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.