rough Guide (6th edition... good for swatting), ensuring that they all ended up much more like "Goose" by crunching them against the glass of the van as though it was their own little failed ejection seat.
Being trapped in our van was one thing, but having to venture out when nature called was quite another. In these unfortunate instances, not only did we have to brave the sandflies, but we had to endure the whiffy horrors of the badly maintained DOC long drop campsite toilets. The hum on its own was quite revolting, but when coupled with the black cloud of buzzing nasties that descended directly onto your face as you tentatively opened the door, effectively rendered said conviniences pretty much unusable. The only consolation we were taking was that the night was free.
Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, a DOC van pulled up in a physical manifestation of Murphys Law, and a robustly built and irritatingly chipper woman strode out and collected the usually requisite $10 camp fee from a very reluctant Dunc before heading off into the sunset to doubtless piss on the few remaining embers of some other sandfly ridden campers' metaphorical bonfire. A fitful night and grumpy morning followed, with the scowling silence broken occasionally by a "I bloody hate this place" and "I don't want to stay here another night, i don't care how beautiful it is". However we felt bound by both duty and momentum to continue up the Milford road to our elected destination, the Milford Sounds, and stubbornly continued on our way.
As if to reward us for the previous nights buggy torment, the drive took a turn for the breathtaking once more, and before long we stumbled across the quite wonderful Lake Gunn. Stopping for a breather and a quick nose around, we soon couldn't take our eyes off the glassy surface of the lake as it cast an almost perfect reflection of the nearby mountainous snow capped peaks towering above it. As Forrest Gump once famously coined "It was like two mountains, one on top of the other". Frankly, we struggled to find a more succinct way to describe it than Mr Gump had managed.
As our journey continued, we moved into avalanche and rockfall territory. We began to clearly understand just why the New Zealand authorities regularly fly helicopters armed with explosives up and down this valley in order to create controlled slides and prevent any paying tourist getting squashed by the very attraction they'd come to see. We passed through huge rocky outcrops, hanging precariously off the sides of their attendant mountains as though they were considering some sort of mammoth igneous suicide attempt. Waterfalls occasionally burst through the face of the rocks, leaving glistening snail trails down the side of the mountain face as they slowly carved their intricate way to the ground. It had all got a bit prehistoric and other-worldy, and was no less awe-inspiring for it.
We stopped in the small tourist town of Milford for some lunch and to spend a bit more time staring agog at the surroundings, before hopping in the van and heading back whence we came. The bulk of the drive back was uphill, and it wasn't long before we got to understand just why the authorities want to limit the volume of traffic traversing this single road when we got stuck behind a bus stacked to the rafters with camera-toting tourists. Unable to safely pass them, we had to sit behind them grim-faced, watching as the bus belched out stupendous volumes of viscous black smoke, with the amount increasing to something akin to a James Bond smokescreen whenever it had to labour uphill for any distance. No doubt about it... the traffic couldn't have been doing any favours to the area.
A couple of hours, and copious more pictures later, we pulled back into our campsite in Te Anau and went for a brief wander around. We couldn't help but notice that Te Anau seems to be caught in something of an economical vs moral dilemma, as on the one hand it clearly needs the thriving tourist trade to even exist, but on the other we got the distinct impression that the local people really didn't want all this fuss. They needed tourism but didn't want it. Sound familiar?
Upon leaving Te Anau, our route was to take us back down to the south coast, briefly through Invercargill once more on our way to the southern most town in New Zealand, the oyster port of Bluff. To be fair, we weren't really looking at bluff - its quite a run down salty old sea dog of a town - but were searching for one of those signposts that all these sorts of "end of the earth" type places contain, giving one the (usually huge)distances to various significant places around the globe. We were more than a little intruigued to find that we were 19000kms from london, over 15000kms from New York, yet a mere 4000kms from the south pole. No two ways about it, we were a looong way from home now.
Continuing the southern theme of our current journey, the next couple of days were spent meandering along the rugged and windswept catlins coast, were we managed to grab a couple more free nights camping (on one occasion stuck alarmingly close to a pyromaniac couple who delighted in lighting a huge fire in an old oil drum, before retiring for the evening and leaving it burning), and tried in vain to spot some penguins from the coastline. The volume of sheep was also increasing at an apparently geometric rate. So much so in fact that, from a distance, many of the mountains simply appeared to have a bad case of acne, such was the mumber of woolly mint sauce fearers on their slopes.
The highlands city of Dunedin was to be our next destination and, true to its name, it didn't wear its scottish influence on its sleeve so much as tattoo it on its forehead before waving it vigerously in the faces of anyone who came to visit. A darkly attractive city, it had a real feel of a mini-Edinburgh about it, with the same street names, hardy windswept citizens and imposing architecture. We fell in love with it almost instantly, and were even more delighted when a sturdy young gent in a kilt struck up an enthusiastic and very capable little mini concert on his bagpipes in front of the huge christmas tree erected in the town centre.