Kiwis, glaciers and a mountain parrot

We’re heading south where tomorrow we’re booked in for what promises to be one on the highlights of our visit to New Zealand, a trip to see the endangered Fiordland penguin. But on the way we’re stopping off at the Franz Josef Glacier, before finding out more about conservation of another threatened local bird, the iconic kiwi.

Like glaciers throughout the world Franz Josef is retreating, but it’s unusual in that its snout is just 300 metres above sea level. It’s 12 kilometres long, and makes its way westward towards the sea from the Southern Alps. Flowing from the snout of the Franz Josef Glacier is the Waiho River.

The young and intrepid can walk from the car park up to the glacier snout relatively easily. However Mrs P and I are neither young nor intrepid, so we content ourselves with what we can see from the car park.

And the view is pretty good as views of glaciers go, although I’d say it’s more majestic than beautiful. But it’s probably something we should savour as, thanks to climate change, the Frans Josef Glacier won’t be around for much longer.

Something else to be savoured is the Mountain Parrot, or kea, that drops in to say hi as I’m locking up the car. Luckily I have my camera slung around my neck and start videoing him as soon as he lands on the car roof, while Mrs P photographs both of us.

Kea are typical parrots in that they are long-lived, inquisitive and intelligent. But their hobby is untypical of just about any birds anywhere: they love trashing cars. Many a tourist has left his car to nip into a café for a swift mocha, or maybe a cappuccino and a slab of chocolate cake, only to find on his return that he’s missing a windscreen wiper, his aerial or a hub cap.

Kea are notorious thieves, and will steal just about any part of your car if they think they can get away with it. On this occasion however my new friend seems more interested in a career as a photo model than as a petty thief, which is fortunate as I suspect my rental car insurance policy does not cover vandalism by a parrot.

Having seen the glacier and avoided a malicious parrot attack, we head into the little town of Franz Josef. The place is dominated by the mountains that surround it, and although the tops are wreathed in clouds, the lower slopes are clearly visible and looking spectacular after the recent snowfall.

But we’re not here for the scenery. Instead we’ve come to visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre. There’s an enormous fibre glass kiwi and chick outside, which is a clue to what goes on here.

We’ve already been to one kiwi conservation centre, in Hokitika, where we were able to see a couple of the birds running around in a specially designed captive viewing area, and to learn a bit about the pressures facing them in their natural environment. The Franz Josef facility offers a similar opportunity for visitors, but more importantly it helps raise kiwi chicks in secure surroundings before the youngsters are released back into the wild.

For an additional fee, which we’re happy to pay, we get a “backstage pass” and get to meet one of the people who helps raise the kiwi chicks. She explains that in the wild kiwi eggs and young chicks are threatened by predatory stoats.

In an attempt to prevent this iconic New Zealand bird from becoming extinct, scientists collect eggs from wild kiwi and place them in incubators at the Centre until they hatch. After the hatchlings have grown a bit they are moved to another secure location where they start to mature. When the kiwi has put on a bit of weight it’s able to defend itself from stoat attacks, and at this point it can be returned to the wild.

It’s an ambitious project that is having some success. We are thrilled to see three young kiwi. Each is bathed in a pool of soothing red light in its own incubator, snoozing peacefully, though if I’m honest they look like nothing more than inert balls of fluff. But it’s the thought that counts, and we’re glad we’ve seen them and learned about the effort being made to protect them.

Our views of the adult kiwi were limited due to the low light conditions in which they are housed, and for the same reason we were not able to take photos of these older birds. The stuffed adult and juvenile kiwi on show at this Centre give us a sense of what the living, breathing bird must be like, but it’s a poor substitute for the real thing.

We’d love to see a kiwi in the wild but they’re incredibly difficult to find, being shy, nocturnal and very rare. But in a few days we’ve booked an after dark session with an expert naturalist who will hopefully be able to make our dreams come true. Watch this space!

Good weather for ducks

It’s been a foul day. We’re staying at Okarito and were meant to be taking a boat trip out into the adjacent lagoon in search of the Great White Heron and other speciality birds. It should have been a great trip, plenty to see, loads of great stuff to photograph and write about.

But it’s been raining torrentially for 36 hours, it’s perishingly cold and the visibility is rotten. Venturing out on to the lagoon in an open top boat in these conditions would have been madness, so we chickened out. Call us wimps if you wish but we are, at least, toasty warm wimps.

Peering over the fence towards the “village green” at the start of the deluge

Thankfully the cottage in which we’re staying is luxurious, and has a good internet connection which has allowed us to listen all day to Classic FM. No, we didn’t come to New Zealand with the intention of listening to British radio, but at times like this one hankers after a few home comforts.

And good food, too. Luckily part of the deal for this place is that a lady from one of the nearby cottages cooks us slap-up meals every few hours, so at least we’re being well fed.

A few hours later as Lake Superior begins to emerge

As the day passes we glance outside and gauge the impact of the deluge. Directly outside the window is a large open space – a bit like an English village green – and as the rain has bucketed down it has become waterlogged. Puddles are growing larger and larger, and threaten to merge into New Zealand’s very own Lake Superior.

A couple of intrepid Paradise Shelducks are untroubled by this deluge of biblical proportions, and have taken a liking to the lake that grows hour by hour outside our cottage. It is, as they say, good weather for ducks

Paradise Shelduck and emerging lake

The Paradise Shelducks are in their element, but we’re not. As Mrs P and I reflect on the disappointment of this morning’s abandoned birdwatching trip the only words to describe our experience are “paradise lost.”

A gorgeous gorge and a screaming kiwi

Sometimes you look at a photograph and think to yourself no, that can’t be right, someone’s photoshopped it.  You’d be forgiven for thinking that about Hokitika Gorge.  Published photos of this place seem so impossibly blue, framed by cold grey rocks and surrounded by the lush green native bush.  But when we get there Mrs P and I can see there’s nothing fake about it. This place is the real deal.

Access to the waters of the Hokitika River is via a series of paths and boardwalks through the forest, which open out onto a swing bridge across the river.  The swing bridge offers excellent views of the blue-green waters of the Hokitika River as it cuts a path through the gorge.

We continue on beyond the bridge for a few hundred metres, and the path leads to a jumble of riverside rocks over which dozens of eager tourists are scrambling, all anxious to get the perfect photo.  I confess that we did the same, but this really is one place on our travels that we need to record for posterity.

Why is the water such an amazing shade of turquoise? Apparently it’s caused by something called ‘rock flour’ which is rock that has been ground down by glaciers high in the mountains and is so fine that instead of settling to the bottom of the river it remains suspended in the water.  This phenomenon isn’t unique to Hokitika, or even to New Zealand, but it’s absolutely stunning and well worth a visit. On this occasion the photographs don’t lie.

*

From the gorge we make our way to the National Kiwi Centre in Hokitika town.  The kiwi is New Zealand’s national bird. We’d love to see one in the wild but they’re nocturnal, shy and very rare, so as an insurance policy we’re visiting the Centre where they have some captive birds in a custom-built replica of their natural environment. 

There are no windows, and they turn the lights on at night and off during the day to enable daytime visitors like us to see the kiwi as they dash around their enclosure in near total darkness.  Of course, it’s rather difficult to see them because it’s so bloody dark in there, and we’re quite rightly not allowed to take photos because the flash would traumatise the birds.

Nevertheless, we can make out through the gloom that these are large, stocky birds with improbably long beaks.  Although we struggle to see them there’s no missing the noise they make, as one of them is given to screaming at the top of his voice, and at such a high pitch that it would probably shatter the glass if this place had any windows. 

The Centre is a learning resource that seeks to ensure locals and visitors alike get to know more about kiwis.  Amongst other things, we learn how it came about that all New Zealanders are referred to as Kiwis.

New Zealanders have been ‘Kiwis” since the days of the First World-War.  It is a nickname bestowed by fellow Australian soldiers using their boot polish that had the image of a Kiwi on the tin – placed there in honour of the makers wife’s homeland and it stuck.  Kiwi are a natural fit with New Zealander’s national psyche – we relate to their quirkiness.

SOURCE: The National Kiwi Centre website, retrieved 13 November 2019

As well as the kiwis the Centre displays a few other New Zealand speciality species.  The one that interests me the most is the tuatara. Key facts about the tuatara are these:

The Tuatara are only found in New Zealand and are sometimes referred to as the world’s oldest living fossil. They are the only survivors of their reptile species which lived before the dinosaur age, over 200 million years ago. They are the largest reptile in New Zealand but are not a lizard. They are cold blooded but unlike most reptiles, prefer cooler weather.

In Maori, the name Tuatara means ‘Peaks on the Back’ and this is especially evident on the male Tuatara who has a crest of spines running down their neck and along their back. They stiffen these spines to look impressive to the females or to intimidate other males.

Juveniles have a third eye on the top of their head which is believed to help soak up UV rays to help them grow. This eye is not usually visible because they grow scales over it between 4-6 months of age.

Tuatara are slow growing until 35 years old and can live over 100 years. Males can grow up to half a metre in length and weigh 1.5kg

SOURCE: The National Kiwi Centre website, retrieved 13 November 2019

Although, as a keen birdwatcher, I’m pleased to see the kiwi, to be able to see a living, breathing tuatara is a special treat.  As a kid I was fascinated by all reptiles and knew about the tuatara, but never believed I’d see one in the flesh. Of course, I’d much rather see them, and kiwis, in the wild, but it’s reassuring to know that serious efforts are being made here and elsewhere to protect their future.

Heading south: seals, pancake rocks and a lighthouse

Bidding a fond farewell to the Omau Settlers Lodge and resisting the urge to kidnap Alfred the Great – see my previous post! – we nip along to the nearby beach to admire the striking rock formations.

Then it’s up to the nearby cliffs for a look at the Cape Foulwind lighthouse.  Although there’s been a lighthouse here since 1876, the current building dates from 50 years later when the keepers were laid off and operations automated.  But there’s little romance in an automated, concrete-towered lighthouse, so we quickly move on to something of more interest: the fur seal colony at Tauranga Bay, just a couple of miles up the coast.

We’ve already seen many more fur seals on this trip than I’d expected.  It’s reckoned that before the ancestors of the Maori arrived in the thirteenth century, the islands that now make up New Zealand were home to around 3 million fur seals.   The new arrivals were dedicated seal hunters and by the time of Captain Cook’s arrival in the late 18th century there were an estimated 1.5m-1.8m seals left, about a 40% decline.

That loss was nothing compared to the effect of European sealing, which peaked between about 1790-1820.  It’s estimated that this new wave of sealing activity reduced the population to about 10,000 animals, or about 0.4 % of the pre-human population.

Today, the Department of Conservation estimates the country’s fur seal population is about 200,000 animals, about 5% – 10% of pre-human numbers.  By any standards this is a remarkable recovery, and we’re pleased to enjoy the consequence of this at Tauranga Bay, where there are plenty of good-looking fur seals strutting their stuff.

But we haven’t done with coastal scenery as we head off to visit Pancake Rocks.  These are the centrepiece of Paparoa National Park, which is famed for its variety of stunning landscapes.

The Pancake Rocks are layered limestone formations dating back 30 million years, when layers of lime rich mud were deposited on the seabed and then overlain with weaker sheets of soft mud and clay.  The seabed was slowly tilted and raised to form coastal cliffs, and wind and water have etched out the soft layers to produce the unmistakable “stack of pancakes” effect.

The result is a bizarre, fascinating landscape which is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  Even better there are plenty of birds passing the time of day, sitting on the rocks or whizzing swiftly between them.  Mrs P manages to capture an image of a Caspian Tern heading off, probably in search of lunch.

New Zealand has 15,000 kilometres of coastline, supposedly the ninth longest of any country.  Today we’ve been treated to some of its best bits, and as we head towards the famous Fiordlands on the south-west of South Island it should get even better … and even wetter. 

It’s a rainforest down there and the clue, as they say, is in the word “rain.”  Good job we’ve packed our rain gear.

Making friends with the locals

When you set off on a road trip it’s good form to make friends with the locals.  They come in all shapes and sizes, the locals: big and small, young and old, lively and lazy, scruffy and cute-as-hell.  Since we’ve been in New Zealand I’ve made a point of getting to know a few of them, and now is probably a good time to bring you up to speed with the best of the bunch so far.

Floyd

In Picton we spent a couple of nights at Kippilaw House, a comfortable homestay run by Margaret and Bill.  Margaret’s breakfasts are to die for, and the couple’s dogs are wonderful too. Floyd is six or seven years old, and obviously loves living in a homestay.  He greets strangers with a deafening bark, but only because he’s heard that’s what guard dogs do. 

Floyd’s bark is definitely worse than his bite.  He’s plainly delighted that Margaret and Bill welcome a constant stream of guests into their house, guests who like me are only too willing to scratch his back and rub behind his ears.  He also likes to relax on the sofa and lap up the adoration heaped upon him by every human being who happens to pass through Kippilaw House.

Clyde

Floyd shares the house with his old buddy Clyde.  Clyde’s a lovely chap, 16 years old and rather portly.  He appears to spend most of the day snoozing., content in the knowledge that his best pal Floyd is keeping the guests entertained. But when there’s the chance that a mug like me will give him some attention he wakes from his slumber and presents his ears for tickling.

*

Much to Mrs P’s dismay cats appear to be a bit thin on the ground in New Zealand, but one evening in Picton we were walking out to get dinner and met a fine young fellow down by the harbour.  I greeted him warmly, and he was only too pleased to offer his head for stroking. 

At last, a cat!

In typical moggie fashion, the meeting was on his terms and as soon as he knew he’d won me over he hurried away, presumably to find another new best friend.  Poor Mrs P was holding the camera and never got to say hello to him at all. Pig sick, she was.

*

Omau Settlers Motel is an unpretentious and comfortable motel near Westport, close to Cape Foulwind.  The motel doesn’t do food, so we nipped next door to the Star Tavern for dinner, where we were greeted by Guv, a giant golden Bull Mastiff. 

Actually, “greeted” is stretching a point; Guv was laid out in the doorway, snoozing. He hardly batted an eye as we entered, and probably he qualifies as New Zealand’s least attentive guard dog.  But let’s face it, built the way he is he doesn’t need to do anything to act as a deterrent to ne’er-do-wells. As threatening as Mike Tyson on steroids, nobody’s going to take risks with him.

Guv

By the time we’d eaten our dinner Guv had stirred, and the gentle giant wandered over to bid me a fond farewell.  What a lovely lad he is.

*

Lee and Karen, hosts at the Omau Settlers Motel, are a jovial and friendly couple who share their property with two dogs.  The older of the two likes eating carrots. Or maybe he just tolerates eating carrots until he’s offered something more enticing?

Snacking on carrots

But the undoubted star of the show is Alfie, or Alfred the Great to give him his full name.  He’s a nine months old Chihuahua, and probably the cutest dog in New Zealand. I fell in love with him instantly, and even Mrs P – who prefers cats to dogs – was smitten.

Alfred the Great, a.k.a. Alfie

Within seconds Alfie and I were the best of friends, so Karen took a photo and a minute later I was starring on the motel’s Facebook page (see below). 

Alfie is a great dog, and so tiny that I could easily slip him in my pocket and kidnap him.  And believe me, I was so tempted …

*

Of course it’s great to make friends with the locals and, as you can see from the preceding paragraphs, I’ve been free and easy with my friendship since arriving here.  But what about the other way round; what if the locals take a shine to us?  

And here we have a problem.  After leaving Cape Foulwind we’ll be heading south along the west coast, the land where the sandflies rule.  We read up about the Sandfly Menace back in the UK and since arriving on these shores countless Kiwis have warned us that these tiny insects are likely to make our lives hell, biting and sucking our blood until we’re begging for mercy.  

So, while I’m always pleased to make friends with the locals, I sincerely hope this particular gang won’t want to make friends with us.

A road less travelled: off to Cape Foulwind

After an enjoyable couple of days at Golden Bay it’s time to pack our bags and head off to Cape Foulwind.  Sounds ghastly doesn’t it, but we need somewhere to break an otherwise tiringly long drive south, and Cape Foulwind is a reasonable stopping off point. 

Also, Cape Foulwind’s got a large seal colony that should be worth a visit. This, reputedly, is how the place got its name … seals hauled out on the rocks en masse can be real stinkers, on account of their fishy diet.

But first we have to fight our way back through the endless roadworks on Takaka Hill.  Fortunately, this time there are no impatient 4×4 drivers trying their best to kill us, and before long we’re on the scenic but largely deserted Motueka Valley Highway.

It’s an attractive landscape without ever graduating to the status of exceptional, with livestock, vineyards and hop gardens occupying the valley floor, and a distant view of snow-capped mountains beyond. 

Some of the hillsides are covered with broom, which sports masses of bright yellow blossoms. Spring is clearly in the air, and after all the rain we had to put up with during our early days in New Zealand it’s great to enjoy some balmy conditions for a while.

So the landscape is pleasant enough, but traffic is notable by its absence. This is indeed a road less travelled, and almost – but not quite – the land that time forgot. For all these reasons it is a welcome contrast to the madness of Takaka Hill.

In due course we find our way to State Highway 6, which sounds a lot grander than it is, and head towards Buller Gorge.  The scenery here is spectacular.

However, the place also attracts more than its fair share of thrill seekers, whose idea of a good time is engaging in activities that are referred to in polite circles as “adventure sports”.

In impolite circles – in other words, mine – such activities are referred to as arsing about, shrieking a lot and risking a heart attack for no good reason whatsoever!  However, I’m not at all narrow-minded, and am therefore prepared to check it out.

At Buller Gorge we quickly discover there is a swing bridge across the river.  It’s rather long and swings quite a bit, but Mrs P and I have no choice but to cross it because we want to get to the other side, where there’s a nature trail that we’d rather like to explore. 

Running parallel with the bridge is a zip wire, but sadly nobody is zipping across at present, so I’m denied the opportunity to be gratuitously offensive. 

But it doesn’t really matter, because at that moment a jet boat powers down the river and under the bridge. The boat’s engine is roaring like a hurricane and its occupants yelling and howling like banshees.  I curse them enthusiastically, but of course they can’t hear me on account of all the roaring and yelling and howling.

We cross the swing bridge and hope to have our spirits restored on the nature walk.  And indeed, the native vegetation is beautifully soothing, a myriad species of fern in a thousand shades of green.

But within minutes of setting off along the nature walk we witness a shocking wildlife crime. Close to the jetty from which the wretched jet boat sets off on its noisy excursions, a Weka – a flightless native bird with bags of attitude – has his head in a plastic bag belonging to one of the crew. A couple of seconds later he’s legging it off into the forest with a slice of bread in his beak.

It seems the Weka has stolen one half of jet boat man’s sandwich.  He looks very pleased with himself – the Weka, that is, the jet boat man’s not at all impressed.  Although I don’t normally endorse wildlife crime, when the crime been committed by a bird and the victim’s been disturbing the peace and quiet of a natural beauty spot, I can only applaud.

With our spirits restored by the excellent nature walk and the criminally-inclined Weka, we return to the car and continue with our journey to Cape Foulwind.  By the time we arrive it’s too late to pay a visit to New Zealand’s stinkiest seal colony, so that very special pleasure will have to be postponed until tomorrow.   I can hardly wait! 

Farewell Spit: sand, seals and sunsets

Collingwood sits on Golden Bay, in the north-west corner of South Island. Its population reached its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, when it was a base for the gold mining industry. Remarkably it was even briefly in the running to become New Zealand’s capital, but Wellington got the gig instead and with the decline of gold mining Collingwood quickly embraced obscurity. Almost destroyed by fire in 1904, it’s still hanging in there, but only just.

Today Collingwood feels like a one horse town the day after they ate the horse. Don’t get me wrong, it’s inoffensive and not bad looking, like the girl in class who everybody likes but nobody invites to parties.

However we’re not in Collingwood because we think we might fall in love with its quaint architecture, but simply because it’s the pick-up point for our tour of Farewell Spit.

Farewell Spit stretches 34km out into the ocean, making it the longest natural sandspit in New Zealand, and one of the longest in the world. It’s continuing to grow, albeit very slowly, and according to some boffins may possibly one day join up with North Island!!

Inevitably none of us will be around to see if they’re right or wrong. but we can already say with certainty that this part of South Island is further north than the most southerly point of North Island. Confused? Me too, but I’m told that if you check it out on a large scale map it will all make sense. Honest!

Farewell Spit is a wetland of international importance, and has been a bird sanctuary since the 1930’s. Visits to it are strictly controlled too and the tour operators we are travelling with today are the only ones licensed to take groups there. As it happens, today’s group comprises just me, Mrs P and our guide, so a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Before we start driving the length of the spit, there’s just time to admire some of the spectacular rocky coastline at the landward end of the spit.

And then it’s out on to the sand. But we’re not alone. Although this is supposed to be a bird sanctuary the New Zealand Fur Seals haven’t been told, and they are dotted about here and there along the beach, chilling out.

For the most part the seals are unperturbed by our presence and our vehicle is able to approach quite close. Some look us in the eye, as if to say this is my beach, so keep your distance buster.

Amongst the fur seals our guide makes a surprising discovery, a juvenile Leopard Seal. His body shape, and in particular his elongated nose, give him away. Elaine’s been doing this trip for 15 years and reckons it’s just the fifth Leopard Seal she’s seen. He’s way off course, and should be much further south. But you know how it is with teenagers, who always reckon they know best and do their own thing regardless of what the grown-ups tell them. No doubt he’ll learn.

Many of the birds that breed on Farewell Spit have yet to make it back from their wintering grounds, but it’s good to see two species of oystercatcher. The oystercatcher is my favourite bird, and the Pied Oystercatcher- a handsome fellow, dressed in a black suit and wearing a white waistcoat – reminds me of the species we have back in the UK.

The Variable Oystercatcher is more black than white, and in some parts of New Zealand is entirely black. Mrs P’s photo clearly shows his demonic red eye. Like his Pied cousin, the Variable Oystercatcher sports an exceptionally long red bill which he stabs into the sand to hunt for worms and molluscs. Oyster’s aren’t on the menu however, so his name is a bit misleading.

We’re also pleased to see a few Caspian Terns flying over the beach. A couple even land briefly for a photo call, and Mrs P is happy to oblige.

The Australasian Gannets don’t land on the beach, of course – that’s not their style – but a few fly over as they set off on fishing sorties from their nearby gannetry. Visually they look very similar to the Northern Gannet that we are familiar with in the UK, but doubtless they speak with a strange accent and prefer rugby to soccer.

Farewell Spit is, of course, a potential hazard to shipping, and has therefore been home to a lighthouse since 1869. In these days of automation there’s no need for keepers, but the lighthouse still flashes every night, warning passing marine vessels to keep clear or face the consequences. It remains a striking landmark on a sandspit that is otherwise largely flat and featureless except for a few trees planted by the first lighthouse keepers, who had to bring soil from the mainland in order to raise them.

And as we take our leave of Farewell Spit we are treated to a spectacular sunset. Look carefully at Mrs P’s photo and you can just see the lighthouse raising its head above the trees to the right. Any minute now it will get down to business, and flash away happily until the sun rises again tomorrow morning.

A record breaking spring

We drive out from Golden Bay to pay a brief visit to Te Waikoropupu Springs. These are the largest freshwater springs in New Zealand, the largest cold water springs in the Southern Hemisphere and contain some of the clearest water ever measured.

Tests in 1993 showed that visibility in the spring water is an amazing 63 metres. This is very close to optically pure water, with clearer water found only beneath Antarctica’s near-frozen Weddell Sea. The water clarity is a result of natural filtering prior to the water’s emergence.

Te Waikoropupu Springs are clearly remarkable. It’s a beautiful sight, and very tranquil. The colours, and the clarity of the water, are stunning. Look carefully at the photos and you can see the water surface rippling slightly, an indication of the water bubbling into the pool from beneath the earth.

This is also an important place for local Maori, who regard it as taonga (treasure) and wāhi tapu, a place held in high cultural and spiritual regard. For this reason, to show respect for cultural values, the spring waters are closed to all forms of contact, including fishing, swimming, diving, wading, boating and drinking the water.

An interpretation panel at Te Waikoropupu Springs bears the words of a Maori waiata (song), with the English translation as follows:

Bubbling waters from the throat of the spring 
Bubbling waters from the throat of the spring
Forever bubbling from the land
Forever bubbling for the health of the people and the spring waters
The spring waters of Täkaka
The tears of the spirit ancestors,
Waters bubbling from the throat of the spring
Waters bubbling from the throat of the spring

Te Waikoropupu Springs is clearly an important place for local Maori. Increasingly, it is also an important habitat for native plants and wildlife. Once largely cleared of vegetation during the goldmining boom, it’s now protected and regenerating naturally. As native vegetation becomes re-established birds can also find a home here, and we’re delighted to catch a glimpse of a Fantail.

We’ve seen Fantails a couple of times already on this trip, always close to water and never sitting still long enough to be photographed. On this occasion Mrs P manages to grab a quick shot before the bird flies off. You can see from the shape way he holds his tail just how he got his name!

The long and winding road to Golden Bay

It’s time to leave Picton and head way out west.  Before long we arrive at the tiny town of Havelock, on the outskirts of which lies an area of wetland that looks perfect for birds.  We’re not wrong, and are pleased to see a gang of Royal Spoonbills sunning themselves on the branches of some dead trees. 

Suddenly a flash of blue and white catches our eye as a New Zealand Kingfisher whizzes past.  Like others of his species he’s prone to vanity and lands on a distant, fallen tree trunk so we can admire him in all his multi-coloured glory.

But there’s no time to waste, we have to move on and start driving the long and winding mountain road that will take us to our destination in Golden Bay.  From time to time there are good views of the coastline, but I rarely have time to admire it as I’m focussing all my attention on the road.

This road is steep, quite narrow, and twists and turns alarmingly in places.  It’s not what I’m used to, and is therefore a bit of a challenge. And just to remind me that this isn’t a playground, we pass a couple of smashed up vehicles whose drivers obviously weren’t up to it.

Or maybe they were just playing silly buggers?  Although the standard of driving here in New Zealand generally seems reasonable, there are some local motorists who seem to have a qualification in advanced recklessness.  One of these miserable bastards tries to run me off the road, horn blaring and lights flashing, apparently because I’m not driving down a precipitous slope towards a 90 degrees bend – with no crash barriers, I might add – at quite the break-neck speed he thinks is desirable. 

I pull over and let him go, sharing with him my knowledge of Anglo-Saxon curses as he passes.   If he carries on like that he’ll be dead before too long and, although it sounds callous to say it, the rest of us road users will be a damn sight safer for his passing.  Sad, but undoubtedly true.

The journey continues through the mountains, past conifer plantations, livestock farms and occasional sea views until we’re brought to a halt by traffic lights.  A helpful piece of digital technology tells us the light will turn green in 12 minutes. After 60 seconds it changes its mind and tells us the road will be ours in 11 minutes.  We’re getting the hang of this now, so it therefore comes as no surprise to learn a minute later that it’s only 10 minutes until we’ll be on our way.

My god, time passes slowly here.

We learn later that Takaka Hill was devastated two years ago by violent storms dragged into this part of New Zealand by the tail-end of a typhoon.  Several sections of road were washed away, at points where seams of “rotten granite” were unable to resist the extraordinary amount of water cascading down the mountainside.

This is the only road into the north-western tip of South Island, and for several days that area was totally cut off by land.  Ultimately the road re-opened, but with alternating single lane at a number of places where damage was most severe. Two years and $2m dollars later, there are still three major sections of road to be repaired, at a cost estimated at a further $20m.

Finally we ease our way through the last set of roadworks and make it to our destination.  In all sorts of ways the drive here has been more challenging than I’d anticipated, but I’m not complaining.  Since arriving in New Zealand we’ve developed a taste for Tui beer, and we’ve invested in a dozen bottles for moments just like this! With a view like the one from our cottage, and beer in hand, I’ll soon wind down.

But I do hope we remembered to pack a bottle opener.

Seeing how the other half live: on the mailboat run in Queen Charlotte Sound

Queen Charlotte Sound runs in a north-easterly direction from the coastal town of Picton, at the northern tip of South Island. The Sound is dominated by bush-clad valley slopes, deep bays and coves, and is a haven for birds and marine mammals. Although Picton, which lies near the head of the sound, is a town of reasonable size, other settlements along the Sound are small and isolated.

Due to the rugged nature of the coast, for many of properties along the Sound access is by boat only. Not only do property owners need a boat – or maybe a helicopter or two! – to access their properties, but the New Zealand Postal Service is unable to deliver mail in the normal way.

When a land route is not available the only way for post to be delivered is by mailboat, and the contractor employed to run this service also takes tourists out on its vessel. This seems to us to be the perfect way of seeing part of coastal New Zealand that would otherwise be inaccessible to us, and has the added bonus of giving me a few hours break from driving.

*

We board the mailboat at Picton harbour. It’s spacious and uncrowded, and will be a comfortable space to spend the next few hours. As we set off into Queen Charlotte Sound it soon becomes evident that it’s a different world out here. 

The slopes either side of the water are heavily wooded, but here and there, half hidden amongst the trees, we spot the occasional house.  Some are horrendously expensive, others slightly less so. Apparently, prices here are determined in part by how private your pad is: if no other bugger’s pad is visible from your property, it’s going to cost you a damn sight more.

As well as playing host to the houses of the well-heeled, the hillsides are also home to the occasional exclusive “resort.”  These are small clusters of upmarket properties where the rich and famous hang out while other people, less rich and not famous at all, attend to their every need and fancy. 

Our skipper tells us that Bob Dylan has spent time here, which makes sense: this place clearly suits folk of a reclusive disposition. If you’re a socialite and your aim in life is to party, party, party, then putting down roots in Queen Charlotte Sound would be a very bad idea.

The main clue that there is a property hidden in the undergrowth is the presence of a jetty where the owner parks his boat.  Everyone living here permanently has a boat, or at least access to a boat.

During the course of our journey we call at perhaps a dozen jetties to deliver the mail.  The owners have been contacted in advance and know to expect us. They are waiting on the jetty as we approach, and chat like old friends with the skipper when he hands over the mail.  The delivery made, we take our leave and head off to the next mail drop.

On the way there’s wildlife to be spotted.  We catch a glimpse of our first Little Blue Penguins of the holiday, paddling energetically across the Sound.  But they’re not in the mood for company, and like a U-Boat captain under attack from the RAF they dive as soon as they’ve been identified.  We don’t see them again, and Mrs P’s camera doesn’t see any action.

From a conservation perspective there’s some good stuff going on in and around the Sound.  There is, for example, a concerted effort to rid the hillsides of non-native trees, mostly fir trees planted to service the timber trade, and replace them with indigenous New Zealand specimens. 

And several of the small islands dotted around the Sound have been cleared of all mammalian predators enabling them to be used as sanctuaries for native birds.  On a couple of the islands juvenile Kiwis, which have been born in captivity, are allowed to roam free until they are big and tough enough to be returned to their ancestral homes.

Back on home soil, the youngsters raised on these protected islands in Queen Charlotte Sound will now be strong enough to beat seven shades out of any stoat that fancies having them for lunch.

In deference to the fact the mailboat is carrying a number of fee-paying tourists we make a 15 minutes stop at Ship Cove.  Captain James Cook liked this place and came here three times in the late 18th century; a monument commemorates his visits. 

But more importantly, from our perspective, at Ship Cove we spot our first Weka.  These are brown, stocky, flightless native birds just a little larger than a European moorhen. 

Weka have a reputation for being light fingered, and the skipper warns us before we leave the boat that they are able and willing to steal anything that is not nailed down.  They sound like real characters, but the birds we spot are too occupied with parental duties to get up to any mischief at our expense.

After a brief photo opportunity with the Weka we head back to the mailboat for our return trip to Picton.  Travelling along Queen Charlotte Sound has been a slightly surreal experience; although appealing to look at this place is remote, road-less and lonely. 

I never knew that places like this exist in New Zealand, and while I’m pleased that we’ve had an insight into the way the other half lives, I’m sure as hell glad I don’t live here myself.