The morning saw us driving onward through Twizel, past Lake Pukaki and into the Waitaki Valley. Other than a dam there's little to see unless, like us, you were lucky enough to spot a rainbow.
The Takiroa Rock Art Site sounds more impressive than it is, but then I'm not really a geologist, archaeologist or artist, so the importance is possibly lost on me. The drawings by the native Maori are a few centuries old, so we're not looking at caveman-era scribblings. They include people on horses, and also a large water creature related to Maori tradition.
Oamaru is an odd little town which packs a surprising number of tourist attractions into its relatively small size. We took in the art gallery which had an excellent collection of exhibits ranging from different photographic takes on the effect of the Christchurch earthquake, through to a series of illustrations from a popular children's author, Margaret Mahy.
The NZ Malt Whisky Company is also present in the town. It stopped making whisky in 1997 and the remaining casks are being distilled and bottled until they're all sold. I'm a big fan of single malt whisky, so couldn't resist the temptation to have a tasting.
Of the four single malts I tried, the 12yr, 18yr and 24yr olds were great, but the 21yr old tasted very odd. I decided to invest in a small bottle of 23yr old since the company wouldn't be making it any more. I've not yet decided whether to drink it or keep it for the day when it will be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
For the bird-watchers there are not one, but two penguin colonies in Oamaru. There are blue penguins, which are the ones heavily promoted by the tourist office since they charge for tours and access to the visitor's centre to see them. For the more canny traveller though, there is also a yellow penguin colony on Bushy Beach which is free to visit (best time is two hours before sunset). This is where we attempted to get to in the evening, but the clouds were darkening ominously when we left the whisky store:
Sure enough, the van was soon hit by a deluge of freezing cold sleet that only intensified as we got nearer to the beach. Realising that we'd be soaked and cold if we tried to get down to see the penguins, and with no guarantee that we'd actually spot any, we abandoned the plan and went back to town. To commiserate, we went out for a meal at a local restaurant - Fat Sally's. The portions were huge and whilst my steak was passable, the freshly baked bread with garlic butter and Gilly's lamb were both superb.
We just didn't have room for dessert; even my separate dessert stomach was waving a white flag. It must have been breached.
Clinging to the coast the next day, our first stop was the Moeraki Boulders (or as Paul prefers to hear it when you say it quickly, "Them Iraqi Boulders"). These are near-perfectly spherical rocks which have been carved away by the sea over the years. The best time to visit them is at low tide. We were not at low tide. I decided it would be a good idea to stand on the boulders in the sea and do some hilarious poses.
Looking back, some decisions could have been handled better.
Shortly after this last picture, a huge wave came up from behind me and swept me off the boulder and up to my waist in the sea. This wouldn't have been so bad, if I hadn't have had our Garmin sat-nav in my pocket. For some reason, saltwater and GPS devices don't seem to mix well. The thing was dead.
We consoled ourselves by taking Alan from Christchurch's advice and checked out Lockies World Famous Cod and Chips which, he said, made the best fish and chips in New Zealand. This was rather a bold claim in my opinion, but we ordered blue cod and chips and found it was excellent. Not quite the mind-blowing experience I was expecting (who does fish and chips better than the UK?) but a damn fine recommendation nonetheless.
People who know me will know that my sense of direction is zero. I cannot function in a car without some tinny English voice directing me to the right street. Having no GPS was like functioning without an arm. We were fortunate in that NZ has only have one main road between any town and city, so as long as you're driving in the right direction, you can get to most places fairly easily. The problems start once you actually get into a city. We were driving to Dunedin, and once there immediately began a search for a repair shop for the sat-nav. The ever-reliable i-Site gave us a great map and pointed us at a place that they said would be the only ones with any hope of fixing it, so we somehow managed to navigate there, drop off the Garmin, then drive back to Dunedin centre. We had a look around the art gallery and then set off to the Otago Peninsular.
The peninsular has a host of sites for visitors, including more yellow-eyed and blue penguins, as well as sea lions and albatrosses. It's a narrow, windy main road but it is easy to follow and has a few alternatives for campervans. We found a park and then took a drive to Allans Beach to try and spot some sea lions which are known to lie around on the dunes. After walking the best part of a mile down the beach, all we found was some seaweed; the sea lions must have hidden when they saw us coming. The weather was getting chilly, so we stayed for sunset and then called it a night.
The Royal Albatross Centre is the only mainland colony in the world; the centre is only open in the afternoon (at least, in the winter) and is quite pricey, but you can get just as good a view of the albatrosses from the car park outside.
There's only so much time you can spend looking at birds from a distance, so we took a drive back to Dunedin and stopped at Larnach Castle on the way. More of a mansion than an actual castle, it is set in beautiful grounds which have an "Alice in Wonderland" theme running through the gardens. They also have some grass which must have been working too hard.
The Georgian hanging staircase is unusual - instead of steaming the word to make the handrail curved, it was carved by hand from solid pieces of kauri wood which demonstrates a rare level of skill, and is the only one of its type in the southern hemisphere.
The history of the family is actually more interesting than the building itself, with affairs and suicides occurring with unusual regularity. We were lucky with the weather, but Larnach Castle would be a worthy visit for a few hours even on gloomy days.
Back in Dunedin, the repair shop had taken one look at the sat-nav and written it off; a replacement was needed. Dick Smith is one of the major electronics stores in the country and also price match - a quick scan of the latest Garmins online offered up a likely candidate as well as a competitive price from their rival Harvey Norman; twenty minutes later we were in possession of a new GPS and I was feeling a lot more comfortable driving around.
We didn't really get to explore Dunedin as much as I'd have liked; it has some fantastic architecture and it's a place I would love to come back to if we return to NZ.
We were cutting west from Dunedin, and drove through what may be the greatest town in NZ.
The night ended on a slightly sour note as we pulled into Alexandra, a place that seemed to have absolutely nothing going on, and with a bizarre holiday park. It had a kitchen but nowhere to sit to eat your food, and an adjoining TV room which housed an old man who managed to be both creepy and drunk at the same time. Add into the mix a contingent of rowdy teenagers who had arrived as part of some sort of school group, and a shower block which wouldn't have been out of place in a high-security prison, and you have a campsite which we were only too happy to leave early the next morning.
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