We must go down to the sea again: in search of Hector’s Dolphins

27 November 2019

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.

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.

Loving the birds, spreading the word (Part 2: Penguins again)

22 November 2019

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.

Fur seal, posing like a mermaid

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.

Fur seal standing proud, master of all he surveys

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!

Little Blue Penguin in an artificial burrow, partly obscured by a random piece of dead vegetation

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.

The penguin hide

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.

He’s full of determination, hopping between boulders and scrambling through the long grass

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 stops to preen, removing stray seeds and strands of grass from his feathers

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.

Almost at the top

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, strutting the sands as if he owns the place

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.

He hauls himself upright, shakes the excess water from his feathers and begins to waddle up the beach

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.

It seem like Mission Impossible, but just when we need him Tom Cruise is nowhere to be seen

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.

Watching the birdie

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.

To end the day, a perfect sighting of a Yellow-eyed Penguin

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 Catlins: a hidden gem

20 November 2019

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.

SOURCE: The Official Website of the Catlins, retrieved 19 December 2019

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.

Kaka Point, in the Catlins

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.

Variable Oystercatcher

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.

Approaching Nugget Point. The lighhouse is just visible

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.

Nugget Point lighthouse, built 1869/70

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.

A fur seal works its way along a line of kelp at Nugget Point

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.

Tropical paradise? No, Surat Bay in the Catlins, on New Zealand’s South Island

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 at Surat Bay

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.

Dozing sealion, Surat Bay

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.

Rainforest magic

7 November 2019

We’re staying a couple of nights at the Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge, situated in the temperate rainforest that grows along the south-west coast of South Island. Here’s how the Lodge’s website describes the facility:

Few places on earth can match the stunning natural setting of Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki, surrounded by lakes, rivers, rainforest and seacoast in the heart of Te Wahipounamu, the southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area.  This is a paradise for nature lovers, active travelers and wilderness seekers.

Source: Wilderness Lodge website, retrieved 16 November 2019

Sounds like a lot of hype, doesn’t it? But to be fair, this is a very special place, not just for its location but also because the guy who runs it – Dr Gerry McSweeney – understands and is passionate about the natural world. Prior to starting the Wilderness Lodges Gerry was the conservation director of Forest & Bird, New Zealand’s largest environmental group.

The ethos of the Lodge is summed up in this quote, also from the website:

The … Wilderness Lodge at Lake Moeraki was set up to demonstrate that nature tourism could be an alternative to rainforest logging. By fostering eco-tourism & encouraging people to visit the West Coast it was possible to support communities traditionally reliant upon destructive logging.

Source: Wilderness Lodge website, retrieved 16 November 2019

It sounds like our sort of place, and as if to illustrate this, within an hour of our arrival we’re off on a guided walk to view the giant eels that live in the river that carves its ways through the rainforest.

To access the trail through the rainforest we have to cross the river. There’s no bridge, only a makeshift collection of planks and boxes. But never mind, Gerry’s happy to lend a hand and we soon make it to the other side where we can admire the vast array of native New Zealand vegetation.

And what a lot there is to admire including ferns of all shapes and sizes, and mixed in amongst them some much larger trees. Because this place has never been commercially logged some of the trees have reached maturity, and Gerry tells us the oldest are many hundreds of years old. They tower above us majestically, and as we study them in more detail we can see that their trunks and branches play host to countless mosses and epiphytes. Life is everywhere, in a thousand subtle shades of green.

We push on until we reach a spot on the riverbank where we can all gather and watch the action. Being nocturnal our quarry prefers to stay hidden under rocks or logs during the day, but the smell of blood will lure it out.

Gerry’s assistant tosses some chopped meaty treats into the water, close to the bank, and within seconds the giant, or longfin, eels appear. They can grow up to two metres long and may be 80 years old, so these specimens aren’t in the premier league. But they still look pretty impressive, particularly when one of them is briefly lifted out of the water to give us a better view.

When the Maori arrived in New Zealand several hundred years ago they found a land that was devoid of land mammals. The sea and the rivers were therefore vital sources of protein and the giant eel was a much valued food item.

Today they are hunted for export to Japan, where they are highly prized and therefore very expensive. Unregulated hunting for this lucrative market threatens the survival of the species, particularly as it is only the largest eels that breed and fishermen can make a bigger, easier profit by landing the largest specimens. However, Gerry tells us that stricter controls have recently been introduced, and these may stabilise the numbers.

Having seen the monstrous eels we return to the Lodge for dinner, but after sunset we are out and about again. Gerry drives us to a spot a few hundred yards away, then turns off the car engine and lights. As we stroll along the road and our eyes adjust to the total darkness we can see tiny lights all around us. We’ve found glow-worms.

In fact the glow-worm is not a worm at all, but instead the larva of a species of gnat. The larva hangs from a silken thread, and its phosphorescent light lures in tiny insects upon which it will prey. Sadly the conditions make it impossible to take photos of this phenomenon, but just imagine walking down a road in total darkness and seeing hundreds of pure white Christmas tree lights twinkling in the bushes that line the highway. It is a magical, if somewhat surreal experience, and definitely one to remember.

But the fun’s not over yet. Gerry shines his torch into the little drainage ditch that flows along one side of the road, scrabbles around for a couple of seconds and pulls out a freshwater crayfish or yabbie.

New Zealand’s native rainforest is teeming with life, much of it totally unexpected and delightful. And the best is still to come, as tomorrow Gerry’s promised to show us a rare species of penguin that breeds in these parts. I’ll tell the story of our Fiordland Penguin encounter in my next post.

A gorgeous gorge and a screaming kiwi

5 November 2019

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading south: seals, pancake rocks and a lighthouse

4 November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making friends with the locals

4 November 2019

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

Floyd

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

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

Clyde

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

*

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

At last, a cat!

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

*

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

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

Guv

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

*

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

Snacking on carrots

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

Alfred the Great, a.k.a. Alfie

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

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

*

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

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

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

Farewell Spit: sand, seals and sunsets

2 October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaikoura: earthquakes, seals and Marmite misery

30 October 2019

We’re spending our three nights in Kaikoura in an upmarket B&B, or “homestay” as they call it in these parts. Our room faces a soaring, snow-capped mountain, and is a haven of peace and tranquillity.

It wasn’t always this way. We ask our host, Neal, about the Great Kaikoura Earthquake, that struck almost three years ago, on 14 November 2016. At a magnitude of 7.8 it was the second largest earthquake ever recorded in New Zealand, and inevitably caused major damage and disruption.

Neal explains that Kaikoura was totally cut off by road for several weeks, and although the main State Highway 1 running south was re-opened a few days before Christmas it took a further 12 months for the same Highway to be opened again to the north of the town. These were dark days for Kaikoura, but Neal notes that it brought out the best in people, who all rallied around one another at this time of greatest need.

But worst of all for Kiwis up and down the country, the earthquake resulted in the untimely demise of the Kaikoura-based New Zealand Marmite factory. This was widely regarded as a national tragedy, and was the catalyst for some unspeakable displays of anti-social behaviour whereby a few disreputable individuals quickly worked out what the earthquake meant for their favourite savoury spread and bought up as many jars as they could carry.

Marmite hoarding did not become a capital offence, but from what we’ve been told, many die-hard lovers of the sticky, salty, dark brown food paste would have voted for just that in a referendum.

Some smart-arses proposed that this was a good time for more Kiwis to embrace Vegemite, the Australian alternative to Marmite. However this was widely ridiculed: after all, the die-hards asked, what true-blooded Kiwi would ever willingly insert anything Australian into their mouths?

Neal is an ex-pat Brit who’s lived in New Zealand for nearly a decade. We ask him if earthquakes and Marmite wars haven’t made him question his decision to move here. But no, he, like every other ex-pat Brit we’ve met since arriving here, has no regrets. New Zealand has a future but the UK, it seems, has only a past, so it’s time to bid farewell to the Mother Country and move on.

We bid farewell to Neal and head north. In Kaikoura itself there are no obvious signs of the earthquake, but once we’re outside the town the impact becomes more obvious. State Highway 1 is still under repair at various places, and we limp painstakingly from one set of temporary traffic lights to the next. It will be another year before the work is done, but although the delay is a bit frustrating you can’t help but admire the progress that’s been made since the devastating events of November 2016.

It wasn’t only the humans who suffered because of the earthquake: young New Zealand Fur Seals also found their lives disrupted. Close to Ohau Point, young seals used to swim from the sea upstream to a pool at the foot of a waterfall where they would cavort and play, much to joy of the tourists who would go there in droves to watch the action.

The earthquakes put a stop to all that. Fortunately, however, the seals still gather on the rocky shoreline at Ohau, where plenty of parking and a massive viewing platform have been provided for tourists who want to watch them. I find it encouraging that at a time when so much needs to be repaired, the authorities are still willing to invest in eco-tourism, confirmation perhaps of this country’s green credentials

We break our journey at Ohau to savour the fruits of the investment and are delighted to see dozens – perhaps hundreds – of seals lounging, and occasionally squabbling on the rocks and in the rock pools. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries European sealers drove the New Zealand Fur Seal close to extinction, but with the outlawing of seal hunting numbers are recovering.

We’re also pleased to be able to see some shags nesting on of the rocky outcrops

Despite the sickening sealing industry of two centuries ago, and the more recent tragedy of the Great Kaikoura Earthquake, the fortunes of the New Zealand Fur Seal are clearly improving.

It’s great to witness this inspiring example of nature fighting back.