CHAPTER 1 – NEW ZEALAND’S NORTH ISLAND
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2010 All rights reserved.
(Shari) Shaking our heads, Bert and I say “no way” as we look at the mound of stuff on the bed. We each bought a large duffle bag on wheels that measures about 4 feet by 2 feet by 3 inches when collapsed. I start to pack the stuff into the bag if only to determine the size of a second bag I would need. And you know what? All the stuff fits, with room to spare. Just amazing!
I have not been as excited about a trip as I have this one. I have planned it to the nth degree and have a daily schedule of where we need to be when if we want to see it all. At first the plans had about a month of vacant days, freedom to add more sites. As I read the guide books and the Internet over these past three months, I kept finding other neat places to visit. Now the final version of my planning spreadsheet has no empty days. If we want to stay longer someplace we will have to eliminate another place. Six months just is not long enough. I purchased the tickets. We depart Saturday June 5 and will come back home December 3.
The sixth largest country in the world and the largest island, Australia has been an enigma. It is just so far away and easily dismissed. We get very little news from there unless it involves a movie star. Bert and I visited this land often called “down under” in 1987. Then we had two teenage girls with us that needed watching. Now we can do as we please. Both times we went in our summer. I say “our” summer because seasons are backward in this land. Our summer is their winter, their spring is our fall, and so we will be starting our visit at the beginning of winter and ending it at the end of spring. Because of this we need to pack warm clothes for cold, possibly snowy conditions and cool clothes for the tropics, making all the more amazing that it fit in one suitcase each. The flight from Los Angeles to Sydney will take 13 hours but somewhere over the Pacific, we lose a day. At my age I can’t afford to lose a day, but I will. No one asked me if I wanted to do it and the day just drops into never never land. We arrive on a Monday when we left on Saturday but Monday will still be Sunday in Texas and the rest of the United States. See what I mean? They tell me it is because we cross the International Date Line, but my mind tells me it is just impossible to cease to exist for a whole day. It is like a Star Trek episode and Scotty just beamed me to another location. It may take 13 hours but something gets lost along the way. Yeah, like all of Sunday! If only I could lose some of this excess weight I am carrying around. Now that I would not mind at all! But again no one at the check-in line says to me, “M’am, would you like to lose a day of your life or 20 pounds of fat?”
I have read eighty percent of Australia’s living creatures are found nowhere else. We all are familiar with the kangaroo, but then there are platypuses and frogs that spit tadpoles from their mouth when it is time for them to be born. Now that brings up the question: how were the eggs fertilized? But I had better not pursue that line of thought very long. Of course, Bert is going for all the unique birds. I am going for the animals, the people, the scenery, the food, the culture, the …. Get the picture?
(Shari) I wonder if the car will start. Since Bert got up early and has already dumped our RV tanks, I have to drive to the restrooms in the Escapees park a half-mile away. Yesterday, when we wanted to drive for breakfast, the car would not start. Problem was a bad battery that Bert took care of replacing later in the morning. A few hours later, when I tried to get our mail, the car would not start again. Problem was a bad cable to the new battery. I have worked on Plan B in case the car does not start this morning for the 60-mile drive to the Houston airport. Rent a car. But this morning the car starts and we are off by 8:45.
Remember my amazement at how all the stuff on the bed fit into my one suitcase? Well, it may have fit with room to spare but it was overweight. According to the airline web site, we are allowed 2 suitcases, each at 70 pounds. You should have heard Bert and I bicker about what we should take out and which one of us should take it out. Why does he need 5 birding books at 2 pounds each, a tripod for the spotting scope at 7 pounds and 3 cameras? We rearrange and I still end up taking two bags of stuff out of my suitcase and he takes out nothing. Plus, I have to put two of his books in my suitcase. At least he takes his tripod back. We finally get it down to 70 pounds each, only to find out that Continental allows each bag to weigh 50 pounds maximum. So we are stuck with a $50 excess baggage fee per person anyway.
(Bert) The Boeing 737 cruises smoothly above a cloudless Los Angeles, a flat valley of houses and industry filling checkerboard squares interwoven with serpentine multi-lane expressways, actively crawling with ant-like traffic. Far in the distance, smog partially shields diaphanous skyscrapers. I am reminded of my first airplane flight, Chicago to L.A. in 1970, on my way to an interview at U.C.L.A. Then smog shrouded the city so thickly I couldn’t see the valley bottom from the Chemistry Department chairman’s foothill home and my eyes watered irritably in stinging chemicals. Today, as 40 years ago, the airport smells deliciously of salt air, palm trees gently wave fronds and the temperature is invitingly springtime.
We left Livingston at 8:45 AM this morning, headed to George Bush International Airport in Houston and without delays, arrived in L.A. ahead of schedule, a needless act since our trans-Pacific flight does not leave until late this evening. I use the free time to finish my East Texas seasonal report for North America Birds which I’ll e-mail back to the Texas editor.
You might say our trip so far is uneventful, but that denies the episode of checking our luggage. I remember the late 1970s when I did a lot of flying, reaching nearly 200,000 miles around North America and Europe. I carried my normal luggage, plus two large boxes (2 ft. x 2 ft. x 6 in.) containing 5MB cartridge disk drives loaded with crystallographic software for computer installations. Today I had 6000 times that capacity on a memory stick in my pocket, but I diverge from the story … my point being no airline employee balked at all the stuff I carried with me on and off airplanes. Not today! Shari searched the Internet for luggage rules – no real person answers the phone to give you the information – and thought she had it all figured out. She even had a print out from the airline website. But it was not to be. Rules regulate size, weight and number, with variances for airline, origin, destination, date of booking, day of the week, coach class, business class, first class, elite, premium, gold, and probably a few more I don’t recall. (Actually, one of items in the list I made up; can you guess which one?). Anyway, we missed one of the rules and I hand Continental Airlines $100 for the violation.
No hassle, though, when we board V-australia Airline’s new Boeing 777, a high-tech luxury liner of the air. Equipped with a touch sensitive computer monitor facing each passenger, we have freedom of choice on entertainment tonight. I start with Invictus, a sequel to my reading of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography a few years ago. By the time it finishes we are somewhere over the Pacific and Saturday has moved into Sunday.
(Bert) I awaken to a darkened cabin, partially illuminated by an array of miniature movie screens studied closely by insomniacs. I stretch my cramped legs and see a larger screen mounted on a wall near the galley. The 777’s trajectory arcs across the Pacific and I can see the familiar outline of the Hawaiian Islands. The display informs 35,978 ft. altitude, 568 mph, just as we are about to pass near Honolulu. I return to my seat, replace my eye blinders, adjust the inflated neck yoke and fall asleep before we cross the International Date Line.
(Bert) Aroused once more and surveying three triplets of seats stretching the width of the vast cabin, I see more blinking monitors, each screen depicting a different movie, TV show, or video DVD soundtrack. I decide to join the night dwellers and select Amelia, an enjoyable movie about Earhart’s flying escapades, relationship with Putnam and Vidal and, of course, her 1937 disappearance over the same South Pacific we fly tonight. After another nap, Shari shows me how I can interrogate my monitor to display flight information. We have 2 hr. 39 min. left before our 5:47 expected arrival, having traveled 6319 miles since L.A., leaving 1211 yet to fly and the outside temperature is -45ºC / -49ºF. I have enough time yet to see a third movie and Shari recommends Michael Jackson’s This Is It. When the overhead lights are turned back on, I resume reading the novel I started in flight and turn page 152 before we touch down in Sydney. The movies, book, intermittent sleeping and two full meals outlines the over 30 hours since we left Livingston, nearly 10,000 miles distant.
(Shari) This is really June 6 for you readers. Remember I lost a day and you did not. As I change my computer to recognize the correct date, I ask Bert if that means it is really 12:10 PM Monday? He confirms that it is and I have to add “Is that all?” My body says it is much later. For you readers in the Central Time zone, it is 7:10 PM Sunday. We are taking it easy at the Sydney Airport Ibis hotel, before we resume our flight to Auckland tomorrow. We arrived six hours ago and refrained from napping. Our flight was smooth and while long it did seem shorter than the 13 hr. 45 min., it actually took. It was only the last three hours that seemed to drag. I slept on and off during the flight on a rather newcomer airline called Vaustralia. The plane was a Boeing 777 with more room between seats than the Continental 737 that got us from Houston to Los Angeles. Bert and I had an aisle and a window with no one sitting between us. Sweet! Each seat had an individual entertainment unit built into the seat back of the seat in front and on demand movies, TV shows and music was a touch of the screen away. I had intended to read, but with the entertainment options available, I watched Meryl Strep and Alex Baldwin in “It’s Complicated” and Michael Jackson in “This Is It.” No matter what one thinks of Michael Jackson’s life, he sure had talent.
As we approach the Sydney airport at 6 AM, the sky is still dark and the city lights twinkle below, showing outlines of highways and streets with early morning commuters already en route. At 10:30 we decide to get lunch. Both of us pick a smoked Tasmania salmon and avocado wrap for only $7.50 each. Since the rate of exchange I got at the ATM was .84, our filling sandwich only cost $6.30 with Value Added Tax included and no tipping. We decide to walk a bit more to get out the airplane-induced kinks. We find birds that are not found in the U.S. Rainbow Lorikeet, myna, a jay-like bird with yellow eyes and a black-and-white jobbie that Bert will have to tell you what it is after he looks it up. The autumn weather is rather chilly and it seems strange to see and hear brown leaves crunch under my feet. The air has a nip to it and I guess that the temperature is in the low 60s since my sweatshirt feels good. Now we are tired and ready for bed, wondering whatever are we going to do for the next 8 to 9 hr. before night fall.
(Bert) Dumping luggage in our Sidney hotel room, Shari and I follow sidewalks to a restaurant for lunch. My first Australia bird sighting is a disappointment, a Rock Dove. After lunch, we walk farther and I hear a flock of parrots. Not carrying my binoculars, it takes repeated views of them foraging high in the eucalyptus before I recognize Rainbow Lorikeets. I find a few others I recognize – Australian Raven and Common Myna – but only take a few photos of two others that I later find in my bird book as Magpie-lark and Noisy Miner. The Miner is a life bird. The birding has begun.
(Bert) The captain announces our flight time will be 2 hr. 39 min. Months ago, while discussing our travel plans with friends, they asked “Why don’t you take a boat to New Zealand from Australia?” Unless you’ve traveled Australasia, you may not have a knowledgeable perspective of where countries are positioned. Auckland, New Zealand, is two time zones east of Sydney, Australia.
The jet is much older transport than yesterday and almost every seat is taken, so we feel a bit cramped. From my aisle seat I cannot see the ocean below us, so I use the time to read until we descend to Auckland. I remember studying maps and recognize the jagged coastline bordering the airport south of the city. Going through customs and immigration is so much faster when flying, compared to driving an RV across the border, a few minutes compared to an hour at best. Our hotel shuttle soon picks us up and minutes later we are in our Best Western room. When we walk to dinner, it’s another crisp autumn evening with dry foliage crunching underfoot and airborne leaves loosing attachment in a light breeze.
(Shari) Those of you readers who know me, know I am not a morning person. So it will be unbelievable to you that I am up and wide awake by 5 AM. In fact, Bert’s alarm went off at 1 AM, and I was wide awake at that time too. We have a nice leisurely breakfast in the hotel dining room before we catch the shuttle back to the airport for our flight to New Zealand.
My new phone does not seem to charge as I cannot turn it on, so I find the phone store in the airport while Bert sends out an e-mail. I am embarrassed to find out that I just did not know how to turn on the phone. We are happy; the problem is solved so cheaply and easily. As we check our big suitcases again, we expect to pay extra luggage as I have read that flights from Australia to New Zealand on Virgin New Zealand, only allow 45 lbs. To our delight the kind agent just reminds us that we are overweight, but does not charge us a dime. Win some and loose some! After we finish with the above two errands, we have two hours to spare. We head to our gate but get stopped frequently at the duty free stores. The shops cover a huge area about three blocks in each direction situated in the center of the airport with all the airline gates coming off of it like wheel spokes. In the center of the duty free area is a huge lounge with comfortable leather chairs and low coffee tables. Bert sits and reads while I visit the shops.
In no time flat, it is time to board our plane. This leg of our journey is low budget and there are no free snacks, nor drinks, nor movies. If you are thirsty or hungry, you have to buy the food. The lady next to me purchases a pasta salad in a can for $7.50 and a bottle of water for $3.50. Since we had a big breakfast, we pass on the food.
Three hours from take off we land in Auckland, New Zealand. We have to declare any food or drink that we are taking into the country. And our hiking boots. Since we have things to declare, we are directed to a separate line and there the agent wants me to open my suitcase so that he can inspect my shoes. He looks for soil on the bottom of my soles but finds none. We are officially now in New Zealand. We find an ATM to get a bit of cash, buy minutes for my phone and sit down at a table to read the directions on how to make a call. An automated woman answers the phone telling me I have to set up a 4 digit pin code and end with the “hash” or “hatch” sign. Now I do not know what that character is so after my made up pin number I press the pound key. I am told my pin number is invalid. I try a different pin number and I get the same response. On my third try, the automated woman says “I realize you are having trouble. Would you like to talk to an operator?” Okay, I would. Meanwhile Bert finds out that the hash or hatch sign is what we call the star key. I am placed on hold for a long time and finally an operator comes on and puts in my pin for me. Now I can dial the Best Western, our hotel for the night, but do I dial the full number or only the last 7? I try the last 7 but nothing happens. I try the last 8 but nothing happens. Bert goes to ask a clerk and find out I need to dial all the numbers starting with 0. I punch in the numbers and to my surprise, the phone works and I reach the hotel. The attendant says she will be right there to pick us up. We exit at door 9 and wait for our silver van. It is chilly outside and I need more than my sweatshirt, but soon we are in our room. After the delicious dinner at the next door Holiday Inn, I indulge in the huge bathroom tub with whirlpool jets. I fill the tub with hot water and empty the whole sample tube of shower gel into the water, turn on the jets and just like in the movies the tub becomes a mass of bubbles. What fun! In bed, as I wait to fall asleep I wonder what our RV will look like tomorrow.
(Shari) The gentleman that will take us to our motor home is here exactly at 8 AM. As we drive, he tells us about some traffic rules and mentions that Auckland is built on volcanoes. I find the city neat, clean and prosperous. He tells us most of New Zealand’s population is on the North Island and most of that is in Auckland, well over a million people, more than one-third of the country’s population. When we arrive for our orientation, Shantel is waiting for us and has our paperwork ready. After offering hot tea in china cups, she goes over the rules of the rental and then takes us outside to our vehicle. I am so anxious to see it and can hardly wait to get inside. It looks just like the picture on the web and if anything it seems more roomy. Still I wonder if all of our stuff will fit. I count only three empty bins and a little room under one of the seats for Bert and me to share. Shantel goes over the operation of the motor home and shows us how to operate the stove, turn on the gas and the water pump. She takes us outside again to look at the toilet cassette and then leaves us to pack our stuff. I unpack my suitcase first, making sure I fill up only half of the empty spaces. I really do not think all of this will fit and neither does Bert. Maybe we should take the 4-berth that we looked at earlier. It sure was nice. The vehicle itself looks brand new and only has 18,000 miles on it. It is well built; the drawers and latches are sturdy. So, back to my stuff, I get it all in and now it is Bert’s turn. He too gets his stuff in and we even have room above the cab to put the empty suitcases. Unfortunately when we buy food, the only space left to put it is in the frig or the microwave. After finishing our packing, I wonder if I will remember where I put things. I suppose I will go on frequent hunts looking for this or that. We say goodbye to Shantel and Bert starts the engine and immediately it chokes out. The transmission is not automatic and he did not have it in first gear. I can just see the staff inside laughing and paying off the person who bet that would happen. We make a left turn driving on the left side and meander our way to the grocery store. After paying $150NZ, I begin to pack our groceries away. Again, I think they all will not fit, but they do. It is noon and we are hungry so we eat sandwiches while still in the parking lot and then take off to a campground near by. I want to relax a bit and get to know my new house. We travel less than 5 mi. to a campground that “May”, our GPS fitted with Australia and New Zealand maps, tells us about. We get a site right on the ocean and can watch the waves and boats and people walk by from our windows. Since it is only 2 PM, we decide to take a bus into the city and arrange a hotel and a tour for the caravan. By 4:30 we have these tasks accomplished. The hotel is one overlooking the harbor right downtown and the price we negotiated has ocean view rooms and will include breakfast both November 10 and 11. Our dinner tonight is cooked in our new home. The menu includes fish, cauliflower, rice and salads. We find this little two-berth motor home a little tight and one of us always has to be sitting if the other one is standing. I am still not positive we won’t kill each other before this ends. It does remind me of our first motor home, a Chinook with a pop-up roof and a table that made into a bed. I don’t think we will have to use the table for the bed since both side benches seem to have enough room to sleep. I’ll let you know tomorrow.
(Shari) Birding sure takes us to neat places. This would be Day #3 of our November New Zealand caravan and we already change the itinerary. Poor Bert is salivating at all the new birds and he really cannot spend as much time as he would like as we need to keep moving to make arrangements. So this morning he gets up early and goes outside while I make the beds and rearrange things, AGAIN. Hopefully now I will remember where I put my hairbrush, or the whiskbroom, or the bath towel. The list goes on, but you get the picture. We negotiate our way out of Auckland after the morning rush hour and after stopping at the grocery store for the third time, to pick up things we found we needed. Near the airport, we stop to introduce ourselves to the campervan hire company and take a look at the vans we hired for the group. They are much bigger than I anticipated but maybe it is because I am comparing them to the two-berth we have rented and have lived in for a day now. That two-berth is cozy to say the least. But yes, Wally, we got everything into it. Two months ago, the motor home rental company hired a group sales coordinator and I introduce ourselves to her. She is extremely nice and very willing to please. Next, we travel to a shorebird refuge about an hour’s distance and realize that our group in November will never be able to 1, Pick up the RV’s; 2, Get groceries; 3, Visit the refuge; and 4, Make it to the planned camping stop. We ask the refuge volunteer if there is a camping place nearby and she directs us to a Holiday Park less than 10 mi. away. Never in a million years would we have found this and never in a million years would other caravans or tourist groups visit. It is in the middle of nowhere but lovely. We are given a spot right across from the natural hot pool. You can imagine what the first thing on our agenda is going to be. I used to think that I was getting jaded because everything I saw on my travels reminded me of something I saw years ago. I cannot say that about New Zealand. Once we got out of the city, the landscape changes to rolling hills of green sprinkled with grazing cows and sheep. Because it is fall, the weeds on the shoulders of the roads are brown stalks of spent grass and many trees have lost their leaves, reminding me of Wisconsin, but the palm trees, Norfolk Pines and eucalyptus seem out of place. Many country homes are landscaped with brightly colored red-orange flowers. To me, fall is brown leaves, bare trees and brown grass. To see green pasture amongst the vestiges of fall is weird. I understand tomorrow’s drive will be something else again.
(Bert) A Song Thrush pours out a profusion of varied melodies, with barely a breath between. Its perch high atop the light standard radiates its pretty songs throughout the campsite. I can hear it sing while inside our RV and when we are lounging in the volcano-warmed hot springs. When we leave the pool, the air is chilly and we rush to the hot showers to wash our hair and rush again to the warmth of the RV. Fully dressed again and with a sweatshirt, I walk around the Miranda campground. Half the trees have lost their leaves; lawns and fields are vibrantly green, freshly irrigated with rains that fell daily before our arrival. Birds are active as the light dims from a setting sun. In addition to the Song Thrush, I find other species introduced from Europe where I’ve often seen them before, but many years ago. I find a Chaffinch, a flock of Greenfinch looking quite yellow, Blackbird again and, of course, many more House Sparrows. The sparrows seem to be particularly common, much more like I remember them in my youth on Wisconsin farms, but not the diminished numbers in my late adulthood in Texas. In my short walk I find new species as well. A strikingly long white tail, fanned 35º and cocked high above its back, gives instant recognition to Fantail. Earlier today, while driving past farmlands and marshes I caught quick looks at Australasian Harrier, Pukeko and Australian Magpie, but mostly I concentrated on the road, thinking “Left”, “Turn left, stay left”, “Look right”, “Hug the center line”. We were on our way to the Miranda Shorebird Centre to make arrangements for our November visit and I’m looking forward to returning at high tide.
Thinking about my early morning walk before we left Auckland, I watched shore and off-shore activities at Takapuna. A half-dozen kayakers knifed through the placid bay as the sun was rising behind. Early morning walkers followed the black lava rock coastline, brightly saluting morning in cheery greetings. Perched on one of the lava rocks, a petite black cormorant with a white face is most easily identified as a Little Shag by its short stubby bill and I see another cormorant that is black and white with a yellowish spot before the eye, so it is my first Pied Shag. I get a quick glimpse at a Spur-winged Plover, but it was gone while I turn to get my camera. Kingfisher is new too, as is Welcome Swallow looking very much like a Barn Swallow of the opposite hemisphere.
(Bert) The New Zealand Falcon lands on my head. Then she jumps to the next man’s shoulder. He turns around his camera and aims it toward the falcon and snaps a few photos. Curiously, the falcon turns its attention to the camera and my photo shows it staring intently at his camera, as if the falcon is studying its own picture. The falcon is new to falconry training and a bit clumsy, but certainly not afraid of us. It flies off toward the forest and perches high and deep into the branches; I can barely make out its position with my binoculars. After repeated calls and whistles from the falconer it chooses to return to us and nibble on a piece of chicken. The trainer says when she is done with its rehabilitation it will return to the wild with little regard for humans. Seems strange, given its current behavior. I watch the falcon’s antics, and those of two others, for a couple of hours. Related to Aplomado Falcon and Orange-breasted Falcon, they are incredibly beautiful, especially at a distance of a few feet. I hope to see one in the wild, although these birds seem every bit wild, flying off a quarter mile and staying away 15 min. or so. One the trainers says she has seen one in the wild only twice, an indicator of how rare these are.
(Shari) Driving through Hobbit country, the landscape just doesn’t seem right to me for the fall season. Lush green grass, luxuriate ferns, varying palm trees, but mixed with colored leaves of oranges, reds, browns and yellows and denuded willow-like trees along streams. The green is like Florida or coastal Texas and the colored leaves are like our northern states. But in this strange land, we see both simultaneously. I call this Hobbit country because all three Lord of the Rings films were shot here and the towns have capitalized on it by running sundry tours. I can picture all the little hobbits running around the green land amongst the strange knob like structures covered in green vines. We get on the road at 9:30 and have an easy drive to a falcon recovery facility where Bert watches them train rare birds of prey. We must be getting used to right side driving since we can now carry on a conversation as well as drive. I mostly head for the left side passenger door and don’t have to feel foolish when I open the driver’s side on the right my mistake. We stop at every available rest area where Bert gets to bird. He always comes back with things he saw that are meaningless to this non-birding wife. I let him talk because he enjoys telling me of this bird or that bird even though I am watching for shops. Usually I am recording road logs or programming May for our next stop. Today she earned her name: “May B” because maybe she is right. Today she gave us bum information and we did not listen to her and took the route from a map, ignoring her “re-calculating” refrain.
Intermittent rain produces a rainbow and when it is time for our bus to the Maori dinner, it is drizzle and fog. As the guests of the Hangi (feast) arrive, we are first served crackers with varying chutneys on top. After a little history, we walk outside to the deep pit covered in burlap. As it is uncovered, we see about 12 chickens, 40 pounds of sweet and white potatoes, 8 lamb shanks and a big packet of aluminum foil wrapped stuffing. This food will be cut up and ready on serving tables by the time we return from our entertainment. The Maori warriors arrive in a dugout canoe, illuminated by flaming torches in a darkly hidden narrow stream. The warriors are already on stage by the time we get there. The stage depicts a Maori village and the warriors and their women folk are dressed in wool skins of animals and their faces and lips are painted in black. From my travels in Hawaii, I assumed that all Polynesian cultures were peaceful but the Maori were a fierce belligerent people. A lot of buggy eyes, wagging tongues, growling, feet stomping and thigh slapping go on in their dances. I am disappointed that the entertainment did not include much educational material. After the show we are very hungry and are able to fill our plates with the above mentioned items plus an assortment of delicious salads and desserts. The highlight of the evening comes when we can walk outside along the river and see long eels, trout and hundreds of glowworms sparkling on the river’s bank. The naturalist guide takes us along a path and identifies various flora and tells us how it was used in the Maori culture. The climax of the evening comes when we see the Kiwis. Flightless, they cannot get out of the two foot high fenced enclosure. The birds have been raised from eggs at the center and will be released in the wild soon. Looking like gray-brown balloons with protruding 12-inch straws, they scurry around searching for insects in the night. When we get home, I know I am exhausted when I just don’t have the energy to find my toothbrush to brush my teeth.
(Shari) I want to compare the scenery to other places I have been but to no avail. Today I come up with a scene that looks like the lush, thick, hilly terrain on the Hummingbird Highway travelling into Dangriga, Belize, but with brown bushes, yellow flowers on green bushes, green pine trees, and palmetto-like leaves protruding from the thick undergrowth of green bush. In other words, not a good match to anything I’ve seen before. We see six rainbows today as the sun comes in and out over periods of intermittent rain. We pass through cute little towns on lakes and travel through unpopulated forest preserves. Most towns have unpronounceable–at least so far–names of Maori heritage; Waipunga, Kaingarea, Turangakumu, etc. Speaking of unpronounceable, I find I have trouble understanding the speech pattern of the New Zealanders I meet and if I really want to understand something, I request a spelling of the word. Besides using different words than we do (hash for pound sign, boot and bonnet for car parts) they shorten words and take off consonants. When talking to each other, the conversation is sprinkled with “Yah” or “yeah”. I have not discerned which since it is shortened into something without the “Y” and the “h” and is a bit guttural. When in agreement with each other a succession of throaty “ah”, “ah”, “ah”s are voiced with a rapid nodding of the head. As I try to listen to the news on TV tonight, I miss many of the words and turn off the set in frustration because everything sounds garbled and it takes too much work to listen. Besides I am tired as the last part of our day has been frustrating. The microwave won’t work (did not know we were running on battery only and needed to switch the power on after connecting at the post), the safe wouldn’t open, we can’t get the water cap off to refill the tank (someone in the morning shows us the trick–key vertical, key turned half way, cap turned half way to the left and then cap pulled out–and we have a minor mechanical problem (again operator error) that will require a late start tomorrow.
(Bert) A late start has us leaving Napier around noon time. It’s an easy drive to Wellington–the first part that is–mostly flat farmlands where cows graze on lush grass. Thus far, cattle have far outnumbered sheep. Almost all are black-and-white Holstein milk cows, the same that both my grandfathers raised on their Wisconsin farms. I see a few herds of Guernsey’s as well. Farther south we finally enter sheep territory and they spread across acres of vibrantly green pasturelands and up gently sloped hillsides until they are just white dots near the crest. The pastures are shared by Australian Magpies, first the black-backed variety and then some with white backs. Australasian Harriers are commonplace and the only raptor I see. They are much more plentiful then our Northern Harriers and more like the abundance of Red-tailed Hawks in eastern Texas. In wetter areas I often see Paradise Shelducks, an attractive duck that is a favorite exotic of collectors, city parks and zoos. In open water marshes I spot White-faced Herons, looking similar to our Little Blue Heron but for the white face. In still wetter areas are flocks of regal Black Swans.
A serendipitous find is a brewery with a delightful bar and restaurant. After a short visit we decide to include it as a lunch top on our November tour. Rains start again as they have a dozen times today. First blue skies, then dark clouds and soon windshield wipers are a necessity, only to be followed 20 min. later with clear conditions again. We see a rainbow but do not reach the record six rainbows we saw yesterday while driving. We stop again at a birding site to get more information about the reserve for when we come again on tour.
Terrain changes to roller coaster hills, climbing the horizon to foothills. At one stretch the white powder dusted mountains in the distance suggest winter is coming. Now the rains continue with more ferocity and a premature darkness sets in even though it is only about 4 PM, but we are also near the shortest daylight time of the Austral year. Our travel is climaxed in steep mountains navigated by continuous hairpin turns and lots of car traffic. Occasional passing lanes and pull-outs give relief to the string of cars that trail me as I drive more cautiously. A few ridiculous speed limits are posted and once even signed for 100 kph, a speed even a race car driver using both lanes would have difficulty attaining. We reach our campsite in the dark and happy to arrive. We share the oversized bottle of beer we picked up at the brewery.
(Shari) “I guess we won’t have to worry about finding Black Swans,” Bert
comments as we pass a wetlands area with hundreds of the graceful birds floating
about. A serendipitous find today is the Tiu brewery. It is a very popular beer
in New Zealand that is brewed in the middle of nowhere. We stop at the cute café
and take information for our return in November. Tours are given but a museum
and, of course, gift shop are free. The lunch menu looks delicious and different
amounts of beer can be purchased as a tasting with or without a “handle” (New
Zealander for souvenir glass beer mug with a hand grip). We pass through an area
settled by the Danish. I get a great photo of a Takahe, a rare endemic bird
looking like a large gallinule (a colorful coot for you non-birders). Nearby is
a hill with one of the longest names of any place in the world,
Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapikaiwhenuakitanatahu. This 57-letter word
means “The hill where the great husband of heaven, Tamatea, caused plaintive
music from his nose flute to ascend to his beloved.”
Since we had such a late start, at 4 PM I suggest to Bert that we stop for the night. But we only have 2 hours to go and Bert charges on. MISTAKE! It starts to rain and gets dark already at only 4:30, just as we start to climb the mountain. Picture a five-year-old trying to stay within the lines as he colors a hundred block S’s in a row. That is us negotiating the S-curves up the mountain and then down again. I know the scenery is beautiful in the daylight but right now I am hanging on and making noises. I intake my breath every time Bert gets too close to the rock mountainsides. Luckily we are in the inside lane the whole up and down trip as I would have fainted if I had to look down over an edge. As we are on the home stretch, GPS May give us a bum steer and takes us all around the city. Tomorrow we will have to go out again and log a better way. But we do arrive safe and sound, check in, eat a quick dinner of ravioli with leftover Italian sausages and hit the sack by 9:00.
(Bert) Repeatedly, rain stops and starts as we drive north along the Tasman Sea. Unfortunately it’s raining hard enough when we reach the estuary for me to put the rain hood over my camera and the shield over my binocular eyepieces. I’m keen on seeing Royal Spoonbills, so I hike the trail skirting the estuary. Small flocks of European Goldfinch flutter in and out of the marsh grasses. A floating flock of Mallards gives me pause, especially when I notice a few female-types that are slightly different. One is much darker than the brownish female Mallards, another clearly shows dark “racing stripes” across it paler face–like a Ruddy Duck–and still a third shows an attractive and very bright green speculum, good identification marks for Grey Duck. I recognize Caspian Terns, one of the few birds that are as common in the USA as well as New Zealand. With them are species new to me: Black-billed Gull and White-fronted Tern. A flock of 22 Royal Spoonbills are huddled together, bills ducked under their wings and doing their best to avoid the inclement weather. With hidden bills I’m robbed of their most interesting feature. I shift my attention to a nearby Bar-tailed Godwit and then see a Black Shag flying by, looking very much like our Double-crested Cormorant. Something has disturbed the spoonbills and now I get a view of their large, black spoon-shaped bills, contrasting nicely to their all-white plumage. I see more birds, culminating with a Ring-necked Pheasant as we drive away, making it 22 species in the rain in an hour.
(Shari) “Oh, gees”. Bert is up already and it is still dark. He must have caught up on his sleep and now the tension between the two of us may start, as he is a morning person that clashes with my evening disposition. When he leaves the RV with his computer, I get up, make the beds and decide to shower. By now daylight has arrived. We have a quick breakfast of cereal and are on the road by 8:30 only to be slowed by Wellington rush hour traffic. It takes us two hours to reach the planned birding site. Bert birds in the drizzle as I catch up on writing journals. I am so far behind in logging receipts, making road logs and writing journals that I could spend a day doing just that. After lunch we check out some more sites and make our way home, first stopping at a fruit stand. A sign that advertises kiwis for 31 cents a pound catches our eye. Here I buy Gala apples (or Granny Smith) for 31 cents a pound also, a cauliflower the size of a soccer ball for 34 cents, a head of lettuce also the size of a soccer ball for 68 cents and a cucumber and onions for a similar price as in Texas. The exchange rate here in New Zealand is great for us at about 68 cents to the dollar and our money goes farther. But even at a ratio of 1 to 1 these prices are great. We head to another birding spot Bert wants to check out and make arrangements for evening birding in pursuit of kiwis, the bird not the fruit. We relog our entrance to the campground starting from where we messed up in the rain last night. It gets dark by 5:30 at this time of the year so we are doing our last tasks in the dark again. While I make bean soup, Bert buys our ferry tickets for tomorrow. I hope the weather is nice since I understand this is one of the prettiest ferry rides in the world.
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