Our touring today is one which takes us into the very remotest of Southland’s scenic splendours. We start by heading west from Invercargill to the very first establishment of the European settlements at Aparima/Riverton. Here Capt. Jackie Howell in 1836 established his shore-based, permanent whaling station, married into the local Maori community and became an extensive pastoralist, businessman and patriarch – he did father 17 children, after all!
When I visited the Te Hikoi Museum here a year or so ago, I was absolutely blown away at the quality of the exhibits and the manner of telling the stories of the region. This museum is simply brilliant – personal narratives, brilliant recreations, genuine artefacts and extensive coverage of so many aspects of Southland’s history, told through exhibits, film, photos and audio visual.
And all about are the reminders of Riverton’s past life as a whaling port and agricultural base for the Province. As a centre for Maori settlement in pre-European times there are frequent reminders of its importance to Ngai Tahu – the islands in Foveaux Strait, the names recalling their heritage and sites of significance – Omaui, Awarua, Ruapuke Island, Te Waewae Bay and others.
You’ll be impressed with the quality of the homes that extend around the coastline fringing Oreti Beach, along the road to Howells Point, now popular as a retirement location for the Seniors of Southland! The area is deservedly popular for the seascape views, fishing and shellfish collecting. Retirement can be tough in Southland!
As we head west towards the far distant Fiordland Mountains we pass Roundhill, once a thriving Chinese gold mining centre (the largest settlement of Chinese in New Zealand in the 1880s) and the southernmost settlement of Chinese in the world. If we get out of the Te Hikoi Museum in time, we might be able to do a short side trip to have a look at the remnants there. We’ll stop for lunch at Orepuki where local initiative has seen the restoration of an old house into a warm and welcoming cafe with a deserved reputation for quality food. So good, in fact, that in 2018 it won the New Zealand Cafe of The Year title! If it’s that good, we have to stop there.
There are intriguing stories of the area around Orepuki – how it was once named after an assassinated American President, the site of New Zealand’s only platinum mine, the semi-precious gemstones on the beach. We’ll hear more when we get there!
Te Waewae Bay, best viewed from McCracken’s Lookout, is an important site to Maori, regarded as the landing place of the Takitimu canoe that gives its name to the impressive ranges further inland. For me it has a special memory as the launching place for friends and kayakers, Paul Caffyn and Max Reynolds, who we pushed off from here to become the first people to kayak around the coastline of Fiordland in 1978/79. Paul later paddled the entire shoreline of New Zealand. And then again, in 2019, Linda and I walked along the western end of Te Waewae Bay on the final day of the Hump Ridge Track walk. It was a long finish to a long walk, but relieved by the easy beach walking and the prospect of a hot shower and a cold beer at the end.
Then it’s inland from here to Tuatapere, where we spent a fortnight in our caravan back in February 2019. Loved the area, the sights, the encounters with nature, wildlife and the people – sometimes all three-in-one!
The most exciting off-the-beaten track exploration we made was into Lake Hauroko. I first went in there in 1979 when the road was rougher than the proverbial goat track, but now it is a decent, though partially unsealed, drive in. Lake Hauroko is New Zealand’s deepest lake. For many years it was thought to be Lake Manapouri but surveying in the 1980s revealed even greater depths in Hauroko.
However, it is the discovery of a Maori woman buried in a cave on Mary Island, the largest of two in the lake, that most interests me. She may have been placed there up to 300 years before and I’m excited to hear that local jet boat operators, Johann and Joyce, will be taking us past the site and telling us the story of the woman in the cave. For many New Zealanders it is a little-known but important aspect of our cultural history.
Hauroko is surrounded by stunning mountains – we are, after all, in the midst of the Fiordland mountains – and clothed in the lush rainforest vegetation of the area it is a dramatic and impressive landscape. Our jet boat trip will take us around parts of the lake so we can see and hear the stories of the area. Now, all we have to do is pray for good weather!
Back out to the main road and over the Clifton Suspension bridge, a much photographed and iconic symbol of the area. And also the location of a number of sightings of the waitoreke – the fabled New Zealand otter that supposedly inhabits the region. Maybe, just maybe, we may be the ones who get the definitive photo that settles the controversy!
Further north along the road to Te Anau is Lake Monowai but we may not have time to visit there. It is the site of one of New Zealand’s earliest HEP schemes and has an interesting tale, particularly in regard to its influence on the "Save Manapouri Campaign" in the 1970s. We’ll certainly be talking about it even if we don’t get to visit it.