After writing 61,500 words spread across 89 posts, my job is finally done. This will be my last post on the Platypus Man in New Zealand.
If you’re reading this it’s probably because you’ve been following our journey for some time, and I’d like to thank you for your company. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride.
My blogging career continues. My weekly blog Now I’m 64 covers UK travel and wildlife, along with bits of history, social commentary and moans about the injustice of ageing. I can guarantee a few laughs, and also the occasional rant. Some of it’s quite well written (I don’t do modesty, life’s too short!) and Mrs P’s wonderful photos continue to feature prominently. Click here to visit Now I’m 64.
Speaking of Mrs P, she’s started putting her photos of the New Zealand trip on to Flickr. She took over 10,000, so there’s a lot of editing and a good deal of cursing going on. So far so good, but it’ll be months before she’s finished. Click here to visit Mrs P’s New Zealand album on Flickr.
If, having experienced New Zealand vicariously through this blog, you fancy seeing the real thing I can thoroughly recommend it. Our tailor-made tour was arranged for us by New Zealand in Depth, the Telegraph’s Specialist Tour Operator for 2019. They’re based in the UK but know New Zealand inside out, and are a very professional organisation whose expertise played a big part in the success of our adventure. Click here to visit New Zealand in Depth’s website.
And with that I think it’s time for me to sign off for the final time: I’ve got countless hours of video to edit! Thank you again for joining me on our amazing expedition. I wish you a safe, healthy and happy journey, wherever your own road may take you.
We’ve come to the end of the road. After 46 days touring New Zealand it’s time for us to go home. Since arriving here on 14th October we’ve driven 6,701 kilometres (4,164 miles), and seen some wonderful scenery and great wildlife. I love those parrots … almost as much as I love the penguins. To say nothing of the fur seals and the kiwi and the albatross. And the tui … fabulous bird, the tui.
We hand back our rental Toyota Camry at Christchurch Airport: a boringly white but otherwise thoroughly decent car, with amazing fuel economy. It’s the first time I’ve driven a hybrid, but it won’t be the last. We fall into conversation with the guy collecting the keys. He’s friendly, cheerful and helpful, a typical New Zealander.
Now we have the small matter of a 32 hour journey back to the UK, including a layover of over seven hours at Singapore. But at least business class softens the pain … I find champagne is great at numbing the senses, if consumed in sufficient quantity.
Back in the UK it’s cold and miserable. And filthy. As we drive north up the M1 the roadside is strewn with trash, like nobody gives a damn any more. Maybe they don’t. New Zealanders seemed to care; I wouldn’t say the place was spotlessly clean, but it’s in a different league to the UK.
It’s only when you’ve been away for a while and then come back that you are sufficiently sensitised to what we have become in this country. We should be ashamed of how low we have fallen, of how little pride we have in the place we live, of how little respect we have for our land, our environment and our fellows.
Obviously it’s good that we’ll be able to catch up with family and friends. But other than that, am I pleased to be back? No, not really.
Writing this, I’m thinking back wistfully to the people and the places and birds and the animals we’ve encountered on our travels in New Zealand, and one thought dominates my mind, crowding out all others: “New Zealand … Missing you already!”
Many of our best experiences during this visit to New Zealand have happened when we’ve taken boat trips to get up close to marine mammals and seabirds, so it seems only fitting that we spend our last afternoon in the country out on the sea. Our main target is to see some Hector’s Dolphins, the smallest of all dolphin species, but hopefully there will be good views of birds and the coastline, and maybe even a fur seal or two.
As we board our little boat we’re greeted by Buster, the skipper’s dog, kitted out in his bright orange life vest. We learn that he loves his daily voyage, and gets very excited when dolphins are spotted. On at least four occasions the cry of “dog overboard” has been raised, but each time he’s been fished out with nothing injured other than his dignity.
Heading out from Akaroa we spot some White-fronted Terns keeping pace with the boat. We’re pleased to see them, but there’s no time to hang around – we have to find ourselves some dolphins.
We make our way out along Akaroa Harbour, which is flanked by steep, rocky cliffs, some cut by picturesque arches and windows. The skipper takes us in close enough for photos, all the time keeping his eyes peeled for dolphins. Meanwhile Buster’s getting bored, and works his way around the passengers, making new friends wherever he goes.
Before too long the skipper finds what we’re all hoping to see. Hector’s Dolphins are unique to New Zealand, and are classed as “nationally endangered”, with their population thought to be around 10,000. Banks Peninsula as a whole is home to around 1,000 of them, three or four of which have made themselves known to us.
These are the smallest of any dolphin species, adult females measuring no more than 1.4m (4 feet 7 inches) and weighing in at up to 60kg (132 lbs). Males are a little smaller and lighter. At birth, calves are just 60-80cm (24 to 31 inches) long and weigh 8-10kg (18 to 22 lbs). They’re said to look like a rugby ball with flippers, which I guess is just the sort of description that you’d expect New Zealanders to come up with!
To their credit, successive New Zealand governments have worked hard to protect the Hector’s Dolphin. Measures taken include the establishment of the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary in 1988, and the introduction in 1992 of the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations to regulate marine mammal tourism activities.
The dolphins swim up to the boat, follow alongside us for a while and dive repeatedly beneath our hull. They are fast-moving and can disappear below the waves in the blink of an eye. However they’re definitely less confiding, and therefore a lot more challenging, than the Dusky Dolphins that we saw earlier in our travels. Mrs P’s taking photos and I’m on video duty, and we both end up with more images of empty sea than of the dolphins themselves.
Eventually the dolphins get fed up, and swim off to amuse themselves elsewhere. But our fun’s not over yet. As we head back towards Akaroa town we’re pleased to see our old friend the Pied Shag, a handsome bird with dazzling undersides and bright blue eyes.
We soon spot another old friend hauled out on the rocks. The New Zealand Fur Seal has been a regular companion throughout our six weeks in the country, and today’s no exception. They’ve bounced back from the verge of extinction, and – as we’ve discovered – can now be found all around the New Zealand coastline.
Just a few hundred metres from the fur seals is a colony of Spotted Shags. They’re less striking than their cousin the Pied Shag, but nevertheless a good bird to see. The captain gives us a couple of minutes to admire them and then continues on towards our home port, where we must bid a fond farewell to the ebullient Buster.
Mrs P and I have mixed feelings. It’s been another great boat trip, and the elusive, super-speedy Hector’s Dolphins have been something special. Not to mention Buster, who is also pretty damned cute. But this will be the last excursion we will ever take in New Zealand, because tomorrow we’re heading off to Christchurch to catch our flight back to the UK.
New Zealand is full of surprises, but it’s saved one of the best until the very end of our trip. I’ve never seen anything quite like the Giant’s House sculpture mosaic garden. It is, quite simply, extraordinary!
The Giant’s House is a magnificent two storey villa dating from 1880. It was built for the first bank manager of Akaroa, which probably explains why it’s such a grand affair. However it’s not the house itself that’s brought us here, but rather its terraced gardens adorned with various sculptures and mosaics.
The gardens are the work of artist Josie Martin. Although starting out as a painter, in 1993 Josie turned her hand to sculpture. Her website says:
Ever adventurous Josie is mindful of the larger world and other ways of seeing. Josie’s elegant abstract sculptures are seriously playful and a celebration of life. They are surreal, biomorphic entities, whimsical and flamboyant, organic and eccentric. Constantly changing metomorphosing [sic] forms confronting or circumscribing void spaces refer to her interest in horticulture reflecting the zany balance of nature.
Even though the Giant’s House has been recognised since 2018 as a Garden of International Significance, if I’d read that quote from Josie’s website before visiting, it would have put me right off. To use an inelegant and slightly vulgar phrase that we Brits reserve for artistic pretension, it sounds like a load of “arty-farty” nonsense. Sorry, Josie.
But I know now this assessment is totally wrong, and I regret that it ever crossed my mind. Far from being pretentious and slightly preposterous, we quickly discover that the garden here is a work of quirky, creative genius.
It began very simply, almost accidentally. Josie dug up some pretty bits of broken china while gardening and used them to make a mosaic doorstep. And after that, she just kept on going, using broken china, tile, mirror and glass to clothe and populate her garden with mosaic masterpieces.
Mosaics are everywhere, including paths, steps and walls, benches, arches and seats. And scattered along the winding paths is a host of life-sized sculptures, here a lady seated on a bench eating strawberries, there French mime artist Marcel Marceau resplendent in a blue top hat and waistcoat.
There are animals too: look, there’s an elephant and a giraffe peering over a low-slung hedge, in front of which is a wall decorated with images of kiwi. And have you seen over there, a man-sized blue cat playing a musical instrument? The cat is a member of a four-piece band calling itself Kitty Catch-Me and the Rolling Dice … well of course he is, cool cats belong in jazz bands, don’t they?
In front of the Giant’s House sits a grand piano. Fashioned from mosaic, inevitably. The piano lid is held open by two lanky, naked dancers, and inside the piano are living, growing succulent plants. And why not, this is a garden after all.
The piano bears the legend “sweet patooti”. It means nowt to me (I’m an ancient English fossil, don’t you know), but according to my old pal Professor Google, “patootie” is a North American term for an attractive girl or girlfriend, or is slang for buttocks. The piano stool, which may or may not be shaped to accommodate the buttocks of said girlfriend, is supported by four dog legs, and each of its four corners is embellished with a dog’s head.
Do I understand what’s going on here? No, not really. Do I care that I don’t know what’s going on here? Not in the slightest. Life’s full of mysteries, and this one’s up there with the pyramids. And everyone admires the pyramids, even if they don’t fully understand them.
The piano and stool sit on a paved area carved out of the lawn and inlaid with the legend “You never know”. Yes, that’s it, you never know what you’ll find in this garden, just around the next corner or lurking behind a nearby bush. This place is quirky, crazy … totally bloody bonkers, in fact. And I love it.
Everyone else loves it too. Everywhere we see visitors smiling, chuckling and sometimes laughing uproariously. There’s a spring in their step as they move between the exhibits, pointing out quirky little details and animatedly discussing the sculptures with their fellows.
The essence of art is about how we see the world. Some art is deadly serious, encouraging us to reflect on matters of life and death. The Giant’s House garden isn’t serious at all: it’s about the joy of living and laughter, showing us reasons to be cheerful in the most mundane of subjects and situations.
Nobody other than the world’s unreconstructed misery-guts could spend an hour or two in the gardens at the Giant’s House without having their spirits lifted. This place is truly magical.
We head out from Akaroa further around Banks Peninsula towards the tiny village of Okains Bay. On the way we call in at the Akaroa lighthouse. The six-sided wooded structure dates from 1878-79, and originally stood at the entrance to Akaroa harbour. In 1977 it was replaced by an automated lighthouse, and the following year a Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed in Akaroa. The Society arranged for the original lighthouse to be dismantled and re-assembled on its present site. It’s possibly the most impressive of all the lighthouses we’ve seen in New Zealand, even if it is in the “wrong place”.
The main purpose of our drive this morning is to visit the Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum. The museum incorporates a range of replica and relocated heritage buildings, the most striking of which is the whare whakairo, or carved meeting house. According to the Culture Trip website the whare whakairo is probably the most iconic building of all native Maori architecture, playing a pivotal role in the day to day life of a tribe’s village.
The whare whakairo at the museum is very impressive, and it’s easy to believe that we are looking at something that is deeply embedded in Maori history. But don’t be fooled. As with so much on this trip, things aren’t quite what they seem:
These meeting houses weren’t really a part of Maori village life until after the arrival of European settlers. The mid-19th century was a time of social, political and spiritual change. There was much selling of land to the settlers coming over from Great Britain, and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and Christianity all created a need for discussions within and between communities …
The whare whakairo is a larger and more elaborate version of earlier house designs such as the wharepuni (sleeping house) and pātaka (storehouse). It is not an ancient form of architecture, but seems to have first appeared after contact with Europeans in the mid-19th century.
The whare whakairo at the museum was built on site in accordance with tikanga Maori (Maori custom). The rafters came from an old meeting house in Tokomaru Bay on North Island, in keeping with the tradition that each new house should have something within it from an old one.
As well as Maori buildings the museum boasts a number of others built by Europeans. The totara slab cottage was built in 1883. Totara wood is hard, straight-grained and very resistant to rot. Such cottages were common in early colonial times, but very few have survived to the present day. The cottage at the museum was destroyed by a storm at its original location in 1968, after which the pieces were salvaged, relocated and rebuilt on the museum site.
Next to the museum on the main street – indeed, just about the only street in Okains Bay – is the historic Okains Bay Store, which dates from 1883. Owned by the museum and let to the tenants who run the business, it is believed to be the oldest continuously operated shop in New Zealand.
The museum’s treasures are spread all over Okains Bay. On the opposite side of the road from the main site is the Riverside Waka Shed. Waka (canoes) are integral to Maori culture, and it’s good to be able to get up close to a full size replica.
Okains Bay is not the obvious site for a museum. Plainly the Banks Peninsula attracts a good number of tourists, but surely not in sufficient numbers to maintain a museum on the scale and to the standard of the Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum? The museum must attract a good deal of dedicated support from the local community. It reinforces the impression that’s been growing on us throughout our travels, that although New Zealand is a young country it takes its history and culture – both Maori and European – seriously. New Zealand “does museums” very well indeed.
Akaroa has a lot to live up to. We’ve been on South Island for around a month, and during that time loads of fellow tourists have asked us if we’ve been to Akaroa. When we’ve responded that it will be the last place we stop off at before flying back to the UK they have – without exception – uttered words to the effect of “Great. You’ll LOVE Akaroa“.
OK, confession time, I’d never even heard of Akaroa until New Zealand in Depth suggested the itinerary for our trip. I now know it’s situated on Banks Peninsula, the most prominent volcanic feature of the South Island. The peninsula is made up of the eroded remnants of two large shield volcanoes, and Akaroa harbour is formed from the crater of one these volcanoes. The name Akaroa is derived from southern Maori dialect words meaning “long harbour”.
The story of Akaroa’s foundation is fascinating, at least to the nerds like me. The first Europeans to visit Akaroa Harbour regularly were whalers and deserters from whaling ships. The European town of Akaroa owes its origins to Akaroa Harbour’s being a favourite port of call for whaling ships, although it never developed as a whaling station.
It was a French whaler – Captain Jean François Langlois – who first decided that this would be a great place to establish a French colony. In pursuit of his vision, in 1838 he made a down payment in commodities to the value of £6 to 12 local Maori chiefs, with the promise of a further £234 worth of commodities to be paid at a later date.
Having done the deal, Langlois hot-footed it back to France to advertise for settlers to return with him to the other side of the world. However the Brits got wind of his plans, and inevitably were not best pleased by the turn of events. They’d lost Calais to the French in 1558 and were still sore about it. They were definitely not about to let the garlic brigade snatch the South Island of New Zealand from under their noses as well. Swift action was needed, so the Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand despatched the ship HMS Britomart to formally claim the area for Great Britain.
Arriving on 16 August 1840, Captain Stanley of the Britomart raised the British flag, and held a court at each of the occupied settlements in the area to further make the point. Job done. When Langlois and 57 fellow countrymen arrived two days later they discovered the Brits were well and truly in charge, and that – as has so often happened in the history of those two great nations – the French had been royally shafted by perfidious albion.
No one would have blamed the thwarted colonists for turning round and going straight back to France, muttering profane Gallic curses as they left. But instead they stuck around and founded the town of Akaroa, although in a fit of pique they named the place Port Louis-Philippe, after the reigning King of France.
And although the name of the town later changed, the founders are said to have left an indelible mark on it. No lesser authority than the government’s official 100% Pure New Zealand website names Akaroa the “most French town in New Zealand” on account of its “French street names and charming colonial cottages”. But even governments get things wrong (!) and a 200 page report written by a professional historian and a heritage landscape architect in 2009 suggests that – street names notwithstanding – the French influence on modern Akaroa is overstated;
The fact that Akaroa was founded by settlers sent out by a French colonising company has misled some into thinking that Akaroa today has a French character. But the 19th and early 20th century buildings that set Akaroa’s character are of a “Colonial Vernacular” style that owes more to British than to French precedents.
It may not be very French after all, but Akaroa is undoubtedly unusual.
Akaroa has the highest density of registered historic buildings anywhere in the country, surpassing even the historic towns of Russell and Arrowtown. Even by this rather clinical measure, Akaroa is a very special place
As we wander the streets on a glorious, sunny day, we can well appreciate why the tourists we met earlier on this trip were so enthusiastic about Akaroa. It oozes character, and even the presence of a lot of other holidaymakers doesn’t detract from its quaint, peaceful charm.
And yet, regardless of the academic evidence to the contrary, the French get most of the credit. If he knew, Captain Langlois would doubtless shrug his shoulders and permit himself a Gallic chuckle at the irony of it all. C’est la vie, n’est pas?
Neither a typical New Zealand town nor a Southern Hemisphere outlier of French culture, Akaroa is one of a kind. It’s a good place for us to wind down as our epic voyage around New Zealand draws to a close.
At around 920 metres (3,000 feet) above sea level the Arthur’s Pass Road is reckoned to be the most spectacular highway to cross the rugged Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island. It was known to the Maori, who used it as a west-east trade route for pounamu (jade), but it was the goldrush of the 1860s that first drew it to the attention of European colonists.
At the time when gold was discovered to the west of the Southern Alps most of South Island’s population was to their east. A practical way of transporting the gold to market was needed, and in 1865 a committee of businessmen offered £200 (equivalent to $NZ 22,000 in 2016) to the discoverer of the best route. The track that was later to become Arthur’s Pass was recognised to be the most suitable for a direct crossing. Construction soon began in earnest, and the road opened to coach traffic in July 1866.
Over 50 years later, 1923 saw the completion of a railway that followed the line of the Arthur’s Pass road. The railway and road through Arthur’s Pass were considered to be major accomplishments in opening up the west coast of New Zealand to settlement, and were also a catalyst for the creation of Arthur’s Pass National Park in 1929.
The eastern side of Arthur’s Pass National Park is typically drier and consists of beech forest and wide riverbeds, while the western side contains dense rainforest. We’ve had our fill of rain on this road trip, so we stick to the east and on a day like this, when the sun’s shining and the sky is blue, it’s easy to see why the Park is a major tourist attraction.
The Park is popular with what the New Zealanders like to call ‘trampers’ (hikers or walkers to you and me), and I’m sure it’s great to get off the beaten track and into the bush. But Mrs P and I have neither the time nor the knees for such exertions, so our sightseeing is limited to what can be done from a few scattered pull-ins off the highway.
Unfortunately, therefore, we can only enjoy the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls from a distance. Water crashes 131 metres to the base of the falls, sending clouds of spray swirling and billowing into the air. Even from where we’re standing, looking pretty much directly into the sun, we can see and hear why this is regarded as one of the country’s most spectacular waterfalls.
Above all, it seems to me, New Zealand is a land of water. Spectacular coastlines, magnificent waterfalls, powerful rivers and tumbling cascades. And rain, more rain than we ever believed possible. But not here and not now. Today we are blessed by the sun, and we lap it up while we can because it’s time to bid farewell to the mountains and head back to the coast once more.
Akaroa is our destination, and on the way we stop off at the Sheffield Pie Shop. Although Sheffield is just a tiny village, the place is rammed. All the tables are occupied with people like us eating-in, while truckers, campervan travellers and sundry motorists drop in for a pie-to-go. There’s plenty of pies to choose from, including traditional favourites like Steak Pie and more experimental fare such as Mexican Nachos Pie.
I’m tempted to say you couldn’t make it up, but plainly someone has and Mexican Nachos Pie appears to be selling well. As for me, I wrap myself around a Moroccan Beef and Mango Chutney Pie. I can safely say I’ve never eaten anything like it before, and am pretty sure I’ll never have the pleasure again. But it is a pleasure, a pleasure to eat and a pleasure also to see this innovative small business defying culinary convention and building a massive reputation simply by making people happy.
We’re spending the day out and about around Lake Tekapo. It’s less than three hours drive from Christchurch – New Zealand’s third largest city, population 360,000 – but it’s a different world up here. The lake, and the small settlement bearing its name, lies at 710 metres (2,300 feet) above sea level in the Mackenzie Basin. Standing proudly to the west are the spectacular Southern Alps
Historically this is sheep country, remote and sparsely populated, although you wouldn’t believe it when we drive up Mount John to admire the views. The place is rammed with tourists, the majority of them Chinese. One of them is apparently so moved that she feels compelled to fly the Chinese flag, its yellow stars on a red background standing out vividly against a background of distant lakes and snow-scattered mountain peaks.
The Lake Tekapo area has a reputation for clear, clean air and minimal light pollution, enabling spectacular views of the night sky. In June 2012 an area of 430,000 hectares (1,700 square miles) was designated an International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only four such reserves around the world. Fallout from the Australian bushfires probably ruined any attempt at star-gazing last night, but yesterday’s smoke-haze has largely dissipated this morning and the mountain views are spectacular set against a dazzling blue sky.
The University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory (UCMJO) normally enables scientists and others to enjoy great views of the star-scape. However the two futuristic structures that make up the Observatory looking bizarrely out of place here. Some might regard them as a blot on the landscape.
On the way back down from Mount John we take a side road to Lake Alexandrina. A few holiday homes (known as cribs – or baches – in New Zealand) huddle together along part of the shoreline, and we can see why people would want to chill out here, so far from the hurly burly of the modern world.
We drive on, and are soon back in the small town of Lake Tekapo. It’s heaving with visitors, all searching for the spot that will enable them to take the perfect selfie. The bronze sculpture of a sheepdog, a tribute to the breed that did so much to help early settlers carve out a living here, draws plenty of admirers.
But the most spectacular sight of all is the profusion of lupins. The canal that moves water to the hydro power plant is lined with them. And areas of Lake Tekapo’s shoreline are blanketed with thousands of purple, pink and blue flowers, all set against a backdrop of distant snowy peaks. People wander amongst them as if mesmerised, unable to believe that nature can deliver such a stunning polychromatic bonanza.
And there’s the rub. This isn’t all nature’s work. Man’s had a hand in this, although to be fair it’s more probably a woman’s work. The local story tells of a farmer’s wife who decided this part of central South Island was unacceptably drab. To rectify matters she is said to have secretly sowed lupin seeds along the area’s roads and riverbanks each spring. A more fanciful version of the story tells that the woman concerned sought to emulate Lady Godiva, riding naked on a white stallion while doing the horticultural deed.
Whatever the truth of the good lady’s state of undress, there’s no doubt that these lupins didn’t get here naturally. Officially they’re an invasive species or, to quote a term we encountered a couple of weeks ago in connection with hillsides clad in sulphurous yellow gorse and broom, ‘noxious weeds’. I fully accept that from an evolutionary point of view the lupins shouldn’t be here, but on the other hand human beings and their wretched sheep, cattle and deer weren’t around in primordial New Zealand either. Nor were vines, or even kiwi fruits for that matter.
I agree the lupins shouldn’t be allowed to run amok: they need to be controlled, to be kept in check. But let’s not go too far. These lupins bring a burst of colour into the dreary lives of those who see them, a momentary lift to the spirits. And god knows, with the Australian bushfires raging 2,000 miles across the Tasman Sea and dumping their pollution here, we all need to have our spirits – and our hopes – raised.
Today we’ll be heading inland to Lake Tekapo, where we expect to see distant views of the Southern Alps. But first we head north along the East coast, to Katiki Point.
We park up and wander off in the direction of the beach and headland, past a lighthouse dating from 1878. The wooden tower of the Katiki Point (or Moeraki) Lighthouse stands 26 feet (8 m) high and 190 feet (58 m) above sea level. It has been fully automated since 1975.
The coastline at and around the Point is a mecca for fur seals. They are dotted about all over the place, slumming it on the beach and rocks. It must be a hard life being a fur seal, the liveliest of which just lie around and scratch themselves idly, as if waiting for something interesting to happen.
Others, the wiser souls amongst them, have worked out that nothing interesting ever happens around here. They simply snooze, oblivious to the clickety-clack of Mrs P’s camera lens. Then one of them stirs briefly, gives Mrs P a look that says really, do you have to? and returns to what he does best, which is not a lot.
The most intrepid fur seal has hauled herself up the grassy slope of the Point and is resting in the long grass. It’s not clear why she’s bothered. There’s enough room for her down on the beach, but maybe she’s the Greta Garbo of fur seal world, forever proclaiming I want to be alone. Or maybe she’s socially ambitious, shunning the company of her own kind in favour of mixing with the likes of us.
Up on the grassy headland she’s sure to attract attention. And she does, quickly becoming a selfie magnet. Youngsters with big smiles and small cell phones march up to within a few feet of her and snap away happily. She watches them for a while, perhaps pondering if she should strike a more alluring pose, before concluding that she really can’t be bothered. After all, it’s Groundhog Day. She’s seen it all before, and if she comes back here for another snooze tomorrow she’ll see it again.
We leave her to her thoughts, and walk on around the Point for a view of a rocky outpost known as the Neck. As we stroll along there are more seals to admire, and also a range of birds including a small colony of Spotted Shag.
We catch a glimpse of a stoat, legging it through the long grass. The stoat isn’t native to New Zealand and is a major predator of native, ground nesting birds. The government here has a strategy called Predator Free 2050, which would see all stoats and various other introduced mammalian predators totally eliminated from New Zealand within 30 years. Good luck with that, guys.
Perhaps the stoat and his countless cousins is the reason that we don’t see any Yellow-eyed Penguins at Katiki Point, where there is said to be a small colony. But just as likely it’s because we’re here in the morning, not a time when the birds generally show themselves on land. And bad timing is also the reason we don’t see the Moeraki Boulders at their best.
The home of the Moeraki Boulders is a stretch of Koekohe Beach, just a few kilometres north of Katiki Point. The boulders are big and round, and formed from naturally cemented mudstone during the Paleocene Period between 66 and 55 million years ago. They are surprisingly well known internationally due to their appearance as a Microsoft Windows lockscreen image, but unfortunately the tide is only just on the way out so they are partly submerged when we arrive.
We’re a little disappointed that the view of the Boulders is not better, but there’s no time to wait for the tide to go out further. We hit the road, and soon head inland towards the Southern Alps. As we do, we leave the cloudy skies behind us and emerge into bright, hot sunshine. Pretty soon the temperature is in the high 20s Centigrade, amongst the hottest we’ve experienced during our time in New Zealand. There’s a scattering of fluffy white clouds, but the sun is out and the sky is blue so we’re hopeful of getting some great views of the distant mountains.
Only it doesn’t work out that way. The mountains are shrouded in a gloomy grey haze, rendering them fuzzy and slightly ominous. Bloody hell, we think, at last some decent weather and the views are messed up by heat haze. But, we learn later from the locals, this isn’t heat haze, this is fallout from the Australian bushfires that are raging more than 2,000 miles away across the Tasman Sea.
It’s a sobering way to end the day. If ever a reminder were needed that this is a small planet, and that in regard to climate change we’re all in this together, here it is.
Postscript on the Australian bushfires: I’m writing this post at home in the UK on 2 January 2020, exactly 40 days after the events described. Bushfires are still raging across Australia. Today the BBC news website reports that ‘since September, bushfires have killed 18 people and destroyed more than 1,200 homes across NSW and neighbouring Victoria. At least 17 people remain missing after fires this week alone … Thousands of people are already fleeing a vast “tourist leave zone” in NSW, with supplies running low in some cut-off towns. It’s been called “the largest relocation out of the region ever”. Troops are also preparing to evacuate some of the 4,000 people trapped by fires in Victoria’.
Meanwhile, the fallout continues to impact on New Zealand. Yesterday, Ms Liz, who blogs out of Tapanui in West Otago posted photographs of the weird glow and the light golden glow caused by smoke drift from the bushfires. She writes that “it feels apocalyptic and dark, and very weird”.
Plainly what is going on right now is disastrous for those Australians directly affected, and is surely also a wake-up call both for their countrymen and wider world. Climate change is real and happening right now. Collectively we need to find ways of bringing it under control. National boundaries are meaningless when the crisis is global: we’re all in this together, guys.
Having filled our birding boots at the Royal Albatross Centre, we head off for another special treat: penguins. Everyone loves a penguin: improbable, comical, cute, even iconic, and amongst the non-birders on the bus – that’s everyone except us, it seems – there’s a palpable sense of anticipation as we set off.
Although we’ve been in New Zealand several weeks and seen all three species of penguin that breed here, we’re looking forward to meeting up with some of them again. I mean, you really can’t see enough penguins, can you? And also, our only previous view of the rarest of them all – the Yellow-eyed Penguin – was disappointingly distant, so we’re hoping to do better this time.
The company we’ve booked with has a private reserve on the Otago Peninsula. Our bus first takes us to a cliff-top, from where we scramble down a short but steep path to take a look at a bunch of fur seals. Some cavort in the water and pose like mermaids, while others stand proud on the rocks, masters of all they survey.
New Zealand Fur Seals have recovered well from the predations of the nineteenth century sealers, who almost drove them to extinction. Although we’ve seen them several times previously around South Island it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance once again.
But we have to tear ourselves away, and make our way down to the beach if we’re to see the penguins. Trouble is, the path is long and way too steep for us to cope with, given the condition of our backs, hips and knees, which have deteriorated markedly in recent days. No question, at the end of this holiday we’re going to need a bloody good rest.
Mrs P has been anxious for a while about not being able to make it down to see the penguins at all , so yesterday she phoned the tour company and explained our predicament. To their credit, Elm Wildlife Tours came up with a brilliant solution. They’ve laid on an extra-powerful bus, with loads of torque and grunt, that can drive most of the way down, and – more importantly – back up the murderous incline.
Our guide explains the new arrangements to the group, and although a few mad fools decide the walk will do them good many others join us in the bus. A few minutes later we’ve made it to within spitting distance of the beach, and disembark feeling rested and in good spirits. The weary foot-soldiers arrive a few minutes later, breathing hard, sweating profusely, glowing crimson. Serves ’em right, I say!
We make our way down to the beach and happen across an artificial burrow strategically placed to attract Little Blue Penguins. These guys are found in small numbers around much of the New Zealand coastline. They rarely move on land during the daylight hours, so the best chance of seeing them on terra firma is after dark, as we did about ten days ago on Stewart Island, or maybe – if you’re very, very lucky – in the entrance to their burrows during the daytime.
But to see inside a Little Blue Penguin burrow you get down low, until your chin is almost scraping the ground. I don’t even bother – I’ll never be able to get up again – but Mrs P’s willing to get down and dirty in pursuit of a penguin. And yes, she spots one, watching her grumpily as she lines up to take a photograph. Annoyingly, a random piece of dead vegetation gets in the way, and Mrs P can’t move it for fear of upsetting the penguin. But never mind, it’s an interesting shot even if it won’t win any prizes.
We walk along the beach a few hundred yards, then inland slightly to a small hide – or blind, as Americans would call it – positioned to overlook the route that Yellow-eyed Penguins take on the way to and from their nests. The hide is modest in construction but will serve its purpose: it gives good views out towards the beach and the penguins’ regular route inland, while hiding us from sight. It’s late afternoon now, about the time they start moving about on land, so we settle back and wait for the fun to begin.
And sure enough, as we scan the hillside that rises up from the beach we spot one. The slope’s steep, but he doesn’t seem bothered by it. Somewhere up there, hidden in the undergrowth, he must have a nest where his chicks are waiting for their next feed.
He’s full of determination, hopping between boulders and scrambling through the long grass, hauling himself along with his bill when the going gets tough. If he had teeth, he’d be gritting them. Once or twice he stops to preen himself, removing stray seeds and strands of grass from his feathers. But he doesn’t delay for long: his family needs him.
Finally he approaches the crest of the hill. He turns and looks back at the route he’s taken, the route he takes regularly so that his chicks get a decent meal every day. But there’s no time to admire the view, he still has a distance to travel. At last he makes it to the top. His nest must be there somewhere over the brow of the hill, his family waiting patiently for the Great Provider to return. Our hero continues grittily onwards and disappears from view, never to be seen again.
With a mixture of emotions – admiration at the lone penguin’s courage and endurance, sadness at his leaving us – we turn our attention back to the shoreline. Will another penguin show himself before we have to go back to the bus?
It seems there’s nothing of interest out there, just waves crashing into the rocks and surging up the sandy beach. We’re all scanning carefully, more in hope than expectation. It’s a penguin-free zone, but then we spot a different and altogether more sinister animal instead.
A sealion has hauled out, and is now strutting the sands as if he owns the place. He’s right, I guess, sealions are formidable creatures, the apex predators hereabouts. Worryingly, penguins feature in his diet, and if one shows itself now it may well end up on today’s menu. OK, I know, life’s hard and sealions have to eat. Of course they do, but not penguins and not on my watch, please.
We feel conflicted. We badly want to see another penguin, but at the same time worry that if one turns up its blood and guts will be all over the sand within minutes. Time stands still for a while. The sealion watches and waits, and so do we, listening to the steady rhythm of the waves slapping into the sand.
And then we spot him, another penguin in the surf. He’s battling to reach the beach without being smashed into the rocks that are scattered along it. Finally a wave drives him between the boulders and shoves him belly-first into the sand in an undignified heap. He hauls himself upright, shakes the excess water from his feathers, and begins to waddle up the beach.
The penguin isn’t heading directly for the sealion, but his route will take him too close. Once the sealion spots him it’s curtains: a sealion on land can move surprisingly swiftly; a penguin can’t. We all watch, transfixed, waiting to see how the story will play out, fearing the worst but hoping for the best.
Suddenly the penguin stops dead in his tracks and studies the way ahead. He’s obviously detected the sealion’s presence, and in a second he’s turned 180 degrees and is hot-footing it back to the safety of the sea. We all heave a sigh of relief, and start to relax.
Too soon. The penguin is on a mission, his chicks need feeding so he’s got to find a way past his enemy. He re-emerges from the sea, some distance from his previous landfall, and heads for the safety on the grassy hill beyond the beach. But once again he’s too close to the sealion, and turns back.
We can hardly bear to watch. The longer it goes on the more certain we are that it will end badly, at least from the penguin’s perspective. It seems like he’s on Mission Impossible, only just when we need him Tom Cruise is nowhere to be seen.
But at last, after what seems like an eternity, the penguin finds a path that will take him to his destination without drawing the attention of the sealion. We watch for minute after agonising minute until at last he’s made it, and heads off into the long grass.
We all heave a sigh of relief. We’re emotional wrecks, but at least there was a fairy tale ending. It’s time to walk back along the beach and return to the bus.
However there’s one last treat in store us. While we’ve been watching the drama unfold at one end of the beach, at the other a third penguin has taken his chance to make a run for the nest site. He’s made it over the sand to the grass beyond.
A fence-line blocks the way into some low bushes where he’s probably hidden his nest, and he has to work his way along it until he finds a gap. As he does we get a perfect view of him. The Yellow-eyed Penguin is the rarest penguin in the world, and we feel privileged to get such a perfect sighting.
And as this wonderful bird disappears into the undergrowth, the day draws to a close. We’ve had a great time, and so too have the first-time birders who’ve been caught up in the life and death drama of a penguin on an unremarkable beach in a remote corner of New Zealand’s South Island. Hopefully a few of them have caught the birding bug, and will soon be as passionate about it as we are.