Our first stop after leaving Auckland was to be Whakatāne on the south end of the Bay of Plenty, and we decided on the scenic route going around the Coromandel peninsular. This was a beautiful drive, but somewhat longer and more tiring that we'd planned, with its never-ending narrow, winding roads.
By the time we reached Whitianga we were desperate for a coffee and a break. That's when we learned that in New Zealand, despite its excellent coffee culture, it's impossible to get a coffee in mid-afternoon—nowhere is open! We went from cafe, to pub, to restaurant in Whitianga without success. So in the end we sat beside the beach, swigged our warm water, snacked on nuts and enjoyed watching the ferry cross the inlet and back.
These photos were taken from the Bluebridge car ferry as we departed Wellington for Picton. The much smaller passenger ferries depart from Queen's Wharf in Wellington, and link to Matiu/Somes Island, and to Days Bay and Seatoun at different points on the mainland.
There is lots of scope here for days trips—we viewed the bay in beautiful sunshine. But we were also there while the wind was so strong we could barely stand, and would not have wanted to be at sea in these small vessels in those conditions. It's known as "Windy Welly" with good reason!
The road from Manapouri to Bluff took us past the Clifden Suspension Bridge, and as I’d lived in Bristol for three years, within walking distance of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, I felt we had to make the stop and take a look, even though it was torrential rain at the time. The bridge is notable as an early example of using drawn-steel cables, as opposed to the rigid wrought iron links in Brunel’s Clifton bridge, built 35 years earlier.
The bridge opened in 1899. Before that there was a simple cable ferry, but the Waiau river then was very powerful (before the flow was reduced by the hydroelectric development on Lake Manapouri), and the ferry was not suitable for supporting the influx of settlers into the region.
We were able to walk across the bridge (you can no longer drive) and look at the modern road bridge just downstream. Information panels show the history and include photos of the ferry.
Just keep driving south - you can't miss it! When you get to Bluff you feel like you've got to the end of the earth. The town is on the sheltered side of what seems like an island, and is barely joined to the rest of the South Island by a narrow isthmus. The general feel of the place is windswept and a little down-at-heel as if it's just a bit to far away to care about. But drive up to the top of Bluff Hill on a nice day and the 360° views are amazing. Look southwest and Stewart Island looks so close and inviting.
We left our B&B and drove along the last little bit of SH1 heading to the end of the road at Stirling Point. The Stewart Island Ferry departed as we drove past and we expected to beat it to the point, but that is one fast ferry, and by the time we got there it was almost out of sight. The ferry connects to the town of Oban, and from there you can enjoy lots of nature on Stewart Island. It was so, so tempting, but we had to turn around at some point and head back north with a whole lot more of New Zealand still to explore. So Stewart Island will have to wait "till next time".