Mt. Cook (3755 m) - Highest peak in New Zealand
After our less than satisfactory west coast adventure, we had to negotiate one of the worst downpours as we tried to make our way to Queenstown. The weather improved dramatically once we crossed the Haast pass and re-entered the leeward side of the Southern Alps. After a very enjoyable drive beyond the pass, we reached Queenstown in the early afternoon. Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand, home to one of the biggest bungy jumps and fastest river rafting in the world. Given the high aversion level of high adrenaline stuff that I am blessed with, we decided to do the two of the least scary ones available on the menu: a 4 WD adventure to the Skippers Canyon and a jet boating trip across the Shotover river.
The Skippers Canyon, carved by the Shotover river, is an old gold mining site. The road to the canyon has been carved out of near vertical cliffs and in sections have extremely dangerous blind curves and sheer drops. The entire route was very scenic with a dramatic view appearing after every precarious turn. Our other adventure, the jet boating trip on the Shotover river, is pretty famous and needs no introduction. The 70 km/hr ride through the narrow canyons and the 360 degree turns were all as advertised - pretty exhilarating.
By the by, between the two Queenstown adventures we spent a week doing the hard part of the trip - walking the great walks - which has been described in the following sections. After the jet boating trip, we made a dash to our next destination, Dunedin, to catch the early afternoon Taieri River Gorge train. We almost missed our train as we got stuck behind a couple of people moving their house, which given the two lane highways around these parts can bring the traffic to a grinding halt in both directions. Billed as one of the great train journeys in the world, the Taieri Gorge train takes passengers 58 kms into the pretty gorge cut by the Taieri river, sections of which took years to complete and are considered to be engineering marvels. Although the trip wasn't outstanding, the scenery was still worth the effort.
The following day was spent in visiting the top two tourist attractions of the city, the Royal Albatross Colony and the Larnach Castle. The Albatross Colony is the only mainland breeding ground of the majestic birds. The birds get their "royal" title from their brilliant black and white plumage. We were awarded with the views of few nesting albatross' and a colony of black shags, but we weren't lucky enough to see these 3.3m wing spanned giants gliding in the skies. The Larnach Castle, the only castle in the southern hemisphere, is the best known building in Dunedin. Built by a business man called somebody Larnach in 1871, the castle is bit of a disappointment especially when you unconsciously start comparing it with its big cousins from north of the equator.
In the afternoon, we drove to Mt. Cook National Park stopping at various locations to continue our penguin search. It took us a while to figure out that in the afternoons, when it is warm enough for two Indians to roam in shorts, it would be bloody hot for the sub-antarctic birds. The only en-route attraction which didn't walk off into the cool ocean was the Moeraki Boulders, some extraordinary giant hemispherical rocks sitting almost out-of-place on a beach. The interesting fact is that these boulders were formed by compression and later exposed by erosion by the wind and the water.
We reached Mt. Cook late in the afternoon with a storm looming around the corner. In order to maximise the available good time, we completed the trails in the Tasman Valley before nightfall, keeping the Hooker valley (the only other valley walk) for the morning. In the morning we woke up to the now familiar sight of bad weather and completely cloudy skies. After a futile walk attempted towards the Hooker valley outlook, we quickly realised that the weather has gobbled up all the vistas and unless we were prepared to stick on for a week, we may as well get packing. "Get packing" was exactly what we did deciding to try our luck at Oamaru, the penguin capital of the country.
Our efforts paid off as the rains eased when we reached Oamaru. The city is the home for two types of penguins - the Blue Penguins, which at 30 cms are the smallest of its kind in the world and the much more rarer Yellow-Eyed Penguins. Since these creatures follow different "home-coming" timetables, one can watch both of them in the same evening. The yellow eyed ones return from work about couple of hours before their blue cousins. When viewing the yellow-eyed ones, we also happened to meet Jim, the penguin guide, who has been taking care of these fragile creatures for 22 years. He has an immense knowledge on these birds and took us around to show couple of chicks in one of the nests. It is really amazing to see his enthusiasm and dedication to take care of these creatures after 22 long years during which the numbers of these birds increased from dangerous 15 to equally perilous 23! The blue penguins, on the other hand, seem to be thriving in these conditions and due to which, their viewing is charged and, hence, is also better managed. We were able to watch about a 100 of them trot back home under a soft artificial night lighting from the comfort of a viewing stadium. We were very pleased to have been able to finally view these pretty creatures at the fag end of the tour. It definitely made up for the disappointment at the Mt. Cook