Seals, boulders and a message from the Aussies

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.

Beach at 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.

Katiki Point (Moeraki) Lighthouse, built in 1878

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.

The liveliest Fur Seals just lie around and scratch themselves idly

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.

Nothing interesting ever happens around here

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, a lone ‘selfie magnet’

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.

“The Neck” at Katiki Point

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.

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.

The Moeraki Boulders

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 Boulders date from between 66 and 55 million years ago

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.

Lake Pukaki in the foreground, and behind a message from the Australian bushfires

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.

Waterfall wonders and hairpin horrors

9 November 2019

We’ve enjoyed our stay at Wilderness Lodge, and were thrilled to get within a few metres of the amazing Fiordland Crested Penguin. But this place is horrendously wet. Hereabouts they get 3.5 metres of rain every year; that’s around 10 feet for Brits and Americans who haven’t got to grips with the metric system yet! So, as we continue our journey south, the waterfalls along the Haast River are working overtime.

Roaring Billy Falls

New Zealanders have named their waterfalls thoughtfully, so you’re left in absolutely no doubt what to expect if you visit one. Take the Roaring Billy Falls, for example. Now I haven’t got a clue who Billy was, but “roaring” tells you all you need to know. Even viewed from a distance through the mist and rain it’s a spectacular sight.

Thundercreek Falls

And what about Thundercreek Falls, just a few miles down the road? Again the name leaves little to the imagination, and at 28 metres high it’s hugely impressive.

Fantail Falls

The name Fantail Falls alludes to shape, rather than the volume of water that cascades down into the Haast River. Again, a magnificent sight after all this rain.

To be honest we’re getting a bit fed up with the rain, and would be glad of a couple of days of dry, sunny weather. But Mrs P phoned home this morning and learned that our area of the UK has been hit by unprecedented floods, so we’re probably better off here … after all you don’t see too many penguins in the English Midlands.

We’ve turned our backs on the coast and are heading inland in the direction of Queenstown. On the way we pass the historic Cardrona Hotel. Dating from 1863 it’s one of New Zealand’s oldest hotels.

This area’s heyday was during the mid-nineteenth century goldrush, when Cardrona town was a prosperous settlement and a significant commercial hub for the area. How things have changed … the town has since all but vanished, and only the historic hotel facade remains to remind visitors like us of the glory days.

We’ve chosen to take the scenic, more challenging route towards Queenstown, along the Crown Range Road. It’s the highest main road in New Zealand, reaching an altitude on 1,121 metres. The road is steep and twisty, with a series of eye-watering hairpin bends. At times it’s a bit of a white-knuckle ride, but the landscape is adequate compensation for the stress of the journey. The landscape is simply stunning, and at times reminds us of the Scottish Highlands.

We’ve seen a few vintage cars on the road today, and as we pull into a scenic overlook we find ourselves confronted by a splendid Austin 8. The driver tells us that there’s a vintage rally in progress to celebrate the opening of the Haast Pass in 1965, when the first car to travel the newly opened road was a 1930 Austin 7.

The pass was the final stretch of State Highway 6 – one of New Zealand’s major roads – to be built, and was not fully sealed with tarmac until 1995. A salutary reminder, I think, that much of New Zealand’s infrastructure was built relatively recently.

Having admired the Austin 8, and the dusting of snow on the mountains behind, we set off on the final stretch of our journey. Gibbston, our final destination, lies on the outskirts of Queenstown. For the next two nights we’ll be staying at a winery, which sounds like the perfect way to wind down after the challenge of all those horrible hairpin bends!

Good weather for ducks

7 November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

A few hours later as Lake Superior begins to emerge

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

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

Paradise Shelduck and emerging lake

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

It’s a washout

24 October 2019

Shortly after checking out of our accommodation we stop for petrol. “Where are you folks off to today?” asks the friendly Maori lady at the filling station.

“We’re going to drive the Forgotten Highway down to Stratford. We might even get our passports stamped in the Republic of Whangamomona, where goats get to be president” says Mrs P proudly.

“Forget it,” she comes back, shaking her head sadly, “the road’s been washed out.”

So, not for the first time on this trip we must revert to Plan B. On this occasion Plan B is a detour via the coast road, which adds around 100km and more than an hour to our journey. Not ideal, but we have no choice, so we grit our teeth and set out on a different long and winding road.

As it happens the Plan B route isn’t at all bad, particularly once we hit the coast and start travelling south along the Tasman Sea. The black sand littered with driftwood is more appealing than it sounds, and we have a birdie treat when a Royal Spoonbill puts in an appearance.

At last we arrive at our accommodation for the next two nights. Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge sits on the slopes of Mount Taranaki, 905 metres above sea level. Mount Taranaki is a must-see volcano which, at 2,514 metres, dominates the surrounding landscape.

However, must-see isn’t the same as can-see, and we are denied a proper sighting by the low cloud that clings to the summit. But never mind, the Lodge has a piece of modern stained glass that bears an image of the volcano, as well and a waterfall and a native bird, so at least we know what we’re missing.

New Zealand is a young country and historic buildings are a bit thin on the ground, so it’s a rare pleasure to stay somewhere originally built in the nineteenth century – 1896 to be precise – in the style of a traditional European mountain lodge.

It’s a quirky place, but cosy and full of character, with staff to match. And, for reasons that are none too clear, we get to stay in the Honeymoon Suite. Now Mrs P and I have been married for 35 years, but in a place like this who can possibly believe that romance is dead?

Tongariro National Park

23 October 2019

After a night of torrential rain we awake to flurries of sleet and a bitter wind. It’s tempting to stay in our luxurious accommodation all day to keep warm and cosy, but unfortunately the power company’s disconnecting the supply at 9am for “essential maintenance,” so we may just as well go out and brave the elements. Our host is encouraging, saying that weather hereabouts is very localised, and so up the road there may be a heatwave. We have our doubts, but what the hell there’s nothing to lose.

Our plan for the morning is to drive to the top of a nearby mountain road to admire the view, but soon after setting off we learn that the road in question is closed by 20cm of snow, and is unlikely to reopen any time soon. Disappointed we head for the nearest café and console ourselves with a large mocha and a monstrous slab of cake.

Suitably refreshed we head back to Whakapapa, retracing yesterday’s journey. It turns out our hosts were right, the weather is better here although “heatwave” would be stretching a point. Nevertheless the view of the volcanoes is much better than 24 hours ago.

Tongariro National Park boasts several impressive volcanoes, including Mount Ngauruhoe at almost 2,300 metres. Mount Ngauruhoe has the honour of being New Zealand’s newest and historically most active volcano. There have been more than 70 “eruptive episodes” since 1839. However all has been quiet since 1975, so we are relaxed about the risk.

Unsurprisingly, given the weather at present, Ngauruhoe’s summit and high slopes are cloaked in cloud, but like a flirtatious stripper she teases and tantalises us with the occasional glimpse of what lies beneath.

As the minutes pass she becomes more and more daring, giving us longer and more revealing peeps at her wares, until finally she throws caution to the wind. The cloud that has hidden her charms for so long dissipates and Ngauruhoe stands before us, naked, glorious and unashamed. A classically shaped cone, the summit and upper slopes a dazzling white carpet of snow, she is magnificent. We’ve waited 24 hours to enjoy this sight, and it was worth waiting for.

Having had our fill of Mount Ngauruhoe, the last stop on our itinerary is the Tawhai Falls. The waterfall is 13 metres high, and like so many others we’ve seen on this trip it is magnificent.

But Tawhai Falls have another claim to fame, as a filming location for Gollum’s pool where Faramir and his archers are watching Gollum fish. There’s no sign of Gollum today, but who cares? Even without the Lord of the Rings connection this place is well worth a visit, and the frustrations caused by the weather yesterday and this morning are all but forgotten.

Things fall apart

22 October 2019

Things are falling apart.  Today we were due to take a boat trip on Lake Taupo, to see some Maori rock carvings that are inaccessible by land.  However, it was blowing a gale and the skipper decided it would be too risky – or perhaps more accurately, way too unpleasant – to sail, so he cancelled the excursion.   That’s three boat trips out of four that we’ve lost to the weather since arriving in New Zealand. I’m starting to think the gods have taken a dislike to us.

Speaking of things falling apart, my shoes have disintegrated.   I bought them just a few months before leaving the UK, but within a day or two of arriving here they were virtually unwearable.  Luckily Taupo has some decent retail outlets, so instead of visiting the Maori carvings we tour the town’s shoe shops. Thankfully I manage to get a new and comfortable pair of walking shoes without much difficulty, but that’s $137 I’ll never see again.

Newly shod, it’s time for me to take the wheel again and set off towards Tongariro National Park.  On the way we stop off briefly at South Taupo Wetland in the hope of seeing some interesting local birds while we eat our lunch.  Unfortunately the birds mostly keep their distance, but we do at least enjoy the view across Lake Taupo towards a distant volcano.

As we drive on the weather starts to close in ominously.  We park up briefly at the Makatote Viaduct which, when it was built between 1906 and 1909 for New Zealand Railways, was the tallest bridge in New Zealand. 

Our brief photo stop over, we continue on towards Tongariro National Park, which is famous for its spectacular volcanoes.  We drop in at the visitor centre at Whakapapa (confusingly, and somewhat alarmingly pronounced something like Fukka-puppa) before carrying on up the steep, winding mountain road, through dark and gloomy forest, until it opens up at a car park. 

As we look around us the top of the volcanoes are shrouded in low cloud, while the slopes are snow-covered. A bitter wind blows and sleety rain is falling, so we decide it’s time to beat a hasty retreat to a lower and more agreeable altitude.

With the weather becoming ever more threatening we conclude there is no further prospect of spotting volcanoes, so we head off to the little town of Ohakune for dinner.  This area is the self-proclaimed carrot capital of New Zealand, and the town boasts a children’s playground – called Carrot World, or something similar, I suspect – celebrating the orange root and its various veggie cousins. 

Dotted around the playground are large fibre glass characterisations of several vegetables, including a disturbingly phallic parsnip.  In retrospect this is all a bit odd, given how much kids the world over hate vegetables. Or maybe New Zealand kids do eat all their veggies, which could explain why they grow up to be such fearsome rugby players?  

But the most dramatic feature of the playground is a huge (and I mean monstrously huge) carrot on the roadside, announcing to every passing motorist that this town has truly taken the orange root to its heart.  Mrs P’s camera has barely been used all day, so she gets it out and snaps away merrily.

But, on reflection, if the best thing we can say about today is that we saw a big bridge and big carrot, then I must regretfully conclude that it has not gone well for us.  Things are indeed falling apart, and we can only hope for better fortune tomorrow.

Auckland again

16 October 2019

For the second day in a row the weather blows a hole in our plans; once again we’re all dressed up with nowhere to go.  Although it’s stopped raining and the sun is out, today’s boat trip to Tiri Tiri Matangi island is cancelled due to strong winds.  It’s a particular disappointment for us as we’re keen birdwatchers, and the island is a bird reserve where we’d hoped to see some of New Zealand’s rarest native birds.

Our only hope for rescuing the day is a re-run of yesterday’s Plan B, so we head back to Hop-On-Hop-Off bus with the intention of hopping off at some different stops this time.   Our first destinations are the Church of St Mary, and Holy Trinity Cathedral which sits immediately next to it.

St Mary’s dates from the late nineteenth century. It’s a fine timber building, which also boasts a lectern made by the famous Yorkshire Mouseman furniture-maker, whose trademark is a small mouse carved on to every piece he makes.

St Mary’s started out as a parish church, albeit a somewhat grand one.  The first Bishop of Auckland was looking for somewhere to build his cathedral, and managed to acquire land opposite St Mary’s.  But due to shortage of funds it took nearly a century to complete the cathedral, and in the meantime St Mary’s acted as a stand-in.

From the outside Holy Trinity Cathedral looks modern and – to my eyes – rather uninviting, but inside it’s a bit of a stunner.  Interestingly it combines two starkly contrasting styles. The nave and the chancel are a massive stone affair, an attempt at replicating a grand English cathedral.  This, however, is where the project went bankrupt in the early twentieth century, and when work began again decades later ideas – as well as the budget – were very different. 

The main body of the cathedral is a thoroughly modern, cavernous, sweeping space, uninterrupted by pillars.  And the stained glass is to die for.

When the cathedral opened for business, St Mary’s began to fall into disrepair.  Fortunately this was recognised to be a mistake, and it was agreed to restore it.  But not before the church was relocated to stand immediately next to its feisty younger sister, the upstart cathedral.

So, the good burghers of Auckland jacked up St Mary’s until it was high enough to slip rollers underneath, and then towed it inch by painstaking inch across the road until it sat beneath the shadow of the cathedral.  Strange but true.

*

Although we lucked out on visiting the island bird reserve today, Auckland is not without its ornithological attractions.  We spot a variety of birds during the course of our day in the city, and although most are familiar to us as birds introduced to New Zealand from Britain, we are pleased to come across a couple of native species. 

One of them is the Tui, an attractive bird which is about the size of a magpie and looks as if it’s wearing an iridescent blue suit and a white bow tie.  However, it’s very skittish, forever hopping between branches and refusing to pose for photographs. In the circumstances Mrs P does well to get a shot of it, especially without her long lens.

*

Auckland is built on around 53 volcanoes.  None of them is still active, but they have been the major players in shaping the land upon which the city has grown up.  One of the most striking is Mount Eden, which is unmistakably a volcano when viewed from the rim into the remnants of the crater.  Close by is the Eden Park rugby union ground, where the All Blacks regularly strut their stuff.

*

The Auckland Wintergardens is another unexpected Auckland bonus.  It comprises a pair of large, period glasshouses set at either end of a sunken courtyard.  The flower displays within the glasshouses are good and help brighten up the day, but in a city that apparently lacks many structures of real architectural merit it’s the buildings themselves that are the biggest attraction.  Full of character and clearly throwbacks to another era, they are definitely worth a visit.

*

Once again the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus has shown us that there’s more to Auckland than meets the eye at first glance.  They say that it’s an ill wind that blows no good, so clearly the gales that prevented us visiting Tiri Tiri Matangi island today were not such an ill wind after all.

Plan B – see more of Auckland

15 October 2019

Mrs P’s flamingo pink mobile rings at 7:30am.  She’s bought a new SIM for this trip and only one person has her number: the local agent for New Zealand in Depth, the specialist travel company that’s arranged our road trip.  

Nobody rings this early with good news, so we brace ourselves.  And yes, you’ve guessed it, today’s keenly anticipated boat trip to Rangitoto Island to get up close and personal with a volcano has been cancelled, thanks to the horrendous rainfall that’s plagued us ever since we landed in Auckland yesterday morning. 

Bloody typical, we’ve been looking forward to this, Mrs P in particular as she has a thing about volcanoes in much the same way as I have a thing about chocolate cake, and now it’s all gone belly-up.  We are, as they say round our way, totally buggered. Don’t you just love it when the gods rain on your parade?

Time for Plan B.  If your travel plans in a big city fall apart the answer is – always – to buy yourself some time by getting the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus.  At least it will keep you dry while we come up with something more exciting.

 *

The Auckland War Memorial Museum’s official name does it no favours.  As well as covering New Zealand’s role in twentieth century wars, it boasts extensive collections covering the culture of the Maori people, and the country’s natural history.

We’re determined to leave New Zealand a lot more knowledgeable about Maori culture and history than when we arrived, and the Museum turns out to be a good place to start.  There are some fascinating artefacts here, including a marae (meeting house) and a storehouse.  Woodcarving is an important element of Maori material culture, and there are some good examples here.

As for the natural history collection, we have mixed feelings.  Mrs P and I both prefer our wildlife to be alive rather than stuffed.  However, it’s well done and instructional. For example, we learn that the relationship between the size of a kiwi and the size of its egg is eye-watering.  If we’re ever lucky enough to see one in the wild and it’s wearing a very pained expression, we’ll assume it’s a female who’s just laid her egg. Ouch!

*

Auckland is dominated by the sea.  Its harbours are major players in New Zealand’s trading relationship with the rest of the world, and in their spare time many of the locals enjoy nothing more than messing around in boats.  Our ticket for the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus includes a free ferry ride across the harbour to the suburb of Devonport, so we get the chance to see Auckland from a totally different perspective.

Devonport dates from the late 19th century, although many of its buildings appear to be in the art deco style of the early 20th century.  The suburb retains more of its period charm, and is less crowded, than the other parts of Auckland we’ve visited.  It’s a pleasure to spend an hour strolling up and down its main street, before diving into The Patriot bar for a meal. 

The food at The Patriot is good, but not so the company.  There are three old guys seated close to us – all Kiwis, by the sound of their accents – debating the Queen’s speech and Brexit.  Why, in heaven’s name, would any sane Kiwi talk about Brexit? For god sake, I flew halfway round the world to getaway from rubbish like that.

But you have to take the rough with the smooth, don’t you?  On the way back to the ferry we enjoy a couple more of Devonport’s highlights; an ancient Moreton Bay fig tree (known fondly to the locals as Arthur) and a magnificent new library. 

How come here in New Zealand they can build brand new, brilliant libraries, while all we can do in the UK is trash a once great library service?