Heading south: seals, pancake rocks and a lighthouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell Spit: sand, seals and sunsets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaikoura: earthquakes, seals and Marmite misery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell North Island, g’day South Island

After 3 days in Auckland and a further 11 days on the road, during which period we drove 1,913 kilometres, it’s time for us to leave North Island. From our boutique hotel accommodation at Bushy Park we drive for about 90 minutes to the airport at Palmerston North.

On the way we pass through the town of Bulls, which boasts several life size representations of the animal in question modelled out of resin or bronze or whatever. And there’s also a large sign bearing the legend: “Bulls, there’s no udder place like it!” I’m easily amused, so that pun makes my day.

The flight to Christchurch in the South Island takes about an hour. The weather is fine and visibility is good, so Mrs P takes full advantage of her window seat and snaps away merrily at the snow clad mountains and rugged coastline, and the distinctively shaped Kaikoura peninsula.

Christchurch airport is remarkably efficient, and within a few minutes of landing we’ve picked up the second Toyota Camry of our trip, and head north towards Kaikoura, the very place over which we were flying less than an hour ago.

The outskirts of Christchurch have little to recommend them, but as we move further north the traffic thins out and the landscape gets more interesting. The weather is almost perfect, and the gales and torrential rain of North Island already seem like a distant memory.

The black sandy beaches are alien to our eyes, but strangely atmospheric. Not an obvious choice for a beach holiday, but that’s not why Mrs P and I are here.

The late afternoon light illuminates the towering Cathedral Cliffs at Gore Bay, on the approach to Kaikoura. Unusually these are inland cliffs, facing away from the sea, and the rock columns remind us of the pipes of a monstrous church organ.

On the outskirts of Kaikoura we call in at Peninsula Point. Rocks of all shapes and sizes rise out of the sea. Behind, we can see the snow-capped mountains over which we were flying just a few hours ago. This place is so picturesque; all it needs is a fur seal or two and it would be perfect.

And there he is, our first fur seal, lounging lazily on the rocks. Wild mammals were thin on the ground in North Island, and we’re hoping for better things on South Island. If Peninsula Point is anything to go by, we won’t be disappointed.

I think I’m going to like this place.