Paradise found – places and birds

Oct 2022

At Sea/Wayag Island, Raja Ampat/ Waisai, Waigeo Island, Indonesia

Today started slowly as the morning was to be spent sailing, and I started the day as I finished the day before, watching brown boobies fly around the trying to catch the flying fish which was pretty amusing.

I also enjoyed another morning coffee with my favourite naturalist Rod, before a couple of interesting lectures.  The first from our local guide Abraham, who gave us an introduction to the “Birds Head Seascape”.  This is located in the West Papua/Papua province which is where we are heading over the next few days and it is one of the most underdeveloped regions in Indonesia, despite it’s mineral, oil and gas wealth. 

This part of Indonesia has over 2,500 islands in a 225,000kmarea which is home to 600 species of hard coral, 1850+ species of fish and around 20 species of marine mammals – it is truly a pretty special place.

Although it was not mentioned in our talk, it is important to note that this region is still part of a territorial dispute stemming from it’s incorporation into Indonesia in the 1960’s.  Many Western Papuan’s believe that the area should not be part of Indonesia but an independent country as it’s neighbour to the south, Papua New Guinea is. 

Next up was a talk about Birds of Paradise which we will hopefully see in a couple of days’ time.  Neil Nightgale gave this talk and let me just remind you that he is the man responsible for many of David Attenborough’s natural history programmes, a few of which are about these incredible birds.   It was great to learn more about these birds, who have evolved due to the lack of mammals (e.g. monkeys, squirrels) in their ecosystem that might share the same food source.

Today was the day we were to cross the equator.  Did you know there is a seafaring tradition that must be followed when you cross the equator by sea for the first time?  King Neptune emerged from the pool to grant permission to cross for those who have never crossed before – our event included being slapped with a fish and then jumping into the small pool on the top deck.  I had crossed before (in the Galapagos Islands), so was grateful not to have to be slapped by the fish but did enjoy the celebratory spicy rum shot as the captain did a countdown and sounded the ship’s horn as we crossed from the southern to northern hemisphere.

After lunch we finally arrived at our destination, Wayag, in the Raja Ampat Regency of West Papua.  Words can barely describe the tropical paradise that awaited us when we disembarked and headed into the lagoons, surrounded by jungle clam limestone pinnacles.  In all my travels, this has to be one of the most beautiful tropical locations I have been to (and that is saying something)!

I decided not to scale one of the limestone pinnacles so just enjoying the snorkeling from the beautiful white sand beach, but I have included one of the photos from a friend who braved the climb as it really shows just how stunning the place was. 

After some beach and snorkeling time, we set off on a zodiac cruise around nooks and crannies around the incredible landscape.  I had unfortunately found my way on to the ‘birders’ zodiac.  Now, I like birds and used to consider myself a bit of a bird spotter, but I am nothing compared to some of these people … I had to remind our zodiac driver (also the ‘bird guide’) that we were supposed to be ‘cruising’, not stopped in one spot for an hour lol. (I must note, as great as the photos look, I honestly don’t think they do this place justice – it was paradise!)

I had a terrible night’s sleep, partly because the room was so hot, but I also think partly in anticipation for the early rise the next day – 3:45am to be exact, which gave us time for some food before jumping in the zodiacs and heading to shores of Waigeo Island under the stars.  

When we arrived on the shore in the town of Waisai,  capital of the Raja Ampat Regency and home to just over 8,000 people and were greeted by a line up of 15+ SUVs which we jumped in and drove through the town as the early morning call to pray echoed around.  It seemed like we must have had at least half of the decent cars in the town lol. We quickly left the town and headed into the hills to start our walk through the jungle in search of the elusive bird of paradise.  Again we were greeted by a large welcome banner than had clearly been set up and prepared well ahead of our arrival.

Today I had had to make a really difficult decision – whether to head to search for the Wilson’s Bird of Paradise or the Red Bird of Paradise, both endemic to two islands in Indonesia.  Although both were in a similar area, with the time we had, and the fact that dawn was the peak display time for both species, it was only going to be possible to see one of the two.   I had decided in the end to look for the Red. 

The walk to both birds started along the same track and although it was not particularly challenging as far as tracks go, it was made more challenging by walking it in the dark and many people did not have torches and our local guide quickly disappeared into the darkness so I had to keep stopping to ensure people behind me without torches could see the way.  We final got to the hide around 5.45am and despite the early hour it was so hot and humid – I am not sure I have ever sweated so much in my life 🥵🥵.

The male red birds of paradise can be up to 72cm long, including their ornamental red plumes and black corkscrew shaped tail wires – those wonderful plumes that distinguish them from other birds. 

The 3 story hide gave us a great view of the birds display area, or lek, and fortunately for us (and the people who built the hide lol), they display at the same place most days and it was not long before we started to hear their calls, and see the birds appear, three males in total.  Two of the three put on a short but impressive display, shaking their colourful plumage and jumping around – just want we had come to see.  Unfortunately for them, no females appeared but it was such a special thing to see. 

Annoyingly, I had my camera on the wrong setting (somehow it had flicked from automatic focus to manual) so I got no decent photos of the event, just a poor quality video on my phone, but I was thrilled to see it.  (The terrible photo is mine, next to someone else’s good one so you can actually see what it we were looking at.)

The walk back down in the light seemed much shorter than the walk up and it was a nice surprise to be greeted by tea and freshly fried banana fritters brought by a number of local families.  Sometimes the simplest of foods in the most amazing locations are the best!

We were back on the ship by 9.30am and although we had hoped for another activity, the day was to be spent sailing across the Pacific Ocean, along the northern coast of the Birds Head Peninsula on Western Papua.    The rest of the day was spent relaxing, reading, napping and a lecture on Indonesian Conservation by one of our local experts. 

Across the Banda Sea to Palau Buru

Buru Island, Indonesia

Oct 2022

Having crossed the Banda Sea over night, I had another self-inflicted early morning, but this time even earlier due to the time change 🤔.   It was a beautiful morning as we travelled towards Buru Island as the sun rose from behind it. Buru Island lies between the Banda Sea and the Pacific Ocean and is the third largest island Maluku Island group.  It is not a big island, at 130km long and 90km wide, but it soars from the sea to 2,700m at its highest point. Around 210,000 people live here.

As well as being between two seas, Buru is located right on the boundary between the biogeographic zones and its flora and fauna is quite unique – there are 4 endemic mammal species, 14 endemic birds and a number of endemic butterflies (not sure if we will actually see any of these lol).

To look at the island today, you can never imagine the tragic past that Buru has had.   Between 1969 and 1979, Buru was the site of Indonesia’s most infamous prison camp, where approximately 12,000 political prisoners (mostly academics, artists, teachers, journalists) were held without formal charge or trial.  They were forced to do hard labour without adequate food or clothing and hundreds died.

We were the first expedition ship to visit Pasir Putih, and I believe even Buru Island and as such it appeared to be a pretty big occasion.  The ship was greeted by officials in their small ‘official’ boat with a flag and a video camera recording the event – maybe we made the local news lol.  There were also a number of locals coming out in their small boats to look at the odd foreigners.  I was pleasantly surprised to see them all taking photos of themselves with the ship behind (I did try to photo bomb a few of them lol).

Despite the momentous occasion, the plan for the day all seemed a bit disorganised. There would be nature walks, there might be snorkeling, they did not know till our local guide went over for a reccie – had they not done this before they put the island on the itinerary?? 🤔 Because of this disorganisation, those of us who chose to go on the nature walks, missed the grand welcome which apparently consisted of 1000 villagers from 6 villages, including the Chief of the Regency who had apparently travelled for 6 hours to greet us.  There was local food and dancing and it sounded like a wonderful occasion.  It was the kind of event that everyone should have had the opportunity to experience especially given everything we are missing due to the delays!  To say I was disappointed is a bit of an understatement. 

My disappointment at the disorganisation could not take away the beauty of the island, it was stunning, beautiful turquoise water lapping upon small palm covered beaches, leading up to lush rolling hills and spectacular jungle covered mountains behind.   We were dropped off on land and after a short scramble up a bush covered incline, we made it to an old logging road where we proceeded to wander, stopping to spot the local wildlife.   

We spotted Red cheeked parrots, black eagles, sunbirds, red lorikeets along with some very cool spiders and insects (describing them as cool is a matter of opinion I guess lol).  It was an easy walk but so very hot (it had already been 31C at 8am!).

Unfortunately, we then had to wait over an hour on a small gravel beach area to be picked up by the zodiacs!    Thankfully the area turned out to be a washing area for the locals – washing the bottom of their boats as well as their clothes so it was interesting to watch their techniques. It was not long before other locals turned up to take selfies with us – now pretty much everyone has smart phones, I love that they want to take our photos, and more importantly selfies with us.

When we finally got picked up, we got a chance for a short snorkel from the beach where the grand welcome was held.  It was a nice snorkel, but it was low tide again, and there was still a rather large crowd of locals on the beach and in boats so was a little embarrassing having to wade out in front of all the spectators lol.    They were definitely as fascinated with us as we were with them. They did not know much English, but they knew ‘selfie’ 😂

The afternoon was spent at sea, with a great lecture from guest lecturer, Neil Nightingale and another from our resident historian.  His lecture was cut a little short as the call went out that there were sperm whales in the distance.  There was great excitement around the ship, and we made a short detour to get closer to the pod of sperm whales that had been spotted. 

Of course, I was out on deck trying to get the perfect photos (another failure lol) and from whales I moved on to trying to photograph the birds – today there were more boobies as well as a large flock of red-necked phalaropes (over 700 of them apparently).

It was a lovely end to the day

On board and bound for Wakatobi

At Sea/Hoga Island, Wakatobi, Indonesia

Oct 2022

Finally, the day had come when we were to board our expedition ship, Heritage Adventurer on her somewhat reduced maiden voyage for Heritage Expeditions.  The ship had just finished being refurbished and rebranded for the company, but the 1A Super Ice class ship started life in a shipyard in Finland in 1991.  Since then, she has an impressive history of polar exploration, so this trip through the tropics is a little change of scenery for her.

Though she was designed for over 180 passengers, the current configuration accommodates 140 guests, and we only have around 100 on board on this trip.  She is 124 metres long, with a beam of 18 metres and she is certainly far more luxurious than I had expected.

From the hotel, we drove back down to town and on to the main wharf where officials checked our passports and vaccine certificates, took temperatures and took photos of us on their phones (all rather odd things to do at this point as we were just about to leave lol) 🤔🤔🤦🏻‍♀️ Then, finally, we could board a zodiac and head out to the ship and get settled into our cabins.  I was glad to see I was still sharing with Harriet and even better, my booking for a triple cabin on the 5th deck, ended up being a twin cabin on the 6th deck.  Same cabin really but much more spacious with only 2 of us in it (and believe me, we quickly spread out to occupy all the space).

We asked our Zodiac driver (one of the senior ship crew who had been with the ship since it’s refurbishment in Turkey) about the net that delayed out departure.  He seemed surprised by the question and said there was no net, they were in dry dock in Singapore to clean the hull (a requirement for entry into New Zealand in November)!!!! 🤔🤔 I am not sure if we will ever know the truth but was now pretty dubious about what we were being told!

This day was always going to be a day at sea as we had a distance of over 500 kms to travel which would take almost 24 hours despite travelling 16 knots (accordingly to the info about the ship, the top speed is 15 knots and cruising speed 12 knots) lol.  For much of the day there was not much to see (or sea lol) – just the odd container ship in the distance and a few small local fishing boats and of course the beautiful wide blue ocean and sky.

It was really just a day to get set up on the ship, starting with a rather disorganised lifeboat drill (not sure we would we have survived a real evacuation) and getting set up with our snorkelling gear for the trip. We took some time to explore the ship, which in my opinion is pretty flash, much more so than the old Russian ship I explored Fiordland on a couple of years.  (They can no longer use that ship as it was leased from the Russian government.)

We had a huge ‘welcome’ morning tea just about an hour or so before lunch 🤦🏻‍♀️, which was also huge.  Every day lunch was to include a massive salad bar with cold meats, a cold soup (often fruity and more like a smoothy really but always delicious) and also an a la carte menu option.  This day like most I just had the salad and soup, but I can see I am definitely not going to go hungry.

I spent ages trying to take photos of little flying fish that were ‘flying’ around the ship in the beautiful deep blue ocean (I managed to get an ok one – if you look closely lol) and I found a nice little spot at the back of the ship where I could sit in the shade to read (I was already sure this would be a favourite spot).   There are a few hard core ‘birders’ on board and it was useful to the names of the birds we saw and throughout the day we saw Red-necked Phalaropes, Bulwer’s Petrel, Red-footed Boobies and Brown Boobies (although my decent photos come later in the trip).

Our first presentation on the ship was about our activities for the next day (I was so excited for the trip to truly start) before welcome drinks and introduction to the captain and the ship’s crew.   We were all closed up inside in this briefing and almost missed a stunning sunset, but I made sure I ran outside for it lol.

Dinner was (and will be every night) a 4 course meal if you want it – entrée, soup, main and dessert, and a course of 2 or 3 options for each course!  So much food and always really good.

I did not have a great first night’s sleep – the cabin was very hot and woke up a number of times, so ended up getting up at 5 am.  Not to watch sunrise but to watch an amazing electrical storm in the distance before sailing through a heavy downpour of rain – I love tropical rain! 

The previous afternoon we had had a lecture about Wakatobi archipelago, the location of Hoga Island where we were to visit.  Apparently it has been described by Jacques Cousteau as a marine nirvana 🎉🎉🎉.  The name Wakatobi is a combination of the main island names – Wa (Wangi Wangi) ka (Kaledupa) to (Tomia) bi (Binonko) and one of our guest lectures is part of a team working for with the World Bank on an integrated tourism master plan for the region and therefore had a lot of really interesting information about the area.  (It may be worth noting he is another one of these over achievers and as well as being an expert in this region, he has a PHD in Antarctic tourism!)

Situated in Southeast Sulawesi, with approximately 150 islands and a population of 115,000, Wakatobi National Park was listed as a UNESCO biosphere reserve 10 years ago – it is also the largest barrier reef in Indonesia (apparently second only to the Great Barrier Reef).  Unfortunately, a few years ago, the Indonesian government excluded all inhabited islands from the national park so now, only when you are at sea are in the national park. 🤔🤔

Early this year, flights to Wakatobi were stopped (with no explanation), so the Wakatobi Dive Resort have their own airstrip to fly their guests in.  They also pay the locals not in fish in front of resort to ensure their guests have a great marine experience. It can take up to 30 hours to travel from Jakarta!  (As you can imagine, our lecturer who is working on a tourism plan for the region had lots of thoughts about all of this.) 

The people of Wakatobi are all Muslim and many are considered ‘sea gypsies’.  In areas such as Bajo Mola, their stilt houses (bajo sampela) once were in the sea, but the Government have reclaimed land so now, during low tide, they are actually on land.   Though some do still live/work in fishing structures/houses, some far out to sea.

After sailing all the previous day and night, we finally arrived near Hoga island around 9am and our first real landing was a wet landing which means wading from the zodiac to shore – in this instance, about 50m through warm water ranging from a few cms deep to 30-40 cm deep, often without warning 🥴.

When everyone was finally on land, we headed off in different directions for various walks.  The short walk that I went on took us in to the forest just off the beach and pass the rundown remains of old resorts – as we had our wonderful naturalist Rod with us, we managed to spot a few birds and insects.

Back on the beach, it was time for some snorkelling. Unfortunately, it was low tide, so it was a fair walk through the sea grass meadow before actually being able to swim … it was worth the effort though.  We snorkelled through the continuing sea grass meadows, before heading out into an area of hard and soft coral clusters.  There were so many fish – hundreds and thousands of small brightly coloured fish, and I can’t forget the starfish and giant clams.

We waded back out to the zodiacs before zipping around to see the Bajo houses on stilts.  Unfortunately, as it was low tide, it meant we could not get close, but it was fun zipping around in the zodiacs getting wet again 😂

Back on the ship, dripping wet, just in time to hear the call for lunch so ran to the room to put on dry clothes before heading to the restaurant for lunch. It only took us a day to turn our cabin in to a laundry with wet clothes hanging all around it lol.  I guess it was only a matter of time!

I had bought a local sim card when I arrived in Bali in the hope that I would be able to keep in touch with home as we went in and out of coverage.  Surprisingly, we had pretty good reception here on Hoga Island, but apparently, it was only good because the Government knew we were there and did something to improve.  Normally it is terrible!!

The rest of the day was spent on the ship, setting sail across the Banda Sea for our next destination.  We had a couple of interesting lectures, firstly from my favourite naturalist Rod, on Wallacea and the Wallace line, between Sunda (Asia) and Sahul (Australia), followed by one on the Spice trade in the region (did you know the islands used to be known as the Spice Islands) where clove, nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon are all indigenous to a handful of the islands in the Banda Sea – where we were now travelling.

Apparently, nutmeg was thought to have fought off the plague and was so valuable, that the British traded a small island in the Banda islands (Run Island) for the island that now houses New York in the 1600’s!

As we travelled east, we had the first of a number of time zone changes overnight, losing an hour’s sleep 🤦🏻‍♀️.

Dragons and coral …

Flores/Komodo, Indonesia

Oct 2022

Did you know the Indonesian archipelago is made up of over 17,000 islands extending over 5,000 kilometres west to east and crossing from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans.  When I finally board the ship, I will be travelling from Flores right across to the eastern most islands in the archipelago, but in the last couple of days, I have only travelled as far as Flores and Komodo.

The island of Komodo is part of the Lesser Sunda chain and is, not surprisingly, part of the Komodo National Park – and, more importantly, home to the Komodo Dragons, the largest lizards in the world and my main reason for visiting. This island group sits near the Wallace line – a faunal boundary that is a transitional zone between Asia and Australia.  In simple terms, this means it is an area where you can find fauna from Asia and Australia living together which makes it really rather unique.

Endemic to 5 islands in Komodo National Park, Komodo dragons are part of the monitor lizard family (with ancestors from Australia) and can grow up to 3 metres in length.  There are approximately 6,000 dragons left and around 1,700 of those call Komodo Island home.  Our guest naturalist and film makers had some wonderful stories of filming these amazing creatures and the lengths that film makers went to create some of the amazing programmes there are about them. 

There are pretty amazing and can eat up to 80% of their body weight (around 70kg) in one sitting and they can be incredibly patient.  They can attack prey as large as water buffalo and then follow it and wait for it to die from infection that starts around the wound!

And with that preamble, I find myself getting up at 5am (again) for a quick breakfast before being taken by bus 4 minutes down the road (yes, literally 4 minutes) to another hotel with a large wharf where we board 3 large launches, apparently the “best available transport”.  I must say, they were pretty impressive, each with 3 or 4 250 HP outboard motors on the back of them. 

I would like to call the boarding “orgainsed chaos” but really there was not a lot of organisation as we clambered from one boat to the other (as the wharf was only big enough for one boat to moor against it) and then back again when it was decided there was too many people on one of the boats. 

Finally, all divided up between the boats, the safety briefing tells us the capacity is 24 … we had closer to 30 🥴, despite that, we covered the 35km between the islands in around an hour, arriving on Komodo just after another large group despite the early hour.  Komodo is 390 Sq km in size and the dragons who live there have no particular territories.  Also probably worth noting, around 2,000 people share the island with the dragons. 

I had decided to go on the ‘medium’ walk but our first dragon encounter was right in the compound area, not far from the wharf.  In fact, there were two dragons, one of which was a big male which was amazing to see.    As we continued the walk we saw no more dragons but quite a few beautiful birds including a Green Imperial-Pigeon, Yellow-crested Cockatoo, a small raptor (not sure what), Barred Doves, Wallacean Drongos, Black-naped Oriole and a very cool little flying lizard with little yellow throat pouch.

Returning to the compound near the wharf we came across a couple more dragons – this time babies, just 2-3 years old.  Probably about the size of their normal monitor lizard cousins. 

Although seeing the dragons was great, it was sadly not the experience I remembered. In reality, it was never going to be the same with so much development and so many people now coming.  As all the dragons I saw were around the compound, I wonder if they get food from there as there was rubbish everywhere and always large groups of people surrounding them which was not ideal.  There were also a number of shops set up with pretty aggressive sales people who were not happy to take no for an answer which always detracts from any situation, more so when it is supposed to be a remote wildlife experience. Despite all of that, if you are interested in wildlife, I would highly recommend going to see the dragons as they truly are incredible.

From the dragons, we got back on the boat and moved around the island to the Pink Beach –  named for its beautiful pinkish sand … and don’t forget its beautiful turquoise water.  It really was beautiful.  The beach gets its unique colour from Forminifera, microscopic organisms that produce red pigments on coral reefs.  Here on Pink Beach, small pieces of coral mix with the white sand creating the soft pink hue that you see.

It was beautiful, particularly so when the other large group left, leaving just my group to enjoy the beach and waters.  The snorkeling wasn’t amazing but the water was a perfect temperature, and it was great to get a chance to cool down before heading back to Labuan Bajo.

The only scheduled activity for the rest of the afternoon, was the first of a number of talks by Conrad, an expedition staff member who was an history expert, not just of Indonesia but also of the war in the Pacific.  He had such an incredible knowledge and great way of sharing what could be somewhat boring lol.  He was even more impressive as this was only a side gig for him – his day job is Oncology surgeon!!

To end the day, we had been invited to dinner at the rooftop restaurant of a new government built hotel (as we were the first large group to visit the island since covid).  Dining at the Meruorah was like being in Singapore with a beautiful rooftop restaurant and pool overlooking the harbour.  The evening was topped off by us seeing our ship finally arrive in the harbour.    We could still see it from the beach at our hotel – it was so close we all just wanted to get on it now and get moving but no, it was to be another night before we can do that.

Delays and departures

Bali/Flores, Indonesia

Oct 2020

On what should have been day 1 of my boat trip, I woke up early again so when down to see if there was a sunrise again – no really sunshine as it was too cloudy, but it was beautiful with the clouds reflected in the low tide.  What was particularly cool was that the sun was rising one side as the full moon set on other.  It was a great start to the day.

I spent the morning relaxing by the pool (different pool view this morning but still in the shade – no sunburn for me 😂), before checking out and taking a taxi the short distance to the hotel next door to check in for the boat that is not happening.   To kill some time, Harriet and I ended up back at the bar with my new favourite cocktail – the ‘C Cup’ by the pool.

At 2.30 the group of approximately 100 people boarded a bus, not for the boat, but to transfer us to a new hotel in Sanur, a different area of Bali, around 45 minutes away and by happy coincident, Harriet and I were sharing a room. We had plenty of time to kill, so we went off for a quick walk along the waterfront. This area is not as fancy as Nusa Dua but it was still nice with a number of independent bars and restaurants along the waterfront and not just those attached to a fancy hotel.

After a shower and changing in to my ‘first night dress’ we had a quick cocktail before meeting the group for the welcome meeting where we were introduced to some of the expedition staff who will be joining us on the trip.  The company is a family company and in based out of Christchurch and almost the entire family including children are on this trip! But I am most excited about 3 of the staff – Neil Nightingale and Karen Bass, both used to hold senior positions within the BBC Natural History department and who count Sir David Attenborough as a close friend and are responsible for some of his most popular programmes, and Rod Morris, a Kiwi naturalist who is a well-known wildlife photographer and filmmaker – I want to be them when I grow up 😂!

I was lucky enough to sit next to Rod at dinner and enjoyed reminiscing about our previous trips to Komodo – mine was 15 years ago and his was around 25 years ago when he was making a documentary there.    

It was disappointing to be waking up the next morning in another hotel room on Bali rather than on a ship, but my early morning walk had a lovely surprise of a volcano in the distance through the haze – we couldn’t see it at all the day before.

Today’s alternative activity was my idea of hell … 100 + people getting on buses to go on a day trip 🤦🏻‍♀️.  The trip was taking us back to Ubud where Harriet and I had gone the day before and the first stop was the temple we had already been to, so we decided just to wander around the streets and buy more snake fruit (which I had become obsessed with the day before). 

Next stop was a local village which may have been called St Asti Suweta Yowana or perhaps Dusun Lantangidung according to the sign.  We were told that hardly any tourists come to this particular village and although we may have been the only people here at this time, it was clearly set up for tourists!! As with the old Balinese family compound we saw the previous day, these were more modern but set up in the same way and each compound had different artisans doing different crafts – weaving, silver making, rice cakes etc.  More often than not I was distracted by the insects, plants, rice fields etc 🥴

For me, the highlight of the day was the beautiful lunch spot, at the Royal Pita Maha hotel, overlooking the spectacular Ayung river gorge.  Surrounded by jungle and waterfalls, watching white water rafts coming down the river. The food was ok, but the setting was stunning.  Each villa here had a view and its own pool – perhaps a nice spot for another trip lol.

From here we stopped in Ubud town and joined the throngs of tourists walking around the main street.  I decided to avoid the tourist market and headed straight to the main sites in the area.   Firstly, the Saraswati temple dedicated to honour the Hindu Goddess Saraswati – the goddess of learning, literature and art.   It had a beautiful lotus pond and was a peaceful oasis despite being right on the Ubud main drag.

Just down the road, also on the main road was the Ubud Palace (Puri Saren Agung).  Built in the 18th century by some of the finest artists in the country it used to be the official resident of the Ubud royal family.  Today it is a very busy tourist attraction, but it is still definitely worth exploring. 

Both sites were lovely but oh so hot, so I hit the most glorious of tourist spots, Starbucks (yes, they are everywhere) for iced coffee before we headed back to the hotel for a swim, pack bags, dinner and find out what we are doing tomorrow …

Day 3 of my Expedition cruise dawned with us still in Bali but finally about to leave.  Not by boat but by plane …. With a 4.45am wake up, and breakfast before taking a bus to the airport.  It was a surprisingly nice domestic terminal, and it was all very easy, cool and clean.

Apparently, the company had arranged a charter flight, but it fell through at the last minute as there were already two scheduled flights going to Flores during the day that were not full, so we had to use those.  I was luckily on the first Batik Air flight (as were most people) and we almost took over the plane.   I was also lucky enough to get a window seat, so I got the views I missed arriving the dark. I was so glad to be leaving Bali and was finally feeling like the trip was starting. I definitely did not pay all this money to sit in a fancy hotel in Bali – I could actually have done that for much cheaper if I had wanted that kind of holiday.

The flight from Bali to Labuan Bajo in Flores, took us over a number of islands and a spectacular volcano and its crater lake which accordingly to maps.me was Ranjani (Offline maps.me working wonders to identify landmarks).  We also flew over Komodo island – which appeared much larger than I remembered from the air.  It was also very arid and almost treeless, such a contrast from lush Ubud/Bali.  Also in contrast to Bali is the culture – people here on Flores are predominately Catholic and Muslim which also lends to different architecture (not that we saw much of it).

Komodo International Airport in Labuan Bajo was much bigger than first time I was here over 15 years ago, as was the town itself.  We had a couple of stops on the way to the hotel, firstly a 20 minute stop at the local fruit and vegetable market.  Not surprisingly it was smelly and hot, but the inside part was much cooler and posher.  Despite the whistlestop visit (and the 100 other people with me), it is always interesting to see the local markets and what is for sale. This was followed by lunch at a restaurant with beautiful harbour views.

Sadly, there were no activities scheduled for the afternoon and those we suggested (having done brief google searches) were knocked back.  So instead of exploring some of the island of Flores, I spent the afternoon chilling by the ocean front pool and then joined Rod, my new favourite naturalist on a short nature walk around the hotel gardens.  Not a terrible way to spend the afternoon, but I would have preferred to have been out exploring the island.

On a brighter note, the day ended with a lovely dinner on the beach, with the backdrop of an amazing sky as the sunset – and volcanos in the distance – photos just don’t do it justice. After a briefing about the upcoming days, I had high hopes for things to come.

The great escape

Bali/Indonesia – October 2022 

It was with great excitement and trepidation that I left for my trip – the first time I’ve had this feeling in a few years.  Adding to the trepidation was the unreliable flights and the continually changing covid requirements which are still making travelling challenging.  And of course, there were no direct flights to Bali yet and it didn’t help that my direct flight from Christchurch to Melbourne was cancelled. The alternative options were a short transfer time or overnight in Auckland and as I am not one to take too many risks, particularly at the beginning of a holiday I took the overnight option.  I was glad I did as I had a fairly easy and relaxed transition through flights. 

I had a few hours to kill in Melbourne and it was great to take the time to meet up with a friend for lunch before my last flight from Melbourne to Bali.   The constant faffing through check in and boarding reminded me why I do not normally choose to travel on Jetstar!

I loved that first hit of tropical air as we disembarked the plan – it was raining, 28C and oh so humid🥴.  I had thought the whole arrival process would be a mess, but it was all pretty organised and quick for most part. First a health check, although all they did was look at my passport and vaccination certificate (luckily, they did not take temperatures as I am sure I was already hot and sweaty despite the aircon).

Next queue was to buy my visa on arrival (IDR500,000 or approximately NZ$60) before moving on to the longest queue, to get through immigration and finally on to luggage collection and customs.  All up, about an hour in total to get through and out.

I had arranged a pickup and finding my name on a board was easy enough, but the actual car pickup area was mayhem – I was worried I would not recognise the driver I had just meet when he finally came around with the car.  Thankfully he could recognise me.  I am not ashamed to say I was a hot mess by the time I got in the air conditioner car.

It was a short 15-20 minute ride to my hotel, including two security checks.  One to get into the area and then again to get into the hotel and I was grateful for the cool towel at check in.  I finally arrived at the hotel almost 24 hours after getting up, with only a couple of hours sleep in between and I was ready for a bed!

Despite a lack of sleep, I still woke up early and so got up for a walk (just missing a downpour).  There were frangipanis everywhere (my favourite flowers) and a slight aroma of incenses in the air as I walked down a lovely jogging track along the beach front (I did not jog of course) passed lots of beautiful hotels and some abandoned ones (though I am not sure if that is covid related as they look like they have been abandoned for much more than 2.5 yrs).

Of course, I realise this is NOT the real Bali and I feel like that in some way I am cheating on it by staying in this fancy hotel area, but it is what I need for a couple of days to relax before the proper trip starts.

I had found a nearby coffee shop on the map but didn’t check opening hours 🤦🏻‍♀️ so ended up back in a nearby hotel for my coffee fix and to read my emails … to see that my trip had all changed … Apparently, the ship I was supposed to be boarding in 3 days’ time had been damaged on its journey to Bali so whilst it was being repaired we are going to have to stay 2 extra nights in Bali (not what I wanted) — then flying to Flores (which I have done before) and then 2 days in a hotel there visiting Komodo.  Finally, then we can hopefully get on the ship – I was sitting there wondering what else we are going to miss out on 🥲 but I guess time will tell.

As I walked back to the hotel to check out the itinerary and I bumped into my friend who was going on the same trip (and who I had caught up with in April on Great Barrier Island) and I ended walking back down the pathway with her to see a local tourist attraction, the Peninsula Nusa Dua Blowhole.  It cost IRD25,000 (NZ$3) to get through the gate to see the odd volcanic (I guess) rock formations and see the blow hole, with scantily clad local tourists posing in front it lol.  It was pretty cool if you managed to catch a big one!

It was hot hot hot by this time, so we walked back towards our hotels, said goodbye to Harriet (she is staying in the hotel next door) and quickly changed and set up under an umbrella by the pool … From some chill time by the pool and some chill time in the room (read nap time) I headed down to the beach and enjoyed a fresh coconut 🤤 and fresh ocean breeze, cutting through the heat of the day.

I met Harriet at her hotel next door for dinner, were we had a beautiful salad and a vodka coconut sorbet cocktails served in coconuts!  (The kind of cocktail I will dream about.)  We asked for knives to eat the coconut and the waitress advised us against eating them as they were old and hard – she could not comprehend it when we tried to explain that that’s how coconuts come in New Zealand.   She was probably horrified when she saw how much we ate 🤤. It was a beautiful evening and the hotels were lovely lit up for the night.

For what should have been my last full day in Bali, I woke up around 2am, but thankfully managed to get back to sleep.  I finally got up around 6am and went for a walk in the opposite direction to the first day.  Passed a few more fancy hotels and then the juxtaposition of an old temple sitting between the hotels and a few locals putting out offerings and praying on the beach.  

For the rest of the day, I had arranged a day trip with Harriet and a driver recommended by a friend.  We had said to her that we were not interested in going to the normal ‘instagram’ spots but left the rest of it up to her.  Of course, I had arrived at the hotel in the dark so had not really seems anything outside of the hotel area, so it was nice to finally be out and about, driving through the narrow streets lined by small shops.  I was very glad to not be driving through the mayhem of cars, small trucks and motorbikes.

Denpasar turned in to the Ubud area without seemingly leaving the urban area, it just became a little greener and our first stop was was at the Pura Puseh Batuan temple – a beautiful 11th century Hindu Temple with a five-tiered Candi Bentar gateway. Although we did appreciate the beautiful buildings and carvings, Harriet and I were both fascinated by the old frangipani trees covered in orchids and the most amazing little snowflake water lilies.  

After some time admiring the beautiful temple architecture, we visited a fruit stall to stock up on my old tropical favourite – mangosteens and find what might be my new favourite – snake fruit.  It’s skin looks exactly like snake skin and it tastes somewhat like a non-slimy jackfruit (another one of my favourites).

Our next stop was another temple but a completely different one to the first.  The Pura Gunung Kawi temple – a World Heritage Site. Gunung Kawi sits at the bottom of a river valley so of course that means a lot of stairs down, passed beautiful fields and a gauntlet of souvenir shops to visit the shrines or tombs, 10 in all, carved out of rock in the steep cliff face during the 11th century.  It is believed the shrines were dedicated to members of the ancient Balinese royal family of King Udayana.

There were not a lot of people, and it was not only beautiful but quiet set in the jungle with the noise of waterfalls and the river.   Heading back up, steps and heat and humidity = sun cream infused sweat dripping into my eyes – not fun but definitely worth the walk.

Passing verdant green rice paddies, the next stop was supposed to be the Water Temple but as it was a full moon day, the temple was crazy busy with local people doing their purification, so we decided to give it a miss and moved on to the Salria Luwak Coffee plantation.

As we walked through the gardens, there were lots of different plants such as coffee (or course), ginger, snake fruit plants and dragon fruit plants (both very weird), pineapples of various varieties, vanilla etc, etc.  And let us not forget the Luwaks (or Asian palm civets).  The animals, with whose help, they create the most expensive coffee in the world.  I’m sure most have heard of it.  The civets eat the coffee berries, once they have passed through the animal and passed out the other end, their poop is collected, cleaned and the coffee beans are deshelled and cleaned again before being ground and sold for extortionate prices around the world.  All that said, it is not a particularly good practice as in most cases, the Civets are captured from the wild and kept in small cages. 

This was not a large plantation like those I saw in Colombia, and most of the work was done by hand but they still had lots of different coffees and teas.  My favourites were Mangosteen tea and Coconut coffee (no surprise there).   I also paid the additional IRD 50,000 (or NZ$6) for the real deal – the Luwak coffee. It was very strong with lots of sludge at the bottom, it was nice, but I am not really sure what all the fuss is about. 

Next up on our whistle stop tour was a traditional Balinese house – here we were shown how the traditional houses were set up with the different rooms in different parts of the compound.  They showed us how to make the offerings they put at the temple and around their houses every day (apparently, they have to make 50-75 of them each day) and also about ceremonial cock fighting … yes you heard that right!!!!  The cocks were already in their bamboo cages ready to be taken to the temple later in the day for their fights.   Apparently now, people also bet on them, but this is not part of the religious aspect of the activity!

Our final stop, was the Tegenuguan waterfall, but first some lunch at the amazing Omma restaurant (it was already 2.30) overlooking the waterfall.  We ate in the restaurant, but it also had a bar and a chic day club with a pool.  All very cool and a great way to finish off the day.

Tomorrow is the big day, the start of my boat trip … but without the boat for the first 4 days!!!  So, we will have to see what tomorrow brings.

The Covid years … when the world stood still

2020-2022

It seems when the world stood still, I did not!!

When the borders closed back in March 2020, the thought of no overseas holidays for an indefinite length of time was daunting for me and anyone like me who has a passion for travel. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love to explore the world – just looking back over the 100+ blog posts from the last 4 years is a good indication of that lol

But, looking back at it now, what an amazing opportunity it has been to explore New Zealand.  I may have got around to many of my trips at one point or another, but certainly not so soon …. It was also a great opportunity for kiwis to enjoy some of the main tourist sites without them being swamped with international tourists.

I’ve travelled solo and in groups. I have travelled from the far north to the far south, from east to west coasts and back again. I have gone on retreats, trips with friends, old and new, and family.   I’ve travelled by car, plane, helicopter, bus, boat, bike and foot. I have stayed in hostels and huts, hotels and motels, ship cabins and let’s not forget camping and glamping. I have hiked in the mountains, the coastlines and the bush, spotted kiwis and other native birds and wildlife in the wild and I have chased sunrises, rainbows, reflections and waterfalls all over the country. 

Of course, just because the borders are opening and I am counting the days till I am back out in the world exploring, it does not mean my days exploring my beautiful homeland are over. It has truly been a blessing in disguise to have this special time and I will continue to explore New Zealand, just interspersed with international explorations ❤️ Thanks New Zealand for the beauty and joy you continue to give me. 

And with only a few short weeks till I head off on my first international expedition for some time, normal blog service will resume shortly😂

(I think I did a lot of travel but when I look at the map below there is clearer a lot more to do lol)

  • June 2020 – MacKenzie Country, South Island
  • July 2020 – Glacier Country, South Island
  • August 2020 – Kamamea/West Port, West Coast, South Island
  • October 2020 – Akaroa & Flea Bay, Banks Peninsula, South Island
  • October 2020 – Rakiura/Stewart Island
  • November 2020 – Waikino, Waikato, North Island
  • November 2020 – Unseen Fiordland and Stewart Island expedition Cruise, South Island
  • December 2020 – Tasman District, South Island
  • January 2021 – Picton & the Marlborough Sounds, South Island
  • April 2021 – Dunedin & the Catlin, South Island
  • April 2021 – Wellington, North Island
  • May 2021 – Bay of Plenty, North Island
  • June 2021 – Wanaka, South Island
  • July 2021 – Bay of Islands, North Island
  • November 2021 – Rotorua to Taupo, East Cape Road trip, North Island
  • December 2021 – Mt Cook & Tekapo, South Island
  • March 2022 – Wellington & the Wairarapa, North Island
  • June 2022 – Fiordland, South Island
  • August 2022 – Mt Cook & Tekapo, South Island

Hanging in the Hooker Valley

August 2022

What a start to a trip 🤦🏻‍♀️ … a few months ago, one of the ladies I had been doing some weekend walks with suggested that we do a walk to overnight in the Hooker Hut, a lesser known hut on the very popular track near Aoraki Mt Cook.  

Despite it being not very well know, it only sleeps 8 people, so is often booked up, particularly in the weekends and so we could only get 3 beds on a Friday night in August – I was one of the lucky 3 who got a spot!!

I was really excited about this mini getaway and I had been tracking the weather from as far out as you could and it was looking good. Sunny (and freezing) after a good dumping of snow earlier in the week.  I had also spent way too much money on a new sleeping bag and walking poles (both of which I hope I will get good use out of).  Have I said I was excited about this lol.

We were heading off early with Heidi, who lived the furthest north driving and doing the pick ups as she headed south – great plan … until her car would not start!  She waited 10-15 minutes and it still would not start 🤦🏻‍♀️ unfortunately she really wanted to drive herself and had to call AA, so it was decided that Katherine and I would head off together and Heidi would join us if/ when she could!!

It was a beautiful day and lots of snowy vistas made it an easy drive.  After a quick stop in Geraldine and Tekapo and of course the obligatory photo stops, we arrived at the White Horse Campground in Aoraki Mt Cook national park just after midday.   (If you are a regularly reader, you will know that this was the site of a rainy camping trip between Xmas and new year at the end of last year.)

We had lunch and kitted up, ready for our walk which started along the wonderful Hooker Valley track.  This was the 3rd time I had done the walk and the first time I could actually see Mt Cook – it was such a stunning day.

Quite a few people we passed, asked us where we were going as we had bags much bigger than was necessary on the easy 2-3 hour walk – it didn’t help that I had a kettle hanging off the back of my bag (as Heidi was supposed to bring a pot and with her not coming, it was a last minute addition).   Not one of those who asked even knew that there was a hut there and one guy even point blank told us that we were wrong and that there was no hut!!! That’s how much of a hidden gem it is!

Even the instructions to get to the hut on the official Department of Conversation website were vague and luckily I had printed off someone’s blog which gave step by step directions.

We stepped off the track just after the picnic table on to a slightly trodden path through the tussuck.  It turns out there is now a small arrow on the boardwalk pointing to it but it is probably not something you would notice unless you were looking for it. 

Thankfully, it also seems they have put more orange marker posts out now, than there were when the blog writer did the walk, but you still had to keep a good eye out for them in the tussock as the track was not well  formed and it is definitely not a hut you could stumble across accidentally (which makes all the more special). 

It was a great sight to see the cute green and orange hut with the surrounded by the most stunning view of Aoraki Mt Cook – I would definitely get a heart full of mountain views on this trip.

The Hooker Hut has existed in its current state and location only since 2021 when it was placed there, fully refurbished, but it’s interesting life began in 1910.  At that time it was located on the moraine wall beside the Hooker Glacier.  By 1948 it was in very poor condition due to the severe alpine weather and lack of maintenance.  Its demise hastened by the receding of the glacier which created cracks in the building. 

And so started its numerous relocations.  First uphill from its original location (by plane and parachuted to the new site) in 1961 and then again in 1994 as the moraine wall cracked further.  Not long after its second move, heavy rain washed out the track to access it, and then, the final straw was an avalanche striking the hut in 2004.

In 2015 it was dismantled, flown in sections to nearby Twizel where the restoration took place.  Covid 19 lockdowns and weather delayed the reassembly but finally in 2021 the hut was back in its new location.

The hut sleeps 8 (in bunks with mattresses), and has a wood burning fire (with a good stock of wood onsite) and a gas cooker – it is actually pretty well kitted out for a DoC hut.  The toilet is a nice long drop (if you can use nice and long drop in the same sentence) set a little way away from the hut.  Everywhere has an amazing view – the picnic table on the deck, the bedroom, the kitchen/dinning room and of course the toilet. 

As the first people to arrive for the day, we got our pick of the beds, we set up our sleeping bags etc. and put the kettle on for a cuppa and a relaxing afternoon admiring the views.

The temperature dropped quickly as the sun started to go down and we soon were ready to try and light the fire.  It took a few attempts and we were grateful (for the second time) for the blog I had printed out as we used the paper it was printed on to help start the fire 🤣

By the end of the day our hut mates had arrived, a Japanese family (living in Christchurch) and a French guy in New Zealand on holiday for 1 month.  (We were more and more grateful him as the time went on – you will see why.)

We were quick to get the kettle on the boil to rehydrate the dehydrated meals and lots of cups of hot fruit tea as the sunset and the temperature continued to drop (apparently to -7 overnight)!  The meal was not amazing but it was ok and it filled a hole.

Thankfully, the family took over the fire care so we could just relax and enjoy the sunset and headed to the warmth of our sleeping bags to wait for the moon and stars to rise.  The moon was a huge full moon and long before it rose above the mountains, it lit the snow covered mountains around us and they glistened in it’s light – it was incredible.

Finally the moon rose above the mountains (just after 9pm) and by 1.30am when I got up to go to the toilet, the night was almost as bright as day – no torch needed. It was so bright that the only star visible to the naked eye was a planet – Neptune (thanks to my star walk app)

It was just so surreal being surrounded by the glowing snow, the bright moon and hearing avalanches crackling off in the distance (this was basically happening every hour or so around the valley).

And let’s not forget our possum friend. A huge friendly possum who clearly had no fear of people, coming right up on to the deck to see what food scraps he could find!!  Of course, I had to explain to all the foreigners how terrible they are for New Zealand despite their cuteness.

I did not have a terrible night’s sleep and was nice and cosy in my new sleeping bag.  It helped that the French guy volunteered to get up every couple of hours to put more wood on the fire to keep the hut warm (first ‘grateful for the French guy’ moment).   As always, I woke up early, got up just after 7am and headed off to the Hooker Lake at the end of the track before all the day walkers came in.  It was just beautiful sitting in silence by the frozen lake, watching the rising sun hit the tips of the peaks around us.

We headed back to the hut for coffee and breakfast but discovered that the water tank had frozen over (should have thought about that knowing it was going to be so cold)!  Thankfully French guy to the rescue (wish I had asked him his name lol).  He had to climb to the top and break the ice from the top to fill out kettles and water bottles.  (‘grateful for the French guy’ moment two)! 🤣

It was such a wonderful night and I will definitely book again for next year – it’s truly a million $ view with a $25 per person price tag 👍🏻

On our way back to the main track we passed some guys kitted up with skis and climbing gear – they were going to climb up one of the mountains and ski  down – and I thought I was being adventurous spending the night in the hut 🤣 – they put me to shame.

Back at the car park it was nice to de-backpack and take off some layers before heading over to the next valley to see the Tasman Glacier and Lake (where I went on a boat in December).  We went up to the look out to see the ‘blue lakes’ which today are decidedly green.   Accordingly to the sign, they were named in mid 1800’s when they were filled by the glacial meltwater making them that wonderful turquoise blue.   Unfortunately today, as the glacier has receded so much, the meltwater no longer flows in to the lake and the lakes are predominately filled by rain water which supports the growth of green algae – making the lakes … well … green lol.

From the Blue Lakes look out we continued on to the look out over Tasman Lake and the Tasman Glacier – it was a bit of a walk up it was worth it.

By this time we were ready for some proper food, so we headed up to the Hermitage for lunch before heading back to Tekapo to meet up with Heidi, the 3rd member of our party who finally made it to Tekapo after missing the hut last night.

I thought we had had enough ‘wows’ for one weekend, but Tekapo was putting it on for us too.  We were staying in a cabin by the lake and it we had such a great view of the snow covered mountains reflecting in the lake.   And we all know I do love a good reflection.

After a soak in the hot pools we had a lovely dinner and I stopped to admire the huge moon again, this time shining over the lake.   

The night time view was not to be outdone by the dawn.  I was lucky to wake up just in time as I headed down to the toilet at 6.30am, just when the sky was the most stunning pink and purple hues overs the lake.  It was perfect timing as it did not last long and the pink hues soon turned to yellow/orange. 

After a beautiful morning walk along the waterfront and breakfast as my favourite Tekapo spot (the Greedy Cow Café) we jumped in the car for the 3 hour drive home.  What a weekend – I don’t think I have said ‘this is perfect’ or ‘just stunning’ so much in 2 days in a long time 😂 (I should probably mention that Heidi’s car was making strange noises so we left her in Tekapo – waiting for the AA again!)

Milford Sound and homeward bound

June 2022

Part 2 of my Fiordland roadie saw be setting off from Te Anau on my adventure to the world famous Milford Sound, another misnamed fiord, but probably the most well known. There was supposed to be lots to see on the 120km drive so I gave myself plenty of time to catch the 1 pm boat. 

Unfortunately, about halfway into my drive the forecasted rain came down hard, meaning a number of my stops were very short and others could not happen at all.   The so called Mirror lakes had no mirror but it was still a beautiful wetland with mountain views and I took a few other quick photos out of the car window of the changing landscapes lol.

Despite the rain and low cloud, it was still a stunning drive surrounded by snow-capped peaks and waterfalls everywhere cascading down the side of the cliffs around me.  It’s worth noting that the road is often closed in the winter months due to snow and the risk of avalanches, but thankfully not this day!

The gateway to Milford is through the one way Homer tunnel (which was a little bit scary) – construction on the tunnel started in 1935, 5 men with pickaxes carving away at the rock.  In all, it took 19 years of what was basically hard labour in harsh conditions (with a short interlude for WWII) to complete the 1.2 km tunnel through the Darran mountain range (part of the Southern Alps). 

The tunnel opened in 1954 and although it is wide enough for a bus and a small vehicle to pass each other, traffic lights operate to keep it flowing one way at a time (particularly during the busy months when there are lots of large tourist buses going backward and forward).

As you exit the tunnel through the bare rock tunnel, it is like arriving in a new world. Incredible views down the Cleddau Valley and noise of rushing water from all the waterfalls surrounding me.  It is not uncommon for the weather to be different from one side of the tunnel to the other – I guess that is not that odd as you are basically crossing the mountain range.  It is not far from here, down the steep winding road in to the ‘town’ of Milford Sound.

Because I did not stop as much as I had planned, I arrived early and hoped I would be able to catch an earlier boat, but it was just pulling out as I arrived at the pier.  You should probably know that you have to park about 10-15 minutes’ walk away – and that you have to pay $25 for that pleasure!!  I guess the massive car park near the wharf is reserved for all the buses??  Today, it sits eerily empty.  I can’t image how horrible it would be if the massive bus park was filled with buses and thousands of people. 

As I had a couple of hours to kill, I took some time to wander around near the wharf.   Turns out I was lucky to have this time as the rain stopped for a while and the cloud had cleared enough that I got a beautiful view of the fiord and Mitre Peak even a little blue sky adding to some lovely reflections.  I spotted a beautiful white heron or Kōtuku and … wait for it …. a double rainbow 🌈🌈.

Māori people discovered the sound over 1000 years ago, trekking over the mountains to fish, hunt and collect pounamu or green stone.  These traditional tracks now form part of today’s Milford Track.

Early European settlers didn’t realise that the sound flowed out to the sea and in fact, the sea entrance is so well hidden, Captain Cook missed it twice on his explorations of the New Zealand coastline.  It was settled by a Scotsman called Donald Sutherland in 1877, and he lived there alone envisaging a large city being built.  He was joined by his new wife in 1890 and they built the first hotel in Milford Sound to accommodate people arriving on what is now the Milford Track.   It was even visited by Rudyard Kipling in the 1890’s who declared it ‘the eighth wonder of the world’.

The opening of the Homer Tunnel in 1954 bought with its hordes of visitors with much easier road vehicle access.

As well as it’s natural beauty, Milford Sound is known for its sandflies.  They say people there are very friendly and always waving at people passing by – of course they are not waving at people, they are trying to wave away the sandflies.  Thankfully they are nowhere near as bad in the winter but still making their presence known.  I loved the Māori legend of the sandfly or Te Namu ….

As the legend goes, the demigod Tū Te Rakiwhānoa carved the fiords of Fiordland with his digging stick, culminating with his finest masterpiece of Piopiotahi or Milford Sound.  When Hine-nui-te-po, the Goddess of death inspected his work, she feared that it was so beautiful, humans would forget their mortality when they looked upon it.  So she introduced sandflies or Te Namu to remind them not to linger!!  Whatever the reason, I think it was pretty successful lol.

Back outside the Ferry terminal (under cover of course), I had my lunch.  It was beautiful listening to the light (and sometimes heavy) rain falling, nearby waterfalls and the distance bird song. 

Not surprisingly, Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on earth with an annual rainfall of 6,700mm!!!  And the cloud came down as I waited for my boat … then they changed boats at the last minute to a much smaller one (apparently the other one was having engine trouble) and it did not look anywhere near as good with not so many outdoor covered areas, but they did give us a free coffee voucher 🥴🤔😂

It was a far cry from the picture perfect day on Doubtful Sound, but everyone tells me that a rainy day in Milford is a good day as all the waterfalls are turned on and there were so many waterfalls and crazy blue/turquoise water. 

There were gannets soaring around and the other 2 or 3 boats around the sound showed just how vast the mountains around us were.  The boats take you right up to the big waterfalls – so close you could get pretty wet if you stood right at the front of the boat.  😂🤦🏻‍♀️

The rain got heavier as we headed back toward the ferry terminal, and you could barely make out the mountains around us.  It was misty and moody and also kind of cool.   The final stop was to see Bowen Falls.  A large waterfall near the ‘town’ that actually provides fresh water for the area. 

I was glad I was not driving back to Te Anau today … instead it was time to check in to Milford Sound lodge, the only open accommodation in Milford Sound and it does not come cheap! One night here was more expensive than 5 nights at my lovely 70’s motel room back in Te Anau, but we all have to treat ourselves from time to time, right? 

It was a lovely room, looking out over the rushing river and I was treated to rain, a rainbow and the most incredible thunderstorm with the thunder bouncing off the surrounding mountains.   I must say I had an amazing night’s sleep. 

The following morning, breakfast was delivered to the room, and I ate it looking out at my beautiful view and even though it was still raining I quickly then donned my rain poncho and drove down to the free park to do the lovely waterfront walk.  (I could have done it from the hotel but a slippery log as a bridge across a raging stream put me off.)

I had thought about finding the ‘Insta famous’ swing but it was raining, and I could not be bothered … I still had stunning views from everywhere.  There was really no need for a man made swing in front of it lol.

To drive on the road to Milford Sound in the winter you must carry chains (for your car tyres), thankfully I didn’t need them, but snow was forecast for the next day and I did see that the road was closed so I was definitely lucky with the weather (despite all the rain). 🥶❄️🌨

Speaking of rain, there was more torrential rain to come on the way home, as well as a low mist and a temperature of -4C!!!  But the cloud lifted as I passed the Mirror Lakes again, so I stopped to see if they were better than the day before … and they were much better – not perfect but still beautiful and worth the stop. 

For my last day in Te Anau, I had my final tour with RealNZ to see the Glow worm caves (I purchased a package that included the Doubtful Sound tour, the boat trip in Milford Sound and this tour and it was well worth it).  It was also nice not to have to drive for a day.

And so, I boarded another boat, this time from Te Anau, again a big boat with not a lot of people and we sailed across the lake.  Have I mentioned that Lake Te Anau is New Zealand’s second largest lake, and it is 66km long and a maximum depth of 417m.  Like the fiords in the area, it has been formed by glaciers that use to cover the area.

Upon disembarking, we headed up to a small information centre where we had a short briefing before we walked the short distance to the cave system.  The glow worm caves are 250m long and part of a much larger Aurora Cave system.  Carved from limestone, starting 30-35 million years ago and continuing today, the section we visited is only around 12,000 years old. 

A short way into the caves we boarded a small boat and floated through the caves in pitch black admiring the 100s of worms and their little glowing strings.  Unfortunately we could not take photos in this part of the caves so as to not disturb the glow worms so you will just have to take my word for how good it was. 

I have been to glow worm caves before, but I was not aware that they are actually endemic to New Zealand.  There is a different species that can be found in Australia, but they are nowhere else in the world.  What special little worms (actually larvae) they are lol.

There was a nice little bush walk and a beautiful view back across the lake to the snowy mountains before the boat trip back across the lake and another lake front walk in the sunshine.

Friday morning and my time in the south had come to the end so I hit the road north.  There were weather warnings for most of the South Island, including snow, so I was glad I had picked a different route home – it is longer but avoided the highest passes and thankfully it meant I did not have delays or issues because of snow or ice.

I passed through a number of small Otago towns, some with some pretty big claims e.g. Mossburn = Deer Capital of New Zealand, Lumsden = The Hub of Northern Southland and let’s not forget Heriot = Where Great Things begin.🤔

As I crossed from Southland into Otago, the rolling farmland turned in to orchards and then down through historic mining towns.  I stopped off in the tiny town of St Bathans where I had lunch in the famous Vulcan Hotel (built in 1882)– allegedly the country’s most famous haunted building and then headed to Naseby, another small ex-mining town.  Oh, and apparently Naseby is “2000ft above worry’s”!

I ended up in Wedderburn where I was staying the night.  If I thought St Bathans and Naseby were small, Wedderburn was a ‘blink and you miss it’ kind of place.  It was basically a pub and a town sign. 

I was staying in the cute little cottages of Wedderburn Cottages with a lovely view over farmland out to snow topped hills.  It was run by a fourth generation Central Otago farming family, and it was a lovely spot to spend the night with a sky full of stars – not sure I have seen them since my first night 😂

I started my drive home on a beautiful but freezing morning.  There was not too much to see on this route, but I did stop by a lovely old stone bridge (I am a sucker for a reflection) – it turns out that this was Bowker Bridge, the last of the arched original stone bridges on the old coach road.  It was actually in use until 1962 when the new bridge was opened. 

I swapped the snowy mountains for the coastal road, and I had no plan to stop on the way up the coast, but I could not resist a quick boulder stop at Moeraki.  It was such a beautiful morning, and I was the only person on the beach, so I was so glad I stopped.  A perfect last stop on perfect trip.

Fiordland fun

June 2022

It was road trip time again, and this was definitely a trip I had wanted to do before tourists start coming back in big numbers.  I have said it before, and I will say it again, as tough as it has been to be restricted to travel only in New Zealand over the last couple of years, it has been amazing to be able to explore the country without it being swamped with tourists. 

I headed off on a beautiful crisp winter morning and officially the first weekend of winter.  I had told myself I would not stop at Tekapo and Lake Pukaki for photos as I have a million photos of both those spots but I could not help myself, it was just so pretty. (I also had to do the mandatory stop at Lake Ruataniwha for the perfect reflection shot.)

I was spending the first night in Cromwell, just to break up the driving  – around 5 hours a day is pretty much my concentration limit when it comes to driving on my own, no matter how loud I play my music lol. 

Today, Cromwell is a small town with a population of around 7,000 and is known for its stone fruit orchards and vineyards, but in the past it was a thriving goldmining town know as ‘The Junction’ as it sat at the junction of the Clutha and Kawarau Rivers.  In 1992, with the construction of the Clyde Dam and the creation of Lake Dunstan, the town was moved to its current location.  This included moving the heritage precinct where you can still visit the original town buildings, some dating back to 1860.

I spent some time exploring the Heritage Precinct before heading in to the new town, where it seems the most interesting thing to see is the giant fruit lol!  It was only 2.30 on a Saturday afternoon and most of the shops were closed so I popped into the supermarket and topped up with fuel in preparation for tomorrow’s drive. 

My accommodation for the night was just a little out of town and was a lovely little studio room with views over a vineyard.  I settled in for a relaxing night with a local red wine and admired the amazing sky full of stars and the Milky Way – the kind of sky you can only get without light pollution.  I even managed to get some half decent photos on my phone which was amazing.

I opened my blinds early on a very cold and frosty morning so I could enjoy watching the day break from my bed – it was looking beautiful until I looked the other direction and saw it was even more stunning with red clouds and low mist hanging over the fruit trees and valleys.

It looked so beautiful, I had to jump in my car (jacket over pyjamas) and drive in that direction … unfortunately it could not happen in a hurry due to the heavy frost on the car!  I took a few photos from the road before it was safe to drive for a couple of other views.  Sadly the deep red had lessen by that point but what a stunning morning.

Day two’s drive started through the Kawarau gorge, famous for being the home to the first commercial bungy jump in the world and then I took a quick detour to the historic Arrowtown.  It was passed its autumn colour prime but it is still always so pretty and worth a giving it time even if just for a quick wander around the historic town or along the river.

From Arrowtown I headed towards Lake Wakatipu but instead of turning right towards Queenstown, I turned left and drove around the other arm of the lake.   The  road then took me through farm lands and on to alpine tussock.  The rain that was forecasted started about 20 minutes out of my final destination, Te Anau.

As it was too early to check in, I stopped for lunch in town and to admire a rainbow – though it was not a particularly pretty setting – over the local Four Square (small supermarket) lol.  Finally. After checking in to my very dated motel (it was really well priced, great location and the staff were lovely) the rain had subsided a little so I went for a walk and I am so glad I did – yet another rainbow, this time with a lovely setting and reflected in the lake.

Te Anau (Place of the Swirling Waters) sits on the shore of Lake Te Anau, the largest lake in the South Island and it is a great starting place for exploring Fiordland National Park.  With a population of around 3,000 people it is small but perfectly formed and in the summer welcomes thousands of holiday makers.

The morning dawned, calm and still, and although the sunrise was behind me but I still had to go for a quick lake front walk.  The forecast was for lots of rain so needed to make the most of any time it was not raining.  A lake front coffee was the perfect way to start the day.

I had a short 20 minute drive to Manapouri to join my trip for the day, but it was such a beautiful morning, I could not drive the  20 minutes without stopping multi times to admire the views and take photos.

If Te Anau is a small town, Manapouri is a tiny town, with a population of under 300 but is the gateway to Doubtful Sound, which is the reason I was there.  I was joining the Real NZ tour to the sound for the day and was pleased to see that there was only a small group of people on the trip today – great for people like me who doesn’t like crowds 👍🏻😂 (Probably not so great for the tour company.)

The famed Fiordland sandflies started to appear while I was waiting for the boat. The positive of coming in winter is that most of you is already covered up 👍🏻😂.

I had been to Doubtful Sound just a couple of years ago on the expedition cruise but from the sea end and his time I was to visit it from the landside which starts in the Waiau River – once the second largest river in the country before crossing Lake Manapouri. 

Created during the last ice age, 20,000 years ago, the lake is 440m deep in some place and considered one of New Zealand’s most beautiful lakes.  In the 1960’s the government proposed raising the level of the lake by 30m as part of a hydroelectric development, and this was meet with New Zealand’s largest conservation protest of the time.  The outcome was the lake level was not raised and an independent body called the “Guardians of Lake Manapouri” was created.  Still today, they monitor the lake levels to ensure its levels mimic normal fluctuation.

We travelled across the beautiful lake from west to east, in to the morning mist and out the outside.  It was bitterly cold on the top deck, but so beautiful.  Even more so when the sun came up over the mountains.  I took so many photos and we had not even reached the sounds lol.

On the east side of the lake we docked at the wharf near the underground hydro power station (which was still built despite them being unable to raise the lake level).  Completed in 1971, it utilises the 230m drop between the western arm of the Lake and the Deep Cove branch of Doubtful Sound, 10km away (and my destination).  Its hard to image such a massive construction project in such a remote location – smaller vehicles and machinery etc. came on a barge across the lake, heavy machinery came on road which we were about to travel, from Deep Cove.  

We had some time in the power station’s information centre before boarding a bus for the drive over Wilmot Pass, the lowest pass through the Southern Alps at only 671m.  The road was constructed to facilitate the building of the power station, and is the only road on the New Zealand mainland, not connected to the roading network.

The road across the pass was beautiful – views over the Spey Valley, waterfalls, lots of incredible moss covered rocks and native birds.   Our first look at Doubtful Sound from the Wilmot Pass look out was incredible.  Apparently, 2 out of every 3 days it is raining and/or the lookout is in cloud, today it was not. So much stunningness already ❤️💚 Mother Nature is AMAZING.

Just a little reminder – despite it’s name, Doubtful Sound (and in fact all the ‘sounds’ in Fiordland) are actually fiords and not sounds!  A sound is a flooded river valley, whilst these fiords are flooded glacial valleys.

Having reached Deep Cove (population 2), we boarded the next boat.  Big enough to take 150 passengers so just right for our group of 26 👍🏻.  We had almost 3 hours on the boat and it was stunning – beautiful calm water, beautiful reflections, incredible waterfalls with their own little rainbows.

As we travelled through the sound and out towards the sea it got a little rough, but we only stayed long enough to spot the fur seals chilling on the rocks.  They are so well camouflaged but the more you look, the more you see. We also saw Buller’s mollyhawks  (a small albatross species) and gannets soaring on the wind currents. 

Returning from the sea, the waters became calm again and there were reflections for days 💚.  We took advantage of this by having a 5 minute “sound of silence”.  We all chose a place on the deck to stand or sit, the boat engine was turned off and we just stood still taking in nature at her best, the silence broke by the occasional bird song from bush clad cliffs and the distant rush of water from nearby waterfalls. Personally, I could have stayed like that for hours.

We had time to stop and admire one last waterfall and see where the hydro power plant water outlet was, where the dark fresh water (from the lake on the other side of the mountains) pours into the sea water and too soon we were back on the bus over the pass (but not without having another stop at the lookout  point which was just as stunning as the morning) and then back on the boat across the Lake Manapouri. It really was 7 hours of blissful beauty and a trip I highly recommend.