Ulva Island bird sanctuary

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.

Hint: this is a very special island!

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.

SOURCE: Ulva Island brochure, retrieved 10 December 2019

PHOTO CREDIT: By en, [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Temperate rainforest, raindrops sparkling on the leaves

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.

The trees come in all shapes and sizes

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.

File:Stewart Island weka.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Skyring [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

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.

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.

Stewart Island Robin on the forest track, just inches from our feet

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.

Yellow-crowned Parakeet

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.

The variety of vegetation is immense

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.

Photo of an original letter written on a 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!

South Island Saddleback

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.

Rare blossoms amongst the foliage

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.

All at sea: the penguin, the mollymawk and the shameless shag

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.

Our boat is small, and normally operates as a water taxi

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.

A pale and distant rainbow arcs over Stewart Island

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.

White-fronted tern

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.

Juvenile Pied Shag

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.

White-capped Mollymawk

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.

White-capped Mollymawk posing for baseball-capped birder

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.

White-capped Mollymawk

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.

White-capped Mollymawk

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?

Brown (Subantarctic) Skua

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.

Being followed by a Brown (Sub Antarctic) Skua

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.

Little Blue Penguin

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.

Little Blue Penguin

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.

Fiordland Crested Penguin

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.

The Stewart Island story

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.

Ulva Island viewed from Observation Point

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.

Leask Bay

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.

Halfmoon Bay, Oban. The red-roofed building on the right is the hotel.

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.

Oban Presbyterian Church

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.

Giant chessboard on the seafront, and behind the dock from which the ferry to the mainland departs

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.

Ugly but effective: part of the predator-proof fence at Mamaku Point

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.

SOURCE: Statement by Auckland businessman Roy Thompson, owner of the site, quoted in an article in the online news magazine Stuff, 2 August 2017, retrieved 6 December 2019.

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.

Lady Kaka and other parrots on my porch

She’s perched on the railing that guards the edge of our veranda, or porch as they call it in North America, staring into our room through the full length glass sliding door. I’m staring out at her, captivated by her audacity. We’re separated by no more than a couple of metres and a sheet of glass. She can see me but is totally un-phased.

Even when I slide the door open and step closer she’s untroubled, and simply watches me calmly. She doesn’t need reassurance but I offer it anyway, whispering to her, telling her that I find her beautiful and won’t ever harm her. She tips her head to one side quizzically, weighing me up.

I can read her mind. Are you for real? she’s asking herself. Why do you people always act so weird around me? She’s plainly in charge of this encounter, which is like a thousand others meetings she’s had before with guests occupying this room.

I, however, haven’t read the script. I’m lost for words, unsure what to do next. Wild birds aren’t meant to be like this. Is she ill? Or mad? Or am I the crazy one, standing here in awe of a big parrot with olive grey plumage, yellow sideburns and a bloody enormous beak?

I watch her intently, and she watches me back. It’s a Mexican standoff, and neither of us wants to make the first move. Finally she gets bored – I’ve obviously buggered up the audition – and utters a piercing, eardrum-exploding squawk as she flies off into a nearby tree. Lady Kaka has left the building.

The kaka is one of three species of parrot in New Zealand, and is still relatively common on Stewart Island. This is a good thing, as – along with most of the country’s endemic birds – on the mainland it’s in big trouble due to mammalian predation and habitat loss.

Although kaka are doing quite well here, we’d expected to have to work hard to see one. We certainly hadn’t imagined one would come down to our accommodation to say hi. And it’s not just one: in all, during our three days on Stewart, no fewer than four kaka make themselves known to us on and around our porch.

We also watch the kaka feeding on the pieces of apple that have been left for them on the nearby bird table. With dextrous feet they grasp the apple and hold it up to their enormous beaks, which quickly shred and devour the fruit.

As well as lunch, love is plainly in the air. One of the other birds makes eyes at Lady Kaka, who, taking after her namesake, is loud, elegant and feisty and therefore a good catch in the weird world of parrots. He displays to her and chases her along the railing, squawking loudly as he does so. He’s persistent, but she’s not impressed. He obviously needs to try harder if he’s going to have his wicked way with her.

Eventually Lady Kaka flies away, leaving the suitor looking disconsolate. After a few seconds he flies off in pursuit, but his heart isn’t really in it. He knows when he’s beaten. There’s no doubt who wears the trousers around here: Lady Kaka, the parrot on my porch.

Midnight kiwi capers

The kiwi, New Zealand’s iconic bird, is nocturnal, secretive and rare. The chances of us ever tracking one down without help are remote, so we’ve hired a local expert to help us out. Stewart Island (Rakiura) boasts several experienced birders selling their guiding services, but Ulva’s reputation surpasses all the rest. If anybody’s going to find us a kiwi it’s Ulva, and we’re lucky she’s available.

Darkness has fallen as we make our way to Ulva’s offices at around 10pm, where she issues us with torches that shine red light. Being nocturnal, kiwis operate primarily by smell. Their eyesight is poor, but a normal white torchlight may scare them off. However they can’t see red light at all. This is a great help for spotting kiwis, but not so good for taking photos of them. Using flash is totally forbidden; at best it will alarm them, and at worst blind them.

We clamber into Ulva’s 4×4, and she proceeds to drive us around Stewart Island’s road network in search of the elusive bird. “Road network” is maybe overstating it a bit; only 3% of the island is open for settlement, the rest being either a nature reserve or in the ownership of the Rakiura Maori Lands Trust. In total the public highway extends to no more than 25 kilometres.

Ulva knows every metre of Stewart Island roads intimately, and also knows where kiwi are most likely to be seen. As the rain falls steadily we check out all her favourite haunts, but there’s no sign of a kiwi at any of them. We do however spot several other search parties shining torches beneath bushes and into dark rocky corners, all on a similar quest to ours. It’s evident from their body language that they’re having no more luck than us.

Ulva decides to try a different approach, checking out a stretch of beach where kiwis are know to feed, and a fence-line where they sometimes forage, but again to no avail. The rain is getting heavier, and our morale is sinking fast. It’s now approaching midnight, and Ulva decides to retrace our journey of earlier in the evening to see if the situation has changed.

We’re driving along a narrow, dark road that’s lit only by the car headlights when we spot movement on the roadside to our left. Ulva slams on the brakes, and for maybe five seconds we have a great view of a Little Blue Penguin. Even in the difficult light we can clearly pick out his brilliant white waistcoat and the hint of blue in the feathers on his back, before he scuttles off into the bush. Unfortunately there’s no time to get a photo, but the image below (taken in Tasmania) shows the bird’s key features.

File:Eudyptula minor Bruny 1.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

The Little Blue is the world’s smallest penguin. It nest in small numbers all around the coast of New Zealand, and in parts of Australia too where it’s called the Fairy Penguin. They nest in burrows some distance inland, staying out at sea during daylight and returning to their chicks with food in the dark of night.

A penguin wasn’t what he had in mind for tonight’s expedition, but at least we’ve seen something. We carry on driving the roads. I’m sitting upfront, next to Ulva, scanning the road hopefully. I spot some movement and shout “stop.” Ulva pulls up sharply, and as she does so a smallish, brown/grey bird flies up from the ground where it’s been feeding on roadkill. It’s a tiny owl called a Morepork, named after its distinctive call.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mosborne01 [CC0]

We leap out of the car and scan the tree into which it flew. It takes off again and circles the trees for maybe a minute, before disappearing for good. Again it’s impossible to take a photo, but finally catching sight of a bird we’ve heard a few times previously is an unexpected bonus. The image above from Creative Commons shows what a Morepork looks like in daylight, although the bird’s tiny size is difficult to appreciate.

It’s now approaching 1.00am, and despite the penguin and the owl we’re feeling miserable. Our best chance of seeing a kiwi seems to have passed us by. Ulva decides to take one final drive along a road where she’s had success recently. She drives slowly, and we’re all scanning ahead and to the side of the car.

Suddenly Mrs P shouts “There! There! There!”. We look ahead and to the left, and spot the unmistakable shape of a kiwi. Ulva stops and kills the headlights, and we all leap from the car brandishing our red-light torches. The kiwi is a few metres from us, apparently unaware of us, or at least untroubled by our presence.

We watch, transfixed, for a couple of minutes until, amazingly, a second kiwi appears. It’s much bigger than the first bird, with a longer beak, and must therefore be a female. She chases him into the bush and seconds later a deafening screech comes from his direction. It’s not clear what she’s done to provoke such a response, but it is an unearthly noise and if we didn’t know the cause a supernatural explanation would have appeared plausible.

As if to mark the success of our kiwi search the rain has stopped, and the sky is now crystal clear. Stewart Island is an acclaimed ‘dark sky area’, and in the darkness we can see countless stars shining their light upon us. From a gloomy start the night has turned magical, and without doubt will remain one of the highlights of our visit to New Zealand.

We assume that the show’s over, but amazingly a third kiwi has appeared from the bush and is working his way calmly along the roadside verge, plunging his beak deep into the grass in search of food. Being flightless he can’t take to the wing to get away, but in any case he seems happy where he is, completely ignoring his entranced admirers.

We watch for maybe 15 minutes, getting unforgettable views of a magnificent, iconic bird. The red light makes photography very difficult, but it doesn’t really matter: this memory will stay with us forever.

To the end of New Zealand: Stewart Island

We’re on our way to Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third largest island. It lies 30 kilometres south of the South Island, across the Foveaux Strait. There’s no car ferry to Stewart, so we have the choice of flying in an eight-seater aircraft or taking a passenger ferry that has room for a few dozen victims.

I use the word “victims” advisedly as this crossing is notoriously rough. But the plane journey is also infamous, and the locals – who know about these things – say that if you want to visit Stewart Island you have a choice between 20 minutes of terror and 60 minutes of horror. We’ve opted for the latter, but first we’ve got a drive of several hours to get to Bluff harbour at the southern tip of South Island.

On the way we drop in at the Clifden Suspension Bridge. It’s trumpeted as a historic landmark, but one thing we’ve learned since coming here is New Zealand is so lacking in old stuff that anything that’s been around for more than a century attracts a lot of interest.

If I were being churlish I would say that it’s not a patch on the similarly named Clifton Suspension Bridge in the UK, but at 112 metres it represents a decent piece of civil engineering for a remote part of New Zealand in 1898/99. A single lane bridge, it was originally used by horse and cart traffic and later by motor vehicles, and remained in operation until 1978.

We make one more stop before parking up for our trip to Stewart Island, when we call in at the Invercargill Water Tower. It’s one of several water towers we’ve visited on this trip, and although it doesn’t sound at all interesting in our view it’s a bit of an architectural gem. The New Zealand History website says that it combines utility and beauty, which sums it up nicely.

It’s time to park the car at the harbour and board the ferry to Stewart Island. Our luggage is place into bins and loaded on to the back the boat by crane, and a few minutes later we’re ready to set off.

Luckily the sea is relatively calm, but the crossing is ruined by some of our fellow passengers, a large group of rowdy young men evidently on their way to a stag party on the island. The beer flows freely, and the young men behave boorishly and shout a lot as the alcohol kicks in. Oh, such nostalgia, we could be back in the UK! …

… Until we arrive at Stewart Island, that is. The island policeman has been tipped off about the yobs’ arrival, and is there at the quayside to welcome them. He takes them aside and gives them a stern lecture on what is and is not acceptable on this island whose resident population is 380 civilians plus one policeman.

Stewart is a law-abiding island. We’re told that there’s only ever been one murder here, in the 1840’s. Nobody was arrested, but we’re reassured that investigations are ongoing and an announcement is expected soon. I think I’m going to like this place.

But for now there’s no time to explore. We need to get to our accommodation and sort ourselves out as soon as possible, because at 10pm tonight we’re booked on to a kiwi-spotting expedition. This will be our best opportunity to meet up with New Zealand’s most iconic bird, and we’re on high alert.

Will we or won’t we see a wild kiwi for first and probably the only time in our lives? Check out my next post to find the answer.

The magic of Doubtful Sound

We’re off on another cruise down one of the fiords that grace the coastline of this part of New Zealand, and this time we’re staying on board overnight. But Doubtful Sound is more remote than its cousin Milford, which we visited a couple of days ago. It’s about 50 kilometres (31 miles) from the nearest inhabited place, the small town of Manapouri, and is surrounded by mountainous terrain with peaks typically reaching 1,300–1,600 metres (4,300–5,200 ft). Along the coast, there are no settlements for about 200 kilometres (120 miles) in either direction.

Crossing Lake Manapouri

To reach Doubtful Sound we must first take a 45 minute boat ride to the far end of Lake Manapouri. When we disembark squadrons of murderous sandflies circle around us. Not many people come here, so when these wretched mini-Draculas catch our scent they swarm all over us in their thousands, all hoping for a blood-fest.

Waterfall and rainforest at the Wilmot Pass

Our specially commissioned minibus arrives to rescue us from our sandfly misery, and soon we’re off on the next leg of our trip. We travel for around 60 minutes on a gravel road, climbing up a mountainside to cross over the Wilmot Pass through Fiordland’s rainforest, and then descending on the other side to the wharf at Milford.

The gravel road does not connect with South Island’s main network of highways. It and the wharf only exist courtesy of the hydro-electric company that generates power on Lake Manapouri. The outlet pipe for the power station discharges into Doubtful Sound, and its construction and maintenance has resulted in the limited developments that has made tourism possible here.

Our first view of Doubtful Sound, viewed from the Wilmot Pass

This cruise is billed as an exclusive, luxury experience so there are just 10 passengers, plus the skipper and a chef who will attend to our every culinary need for the next 24 hours.

Of course “luxury” is difficult to achieve on such a small boat, but at least Mrs P and I are staying in the relatively spacious master cabin at the bow (or the sharp, pointy end, as Mrs P likes to call it.) We can feel the eyes of our fellow passengers boring into us as we make our way forward, past their lowly cabins to our own floating palace.

Our ‘palace’ at the ‘sharp pointy end’ of the boat.

Do we feel slightly awkward or embarrassed? No, not a bit. In life you win some and lose some, and this time we won big. Thank you to our agents, New Zealand in Depth, for being on the ball and making sure our name was at the top of the list.

By the time we’ve got ourselves sorted out in our cabin, a welcome lunch is being served upstairs on the main passenger deck. The skipper casts off and sets sail up Doubtful Sound, passing towering waterfalls along the way, while we dine like royalty.

Our cruise along Milford Sound took place on a glorious, sunny day. We thought that was great, but old Milford hands told us that the place has more atmosphere in gloomy weather. We visit Doubtful Sound on just such a day: grey, dull, and misty, and the place does indeed have a brooding, slightly eerie atmosphere.

A perch for our supper

One of the advantages of being on such a small boat is that it allows passengers to get closer to the water than was possible on the Milford Sound trip. Some of our fellow passengers enjoy a spot of kayaking, and there’s an opportunity to fish for our supper.

This handsome dogfish was released after the obligatory trophy photos

Personally I’m uncomfortable with the taking of any life for sport, so am delighted that the handsome dogfish is released from the hook and put back continue his life in the Sound. However perch make good eating, so I have no objections when it is despatched quickly and humanely, and served up to us a couple of hours later.

A rainbow stretches from side to side across the Sound

After a peaceful night’s sleep anchored in a sheltered cove we set off along the Sound again. Rain has set in, but it brings an unexpected bonus in the form of a bright, iridescent rainbow.

One of the very few other boats on Doubtful Sound

While in Milford Sound there were large numbers of tourist boats, here on Doubtful there are only a couple of others and although we see them briefly they are soon out of sight and forgotten. It feels as if we have the Sound to ourselves.

A shag in search of a late breakfast … or maybe an early lunch?

Except for the birds, that is. Mrs P is delighted to take this photo of a shag in flight, its head thrust forward as it makes its way along the water, presumably in search of a late breakfast or an early lunch.

Fiordland Crested Penguins

Bur pride of place must go to the Fiordland Crested Penguins. These birds are very rare, but this is now the third or fourth good sighting we have enjoyed in recent days.

Finally, after almost 24 hours on board, our Doubtful Sound cruise comes to an end. It’s been a magical experience, with majestic scenery, some great wildlife and superb hospitality from the crew. Definitely one of the main highlights so far of our visit to New Zealand.

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On Milford Sound

We open the curtains at our lodge accommodation with some trepidation. Milford Sound gets an average of 641 centimetres (252 inches) of rain a year, and is the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand, and one of the wettest in the world. Given our bad luck with the weather so far this trip, we could be in for another deluge here.

But, joy of joys, the sun’s out and the sky’s blue, so we make our way down to the harbour with a spring in our steps. We board our gleaming catamaran with a few dozen other fellow travellers and prepare to head out along the Sound.

Here’s a little question for you: when is a sound not a sound. Answer: when it’s a fiord (fjord). Sounds are carved out of the landscape by rivers, while fiords are scraped and scoured out of the bedrock by glaciers. Milford Sound was formed by the process of glaciation over several million years and should therefore more properly be called Milford Fiord. But what’s in a name? However it was created, Milford Sound is pretty damned impressive, with sheer rock faces on either side that rise as high as 1,200 metres (3,900 feet).

Within a few minutes of leaving the harbour we are alongside one of the Sound’s most spectacular features, the Lady Bowen Falls. As one of only two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound, the falls provide electricity for the Milford Sound settlement by feeding a small hydroelectric scheme. It’s also the source of their fresh water.

As well as the two permanent waterfalls there are many others that appear after heavy rain. Because there’s been so much rain recently there are plenty of falls along the length of the Sound for us to admire. Our boat noses underneath one of them to give the passengers a closer look.

A plucky crew member, kitted out in waterproofs and wearing a long-suffering expression, is despatched to collect water as it cascades on to the bow of the boat. Glasses are then passed round, so we can all try mountain fresh, ice cold water. It’s a kind offer, but one I find I can resist without too much trouble.

The boat ploughs on, and we continue to enjoy the scenery. Rudyard Kipling came here, and reportedly described this place as the 8th Wonder of the World. That’s probably overdoing it a bit, but it’s easy to see why Milford Sound inspired him.

But it’s not just the scenery. The wildlife here is special too, and we are pleased to meet up once again with our friend from earlier in this trip, the Fiordland Crested Penguin. At first we encounter one paddling past our catamaran, seemingly unperturbed by our presence.

A little later on, close to the mouth of the Sound, the skipper edges close to the rocks where these penguins have been seen on previous trips, and we’re pleased to see one. The waves are crashing into the rock on which he sits. He looks uncomfortable, but I guess it’s all in a day’s work to a bird that’s adapted to live most of its life in the ocean.

Having reached the end of the Sound we turn, and edge our way back towards the harbour, passing waterfalls large and small. Stirling Falls is a massive 151 metres high.

We’ve opted for the super-deluxe trip, so we break our journey at the Harrison Cove Underwater Observatory, for a glimpse of life beneath the surface of Milford Sound. Here’s how they describe their operation:

You’ll descend 64 steps (10 metres) underwater into a large, fully air-conditioned viewing area where windows with excellent clarity open your eyes to this underwater haven. Unlike an aquarium, the fish are free to come and go; it’s the people who are contained.

SOURCE: Southern Discoveries website, retrieved 24 November 2019

The Observatory certainly adds a whole new dimension to the Milford Sound experience. The “black coral” – which is actually white until it dies – is delicate and beautiful. Occasionally a fish swims past, and we are told that if you’re lucky – we aren’t, sadly – you may even catch a glimpse of a penguin or a seal.

Milford Sound is regarded by many as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. It’s certainly big business. During our morning on the water we spot a number of other vessels undertaking similar cruises. But the Sound is huge and can easily accommodate the numbers, and I’m sure that all the visitors leave happy with the experience they’ve had. Milford Sound is a very special place.

Penguins on parade

The timing of our visit to New Zealand has been planned to maximise our chances of seeing the Fiordland Crested Penguin. Today’s the day when we find out if we’ve got it right.

Gerry drives us and a couple of other guests from the Lodge and drops us off by the side of the road. He tells us to lurk in the bushes while he secrets the van at another location some distance away. On his return we are ushered into the undergrowth, leaving no evidence that we were ever there at all.

This cloak and dagger stuff is worthy of a television crime drama, but Gerry has his reasons. The Fiordland Crested is endemic to New Zealand, meaning that it’s found nowhere else in the world. It’s one of the world’s rarest penguins, and to protect it from mammalian predators the Department of Conserevation has laid baited rat traps all over the area.

But this penguin is also desperately vulnerable to disturbance by people and, especially, their dogs. The colony that Gerry’s taking us to visit isn’t well known and is very difficult to find. He’s determined to keep it this way.

The path takes us deep into the forest, past palm ferns and a variety of native trees. It’s twisty, steep and slippery, and not at all pleasant to walk. But that, of course, is exactly the point.

To cover our tracks we ford the same river a number of times, and at one point a false trail is laid so that anyone following us won’t find the correct river crossing. The Lodge has loaned us all gumboots (wellingtons to any Brits reading this), and this is a good thing in view of the trek we’ve embarked upon.

However the river’s running fast and high due to all the rain we’ve had recently, and at the second crossing Mrs P fills one of her gumboots. She’s not at all a happy bunny, but the prospect of penguins stiffens her resolve and she squelches on stoically.

Eventually we arrive at the beach, and Gerry leads us to the appropriate spot. To our right the sea, waves slapping into the beach and shoreline rocks; to our left, a steep hillside, green and thickly forested. The penguins nest in the forest, and trudge up and down the hillside every day to feed their youngsters. This is what we’re hoping to witness.

Within seconds we spot our first penguin. He’s out at sea, but paddling calmly towards the shoreline.

Soon he’s out on dry land, looking this way and that to check that he’s safe. We can tell immediately that he’s a good looking lad. He stands at around 60cm, a stout bird with dark head and upperparts, and white underparts. A broad yellow crest, which is the source of his name, runs above his vivid red eye.

Having established that the coast is clear, both literally and metaphorically, he moves up the beach a little and begins to preen. He needs to ensure he’s in tiptop condition before he starts the yomping to the nest site.

Once everything is in order he sets off. And as he walks up the beach we spot his unusual posture. Whereas most penguins that I’ve seen (albeit courtesy of Sir David Attenborough) hold themselves upright when they move, he walks in a stooped position like an old man with a walking stick.

But his posture doesn’t hold him up, and soon he’s reached the spot where the beach ends and the hillside begins. Now he’s been joined by another penguin, and the two of them begin to scramble up the slope. They’ve walked this path many times before, as have the colony’s other adult birds. The lower slope is bare of all vegetation, worn away by the trudging of countless webbed feet, and the soil is crumbling away.

At last our hero is within metres of the forest edge. He turns and surveys the beach one more time, before heading off amongst the trees. He may still have several hundred metres to travel, but we will never see him again.

By Gerry’s reckoning we see 19 penguins on parade over a period of about 90 minutes, some climbing uphill to their nests, and others returning down to the sea to catch more fish for their ravenous chicks. It’s been an honour and a privilege to watch them go about their business at Gerry’s secret location. Here’s hoping the secret remains a secret, and that the action continues for generations to come.

Kiwis, glaciers and a mountain parrot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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