Where east meets west: Arthur’s Pass

24 / 25 November 2019

At around 920 metres (3,000 feet) above sea level the Arthur’s Pass Road is reckoned to be the most spectacular highway to cross the rugged Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island. It was known to the Maori, who used it as a west-east trade route for pounamu (jade), but it was the goldrush of the 1860s that first drew it to the attention of European colonists.

Arthur’s Pass cuts through the Southern Alps

At the time when gold was discovered to the west of the Southern Alps most of South Island’s population was to their east. A practical way of transporting the gold to market was needed, and in 1865 a committee of businessmen offered £200 (equivalent to $NZ 22,000 in 2016) to the discoverer of the best route. The track that was later to become Arthur’s Pass was recognised to be the most suitable for a direct crossing. Construction soon began in earnest, and the road opened to coach traffic in July 1866.

The Arthur’s Pass Road opened in 1866, and although much upgraded it remains a significant engineering feat

Over 50 years later, 1923 saw the completion of a railway that followed the line of the Arthur’s Pass road. The railway and road through Arthur’s Pass were considered to be major accomplishments in opening up the west coast of New Zealand to settlement, and were also a catalyst for the creation of Arthur’s Pass National Park in 1929.

Wide, braided rivers are features of the eastern side of Arthur’s Pass National Park

The eastern side of Arthur’s Pass National Park is typically drier and consists of beech forest and wide riverbeds, while the western side contains dense rainforest. We’ve had our fill of rain on this road trip, so we stick to the east and on a day like this, when the sun’s shining and the sky is blue, it’s easy to see why the Park is a major tourist attraction.

Arthur’s Pass National Park

The Park is popular with what the New Zealanders like to call ‘trampers’ (hikers or walkers to you and me), and I’m sure it’s great to get off the beaten track and into the bush. But Mrs P and I have neither the time nor the knees for such exertions, so our sightseeing is limited to what can be done from a few scattered pull-ins off the highway.

Devil’s Punchbowl Falls

Unfortunately, therefore, we can only enjoy the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls from a distance. Water crashes 131 metres to the base of the falls, sending clouds of spray swirling and billowing into the air. Even from where we’re standing, looking pretty much directly into the sun, we can see and hear why this is regarded as one of the country’s most spectacular waterfalls.

Bealy Chasm falls

Above all, it seems to me, New Zealand is a land of water. Spectacular coastlines, magnificent waterfalls, powerful rivers and tumbling cascades. And rain, more rain than we ever believed possible. But not here and not now. Today we are blessed by the sun, and we lap it up while we can because it’s time to bid farewell to the mountains and head back to the coast once more.

Broom and gorse (“noxious weeds” to some) add a splash of extra colour

Akaroa is our destination, and on the way we stop off at the Sheffield Pie Shop. Although Sheffield is just a tiny village, the place is rammed. All the tables are occupied with people like us eating-in, while truckers, campervan travellers and sundry motorists drop in for a pie-to-go. There’s plenty of pies to choose from, including traditional favourites like Steak Pie and more experimental fare such as Mexican Nachos Pie.

The Famous Sheffield Pie Shop: You couldn’t make it up

I’m tempted to say you couldn’t make it up, but plainly someone has and Mexican Nachos Pie appears to be selling well. As for me, I wrap myself around a Moroccan Beef and Mango Chutney Pie. I can safely say I’ve never eaten anything like it before, and am pretty sure I’ll never have the pleasure again. But it is a pleasure, a pleasure to eat and a pleasure also to see this innovative small business defying culinary convention and building a massive reputation simply by making people happy.

I love this country.

Out and about around Lake Tekapo

23 November 2019

We’re spending the day out and about around Lake Tekapo. It’s less than three hours drive from Christchurch – New Zealand’s third largest city, population 360,000 – but it’s a different world up here. The lake, and the small settlement bearing its name, lies at 710 metres (2,300 feet) above sea level in the Mackenzie Basin. Standing proudly to the west are the spectacular Southern Alps

A Chinese visitor flies the flag on Mount John

Historically this is sheep country, remote and sparsely populated, although you wouldn’t believe it when we drive up Mount John to admire the views. The place is rammed with tourists, the majority of them Chinese. One of them is apparently so moved that she feels compelled to fly the Chinese flag, its yellow stars on a red background standing out vividly against a background of distant lakes and snow-scattered mountain peaks.

The snow-scattered peaks of the Southern Alps, viewed from Mount John

The Lake Tekapo area has a reputation for clear, clean air and minimal light pollution, enabling spectacular views of the night sky. In June 2012 an area of 430,000 hectares (1,700 square miles) was designated an International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only four such reserves around the world. Fallout from the Australian bushfires probably ruined any attempt at star-gazing last night, but yesterday’s smoke-haze has largely dissipated this morning and the mountain views are spectacular set against a dazzling blue sky.

A blot on the landscape? The University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory

The University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory (UCMJO) normally enables scientists and others to enjoy great views of the star-scape. However the two futuristic structures that make up the Observatory looking bizarrely out of place here. Some might regard them as a blot on the landscape.

Looking across Lake Alexandrina

On the way back down from Mount John we take a side road to Lake Alexandrina. A few holiday homes (known as cribs – or baches – in New Zealand) huddle together along part of the shoreline, and we can see why people would want to chill out here, so far from the hurly burly of the modern world.

This bronze memorial to working collie dogs was commissioned in 1968 by local farmers

We drive on, and are soon back in the small town of Lake Tekapo. It’s heaving with visitors, all searching for the spot that will enable them to take the perfect selfie. The bronze sculpture of a sheepdog, a tribute to the breed that did so much to help early settlers carve out a living here, draws plenty of admirers.

Lupins lining the canal. The colour of the water is the result of ‘rock flour’ , rocks ground to a fine dust by glacial activity

But the most spectacular sight of all is the profusion of lupins. The canal that moves water to the hydro power plant is lined with them. And areas of Lake Tekapo’s shoreline are blanketed with thousands of purple, pink and blue flowers, all set against a backdrop of distant snowy peaks. People wander amongst them as if mesmerised, unable to believe that nature can deliver such a stunning polychromatic bonanza.

This variety – the Russell Lupin – hails from the USA, and is grown widely in UK gardens

And there’s the rub. This isn’t all nature’s work. Man’s had a hand in this, although to be fair it’s more probably a woman’s work. The local story tells of a farmer’s wife who decided this part of central South Island was unacceptably drab. To rectify matters she is said to have secretly sowed lupin seeds along the area’s roads and riverbanks each spring. A more fanciful version of the story tells that the woman concerned sought to emulate Lady Godiva, riding naked on a white stallion while doing the horticultural deed.

A colourful combination of lupins, water coloured bright blue by ‘rock flour’, and snow-scattered mountains

Whatever the truth of the good lady’s state of undress, there’s no doubt that these lupins didn’t get here naturally. Officially they’re an invasive species or, to quote a term we encountered a couple of weeks ago in connection with hillsides clad in sulphurous yellow gorse and broom, ‘noxious weeds’. I fully accept that from an evolutionary point of view the lupins shouldn’t be here, but on the other hand human beings and their wretched sheep, cattle and deer weren’t around in primordial New Zealand either. Nor were vines, or even kiwi fruits for that matter.

Colourful characters or unwelcome invaders?

I agree the lupins shouldn’t be allowed to run amok: they need to be controlled, to be kept in check. But let’s not go too far. These lupins bring a burst of colour into the dreary lives of those who see them, a momentary lift to the spirits. And god knows, with the Australian bushfires raging 2,000 miles across the Tasman Sea and dumping their pollution here, we all need to have our spirits – and our hopes – raised.

Down Dunedin way: A stunning station and a gorgeous gorge

21 November 2019

I’ve already driven several thousand kilometres since arriving in New Zealand, and although the car is comfortable and the traffic mostly light there are days when I feel the need for time off from behind the wheel. So today, having battled hard to find somewhere to park in central Dunedin, it’s time to let the train take the strain while we spend the afternoon on the Taieri Gorge Scenic Railway.

Dunedin station, built in the first decade of the 20th century

But before we set off there’s time to explore Dunedin station. And what a stunner it is. Built in the first decade of the 20th century, it’s said to be the most photographed building in New Zealand. Well, I’m not sure about that – how the hell would you prove it? – but it’s definitely worth a snap or two.

The booking hall, a celebration of the tiler’s craft

Wikipedia describes the style as “eclectic revived Flemish renaissance,” and who am I to argue? Externally, the distinctive light and dark patterning is common to many of the grander buildings of Dunedin. Internally, although no longer used for its original purpose the booking hall is a celebration of the tiler’s craft, including a mosaic floor of almost 750,000 Minton tiles.

File:Dunedin Railway Station Foyer.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: User Grutness on en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

Once, when Dunedin was one of New Zealand’s busiest stations handling over 100 trains a day, the booking hall would have bustled with the coming and goings of passengers. Today it’s just tourists like us who come, admiring the architecture before joining a train excursion to explore the countryside beyond Dunedin.

The Taieri Gorge Railway was built in the late 19th century, after the goldrush. The get-rich-quick days of prospecting were over, and new, longer term strategies were required to generate wealth. One of the country’s greatest assets was the agricultural and pastoral potential of the land. To make use of it the interior of the country had to be opened up, but in some areas road transport was impossibly difficult. Railways seemed to offer the way ahead.

Not that it was easy to drive a railway through this landscape. In a country that was just a few decades old it was a major feat of engineering to build here. To enable the laying of a track through the Taieri Gorge, ten tunnels had to be hacked out of the bedrock, and 16 bridges constructed. One of those bridges, the Wingatui Viaduct, remains the second largest wrought iron structure in operation in the world.

The gorge is spectacularly scenic, and also very, very yellow, thanks to the gorse and broom that’s flowering at present. But it wasn’t always like this. Neither the gorse nor the broom is native to New Zealand, and like so many other introduced plants they’ve made themselves at home here. We’ve heard them described as noxious weeds, but although clearly not popular with everyone they’re here to stay.

It’s worth pointing out that the grass that is the staple diet of the country’s (introduced!) sheep, cattle and deer isn’t native to this country either. The fact is that New Zealand’s landscape has been changed out of all recognition by the plants and animals that Europeans introduced in the 19th century, and although from one point of view this may be a matter for regret it’s also a fact of life and isn’t going to change.

Humpty Dumpty has fallen from his wall and lies shattered on New Zealand’s ancient bedrock, and however much some well-meaning but impossibly romantic folk might wish it were otherwise, nobody can put him back together again.

Postscript: Dunedin Station. In January 2020 Ms Liz, who blogs out of Tapanui in West Otago, posted a number of photographs which show in more detail the glories of Dunedin Station. You can see her posts here and here. And earlier in January Liz posted about her own trip on the Taieri Gorge Railway, travelling further than us – all the way to the end of the line at Middlemarch. All of Liz’s posts are definitely worth a look!

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.

The Catlins: waterfall heaven and sheep flock hell

19 November 2019

It rains a lot here. I reckon I might have mentioned that once or twice already, and the fact that this is quite probably the wettest spring New Zealand has known in a couple of decades is little consolation.

But things have got better in recent days. On the west coast it rained pretty much all the time for days on end, whereas here in the Catlins we at least get periods of cheerful sunshine mixed in with torrential downpours, spiteful hailstorms and banshee winds. And the good news is that, of course, all the water has to go somewhere. They say this place is waterfall heaven.

McLean Falls

Having parked up, the loop track to McLean Falls is meant to take us about 30 minutes, but our excessive activity of the last few weeks is starting to take its toll. We’re both carrying minor injuries, and hobbling along rather than striding out is the best we can manage.

But it’s worth the effort: at 22 metres high this is the tallest waterfall in the Catlins. We hear the tumultuous crashing long before we catch sight of it, white water tumbling heroically over the main drop, then cascading over a series of smaller terraces.

Worshippers in ancient Japan, followers of Shintoism, revered creations of nature which exhibited a particular beauty and power – such as waterfalls. Standing here today, mesmerised by the majesty of MacLean Falls, I think I can understand something of their viewpoint: this place is magical, spiritual even.

A monstrous, ill-disciplined regiment of sheep

Before long, however, we’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Driving to the next waterfall on our list we find the way blocked by a monstrous, ill-disciplined regiment of sheep moving en masse towards us along the gravel road. During our first five weeks in New Zealand we’ve seen fewer sheep than we’d anticipated. And now we know why: they’re all here, on this remote back road in the Catlins, standing between us and Purakaunui Falls.

I stop, kill the engine and wait for matters to unfold. The road is wide, so there’s plenty of room for the flock to pass safely. But they’re plainly spooked and having none of it. The guy driving them doesn’t help matters much, leaping from his quad bike, yelling and thrashing the road surface vigorously. With what? A crook? A branch torn from a nearby tree? A whip, maybe? I can’t quite see what Mr Whippy’s using – there are several hundred sheep in the way – but he’s causing a commotion, making one hell of a noise. And all to no good purpose.

The sheep are panicking, eyes bulging, milling around frantically. They don’t have the courage – or the wit – to move past my stationary Toyota Camry. Eventually a rebel group decides on full retreat, and makes a run for it past Mr Whippy and back up the road they’ve recently walked down.

They don’t have the courage – or the wit – to pass my stationary Toyota Camry

Old Man Whippy’s incensed, and sends his demented sheepdog off in pursuit. It catches up with the deserters and cajoles them back into the flock. Another gang of malcontents makes a new break for freedom. Once again the dog hurtles off in pursuit and ushers its quarry back into the fold. And still, not one single sheep will venture past my static motor.

Matters continue in this vein for some ten minutes. Mr Whippy’s close to apoplectic now, and I’m beginning to feel sorry for him. He’s trying his best, but clearly having one of those day’s that shepherds must dread. If I don’t take control of the situation he’ll most probably have a heart attack.

I fire up the engine, and edge forward slowly through the mass of crazed sheep, nudging them gently aside. At last one of them slips past me and into the promised land, a stretch of wide, totally empty and whip-free road behind the car. Where one sheep leads the others soon follow, joyously living up to their reputation.

At last the road ahead is clear, apart from Mr Whippy. He’s trying to regain his dignity, pretending everything went according to plan. As I drive past him I wind the window down and smile sweetly.

“G’day mate,” I say to him, waving cheerfully.

What a prat, I think to myself, seething silently.

Purakaunui Falls

“Like a wedding cake,” is how our guidebook describes the 20m high Purakaunui Falls. “Three tiers of splendour,” it goes on to explain, evidently clocking the fact that very few of us have a wedding cake fashioned from white water and mucky grey rocks. This all sounds a bit desperate to me, but when we get there we can see the waterfall is quite special.

The website waterfalls.co.nz says Purakaunui Falls is the most photographed waterfall in New Zealand. How do they know that? Are there armies of men with clipboards stationed at each of the 258 waterfalls on their list, interrogating visitors as they leave, demanding that all selfies be declared and counted?

Or is there a secret sliver of code in Instagram and Facebook, code that logs all photos of New Zealand waterfalls on to a mysterious Excel spreadsheet at waterfalls.co.nz head office?

Or maybe it’s just fake news, which seems to be all the rage these days? Whatever, Purakaunui Falls is pleasing to the eye and deafening to the ear, and definitely worth a visit despite our close encounters of the sheepish kind. However there’s no time to dilly-dally as we still have one more waterfall to visit today.

Horseshoe Falls

In fact, on our final trek of the day we get two waterfalls for the price of one. Horseshoe Falls and Matai Falls are located on the Matai Stream in the Catlins Forest Park, within a few hundred metres of each other. Both are given three stars by waterfalls.co.nz, one fewer than Purakauni Falls. By way of contrast Mclean Falls, which we visited first today, rates a massive five stars. So, in other words, we’ve got this all wrong, saving the worst until last.

Matai Falls

“Worst?” That’s way too harsh. In a land blessed by so many waterfalls there are inevitably winners and losers, and in the waterfalls.co.nz beauty pageant Horseshoe Falls and Matai Falls are – relatively speaking – losers.

And yet, if we had these waterfalls back in the UK folk would go wild about them, poets would pen verses in their honour and photographers would snap away at them madly in the hope of getting their work published in the annual Countryfile Calendar. Here, however, they are merely ‘also-rans.’

Which just goes to show that here, in New Zealand, we are indeed in waterfall heaven

Curio Bay: a petrified forest and a distant view of penguins

18 November 2019

We interrupt our drive from Stirling Point to our accommodation at Nugget Point to call in at Curio Bay in the Catlins, a scenic area at the southern end of South Island. The bay is most famous for its ancient petrified forest, which is revealed at low tide.

Curio Bay

A flight of steep wooden steps leads down to the foreshore, and a sign at the bottom tells us that we’re not alone. At least, I hope we’re not. The tide’s out – which is good news for viewing the petrified forest – and if our luck’s in, we’ll also catch sight of a Yellow-eyed Penguin, the rarest penguin species in the world.

Yellow-eyed Penguins rule, OK

As we step out on to the foreshore there’s no sign of the penguins. But it’s difficult to miss the petrified forest, a jumble of logs and stumps amongst the rockpools. Only, they’re not logs and stumps, are they? These are rocks in the form of trees that lived in the middle Jurassic period, around 180 million years ago, when New Zealand was at the eastern edge of the Gondwanaland super-continent. North of Curio Bay, most of future New Zealand lay beneath the sea.

Fossilised tree trunks, c180 million years old

At the time Curio Bay area was a broad, forested coastal floodplain. The climate was semi-tropical and the region subject to significant levels of volcanic activity. It’s believed that massive floods of volcanic debris, perhaps triggered by heavy rain on a nearby barren volcanic mountain, destroyed and buried the forest.

Over time, silica from the volcanic debris gradually replaced the organic material, leaving an exact replica of the trees. People who understand these things suggest that this sequence of events occurred at least four times over a period of 20,000 years, each episode contributing additional material to the fossil forest.

Fossilised tree trunk, showing the linear patterning of the original bark

New Zealand and Gondwanaland parted company around 100 million years ago. It’s only over the last 10,000 years, as the coastline of modern-day New Zealand has taken shape, that the sea has eroded away the layers of overlying sandstone and clays to reveal the fossilised tree stumps and logs on the foreshore.

The stump shows that, at the time of being swept away, the tree was of modest size

The level of detail preserved is extraordinary, particularly patterns of bark. At a quick glance it’s difficult to believe that we are not looking at real, recently toppled trees, rather than rocks in the form of trees. As well as fossilised logs lying on the foreshore we also find stumps, presumably the result of the tree trunks being snapped off and carried away during the violent floods of volcanic debris. Growth rings are visible on some of the stumps.

A distant view of a Yellow-eyed Penguin, safe behind the rope that warns us not to get too close

The area of petrified forest we are able to explore is limited. This is one of the largest and least disturbed Jurassic fossil forests in the world, stretching to some 20 kilometres (12 miles), but the far end of the bay is roped off. We look carefully, and in the distance we spot the reason: a Yellow-eyed Penguin waddling up towards the bushes and low growing trees where it presumably has a nest.

He stops his journey back to the nest for a quick preen

We’re lucky to spot this penguin, not just because they are so rare, but because it’s only 2pm and they don’t normally come ashore this early in the afternoon. It’s not a great view – we can’t get close because of the rope – but nevertheless it’s a privilege to see the third, and rarest, of New Zealand’s breeding penguins. Later on our trip we’re due to visit another spot that they frequent, and hopefully at that time we’ll get better views and better photos.

STOP PRESS – White Island volcano erupts

I’m interrupting the chronological flow of this blog to report a shocking piece of news. White Island volcano, which we visited on 20 October, has erupted.

Happier times: White Island volcano at the time of our visit, 20 October 2019

As I sit here – at 7:45am, 9 December 2019 – writing this, snug in my dressing gown with a steaming mug of tea at my side, the BBC News website leads with the headline One dead in NZ volcano, with number ‘likely to rise’.

Here’s a link to the post I published shortly after our visit. Reading it again, I can see that when we went White Island we were a bit glib and complacent. Yes, we were made aware of the dangers: we were required to sign a disclaimer, instructed to wear hard hats while on the island and issued with gas masks. But neither we, nor any of the others on our tour, believed for a moment that anything bad could or would happen. Bad things don’t happen to good people, do they?

And those poor souls who visited White Island earlier today wouldn’t have believed it either. They, like us, would have regarded a visit to New Zealand’s most active volcano as a little adventure, a bit of a laugh maybe.

But nobody’s laughing now. Except, maybe, nature herself. Nature always has the last laugh. Nature makes the rules, and we are subject to her whims and capriciousness. That is the way it is, and the way it should be. We’re all just guests here in nature’s garden, guests on this beautiful, crazy, brutal planet.

I’m reminded also of the role of chance in our lives, and our deaths. We could have been on White Island today. The timing of our trip to New Zealand was determined to maximise our chances of seeing Fiordland Crested Penguins. Without that driver, without our goal of laying eyes on that particular species of bird, we might have visited New Zealand a few weeks later, when the weather is kinder.

In a parallel universe, one where birding doesn’t shape our travel plans, we could have been on White Island today, terrified and in mortal peril as the volcano blew its top.

The story is still emerging, but our thoughts are with the tourists and tour operators who got caught up in today’s White Island tragedy, with those who were injured, and with the families and friends of the deceased. It’s a very sad day, and takes a bit of gloss off the memories of our New Zealand adventure.

Link to the emerging story on the BBC news website, 8:30am

Link to updated story on BBC news website, 3:40pm

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

17 November 2019

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 magic of Doubtful Sound

14 / 15 November 2019

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

12 November 2019

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.