Thursday, January 12, 2012

December 8th: Queenstown to Stewart Island

Another random stop, another fantastic hotel room! We made it to Queenstown the night before, which left about 3 hours of driving to catch the ferry in Bluff. That meant getting up pretty early to make sure we'd be there in time. We were on the road just after 6:30am, but I made sure to take a minute to enjoy the view from our hotel before we left!

Several hours of driving and a quick stop for muffins and coffee later, we made it to Bluff! It's the southern-most town on the South Island, and like Cape Reinga, has a signpost. The only place on either of those that had us beat for distance was London.

We parked the rental car, grabbed our backpacks, and made our way to the ferry terminal. It's about an hour-long trip to get to Stewart Island, but watching albatrosses and other birds helped pass the time. That, and listening to a snooty Canadian on a work holiday spout off about how terrible Americans are.

We had a bit of a rocky start to our stay on Stewart Island; our ride from the hotel wasn't there as planned, but a quick phone call cleared that up. We checked into our hotel and got a pleasant surprise - the hotel let us borrow a car to get around the island! We drove into town, grabbed some crepes for lunch, then drove up and parked to hike to Ackers Point.

The view from Ackers Cottage, one of the oldest buildings in NZ. The house was built in 1835 and was tiny; I think the sign said he had 9 kids!

There were some neat views from overlooks along the path. Like most of the hikes we've done so far, the path was nicely marked, though a little steep in some points. If you strayed off the path much at all, you could easily find yourself tumbling down to the water!

As we neared the lighthouse we heard a really loud noise. Turns out it was a sea lion! You could just see it through the trees, taking a nap on the rocks.

One of Mark's favorite birds: the tui. It sounds a bit like his alarm clock. You can watch a video on Youtube of one making silly noises here. I like when it honks.

There was a sign at the top near the lighthouse that said that the fishy smell (oh man, was it fishy smelling) was from the Sooty Shearwater and Little Blue Penguin nests scattered among the underbrush, and if you're up there at dusk you can see all the birds coming back to their nests. We figured that sounded neat and kept it in mind for later.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped to check out Evening Cove...

...and Lee Bay, before stopping at the grocery store to grab something to make for dinner.

Our room , complete with mini kitchen. There's a full bath and a decent sized bedroom behind the kitchen. After a lot of hemming and hawing, we finally decided to have spaghetti for dinner. Not that we had too much of a choice; island supermarkets aren't exactly brimming with options.

After dinner we decided to grab some ice cream at the grocery store to help pass the time before hiking again. Well, it would have helped pass the time, but the store closed about 10 minutes before we got there. No ice cream for us! We couldn't think of too much else to do, so we decided to start hiking.

We were the only ones up there and got to the lighthouse around 8pm. Which would have been fine, except since we were so far south it didn't really start to get dark until almost 10pm (which we didn't realize until we got up there). Watching some younger sea lions fight helped pass some of the time.

This one admitted defeat and retreated to some rocks off to the side.

This one was HUGE. It was sleeping on some of the rocks on the side of the path.

After a while, more people started to show up. Since the sign wasn't really clear on what to look for, we had no idea what to expect. Just as we were started to lose hope, though, we saw them. Tiny penguin heads!

They looked like they were swimming toward the town, so Mark and I decided to start hiking back, stopping at the overlooks to keep tracking them, then hop in the car and drive into town to see them come up on the beaches there (since that's what Lonely Planet said they did). Also, I was absolutely exhausted from getting up early and was hoping to get a little extra sleep, so I was looking forward to getting back to the room and passing out.

Stewart Island had other plans for us, though. We lost sight of the penguins after the first overlook, but by then we were so tired and frustrated (oh, and did I mention that we didn't have a flashlight? Only Mark's cell phone for any sort of lighting. Because, you know, flashlight apps are better than real flashlights any day) that we decided to cut our losses and head back to the hotel. It was getting pretty dark as we got back to the car, so after taking a minute to say hi to a local who had just pulled up to hike, we got back in the car and turned the key.


We looked at each other. I told Mark to try again.

Still. Nothing.

The hotel was likely a two hour walk from Ackers Point, and we'd been up since about 6am. We hadn't slept a whole lot the past few days because of the ridiculous pace we were trying to keep up. I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep until next week. So we did what anyone else in our shoes would do.

We hiked to Ackers Point for the third damn time that day.

Rather than give you a long, drawn-out account of what happened next, here are the notes I jotted down when we got back to the hotel room a couple hours later, starting with the first hike before sunset:

Hike again, wait for penguins, watch sealy things fight.
Tiny penguin heads waaaaaaay far out, start hiking back.
Where did they go?
OMG now the car won't start??!!
Hike AGAIN at 10:30pm with no flashlight. Holy crap, that was a penguin.
Nice guy gave us ride back to hotel, 3 penguins and 1 dead car later.
Thank goodness for wine.

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