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.
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.
The bus picks us up at our hotel on the outskirts of Dunedin. It’s pretty much full, maybe around 20 people, all intent on spending the afternoon and early evening birdwatching on the Otago Peninsula. Our first stop will be Taiaroa Head, site of a breeding colony of albatross and home to the Royal Albatross Centre.
Driving out along the peninsula we pass several wetland birding hotspots. It appears we’re the only people on this trip who’ve ever been birdwatching before, but the others are lapping it up.
It’s as if they’re seeing and thinking about birds for the first time. They crane their necks for a better view, and leap from their seats to take photos on their cell phones.
Mrs P and I wish we could stop for a while. Being confined to a slow moving bus and watching the action through the window is frustrating; maybe we should have driven ourselves out here instead? On the other hand it’s good to see other people – ordinary tourists, just out for an afternoon excursion – enjoying an activity that has meant the world to us for more than 30 years.
But they don’t all get it. The guide points out a Paradise Shelduck, a good looking bird that elicits murmurs of appreciation from several passengers. And then, out of the blue, one of them pipes up brightly “Do they taste good?”
Do they taste good? For god’s sake, I think to myself, we’ve come here to look at the birds, not to fantasise about eating them. What’s the matter with you woman, who the hell do you think you are, Gordon bloody Ramsey? But I say nothing of the sort, I’m English after all, we’re far too polite to point out to idiots the truth of their idiocy, so I just look away, seething silently.
But I needn’t worry, the other passengers have been enjoying the show, and can see that eating one of the cast would be out of order. The atmosphere is suddenly frosty and pretty soon the wretched woman apologises sheepishly, saying she wasn’t thinking. Too bloody right she wasn’t.
The Royal Albatross Centre is an impressive building, befitting of New Zealand’s first private charitable conservation trust. The Otago Peninsula Trust was established in 1967 for the purpose of protecting and enhancing peninsula flora and fauna. The albatross were then, and remain now, the stars of the show.
Albatross mostly breed on small, remote islands. Taiaora Head is the world’s only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross. Relatively speaking they are newcomers here, the first egg having been laid in around 1920.
However there was so much predation and human interference that it was not until 1938 that the first chick fledged. Efforts to protect them increased thereafter, and in 1951 a full-time field officer was appointed. Work at the colony has continued ever since, with the result that there are about 250 albatross on the Head.
On arrival we are ushered into an auditorium to see a film presentation on the Royal Albatross, which explains the lifecycle of these magnificent birds and outlines the threats they face. We learn that the adult birds have a wing span of 3 metres (nearly 10 feet) and weigh between 8 and 9 kilograms (18 to 20 lbs). Even more stunning, at seven months old a chick weighs in at between 10 and 12 kilograms (22 to 26 lbs) – it seems amazing they can ever take off.
Prospective albatross parents arrive at Taiaora Head in September to re-establish their pair bonds. Nests are built and eggs laid in November. Incubation lasts 11 weeks, with both parents sharing the duties. Eggs hatch in late January or February, with chicks taking around three days to force their way out of their shells.
Rearing the chicks takes several months, with parents sharing the feeding duties. The birds fledge in September, and will be absent between four and six years before hopefully returning to raise youngsters of their own. The parents take a well-deserved year off before coming back here to go through the whole process again.
Threats to breeding birds on Taiaora Head include introduced mammalian predators (rats, ferrets, stoats and feral cats), climatic extremes, fire and human disturbance. To limit the latter, the only public access is via small guided tours – like the one we are on – to an observatory at one section of the reserve.
So, having been given the lowdown on what we’re about to see, we are led from the Visitor Centre in a group, up a steep slope towards the observatory. On the way we pass clusters of Red-billed Gulls, some just metres from the path. There are reckoned to be around 4,000 at Taiaora Head, and they seem unconcerned by the constant stream of visitors walking to and from the observatory. Mrs P and I are pleased to see them, and also delighted that so many people are plainly enjoying getting close to nature.
The observatory is a large, purpose-built bird hide, with room for perhaps 20 visitors at a time. The windows don’t open, which is frustrating from a photography point of view but absolutely right and proper: this place is all about the birds, and their welfare – including the need to be free from unnecessary human disturbance – is paramount.
The view overlooks a sloping, grass-covered headland, and beyond it the sea. There are albatross dotted here and there in the grass, some alone and others in pairs, while more wheel effortlessly above in the brisk wind. We settle down to watch the action, while our guide tells us more about what we are seeing.
She reminds us that it is late November, so the eggs have been laid and incubation is underway. There’s a constant coming and going; albatross circle around for a while, searching for a suitable spot, then crash land in an inelegant tangle of legs and wings. Meanwhile, others take off and head out to sea.
Both birds take turns at incubating the egg, and when an adult returns to its duties after time away to feed and stretch its wings, there is a period of socialisation: they dance around one another, moving synchronously and tenderly rubbing their bills together. And then it’s time for the changing of the guard: the newly arrived adult takes over incubation, while its mate takes some time out.
It’s a joy to watch the Royal Albatross going about their business, apparently unaware of our presence. It’s also great that so many people come here to enjoy them. Man – directly or indirectly – is the greatest threat to the survival of these majestic birds, but at the same time the only hope for their salvation. If people come here and pay for the pleasure, and if the good folk of the Otago Peninsula Trust spend that money wisely, then maybe – hopefully – they have a chance.
Watch live action from the albatross colony. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has set up a webcam to enable us to view the action live, 24 hours a day. Click here for the link.
The Captivating Catlins is a “hidden gem”. A place of natural beauty, abundant wildlife, forests, sandy beaches, waterfalls and both hilly and rolling green farmland. With its comparative remoteness and stunning vistas, it’s a great destination.
Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? As a general rule I treat the outpourings of the marketing profession with grave suspicion, given that the only reason for their existence appears to be to separate me from my hard-earned cash. But on this occasion they’ve got a point: the Catlins really is something special.
Already we’ve visited several spectacular waterfalls and a petrified forest, and spotted – albeit at some distance – the world’s rarest penguin, but there’s still lots more to explore.
We’re staying at Kaka Point, overlooking a sweeping bay of golden, wave-pounded sand which is totally deserted save for a pair of Variable Oystercatchers.
Oystercatchers tend to be underrated, so I pop down to the beach and pay my respects. They are probing the strandline with their improbable orange bills, seeking out lunch. The birds keep a wary eye on me, screaming and yelling abuse if I get too close, twice pulling the broken wing stunt to lure me away, even flying straight at my head if I appear to be encroaching on their territory. I love these birds for their argumentative feistiness, for their utter determination to show me that I am simply an unwelcome visitor in their domain.
A little way along the road from Kaka Point is Nugget Point, a headland boasting a lighthouse dating from 1869-70. The lighthouse is agreeably picturesque without being exceptional, and has operated automatically – without the need for a lighthouse keeper to live on site – since 1989.
The views from the base of the lighthouse are more interesting than the structure itself. Wave-eroded rocks, which those who know about such things have likened to the shape of gold nuggets, can be seen from the viewing platform. A small colony of fur seals lives here, and we’re pleased to see one lazily exploring the kelp, occasionally blowing bubbles as it does so.
We’ve seen plenty of fur seals on our New Zealand expedition but still hanker after decent views of their larger, fiercer cousin, the sealion. There’s a good chance of seeing one along the coast at Surat Bay, so we decide to investigate.
When we arrive the tide is some way out, exposing another vast, deserted sandy beach. It could almost be a tropical paradise, until a blast of cold wind reminds us we’re closer to the Antarctic than to the equator.
The tide rushes in as we watch, submerging most of the beach in a shallow film of water. There’s no sign of sealions here, but we spot a young couple walking towards us from further along the bay and ask if they’ve encountered any. They’re French, with only limited English, but the girl talks excitedly about un magnifique lion de mer which is blocking the track just a few hundred metres away. It sounds perfect, so we quicken our pace, determined to find the animal before it buggers off for a swim.
In the event, when we find him it’s evident this guy is going nowhere anytime soon. He’s hauled up at the edge of the sand dunes, just above the high water mark. The animal is huge, much larger than the biggest fur seal we’ve come across in New Zealand. Sealions can reach up to a massive 500 kilograms and are therefore not to be trifled with.
The New Zealand Sealion (formerly called Hooker’s Sealion) is the world’s rarest sealion species. Most live and breed in the sub-Antarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands where they number about 12,000. Fewer than 200 can be found on the mainland, all in this area of the southeast coast where they have only recently started to breed.
Our sealion is dozing peacefully, occasionally flicking sand across his back, presumably to deter the biting insects for which this country is rightly infamous. We’re delighted with our find, but content to admire him from a distance. Sealions are notoriously aggressive if disturbed, and are rumoured to have an impressive turn of speed despite their corpulent build. I, for one, am not interested in testing whether or not the rumours are true.
We interrupt our drive from Stirling Point to our accommodation at Nugget Point to call in at Curio Bay in the Catlins, a scenic area at the southern end of South Island. The bay is most famous for its ancient petrified forest, which is revealed at low tide.
A flight of steep wooden steps leads down to the foreshore, and a sign at the bottom tells us that we’re not alone. At least, I hope we’re not. The tide’s out – which is good news for viewing the petrified forest – and if our luck’s in, we’ll also catch sight of a Yellow-eyed Penguin, the rarest penguin species in the world.
As we step out on to the foreshore there’s no sign of the penguins. But it’s difficult to miss the petrified forest, a jumble of logs and stumps amongst the rockpools. Only, they’re not logs and stumps, are they? These are rocks in the form of trees that lived in the middle Jurassic period, around 180 million years ago, when New Zealand was at the eastern edge of the Gondwanaland super-continent. North of Curio Bay, most of future New Zealand lay beneath the sea.
At the time Curio Bay area was a broad, forested coastal floodplain. The climate was semi-tropical and the region subject to significant levels of volcanic activity. It’s believed that massive floods of volcanic debris, perhaps triggered by heavy rain on a nearby barren volcanic mountain, destroyed and buried the forest.
Over time, silica from the volcanic debris gradually replaced the organic material, leaving an exact replica of the trees. People who understand these things suggest that this sequence of events occurred at least four times over a period of 20,000 years, each episode contributing additional material to the fossil forest.
New Zealand and Gondwanaland parted company around 100 million years ago. It’s only over the last 10,000 years, as the coastline of modern-day New Zealand has taken shape, that the sea has eroded away the layers of overlying sandstone and clays to reveal the fossilised tree stumps and logs on the foreshore.
The level of detail preserved is extraordinary, particularly patterns of bark. At a quick glance it’s difficult to believe that we are not looking at real, recently toppled trees, rather than rocks in the form of trees. As well as fossilised logs lying on the foreshore we also find stumps, presumably the result of the tree trunks being snapped off and carried away during the violent floods of volcanic debris. Growth rings are visible on some of the stumps.
The area of petrified forest we are able to explore is limited. This is one of the largest and least disturbed Jurassic fossil forests in the world, stretching to some 20 kilometres (12 miles), but the far end of the bay is roped off. We look carefully, and in the distance we spot the reason: a Yellow-eyed Penguin waddling up towards the bushes and low growing trees where it presumably has a nest.
We’re lucky to spot this penguin, not just because they are so rare, but because it’s only 2pm and they don’t normally come ashore this early in the afternoon. It’s not a great view – we can’t get close because of the rope – but nevertheless it’s a privilege to see the third, and rarest, of New Zealand’s breeding penguins. Later on our trip we’re due to visit another spot that they frequent, and hopefully at that time we’ll get better views and better photos.
The water taxi drops us off at the jetty, and as we walk up to the small shelter where we’re due to meet our guide we’re greeted by a giant cartoon rodent inviting us to check for rats and seeds. It’s a reminder – if one were needed – that we’ve landed in a very special place.
Ulva Island, weighing in at 267 hectares (660 acres, or just over one square mile) is one of the jewels of New Zealand conservation. Here’s what the Department of Conservation has to say about it:
Listening to the bird song on Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara is like stepping back in time, to an era when New Zealand’s bird fauna was still largely intact. This predator‑free island, located in Paterson Inlet/Whaka a Te Wera, Stewart Island/Rakiura, is not only a bird enthusiast’s paradise; it is also one of the few offshore islands with a largely undisturbed podocarp forest. This mature forest distinguishes Ulva from other sanctuaries such as Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi, which are largely covered in regenerating vegetation.
Cats, possums and stoats – three of the main predators that threaten native birds – have never made it to Ulva, but rats were a big problem. An eradication programme that ran between 1992 and 1997 successfully got rid of them, but constant vigilance is needed to ensure they don’t make an unwelcome return.
Similarly, efforts to keep the seeds of introduced plants off Ulva help protect the primeval vegetation. There are almost no non-native plants here on Ulva.
Before we move off into the forest we’re pleased to see an old friend, the weka, searching for insects on the kelp washed up along the beach. He’s intent on lunch, and untroubled by our presence. We’ve seen these flightless birds at several places during our New Zealand travels, although the plumage of those from Stewart and Ulva Islands is a slightly different – chestnut – colour.
We set off on our walk, along well maintained tracks that were first carved out of the undergrowth in the 1880s. Unsurprisingly the bird watching is challenging, as it always is in forests. Bird listening is easy – they’re all over the place, singing their little hearts out – but can we see them? Of course not, the little buggers are keeping their heads down amongst the foliage. All except, that is, the Stewart Island Robin.
The Stewart Island Robin, or toutouwai as the Maori call it, is small, primarily grey and sports a white breast. It is ludicrously tame, approaching our party fearlessly, hopping between and over our feet. Given its trusting nature and habit of nesting close to the ground it fares badly wherever rats are present, so here on Ulva is one of the few places where it continues to thrive.
That the robins are here at all for us to enjoy is thanks to a reintroduction programme. Following the eradication of the rats, 18 birds were brought in from another population on Stewart Island. These quickly settled in, and numbers have since grown steadily. We find them – or, to be more accurate, they find us – at various points along our walk through the island, suggesting they are now very firmly established here.
As we walk on we’re delighted to see some more old friends, kaka, or forest parrots. They inevitably remind us of dear old Lady Kaka, the feisty bird that lives, loves and squawks loudly on the porch of our accommodation on Stewart Island. But there’s another parrot too, or more correctly a parakeet. The Yellow-crowned Parakeet, or kakariki, is a noisy chap who spends most of his time flitting around in the forest canopy. Luckily one drops on to a low-hanging bough for a few seconds, giving Mrs P a chance to fire off a quick shot.
It’s not all about the birds, though. The variety of vegetation, all of it totally unfamiliar to a casual visitor from the UK, is immense. Our guide knows her plants however, and shares her knowledge of bush-lore. Amongst the most interesting things she tells us about is the Muttonbird Scrub Leaf.
Until the 1970s it used to be entirely legal to pluck a leaf from this plant, write a (short) message, whack on a postage stamp and send it through the New Zealand mail. Also, when you’re caught short in the bush, the leaf makes excellent toilet paper. We’re told that there is a similar species found further north in New Zealand which has the consistency of two-ply toilet paper. However down here they do things a lot better: Ulva’s Muttonbird Scrub Leaf is four-ply quality. Oh, such luxury!
But perhaps the greatest thrill of our visit to Ulva Island is to catch a glimpse of the South Island Saddleback. In 1964 this bird was confined to Big South Cape Island, and down to just 36 individuals due to the arrival of rats. Those few birds were moved to pest-free islands, and in due course some were brought to Ulva where they are flourishing. It’s another encouraging example of how, with hard work and sufficient resources, threatened birds can be brought back from the brink.
Ulva is an inspiring place, a hint of what all of New Zealand must have looked and sounded like before humans arrived with their alien species of mammals, birds and plants. In one sense I suppose it’s like a museum, but a living museum, teeming with life, exuberant, vibrant and colourful. It’s most definitely a must-see destination for visitors who seek an understanding of New Zealand’s unique natural heritage.
Many of the best experiences during our New Zealand odyssey have happened in boats, so it’s good to get back on the water again. We’re taking a half-day pelagic trip from Stewart Island and are hoping for a seabird bonanza.
The boat is small, and when it’s not taking birders out on spotting expeditions it plies its trade as a water taxi between Stewart and the surround islands. We’re in for a rough ride if the wind gets up. Fortunately as we set off the sea is fairly calm, although dark clouds on the horizon hint that there may be trouble ahead.
As our journey begins the boat hugs the coastline, allowing us to view Stewart Island from an unfamiliar perspective. We’re pleased to see a rainbow in the distance: pleased partly because rainbows are a joy to behold, but mainly because it means some other buggers are getting wet rather than us.
Just offshore a line of jagged rocks slices through the rolling sea. Atop one sits a White-fronted Tern, sporting a distinctive black bill. Known as tara by the Maori it’s New Zealand’s commonest tern and is found in coastal waters throughout the country. It’s a good looking bird and we’d like to stay longer to admire it and its companions, but we have an appointment with some mollymawks so it’s time to move on.
As we edge along the coast we spot a Pied Shag (karuhiruhi) rookery in a tree close to the water. The tree is leafless and probably dead, an inevitable consequence of having a colony of large, messy seabirds living in – and pooing over – your branches for months on end. We’ve seen these birds at several places during our travels, but this is first time we’ve had a clear view of juveniles as well as adults. You might expect the youngsters to be cautious and a bit shy, but one of them is standing out proudly and shamelessly on a branch, watching us watching him. Judging by his behaviour and plumage he’s fast approaching maturity.
We head a short way out from the coast and into open water, then turn off the engine. Having done a similar trip from Kaikoura a few weeks ago, we know the drill. Park the boat somewhere a little way out to sea, toss some fishy bits overboard and wait for the fun to begin. And so it does. The skipper chucks some offcuts from the local fish processing factory into the water close to the boat, and we all sit back to watch the action.
The birds are familiar with the routine, and if they spot our boat acting suspiciously in open water they know a free lunch is up for grabs. They’re not shy in coming forward, knowing from experience that the early bird catches the finest fishy offcuts. They also know that if they paddle up to the boat and look cute some bloke with a beard, baseball cap and big lens will take their photo.
And why not? These are fabulously handsome birds, known as White-capped Mollymawks. A mollymawk is a small to medium sized albatross, but at nearly a metre long and weighing in at up to 4 kilograms they don’t seem either small or medium sized to me. For reasons I can’t fathom they’re also called the Shy Mollymawk, though their facial expression tells me that “cross, bad-tempered mollymawk” might be closer to the mark.
We enjoy watching maybe a dozen mollymawks fly in to feed on the fish scraps our skipper offers them, squabbling angrily amongst themselves when they feel they’ve missed a particularly tasty morsel. It’s great to see them, but the experience is tinged with sadness too. These birds, along with other species of albatross, are in big trouble, innocent victims of the long line fishing industry in the southern oceans. I wonder if future generations will be able to do what we’re doing here today, getting up close and personal with these magnificent birds?
Although White-capped Mollymawks are the birds most interested in what we have to offer, other species also drop in for a look . One of these is the Brown Skua, known to the Maori as hakoakoa.
Similar in appearance to a skua found off the north of Scotland, these birds are scavengers that feed off carrion, as well as on other seabirds, their eggs and chicks. Always on the look out for a free meal, this one follows us as we head off to our next destination.
The fish scraps have all gone and the mollymawks, knowing that lunch is over, start to take their leave. The rain pours down. We need to move on too, towards Ulva Island, where the skipper will drop us off for a tour of the famous bird sanctuary. On the way we’re pleased to spot a group of Little Blue Penguins (korora to the Maori). We saw one a couple of nights ago while we were out looking for kiwi. However we failed to get any photos, so it’s good to catch a glimpse today of this trio of Little Blues swimming characteristically low in the water, untroubled by the downpour that’s giving us a soaking.
In Australia these are known as Fairy Penguins, and our skipper jokes that the New Zealanders don’t use that moniker on grounds of political correctness. Whatever, they’re small (the smallest penguin species in the world) and they’re blue, so the New Zealand name works just fine for me.
Further along, on the rocky shoreline, we spot some old friends: a group of Fiordland Crested Penguins (pokotiwha). These are one of the rarest penguin species in the world and when we came to New Zealand we feared we would struggle to find any. But as it turns out, they’ve been fairly easy to find if you have a knowledgeable guide to show you where to look.
It’s been a great morning on the water. Plenty of birds and no sickness. But the day’s birding hasn’t finished yet. The skipper drops us off at Ulva Island for a guided tour of the bird sanctuary, which will be the subject of my next post.
New Zealanders we’ve met on our travels have been impressed that Stewart Island is on our itinerary. Although tourism is a major part of its economy that’s not saying much for an island with fewer than 400 permanent residents. Few New Zealanders appear to have made the trip, although many speak wistfully of popping over “one day”. It’s a classic bucket list destination.
So what’s the attraction of Stewart, the third, smallest and most southerly of New Zealand’s main islands? Visitors who cross the 30 kilometres of the Foveaux Strait mostly make the journey to go tramping (hiking). There’s a lot for them to have a go at.
At 1,680 square kilometres (650 square miles) Stewart Island is about the size of Greater London. Most of it is a rugged land of undulating hills and low peaks cloaked in pristine, primeval forest and bush growing down to the sea’s edge. Offshore is a scattering of small, picturesque islands and rocky outcrops.
Today 85% of the island is protected as a National Park, and much of the rest is uninhabited and owned by the Rakiura Māori Land Trust. The Stewart Island wilderness remains almost as it was before the first Polynesians – predecessors of the Maori – arrived in the late 13th century.
A small part of me wishes we could visit Rakiura National Park, that we could do what all the fit young things with their enormous rucksacks come here to do, which is to tramp off into the bush and have an adventure in the land that time forgot.
But that’s not going to happen, partly for health reasons but mainly because life’s too short. And anyway, there’s plenty to see and to admire in the small bit of the island that’s accessible to non-trampers like us.
Most of Stewart Island’s residents live in the township of Oban, on Halfmoon Bay. I guess the best word for it is quaint, just a scattering of buildings along a few roads, a tiny supermarket and a hotel that acts as the social centre for islanders and visitors alike. There’s even a giant outdoor chessboard, in case anyone gets bored.
Stewart also boasts a library, a sports and community hall, and a museum. The latter will soon be replaced by a brand new, purpose-built multi-million dollar building, the result of years of fund-raising. Given its tiny population the island has a surprising wealth of facilities that would not look out of place in a town many times its size.
On the hill overlooking Halfmoon Bay stands Oban Presbyterian Church. Being Presbyterian the church, like the name ‘Oban’, is a clue to the Scottish heritage of many of the early settlers here. Wooden and built in 1904, it’s one of the few buildings of any note in the island.
Unsurprisingly the church doesn’t have a resident minister, but worshippers benefit from various visiting preachers including Baptist, Salvation Army and Methodist as well as Presbyterian. This flexible approach to religious observance is, I suppose, another example of the compromises that have to be made in such a remote corner of New Zealand.
There’s evidently a strong sense of community: they’re all in this together, Stewart Islanders, living the dream in New Zealand’s very own “lands end.” Inevitably in a place so small everyone knows everyone else, and nobody locks their doors except the tourists. It’s a friendly, peaceful island, an improbable yet welcome escape from the hurly-burly of the modern world.
In the early decades of European colonisation whaling and sealing were mainstays of the local economy, but thankfully those activities are now but a distant memory. Fishing once employed much of the population, but modern techniques require fewer workers, so it’s left to tourism to pick up the slack.
But most of the tourists are away in the bush, doing whatever it is that trampers do, so there’s little to spoil the tranquillity of Oban other than the occasional stag party attended by mainlanders out on the razzle.
For us Stewart Island’s most attractive feature is its birdlife. Many native New Zealand birds thrive here due to the absence of stoats and other mammalian predators. Outlandish though it may seem, to help ensure the island remains a safe haven for birds dogs must attend ‘kiwi aversion’ classes, where they are trained not to pursue these flightless New Zealand icons.
But the battle against predators hasn’t been won. Rats remain a significant problem, and while they don’t appear to threaten the adult kiwi, they prevent other native birds spreading from Stewart’s offshore sanctuary islands and gaining a foothold here.
In response, several years ago the US-based Dancing Star Foundation purchased an area of land at Mamaku Point. They enclosed it with state-of-the art predator-proof fencing, eliminated the rats and reintroduced some long-absent bird species.
The Mamaku Point Conservation Trust has recently taken over from Dancing Star, and has exciting plans for its “mainland island” reserve.
The trust’s primary objective is to continue Dancing Star Foundation’s successful efforts to conserve and enhance the health and diversity of the native flora and fauna within the reserve, and the secondary objective is to facilitate education, research and public awareness of the importance of these activities.
We’re also focused on making sure the trust and reserve are as financially and environmentally sustainable as possible. In this respect, we’re working with local eco-tourism operators to develop exciting eco-tourism opportunities that will make the property accessible to the public.
It sounds like a brilliant initiative, which will presumably result in the creation of a reserve with similarities to the one we visited at Bushy Park a few weeks ago. Although it’s a pity we’re not able to visit the reserve, it’s encouraging to learn that there are wealthy New Zealanders prepared to support important conservation initiatives with hard cash.