The Southland Scenic Route Monkey Island to Clifden Suspension Bridge

The Southland Scenic Route consists of 600 km of road running from Queenstown to Dunedin. How did we not know about this spectacular journey before? It’s superb. By the time we leave the deep south, in a couple of week’s time, we’ll have almost completed the whole route. Not from point A to point B mind you, but in a rather convoluted way!

The Southern Scenic Route is in the dark purple

This post shares Monkey Island’s delights (just past Colac Bay), Orepuki and Clifton Suspension Bridge (just north of Tuatapere). We stayed in these areas from Friday 12th to Thursday 18th March, just under three weeks ago.

An Interesting Meeting

Barry had been recommended to get to Monkey Island early in order to get a spot at the free campground. My work calls were finished for the week, so we were anticipating a relaxing weekend once I’d completed the actions from the calls. Not long after arriving, another campervan parked up alongside. I was busily tapping away at the keyboard when the gentleman from the van came to the open back door for a chat.

David and Alison, from near Waiotomo, were travelling in a rental camper for ten days. They told us about a walk on The South Coast Track they’d recently been on to. They stayed at a place called Port Craig. Alison had done research on Industrial Archeology in the area, and they chose this particular track especially for this. Barry’s ears pricked up. David regaled tales of historic viaducts, and an old sawmilling village that was supposed to be extremely productive over a period of 50 years, but didn’t quite work out that way and lasted only 12 (more to come in the next post!). I just knew he and Barry would get on famously. They made the walk sound extremely doable, and infinitely interesting. So much so that I even persuaded Barry we could do it. After all we had all the gear now. It would just be a case of getting DOC hut passes and more dehydrated food.

Alison and David didn’t do the whole track, nor did they walk it with the Humpridge Track Ltd community-led organisation. There are all sorts of packages you can do with them, ranging from a ‘freedom walk’ to guided walks and prime package walks – or walk/jet boat combos. The price reflects the package obviously, but all walkers get bedding and hot porridge in the morning. However, there’s also DOC Huts available, for NZ$15 per person per night. Which is where David and Alison stayed.

We learnt that Alison and David had met each other when she went to Vanuatu at 18 on a Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) project! Alison is originally from Harrow on the outskirts of London. Her dear departed dad was cremated near Lichfield, where he lived, at the crematorium on Tamworth Road I know very well. They told us they’d been on canal boat years ago, on the Rochdale Canal. But as it was a hire boat with only four days, and that waterway is notorious for hold-ups due to low water levels and rubbish around the prop, they had no time to get to summit. So they walked up. They described the parallel universe of being on a narrowboat – one minute you’re in the country, the next minute in a town. They obviously loved the experience.

Exploring Monkey Island

After working all morning, I went for a walk along the sweeping beach with breathtakingly high cliffs. The inscribed names among these were at once annoying that someone could desecrate nature in such a way – and alternatively amazing that people could get up so high and risk their lives! Barry has a super shot in his slideshow at the end of ‘Harry’. He must’ve had the surname Houdini!

The sea here at Te Waewae Bay looked divine, and on such a hot day I was almost tempted to head in for a swim.

Monkey Island is actually named after a winch, not a real monkey 😂. A ‘monkey winch’ was used to haul boats ashore and it’s presumed that’s the reason it’s called Monkey Island. It’s known by Ngai Tahu (the local Māori tribe) as Te Puka o Takitimu, or the anchor stone of the legendary Takitimu waka (canoe) that was wrecked in the bay. At low tide, you can walk up onto the Island to the lookout.

It’s another splendid freedom camping spot. We loved our time here and were even blessed by a sublime sunset that Barry took full advantage of capturing.

The campground had fabulous, clean, flushing toilets with LED lighting. The photographic murals adorning the exterior were gorgeous. Little did we know we’d soon be getting acquainted with the talented photographer in Orepuki.

Treasures At Gemstone Beach

I’d first read about Gemstone Beach in the Riverton Heritage Trail leaflet, which you can download as a pdf. It stated that it was half a kilometre from Orepuki and “A few hours beachcombing could easily yield gems such as hydrogrossular, jasper, fossil worm casts and the elusive sapphire.” That sounded like a another MUST-DO for me!

We left Monkey Island on Saturday 13th March, heading for Gemstone Beach initially. However, we stopped briefly at Orepuki Tavern en route, to enquire about their overnight rates. The lovely landlady gave me some tips on which ‘gems’ to look for and where. She showed me examples of gemstones she’d collected. The opaque one, especially she said, was one to look out for. I took a photo of her photo of a polished rock chart – but it wasn’t terribly clear! When you find them, they’re already polished, she said, due to the waves’ tumbling action. She also said not to worry about taking some as there were plenty – they’re not going to run out.

So off we set, parked up in the small car park at Gemstone Beach, and took a couple of bags.

Oh. My. Goodness. It was like a gemstone lover’s paradise! Even Barry got into the spirit of searching and scooping. The tide was coming in, and several times, the raging ocean waves almost took me away. Never turn your back on the sea, they say, especially here! I just managed to keep hold of my jandals a couple of times. I eventually realised it was hopeless to stay so low, and the Tasman Sea wanted a far wider berth, or it would be swallowing me up whole. Not even a sapphire was worth that sacrifice!

I think I spent about three hours walking along ecstatically, picking what I thought could be precious stones from the shore. The stones originate from the nearby Waiau River and find their way to Gemstone Beach. Apparently, some days there’s only sand, others it’s chock-full of stones.

Thank goodness we got the latter!

Awesome Orepuki

After Gemstone Beach Barry wanted to head further along the road to McCracken’s Rest while the weather was fine, to get shots of views to Waewae Bay and the tiny one million-year-old Solander Islands.

It’s said that on a clear day you can also get views of Sand Hill Point, the Hump Ridge, Pahia Point and Stewart Island – you may even catch a glimpse of New Zealand’s largest pod of Hector’s Dolphins. We didn’t that day – but we did a few days later.

An Oustanding Stay At Orepuki Tavern

After McCracken’s Rest, we backtracked for an overnight stay at Orepuki Tavern. For NZ$20 a night, we got a pleasant camping place and two free drinks to entice us into the bar. I was desperate for a long hot shower and hair wash. Beforehand I gave my hair a much-needed trim. Most of the time, it’s scraped back in a ponytail or with a hairband. I’m really not fussed about paying an extortionate amount for a hairdresser to cut it. I got a shock and screamed when the hot water ran out before I had a chance to rinse my body never mind my hair. So had no choice but to get out, naked, and rinse me and my hair under the tap in the room. Luckily the water was warm – and I’d locked the door! I wasn’t going to pay another $4 for another five minutes – and didn’t have any more $2 coins with me anyway.

We also used their launderette to wash and dry our clothes and bedding. Little luxuries land-lubbers take for granted.

Alistair and Gayleen are the Landlords at the Tavern. We had such a great night. While I was messing about with the washing, Barry went into the bar. Gayleen introduced him to a table of locals and when I arrived he was in the thick of it, watching the America’s Cup race on the TV with them. Colin is considered a local, though he hails from Hull originally and lived mostly in Invercargill with his NZ born wife and sons. For many years they’d gone from NZ to the UK, missing the winter in either country. Sadly his wife died a few years ago before their grandchildren were born which is sad. They’d bought a house in Tuatapere years ago, as a holiday home, but loved it so much they moved there to live. There was Sam (which is an acronym for something we can’t recall – sit and manage?). And Possum, jokingly we think referred to as the local mayor. Jokes about dates via Tinder wrought hilarity that Sam took on the cheek. The local shearers had just finished and were celebrating. The place was packed full of colourful, friendly characters.

We discovered Colin is a keen and talented landscape photographer, and was responsible for the spectacular photos on the toilets at Monkey Island.

When I walked over to the information board to read about what was going on, I got chatted up by a tall bearded local. Must’ve been the haircut, hair wash, and my new colourful top from the OpShop in Invercargill! We’d be bumping into him again a few days later …

The Tavern even had parking for horses! It reminded me of some of the places up the East Coast of the North Island:

A Wander Around Orepuki

On Sunday morning, we enjoyed a short walk around Orepuki. It’s not a big place. We spotted chilling Colin on the front veranda of his home and stopped a while to chat. He recommended Barry walked along the road to see the row of weather-beaten macrocarpa trees – you’ll find his images of these amazing trees in his slideshow

In My Element For One More Hour – In Search Of More Gems

After our walk, I was overjoyed we could fit in another hour at the compelling Gemstone Beach on the way to our next campground. Such bliss! I’d been attempting to researching what stones I’d collected.

I think amongst my collection may be:- Brecciated Jasper, Citrine Quartz, Clear Quartz, White Quartz, Yellow Quartz, Crystalline quartz, Dalmatian Stone, Green Aventurine, Snowflake Obsidian, Ruby in Zoisite, Unakite, White Moonstone, Orbicular jasper with metallic hematite, red and green jaspers in a dark-green sandstone, grossular garnets, Granites in a variety of colour mixtures of large crystals of clear greyish quartz, pink, cream or white feldspar and shining mica, garnets in shades of green and gold, nephrite jade, mineral silica, green garnets. https://rocktumbler.com/polished-stones-identification.pdf. Are there any gemstone experts out there who can identify them? I suspect the chances are I’ve just got a lot of rather pretty polished stones:

Most New Zealanders think greenstone is always bright green, but the cabochons show that nephrite comes in many colours, and while top-quality nephrite lets the light shine through it, other equally lovely stones may be opaque.”

Stones of “gem quality” are free of flaws, they have good colour and transparency (where applicable) and are large enough to be cut and worn effectively. But even in the world’s major gem fields the number of top-quality stones is limited, and poor stones are most often found. Gemstones are members of widespread mineral families, most of which are very ordinary in appearance and never considered jewels.

It takes practice to recognise good-quality stones. Beginners often take home material which will never polish well, with pits, holes and cracks or stones that are just too open in texture or soft. Such stones may be kept for their sentimental value or discarded later when the collector becomes a more experienced lapidary. However, many people collect rocks because they enjoy their colour and pattern and feel no desire to turn them into polished stones.” Peter Thornton – http://www.peterthornton.com/files/nzgemstones.pdf

It’s highly likely I’m the latter!

Clifden Suspension Bridge

Our next amazing free campground was at Clifden Suspension Bridge. Here we found more marvellous flushing toilets like Monkey Island – and highly suspect Colin was the photographer of these also.

Clifden Suspension Bridge free camping ground March 2021

The campground was right next to the suspension bridge, which is now a no-through road so it was fabulously peaceful to sit and do more work. There was a field of sunflowers at the side of the road. Another gorgeous place.

We even had rather interesting and interested cattle and sheep visiting intermittently! Barry captured them brilliantly on camera. The Suspension Bridge crosses the fast-flowing Waiau River, which is where the stones from Gemstone Beach originate. For even more links to future posts, the nearby Manapouri Power Scheme is said to have caused changes to Gemstone Beach’s treasures as the river flow changes depending on the season. It’s rather complex. I don’t understand it myself, so there’s no way I’d try and simplify it for you! Have a read if you’re interested – https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/manapouri-damning-the-dam/

We stayed at Clifden for four nights from 14th to 18th March, apart from popping back to Tuatapere for groceries and DOC Hut Passes so that I could be up to date with work. We were preparing to walk some of the Humpridge Track after hearing how amazing it was from David and Alsion. We’ll reveal more about the ups and downs (many of them literally and metaphorically!) in the next blog post.

Barry’s Slideshow

As usual, click on the first image to start Barry’s super slideshow. The merino sheep are superb!

5 thoughts on “The Southland Scenic Route Monkey Island to Clifden Suspension Bridge

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