Excursion Down Under- part X
Monday, April 7, 2014- Dunedin, New Zealand
The Dawn Princess sailed south overnight, passing between the breakwater and the Tabora Headland and on into Otago harbor. We motored up the 20-mile long Otago fjord and docked at Port Chalmers.
The area is known for both its 19th century Victorian architecture and its Scottish heritage. It is also the last point of civilization before entering the chilly Antarctic waters and the frozen wastes of Antarctica enroute to the South Pole. Several Antarctic expeditions of note had launched from Dunedin in their exploration of the South Pole.
We were up by 6 A.M, breakfasted and met with our group at 7 A.M. We were taking the Taieri Gorge Railway, up some 40 miles to Middlemarch, high in the Taieri gorge of the Southern Alps. Our bus took us to nearby Dunedin, where we boarded a quaint, narrow-gauge railway for our coach ride, up along the eroded gorge.
The Dunedin train station is a 19th century beauty. A gold rush hereabouts in the 1860’s had attracted people and commerce to the area. The rail line had been constructed to haul ore and farm products from the highlands far above sea level.
The line was to be discontinued in the 1960’s. A private trust took over the maintenance of the train and its tracks. Volunteers now service the passengers, along with a few paid railroad men to run the engines. The coaches are attractive and seem of another era when things moved more slowly.
We were seated across a table from two very pleasant and knowledgeable Australians, Ann Dixon, a retired Librarian from the Melbourne area and her daughter Catherine Williams, an elementary teacher from Queensland in the far north of Australia. They were to make the day pass pleasantly for us. We traded anecdotes and impressions with them about our respective countries. It is one of the great pleasures of travel to meet interesting people from far places and trade impressions and ideas with them. By day’s end, they were fast friends.
The narrow train chugged up steep ravines, bordered with gorse-covered hillsides. Hereford cattle, merino sheep and even a few bands of graceful horses stood munching in the far meadows of the farmland we passed though. The train track spanned several gorges across swift running streams, like the Deep & Wingatui Rivers and Flat Creek. The drop to the ravine’s floor was often 200 feet below us, allowing for scenic vistas of eroded glacial water chutes that drained the high mountains all around us.
Sheep are in every pasture all along our way. They seem both placid and picturesque as they munch contentedly in their wooly splendor on the steep hillsides. The rock outcroppings here, so far above sea level, also capture the imaginations. It is a stark and brutal place in the winter for the snow stays long in the upper valleys.
Two thirds of the way up to Middlemarch, lies the small station of Pukerangi. The high and flat mesa (800 ft. above sea level) here was called the "Hill of Heaven" by the Maori.The train stopped here so we could peruse the wares of several Maori vendors set up along the tracks with tables of their native crafts. Woolen products, jewelry and other bric a brac were for sale. The air around us was cool, in the 50’s (F) and fresh with the smell of damp earth and fragrant heather.
Pukerangi was the extent of our trip today. We re-boarded the train for the two-hour run back through the gorge to Dunedin. The steep ravines, scenic via ducts and small tunnels along the way entertained the eyes and senses as they had on the way up. Lunch was served by docents and was pretty pleasant, including both wine and coffee. We chatted with Ann and Catherine. It was a pleasant day for us.
At Dunedin, we boarded a bus for the ride back to Port Chalmers and our ship. There, Mary and I stopped for some pretty good cappucino at the Café Royale. A visit to the small Port Chalmers library allowed us to catch up on our Internet correspondence. A small “bottle store” nearby surrendered a pint of vodka for smuggling onto the ship. The owner obviously had been through this procedure many times. She advised us that the plastic bottle and cap wouldn’t show up on the ship’s security scanners. She was rtight, too, bless her heart !
Back aboard, we chilled out with newly acquired and smuggled spirits and wrote up our notes. My grandfather, a whiskey smuggler of note along the Canadian/U.S. border would have been proud.
The Venetian Dining room again entertained us. Crab meat appetizers, a Greek salad, poached salmon with a chocolate gateau, good coffee and a decent cabernet topped off the meal and a long day. Life is good.
We repaired to our room to read and retire. The Tasman Sea was acting up tonight. Nine-foot waves were making the ship roll like a hog in a wallow.