Site transferred to a new host

November 9th, 2014

I recently transferred my site to a new host and so far everything has gone smoothly. My hosting plan with Bluehost was about to expire and as I wasn’t particularly impressed with their shared hosting performance it was time to look into other options. I had read some pretty good things about Siteground and they were also running a sale for Halloween. So far I am very impressed, the site is a lot faster now (having a data center in Europe probably helps) and their online support has been excellent. They are certainly bit pricier than many other shared hosting providers, but for this level of service I’m happy to pay a small premium.

I am also well aware that I haven’t posted any updates for over a year. This is a good time to get that fixed too. I have quite a few dive trip reports half written and some other pretty big stories too. Between getting married and moving back to Europe things have been quite busy over the last 12 months!

Wilsons Prom

November 2nd, 2013

Only a few days after our Gambier visit it was already time for another big diving trip. Our club trip to Wilsons Promontory a year ago was a great success and obviously everyone was keen to get back there for more awesome diving. This time we were also better prepared for the conditions and hoping to avoid the few incidents we had last year.

The Scuba Divers Federation of Victoria has been organizing the annual Wilsons Prom trip over the Melbourne Cup long weekend for quite a while now. Wilsons Prom is fairly remote and has minimal infrastructure for diving so having multiple dive clubs around certainly makes life a little bit easier. This year we had a pretty impressive turnout from the local clubs, even the Flinders University Underwater Club all the way from Adelaide was there! Our former club president Crystal was on a short visit to Melbourne, so she joined the trip as well.

Luke, Evan and I were the first to get there on Friday, as it was MUUC’s turn to organize the Saturday night BBQ we also stopped on the way to pick up lots of sausages and other food stuffs. Catering for close to a hundred people (not all divers, plenty of people from other clubs had brought their families too) sure is a lot of work! But we were determined to make sure things worked more smoothly this year. Last year our club missed out on the barbeque completely as by the time we got there all the food was already gone!

After getting to the camping ground at Tidal River we played with Evan’s quadcopter for a while, good fun while bit tricky! Then it was time to set up our tents and wait for the other club members to get there. We had quite a few people joining us, most in tents and a few in cabins nearby. By the time we got the last tent setup it was getting quite late, definitely time to get some sleep.

In the morning it was time to get started with the actual diving. While the weather on Saturday was looking great for diving a big storm was supposed to hit the Prom sometime in the early hours of Sunday. So obviously everyone was keen to do as much diving as possible before that happened! Since we had only one boat with us we were rotating divers, four trips a day meant everyone got to do two dives.

I also did my first proper boat-sitting on this trip. For the first dive we had chosen the Pinnacle and I was sitting that dive. Happily everything went smoothly, and soon enough I had picked up the divers from the water and we were heading back to the shore to pick up a new group of divers.

The second dive of the day (and my first of the trip) was the Humpback. This was an excellent dive a year ago and it didn’t disappoint this time either. The site is full of big rocks covered in zoanthids, cool walls and several swimthroughs, including one large vertical pipe. I was diving with Mathilde and we both had an excellent dive!

For my second dive of the day I did the Skull Rock. We had a number of incidents on this site last year, including my problems with the blocked exhaust valve. Luckily things went smoothly this time, we hopped in with Evan, Mathilde, Seth and Alycia. We started the dive by checking out the the tunnels going through the rock. Current was pretty minimal this time and the dive was certainly lot more enjoyable than a year ago!

While not real caves the swimthroughs leading through the sides of the rock are certainly very cool! After going through the rock twice we started following the reef to a deeper area with some cool valleys and walls. Unfortunately it was also getting bit too deep for the OW divers diving with us. At one point Mathilde had a minor incident and her fin came off. after assisting her we decided it was time to head back to shallower waters.

After some playing around in the shallows and some photography we headed back to the surface and joined up Crystal on the boat. On the way back we drove past one of the seal colonies. There were quite a few seals up on a big rock, including one that had suffered some rather nasty injuries. Luckily he had gotten back to the safety of the colony, but he was still pretty badly wounded with some big gashes on his side. Hopefully he survives the ordeal!

Back on the shore it was time to get started with the barbeque. As we had brought plenty of food we thought we were well prepared. Sadly this didn’t turn out to be true. We had an even bigger turnout than expected and sadly some people thought it was ok to go not only for seconds, but for thirds and fourths without paying extra! We still had enough food for almost everyone, but a few latecomers were left out. At least it was well beyond the scheduled time of the bbq at that point. Still, it seems to be impossible to keep everyone happy. At least it will be several years before it is our time to organize the bbq again, as this task rotates between the clubs.

While weather was still looking nice it was clear based on the forecast that there would not be any diving on Sunday. Quite a few of us went for a late evening walk, Prom is certainly a great spot for walking both day and night. Afterwards we settled down at our tents to get some sleep before the storm. The storm hit us in the early hours of the morning and this was definitely a big one! Luckily all our tents survived the storm, even the big multi-room one Seth had brought. With the storm blowing there was no way I was getting more sleep, so I got up with sunrise to do some more walking. Unfortunately it started raining quite heavily after a while, so I was forced to return to the campground.

We spent the rest of the day hiking too. First we walked up to the top of Mt Bishop. Mt Bishop may not be the highest peak on the Prom, but the view from the top is still quite spectacular. Especially on a really windy day like this with big waves breaking all along the coastline!

Afterwards we visited the nearby Squeaky Beach (named after the fine sand making “squeaky” sounds when stepped on). It was sad seeing all the dead birds along the coastline, the storm had certainly taken its toll on the poor animals. Then we headed back to the camp and spent the rest of the day there hoping that weather would improve by the next morning.

The waves were still looking quite large on Monday morning but luckily things improved enough by afternoon that we could safely launch our boat. Quite a few of our divers had already headed back to Melbourne at this point so at least we no longer had to return back to shore during the day to switch divers.

The launch itself and the way out was still quite rough, but we found a well-protected spot near one of the bigger rocky islands. This wasn’t one of the marked dive sites, but we still decided to hop in for a look. The site turned out quite nice, lots of bommies and boulders covered in zoanthids. There were also several impressive seawhips around the site, hence we decided to name it “Seawhip Cove”. Visibility was still decent too, we had been concerned that the storm might have muddied up the waters.

Some of us had spotted a small beach on the island while waiting on the boat, so for the surface interval we decided to go in for a closer look. A few of us swam in first and found a couple of really cool dry caves near the beach! One of them went on for quite a while too, sadly there was some rubbish in there that had been washed or blown in. Still a really cool find! We took the boat in carefully on the beach and then all of us spent some more time exploring. We also climbed to the top of the island, the view from up there was quite spectacular.

However, as we had started the day late and people still wanted a second dive we couldn’t spend too much time on the island playing pirates as Alycia would have preferred. For the second dive we headed over to the Eagle’s Peak, a dive site on the exposed side of this same island. Eagles Beak is known as one of the best dives in the area and it certainly lived up to its reputation. It was somewhat rough of the surface, but luckily there wasn’t too much surge underwater.

There were some impressive boulders, several small caves and spectacular swimthroughs to explore. At one point we also had a pair of seals checking us out and getting close and personal. Sadly I couldn’t quite get the camera focus right and didn’t get any good photos of them. Considering how interesting the site was I could have spent a long time down there. Sadly my buddy Stuart went through his air quite quickly so our bottom time was relatively short.

As we were returning to the shore we had our only bigger incident of the trip. It was fairly rough in the Norman Bay and just as we were getting shallow enough to jump off one of the tanks must have been knocked open. Everyone got really distracted trying to find the leaking tank. Then people started jumping off the boat to get the car and the trailer. Suddenly only Luke was left on the boat but he wasn’t driving, he was still trying to find the leaking tank!

The boat started turning sideways into the waves and things got quite chaotic. I was in deeper water myself and relatively safe but Evan and Seth had quite a scare when the boat almost crashed into them while bouncing on the waves! Luckily Luke got things under control and we were able to get the boat and all the divers back on shore safely.

On Tuesday we headed out one last time, our first dive was back at the Eagles Beak. This time I was diving with Isaac who was certainly lot better on air than Stuart. We spent a lot of time exploring the caves and swimthroughs in this area. Of particular interest was a decent size chamber beneath a massive boulder with several tunnels branching off! This was definitely the best dive of the trip for me and one of the best dives I have ever done.

We had had a fairly late morning so it was getting bit late already, but some of us were still keen for one more dive. This time we headed to Humpback again. Our dive plan was to follow the coastline to the Pinnacle on the protected side of the island.

Unfortunately this plan didn’t work too well. Humpback is very exposed and the swell was still fairly heavy. This meant some fairly strong surge too, especially in the swimthroughs and some of the holes. The surge was less of an issue once we left the more exposed area, however the underwater scenery got less interesting too. Soon enough most of the bigger boulders were gone and the rocks were mainly covered in kelp instead of colorful zoanthids.

The rest of the dive was frankly bit boring, the only more interesting sight was a massive ball of bait fish. I managed a few quick (overexposed) shots and then they were swimming away already. Soon afterwards Isaac and I returned to the surface, it was time to get the boat back to the shore as some people were getting anxious to return to Melbourne.

Unfortunately on the way back we ran into some further delays in the form of boat issues. At this point the boat was running little low on fuel, but there was still plenty to get back to shore safely. However, suddenly the engine started stalling while bouncing up and down on the waves. After the main engine stalled a few times we tried to get the spare fuel tank connected. Unfortunately we found out there was an issue with the fuel line, so that didn’t work too well either. Eventually we were able to pour some fuel directly to the main tank and the engine started working again.

We were not really sure what the issue was as there had still been a fair bit of fuel left in the tank. Big Boat has given us a fair share of problems in the past and it’s definitely time to try to get it replaced! Either way, we really need the fuel line fixed ASAP. At least there was no real emergency this time and we had plenty of time to sort out the problem. The rest of the trip back was problem free, we got back to the shore safely, finished packing our gear and started the drive back to Melbourne.

Despite the stormy Sunday and the boat problems the trip was still a resounding success. For me Wilsons Prom has the best diving in Victoria, it’s a shame we can’t go there more often! Two great dive trips in a row definitely makes up for a quiet Spring!

Cave diving in Mt Gambier

October 25th, 2013

Unfortunately the weather this Spring has been quite disappointing and the decent September was followed by a windy and rainy October. This meant very little opportunity for diving but luckily the weather isn’t an issue for the Mt Gambier caves. We had planned to head back there with Adrian ever since our cave course in June. Now was finally our chance to explore Pines properly and visit some of the cave rated sites we missed during the course.

Pines is by far the largest cave-rated site in Mt Gambier and consequently we did most of our dives there. While a major part of the cave is only available for advanced cave divers, there is still a fair number of tunnels and chambers to explore.

After arriving in Mt Gambier on Thursday evening we had an lazy start on Friday. We headed out to Pines in the afternoon and started preparing for our first dive. Unfortunately I found out that I had left my camera at the Pine Tank lodge. Oh well, it was probably sensible to do the first dive without the camera anyway since I hadn’t done any cave diving for several months.

The dive itself was quite nice, we headed down the side tunnel first which took us to the bottom of the main chamber. From there we continued exploring one of the side tunnels branching off. On the way back we decided to lock off the reel and leave it at the bottom of the main chamber for our second dive of the day. But before that Adrian needed his tanks topped up.

Unfortunately we hit some hiccups while filling up the tanks back at the Pine Tank lodge. We had both used the fill station several times before, but this time we both struggled to remember how to use it. Eventually I figured it out but by then it was already dark outside. Not that it really matters in the caves, especially on a cloudy day when even the Pines main chamber is fairly dark. Besides, we couldn’t really leave our reel in the Pines for the night since other divers had booked in for the next day.

So off we went back to the Pines. We picked up the reel where we had left it in the main chamber and continued exploring the side tunnels. My main torch was acting up a little bit on the dive, but it never got too serious. Besides, I had my camera with me this time so I could just keep the strobe focus lights running the whole dive.

We entered some pretty small tunnels on this dive, especially since I was diving with the camera now. In one of the tighter tunnels Adrian had a valve roll off and at the same time my camera was getting little bit tangled on some loose line. This was a potentially serious incident, but we handled it calmly and sorted everything out. Still, it was clearly time to head back to the surface, we had had a nice long dive already anyway.

Our second day of diving started with a very minor yet rather annoying incident. We were checking out one of the tight tunnels branching from near the top of the main chamber in Pines. Things were getting bit tight and then suddenly I felt water coming in my drysuit from somewhere near the shoulder! It was too tight to check what was wrong so I backed off to the main chamber to figure out where the leak was. Apparently my drysuit zipper had been pushed slightly open when I was wriggling through the tunnel sideways.

Unfortunately by the time I figured this out and closed the zipper my suit was quite wet. Time to call the dive and head back to the surface to dry out the suit and get some dry clothes on. And to make it even worse the tunnel we were exploring doesn’t even seem to lead anywhere, it just keeps getting tighter and tighter.

After this incident we had a break on the surface, I dried my drysuit the best I could and switch into some dry clothes. Not as good as a proper undersuit, but still better than a soaking wet one!

Then we hopped back in, headed to the bottom of the main chamber and explored a few of the tunnels leading off from there. Some of the areas got quite silty, and at one point I even opted not to follow Adrian to one of the tighter tunnels as the visibility was getting quite poor.

Eventually it was time to get back to the main chamber and follow the line back to the surface. While it was still partially cloudy we were now getting enough sunlight for some decent natural light shots on the way back up. Pines is not quite as impressive as the more open sites like Kilsbys, but the main chamber is still quite pretty with the sun shining above.

After this dive it was finally time for something slightly different. We picked up the key for Allendale Cave and started the climb down to the water level.

While a nice enough cave, Allendale is also quite small. From the cave entrance a tunnel leads at an angle down to a larger main chamber, and this is pretty much all there is to the dive. There are a few small side passages, but they don’t really lead anywhere.

Adrian was still keen to try to push a few of the tunnels, in particular the silty hole at the bottom of the main chamber. Sadly it is pretty clear this hole leads nowhere, while you can wiggle your way in for a while the tunnel simply ends. On the way back up there’s also a slightly larger side tunnel, but this doesn’t lead anywhere either.

It was nice to visit the cave that we had only dived on our cave course. Still, we both felt that our 30 minute dive time was pretty much the maximum you would want to spend down there. We had some bad luck on this dive too. As we were getting out of water Adrian pierced his drysuit on some sharp rocks.  This resulted in a hole that was definitely big enough to be annoying. And his suit was almost brand new, too!

While we still had a few hours of daylight left it was clearly time to call it a day and see if we could get the drysuit fixed. Luckily I had brought my Aquaseal glue, so we applied some on the hole and let it dry for the night.

Then in the morning we headed back to Pines for our final dive there. Luckily the repair had been successful and Adrian’s suit was no longer leaking. We started the dive by going down the side tunnel and then explored the low silty tunnel below the main chamber. This tunnel is quite low but also relatively wide. However, as the bottom and the sides are covered in white fine silt great care must be taken, especially with backmount. We managed pretty well, only at our turning point we had some silting.

On the way back we also visited the sign that indicates the beginning of the Advanced Cave section. Anything beyond this point was obviously off-limits for us, so after a few photos we turned back and made our way to the surface through the side tunnel. With a long bottom time, some interesting sights and no real issues this was definitely our best dive in Pines so far.

We had enough gas and time left for one more dive. Our pick was Engelbrect East, a site neither of us had done before. This cave is right in the middle of Mt Gambier and the sizable dry cave area is also popular with tourists. In fact guided tours are often timed so they get to the dry cave when divers are getting up from a dive.

The dive begins in a small underground pool in the dry cave area. This section gets silted really easily, so care must be taken when entering and gearing up. From the pool a low but reasonably wide tunnel leads to the rest of the cave. Along the way we checked out a few tunnel entrances, but didn’t find anything overly interesting.

The cave itself is quite pretty and looks rather different from the other cave level sites in the area. However, the main attraction of the dive was definitely the large underground chamber at the end of the tunnel. There is quite a large chamber there with breathable air!

However, even with this distraction our dive was a short one. After checking out the air chamber we headed back to the entry pool and got out. Then it was time for the long climb back to the surface, a major disadvantage with this site. It’s a lot of steps back up from the dry cave to the surface! At least the steps are not very steep but it’s still hard work climbing back up with full scuba gear on a hot day!

Overall we both felt this trip was quite successful despite a few minor problems. It was well worth heading back to Mt Gambier after our cave course, even if it took us several months to get a trip organized!

Pier dives: nudibranchs and spider crabs

September 29th, 2013

The great boat dives in mid-September got my hopes up but unfortunately the great conditions didn’t last and rest of the month turned out quite windy. Luckily many of the Port Phillip shore dives are well protected from most winds so there’s usually at least some options for a sheltered dive. At 14 degrees water was still quite cool for most divers so it was just Walson and me heading out on the 29th.

We had picked Blairgowrie and Rye piers as the dive sites. Blairgowrie is a safe choice in most conditions as the sea wall at the outer edge of the pier blocks most of the waves. Despite the fairly strong winds we had an excellent long dive there in great conditions and good visibility.

There was also plenty to see, including lots of nudibranchs, a few seahorses and a couple of stingrays too. Out of the nudibranchs the Hedgpeth’s dorids were the most common sight. I managed to get some great shots of them.

The second dive at Rye wasn’t as impressive and the conditions were bit choppy, especially in shallower water. Our visit to the artificial Elsa’s Reef near the pier was disappointing too, the structure has more or less fallen apart by now. A big shame, it was a nice addition to a rather short pier dive.

The main highlight of this dive were the numerous spider crabs. There were quite a few of them around and I managed some nice closeups of them. Obviously this wasn’t a full crab migration or anything close, just a dozen or so spider crabs hanging around the pier. A great distraction on an otherwise average dive.

Portsea Backbeach and J5 Submarine

September 14th, 2013

The Spring is finally here and hopefully more diving too! Not much had happened on the diving front this Winter so I was really looking forward to some better conditions again.

We finally got our perfect day in mid-September. It was sunny and calm, a great day to take the boat out with Evan and Luke. We started out at Portsea Backbeach Wall, a reef dive I had only done once before as one my first dives in Melbourne. There are more impressive reefs around the coast, but it was still  pleasant dive with decent variety of fish, including several blue devils. My only real complaint was the somewhat lackluster visibility.

I was diving with Luke, Jess and Walson. Luke has had his new camera kit for quite a while now, but this was actually the first time I saw the thing in action. Quite impressive, even if those strobe arms are definitely very long!

Then for the next dive Luke and the OW-rated divers jumped in at the Lonsdale Arches. And finally to wrap up the day I did the J5 submarine with Evan and Oscar. I had only dived this particular sub once before so this dive was definitely the highlight of the day for me. The wreck lies down at 36 m and it is relatively intact. At this depth penetration is not feasible with a single tank so we simply stayed on top of the wreck. Of particular interest is the conning tower completely covered in yellow zoanthids, hence the nickname “yellow submarine”.

At this depth no-decompression limits are short, especially since we had already done one dive earlier. For some reason Oscar’s computer gave him a really short bottom time, so we had even less time on the wreck itself than usual. I had just enough time to get a few nice shots and then it was already time to start ascending.

Unfortunately the ascent didn’t go quite as planned. On the way to the final safety stop Oscar had some buoyancy issues and ended up going straight to the surface.

He was obviously little bit shocked when the boat picked him up, but luckily there was no lasting harm from the ascent. Apart from this incident the day was very enjoyable, hopefully the rest of the Spring diving is this good!

August Shore Dives

August 25th, 2013

Between the poor winter weather, couple of colds and the New Zealand trip there were precious little opportunities for diving in June and July. It took until August for me to get back in the ocean. By far the longest break I have had since I broke my arm!

After a few mishaps we got down to Flinders and started preparing for the dive. It was quite windy but otherwise a pleasant winter day and we were looking forward to a decent dive.

Unfortunately the conditions underwater were rather poor. Visibility was quite bad and there was a lot of organic junk floating around. Not the ideal conditions for photos! Not that there was that much to see anyway, just a few fish. Not even a single seadragon in sight!

Luckily our second dive at Rye turned out better. This side of the peninsula is more exposed to northerly winds and it was rather choppy on the surface. Due to several delays during the day it was also getting quite late and by the time we got in the water it was already getting close to dusk.

Luckily this dive was lot more pleasant than the one at Flinders. Apart from slight choppiness the conditions were ok and visibility was ok as well. There was decent amount of marine life too, including several seahorses and lots of crabs. Some of the others saw an octopus too but I missed that.

After a couple of weeks it was time to head back for more shore dives, this time with just Walson. It was a beautiful sunny winter day if a touch windy. We started our day at Blairgowrie, pretty much always a safe choice.

The pier didn’t disappoint this time either. This was the best dive I have done in a long while and decent length too at 53 minutes. We saw several seahorses, pretty seastars, a few nudibranchs and a fiddler ray. And to make it even better there was a massive school of salmon swimming around. Sadly they never let me get close enough to take a good shot with the macro lens but it was still a very impressive sight and they stayed around for ages.

Our second dive at Rye was nice too, even if it wasn’t quite as good as Blairgowrie. We saw more seahorses, lots of crabs and decent variety of fish species. There was also a lot of jellyfish floating around in the water.

We also had a look at Elsa’s reef bit further away from the pier. Unfortunately this artificial reef has suffered some serious damage over the winter months and most of the structure has collapsed. A shame really, it was shaping up as a nice addition to the normal pier dive.

Despite the minor letdown at Elsa’s this was still an excellent day of diving. It definitely feels that the worst of winter is now over and we are heading towards spring!

 

East Coast and Penguins

July 27th, 2013

After Te Anau and Milford Sound it was time to leave the West Coast and drive across the country to the more populated East Coast.

As we had a long day ahead of us we got up early in the morning. Soon enough we caught a pretty sunrise over some hills which definitely warranted a quick stop for some stops. Sadly there wasn’t much else to see during the inland crossing. Luckily New Zealand is not a wide country and soon enough we were on the other coast. While we didn’t really have time to properly explore this part of New Zealand we still wanted to do a short sidetrip to the Catlins. This sparsely populated region is excellent for wildlife encounters and some awesome scenery. After the rainy Milford the weather was a big improvement too, sunny and quite warm.

After reaching the town of Balclutha we turned off the main road and followed a rather small road down to the coast. Along the way we passed the small coastal village of Kaka Point and then reached our main destination, the Nugget Point. This is one of the iconic landmarks in this part of New Zealand. After a shortish walk we reached a small lighthouse at the of the steep headland. The headland is surrounded by numerous small islets, the actual “nuggets”. It’s also an excellent spot to observe the countless birds living in the area.

There’s also a penguin colony nearby but sadly at this time of the day all of them were out in the sea. The area is also popular hanging spot for seals and sea lions and we actually spotted a lone sea lion bull on the beach just after Kaka Point. Sadly he plunged back into the ocean before any of us was able to take a photo.

All in all this sidetrip was a big success even if Jacinta had to skip some of the longer walks as she wasn’t feeling too well.

After a quick picnic stop in Balclutha we started driving north along the coast towards Dunedin and eventually Oamaru, our stop for the night. Dunedin is the main city in this area and an important cultural center in New Zealand. The area also has numerous opportunities for observing the rich wildlife along the coast. Sadly we didn’t have time for a stop there, as we had to get to Oamaru before sunset to observe the penguins there.

We did have one stop along the way at the Moeraki Boulders. This part of the coast is a rather curious sight as erosion has formed large spherical boulders. Many of them look almost like eggs of some giant creature!

Our final stop of the day was Oamaru, one of the few places in New Zealand with both a blue penguin and a rare yellow-eyed penguin in close proximity. As all of us had already seen the blue penguins or little penguins as they are usually known in Australia, we focused on the other colony. Like little penguins the yellow-eyed penguins spend the day out on the sea hunting for food and return to their colony for the night. They do keep slightly more convenient hours though and generally return an hour or two before the sunset already.

The yellow-eyed penguins (or Hoiho as they are also known) are quite rare with an estimated population of only 4000. Along the coastline there are various hides where you can observe the colonies without disturbing the birds. In Oamaru the penguins can be observed from the cliffs above the colony. Sadly this meant we were quite a distance from the penguins so they are appear rather tiny even on my 300 mm lens.

Winter is usually the worst time to observe the birds as they tend to be lot more numerous over the summer months. We were still able to spot quite a few penguins wading in. Even if quite a few times it may have been the same birds as the penguins kept going out again while looking for their own nests!

After the penguins we spent some time in Oamaru itself. There’s a large blue penguin colony in the harbour area, but we decided not to take the tour. Instead we spent some time enjoying the pretty sunset nearby.

But Jacinta and I hadn’t had quite enough of the penguins yet, so we got up really early in the morning for another chance of spotting the Hoiho. Good thing we did too, we got treated to a magnificent sunrise and saw quite a few penguins leaving their nests too. And to make it even better there was also a seal family hanging out on the beach, too!

After this great experience it was time to start heading back towards Christchurch as our return flight was leaving really early on the following morning.

We did a couple of quick stops along the way and then got back to Christchurch itself where we visited a nice Sunday market. Jacinta and I also did some walking in the Botanic Gardens and then all three of us met up for another Light up the Leafy Night event in the gardens. This was a rather pleasant way to finish up the trip!

After a nice dinner and a few hours of sleep we drove down to the airport and caught an early flight back to Melbourne. Sadly my cold was getting quite nasty at this point, but it was too late to spoil an excellent trip!

Milford Sound

July 26th, 2013

Te Anau was our base for the part of the trip I was looking forward: the magnificent Milford Sound fjord. Despite its remote location Milford Sound is the one of the most popular tourist destinations in New Zealand and it’s also the only fjord in Fjordland that can be accessed by road.

The 121 km Milford Road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is an experience in itself. However, to make our schedule work better we decided to get going early in the morning, get to Milford Sound early and visit the sights on the way back. Parts of this road are also one of the most avalanche prone in the world and it is occasionally closed in winter for safety reasons. Luckily for us the conditions were quite good during our visit. Shortly before the Sound itself the road enters the Homer Tunnel. This 1270 m long tunnel pierces the mountains separating Milford Sound from rest of the Fjordland.

Soon after the tunnel we arrived to the small tourist village next to the Sound itself. From there we headed straight to the boat terminal and our boat cruise in the Sound. The massive boat terminal seemed rather quiet in the winter, during the peak season the place must be packed though. Best way to experience the fjord is obviously on water and most visitors take a boat tour while visiting. Milford Sound is also a popular destination for big cruise ships. There are also various water activities available including kayaking and diving. Sadly the dive operators are not very active during the winter season and in any case I was still suffering from the cold.

With 182 rainy days and almost 7 m of annual rainfall Milford Sound is one of the wettest place in the world. So it’s not very surprising that it was raining during our visit too. Luckily the rain wasn’t that heavy for most of the time. Still, with heavy fog everywhere it was hard to see the full magnificence of the fjord. Especially for photos it would be very nice to visit on a clear day when the mountains surrounding the fjord aren’t all covered in fog.

Still, the fjord was an impressive sight indeed. The almost sheer walls of the fjord are over 1 km high with several higher peaks in the area. There are only two permanent waterfalls but on a rainy day like this the walls are covered by countless smaller waterfalls. As a big fan of waterfalls I was very much impressed. At one point our boat actually took us right next to one of the waterfalls. A rather cool (and wet) experience!

The fjord is also home to a variety of marine mammals, including seals, whales and dolphins. We only saw some seals hanging out on some rocks though. We still got to experience more of the marine life as we had booked a visit to an underwater observatory as part of our cruise tickets. This floating observatory is anchored near one of the sides of the fjord and offers an impressive glimpse of the rich marine life in the area. Somewhat surprisingly we were the only people doing this part of the tour, our cruise boat simply dropped us off at the observatory and moved on.

The underwater environment of Milford Sound is quite unique. The combination of massive rainfall and the waterfalls forms a layer of fresh water on the surface of the fjord. With all the tannins in the water this layer is almost impenetrable and blocks out most of the sun light. This means that species that can normally only be found at much greater depths are found close to the surface.

The main example of this is black coral which is typically only found well beyond recreational diving depths. Here it starts appearing from depths as shallow as 10 meters. The name black coral is bit of a misnomer. The coral is actually white when it is still alive, it only becomes white when it dies.

The fish life around the observatory was also very rich for temperate waters. In addition we saw several smaller sharks passing by. We all enjoyed this part of the tour quite a bit. And as for myself I’m quite keen to go back to Milford Sound one day and do some actual diving in the area!

After a while the next cruise boat was passing by the observatory and it was time for us to move on. We hopped on to the new boat to finish our tour of the fjord. We passed near a few more impressive waterfalls but all too soon we were back at the boat terminal.

It was still raining a little bit when we got back to the shore so instead of doing any of the short walks in the area we decided to hop in the car and start the drive back.

Our first stop was the Chasm only a short drive away from Miford Sound itself. The Chasm is a series of small waterfalls and holes carved in the rock by the river. Pretty impressive sight, especially on a rainy day. At the Chasm car park we also had a close encounter with the native alpine parrots, Keas. These very curious and intelligent birds are very friendly and seemingly not afraid of humans at all. They also love to steal food and other things. In our case this included our car’s radio antenna and Jacinta’s jacket! Luckily both of them proved much for the birds.

Our next stop was Lake Marion Falls shortly after passing through the Homer Tunnel. The Falls can be reached by a short walk from a side road and are located in a beautiful patch of temperate rainforest. The walk there was quite nice and the falls themselves are pretty enough.

We had few other stops along the way too, including the Mirror Lakes. On a calm day these small lakes display a perfect reflection of the surrounding mountains. Sadly the rain was picking up again so the reflection we got was quite blurry.

After an excellent (if little bit wet) day exploring Milford Sound and the Milford Road we finished off the day in Te Anau.

Wanaka and Queenstown

July 24th, 2013

After Haast Pass we entered a totally different landscape. The West Coast on the other side of the mountains receives massive rainfall but

The weather changed completely too. The constant drizzle was replaced by sunny skies, a perfect weather to enjoy the awesome scenery. The road is nestled between two large beautiful lakes, Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. And the mountains in the distance make the scenery even prettier.

After quite a few photography stops along the way we finally arrived in Wanaka itself. We still had some driving left to do until our overnight stop in Queenstown, but we still decided to stop there for a while for some shots of the sun setting over the lake. Unfortunately we weren’t really getting much color in the sky so it was time move on again.

We had hoped to take straight road to Queenstown over some small mountains and get enjoy the last moments of sunlight from higher up. Unfortunately shortly after leaving Wanaka we found the road blocked. There had been an accident further ahead. We had to turn back and take the longer way around. Not very scenic but is was starting to get quite dark anyway.

Eventually we arrived in the Queenstown itself. Queenstown was a big contrast to all the other towns we had passed along the way from Christchurch. Based on population alone Queenstown is a fairly small town but this is more than made up by the fact that it is also the center of adventure tourism in New Zealand. The place is full of hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues. The location is pretty perfect too, as the town is situated between mountains on one side and the picturesque Lake Wakatipu on the other side.

We haven’t planned to do any major adventure activities during the trip, so there was little for us to do in Queenstown itself. After a good night’s rest we spent some time strolling along the Lake Wakatipu shoreline and finished the walk at Queenstown Gardens. These pretty gardens surrounded by the lake are pretty enough on their own and they also have great views of both the lake and Queenstown itself. With only a few flowers in bloom in winter it wasn’t really the best time to visit, but it was still a pleasant experience.

After some quick souvenir shopping it was time move on. We followed the Lake Wakatipu shoreline towards the small settlement of Glenorchy. This area is the starting point of the famous Routeburn Track walk but apart from that and the other hikes there’s little to do in the area. The windy road itself is one of the prettiest drives in New Zealand though and well-worth the time spent. There are several nice short walks in the area and the views over the lake and the mountains beyond are quite majestic.

After lots of photos and a quick stop in Glenorchy itself it was time to head back to Queenstown and then onwards toward our stop for the next night, Te Anau. After Queenstown the first section of the road follows Lake Wakatipu shoreline and offers more superb views of the lake and the mountains.

Eventually we passed the small settlement of Kingston at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu. Unfortunately after Kingston the scenery gets rather boring as the road enters a large area of rolling hills with paddocks and farms. There’s little worth stopping for until Te Anau itself and the awesome sights of Fjordland.

West Coast and the Glaciers

July 23rd, 2013

We stopped for the night at Springfield, the last town before the Southern Alps. The Alps split the South Island in two and can only be crossed through a few passes. From Springfield the windy road continues to Arthur’s Pass before starting the plunge down towards the isolated West Coast.

Unfortunately our luck with the weather had ran out at this point. The day was really cloudy and it was raining almost constantly. And to make matters even worse it was really foggy too making any landscape photos more or less impossible. We still had a couple of quick stops along the way but with the weather so miserable we didn’t bother much with sightseeing. There are some rather impressive waterfalls right next to the road after Arthur’s Pass. But they are lot less impressive when you can barely see them through the thick fog.

Things didn’t really improve on the West Coast either. To be fair that wasn’nt really surprising, as West Coast is well-known for the its massive rainfall. We did have a rather lengthy stop in Hokitika though. Hokitika is the center of the jade industry in New Zealand and contains numerous jade studios and various art galleries. While not really my cup of tea it was still a decent way to spend a rainy afternoon.

As weather didn’t really improve much after Hokitika we just kept driving towards our destination for the night, the Franz Josef Glacier. Luckily rain had finally stopped by then and as we had some daylight left we decided to do the short walk to the glacier edge. Only guided tours are allowed on the glacier itself, but you can still get reasonably close to the glacier after a reasonably walk. Franz Josef Glacier and the nearby Fox Glacier are one of the few glaciers right next to a (temperate) rainforest.

It was pleasant enough walk through the glacial valley and the glacier itself is an interesting enough sight. The glacially-formed valley floor is also quite interesting and along the edges there are several smaller waterfalls. And to make things even better we also got treated to a rather nice sunset on the way back.

After the hike to the glacier edge it was time to catch some dinner and then we headed to our hostel for the night. As a nice bonus our hostel had a sauna. Obviously just an electric one at a rather low temperature, but it’s still better than nothing; especially after a damp day.

Luckily weather had improved a little bit by the next morning. We decided to skip the walk to Fox Glacier and instead visit the nearby Lake Matheson. This lake is well-known for its picture-perfect reflections of the nearby mountains and a very popular subject of postcard photos. On a cloudy day like this it was not quite as impressive sight but still very pretty. Eija and I also had a quick swim in the lake after we finally found a way to get to the actual water edge. By then it had started raining again and the water was rather cool to begin with, so this was another refreshing experience.

By the time we got back to the car things were getting quite damp for everyone. In any case it was time to move on and leave the glacier towns behind us. Luckily the rain didn’t last so we did have a few other quick stops along the coast, including the wild Monro Beach and the pretty Knight Point.

Then it was time to head to Haast, our last stop before crossing the Southern Alps again. But before Haast we had to cross Haast River and the longest one-lane bridge in New Zealand. South Island is full of one-lane bridges but at 737 meters the Haast Bridge is in the league of its own.

Haast itself has little to do or see, but along the way through the Haast Pass there are several nice stops. We did several short bushwalks and visited a couple of nice waterfalls. Of particular interest were the Blue Pools, a series of deep pools with crystal clear water. The azure blue water comes from glaciers and you can easily see all the way to the bottom.