Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Life on the road, The Catlins and Yellow Eyed Penguins

South Island to Catlins 

Our van Eppie (EPY637) went to the doctors to have her inverter replaced whilst we were in Invercargill. This is a clever gizmo which converts battery power to 240volts ac and thus you can charge laptops and phones etc when you are not plugged into the mains – something which happens quite a lot out here. It went wrong about a week ago and Wilderness got a new one shipped down whilst we were in Milford Sound and the repair was done the moment we arrived at AJ Autoelectrics – no waiting, somewhat different to when we hired an Apollo Van two years ago in Australia and had to get a fault repaired en-route.

Life in the van has now developed a certain pattern and ease. We are finding that with careful use of water, we can last at least two days before the water tanks need filling / emptying and up to three days (using public loos whenever possible) before the black tank needs emptying (although it can get a little pongy). The magic blue liquid which goes in the black tank is quite expensive and so we try to make it last. We tend to top up with fresh and dump grey whenever the opportunity presents itself because early on when we did not, we got very empty / full on occasions.

The diesel engine is giving us about 9.5 kms to the litre overall and so our maximum range before refuelling is around 800kms although we have got into the habit of refuelling when down to about half a tank. Diesel is about half the price of that in the UK, unleaded is about 80% of the price. We have never had problems obtaining diesel although price can be a little dependent on location. Most of the big supermarkets give 4cents / litre off vouchers if you spend $40 or more – it is then a matter of finding the correct fuel station for the voucher. Many petrol stations will also fill LPG canisters on demand.

The fridge is certainly large enough and there is more than enough storage space – it is a good van and it has coped with the challenging roads very well. That we are driving an unbranded vehicle continues to get comments since people assume it is our own.

Our stove works off propane gas (there are two large bottles). After one month we took the current one into a garage to get it refilled and it required so little gas we were convinced that they measured it wrong. However it shows no signs of running out, so we are now assuming it is economical.

We have a TV and in most places you can get some sort of reception although most of the programmes are hardly worth watching, it is handy for the weather forecast (a few minutes before 7 in the evening tends to be a good time). Radio reception is variable with poor being usual. The DVD player is most useful and whilst Wilderness will lend you any (also books) in their library at the office when you pick up the van, we wish we had brought more from home with us (leave the case, just bring the DVD).

Most of New Zealand is big on recycling with numerous opportunities to selectively dump cans, plastic and glass. Only very occasionally do we find the opportunity to recycle paper and it surprises us that plastic supermarket shopping bags are given away is great quantities by nearly all supermarkets. They have not heard here of “bags for life” or the South Australian position of “no supermarket free plastic bags”.

Virtually every town of any size has a supermarket and many of those of no size have a small dairy (NZ for a general food store). Foods shops are open every day for long hours. Surprisingly, New Zealand wine is more expensive here than the identical bottle would cost in the UK.  Food does seem to be more expensive here than in the UK, how much is hard to say. If you are a vegetarian, supermarket choices can be limiting, New Zealand seems to be a very meaty country.

Pharmacies are generally in most town but we are finding that routine drugs (ibroprufren, aspirin, histamines etc) are much more expensive than in the UK.

The Internet is generally available and Wifi is common. We have found however that bandwidth is often very poor and that charges vary from very reasonable to outrageous. In some places you are charged by the Mb and a lot of money buys very few Mb.

Wilderness have a feedback form on how the van performed which we are asked to return when we hand it back. So far all we can suggest (apart from a small electric kettle) is a couple of coat hooks outside of the shower, move the mirror out of the shower and see if there is a way of devising fly screens for the side or back doors so that on hot days you can leave a door open without being attacked. Their supply of DVDs could also do with a refresh.

We have decided that this van really is cleverly designed and our life on the road has been far more comfortable than it might have been had we been living in any of the other brands of van on the road out here. We suspect that we will not be so comfortable on our next road trip which we think will be in the USA.


Today is Valentine’s Day and isolation would not be accepted as an excuse. Luckily Cupid delivers Roses and Cards even in the wilds of nowhere.


Around the Catlins to Paradise (again)

The Catlins are a costal area of New Zealand to the east of Invercargill. It is a largely undeveloped farm and forest area and quite isolated in a New Zealand meaning of that word – many roads off the main highway are unpaved dirt (our off road driving experience in Australia has come in most useful), there are few shops or petrol stations, there is no mobile phone reception and no TV either. The area was first connected to mains electricity in 1960 and the main road was not paved until around 2000, hence it is visited only by the more hardy traveller and you do not get large tourist buses here.

Waipapa Point is home to an original wooden lighthouse built in 1884 after New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster nearby in which 151 people lost their lives. It was “demanned” as they term it in 1976.

Waipapa Lighthouse

The point is also know for its seals and sea lions. There were a number there when we arrived and they take no notice of their human visitors provided you leave them alone and you do not get between them and the sea,


We were so close you could count the flies on their noses.

Sea Lion asleep 

The wind is very strong along this coast (partly the cause of ship wrecks) and the effect is seen on the trees which tend to lean inland and loose their edge branches

Trees near Slope Point

As we mentioned earlier, Slope Point is the true southernmost point of South Island and here we are at it after a long drive down a dusty unpaved rutted and potholed track.

Slope Point

For those who have not driven this type of road before, the trick is not to drive too slowly (the most common mistake people make). There is a certain speed which you have to search for at which the van glides over the ruts rather than bumps over them, secondly you should drive on the wrong side of the road whenever you can because the ruts are always smoother to the suspension on that side of the road (I know that sounds stupid, but it is true). Of course you should look out for potholes and avoid them.

Further on is today’s paradise, Curio Bay, our intended home for the night


because on the other side of the bay within which a pod of around 20 rare (4000 left in the world) Hectors Dolphins live - we could not get a picture of them because they were out in the bay and are quite small, there is another bay where Yellow Eyed


Penguins nest and also a large fossilised forest can be seen when the tide goes out.

Around 180 million years ago, a sub tropical forest of kauri like trees was buried in a volcanic eruption that covered the forest in ash. Buried under more rock, it later sunk beneath the oceans; on reappearing, the petrified forest was revealed. Stumps and logs dating from the Jurassic age are clearly defined in the tidal platform.

Here is a section of the rock bed showing the trees

Fossilised Trees

and here is the same photograph with a few of the trunks marked in red.

trees marked

Close up you can see the wood fibres


There are the remains of tree stumps scattered across the bay

Fossilised Forest and Penguins


and this is a tree stump close up. When you are there you can see the fibres of wood (or what used to be them)


There are also some ferns outlined in the rock although they can be hard to see. Apparently, it is rare to find forest fossils such as these in such a large and clearly defined manner.

This is an appropriate point to introduce a reptile we have met on two occasions whilst out here – the Tuatara.


When the fossilised forest at Curio Bay was actually a living forest some 180 million years ago, a group of reptiles known as “sphenodontia” were living all over the earth (fossilised remains dating back 250 million years have been found in many places). The group sphenodontia became extinct all over the earth along with the Dinosaur some 60 million years ago except in New Zealand and the Tuatara is the last of the line of spenodontia. They are rare, this one we saw in Invercargill and we saw another in the North Island.

However, the highlight of Curio Bay has to be the rare Yellow Eyed Penguins who breed and nest in the area. Here you can see why they are called “Yellow Eyed”, they also have a yellow tinge to their feathers around the eye.


At dawn the parents go out into the sea to hunt and at dusk they come

Young waiting

back to feed their young who stand near the bushes waiting for dinner to arrive.

When a parent arrives back from the sea, it takes an enormously long time to walk back to the nest because its seems to stop every few centimetres to preen itself.

Walking from the sea

They manage however to walk directly back to their chicks with no searching for them.


The chicks recognise their parent and coax him/her to

Dinner PLease

regurgitate fish for their dinner

Mum and child

Because they are rather messy regurgitators,

Four for dinner

the local bird population also come along to see if they can get anything to eat.

Off to bed 

After dinner, it is off to bed.

This video shows an adult returning from the sea, being greeted by its offspring (who is clearly hungry) and then dinner being served.

We were standing only a few metres away from this and totally ignored by the penguins. Amazing!

You may think that New Zealand is all about waterfalls and caves --- you will not be disappointed. We visited New

Niagara Falls NZ

Zealand’s own Niagara Falls (named in the 1800s)

Niagara Falls NZ-1

which are probably the same height in millimetres as the real ones are in metres. Nearby are the MClean Falls which are slightly more impressive and described as the biggest in the Catlins. They are good but not a patch on the Humboldt in Fiordland.

MCLean Falls NZ

Further east are Cathedral Caves which are accessible only at low tide. Large would be a word to describe them and empty would be the word to describe the beach

Cahedral Bay Beach

leading to them. They are a series of linked tidal caves –

Cave 1

you go into Cave 1, follow the tunnel until you get to a

The Way Through

junction, then head for the light (ignoring three side caves)

The Way Out

and eventually you come out of Cave 2

Cave 2

Stay too long and you get trapped inside.

I am always interested in industrial archaeology and there is an old railway tunnel which you can walk through towards

Tunnel Tunnel Hill-1

the edge of the Catlins. It was dug by hand using pickaxes

Tunnel Tunnel Hill

and barrows in 1891 to enable a railway to be built to carry out the rich resources of the area. It finally closed in 1970. Its condition inside seems almost as good as the day it was built.

Some town in the Catlins have almost as many closed shops and open ones and are desperate to find reasons for tourists to stop.

Teapot house Okawa

Hence this house where the front garden is devoted to teapots and the house to dolls and other similar things.

House Okawa

There are however a number of rather nice traditional looking houses (if you ignore the TV aerial).

Right on the edge of the Catlins is Nugget Point which is a

Lighthous Nugget Point

lighthouse right at the end of a high spit of land (with a really hairy drive to get there). The footpath from the carpark

Spine Path Nugget Point

follows the sharp top edge of the cliffs. As you walk along this path, you can see examples of how trees manage to establish themselves in such a hostile environment – their roots force a way down cracks in the rock searching for moisture and food.

 Root in rock   

The views from the lighthouse are pretty

Nugget Point

spectacular and there are large

Bay Nugget Point

numbers of fur seals on the rocks below. At the lighthouse, there is a viewing platform hanging out over the rocks (go back to the picture of the lighthouse, it is on the right hand side of the cliff below the lighthouse).

And so endeth the Catlins – eastwards to Dunedin and the steepest street in the world.


  1. Hello Pat,
    Some amazing hints and tips here plus some gorgeous photos. I read that you travelled around Australia...when was that? New Zealand looks stunning - gosh you guys got close to those animals!
    We are about to travel around Australia...and have all of our DVD's in a flat DVD storage zip lock case so that we can fit in as many as possible!!
    Lisa Wood

  2. We were in Australia in 2009, there are lots of details in the blog,just click on the appropriate month

    Glad you like it