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!

Ulva Island bird sanctuary

17 November 2019

The water taxi drops us off at the jetty, and as we walk up to the small shelter where we’re due to meet our guide we’re greeted by a giant cartoon rodent inviting us to check for rats and seeds. It’s a reminder – if one were needed – that we’ve landed in a very special place.

Hint: this is a very special island!

Ulva Island, weighing in at 267 hectares (660 acres, or just over one square mile) is one of the jewels of New Zealand conservation. Here’s what the Department of Conservation has to say about it:

Listening to the bird song on Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara is like stepping back in time, to an era when New Zealand’s bird fauna was still largely intact. This predator‑free island, located in Paterson Inlet/Whaka a Te Wera, Stewart Island/Rakiura, is not only a bird enthusiast’s paradise; it is also one of the few offshore islands with a largely undisturbed podocarp forest. This mature forest distinguishes Ulva from other sanctuaries such as Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi, which are largely covered in regenerating vegetation.

SOURCE: Ulva Island brochure, retrieved 10 December 2019

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

Cats, possums and stoats – three of the main predators that threaten native birds – have never made it to Ulva, but rats were a big problem. An eradication programme that ran between 1992 and 1997 successfully got rid of them, but constant vigilance is needed to ensure they don’t make an unwelcome return.

Temperate rainforest, raindrops sparkling on the leaves

Similarly, efforts to keep the seeds of introduced plants off Ulva help protect the primeval vegetation. There are almost no non-native plants here on Ulva.

The trees come in all shapes and sizes

Before we move off into the forest we’re pleased to see an old friend, the weka, searching for insects on the kelp washed up along the beach. He’s intent on lunch, and untroubled by our presence. We’ve seen these flightless birds at several places during our New Zealand travels, although the plumage of those from Stewart and Ulva Islands is a slightly different – chestnut – colour.

File:Stewart Island weka.jpg

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

We set off on our walk, along well maintained tracks that were first carved out of the undergrowth in the 1880s. Unsurprisingly the bird watching is challenging, as it always is in forests. Bird listening is easy – they’re all over the place, singing their little hearts out – but can we see them? Of course not, the little buggers are keeping their heads down amongst the foliage. All except, that is, the Stewart Island Robin.

Stewart Island Robin

The Stewart Island Robin, or toutouwai as the Maori call it, is small, primarily grey and sports a white breast. It is ludicrously tame, approaching our party fearlessly, hopping between and over our feet. Given its trusting nature and habit of nesting close to the ground it fares badly wherever rats are present, so here on Ulva is one of the few places where it continues to thrive.

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

That the robins are here at all for us to enjoy is thanks to a reintroduction programme. Following the eradication of the rats, 18 birds were brought in from another population on Stewart Island. These quickly settled in, and numbers have since grown steadily. We find them – or, to be more accurate, they find us – at various points along our walk through the island, suggesting they are now very firmly established here.

Yellow-crowned Parakeet

As we walk on we’re delighted to see some more old friends, kaka, or forest parrots. They inevitably remind us of dear old Lady Kaka, the feisty bird that lives, loves and squawks loudly on the porch of our accommodation on Stewart Island. But there’s another parrot too, or more correctly a parakeet. The Yellow-crowned Parakeet, or kakariki, is a noisy chap who spends most of his time flitting around in the forest canopy. Luckily one drops on to a low-hanging bough for a few seconds, giving Mrs P a chance to fire off a quick shot.

The variety of vegetation is immense

It’s not all about the birds, though. The variety of vegetation, all of it totally unfamiliar to a casual visitor from the UK, is immense. Our guide knows her plants however, and shares her knowledge of bush-lore. Amongst the most interesting things she tells us about is the Muttonbird Scrub Leaf.

Photo of an original letter written on a Muttonbird Scrub Leaf

Until the 1970s it used to be entirely legal to pluck a leaf from this plant, write a (short) message, whack on a postage stamp and send it through the New Zealand mail. Also, when you’re caught short in the bush, the leaf makes excellent toilet paper. We’re told that there is a similar species found further north in New Zealand which has the consistency of two-ply toilet paper. However down here they do things a lot better: Ulva’s Muttonbird Scrub Leaf is four-ply quality. Oh, such luxury!

South Island Saddleback

But perhaps the greatest thrill of our visit to Ulva Island is to catch a glimpse of the South Island Saddleback. In 1964 this bird was confined to Big South Cape Island, and down to just 36 individuals due to the arrival of rats. Those few birds were moved to pest-free islands, and in due course some were brought to Ulva where they are flourishing. It’s another encouraging example of how, with hard work and sufficient resources, threatened birds can be brought back from the brink.

Rare blossoms amongst the foliage

Ulva is an inspiring place, a hint of what all of New Zealand must have looked and sounded like before humans arrived with their alien species of mammals, birds and plants. In one sense I suppose it’s like a museum, but a living museum, teeming with life, exuberant, vibrant and colourful. It’s most definitely a must-see destination for visitors who seek an understanding of New Zealand’s unique natural heritage.

New Zealand’s most photographed tree

10 November 2019

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.

Penguins on parade

8 November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A road less travelled: off to Cape Foulwind

3 October 2019

After an enjoyable couple of days at Golden Bay it’s time to pack our bags and head off to Cape Foulwind.  Sounds ghastly doesn’t it, but we need somewhere to break an otherwise tiringly long drive south, and Cape Foulwind is a reasonable stopping off point. 

Also, Cape Foulwind’s got a large seal colony that should be worth a visit. This, reputedly, is how the place got its name … seals hauled out on the rocks en masse can be real stinkers, on account of their fishy diet.

But first we have to fight our way back through the endless roadworks on Takaka Hill.  Fortunately, this time there are no impatient 4×4 drivers trying their best to kill us, and before long we’re on the scenic but largely deserted Motueka Valley Highway.

It’s an attractive landscape without ever graduating to the status of exceptional, with livestock, vineyards and hop gardens occupying the valley floor, and a distant view of snow-capped mountains beyond. 

Some of the hillsides are covered with broom, which sports masses of bright yellow blossoms. Spring is clearly in the air, and after all the rain we had to put up with during our early days in New Zealand it’s great to enjoy some balmy conditions for a while.

So the landscape is pleasant enough, but traffic is notable by its absence. This is indeed a road less travelled, and almost – but not quite – the land that time forgot. For all these reasons it is a welcome contrast to the madness of Takaka Hill.

In due course we find our way to State Highway 6, which sounds a lot grander than it is, and head towards Buller Gorge.  The scenery here is spectacular.

However, the place also attracts more than its fair share of thrill seekers, whose idea of a good time is engaging in activities that are referred to in polite circles as “adventure sports”.

In impolite circles – in other words, mine – such activities are referred to as arsing about, shrieking a lot and risking a heart attack for no good reason whatsoever.  However, I’m not at all narrow-minded, and am therefore prepared to check it out.

At Buller Gorge we quickly discover there is a swing bridge across the river.  It’s rather long and swings quite a bit, but Mrs P and I have no choice but to cross it because we want to get to the other side, where there’s a nature trail that we’d rather like to explore. 

Running parallel with the bridge is a zip wire, but sadly nobody is zipping across at present, so I’m denied the opportunity to be gratuitously offensive. 

But it doesn’t really matter, because at that moment a jet boat powers down the river and under the bridge. The boat’s engine is roaring like a hurricane and its occupants yelling and howling like banshees.  I curse them enthusiastically, but of course they can’t hear me on account of all the roaring and yelling and howling.

We cross the swing bridge and hope to have our spirits restored on the nature walk.  And indeed, the native vegetation is beautifully soothing, a myriad species of fern in a thousand shades of green.

But within minutes of setting off along the nature walk we witness a shocking wildlife crime. Close to the jetty from which the wretched jet boat sets off on its noisy excursions, a Weka – a flightless native bird with bags of attitude – has his head in a plastic bag belonging to one of the crew. A couple of seconds later he’s legging it off into the forest with a slice of bread in his beak.

It seems the Weka has stolen one half of jet boat man’s sandwich.  He looks very pleased with himself – the Weka, that is, the jet boat man’s not at all impressed.  Although I don’t normally endorse wildlife crime, when the crime been committed by a bird and the victim’s been disturbing the peace and quiet of a natural beauty spot, I can only applaud.

With our spirits restored by the excellent nature walk and the criminally-inclined Weka, we return to the car and continue with our journey to Cape Foulwind.  By the time we arrive it’s too late to pay a visit to New Zealand’s stinkiest seal colony, so that very special pleasure will have to be postponed until tomorrow.   I can hardly wait! 

Seeing how the other half live: on the mailboat run in Queen Charlotte Sound

31 October 2019

Queen Charlotte Sound runs in a north-easterly direction from the coastal town of Picton, at the northern tip of South Island. The Sound is dominated by bush-clad valley slopes, deep bays and coves, and is a haven for birds and marine mammals. Although Picton, which lies near the head of the sound, is a town of reasonable size, other settlements along the Sound are small and isolated.

Due to the rugged nature of the coast, for many of properties along the Sound access is by boat only. Not only do property owners need a boat – or maybe a helicopter or two! – to access their properties, but the New Zealand Postal Service is unable to deliver mail in the normal way.

When a land route is not available the only way for post to be delivered is by mailboat, and the contractor employed to run this service also takes tourists out on its vessel. This seems to us to be the perfect way of seeing part of coastal New Zealand that would otherwise be inaccessible to us, and has the added bonus of giving me a few hours break from driving.

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We board the mailboat at Picton harbour. It’s spacious and uncrowded, and will be a comfortable space to spend the next few hours. As we set off into Queen Charlotte Sound it soon becomes evident that it’s a different world out here. 

The slopes either side of the water are heavily wooded, but here and there, half hidden amongst the trees, we spot the occasional house.  Some are horrendously expensive, others slightly less so. Apparently, prices here are determined in part by how private your pad is: if no other bugger’s pad is visible from your property, it’s going to cost you a damn sight more.

As well as playing host to the houses of the well-heeled, the hillsides are also home to the occasional exclusive “resort.”  These are small clusters of upmarket properties where the rich and famous hang out while other people, less rich and not famous at all, attend to their every need and fancy. 

Our skipper tells us that Bob Dylan has spent time here, which makes sense: this place clearly suits folk of a reclusive disposition. If you’re a socialite and your aim in life is to party, party, party, then putting down roots in Queen Charlotte Sound would be a very bad idea.

The main clue that there is a property hidden in the undergrowth is the presence of a jetty where the owner parks his boat.  Everyone living here permanently has a boat, or at least access to a boat.

During the course of our journey we call at perhaps a dozen jetties to deliver the mail.  The owners have been contacted in advance and know to expect us. They are waiting on the jetty as we approach, and chat like old friends with the skipper when he hands over the mail.  The delivery made, we take our leave and head off to the next mail drop.

On the way there’s wildlife to be spotted.  We catch a glimpse of our first Little Blue Penguins of the holiday, paddling energetically across the Sound.  But they’re not in the mood for company, and like a U-Boat captain under attack from the RAF they dive as soon as they’ve been identified.  We don’t see them again, and Mrs P’s camera doesn’t see any action.

From a conservation perspective there’s some good stuff going on in and around the Sound.  There is, for example, a concerted effort to rid the hillsides of non-native trees, mostly fir trees planted to service the timber trade, and replace them with indigenous New Zealand specimens. 

And several of the small islands dotted around the Sound have been cleared of all mammalian predators enabling them to be used as sanctuaries for native birds.  On a couple of the islands juvenile Kiwis, which have been born in captivity, are allowed to roam free until they are big and tough enough to be returned to their ancestral homes.

Back on home soil, the youngsters raised on these protected islands in Queen Charlotte Sound will now be strong enough to beat seven shades out of any stoat that fancies having them for lunch.

In deference to the fact the mailboat is carrying a number of fee-paying tourists we make a 15 minutes stop at Ship Cove.  Captain James Cook liked this place and came here three times in the late 18th century; a monument commemorates his visits. 

But more importantly, from our perspective, at Ship Cove we spot our first Weka.  These are brown, stocky, flightless native birds just a little larger than a European moorhen. 

Weka have a reputation for being light fingered, and the skipper warns us before we leave the boat that they are able and willing to steal anything that is not nailed down.  They sound like real characters, but the birds we spot are too occupied with parental duties to get up to any mischief at our expense.

After a brief photo opportunity with the Weka we head back to the mailboat for our return trip to Picton.  Travelling along Queen Charlotte Sound has been a slightly surreal experience; although appealing to look at this place is remote, road-less and lonely. 

I never knew that places like this exist in New Zealand, and while I’m pleased that we’ve had an insight into the way the other half lives, I’m sure as hell glad I don’t live here myself.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

19 October 2019

We leave Kohutapu Lodge and head west towards Waimangu Volcanic Valley, via a circuitous route that takes us through the huge Kaingaroa Forest.  For Ena this is a magical place and she harbours a romantic notion that one day she will give up the tourist business and become a bushman (forester). But we see it differently. 

Vast swathes of non-native monoculture tree plantations, interrupted only by patches of brutal clear-cut harvesting, does nothing for the visual appeal of this area.  Nor does it bring much employment for the local Maori now that forestry is so mechanised. Worse still, the Maoris having in the distant past sold the land for a pittance, we are told that most of the profits of the enterprise end up in the coffers of a certain US Ivy League University.  Cleary New Zealand, despite being – geographically speaking – in the middle of nowhere, is plainly not immune from some of the negative impacts of globalisation.

Kaingaroa Forest is without doubt the most depressing thing we’ve seen in New Zealand so far, and we’re delighted to leave it behind us and instead explore the geothermal delights of Waimangu Volcanic Valley.

New Zealand lies on – and indeed is a child of – the Pacific Ring of Fire, where the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates collide. In North Island this has given rise to a landscape in which extinct volcanic cones and other, still active, geothermal features are widespread. In Waimangu Valley, geothermal activity remains a fact of day-to-day life. But it wasn’t always this way.

As we stand at the valley overlook and admire the lush vegetation interspersed with plumes of steam, it’s difficult to believe that prior to 10 June 1886 this area was rolling scrub country with no visible indication of any geothermal activity. Equally difficult to believe is the fact that in the months and years that followed, the Waimangu Valley was a wasteland, the result of a violent eruption on that date which created a line of craters and destroyed all plant, animal and bird life.

We spend several hours working our way along a well-marked trail, admiring a range of spectacular geothermal features that have all developed and matured since that cataclysmic event in June 1886.

During that period native forest has established itself in the wasteland and is flourishing.  To see geothermal features against a backdrop of splendid tree ferns is both a shock and a delight.  

Another delight is that the lower end of the Waimangu Valley is a hotspot for birds, where native species like the Pukeko and the New Zealand Kingfisher, and modern arrivals from overseas such as the [Australian] Black Swan are thriving. Mrs P doesn’t have her long lens with her (the lens is too heavy and the path is too steep), but some of the birds come close enough to be photographed with her “landscapes lens”. I also manage a couple of minutes of decent video: view it here.

We are well acquainted with geothermal landscapes from the USA, Iceland, Costa Rica and Japan, but Waimangu Volcanic Valley has exceeded all our expectations. It’s definitely the highlight of our first few days in New Zealand.