After finishing the Kepler Track, we have a day and a half to drive from Te Anau down to Bluff, the southern most town on the South Island where will catch a ferry to Stewart Island, the location of our last Great Walk, the Rakiura Track. Our end destination today is the tiny town of Tuatepere which we picked as a midpoint between Te Anau and Invercargill (just north of Bluff).
When we were making our hut reservations for our Great Walks, we weren’t sure exactly how long it would take us to hike out on our last day of the Kepler Track or how long it would take us to drive down to Bluff, so we thought we should play it safe and break up the drive with a stay in the small town of Tuatepere tonight. As it turned out, we had a really short hike out from our campsite at Brod Bay and only a 190-kilometer drive south to Bluff, so we could have easily accomplished both in one day. On the other hand, breaking up the trip gives us the opportunity to slow down and explore the south of NZ at a more leisurely pace. So that is what we are doing.
Once we are all loaded up in the car, we consult our map and a guidebooks to select a few stops to make along the way to Tuatepere. First up, we stop at the Rakatua Wetland Reserve and do a short hike to look for birds without any significant sightings. Then it is on to the Totara Walk to see a stand of 1000-year old Totara trees.
We reach Tuatepere in the late afternoon and decide to stop at the Yesteryear Museum Cafe, a kitschy little cafe recommended in Lonely Planet for coffee and an ice cream. Finally, we check in at the Last Light Lodge where we opt for a campsite over the basic rooms. We pitch the tent and grab a shower before heading to the lodge for dinner.
The charming French proprietor serves us a hearty, delicious bowl of risotto and a fresh salad with bulgur, walnuts and quince dressing. Yum! We finish our meal just in time to drive to McCracken’s Rest a scenic coastal spot a few miles out of town where we photograph the sunset.
On our way back into town we decide to stop into a local pub in Tuatepere. There are lots of people hanging out, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone tending bar. We stand meekly by the bar hoping someone will show up before too long. The pub is lively and packed with local sheep farmers fresh off of work and still wearing their boots and coveralls.
Before long, a cheery woman in her mid-twenties approaches us and asks if we would like something to drink. We nod yes, and she promptly jumps behind the bar to pour us each a draught beer before joining us to chat for quite a while. It turns out she is a pre-school teacher, and we talk about life in small town NZ. This is our first taste of local NZ hospitality, and we are honored that this kind woman is choosing to spend some of her evening hanging with us instead of her buddies.
Before long, another woman comes over to check out us newcomers, too. She tells us about the local lumberjack games in town and says they are something we shouldn’t miss. She also invites us to her pub in the neighboring town the following night. It will be New Year’s Eve, and there will be a live band playing. With a smirk on her face she says “Yeah, come to my pub … or I’ll kill ya!”
We can’t quite determine if she is joking or not as she slips this line into the conversation over and over again. This is our second taste of NZ hospitality, and it’s amusing but also a little disconcerting. It’s a small world down here. We don’t want to cross one of the locals, so we do our best to politely decline explaining that we have to make our way down to Invercargill, where we already have a reservation at a small bed and breakfast for the night. Even with the occasional death threats, we have a fun time at the pub experiencing a bit of the non-touristy side of New Zealand.
The next day we wake up to rain. We enjoy a very chilled out morning over coffee and breakfast in the lodge before hitting the road south to Invercargill. Our first stop along the way is Gemstone Beach. We take the steps down to the beach and stroll along the surf and brightly-colored cliffs until the rain starts to spit at us and force us back to our car.
Then it’s off to Cozy Nook to spy birds without much luck. Next up is Riverton where we drive out to Hollow’s Point and try to photograph some wave action in the rain. Each of these stops would likely be pretty nice, but the dreariness of the day is making them a little underwhelming today.
We decide to make one last stop at Mores Reserve before calling it quits for the day. There is a short bush walk we can take to a lookout. After a heavy downpour, we head out on the trail where we get a nice view of the canopy and spy a few birds.
Back in the parking lot, we are attempting to dry out our tent in the sun that has suddenly appeared. We have some time to kill, so we begin packing up our packs for the Rakiura Trek when we notice several tui and bell birds visiting the harakeke bushes surrounding the carpark. These birds are quite striking, so we eagerly take advantage of the photographic opportunity and finally get some nice images of the birds perched out in the open.
Eventually we get our things all packed up, and we drive on to the hamlet of Otatara just outside of Invercargill to Bushy Point Fernbirds, the Bed & Breakfast that we have booked for the night. To get there, we drive down a very tranquil lane up to a cute home in one of the quietest corners in NZ. There, we find Jenny and Ian, our gracious hosts working out in their vegetable garden when we arrive.
Bushy Point is an eco-friendly home set on a private wetland reserve with impressive landscaping and active bird feeders. The owners do their best to attract birds with a slew of feeders filled with sugar water. Heaps of tui and bellbirds are flying all about. We immediately grab our cameras and start shooting.
Ian takes us on an early evening walk through the wetland in the adjacent reserve where we are on the lookout for the fernbirds that lend their name to this place. These elusive birds frequent the tall, wiry grasses but seldom come into full view. We walk slowly and track their movement by following the subtle vibrations of the grass until every once in a while one would pop up for a split second. This is one tough bird to photograph. We feel fortunate to have just seen them, for sure!
In the evening, we head into Invercargill for a New Year’s Eve dinner, but it turns out that the town is fairly deserted with only a few restaurants even open at all. Apparently New Year’s is not a big night around here. We are lucky to get served at a local Thai restaurant before they close up at 9 pm, and the food is delicious. We are home and in bed by 10:30, ringing in yet another New Year in our usual style—sound asleep!