As we drove up the Southern Scenic Tourist route's final leg, to Te Anau, the clouds lifted and the sun lit up the surrounding mountains. This was the first sun we'd seen in days. The rest of our trip from Christchurch to Dunedin and on to Invercargill has been wet, cold and made us doubt the existence of summer this far south. We've stood, rain-lashed on the South Island's most southerly point and could visualise the air blowing straight off the Antarctic ice and through our clothes. The animals either don't mind, or have got used to it: the ubiquitous lambs and calves have never been too far away, and we've also managed to get pretty close to some less usual wildlife, yellow eyed penguins; nesting pied shags with their chicks as well as a colony of NZ Fur seals. Watching from a Department of Conservation approved hiding area, it was harrowing to wait for the penguins' return after a day catching food for the young – a stoat had found and emptied a couple of nests while the parents were absent. There was nothing we could do from our vantage point but hope for the swift return of some of the penguins. We saw one arrive and waddle up the beach, pausing to stretch and dry out in the wind – he seemed to pose for the gathered crowd. Being so close and seeing the world's rarest penguins in the wild was an awe inspiring experience, this penguin's fragile existence only underlined by the presence of the predators that man unleashed.
The penguin wasn't the only endangered animal we've seen. Not far from Christchurch, an extinct, collapsed and now flooded volcano cone forms the harbour for the small and surprisingly French town of Akaroa. It's the site of the attempted French settlement of South Island – this failed when they were 4 days slower than the English frigate that raced them from the North Island – but more pertinently it is the current feeding ground for the smallest and rarest of the world's marine dolphins, the Hectors. The boat tour of the harbour took us up close to these extremely cute animals.
The area's natural wonders were unconcerned by the elements – the smooth rock orbs of the Moeraki boulders are still lying where they fell when the cliffs around them eroded away and the fossilised remains of an ancient forest still lies in the same rock it did 180 million years ago. The long gone trees have left embedded in the rock wood grain so perfectly detailed that you need to touch it to be convinced it isn't wood. It really isn't hard to imagine the stumps and logs being trees in a great forest.
We've left the coast behind us and headed into the Fiordland, an area of mountains and lakes. Tomorrow we will visit the famous Milford Sound (named after Milford Haven in Wales, but with a reputation for being much more beautiful!), to fully appreciate the area we're booked on an overnight tour and will sleep aboard the sight-seeing sailing ship. From there, the west coast will be our playground.