East Cape Escape – Part 3: Flora, fauna and sauna

November 2021

This morning I was off on the road trip part of my road trip (lol) around the Tairāwhiti region – first stop was Whakatane via a lovely road around lakes and through small towns.  But my one and only reason for coming to Whakatane was to do a day trip to Moutohorā or Whale Island. 

Moutohorā is one of the most restricted pest free sanctuaries in New Zealand.  It is situated just 9km of the coast of Whakatane, not far from Whakaari/White Island which is now world famous for its eruption in December 2019 which killed 22 people.  It is just over 1.4km2 and is the remnant of an eroded volcano.  There are still geothermal areas on the island today (which is one of the highlights of the visit).

There is evidence of early Māori and European settlements, including an unsuccessful whaling station (catching only one whale 🥴), mining of sulphur (which was too poor quality) and then rock for construction of the Whakatane Harbour wall (in 1915). 

In 1965 the island was declared a wildlife refuge and once goats were cleared, a planting programme planted 12,000 native trees and grasses.  Today the island is free of not only goats, but rats, cats and rabbits (there were apparently up to ½ million and were used by Cray fisherman for bait) and is a safe haven for 190 native species. 

Because of its pest free status, bio security checks are an important part of the boating process for all passengers.  In the “Biosecurity Caravan” we had to empty our bags to ensure there were no pests, followed by checks of our shoes for soil and seeds and finally we walked through a tray of disinfectant before boarding the boat. 

It was a beautiful warm day, already 18c and sunny before we set off out through the heads at the mouth of the Whakatane River and passed The Lady on the Rock statue on top of Turuturu Rock.  The statue commemorates the bravery of Wairaka, the daughter of Toroa, the captain of the first waka to arrive in Whakatāne after a long and dangerous journey from Hawaiki (their ancestral homeland).  As the men went ashore, the canoe started to draft back out to sea and Wairaka grabbed the paddle to bring the waka back to shore (it was forbidden for women to handle a canoe!)  She cried our “Kia Whakatāne au I ahau” – I will act the part of a man – hence the name of the city.

I was travelling with White Island Tours – the only way you can visit the island (unless you work for the Department of Conservation).  Not surprisingly, they are the main company that used to run the tours to Whakaari White Island prior to the eruption and were on the island at the time, losing staff members.  One of our guides had been on the island earlier in the morning – as the volcano quietly smoking away in the distance, I can’t imagine what is must have been like to have been on the water the day it erupted … or to continue to see it every day!

After a quick 15 minute boat ride, we landed on Moutohorā.  There is no wharf or jetty so need to be prepared to get wet feed as you wade ashore.  Unfortunately we were about 1-2 weeks too early for the full bloom of the Pohutukawa tress which covered the islands.  Luckily there were a handful that bloomed early and where already surrounded by beautiful tuis👍🏻.

The island is a wonderful haven for New Zealand’s wildlife and it was not long before our guide pointed out a juvenile common gecko (in a purpose built ‘gecko hotel’ – really just a small, covered area, which is easy to lift to spy on the current guests).  Did you know that New Zealand geckos, unlike other reptiles around the world, give birth to live young rather than eggs.  It is believed to be an adaption to adjust to the colder climates.  They are not only slow breeding, but they are also long lived – living up to 50 years.

The air was full of bird song, but even louder was the hum of bees around the flowering kanuka.  I am not sure I have ever heard so many bees. 

As we walked through the island (the guides in bare feet lol 🥴) we passed (or were passed by) North Island Saddlebacks – remember I met their South Island cousins on Stewart Island back in 2020.  Here the juveniles are born with their ‘saddle’ markings as opposed to the South Islands one who do not develop it until they are older.

The highlight of the day for me (although the whole day was a highlight) was seeing my first Tuatara in the wild 🙌🏻🙌🏻🙌🏻.  Tuatara are endemic to New Zealand and are the only survivors of an ancient lineage of reptiles whose ancestors lived along side dinosaurs, over 220 million years ago.

They used to live throughout the country, but populations were decimated by rats etc. and today are now only found in predator proof fenced sanctuaries and offshore islands.   They are active mainly at night but also come out during the day to bask in the sun.  To avoid being eaten by adults, juveniles tend to feed during the day!! 

Females can lay 6-8 eggs per year and are buried to keep warm and as with some other reptiles, the egg temperature can determine the sex of the young.  Once hatched they have to fend for themselves and if they survive ‘childhood’ they can live between 80-100 years.  

Did I mention just how excited I was to see them??  I had seen them before in wildlife parks (in fact I used to work at a park where we breed them), but never in their natural habitat.  It was really a thrill for me.

Kiwis have been introduced to the island, but they have not breed well, no one really knows why but it is possible they are competing for burrows with grey faced petrels that also nest in burrows on the ground.   We actually passed the bodies of a couple of petrels along the way – apparently, they are terrible at landing, often using trees/bushes to break their fall, sometimes this does not work for them!

After a walk around some of the tracks we stopped by the hut for some lunch (it used to be possible to stay the night but now it is only used for rangers).  I only had snacks rather than lunch so was finished quickly and took the opportunity to hang around by the flowering Pohutukawa’s (right by the toilet lol) watching the tuis attracted by the flowers.  I was also lucky enough to spot some of the resident Kakariki (a green parrot) but not close enough to get a photo.

From lunch we took one of the tracks around the side of the island and down to Sulphur Bay – not surprisingly the remaining geothermal area on the island.  There were once pools in the area, but they were buried by a landslide, but you can still see the steam vents and you can definitely smell the sulphur.

The geothermal activity makes this an incredible ‘hot water beach’, you can actually see the sand bubbling in some areas it is so hot – it actually felt like I scalded my feet at one point 🥴.   The idea is to dig a hole in the sand, the perfect depth so you get right temperature water in your self made hot pool – too shallow and it was way too hot, too deep and it was too cold!   There are hot water beaches in other parts of the country, but it is rare that you find one which you can have all to yourself.

It was beautiful sitting on the beach in the sun, soaking my feet in the hot water while watching isolatied rain showers across the mainland.  What a way to spend the day.

As we headed back towards the boat, which was waiting for us at another beach, there was word of a whale sighting so instead of heading back to town, we headed out to sea.  It was already 1.45pm and they had said we would be back by 1.30pm – no one was complaining though.   On our impromptu boat trip, we saw diving petrels and penguins in the water 👍🏻 but sadly no whales today.  It was great to see the island from the sea as well, with its interesting rock formations and NZ fur seals lazying around the shore line.

We finally arrived back back in Whakatane over an hour late – what an amazing trip which I highly recommend.

Back on the mainland it was time to hit the road as I still had some driving to do before my stop for the night.   I could not pass up the opportunity to stop at what is apparently New Zealand’s favourite beach, Ohope Beach.  It was pretty impressive with 11 kilometres of beautiful sand beach, despite being a little windswept today.  The Ohope spit itself is approximately 6 kilometres long and only 300m wide at its narrowest, making it very easy to walk from the beach on one side to the Ohiwa estuary on the other.

I was starving by this point, so stopped to have some lunch at the General Store, overlooking the estuary.  Unfortunately it really only had fried food (which becomes a theme for the trip) so fried food it was!

I’d been lucky to avoid the rain so far, but it finally came down as I was driving my last leg for the day.  Despite the rain it was a lovely 35 minute drive around the estuary and through small rural villages to my stop for the night at Opotiki. 

A Kiwi Christmas

December 2020

OK – it was not quite Christmas but Boxing Day – the day after Christmas that I set of with my nephew.  (Just as a side note, there appears to be no clear reason why the day after Christmas is called Boxing Day, but the most common explanation appears to be that it is because it was the day off for servants so they could visit their families (back in the day in the UK) and the day when they received a gift (or Christmas box) from their employer.)

It was typical Christchurch Christmas weather – raining and cold (yes, it is summer!) 😂 We quickly packed up the car with way too much stuff (the theme of all my road trips) and headed out on my annual Aunty/nephew road trip – this year we headed north to Marahau.

I thought it was cold when we left Christchurch, but the temperature dropped to 8.5 degrees through Lewis Pass, clearly no one told the weather gods it is summer 🤦🏻‍♀️!! 

We stopped in Murchison for some lunch at the Commercial Café (which I recommend), one of the many buildings in the town dating back to the town’s gold mining past during the late 1800’s/early 1900’s.  It was a great little café, and it is a perfect location to stop as it was just over halfway into the journey.  From here it was only another 1.5 hours driving to get to our final destination – unfortunately the last 30 minutes of that was stuck behind a milk truck – a trait of a classic kiwi road trip!!

Marahau is a small town on the north coast of the South Island which is a starting point for the Abel Tasman National Park either by foot or water taxi.  The Māori meaning of the name Marahau is ‘windy garden’, apparently once a site for growing crops.  Today it is a popular summer holiday destination with a permanent population of around 500.

We arrived at the campground and got the tent up just before the heavy rain started – oh and the thunder.  In all honesty it was a great thunderstorm (which I love), and it was topped off by an incredible rainbow across the bay – huge and full of colour.  Not surprisingly, I abandoned my dinner to run across the road to take a photo of it lol.

We had time for a quick walk before we headed back to the tent, just in time for the rain to start up again, so the rest of the evening was spent snuggled under blankets with some wine in my enamel mug (for me) in real camping style – this is truly shaping up to be a classic kiwi holiday 😂.

The joys of camping, as the rain continued the water level rose and the ground sheet stood no chance against the growing puddle … soon water started seeping through the front part of the tent and pooling on the floor. We made sure everything not waterproof was off the floor on top of the chairs and retired to our ‘sleeping chamber’ with camp stretches in the hope that the roof did not start leaking before the rain stopped – it was a waiting game as to which would happen first!   On the bright side we had missed a massive hailstorm that hit the neighbouring town 🥴

The rain calmed and we survived the night (although it was clear my one season sleeping bag – that one season being summer was not going to cut it!) and we woke to a sunny albeit not hot, morning.

Thankfully, the pond around (and a little in) the tent had dried up by morning and we managed to get most stuff dry whilst having breakfast, before heading out for a short walk in the Abel Tasman National park – well, me a walk, my nephew a run as he is an athlete in training (he is only 14 but competes in distance running at a national level so had a training schedule to keep to) I most certainly am not an athlete😂!

It had started off as a cool day, but I got warm fast walking and I was obviously over dressed lol.  The walk was beautiful walk, and I loved the flax in flower and all the tuis feeding on the nectar.  I was obsessed with trying to get the perfect shot (I think I did ok).

My walk took me on a short part of the Abel Tasman Great walk (I have done other parts of it on another trip but never the whole thing).  This time I passed Porters Beach and ended up at Stu’s Lookout – I am not sure who Stu is, but I thank him for this lovely lookout.

After our run/walk we stopped for a drink in the lovely Park Cafe, right by the car park to the national park before taking a gentle stroll along the shore to the campground for some lunch and a relaxing afternoon.  We have a couple of full days coming up so wanted to enjoy some down time too.

We had a better night’s sleep without the threat of floating away, which I was grateful for as we had a big day ahead.  We set off relatively early for our day trip further around the coast.  It wasn’t such a long drive but included the infamous Takaka Hill which is very windy and well known for its frequent slips in heavy rain leading to constant roadworks and lane closures! 

Our first stop was at Te Waikoropupū (Māori for “bubbling water”) Springs (locally known as Pupū Springs), the largest freshwater springs in the country which contains some of the clearest water ever measured, some say the clearest (as measured in 1993 by NIWA, finding the visibility to be 63 metres!). To maintain the clearness of the water it is forbidden to have any contact with the water – this includes fishing, swimming, diving, boating, drinking etc.

After walking through the small information area, it is just a short 30 minute walk through the bush to the view platform over the springs – there is lots of water bubbling up (can you believe 14,000 litres of water gush out of the spring every second … yes, every second!) and yes, they are very, very clear. 

The site is sacred to the local Māori (Ngāti Rārua) and a place of cultural and spiritual significance with the springs representing the life blood of Papatuanuku, the Earth Goddess and the tears of Ramgini, the Sky God.

It’s probably worth noting that there is no charge to visit the springs so definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.

From the Springs it was only a short 30 minute drive to the small town of Collingwood in the Golden Bay area.  One of New Zealand’s oldest towns, it was originally settled in 1852 and grew substantially after the discovery of gold deposits nearby.  Unfortunately, the gold rush was short lived in the area and it was only a few years before the gold miners moved on to other parts of the country in search of richer mines.

The town went on to have a second boom with the establishment of coal mines in the area.  In fact, it was even considered as a possible capital ‘city’ when the British were looking for a more central location (they settled on Wellington).

Over the years, the town has suffered a number of large fires destroying most of the original buildings.  Today, the town has had a bit of a resurgence due to its close proximity to Kahurangi National Park and it being the starting point for trips to Farewell Spit (or Onetahua) – this is reason we were here.  We had a little time before our tour started so we had a brief walk around the town (which to be honest only takes 10 minutes lol) and to have some lunch.  I probably spent more time admiring the Pohutakawa in bloom (I love them!)

To avoid boring you with a very very long blog post, this trip will form the next blog – something for you to look forward to.

After sitting in a car or on a bus most of the previous day, we decided to do something a little more active for our last day, Sea Kayaking – it sounded like fun at the time 🥴 There are a number of companies that offer similar kayaking experiences and hire kayaks for self-guided tour, but we decided to go on a guided tour with Marahau Sea Kayaking which was based just across the road from the campground. 

After kitting up (in so much gear I could barely move) and having our safety briefing, we loaded the kayaks up on the trail and headed down to the river at the end of town.  Apparently, they normally enter from a sand spit but decided to try the river on this day.   And so our small crew – our lovely Canadian guide, a couple from the US who live in Nelson and us, jumped in our kayaks and had a calm and relaxed paddle down the river as we got used to the boats and headed towards the river mouth and the sea … I guess it is called sea kayaking for a reason right?

Out at sea we travelled down the coast, into a small lagoon around Apple Tree Bay (we were fortunate with the tides which allowed us to get in the narrow access point into the lagoon).  From here it was decided that we would cross the small channel to Adele Island, a small pest free island that is a sanctuary for birds and seals.

The winds had picked up a bit and as soon as we left the relative shelter of the coastline it was really hard work paddling across this small section of open ocean and I was exhausted by the time we reached the island and dreaded the return journey!!  I was so happy when we finally got back to Observation Beach for a rest with some snacks and a drink. 

It was a lovely little beach and picture perfect – one of the other small groups on the beach was playing some Six60 – a New Zealand band and to me, their music is the sound of summer.

We had opted to do the half day kayaking which meant from here we caught one of the water taxis back to Marahau.  Not only did we get in the water taxi, but they also had to stack the kayaks on the back, making it so heavy that a couple of the crew had to get off and push the boat off the beach.  Back in Marahau, the boat drove straight on to the waiting trailer – waiting in a long line of trailers towed by tractors in the shallow waters of the incoming tide.  And the final leg of the journey was ‘Road boating’ 😂 – sitting in the boat, which is sitting on the trailer as the tractor drives it back to base lol.

It was a great end to a lovely few days having a true kiwi summer break.

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.