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

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

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

Crossing Lake Manapouri

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

Waterfall and rainforest at the Wilmot Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A perch for our supper

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

This handsome dogfish was released after the obligatory trophy photos

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

A rainbow stretches from side to side across the Sound

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

One of the very few other boats on Doubtful Sound

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

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

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

Fiordland Crested Penguins

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

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

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On Milford Sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOURCE: Southern Discoveries website, retrieved 24 November 2019

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

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

Scenery overload: the road to Milford Sound

We’re off to Fiordland on the south-western coast of South Island. This is one of New Zealand’s main tourist hotspots on account of the majestic scenery, but before we get there we drop off at a little known tourist attraction, the Kingston Flyer.

It’s sad to see a vintage steam train parked up in the sidings, plainly going nowhere any time soon. It’s been here, gathering dust and growing rust, since 2013 when tourist excursions on the 14 kilometres line were suspended only two years after they were launched. A report in the Otago Times from December 2018 said that the owners hoped to have the line up and running by November 2019, so that deadline’s been missed.

Meanwhile the café on Kingston station platform looks forlorn. No trains means no tourists, and no tourists means no mocha for me, and no hot chocolate for Mrs P. Time to move on.

The drive to Milford Sound takes, a few hours, partly because it’s a long, steep, and twisty road. But mainly because it’s so scenic, and we keep stopping for photos.

Many of the peaks are still dusted with snow, adding to their visual appeal.

This place gets a lot of rain, so we get to cross lots of rivers. We do a couple of short walks, and one of these takes us across a swing bridge that lives up to its name, swaying lustily to the stamp of our feet.

There are views of the mountains around every corner, and as we wend our way towards the Sound those views get steadily more impressive.

The key landmark on the road to Milford Sound is the Homer Tunnel. It’s 1.2 kilometres long and took around 20 years to build, World War 2 and a major avalanche both greatly interfering with the project.

Either side of the Homer Tunnel are stern warnings not to stop, as avalanches are frequent. We do as we’re told, and are pleased to get through without a problem. Others aren’t so lucky, and a few days after we leave the area the road is closed for three days by a massive avalanche.

The road down to Milford is surprisingly busy, mostly with tourist buses conveying groups to meet up with the ships that will take them for a cruise along the Sound. It’s apparent from the bus traffic that these cruises are a large and lucrative part of the local tourist market.

We are fortunate that after days of indifferent weather things are looking up. The sky is blue and the sun sparkles off the water cascading down the countless falls, from raging torrents to tiny trickles.

The scenery is breath-taking. Milford Sound itself has a superb reputation, but I hadn’t expected the approach road to be so spectacular.

At last we’re nearing the end of the road. We’re staying the night in a Lodge next to the Sound, and tomorrow join a cruise to enjoy this magical landscape from a different angle. And I won’t even have to drive!

New Zealand’s most photographed tree

We were passing, and simply had to drop in to see New Zealand’s most photographed tree. It’s a willow and started life as a fencepost, simply a branch hacked off a nearby tree 80 years ago with a wire attached to it to keep someone’s sheep in … or out, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.

But in the manner of some willow branches it took root, and whereas all its fencepost buddies have rotted away our hero has gone from strength to strength, sitting with his feet in the shallow water at the edge of Lake Wanaka. Not only that, our Willy’s become a celebrity.

The story goes that around 2011 local Wanaka photographers and writers began flooding social media sites with images of the tree as a bit of a joke. It plainly touched a chord, and two or three years later Lake Wanaka Tourism put Willy on its photo trail. Around the same time Christchurch photographer Dennis Radermacher took Willy’s photo on a misty June day, and won the 2014 New Zealand Geographic photograph of the year.

Willy had made the big time, and continues to go from strength to strength. Blogging apart I don’t do social media, but I have it on good authority that the tree has its own Facebook page and Twitter account (#ThatWanakaTree) and is big on Instagram too. Call me a miserable old curmudgeon (many people do, even Mrs P when I go off on one) but I can’t help wondering if the whole world isn’t completely out to lunch!

Mrs P enjoys photography, and snapped away merrily for 20 minutes, relishing the warm afternoon light on Willy’s tender green leaves. You can see a couple of her efforts on this page.

Meanwhile I was people watching. Men and women of all ages and apparently from all over the world were recording their encounter with Willy. Some were plainly amateurs, doing it with cheap cell phones and selfie sticks, but at the other end of the spectrum there were serious looking guys with enormous tripods and cameras that must have cost a king’s ransom.

At least one professional photoshoot took place while we were there, a pretty young lady flouncing and posing and pouting in front of the lens as if her very future depended on it. But on the other hand, pretty young models are about as common as blowflies at a barbecue these days, so it probably did.

And all the while Willy sat there contentedly, with the waters of Lake Wanaka lapping gently over his roots and caressing his wrinkly bark. He’s seen it all before, and no doubt will see it all again tomorrow … and the day after too.

The fencepost done good.

After the goldrush

It’s been surprising to discover how much of colonial New Zealand was opened up by gold miners. I’ve always associated the term goldrush with California in the 1840’s and the Klondike at the very end of the 19th century, but here in New Zealand they had a goldrush all of their own. Yesterday we stopped off at Cardrona, which grew up in the days of the New Zealand goldrush, and today we’re in Arrowtown – just outside Queenstown – which also began life as a goldminer’s settlement.

The first Europeans to visit this area established farms, but things changed dramatically in 1862 when gold was found. By the end of the year, fifteen hundred miners were camped noisily beside the Arrow River. In January 1863 the first major consignment of gold to leave the camp weighed a massive 340 kilograms.

The General Store: the only substantial building in the Chinese village

Goldminers are nothing if not greedy, and when new goldfields opened on New Zealand’s west coast many European miners legged it from Arrowtown and across the Southern Alps in favour of gold that was easier to mine. Suddenly Arrowtown was facing a crisis: without lots of miners the fledgling local economy would pretty soon be dead in the water, so the Provincial Government invited Chinese miners to come and work.

Reconstructed dwelling in the Chinese village

The Chinese miners lived in their own village on the edge of Arrowtown; some remained until as late as 1928. A few dwellings and the Chinese general store have been restored or reconstructed, and it’s evident from walking around them that these men lived hard lives a very long way from their loved ones.

Reconstructed shack and storage area in the Chinese village

Meanwhile a more permanent town emerged for the European settlers. A number of miners’ cottages remain from the later nineteenth century, and this picturesque row of buildings is said to be one of New Zealand’s most photographed sites. There’s no clue here to how the other half lived, and the stark contrast between these comfortable dwellings and the miserable shacks in which the Chinese miners lived are testimony to a deeply divided society.

Late 19th century miners’ cottages from the main town

When the gold finally ran out Arrowtown went into decline, and the majority of its population of 7,000 moved away. The town was forced to re-invent itself, first a service centre for the local farming communities and then as a holiday destination.

A number of the buildings on the main street retain their historic facades, giving the town a rather quaint, chocolate-box appeal. It’s plainly doing well, as the place is busy with day visitors who are happily splashing the cash in the local shops that cater for every tourist whim.

Arrowtown today

I suspect that Arrowtown’s history, and in particular the story of the Chinese village, has gone unnoticed by most in the scramble to buy souvenirs and trinkets. The place has an interesting story to tell, but I wonder how many visitor are actually listening. With a rueful shake of the head we agree it’s time to move on.

We head on up to Glenorchy, taking a spectacular scenic drive along Lake Wakatipu. At times I’m reminded of the drive along the banks of Scotland’s Loch Ness: high praise indeed,

Although we’re beginning to discover that this country has an interesting history and are pleased to be learning more about it, that’s not why we came here. It’s places like Lake Wakatipu Lake and Glenorchy that lift the spirits and justify the horrendous journey from London to New Zealand.

Soon we’ll be heading for Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s most scenic destinations. It promises to be spectacular, if we can see it through the mist and rain!

Waterfall wonders and hairpin horrors

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

Roaring Billy Falls

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

Thundercreek Falls

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

Fantail Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiwis, glaciers and a mountain parrot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A gorgeous gorge and a screaming kiwi

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.

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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.