Unseen Fiorland and Stewart Island (Part 4) – The final chapter

We had a calm night, and we woke to a beautiful morning surrounded by mountains, bush and bird sound from the shores of nearby Anchor Island.   Nothing like Ulva but more than anywhere else, yet another perfect morning as it has been every day for my morning coffee.  It was made even more perfect by a couple of dolphins swimming around the boat and some little blue penguins in the distance – what more could you ask for.  After such a beautiful start, I popped outside after breakfast and it was raining ☔️ah, Fiordland. 

Our outing this morning was going to take us to around Luncheon Cove and on to Anchor Island.  Anchor Island is highly protected which means the numbers of people on shore at one time are limited and the logistics of this seemed far more difficult than it should have been 🤦🏻‍♀️ lol. I was in the last group to depart the ship.  On the downside this mean a lot of waiting around as we did not get off until almost 10am, on the upside by this time it had stopped raining!

We spent some time looking at the fur seals lounging around on the rocks and relaxing in the water before it was our turn to land on Anchor Island at Luncheon Cove (apparently Captain Cook had lunch here one day, hence the name!).  In 1792, 14 men (though some accounts say 11 men were left) were dropped off at this same spot by the Sealer ship Britannia with the intent of spending a few months catching the abundant fur seals in the area.  They were left with building materials to build not only a house to live in, but another boat, in case the Britannia could not come back to collect them. 

The house and boat they built here are considered the first European house/settlement and boat built in New Zealand.  Despite their boat building success, the Britannia did come back to pick them (and their 4,500 seal skins – of course that translates to 4,500 less fur seals!!) 10 months later so the nearly completed 52 ft long boat was left in the small creek on Anchor Island.

So, when the men were not busy building (and making beer out of Rimu leaves), they were sealing and killed 100s and 1000s of the local fur seal population.  Seals were greatly prized and Captain Cook even made the following entry in his diary in 1773“ Thursday 22nd.  In the PM I went with a party a Seal hunting, the surf was so high that we could only land in one place where we killed Ten, these animals serve us for three purposes, the skins we use for our rigging, the fatt makes oyle for our lamps and the flesh we eat, their harslets (heart and liver) are equal to that of a hog and the flesh of some of them eats little inferior to beef steakes, nay I believe we should think it superior could we get the better of prejudice.”

(The journals of Captain James Cook: the voyage of the Resolution and Adventure, 1772–1775, edited by J. C. Beaglehole. Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1961, p. 126)

Sealing in the area carried on until 1946, but thankfully the population of seals has built back up today and we saw many in the area, including one who had a bit of a stand off with one of my boat mates!

But the story of the boat did not end when the original group of sealers were picked up.  Two years later another ship, the Endeavour, came to the area and the crew finished the build.  They named their ‘new’ boat the Providence and sailed it to Norfolk Island.

Today, Anchor Island is particularly important to the conservation efforts of endangered species.  In particular the Kakapo which were introduced to the island in 2006, having been cleared of the last of the predators in 2005 (all the deer were removed in 2007).  In the 2015 breeding season they had 38 chicks on Anchor Island and today there is a population of 80 young Kakapo on the island.   Unfortunately, they are nocturnal so there was little to no chance of seeing one whilst on the island.  Apparently there use to be one who came out to ‘greet’ visitors to the island, but they removed it to an island that is not open to the public as they were worried someone would ‘steal’ it!

We had a short walk on the island but to be honest I would have preferred just to sit some quietly and listen and watch the birds rather than go on the walk-through mud and learn and see nothing special.   It was also hot going, dressed for zodiacs and then hiking, but I shouldn’t complain, it was beautiful, and I am so fortunate to be able to visit such important places.

When our time on shore was over, we jumped back in the Zodiac for another trip around the islands, this time there were a lot of fur seals, including some pups and also Fiordland Crested penguins swimming around in the water. We also past a number of crayfish launches (similar to the one the chef had sourced the crayfish for dinner) – they often have helipads on top of their pontoons, so their fresh catch can be taken to Te Anau by helicopter!

Back on board and there were a group of 3 penguins on the rocks, near the ship but a little too far for decent photos.  They were so cute jumping around trying to decide whether to go in the water or not 😂 (well, that’s what it looked like to me)!

During lunch the ship moved again – stepping out of the ship every time after we move is like stepping out into a new world – this time we were anchored off Pigeon Island, truly the birthplace of conservation in New Zealand.  Pigeon Island is where Richard Henry set up home when working on his conservation efforts on Resolution Island. 

Richard Henry was an Irishman who came to New Zealand in the late 1870’s and got a job as a rabbit shooter on a sheep farm.  When he saw the damage stoats, ferrets and weasels were doing to the native bird population, he predicted that they could wipe out the entire population.  He believed the birds would be safer on offshore islands, and although his ideas formed the basis for much of today’s conservation efforts of native species, his efforts to keep the predators at bay, were futile.

In 1894, Richard Henry was appointed custodian and caretaker of Resolution Island in Fiordland which became New Zealand’s first island reserve for native wildlife.  He set up home on Pigeon Island and built a house and a Kakapo pen, the remains of which we can see today.  He left Fiordland in 1908 and became caretaker of a new reserve on Kapiti Island – both Kapiti and Resolution remain key to New Zealand’s conservation efforts today.

Pigeon Island is another restricted island, this time, only 12 people were allowed on shore at one time, so we had limited time to explore this beautiful little island.  We were joined by a chirpy saddleback (saddlebacks were only introduced a couple of years ago and appear to be doing well.)  It is definitely clear to see how much more birdlife there is on the pest free islands and Pigeon Island was no exception.  Sadly, there were also many sand flies whilst waiting for to leave the beach 😫!

Back on the ship and it was already time to start packing, and a celebratory Kir Royale and cheese board on the bow to toast to the last night of the trip.  It was beautiful weather … sunny and warm, just like the first evening we celebrated on the bow, just a short 6 days before.  It was so warm, some people jumped in the water, including the captain of the ship and the naked chef – literally   🥴!!  I did not join them as I am a complete wuss when it comes to cold water!

Before dinner we had one final evening recap of the day and the trip as a whole.  It was amazing to be reminded of all the amazing places we had been in the short 6 days on the ship.  Apparently, adversity and revelation weld a group together, thankfully we had had not much adversity but lots of revelation.

After our final dinner, most of us headed back up to deck to enjoy the journey out of the Sounds into Foveaux Strait.  We started the day with dolphins, and we ended the day with dolphins, a flock of sooty shearwaters and the odd albatross soaring around the boat.  It was beautiful but, not surprisingly it started to get rough as we made our way around the infamous Puysegur Point and that was my cue to head to bed!!

Most of the night was relatively calm despite the 3 hours rocking and rolling to start … and we were very soon heading in to port at Bluff (after we passed a couple of albatrosses waving goodbye) for a 7.30 landing.  We had had a pilot on board for the whole trip (a requirement for a ship this size) so we did not have to wait for one when we arrive in port and could just sail straight in.

It has been a great trip and I think we had been particularly lucky with the weather.  Apparently, we 3-4 metre swells at worst, sounds terrible to me but apparently it is nothing to the seasoned seafarers!

Phone reception had come back over night and everyone was back on their phones – me to change my flight from 4pm to 11am given that we were be in port so early.  It is always so refreshing to have a break from the internet.

Shortly after breakfast we were ready to depart and was waved off by the crew who lined up on the wharf to say their farewells.  They trip was short, but incredibly sweet and I have already got my eye on some future journeys with Heritage Expeditions. 

NB: Photos really don’t do this area justice – no photo can really depict the grandeur of the lush green forest covered mountains and the deep green colour of the water. Yet another place I would love to spend more time.

Unseen Fiordland and Stewart Island (Part 3) – Into the Sounds

November 2021

After a relatively good sleep despite the rolling (or pitching as we boat people say lol), we woke up in a perfectly calm inlet of Open Cove, at the entrance to Thompson Sound.  Of course, my phone still thinks I am in Vladivostok and after asking around, it appears this is the first time it has happened, and no one seems to know what’s up 🤔.  I continued my morning coffee with a view this morning, this time my view was of beautiful cloud topped mountains flowing down into the sea. 

We were out in the zodiacs by 9am and we zipped around the northern end of the sound and then down a beautiful Pandora River. As with yesterday, the tide was on our side, otherwise we would not have got very far down the shallow river.   It was beautiful and peaceful, and the river was lined with beautiful bush including flowering rata, kamahi and orchids.  We were welcomed to the wonderful Fiordland weather with sun, rain and hail all in about 30 minutes 🤔.  It seemed crazy as it was not that cold.  Another great Fiordland feature was also out to greet us – sandflies, so many sandflies!!  Luckily, we were pretty much covered from head to toe with our wet weather gear so there was not a lot of opportunity from them to bite.

From Pandora River, we continued on our expedition to Neck Cove where we jumped out in the shallows and went for a bit of a bush whack … a serious bush whack in some cases where there were no tracks at all. (FYI bush whacking normally refers to walking through the bush where there is actually no track – I guess it means you have to ‘whack’ away the bush lol.)  It was fun and the bush was beautiful though it took some time to find a decent route out to the beach (avoiding the swamp), but we finally made it back and on to the boat for time to dry off before lunch.  As we ate the ship headed into Blanket Bay, part of Doubtful Sound, where we dropped anchor.

After lunch we were back out in the zodiacs for a couple of hours zipping around the bays of Secretary Island with a short stop on one of the small beaches.  Secretary Island is one of New Zealand’s most important islands for conservation as it has always been free of possums and rodents.  Subsequently it has been cleared of deer and stoats (a great challenge given the very steep and densely forested slopes) making it one of the largest pest free islands and populations of endangered species have been relocated there.

It is interesting how localised weather is in this region.  We could watch the rain showers pass down the valleys and across the fiord (and across us too of course 🥴) but thankfully there was not too much rain and we did not get too wet.

We had another evening recap before dinner, and boy what a dinner it was.  We had passed a couple of small crayfishing operations during the day and the chef had taken it upon himself to negotiate a large number of crays for 2 bottles of Russian vodka (I did hear numerous versions of what it he actually swapped for the crays, but in every version, Russian vodka was gratefully received by these remote fishermen lol).  The fresh crayfish went down a treat with my fellow passengers – if only I liked crayfish lol.

Why are some areas called ‘Sounds” and others ‘Fiords” I hear you ask?  It is an interesting question, and I was keen to learn that a Sound is a drowned river valley whilst a Fiord is formed in a valley left behind by a glacier … of course in Fiordland, there was once many glaciers along the coastline.

After dinner I headed back on deck as it was a stunning evening to leave Doubtful Sound and head back out to the ocean as the sun set – but I did have to make sure I was back in my bed before we got out past the headlands and it got rough again 🥴

Day 5 and we work up in Cascade Cove in Dusky Sound, having travelled through the Acheron Passage during the night.  I had slept well again with only a few hours of rolling during the night and it was yet another beautiful morning, a perfect morning for the helicopter flight some of us had booked.

I was in the first group that set of in the zodiac to the floating helipad and into the helicopter.  We then flew up the sound and landed on the top of Mt Pender (at 1100m above sea level) where we were met by Ross, an ex-senior DOC ranger who told us all about the region.  From here there was spectacular views of Dusky Sound and some of the 360 islands it contains.

Despite being almost summer, there had been some snow on the peaks of the mountains around us and it there was definitely a brisk chill in the area.  Too soon our time on the top was over and we could also see a weather front coming in from the sea as we headed back to the barge for the next group to go up.  It was such a special experience, and I was certain that my photos would not do it justice (I was right)!

We had a quick zodiac cruise around Pickersgill Harbour and the historic Astronomers Point before heading back to ship.  Astronomers Point is the site of a temporary observatory set up during Capitan Cooks second voyage in 1773.  It is significant because they were testing new technology and it was considered the most accurately located place on the globe at the time.

Cook and his crew, having just sailed through Antarctica, cleared about an acre of forest and set up camp for provisioning and ship repairs.  They even set up a brewery, using Rimu and manuka leaves to make beer with the hope of preventing scurvy during their 5 week stay.

Having had an early start, we were all back on board before 10am and we set sail deeper into Dusky Sound It was beautiful travelling down the sound with snow-capped mountains in various shades of blue and grey.  We sailed through Cooks Passage and past Long Island, through water so clear you could see the Little Blue penguins popping up from time to time, as well as see them swimming under water!

We anchored just off Cooper Island in Sportsman Cove and had time for a pre-lunch zodiac cruise, passing the tiny but beautiful Shags Island which was covered in flowering Rata.  Have I mentioned the sand flies 🥴🤔🥴 – we were keen not to stop for very long as every time we did, the sandflies would swarm in!  Despite that, it was wonderful to be completely surrounded by native bush.  (It was frustrating that my maps were still showing that I was in a Russia as I had planned to use them to pinpoint our location in these small coves and bays 🤦🏻‍♀️.)

As we had lunch we started sailing again.  I must say, meals were always interesting as there was a great mix of people on board.  Most were very well travelled, many were very experienced trampers, other were birders and/or botanists and about half had been on Heritage Expedition trips before.

A weather front was moving in as we sailed down the Acheron Passage, the wind picked up as we watched the rain travel down the valleys.   Thankfully the sea was not as we were in still in the sheltered fiords and by late afternoon, we were anchored in the protected Duck Cove.
 
The day finished with a great lecture from one of our guides, Lindsay Wilson.  Lindsay has a long history of working with the Department of Conservation in the Fiordland area and gave us some wonderful insights into conservation in the Dusky Sound area.

Fiordland National Park is the largest national park in New Zealand, established in 1952 and it plays an incredibly important role in conservation in New Zealand.  In fact, it is considered the birthplace of conservation when in 1890, when Richard Henry set up a New Zealand’s first island sanctuary on Resolution Island and single handedly rowed more than 500 Kakapo and kiwi to this and other island sanctuaries in the area.    (FYI Resolution Island is New Zealand’s 5th largest island.)  He even used a muzzled dog to help him track down the birds on the mainland.

Unfortunately, he had underestimated the distance stoats, ferrets and weasels could swim, however his techniques of using conservation dogs and relocating endangered species to predator free islands is still key to New Zealand’s conservation efforts today.

Today a number of the islands in Fiordland have been cleared of pests and in fact Anchor Island today is home to half the world’s population of Kakapo!! (I should note that of course they are endemic to New Zealand and therefore the entire world’s population is in New Zealand lol)

I looked forward to exploring the area more in the morning.

Unseen Fiordland and Stewart Island (Part 2) – Stewart Island revisited

November 2020

After a good night’s sleep moored in the very calm Paterson’s Inlet, I woke up to a beautiful view of Ulva island (I didn’t make it for sunrise which is now around 5am 🥴).  The air was also full of bird song from the island.  Fun fact, Paterson Inlet is the  inlet with the most shoreline in the Southern Hemisphere!

After a big buffet breakfast we got ready for our first on shore expedition to Ulva Island and being the first day everyone was ready early for our 8am departure – raring to go. 

Initial comparisons of small vs big expedition ships (the bigger ship being the one I went to Antarctica on in 2014/15) – the bigger ship had a dedicated muck room for getting dressed in your outside gear rather than 3 people trying to do that in our small room (it’s not that bad but difficult if we are all trying to get ready at the same time (which we inevitably were).  Secondly on the big ship we typically exited the ship at sea level straight into the zodiacs … on this ship there we steep stairs to decent.  Nothing that I could not deal with though.

Now, if you are a regular reader, you will know I had been to Ulva Island just a few short weeks previous but it is definitely the kind of place that I could return to multiple times and, as with nature, every time would be different.  All 50 of us disembarked the zodiacs on to the small wharf at Post Office Cove and we were able to choose which group we wanted to join – fast walkers, moderate walkers and potterers.

All the guides were provided by Ulva’s Guided Walks (who I had used the last time I was there) and I recognised one of the guides as Ulva herself and immediately decided I would join her group regardless of which one it was! Ulva Goodwille is well known on Stewart Island (she is named after Ulva Island) and she has even written a book about Ulva Island (which I was lucky enough to get a signed copy when I visited the last time).  She is a direct descendant of the first Maori people of Stewart Island and is clearly very passionate about the island and it’s inhabitants. 

It turned out, Ulva was leading the potterers group which was fine by me and it was even better because there was only 5 people in the group as opposed to the other groups that had 20 or so.  We did not have to potterer far to come across two Red Crowned Kakariki feeding chicks in a hole in the tree – we could not see the chicks but they were definitely keeping their parents busy.

The whole island was filled with amazing bellbird song, occasionally interrupted by three saddlebacks, who, according to Ulva (who clearly speaks Saddleback lol) were all very angry!!  We saw kereru, bellbirds and tuis doing ‘zoomies’ through the trees.  We tasted some of the sooty mould (odd I know 😂) which tasted very sweet and learnt about the 73 species of endemic coprosma (only found in New Zealand) which can be identified by the dots up the centre of the leaf (see the photo).

In hindsight perhaps it was a little too ‘pottery’ for me but I loved all the stories Ulva was sharing with us.  One of my favourites was the story of the Kaka, who used to have a red head, but the Kakariki stole the red feathers, so now Kaka have white feathers on their head and why the Kakariki are always “laughing” 😂.

Slightly more factual stories included her theory that saddlebacks could be flightless in 1000 years as they hate to fly and will avoid it if they can!  They nest on the ground and ‘run’ up branches rather than fly.   Of course, the existence of predator free islands like Ulva are the only place they can truly live this way and survive.

We learnt about the Robin’s who at this time of the year have ‘brooder patches’, where they pull out some breast feathers so their skin is closer to their eggs.  It was clear that most are sitting on eggs currently.

We passed massive 500 year old Rimu trees and tiny orchids, so tiny they were easy to miss.  There were almost no orchids in bloom when I was on the island before, but this time there were a few more including tiny green hooded orchids and bamboo orchids. 

As we were admiring a morepork, who was comfortable tuck up in the incredible root system of a large South Rata tree (morepork are owls and therefore predominately nocturnal), a tui swooped in and dive bombed it!  The morepork are predators and the tui must have eggs or chicks nearby that it was protecting.  We didn’t see where the morepork went and never saw it again.

Back down near the beach we came across a Rifleman’s nest (New Zealand’s smallest bird).  There was a tiny feather near the entrance but sadly we did not see the bird themselves … instead we got to watch some battling weka!  The weka wars went on for some time before one of them gave up and wandered off lol.

It was a beautiful morning on Ulva Island but too soon it was time to head back to the ship and as we had lunch, the ship moved around to Kaipipi Bay, one of the many small bays that line Paterson’s Inlet.  From here we headed back on to land for a walk back to Oban.  We ended up walking along the last stretch of the Rakiura 3 day track down into town along with those who had actually done the 3 day walk 😂.  They look exhausted but happy and we bumped into them again cooling off their tired feet in the ocean.

It was a warm sunny day and Oban, and the town was very busy (as was the bar) so I just decided to chill a little by the beach, fascinated by the amazing colours and patterns in the sand and it was not long before it was time to get the zodiac back to the ship which was now anchored in the harbour just offshore.

Settling into our onboard routine, we had a recap of the day in the bar before another great dinner.  One of the staff had been asking around about the jellyfish from the previous night.  Apparently, they were speckled jellyfish and at this time of year there are many of them due to additional nutrients in the water.

During the early hours of the morning, we moved again, this time around to the eastern coast of Stewart Island at Port Adventure (the movement made a nice little swell to rock me to sleep lol) and we work to another beautiful morning which I started with coffee on the deck before breakfast.  It also helped that breakfast was not until 7.30 (rather than 6.45 the day before though we are clearly getting into the routine of boat life).

Weirdly, by morning, my phone was saying the time was 4.30am rather than 7.30am 🤔🤔 but when I went in to the world time it had the right time for Wellington – had we changed times zones over night?? No… apparently the ship (from Vladivostok) has some technology that phones are picking up … so it is showing the time in Vladivostok 🥴 or are we on the way to Vladivostok – technology is wonderful but weird … even my offline maps thought we were in Russia and all my photos show they were taken in Vladivostok?!?  Thank goodness I was not relying on the alarm to wake up!!

By 8.45 (New Zealand time) we were out on the water in the zodiacs (there are enough zodiacs for everyone onboard to be out on the water at the same time) and started cruising around some of the bays, passing a few Little Blue penguins in the water and some Foveaux Shags chilling out in the trees.  Apparently, they can be black or black and white! 

As we cruised along the southern arm of the bay, we spotted our first Fiordland Crested penguin, hiding out under a branch on the side of the water and spotted kaka flying overhead.  We admired white fronted terns and variable oyster catchers, all posed on a small group of rocks.  It was so peaceful and calm when we turned the engines off … it was also warm – too warm for all the clothes I was wearing when we were going slow, but I was grateful for them when we picked up some speed!

We had a brief land stop at the Port Adventure Hunters hut (to give the crew time for a quick outboard motor repair) and I spent the time admiring the beach with its beautiful mixture of coloured shells, rocks and seaweed. 

With all the zodiacs back in working order, we headed down beautiful Heron River – it had a real central/ South American vibe to it, with jungle on both sides of the dark river – I almost expect to see alligators in the water, or monkeys in the trees. 

As the river narrowed and shallowed, I ended up helping Heidi our guide row the zodiac (as it was too shallow to use the outboards) – but at least I avoided having to get in to push us over rocks in the really shallow parts 👍🏻 lol.  Apparently, the plan had been to try and get as far down the river to see a waterfall … we did, and it was about 10 cm high 😂😂

Back on the ship and we quickly lifted the anchor and set sail as we sat down for lunch.  After all the paddling efforts of the morning I was ravenously hungry and I was surprised when my phone pinged during lunch, meaning I had reception (which we don’t have for much of the trip).  It seems we had abandoned the route we were supposed to take around the south of Stewart island and instead went back past Oban (hence the phone reception) and along the north coast.   I understand that sometimes things have to change, particularly on trips like this, but it was disappointing they we could not do the plan but also that they really did not tell us about it …

We spent the afternoon at sea in somewhat choppy water so had a couple of lectures – I missed the first one of Maori settlement of Auckland Islands (we are not going there, and I was exhausted after my paddling exploits of the morning), the second was on the Southern Ocean which we were experiencing so I did go to that one – key takeaway for me is that the southern ocean is the biggest ‘continuous’ ocean in the world.  It was certainly continuously moving at this time!

We did a drive by of the Solander Islands, a group of 3 rocky islands that are the tips of an extinct volcano that is believed to have last erupted between 150,000 and 400,000 years ago.  It is believed that it is the size of Mt Taranaki, the rest of which is submerged. It was named after one of Cooks botanists – clearly Solander was not as popular as Banks who got a large peninsular (was thought to be an island at the time), Solander basically got a lump of granite in a remote part of the ocean!

It was beautiful sight with the dramatic skies – albatross and giant petrel soaring around the ship and sealions frolicking in the sea around us.  It was truly beautiful and remote part of our wonderful big backyard that not many people get to see.

We then set sail across to the mainland (the South Island that is😂).  I decided to forego dinner (though I was disappointed to be missing out on rib eye steak) but it was pretty rough by my standards and getting around the ship was tough.  It was definitely the roughest seas I had had in my limited sailing career (although many onboard had seen much worse).  Apparently, the crew and staff enjoyed a rather large dinner as many people did not eat!!

Unseen Fiordland and Stewart Island (Part 1) – All aboard …

November 2020

The level of excitement for this trip was akin to that of an overseas trip, and technical I would be crossing the seas 😂.  Packing even involved the ‘big boy’ bag coming out, probably unnecessarily but why not – why I need to take as much for a week as I did for 4 months a couple of years ago don’t I 🥴.

Bear with me as this 7 day trip will be a number of blogs – not sure how many yet, we will just have to see how much I write lol.

I had been following the Christchurch based Heritage Expedition trips for some time – particularly with an eye on trips in the South Pacific and north east Russia – and of course their Antarctica trips, and as with all tour operators worldwide, Covid had decimated the majority of their clients (overseas guests).  Fortunately for me, that meant it freed up time and trips for the humble kiwi in our big backyard – I jumped at the opportunity to explore remote parts of country you can only see by sea.

The arrival of my ship even made the news as the first passenger ship (and it predominately Russian crew) granted permission to enter the country through the Covid border restrictions – it arrived just 8 days before my departure which added to the excitement.

And so, I was back on a plane to Invercargill (for the second time in 2 months) and this time it was a fully masked flight.  I had been wearing one on my last couple of flights, but it was now mandatory on all flights – better safe than sorry 👍🏻.

The New Zealand small town syndrome set in before I even left the airport, as I bumped into a girl I had followed and chatted with on social media when I was in the UK and she was in Spain.  She had finally got back to New Zealand a few months earlier with her German boyfriend – it’s always nice to meet someone in person.

In Invercargill, I got a shuttle to the ‘joining’ hotel, unfortunately it was a long way from the main part of the town, so I had to kill some time in the bar 😂 till the meeting time.  At least I could sit down, have something to eat and drink.

Now we knew the crew was covid free as they had spent over 40 days at sea getting here and had had 3 covid tests, but what about the passengers? I had nightmares about it becoming the ‘covid ship’ and being trapped for weeks!  To ensure this did not happen we had had to complete a health declaration 10 days and 2 days before departure, just noting if we had any symptoms …. and before boarding the bus (to get to the boat) they had medical staff checking our temperature, throat and lungs (breathing) to deem us ‘fit for travel’ – thankfully I passed 🥳😂 (New Zealand did not have any reported cases of Covid in the community at this time so the medical check was just an extra precaution.)

To be honest, it was all a bit disorganised, with no real clear instruction as to what we were supposed to do – I stumbled across the medical ‘line’ as I wandered around the reception area of the hotel, and once cleared medically there was no further instruction, so I just found a comfortable seat and read by book … I could have mingled but decided that there was plenty of time for that when we were on our way.

My tactic of sitting alone ended up getting me targeted for an interview … there were a fair amount of press around as it was the first passenger ‘cruise’ to go head in a covid world … I was not sure it would ever see the print or tv, but I hope the photos/ videos were not close ups – I hadn’t even brushed my hair 😂😂!  (FYI – there was an article with a photo, as well as a TV segment!)

Just prior to departure we had a so called ‘bag security check’, although there was no real check, we just had to identify our bags and were assigned our cabin number which we had to remember 😂 – then there was a little more standing around before we boarded the bus and headed to Bluff – the southern most point of the South Island and the departure point for our boat.

Finally, onboard and I found my cabin which was small but with plenty of storage (which is necessary as you need to be able to put everything secure in rougher seas).  I was in a triple berth (the cheapest option) but was lucky enough to get the single bed (as opposed to the bunk) and soon met my room mates Helen (who I had chatted with briefly at the hotel) and Anne.

After a quick introduction to the staff (all who said how grateful they were to be back at work) we were finally on our way and heading out of the harbour and into Foveaux Strait just after 5pm.  Apparently, the Strait (which I flew over just a few weeks earlier) can be rough, and the boat certainly had some movement to it, but it was not too bad.  We had a little time to stand on the deck and enjoy the views before heading back down the stairs into the lecture room for the all important safety briefing.

The safety briefing was followed by an ‘abandon ship’ drill where we actually had to get in the lifeboat – now I have been on a number of boat trips in recent years and although we have had safety drills, actually getting in the lifeboat was a first for me!  It looks like it would be a cramped few hours or days …. if we ever actually had to use them!!!

Just over 2 hours sailing and we were anchored in Paterson Bay, Stewart Island.  Where we were treated to a great 3 course dinner, followed by champagne on the deck to toast the first expedition of the season.  It was a beautiful and warm evening as the sun set, and we could hear bird song from nearby Ulva Island.  The ship was also surrounded by jellyfish, so many jellyfish – no one knew why??  Unfortunately, I could not get any good photos as trying to focus through water and at almost transparent jellyfish is challenging lol.

And we finished the first day on the boat being lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the ship in the sheltered waters. 

Just before I finish of this first blog, let me show you around the boat and show you how things work ….

The Spirit of Enderby is a fully ice-strengthened expedition vessel that started life as the Professor Khromov in Vladivostok, Russia in 1984.   Despite the name change, the Professor’s photo still has pride of place on the wall.  I had hoped to find out who Professor Khromov actually was, but I have had no luck with my internet searches.

The ship only takes 50 passengers in a variety of cabins (and it was full, including a two man film crew from TVNZ who would be filming a number of articles for the TV news later in the week), but I had opted for the el cheapo (who am I fooling, none of the cabins were cheap!) triple cabin with shared bathroom facilities.  With the poor ship plumbing, it was back to no toilet paper in the toilet but in a bin next to it (like in much of South America).  Annoyingly it takes me a week to get used to but I did my best lol.  Thankfully the room did have a small porthole so at least we could assess the weather in the morning before heading upstairs. 

Except for when we were going in and out of port, the bridge was open for us to visit.  Most of the crew were Russian and did not speak English so there was not much conversation to be had but there was a great view from the elevated vantage point.

There was a small bar/library area where you could get coffee/tea/biscuits all day, and more importantly a sneaky gin and tonic in the evening before dinner.  It was here we would meet to recap on the day and for the expedition staff (and the keen birders among us) to make note of the species they spotted during the day. As a side note, if you get a chance to try this Black Robin gin – do it, it was amazing!

Another important room is of course the dining room, split in to two parts, each side of the small galley.  Here we had a buffet breakfast, a two course lunch and a three course dinner – of which we could choose the main (which we did at lunchtime).  The food was great and there was always plenty of it.  Definitely nothing to complain about, although sometimes the meal times could drag on a bit, though it was a nice opportunity to socialise and chat with fellow travellers about the day.

As part of their commitment to ensuring the ship was Covid free, we had to have our temperature taken before every meal.  Basically, you just had to stand in front of a camera attached to a TV screen which would take your temperature and advise if you were in the normal range.  I must admit I am not sure how effective it was, but no one ever tested in the red zone (which meant they needed to go and see the onboard doctor – who gets to come along for free in return for performing any medical duties required).

Finally, on the lower level we had the small lecture room where, not surprisingly we had lectures, not that there was a lot of opportunity on this trip as we were normally out and about.

The procedure for excursions was similar to that of my Antarctic cruise a few years ago.  We had been lent gumboots (or muck boats as they are called on the ship) and we would get dressed in them, waterproof pants and jackets for our zodiac trips (all trips, whether than were land or zodiac, started with a ride in a zodiac as we never stopped anywhere with a wharf or jetty we could use). 

Once dressed in our Zodiac gear (and seriously over heating lol) we had to put on our life jackets and turn our personal tag on a board (everyone was allocated a number) to show that we had left the boat.  The final step was boot/shoe washing (to avoid any biodiversity hazards which was not so important on this trip but a big deal in the sub-Antarctic islands and Antarctica). 

Once all that was done, we had to wait on either port or starboard side (the corridors and areas along the side of the boat on the outside were very narrow so you needed to go out the opposite door to where we were boarding, around the stern (and the boat washing station) to get to the gang plank queue.    And of course, we had to do all of that in reverse when coming back on to the boat!

Unfortunately, with such a short trip some people are only just getting use to procedure lol.

Wanderlust in Waikino

November 2020

This trip was first planned for August, but an Auckland lockdown meant it was delayed until November as most flights to Auckland were cancelled.  (As I write this I have just had another trip cancelled because of another Auckland lockdown – probably something we need to get used to!) It was disappointing to have to delay the trip but my first trip to the North Island since I got back to New Zealand was not to disappoint.  Starting with the flight up and the AMAZING view of Mt Taranaki.  As always, I was grateful for my window seat.

I picked up my rental car (currently it seems rental cars out of Auckland are pretty cheap which is great) and had decided to do a bit of a ‘tiki tour’ – that is, taking the long way round to my destination.  This route took me along the coast of the Hauraki Gulf and through cute coastal towns like Kawakawa Bay and Miranda.

By this point I was long overdue a break and something to eat so I stopped at the Buggar Café in Pipiroa, just outside Thames – yes, you read me right, the Buggar Café! Its philosophy is “Laugh a little” and the bathroom in particular had a number of amusing posters and photos. My favourite was detailing “Useful Bugger sayings” (just in case we could not think of any ourselves lol).

Refreshed from my stop, I next drove over the ranges which border the Coromandel Forest Park where I stopped briefly for a quick walk up to a viewpoint, before heading down the other side to the east coast and the small but perfectly formed beachside town of Whangamata.  (Small and perfectly formed towns was a bit of a theme to this weekend lol.)

Whangamata has a perfect combination of sand, surf and native bush which the population of around 5,000 can enjoy year round – in the summer holidays the population can swell to over 20,000!!  I decided it must be time for another break and a quick walk on the beach and look around the shops.  There is something about being on holiday that means I am always eager to buy things that I might not even consider when I am at home – not that they are bad purchase lol!

The final leg of my journey for the day took me through Waihi (where I would return to the next day) and on to Waikino and the rural log cabin that was to be my home for the next couple of nights.  It was a beautiful place, set in a beautiful rural outlook – fields, an orchard full of olive trees and a babbling brook … ok, it was a river but babbling brook sounds so much more literary right?  One of the best (or perhaps the worst) things about the place was that there was no phone reception – total peace.

Despite the sun earlier in the day it was fairly overcast, and the rain set in during the afternoon – I have probably mentioned it somewhere else in a blog, just how much I love rain on a tin roof!  I could listen to it for hours (and I did lol).   When the rain stopped, I went for a short walk down to the river – the fresh, wet farm smell was just so good!  I know it is not everyone’s cup of tea but I love it.

I spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with the other ladies on the retreat (did I mention it was a retreat – not that I know what a retreat actually is!) making homemade pizza and mulled wine.  Although we are now well into spring, remember this trip was original planned for mid-winter so mulled wine made sense then.   Both were delicious.

The next morning, I woke early (as I do) so I got up and went out for a short walk along the road just outside the house and passed the Waitawheta Valley tram track walk (the tram track used to provide the gold mining industry with timber).   It was so peaceful and still – only the sound of the river and birds. I had hoped the river crossing on the map (yay for maps.me and their offline maps again) was a bridge, but it was actually a ford and I was not prepared to get my feed wet at this time of the day 😂. Instead I spent far too long taking close up photos of plants with the morning dew on, as the sun came up over the hills. It could not have been a more perfect time to be out and about.

After breakfast we headed into Waihi, a small town founded around the gold mining industry – it actually won New Zealand’s most beautiful small town in 2019.  The gold and silver mining industry still exists today with both open cast and underground mining – giving Waihi the nickname of New Zealand’s “Heart of Gold”.  The Waihi goldmine is actually New Zealand’s richest gold mine!

We started by having a walk around the town centre (it did not take long), starting at the old Cornish Pumphouse.  It was built in 1904, based on the ones used in the tin mines in Cornwall (hence the name) and at the time it was built, it was the pride of the New Zealand mining industry ensuring the nearby mine had sufficient water, providing up to 7000 litres per minute!!

Despite its success, it was used for less than 10 years as in 1913 the Waihi Goldmining Company built the first hydro electric power station on the Waikato river and pumped the water 80kms to the mine.  At the time, the miners did not trust electricity so kept the pumphouse in working order until 1929 just in case it was needed. 

From 1930, the pumphouse was stripped of machinery and left as it was until the 1960s when one of the underground shafts collapsed, leaving the pumphouse on unstable land.  It was fenced off due to the danger but in 2006, it was decided to preserve it and therefore it needed to be moved.  The move of only 300m was an engineering feat in itself.  Today the pumphouse is an icon of the town’s mining heritage.

If you walk up the small hill next to the pumphouse you can look down on the vast Martha open cast mine.  You really can only tell the vastness of it when you see a truck halfway down which looks absolutely tiny.  There is also underground mining that tunnels underneath the town, which have caused some concern to the people who live above it.

After our short history lesson, we headed to ‘Laughing Pottery’, where we were to learn how to ‘pot’ lol.  Andrew, chief potter (not sure if that is actually a thing) taught us all about the origins of his clay and the process it goes through to get from the clay you dig out of the ground to the clay your make things out off – it was a surprising long process that I won’t bore you with!

Next up was learning how to make things.  I can firmly state it is definitely not as easy as the pros make it look!!  Nevertheless I managed to make 2 pretty decent looking bowls and a mug which will be fired and glazed (in a colour of my choice) over the next couple of weeks and sent on to me.  It was a fun experience, and I can’t wait to see the finished products (Finished product is included in the photos above – not to shabby if I do say so myself lol.

We had time for a walk around some of the cute shops in the busy little town before we were back on the road and into the nearby Karangahake Gorge and the quirky Talisman café for lunch.

Just across the busy road from the café is the start of a number of walks around the Karangahake Gorge itself.  These days the gorge is mostly a thoroughfare to get from Paeroa to Waihi, or perhaps somewhere to stop for a short walk, but it was once a bustling gold mining town.  The walks take you past some of the remains of buildings, along the old mining tram ways and through some of the old tunnels.  We did the short Windows Walk which is one of the favourites, not only because it is an easy 2.5km loop, but because of the wonderful views of the gorge through the ‘windows’.

Having had a bit of walk, we were ready for the next stop at the Karangahake Winery Estate.  A lovely winery set just up the hill from the river.  Despite the forecast, it had turned in to a lovely warm day, so we sat outside in the sun enjoying some lovely nibbles and a freshly brewed Mead – “Session” Mead as opposed to “Sack” Mead which I had sampled in Kyrgyzstan (feel free to check out that blog – All things Kyrgyz 101).  Chantelle, the owner and brewer of the mead explained that “sack” mead is what you drink before you go and sack a village (going back to its Viking roots).  It is very strong and very alcoholic 😂!!  “Session” mead on the other hand is something you could drink for a “session” – so it tends to be much lower in alcohol, lighter and fizzier – it was delicious and refreshing and definitely more drinkable than the Kyrgyz sack mead! 

Chantelle said it was her best batch yet!!

Our final stop for the afternoon was at the beautiful Owharoa Falls, in the Kaimai Mamaku Conservation Park and just off State Highway 2.   From the road it is just a short walk to the waterfall’s base were you get a view of the small but perfectly formed falls.  Now I mentioned previously that it was much warmer than I had expected it to be, but it was definitely not warm enough for swimming as a couple of people were doing lol. I was definitely not inclined to join them.

It had been a busy day and we had a couple of hours downtime before we headed back to Waihi, this time to Waihi Beach for dinner at the beachside Flatwhite Waihi Beach.   It overlooked the beautiful long stretch of Waihi Beach, despite the overcast weather it was still beautiful.

The rain set in during the evening and back at the log cabin, I fell asleep to the wonderful sound of rain on the tin roof (again).

The following morning was the last of my short getaway and we were back at Waihi Beach for a morning Yoga session at The Nest.  Now, I am not really a yoga person, but the yoga tent was in such beautiful gardens and it was so peaceful I found it all very relaxing … until the ducklings started running around the deck around the tent 😂 the pitter patter of their little feet round and round just made me laugh.   😂 

After yoga I had time for a coffee and a short walk on the beach – after the rainy night, it was a beautiful day, and you could see as my Mt Manganui … I just wished I could stay longer, but sadly no.  I had to get back to the house to get packed up and head back to Auckland.  Thankfully I did have time for a quick stop in Paeroa, the home to the ‘world famous in New Zealand’ Lemon & Paeroa and get a mandatory photo of the giant L&P bottle.

Yet another great long weekend, exploring my big back yard.

Roaming Rakiura – Part 2

October 2020

After a late night, we were up early for our visit to nearby Ulva Island.  A must do when visiting Rakiura and again, this is something you can easily do without a guide but I always like to know about what I am seeing and of course they know where to look for things lol. We met our guide, Leah, (again we used Ulva Guided Walks) at the small wharf in Golden Bay and the caught the water taxi across Paterson Inlet to the island (passing a few Little blue penguins bobbing around in water) – just a 7 minute journey.   

Today, Ulva Island (named after an island in the Scottish Hebrides islands) is a predator free sanctuary just off the coast of the Stewart Island mainland.  It became predator free in 1997 and is one of the few sanctuaries in New Zealand that has undisturbed podocarp forest – it really is like stepping back in time. 

Visited occasionally by the local Ngāi Tahu Māori, the island was occupied in 1872 by Charles Traill (from the Orkney Islands) who established the first post office in the region – he called the bay he lived in Post Office Bay and this is where we arrived on the island.  When the mail boat arrived, he would raise a flag and the locals would put on their finest clothes and make their way to the island to collect their mail and catch up on the local gossip.

Charles was a keen botanist and conservationist and established extensive gardens in the area around his house and the post office/shop.  Some of these exotic tree species still remain and are the only non-native trees on the island.  In 1922 the island became the first scenic reserve in New Zealand, and he post office operated until 1923.  Today, the island is managed by the Department of Conservation, except for the 7 hectares of privately owned land where the homestead still remains (256 hectares in total).

We were greeted by some very early blooming rata trees (apparently is a sign of a long, hot summer) and a very inquisitive Kaka who got so close I thought it was going to take my phone (which I was videoing it on) right out of my hands!  According to Leah, the Stewart Island Kaka have their own dialect, distinct from those on the mainland – of course, I do not speak Kaka so cannot confirm or deny this but what I can say is they like to make their presence known!!

As the island is now pest free (no stoats, mice, rabbits etc.) it has a great population of many of New Zealand native birds that are struggling elsewhere.  Kākāriki, kererū (wood pigeon), korimako (bellbird), pīpipi (brown creeper), miromiro (tomtit), pīwakawaka (fantail), tūī, Stewart Island tokoeka (brown kiwi), Tīeke (saddleback), mohua (yellowhead), toutouwai (Stewart Island robin) and tītitipounamu (rifleman) can all be found on the island. 

The current population of robins were founded by 20 individuals released in the late 90’s – today they are thriving and on almost every walk on the island you will be visited by at least one robin. They are incredibly confident and appear to have no fear as they dance around, trying to mimic rain on the earth to disturb the insects which they feed on.  They are also a fan of you scuffing up some of the earth with your foot to help them out. 

Another fun fact about the birds of the island, Tieke (or Saddleback) here are unique as they do not develop their ‘saddle’ until adulthood, the North Island species on the other hand are born with it.  Also, relatively unique in the bird world, the juvenile will stay with their parents for a year and will help gather food for the following years chicks before leaving the family.

Ulva is so small it is easy to cover most of the island in a day, depending on how much time you want to spend watching and listening to the birds and studying the plant life.  I like to spend a lot of time doing that and therefore we only waked a couple of the tracks.  And there was a bird symphony – Leah could identify Mohua (sometimes called a bush canary), brown creeper and grey warbler – unfortunately we could not see them all as they were high in the canopy.

We saw Red crowned kakariki ❤️❤️ eating last summer’s berries off grown, Tuis feeding on tree fuchsia (the largest species of fuchsia in the world).  We had a brief glimpse of a Yellow crowned kakariki and a Mohua (Yellow head) who apparently are often seen together (perhaps all the yellow headed birds stick together lol).  And we spotted another juvenile saddleback which had its wattles and saddle just coming through.

The bush is stunning, and as I previously mentioned, a perfect example of an ancient podocarp forest (one of the best in the country as it has never been cleared or milled).  There are towering Rimu and totaras – apparently if a grown man can reach their arms around the Rimu and touch it is around 250 years old.  The ground was full of beautiful umbrella mosses ❤️and Leah pointed out a so called dinosaur plant – a fern ally which is 400 million years old (perhaps not that exact plant, but the species itself)!    We saw Spider Orchids, just starting to flower and bamboo orchids, not quite in flower yet and beautiful crown ferns with their connected root system.  And don’t forget the cute Hen & Chicken fern whose spores grow as miniature ferns on its fronds before they drop off to set out into the world on their own lol.  We were grateful to have Leah tell us lots of wonderful stories about the trees and plants – some fact, some a little more mythical.

One of the most fascinating stories was that of the Ulva Island postcard tree – which despite its name, has had numerous uses.  Not surprisingly, its broad leaves used to be used as postcards.  They could be written on and posted (even internationally) until the 1970s!!  Other uses include toilet paper (as good as 3 ply apparently) and a crash pad for Sooty Shearwaters who are not great at landing to use these trees to soften the blow so to speak. lol

One of tracks took us out on to Boulder Beach, where we watched Weka feeding on crabs (sometimes with a little assistance by lifting rocks to expose the crabs).  As typical with Wekas, they had little fear of us, and just carried on their own business.

Further on we came to Sydney Cove, a stunning tropical looking beach of golden sand and turquoise water.   Here we were greeted by a huge sea lion, who had just hauled himself up the beach.  He was the biggest I had seen and even the biggest Leah (our guide had seen) so we had to be careful to get past him.  The rule is to never cross between a sea lion and the sea, effectively cutting off their escape route, however this guy left us no option, so we moved quickly and quietly around him. 

Our final stop on Ulva was at Flagstaff Point, not surprisingly, the point where Charles Traill use to raise his flag to advertise that the post had arrived.  Today it is a lovely lookout over Paterson Inlet. 

It was a wonderful morning spent on Ulva Island and we were so happy we had Leah to guide us around   – we would have missed out on so much had we gone on our own.

Back in Oban, we decided to hire a couple of e-bikes to explore a little further.  First, we headed one way out of town and at the end of road we found ourselves in Lee Bay, the starting point for the Rakiura Track (one of New Zealand’s Great Walks).  It is also the site of a huge chain that goes into the sea –Te Puka, the anchor stone.  As the Maori legend of creation has it, Maui (now of Moana fame) used Rakiura as an anchor for the great ancestral canoe (Te Waka o Aoraki – the South Island).  (FYI – the North Island is the fish he and his brothers caught.) 

As it turned out, we were actually not far from where we were kiwi spotting the night before and could see the predator proof fence as it went up from the sea.  It was so peaceful to just sit on a beach for a bit, taking in the sun and listening to the bird song. 

Back on the bikes and we head back through town, out the other side and along to the end of the bay to visit Ackers Stone House.  Lewis Ackers was an American whaler who settled on the island in 1836, before Oban was established.  He built the house himself to house his Maori wife and their 9 children.  Apparently, they had bunk beds stacked 5 high to sleep everyone in the small house!  They certainly had an amazing view (on a nice day)!

We zoomed back into town using the throttle and hardly pedaling at all – it was my first time on an e-bike, and I do not think it will be my last lol.

For our final morning, we had thought about doing another walk but decided just to relax.  After dropping off our bags at the plane ‘depot’ (a small office in town), we wandered around the shops (all 3 of them lol).   We walked up the hill by the church and over the small headland to a view over bathing beach -it was a beautiful golden beach though you must have to be careful not to be caught at high tide!!

Back to town and we went back to the DoC office to watch some of the videos about the island history that they play on loop until it was ready to board our flight back to the mainland.

What a wonderful place Rakiura/Stewart Island is.  Oddly, it is somewhere they New Zealanders don’t tend to go, and the vast majority of their visitors are passengers on cruise ships.  Of course, 2020 changed all that and they are one of the few places in New Zealand that have managed to sustain their tourism industry with New Zealanders who are exploring home more rather than going overseas. Even the flight in and out is worth the visit.

I will leave you with a quote from Leonard Cockayne (considered New Zealand’s greatest botanist and a founder of modern science in New Zealand) in 1909 “The face of the earth is changing so rapidly that soon there will be little of primitive nature left.  In the Old World, it is practically gone forever.  Here, there is Stewart Island’s prime advantage, and one hard to overestimate.  It is an actual piece of the primeval world.”  He was not wrong!

Rakiura … the land of glowing skies

October 2020

Somehow, I had not been to Stewart Island before, despite it being New Zealand’s 3rd largest island – and then I manage to go twice in one year lol.  There will be more about my second trip in another blog post (something to look forward to lol). I had also intended this to be one post, but after writing it, it seems better suited to two – I don’t want to bore you more than necessary lol.

For the first time since I returned to New Zealand in February as the world shut down, I was back at the airport and on a plane (I must admit I missed it) and it was a beautiful day for flying. Firstly a flight from Christchurch to Invercargill (around 1 hour 20 minutes), New Zealand’s most southerly city, and then the short hop from Invercargill to Oban, the only town on Rakiura (only 10-20 minutes depending on the wind).  The beautiful day lead to some lovely areial photos (I must always have the window seat for this reason!)

Invercargill is truly a small city airport and Stewart Island Flights is most definitely a small town airline.  They fly only between Stewart Island and Invercargill on their two Britten Norman Islanders which take just 10 passengers (including the pilot) – they also have a Piper Cherokee which is even smaller.  The pilots end up doing much of the work, including taking the passengers to the plane (we had to walk through the baggage area to get to the plane 😂), loading the baggage and of course do the inflight safety briefing. 

The flight was a little bumpy and we did not seem to be very high above the ocean …. but why would you go high when you are landing in 15 minutes!  It took us out over the small town of Bluff as we said  goodbye to the mainland (as we South Islanders like to call the South Island) and across Foveaux Strait on to the first amazing views of Stewart Island with its bush covered hills, perfect half- moon bays with clear  turquoise water.

We landed on the airstrip just outside of Oban and the plane was quickly unloaded (and reloaded for its quick turnaround and flight back to Invercargill) and we were bused in to the depot, a short walk from the South Sea Hotel where we were staying.   If you get the opportunity to travel to Stewart Island, I would highly recommend the flight – not only is it quick, you get amazing views and avoid having to travel to Bluff and then ferry (a far longer journey).

Stewart Island or Rakiura (meaning ‘glowing skies’ after the Aurora Australis you can sometimes see from the island) has a long history of Māori habitation (around the 13th century) and was then settled by European sealers and whalers from around 1800 and subsequently loggers who set up a number of large timber mills on the island.  It got its name Stewart Island from William Stewart, the first mate on one of the early sealer ships.  Thankfully in the 1890’s a large part of the island was protected from milling or development which leaves us with the beautiful bush covered island we see today.

Oban itself, is named after Oban in Scotland (which means little bay) and is based around Halfmoon Bay and has around 380 permanent inhabitants and as we wandered around the town (it does not take long) it was filled with bird song.  Although it was a beautiful sunny day, this gave an impression of a much warmer day than it was, and the wind was bitterly cold.  Despite this, the local children from the school (just across the road from the waterfront) were wearing shorts and t-shirts and playing in the water!! 

We stopped by the Department of Conservation (DoC) office to check out the local walking tracks and I was drawn to the beautiful carving they have outside.  It tells the tale of Kewa, a great whale who chewed through the South Island, separating Stewart Island/Rakiura and creating Te Ara a Kewa or the pathway of Kewa, also known as Foveaux Strait.

We had overheard an a conversation in a shop (there aren’t many of them) where a couple of the locals discussed how lovely the day was and that it didn’t happen very often! Upon hearing that, we were determined to make the most of it and headed out on a couple of the short walks around the town.  They were lovely walks and I was amazed with the amount of tuis were saw.  As usually, I spent far too long taking photos in the hope of that perfect shot.  I think I did ok lol

For dinner we headed to the local pub, one of the few places there is to eat outside of peak season (although there are not many more options in high season), and it was very busy.  We were lucky to get a table (as we had not booked) but managed to enjoy a good meal.   Not only was a good meal but it was a big one and we struggled with our full bellies up the hill behind the town to Observation Point to see the sunset over Paterson Inlet.   It was so beautiful and peaceful (except for the occasional tui or kereru) and well worth the struggle.  By this time, the wind has also dropped so it was significantly warmer.

On the way back to town it was clear the South Island Kaka (one of New Zealand’s native parrots) were out living it up for the evening.  1,2,3,4 on the trees … and lots flying around.  It was amazing to see.  And to round off the day – we headed to the wharf to spot a few little blue penguins coming in for the night.  Sadly, it was too dark for decent photos, but it was great to see them.

We were actually staying in the accommodation attached to the hotel (just across the road from the wharf) – we were in a motel style room out the back, but there are also options to stay in the pub building itself which might be a little noisy if you were not planning on joining the drinking in the pub just below you – that said, you would get to enjoy the sea view.

Our first morning on the island and we up to what looked like some amazing light.  Never one to miss out on a photo opportunity, I threw on my shoes and coat over my Pajamas and quickly walked the short walk to the water front and it was well worth it, the sunrise was beautiful – so moody and colourful.  The forecast was for rain and it looked like it might be coming later in the day but not yet, so we definitely wanted to get out early.  

We did two 2 walks – Fern Gully and Ryan’s Creek.  Both walks you can do from Oban and about 10 km in total.  The tracks were good with just a few small some muddy areas, thankfully nowhere near as bad as it was for some friends who had been here just a couple weeks before.  There were not so many birds on these walks, but we did spot a bellbird and some oyster catchers when we made it down to the sea… 

At one point it appeared to be raining bark on the track, we looked up to see a Kaka ripping apart a branch and throwing the discarded bits to the ground. Typical Kaka (and their cousin Kea) behavior and they are well known for their destructive nature!  Again, it was a bit dark for any decent photos but amazing to stand and watch for a while. 

Back in town and we had lunch at the small café – as I mentioned before, at this time of year there are only 3 places to ‘dine out’ and the small supermarket where you can buy sandwiches and groceries etc.  We were sure to spend money at each of them. 

We had been lucky to avoid rain so far (although the photo taken just after lunch certainly looks like the calm before the storm) but our luck ran out when we decided to check out the small souvenir shop – just as we got there, the rain started and it got heavier and heavier so we decided to make a run for it and get back to the room😂.  I won’t lie, the rain was a good excuse to relax for the afternoon.

Thankfully the rain cleared in time for our evening Kiwi spotting tour.  I know a few people who have been lucky to see a kiwi walking around the roads just out of town, but as we did not have a car and wanted to have a higher change of spotting the elusive national bird of New Zealand we booked a tour with Ulva’s Guided Walks.  We did not regret it.

As you may know, Kiwis are nocturnal and so our tour started at 9pm (of course the time varies depending on the time of the sunset throughout the year).   It’s worth noting that despite being nocturnal, it is actually possible to have a kiwi encounter in broad daylight, if you are incredibly lucky.  Some say this is because there are fewer predators here, but it may also be due to the fact that in mid-summer (their breeding season), there are very few hours of darkness this far south so they need to feed during the day as well.

There is a population of around 13,000 Stewart Island kiwi (a sub species of Tokoeka, one of the five species of Kiwi), found only on Stewart Island and are considered a threatened species.  Thankfully the island is currently free from possums, stoats and ferrets which is vital to the health of the population.

We met up with our guide and where driven only a short distance out of town, where we parked up and walked into a grassy area, just off the road.  Not far away we came across our first pair of kiwi (kiwis are generally monogamous and pair for long lengths of time).  We had red light torches to light the way – interesting it is the same technical we had used in Zimbabwe when hunting with lions, as the red light does not startle the game (and in this case the kiwi) like white light does.  And with this light we had a great view of the kiwi who do not seem particularly by our presence as they when on their way feeding, as some point coming quite close to us.

After this first encounter, we headed inside a predator proof fence (oddly set up the US based Dancing Star Foundation – Dancing Star Foundation – Biodiversity Conservation – Translocations) were we came across another pair of kiwi.  Interesting, the kiwi inside the fence where more skittish than the ones outside.  Apparently because they have less predators … and visitors in general and are therefore less habituated. 

It was a beautiful evening, after the afternoon rain.  The sky was full of stars (including shooting stars) and the calls of morepork and kiwi filled the air.  I cannot recommend the experience enough, and the chance to see our elusive national bird is one not to be missed.

Stay tuned for Part 2 …coming soon.

Peninsula and Penguins

October 2020

You know you don’t always have to travel far from home to experience something new and feel like you have had a break.  I guess this is something many people are learning in the last 12 months or so (can you COVID has been with us for over a year!).

It seemed like ages (well at least a few weeks) since I had been away, so I booked a short overnight trip just over the hills in Banks Peninsula. It is just a 1.5 hour drive to Akaroa, the main town on the Peninsula, famed for its early French settlers, it is popular for day trips or long weekends from Christchurch. I arrived in time to wander around the town a little and visit the cute and very European feeling little Saturday morning market. The highlight of my short wander (besides a good coffee) was catching a beautiful bellbird in full song. It was singing its little heart out, puffing out its chest and bobbing up and down. I was so excited to see it and it was such a special moment as although they are not threatened you don’t see them in town very often.

I had booked an overnight trip with a local company called Pohatu Penguins, is a family-run business with a long standing history of protecting the penguins that nest in the area.  They offer evening trips to see the penguins as well as 24 and 48 hour trips. 

I had opted for a 24 hour trip that started with a short, guided tour as we drove out of Akaroa and further along the peninsula.  Now I have been to Akaroa many times but never further around the peninsula, so it was great to go a little further and learn a little more about the area. So off I set with my guide Sue who was oddly from Tasmania but had clearly done a lot of study about the region.

Banks Peninsula was formed by the activity of 3 volcanos, between 11 and 6 million years ago which led to the formation of overlapping volcanic cones.  When the volcanic activity stopped, the area was eroded, lower the height of the cones, and forming deep valleys that were flooded when the sea level rose about 6,000 years ago.  From this we get Akaroa (which means long harbour in Maori) and Lyttleton on the other side of the peninsula and the main harbour for the city of Christchurch.

When Captain Cook was mapping New Zealand during one of his voyages, he originally thought the Peninsula was an island, naming it Banks Island (after the naturalist and botanist on his voyage, Joseph Banks).  He is also responsible for calling the native manuka ‘tea tree’ because they would use the green leaves to make ‘tea’ – apparently it was also a remedy for sea sickness.

Having been cleared from the peninsular by early settlers who saw it as an invasive shrub, its regrowth is being encouraged for many reasons.  It assists with the regeneration of the eroded slopes, it creates shade and shelter which acts as a nursery for other native species and it grows taller than the introduced gorse (a true invasive shrub) depriving it of sunlight, so it eventually dies out.   It is also an important source of pollen and nectar for native bees (and other insects) and geckos.  Manuka honey is famous around the world.

As well as natural beauty, the peninsula has played some part in New Zealand’s history. Akaora is Canterbury’s oldest town, having been founded by French settlers in 1840, just after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi with the British. They had been hoping to colonize the country, but the Treaty put an end to that. Coincidently, Ōnuku Bay, just around the corner from Akaroa, was the site of the first South Island signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

We had a quick stop at the top of one of the hills for a view of Akaora harbour and down to Ōnuku Bay.  It as incredibly windy and it felt like the gust could have blown me off the ridge, so I took a couple of quick photos before getting back to the shelter of the manuka.

Our next stop was at the headland of the peninsula and lighthouse (well not really a light ‘house’ anymore).  The first lighthouse was built in in 1880 and it was manned for almost 100 years before it was replaced by an automated light.  As an aside, the original lighthouse was given to the Akaroa Lighthouse Preservation Society who moved it to a location in Akaroa – on a spot now known as Lighthouse Point.  The headlands are now form part of the Lighthouse Reserve and the foundations of the lighthouse keeper’s family homes still remain.  And don’t forget the views out onto the ocean.  If you look closely down on the rocks below you might me lucky enough to spot some of the local seals sunning themselves.

Sue then dropped me at a corner of the road called Mortlock’s Mistake – I hoped that would not become Elaine’s Mistake (lol) as it was here, I would start my walk down through Tutakakahikura Scenic Reserve. It is one of the few remaining original tracks of native bush on Banks Peninsula as most was destroyed firstly by the Maori as they flushed out Moa, and then by Europeans who wanted to clear the remaining land for pasture. This small track of bush survived due to its position in a valley and the stream and waterfalls, keeping the bush damp.

The walk was so peaceful with just the sound of bird song and the stream running alongside of the track. Fantails, Tomtits and Bellbirds sang as I walked through the bush, some of which was over 400 years old!! The highlight of the walk was the waterfalls just off the side of the path. Some had swimming holes and although it was warm, I was not up for a swim. I did sit for some time by the last and in my opinion of the best of the waterfalls in as the watching the sun dance on the spray (and it helped that the spray cooled the air too).

The last part of track opened out into farmland where the cutest Teddy Bear faced lambs were grazing with their mothers.  They were truly just the cutest wee things.

The track took me down in to Flea Bay (also known as Pōhatu), one of the many small bays on the Peninsula.  Many of the bays you can only reach by boat, though this one had a 4WD accessible track (which I would use later).  Within the bay were a couple of buildings for overnight walkers (like me) and a family farm (some of which I had walked through early).

I had time to have a stroll around the house where I was staying and get to know the lovely local ram (male sheep) – I found out later he is a Valais Black Nose (I Swiss breed) called Bobby.    There was also time for a nap (which is always a plus) and cook my dinner (2 minutes noodles count as cooking right lol).

Sue, my guide, had told me to walk around to the next bay for 6pm (just a short walk) where I would meet her and the other people booked on the evening penguin tour, so I did just that. Unfortunately, there was no sign (except one saying private property) but lots of nesting boxes around so assumed I was in the right place!

There was no phone reception so no way to check -so I just sat by the road knowing I would see the vehicle coming … luckily it was a beautiful evening and view out to sea was not too shabby either.  Finally, at 6.20 they rock up as it appears the meeting time was not till 6.30!

Now, I lured you in with Penguins and bored you with geology and history – Penguin time is finally here!! The penguins that nest here are White Flippered Penguins, Canterbury’s own variant of Little Blue Penguins. The Helps family who own the land here have spent over 30 years protecting the colony that nest on their land and ensure only guided groups go near the nest boxes, so they are not disturbed. (If you are in New Zealand and caught Seven Sharp on February 5th, you would have seen an article about the family and the work they do.)

Some actually consider the White Flippered Penguin its own species rather than a subspecies of the Little Blue Penguin.  On top of the physical differences (not surprisingly these little guys have a white edge to their flippers as well as being a lighter steely blue) there is also some differences in their physiology e.g. the White Flippers tend to lay 2 eggs once per year, whilst the Little Blue lay twice a year. 

After getting dressed up in our camouflage coats (I kid you not) we set off on a short walk around the colony whilst the guide checked a couple of the boxes.  The box checking is part of the ongoing monitoring that they do to check on eggs and chicks.  Interestingly, despite this being a wild population, they do step in and take out under nourished chicks and take them to a rehab facility where they are hand raised to adulthood, ensuring the survival of the population.  (I have recently read that other colonies are losing a large number of chicks due to starvation this season, so this is an important part of the conversation programme.)

The guide had a list of specific boxes she needed to check (just a few boxes are checked each day) and the ones we checked each had a bird sitting on either an egg or a chick (we caught brief glimpses of them) and the parents themselves did not seem disturbed by our brief presence as most return year after year to the same burrow and are therefore used to being checked on.

We then walked further around the bay to viewpoint over the ocean from where we studied the sea looking for the penguins coming in for the night.  They normal come in in groups, called rafts, so are definitely easier to spot than individual penguins.  We saw a couple of small rafts but sadly we didn’t see any coming on to the beach.

The downside of doing it this way is that the guide could not stay late as she had to drive the others back to town but of course as I was staying onsite, I sat overlooking the beach until it got too dark to see anything even if they did come up 🥴!

Unfortunately, the guide could not tell me what time the penguins went out in the morning and I don’t think my 6.20 alarm was early enough as it was almost light (I have still it got set to daylight saving timing and with no internet could not check sunrise time). Regardless, I headed down to the beach and enjoyed the calm (ignoring the squawking of the Canadian geese and the screeching of the oyster catchers, annoyed by being woken by the Canadian geese squawking lol) and Plovers stretching their wings with a circuit around the bay.

There was no real sunrise from here either as we are in a bay and the headlands block the view oh, and it was cloudy – boy it really sounds like I am complaining 😂 sorry about that – it was definitely still beautiful and lovely to be out of the city.

I patted my handsome sheep friend before heading back for another short nap 😂 well I am kind of on holiday right 🤔 and as the wind had picked up (as forecast), my morning sea kayak had been cancelled.  And so, I just relaxed and enjoyed the peace and quiet before by pick up to take me back to Akaroa and my car for my drive home.

This trip may not be for everyone – thankfully I enjoy my own company and spending time in nature so I really enjoyed it, but I would highly recommend the Penguin tour and contributing to their conservation efforts.

The wild, wild west

(August 2020)

On my last trip to the West Coast of the South Island I headed south to the glaciers, on this trip (this time solo) I headed on the road less travelled – heading north to Karamea, the northern most town on the road north.

It was going to be a long driving day for me on my own, so I headed out early which isn’t always a great idea as I went through a couple of areas of thick fog before heading into the mountains and through Lewis Pass.   I made sure I had a few stops to keep fresh, firstly in the small town of Reefton for some lunch and then again as I passed through Buller Gorge – made friends with a weka who clearly was after food (people must feed it the way it came running up to me 😔).  My final stop was another quick one in Westport before the final 1.5 hour drive through tiny towns (as with many of the west coast towns, many were once booming mining towns) and windy narrow roads.

After a total of about 5.5 hours of driving, I reached Karamea (population 700) and checked in at my cute Air BnB cottage in time for a nap (driving is exhausting you know) before heading down to the beach to find a sunset spot.  Back on the rugged west coast and I have the beaches to myself.  Talk about social distancing at its best!  Probably worth noting, New Zealand had had a community outbreak of COVID-19 a few days early.  Thankfully (for me) it was in Auckland, but in response the city had quickly been moved back into Level 3 (of the NZ Covid response) and the rest of the country into Level 2.  I was grateful I could still get away and had checked with the Air BnB hosts that they were ok with me still coming and to be honest, my whole trip was pretty much planned to be completely solo with little interaction anyway.

I had planned to end my day with a soak in my outdoor tub but unfortunately the lights around it were not working 😠 – I contacted the host and they had promised that they would be fixed for the next evening, as it was one of the main reasons for booking the accommodation. (It still looked pretty in the daylight without the lights.)  FYI, I will travel for lots of reasons, outdoor hot tubs are one of them lol.

I thought the windy roads between Karamea and Westport were tough going, but they were a walk in the park compared to the road I had to take into the Ōpārara Basin in the Kahurangi National Park.   The road was unsealed and one lane in many areas, oh and don’t forget all the blind corners!  Thankfully, I only passed one car on the way in.

Kahurangi National Park is New Zealand’s second largest national park, and one of the newest, created in 1996.  The area has massive importance due it its diverse flora and fauna, as well as it’s ancient geology.  Incredibly its flora is the most diverse of any national park in the country!!

I came to the Ōpārara Basin to see some of the 25 million year old limestone caves and arches but was met by beautiful bird song as I set of on the short walk to the Moria Gate.  The bush here was like a primeval lost world (being far enough north and low enough altitude to avoid the worst effects of the more recent ice ages) and the track had sections where hanging moss covered everything around the track and with the winter morning sunlight filtering through the trees it was stunning.  I was the only person on the track, and I loved it!

There were weka running around on the track, completely unafraid but probably trying to suss out what they could steal from me 🥴.  I have early childhood memories of thieving wekas (stealing shells we would leave outside) so they always bring a smile to my face.  I then had a visit from my first South Island robin, I was so excited I high-fived myself (so sad I know but hey, there was no one else around). 

The Moria Gate arch was well worth the scramble through the cave to get under it – oddly named back in 1984 after the gate in the Lord of the Rings trilogy – I have not read the books so I can’t comment on the similarity lol.  That aside, it was stunning, with tannin filled water – that is water that basically looks like tea from minerals leached out of the soil and stalactites hanging from the ceiling.

Back out on the tracking, they have cute Moa footprint stepping stones on part of the track.  Moa used to live in the area, and you can see bones in some places (although I sadly did not spot any).  Just in case you are not familiar with them, Moa are extinct cousins of Ostrich who used to roam New Zealand up until about 500 years ago.  There were numerous species, the largest of which could get up to about 2 metres in height!!!  I can only imagine what it would have been like to bump into one of those on a bush walk? lol

The walk to the Moria gate was only a short one but not surprisingly it took me much longer than it was supposed to as I keep stopping to listen to the birds and study the moss growing on the trees 😂.  No problem, I had all morning. 

The next spot on this short walk was the ‘Mirror Tarn’.  Now I was not sure what a tarn is, but I found a spot by the river where there was an incredible reflection.  There were no signs and it was not exactly on a track, more of a well-worn path – but nope 🤔 – it was not the Mirror Tarn which was further on the track but nowhere near as good as the first one – maybe still not enough sun? 

It was still nice, but I wish they had a bench or two at the nice spots so I could just sit for a bit and I needed to be careful of not trying to step out too far as the track just turned in to bog and then ‘tarn’ 🥴 (which turns out to be a small lake).

As I neared the end of the track a helicopter shattered the peace – they were bringing in rocks to extend the track, so you don’t have to walk along the road back to the car park. The workers seemed shocked to see me 😂.

Not surprisingly there was no phone reception in the area and in this scenario I use Maps.me.  As long as you download the required maps when you do have Wi-Fi/reception, it has all the walking tracks as well as roads so I could see where I was at any time.  I also used it a lot when travelling abroad (back when that was a thing) I did not have coverage. 

The next track I took was to the Ōpārara arch.  It was not such a good track – with some stairs, some muddy parts and some track maintenance going on.  My map seemed to show a look out past the arch but there did not appear to be any marked path, so after making a couple of attempts to go further I gave up on the rocky, slippery track! I spoke to a couple of the track workers who said I had gone as far as there was to go.

The Ōpārara arch is much bigger that the Moria arch (200 metres deep, 49 meters wide and 37 metres high) but as you can only go in halfway, you can’t really see the full effect like the other one.  It is reputed to be the largest limestone arch in Australasia so definitely worth the short walk, particularly when you are joined by a couple of cheeky robins – they always make everything worthwhile.

And so, from bush to beach and I headed to back to the sea and then headed north to the end of the road – as far north as you can drive on the West Coast.  It was an amazing drive as the road turns in to a dirt track, lined by wonderful Nikau palms.  At the end of the road is where you find the start of the Heaphy track, one of New Zealand’s great walks.

It was beautiful and warm by this time, despite being mid-winter and there were a few more people around (I mean like 5 people rather than the 2 I had seen in the morning lol) and about a gazillion sandflies 🤦🏻‍♀️. 

I had decided to walk a short part of the Heaphy track (about an hour) to a beach called Scott’s Beach and after I had seen it from the lookout I could not get there fast enough – the 30 minutes seemed to take forever – I kept looking at my watch am asking myself was I there yet?  lol

I spent a little time at in the picnic area near the beach, taking Miromiro (or Tomtit) photos and eating my scrogen (normally a mixture of nuts, dried fruit and small bits of chocolate to give some energy on hikes, though my was more just a bag of chocolate with a few nuts 😂)!!  I sat there till the sandflies got the better of me and I walked back through the Nikau Palm walk – although you can find Nikau palms all over the place on the coast it real gives a real tropical feel and smell – I just love it.  

Back at the car park/campground I sat at a bench to finish my lunch, closely watched by a weka – clearly the lack of mobile reception in the area means they had not received the COVID level changes and 2m social distancing requirements lol. 

Public Service Announcement: As I was spending the day on my own, in areas of no mobile reception, I made sure I had all weather clothing, some snacks and that my partner knew exactly where I was going and when I expected to be back just in case I had an accident of some sort.  Despite its beauty, the wilderness can also through you a curve ball when you least expect it, so it is important to be prepared for all eventualities.

I drove back to Karamea and stopped to check out a statue on the way into the town – it depicts Maori chief Te Maia ‘riding’ a Hōkioi or Haast Eagle, the biggest eagle that ever flew.  They had a wingspan of up to 3 metres and preyed on Moa (which I discussed earlier) amongst other things (including, allegedly, small children). They became extinct around the same time as the Moa.

The Hōkioi is the spiritual guardian of the Karamea estuary and the statue is of Te Maia Kahurangi – the man-eagle riding his Hōkioi ‘brother’.  In a nutshell, Te Maia ended up resting in a Hōkio nest, next to its egg, during one of his long hot walks.  When the egg hatched, he helped raise it and they became ‘brothers’ and it learnt to fly with Te Maia on it’s back, regularly flying around the area.

Back at my cottage and the tub lights had been fixed and I managed to get a 30 minute soak before the rain came down!  But believe me it was a magical 30 minutes under the lights and the beautiful flowers, listening to the Wekas calling in the distance.

The next morning and I was back on the road, heading back south towards Westport, Museum in Westport.  It’s hard to believe the how busy all the small towns I had just driven through used to be!

Just south of Westport and I made my way up to the Lighthouse at Cape Foulwind (named by Captain Cook due to the atrocious weather that obscured it from his view in 1770).  There is an easy walk from the Lighthouse to the seal colony at Tauranga Bay, but I decided just to head up to the Lighthouse from one end and then drive to the other end and walk into the seal colony from there.  It was a beautiful day and a beautiful track, and I was remaindered, yet again, what a beautiful country I am lucky enough to call home.   

I spent some time watching a few seal pups playing in a small pool just below the track, as the adults lazed in the sun, but a fellow walker pointed out a group of young seals in a pool on a small offshore island and I am so glad she did.  They were going crazy, jumping and diving and splashing about.  It was just at the limit of my camera zoom so there are no good photos, but I could have watched them playing for hours.

Of course, I could not watch them for hours as I had to drive a little further down the coast and check in to my next Air BnB cottage – and it was amazing.  Just a small, but perfectly formed studio room with a view out to sea.  I had a quick walk on the beach, stopping to watch a couple of surfers before returning to my room to enjoy the sunset from my deck with a glass of wine. 

As the sun set, the sky filled with thousands of stars and the Milky way was clear.  I had planned to try and take some star photos, but my camera was just not up for it.  I had downloaded an app on my phone to try and take photos with that – the outcome was better than the camera but still not great lol.  Despite the photography fail, it was amazing just sitting there in the darkness, listening to nature.  The sea and the wekas calling (from somewhere very close).  No light or noise pollution. (There are stars in this photo – honest lol)

The last day of my trip came around far too soon, and after a quick walk on the beach I was ready for the drive home.  At the last minute (literally at the intersection) I decided to take the southern route home which would take me along the Great Ocean Road and through Arthur’s Pass.  The route should have only taken me 10 minutes longer than the northern route, but with all the stops that was not the case 🤔😂

The diversion was definitely worth it as I got to stop at the Truman track.  A short track just off the road which takes you down to an amazing hidden beach.  Incredible rock formations and a small waterfall which was practically its own little ecosystem – oh and don’t forget the sandflies.  It was hard work working through the thick lay of tiny stones, but it was worth the effort – particularly when I saw penguin tracks.

I made another quick stop at Punakaiki to see the famous Pancake Rocks without the bus loads of international tourists and then on through the mountains (passing some great reflections in the alpine lakes) and homeward bound.

The Wild West

(July 2020)

When we started planning this trip, the thought was to take advantage of the cheap deals many of the camper van companies were running, trying to ignite some business as they were suffering without international tourists.  Unfortunately, or as it turns out, fortunately, I could not get a booking as they were quickly sold out … so, instead of a budget campervan, we ended up staying in a wonderful (but way less than budget) 2 bed apartment (more about that later).

This was definitely a real win for us.  If you are a regular reader, you will know that I often travel on my own, but other times with my partner, friends or other groups.  Even then, I am happy to go off and do my own thing – we don’t always have to do the same thing all the time right?  This is where the campervan may have been an issue as when I want to head off early for a morning walk, and my partner wanted to sleep in, I would have had to drag him out of bed to buckle up for the journey.   A less than ideal situation, for us anyway.

And so we left home and headed off in the sunshine toward the great divide (otherwise know as the Southern Alps).  It was a beautiful morning, and the mountains were looking stunning.  A quick stop for another one of those ‘world famous in New Zealand’ pies at the Sheffield Café – if you have not picked up on it, Kiwis love a good pie lol.

As we neared the mountains, the clouds started to roll in and by the time we reached Arthurs Pass village it was snowing!  I had spent some time deliberating whether we needed snow chains or not, and finally erred on the side of caution.  It was definitely the right decision as we would not have been able to go any further if we did not have them.

BUT … putting them on was another matter lol. When I had picked up the chains in the morning before leaving, the person had the shop had quickly showed me how to do it and thank goodness I had decided to video it!!  Even still, it was massively challengingly putting them on in the snow and after much struggling, we got them on and headed off slowly into the mountains.

We didn’t actually have to drive very far before we could take the chains off again (which turned out to be equally challenging but we got there in the end) and we could head down towards the west coast … through rain and then out in to blue skies again. 

The drive from Christchurch to Franz Josef (our destination) is around 5.5 hours and so we arrived around 2pm and checked in to our amazing room at the Rainforest Retreat.  As it was a birthday trip (for me), we had splashed out a deluxe room – 2 rooms, 2 bathrooms, living area and, the ‘pièce de résistance’ was our private hot tub on deck with a beautiful view of the mountains.  It was amazing to be able to lay in bed in the morning, watching the first sun hit the mountain tops.

Situated in the ‘Glacier Region” a UNESCO World Heritage area, Franz Josef, the town, is not surprisingly named after the nearby glacier, Franz Josef Glacier, which in turn is named after Franz Josef I of Austria by Julius von Haast.  Von Haast was a German geologist who explored and mapped much of the South Island in the mid 1800’s.  More recently, the official name of the town was changed to Franz Josef /Waiau.

The town is home to under 500 people, possibly less now given that its existence is based around tourism, but they struggle on, trying to fill the 3000+ tourist beds in the town.  I was glad that we were able to do our bit and support the hotels and restaurants in the area.

The next morning, we drove the short 30 minutes to nearby (and even smaller) Fox Glacier – another town named after it’s nearby glacier, this time named after Sir William Fox, New Zealand’s Prime Minister from 1869 to 1972. 

Just passed the town is Lake Matheson, one of the ‘must see’ sites in the area.  On a beautiful day like this one was, there are great reflections of the mountains in the lake.  The lake is surrounded by a beautiful reserve, with well maintained pathways and on this still, icy morning we were not disappointed – the reflections were AMAZING.

I may not have got to see Mt Cook a few weeks early when I was in the Mackenzie Country, but we got a perfect view on this day – of both Mt Cook and Mt Tasman.

After a coffee at the lovely café near the lake, overlooking views of the glacier and mountains, we headed back to Fox Glacier (the town) for some lunch – again, trying to spread our spending around the small businesses.

The afternoon took me to Ōkārito, 25 km from Franz Josef, in search of a sunset.  Now if you think Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are small towns, Ōkārito has a population of only 30 people today, though it was once a booming town with a population of 4000 people during the gold rush in the mid-1860s.  It’s hard to imagine what you see now as a bustling town, but I imagine it was something like the towns depicted in “the Luminaries”.

After a short walk up to a lookout point and along the beach, I made my way to the lagoon. During the spring/summer it is home to many species of wading birds, including the kotuku or White Heron (this is one of the few breeding areas in New Zealand). The Ōkārito wharf is a stunning backdrop to many photos I had seen and it did not disappoint. It also has a small display about the town in it’s heyday which was worth a look. There are also wild kiwi in the area, so I definitely think I need to come back for a longer visit to see some of the stunning birdlife.

Back in Franz Josef and we passed the busy restaurants and headed into Snakebite Brewery which for some reason was almost empty.  It was a shame as the food was great, the music was great, and the snakebites (a mix of Beer and Cider) were as good (or bad lol) as I remember from when I use to drink them in London in my youth lol. 

For our final morning in Franz Josef, I wanted to see the glacier (which you can barely see from the township), so I was up early and drove the short distance to the car park.  Unfortunately, I could not get very close as the river was too big to allow people to cross it, I so only saw from a distance. If I was 100 years earlier I would have been able to walk right up to the face of it and it was sad to see how much it had receded in the last 100 years or so.  Hard to believe that 18,000 years ago (really just a short time in geologically terms), the glacier extended to the sea, 19kms from today’s terminal face.

The Maori name for Franz Josef Glacier is Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere or The tears of Hine Hukatere, after a tragic love story.  From franzjosefglacier.com:

Hine Hukatere was extremely strong and fearless and loved climbing in the mountains. She persuaded her lover Wawe to climb with her. Wawe was less experienced in the mountains, but enjoyed accompanying his beloved.

An avalanche hit the lovers as they were climbing, and Wawe was swept from the peaks to his death. Hine Hukatere was heart-broken and her grief caused her to cry rivers of tears, which flowed down the mountain and were frozen by the gods. Her frozen tears of aroha (love) stay as a reminder of her grief and give the glacier its name – Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere (The tears of Hine Hukatere).

We had a late check out (12 noon is apparently West Coast 10am 😂 – ‘West Coast time’ is clearly similar to ‘Island time’), so there was time for one more quick soak in the hot tub (when you pay for the luxury of having your own personal hot tub, you use it at every opportunity right?) before packing up and hitting the road again.  We had planned to fill up on petrol before leaving Franz Josef but the fuel prices were almost 50 cents a litre more expensive than back home so we only put in enough to get to our next stop, Hokitika, where we hoped it would be cheaper – thankfully it was.

As we left Franz Josef, we picked up a hitch hiker – a girl from America who had been working in Auckland when lock down started. She was made redundant just after lockdown so decided to stay and travel rather than go home (though as I write this, she may have made it home). She had been waiting for about 1.5 hours (as there had not been much traffic) so glad we picked her up and she made it to Greymouth in time for her train back to Christchurch👍🏻.

The final night of our wild west mini break was spent in Hokitika – another town founded during the 1860’s gold rush when it was an important river port.  Today it brands itself as a ‘Cool Little Town’ – nothing like being your own cheerleader lol.  We had a lovely ocean view room, overlooking the wild coastline and of course a perfect viewing point for the sunset. 

The town has several heritage buildings around the town, but the most it’s most famous site, is the driftwood Hokitika sign along the waterfront.  I visited it at numerous times of the day to attempt to get the ‘perfect’ shot and I imagine it would be crazy if it was busy with the normal number of tourists.  As it was it was busy enough for me and somewhat annoying with families allowing their kids to climb on the fragile structure, breaking it in the process – though I am sure it is not the first time it has been broken!!! 

After dark I drove a few minutes out of town to Glow worm dell – to be honest it was somewhat of an anticlimax 🥴 – I guess it was technically a ‘dell’ and there were glow worms, but it was a tiny area, just off the main road with what appeared to be a handful of worms!!  If you have not seen them before, then perhaps it might be worth it, but if you have been lucky enough to see them in all their glory (as is possible elsewhere) then it is probably not worth the visit.

Our final morning was spent walking along the wild beach, it is beautiful in its wildness with wonderful views of the mountains on one side, and the Tasman sea on the other.  A great way to clear the cobwebs before the 3 hour drive back through the mountains – thankfully snow free this time lol.

What a great break and glad we could get out and support the local businesses who are struggling with a lack of tourists.