CHAPTER 2 – NEW ZEALAND'S SOUTH ISLAND
(Bert) Skeins of rain rhythmically drum the metal roof and wind gusts rock the RV on its shock absorbers. I hear and feel the torrent at 3:05, 4:30 and when I get up at 5:30 AM. Shari is in no mood to take the ferry in this downpour and is afraid the winds will churn the seas to nauseous levels. I remember reading the fine print of our ferry ticket contract and the allowance for shifting to another sailing without penalty, provided we do so at least one hour before our 8:30 departure. Shari dials the telephone number on the contract, but a voice message tells her the office doesn’t open until 8 AM. She turns on her computer and connects to the ferry company’s web site, but cannot access the ticket information without a password, which we were not given when I bought the tickets. We hustle to leave the campground and head to the dock in darkness and heavy rains.
(Shari) I did not have to work myself into a dither after all. I had read about the winter storms and the effect they had on the ferry that crosses the Cook Strait between the North Island and the South Island of New Zealand. I hardly slept during the night as a storm came in and dumped rain onto our roof and shook our camper back and forth. I pictured 25-ft. waves all night long. At 5:30 I cannot sleep any longer and decide to cancel our ferry trip today and take it tomorrow. I call the phone number on the ticket but the office does not open until 8. We are not allowed to cancel after check-in time which is 30 min. before their office opens. The ticket also says I can make changes on their web site. We go to the site, but there we need a password. So we decide to drive to the dock and make changes then. When we arrive, Bert parks in the loading lane and I walk to the ticketing office. As I drip rain on the counter, I tell the man my predicament. He tells me, the ride on the ferry will be bouncy but that it will not be any better tomorrow and that the staff is equipped to handle sick people. So, I guess I have to suck it in and go. Reminiscent of Newfoundland last summer, we load the ferry in the pouring rain. I head for the gift shop and buy seasick pills. Bert grabs a barf bag for me and I eat some ginger. I am all set. The purser announces that conditions are less than favorable on the strait and we will be departing an hour late. “Does anyone want to purchase seasick medication?” Already did that, thank you. Bert easily falls asleep in a reclining lounge chair; I keep awake, worrying. We enter the straits and begin to bounce up and down. But none of this side to side stuff. Before I know it, we are in among the small islands of the South Island, the sun is out, the rain has stopped, and the water is calm. See, “Not to worry”. Bert is telling me about all the lifers I am seeing but I am looking at the gorgeous scenery. This ferry trip is indeed one of the prettiest I have been on. We weave through aquamarine waters in and around green covered mountainous islands through channels big enough for only three ships to pass.
(Bert) Despite Shari’s misgivings, a half hour after the ship departs the seas are reasonably calm–6-8 ft. swells, but few white caps–and after another half hour the rain has stopped too. Yet the huge ship, capable of transporting 600 cars and 1650 passengers, lunges over the taller swells, crashing down and throwing up spray that reaches to the windows outside our seventh story seats. I’m new to pelagic birding in the South Pacific and hesitant at my species identifications, but I feel fairly confident we watched Shy Mollymawk, Gray-faced Petrel, Cape Pigeon and Fairy Prion in the open seas of Cook’s Strait, and Australasian Gannet, Pied Shag, White-fronted Tern and, perhaps, Common Diving-Petrel in the interisland channels before reaching Picton.
We are the third vehicle to disembark and continue driving Highway 1 toward Kaikoura. We stop several times, once for lunch at an eclectic restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean, another time for Shari to find out what Crayfish are–a Pacific Ocean lobster–and best of all, for a hidden place where we find seal pups cavorting below a waterfall deep in dense forest. Wondering how they got there, as we hike back to the sea we see three seals leaping over boulders and surging through pools as they ascend toward the waterfall.
(Shari) We decide to head to our next stop, after introducing ourselves to the campground in Picton. Today’s drive is more like an autumn season with which I am familiar: bare trees, brown grass on sheep-grazed hills and barren grape vines lying dormant in the many vineyards we pass. Soon we see snow-dusted mountains looming in the distance as we hug the coast of the Pacific Ocean. I read about a restaurant that serves great clam chowder in a bread bowl and I just have to stop there for lunch. It is as great as its billing and I think it may be the best clam chowder I have ever tasted. But then again, it’s 2 PM, I am starved and it is cold outside. I had heard that the area had its first hard freeze the other night. The lunch is so filling we may skip dinner and I will not have to cook today. Hurrah! I like cooking but this 2-berth is too confining for preparing elaborate meals. Move a pot to get at a dish; no place to put both a cutting board and a dish; take groceries out of the microwave before it can be used. I think a 4-berth would be just right for me. Let’s see if I can talk Bert into it for our Australian leg.
(Bert) Shari and I are the only ones joining Captain Gary on the jet boat headed off the coast of Kaikoura. As we leave the harbor, a Little Shag is perched to our left and a half dozen Spotted Shags top a black boulder on our right. Gary spots a fishing boat at the horizon and after making radio contact he points the bow in its direction. En route he points out the Hutton’s Petrels flying over the wave crests before us. Reaching the fishing boat, we are amazed at the profusion and confusion of pelagic birds trashing in the water surrounding the boat. Gary throws out chum in a mesh box tied to a rope and attached to the stern. The birds now come to us too. The only ones I recognize immediately are the hundred Cape Pigeons. They look a lot like black-and-white pigeons, but are really petrels and when they take flight their longer wings obliterate their pigeon-like shape. Mixed in with these small birds are albatrosses looking like giants in comparison. Having never seen an albatross this close up–almost within arm’s reach–I had not envisioned them to be this large. It’s like comparing an adult goose to a baby duckling. What incredible large and colorful bills they have too! Gary points out Wandering Albatross, Buller’s Albatross, Royal Albatross and others. I ask about the all-black ones, a bit smaller, and he says they are Giant Petrels. Here “giant” is an understatement; I’ve never seen a petrel this gigantic. The menagerie is a photographer’s delight and I click hundreds of close-up photos and then concentrate on birds in flight. Gary starts up the boat and we head toward shore, stopping once more when he spots a seal that has attracted a flock of birds. Here I get good close-up photos of Hutton’s Shearwater, a petite bird smaller yet than the accompanying Cape Pigeons. Our 1.5-hr. tour is just a taste of the 4-hr. trip we have planned in November. In our time we tallied 17 pelagic species and subspecies, almost all life birds for me. Here’s the complete list and counts, where (P) means I’ve photographed it: Northern Royal Albatross (2,P), Southern Royal Albatross (2), Gibson’s Albatross (11,P), Antipodean Albatross (2), Black-browed (Sub Antarctic) Albatross (18), New Zealand White-capped Albatross (22,P), Salvin’s Albatross (1,P), Buller’s Albatross (9,P), Northern Giant Petrel (19,P), Westland Petrel (3,P), Cape Pigeon (100,P) – including both Snares and Southern subspecies, Hutton’s Shearwater (20,P), Spotted Shag (15,P), Little Shag (2,P), White-fronted Tern (4,P), Black-backed Gull (10,P), Red-billed Gull (15,P), New Zealand Fur Seal (1,P).
(Shari) Many years ago, Bert and I watched a movie that was filmed in
Wallace, Idaho. We thought the town so pretty that at the movie’s end, we sat
through the credits to find out the location of the movie. We put that on our
list of places to visit and we did. Kaikoura, is just such a town and if a movie
was filmed here, we would have to see it. Our day here is perfect and we decide
to walk 20 min. to our next activity. The walk takes us through the little town,
past the many classy gift shops and quaint restaurants (my kind of place).
Snow-covered mountains climb from the sea, surrounding the town in picture
postcard advertising. Our day gets even better as we are offered an Albatross
viewing boat trip after we arrange one for our group. In November our group will
have the whole boat to ourselves so as not to be bothered by people who want to
see seals rather than birds. The guide will be able to focus his attention
totally on us. Today we also have the whole boat to ourselves as no one else is
taking the tour. Our captain takes us 10 min. out on a calm sea (the easiest way
to have a pelagic bird tour) where we see hundreds of squawking birds fighting
for the remains of fish thrown overboard from a fishing vessel. Is it cheating
to see birds brought in by food? Can you really count it on your life list? I
do. Our guide throws over a net enclosing a frozen chunk of fish livers and all
the birds gather around our boat. Hundreds of black and white floating pigeons
(a pigeon floating is a funny sight) peck at the morsels of food. Not to be left
out, the albatrosses come in to feed. I see albatrosses with gray bills, and
pink bills, and yellow bills and yellow bills with black stripes and ones with
white bodies, others with gray bodies and still others that are mottled. I am
told that over 17 species of albatross make their home in these waters. Birders
and non birders alike would love this trip. Our guide laments the fact that
Japanese fishermen kill off hundreds of albatrosses in their netting procedures
and do not care. Right now the albatrosse have young on their nests some 600 mi.
away. The females are out feeding and in a week or so they will return to the
nest to take care of the young and relieve the males of their duties. The males
then will go out to feed for a few weeks.
(Shari) Bert wants an early start but getting up in the dark is ridiculous. I balk. He takes his computer to the lounge. I sleep until 7, but am grumpy. I feel better after we stop at a cute restaurant that advertises a 24-hour breakfast. We both get the special: 2 eggs, bacon, ham, mushrooms, toast, tomatoes and hash browns which will last us until dinner tonight. Our road turns inland, gets hilly and twisty but nonetheless very pretty. We are in Christchurch by 11:30 but are not impressed with the planned campground. We will look for alternatives later, but it will be hard to beat this location. Bert wants to drive south to check some birding sites. We see few birds (although I suppose seeing a New Zealand Pigeon is a good find) but do get some drop dead gorgeous scenery. I do not think I have ever been able to view the twists and turns of a coastline with its many inlets, harbors and bays from and altitude of 1200 feet, but that is what we do this afternoon. It is simply stunning. The small cute town at the bottom of the hills begs for us to stop and browse but alas we have no time if we want to return to Christchurch by nightfall. We stop for the night at an alternative campground but it is worse than the first, with soggy muddy campsites, moldy BBQ grills, and ill-equipped bathrooms. We will search for yet another alternative tomorrow.
(Bert) On Banks Peninsula I take a side road into a dense forest, looking for potential birding sites. We continue to its end, only to find almost no place to turn around, but with Shari’s help I make a Y-turn. This time I stop at the only pullout available. Even though we are still under light rains, I motion to Shari to come out with her binoculars. Hidden high in a tree, obscured by branches and shadowed by overcast skies is a New Zealand Pigeon. This pigeon is oversized, more than 50% bulkier than a Rock Pigeon. It is also quite colorful, but seeing the colors will have to wait for a better day.
(Shari) We get a late start this morning, probably because it is cold. The puddles outside are covered with ice. Our little electric heater supplied with the motor home keeps us toasty warm but I can’t cook and use it at the same time, as it takes up space on the covered stove. We negotiate our way to another campground and find it the best one yet. The doors to the bathroom are electric and slide quietly open as you approach. Sweet! The reception area looks like a wine bar and guests can relax there with a glass of wine or a bottle of beer (for a price I suppose). After obtaining booking information we get on the road by 9 and reach Arthur’s Pass by noon. The first 90 min. is flat and fast going, past vineyards and grazing land. As we travel towards a wall of snow-capped mountains stretching from east to west, I wonder how in the world we will get over them. The word “pass” should have given me a clue. We start to climb much less than I anticipated, reaching a mere 925 meters at the summit. The trip is supposed to take only 2 hours but we stop at every little rest area to look for birds and/or take pictures.
I find the Australian Magpie very interesting. It has sharp black and white markings and seems to be black where it should be white and white where it should be black. The beak is white for heaven’s sake.
(Bert) Those of you who have been to New Zealand will quickly identify with this experience. Nonetheless, it is a unique encounter for us. No sooner had we exited the RV at Arthur’s Pass than an inquisitive Kea comes to greet us. It comes right up to Shari’s feet and I photograph her photographing the parrot not one step from her. I’ve seen a lot of wild parrots in my life, but never one like a Kea. I expect a parrot to be in warm tropical environs, avoid close approach, probably perch high in a tree, prone to be in flocks and likely squawking. The Kea is in cold alpine habitat, prefers to walk on the ground than fly, found singly and this one at least is silent. Strangest of all, it acts like someone’s pet and is a mischievous as a raccoon. It is known to pull zippers open, scatter contents, eat windshield wipers and be otherwise comically destructive. After we take a dozen photos, it walks off across the parking lot.
We pull on extra coats and hustle over to the National Park Visitor’s Center. I inquire about Blue Ducks and hear the closest known is about a 6-hr. roundtrip hike over rough terrain. I wouldn’t do it today in this cold weather, but might consider it in November. Then again, maybe we will find a closer specimen of this rare alpine duck.
(Shari) Arthur’s Pass is part of a National Park and has a nice Visitor’s Center to browse. When I get out of our camper, a cute greenish parrot-like bird walks up to me and tilts its head as if to say Hello. From reading, I know this bird to be a Kea, the namesake of our camper. I snap pictures of it as it comes closer and closer. Of course, I have to get a picture of it and the camper. Finally I guess it has had enough of us and gives us the proverbial sign of the bird as it turns around and waves its tail as it walks off seemingly in a huff. Bert finds out where a blue duck can be found but that it is a 5-hr. walk. I for one know his wife would be very unhappy to wait for him to chase that bird alone and in the winter. Hopefully we will find it on the North Island with a guide.
(Bert) We continue on across the Southern Alps, on a highway crossing from east coast to west coast. Sometimes we can see snow-covered peaks, and we see signs pointing to ski resorts, but mostly we see steep mountains on both sides of a flat, broad, gravel-based braided stream. Stepping outside for a photo, the cold winds pushing frigid air make photo time brief. Slipping into steep canyons, clinging on fingernail-hanging roads we serpentine beside luxuriant dense ferns, including tree ferns. Later I learn these are mostly Fibrous Tree Ferns, Dicksonia fibrosa, known locally as Wheki-ponga, or just ponga for short. These ancient looking trees are remnants from the Jurassic era and I’ve only seen them once before, in the mountains of Belize. All of the dense growth is characteristic of a temperate rainforest, not unlike coastal Alaska especially in the Skagway area. We finally descend from the mountains and follow the coast line of the Tasman Sea, driving in heavy rain and stopping in a nice campground for the night. I think we are the only ones staying tonight.
(Shari) After peanut butter sandwiches we make our way down to the other side
of the South Island. New Zealand has many one lane bridges and often our
direction is marked right of way or we have to yield to oncoming traffic. One of
the bridges today is also shared by trains and as we bump along the combination
highway and track, I am thoroughly happy we see no trains today. We go grocery
shopping before stopping at the campground. We must be hungry because we come
out with all sorts of exotic things to put on crackers. I start a load of wash
as soon as we arrive and plan to take a nice hot shower, put on clean pajamas
and have some wine. Wow, what a life!
(Bert) We head north first, where I want to make contact with a bird guide who can take us to a particular farm where petrels nest. I read an ornithology research paper on the web and it mentions the farm and a contact company, but all my web searching could produce was a telephone number and identical fax number, neither of which functioned when I tried from the U.S. We stop at a visitor’s center and fortunately the attendant knows who I am talking about. She has a different number, but it connects to an answering machine. After 10 min. of poking around she comes up with an e-mail address, so I’ll try that another day.
It is raining again today, but not to let it stop me, I hike a short distance to the coastal cliffs for the view. On the way I see a bird that could be dismissed as yet another female House Sparrow, but with behavior just different enough to give me pause. I retrace my steps and return with binoculars and rain-shielded camera. Now I’m sure it is a Dunnock, and continuing walking a find a few more.
Back in the RV heading south on the coastal highway, I add another species to my life list when I see a Western Weka, a rather large flightless rail. This, and a few others I see later, browses on the grassy margin between the forest and the highway, unconcerned by the continuing rain.
(Shari) “I am not writing down ‘one-lane-bridge’ another time”, I tell Bert as I record road logs. New Zealand has a gazillion one lane bridges and they are prominently marked to either yield to oncoming traffic or have the right of way. So my pen has gone on strike when it comes to those. The caravan folks can just read the road signs. It literally did not get light out until after 8 this morning. The heavy rain did not help the situation. I think we are hindered by lack of daylight as it also gets dark by 4:30 and we often have not reached our destination for the night. Today, to keep on our airplane schedule, we had to do two days in one. First we drove north to get information on a bird guide to see some petrel I think. Then we came back and drove south, also stopping at various places to get information on tours. Seems this leg has too many choices for the amount of time. Actually so does the whole trip so far. There is just so much stuff you can fit into a little over three weeks. I myself could spend a whole summer or more, just wandering around the country. This side of the south island is very tropical and our drive today takes us past acres of land thick with tree ferns. Mountains seemingly tumble right into the sea leaving jagged outcroppings of lava in varying shapes and sizes. We stop at a lake for lunch and watch Black Swans serenely gliding on the calm gray water. Also a Fantail cavorts in the bush next to us. Gees, I better quit learning these new birds or I will sound like a birder and as my brain is already full, forget something important, like how to wash the clothes. Hmm, on second thought… I did not yet forget how to cook. I do not think I have ever cooked a paua before, though. Tonight I just pan fry it and we eat it with potatoes and onions, peas, and salad. Paua is abalone and it is quite tasty but looks very dark and much as a pre-formed skinny hamburger.
(Bert) Dark rainclouds suppress daylight even at our 8:15 AM departure, but not enough for me to miss seeing a White Heron just as I turn out of the Haast Beach campground. The taxonomy of this bird has me puzzled, as it looks very much like our Great Egret, so I do a bit of research. My two New Zealand bird books call it White Heron or Kotuku, Egretta alba. But my computerized taxonomic lists call it Eastern Great Egret, Ardea modesta, with a range of from south-east Asia to Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. Either way it is different from our Great Egret, Ardea alba. So much for today’s ornithology lesson.
I’m glad the second fuel station I come to is open, as I don’t think my half-tank will be enough to reach the next station. We drive through coastal mountains for two hours and only encounter six vehicles and one very small village, with no one living in the mountains, along the glacially fed rivers or in view of the impressively tall waterfalls. Repeated one-way bridges are not a problem today, as I’ve yet to meet someone already on the bridge.
We stop for lunch when I pull off the road to get a better look at flocks of dark ducks on Lake Dunstan. They definitely have scaup profiles, but are all black except for steel blue bills. My book tells me they are New Zealand Scaup
(Shari) Periodically I awaken during the night and each time rain hits our roof at a steady pace. Dawn comes late and the sky is still on the dark side when we depart at 8:15. It rains off and on all day. An American woman I met at the hot pool awhile back, said scenery near Queenstown was the prettiest she has ever seen, better yet than the Swiss Alps and the U.S. Rocky Mountains. I will have to take her word for it as the town is clothed in clouds when we arrive. The mountains we see on our drive today only give glimpses of their grandeur, not much else. We travel inland again along a glacial river that looks like it should have grizzly, eagles and moose as does the one in Haines, Alaska. But the vegetation is all wrong. Tree ferns, palm-like cabbage trees, some type of evergreen bushes, trees and those colorful red, orange or yellow drooping branch trees, grow thick on the mountain side. I read that Mt. Cook is over 12000 ft., but we do not see it. We stop at the lookout of the 1000-foot-deep Wanaka Lake. We travel along the rim of a deep gorge and notice signs for bungee jumping and jet boat rides. Too cold, not enough time, too afraid, too expensive! One section of our trip is loaded with gushing waterfalls. Vineyards and wineries are prevalent in another section. Arriving in Queenstown, Bert wants to go out to look at a birding spot. After a brief discussion, we decide that maybe it would be too much for one day as this has been our longest drive day so far. Again, I wish I were staying much longer as there are so many things to do and no time to do them. Choices, choices! We all have to make our choices. I want to see the city and take a boat cruise of the lake. Bert wants still to do more birding. We will have to make some decisions for the next few days and the possibilities are numerous.
We arrive in Queenstown too late and I decide the kitchen in our Kea RV is closed for the day. We walk to town and remark how it looks and feels like Breckenridge, Colorado. Many young people are about and I think we are the oldest people walking the streets. Young people carrying skis or going to bars mill about. Bert and I are surprised that we are unable to find a suitable restaurant and settle on an Indian place that serves a dinner for two of varying Indian specialties. It is good but not good enough to make a return trip. We walk “home” and go to bed as it is another early day tomorrow.
(Shari) I awaken before the 6:15 alarm. We want to time the distance between our next two stops to see if we can fit in another tour we discovered. We depart Queenstown in the darkness of early morning, finding only some cars traveling to their morning jobs. Our route today takes us from Alaska through Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the Grand Tetons, back to Alaska, through a part of Newfoundland and back to Alaska. Then, too, the vegetation looks subtropical, but in a cooler climate like Sante Fe in the winter. Queenstown is situated on a lake and in the wee hours of the morning reminds me of Cook Inlet, Alaska, but Bert is reminded of Muncho Lake, Yukon Territory.
(Bert) Queenstown to Milford Sound via Te Anau unquestionably is the most spectacular New Zealand scenery we have seen thus far. We want to cram a lot of activities into today’s schedule and winter sunlight hours are short, so we depart in the dark, quickly leaving the city and following a peripheral highway beside Lake Wakatipu, white snow mountains shrouded in pre-dawn blackness. By the time morning breaks we are in rolling countryside with more distant snow-capped mountains. The really dramatic scenery starts after we turn at Te Anau and take a constricted road through a valley that narrows until the mountains rise so sharply above us that we cannot see the tops without leaning forward in our seats and peering through the top edge of the windshield. I want to take lots of photos, but the lighting is tricky and each view has the camera-perplexing problem of adjusting for snow-white peaks rising just above very dark green forests. We climb, twist and turn until Milford Tunnel and stare at the sign marking its arched height. Although buses can pass through and we think we can too, before entering we double check this RV’s height. While I’m outside getting the RV manual, up walks a curious Kea. Although I already have good photos of the first one we encountered, I can’t resist taking more of this show-off.
(Shari) We had originally planned to skip the tour of Milford Sound, but after learning about it, thought we should check it out. It does not involve birds per se, but does involve New Zealand scenery at its best. It is the only fiord that can be reached by car and Rudyard Kipling called it the 8th Wonder of the World. Actually its name is a misnomer, as “sound” is a bay and “fiord” is one that is caused by a glacier or “Glay see err” as the New Zealanders pronounce it. On our way to the boat departure point, we pass through some of the most fantastic scenery of the trip so far. At one point, I cannot believe we are actually going to wind our Kea down the last descent. We stop in front of a tunnel that has 3.29-m. written on a sign. “How tall are we?” I ask. We get out our information book and determine that we easily will fit through the tunnel without becoming a convertible. Making sure we have our lights turned on, we slowly enter the tunnel, praying that no one comes up the other way as the tunnel looks too narrow for two vehicles to pass. This is spooky, as the few lights on the tunnel’s ceiling do not really illuminate the road. When we depart we have a few S-curves to negotiate. These give a new meaning to S-curves; they are serious turns in the road that signs suggest not to be taken over 15 kph (9 mph). At the top, we can see quite a ways down and the view is spectacular. We reach the bottom and our tour starts about two hours from now. No sweat! We made it with plenty of time to spare.
(Bert) At Milford Sound, Shari arranges boat tickets and I explore the estuary and surrounding forest. This is such a land of contrast it spins wheels in my naturalist brain. I stand beside an estuary where Variable Oystercatchers prod between pebbles, Paradise Shelducks perch on rocks, a Little Shag swims beneath a crystal clear stream searching for fish, yet the surrounding podocarp rainforest is an impenetrable biomass of ancient beech–not related to American Beech, as it is evergreen–ferns, tree ferns and nameless others, and higher up tall coniferous forests give way to sheer avalanche-prone slopes reaching to snow peaks rising a mile above us. How can this much biological variety be in one place? For one thing, it’s the rainfall, an astounding seven meters (23 ft.) annually. The ship’s naturalist says it rains 200 days a year and has for at least the last week. How incredibly fortunate we are that today and during our boat trip the skies are clear and the only falling water is the many waterfalls dropping almost straight down off the cliffs. Milford Sound is not a sound, but a fiord, a sea-filled valley carved from a glacier that has retreated but for a few iced peaks. Its beauty derives from the overwhelmingly steep rock sides to this narrow waterway–Mitre Peak is an amazing 5545 ft. vertical drop from snow to sea–eventually opening up to the Tasmin Sea where I see a couple of albatrosses and many more Australian Gannets.
By RV, we take a leisurely return trip through the mountains, stopping to see The Chasm and its enchanted beech forest, and Mirror Lakes where I make a mental note to revisit in November as a potentially good birding site. It’s quite dark by the time we reach Te Anau and are fortunate to find a restaurant still open. We have seen so many deer, pasture raised like cattle, while traveling through the South Island that I anxiously order the venison on the menu. I’d say it is the best I’ve ever tasted.
(Shari) The tour itself takes us through the fiord in view of steep green mountains tumbling to the sea. Numerous waterfalls cascade into the water and our boat captain takes us right underneath one. Bottle-nosed Dolphins frolic nearby, a few fur seals lounge on rocks, gannets fly past and albatrosses can be seen in the distance. The sun shines on the sparkling waters and we are told that this is unusual as the area gets 21-24 ft. of rain per year, raining two out of every three days. Wow, what good luck for us! Later, we lag far behind the tour buses and stop at some of the pullouts on our way back. Thundering water forming shapes in the rocks, mirror oxbow lakes with a variety of birdlife, and pleasant boardwalks through the forests take up our time. But alas, my kitchen again is closed in our Kea when we return and we have to find a restaurant. We hit the jackpot as we share venison medallions in a mushroom cream sauce. With all the deer farms we pass, I wonder why I never see venison in the grocery stores.
(Shari) We depart in darkness again today. Dawn does not come to this part of the world until after 8 AM and we have things to do and places to see. We want to scout out some birding spots en route, log the route and determine how long each stop takes. Unfortunately every time we get out of the car, it starts to rain. I am going to call New Zealand a land of rainbows. I see four of them again today, one of which is a gorgeous double. I am merrily writing road logs and enjoying the scenery of greener than green rolling hillsides, when Bert stops the car. I wonder, “What in the heck is wrong now?” He says he sees a New Zealand Pigeon and points out what looks like a white Wal-Mart bag in a tree top. I focus my binoculars on the white blob and sure enough it is the pigeon. I get to see its beautiful purple and green back. That Bert of mine sure has an eye.
(Bert) I’ve read about The Catlins and want to see this southeastern part of South Island even though our visiting time today is too short. We’d need to spend an extra night here to take in all the scenery, so we limit ourselves to a few key stops. Disappointedly, some of the side trips, especially to a marsh I really wanted to see, are not accessible by a sealed surface road, thus restricted by our RV rental agreement. One we are able to reach is a coastal site where we can see a Yellow-eyed Penguin colony when we revisit in November. Now, though, the most interesting feature is the fossilized tree trunks imbedded in the solid rock base to the beach. An artist’s rendering shows what this location could have looked like during the Jurassic period when these trees lived. At another stop I hike through a podicarp forest to a marsh. I only find a couple of Fantails and hear three other species, but I’d like to return again when rain isn’t pouring.
One fortuitous find is a New Zealand Pigeon perched in the open on a tall tree beside the road. This time I get a good look at his metallic green with purple and bronze sheen, contrasting sharply with its strikingly white undersides. We try several more sites, only to be turned back when we encounter gravel roads. As is becoming a habit, we reach our campground after nightfall.
(Shari) Some of the spots we want to visit have unsealed entrance roads. That is a big “no-no” with a rental vehicle. We take one of them a few hundred feet and Bert walks the boardwalk as I stay in to nap. It is raining outside for heavens sake. We find a place that will have the endangered yellow-eyed penguins in November. Apparently we will be able to get very close to their nesting sites, as posted signs warn us not to walk closer than two car lengths. I am surprised they even allow us to go there during nesting season. We arrive at camp in time to do some laundry and take showers. Even though it is closing time for the kitchen in the Kea, the cook makes a special dispensation. Luckily the cook does not have to wash dishes too or she would quit.
(Shari) Today ranks as not only the highlight of our trip but one of those rare highlights of a lifetime. I put it up there with the gannet experience on Bonaventure Island, Quebec, and the mama grizzly suckling her three cubs on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
The highlight does not come until the end of our tour. First we go to the Albatross Center and walk to a viewing blind on a hill. Here we see four five-month-old albatrosses stretching their wings and trying to walk a few inches, waiting for mama or papa to come back to feed them. Parents go out to sea and come back every four to five days, so the chicks may have to wait awhile. Born in January, they will not be able to fly until August. In November, when we come back again, the process will have started over and mama or papa will be sitting on an egg. Below the albatross are Stewart Island Shags doing a courtship ritual much like the Northern Gannets perform on Bonaventure Island. There are hundreds near the shore below us and their black and white bodies stick out from their closely packed mud nests as they rub their necks together and prance around.
(Bert) Like fluffy white pillows split open to expose feathery goose down, five Royal Albatross chicks are spread out across the green grass covering the promontory. Their view is of Otago Harbor and distant Dunedin, a 150-year-old Scottish settlement, and in the opposite direction the southeastern coastline of the Pacific Ocean and farther out to sea where their parents are feeding and will return in a few days to share their partially digested meal. Far below, at the seashore, a colony of Steward Island Shags clusters closely, occasionally some taking flight when harassed by Red-billed Gulls. The large shags–over 5 lbs each–rest on mounds built of seaweed, mud and sticks, and enlarged each season.
(Shari) After a half hour view time, we again board our van and are taken to a private farm. Here we walk down to the beach and I mean down, at least 300 to 400 ft. I do pause to wonder if I will get back up. Lazily sleeping on the beach, are about 20 Hooker Sea Lions, an endangered species. We are told to keep our distance as they can charge and “run” up to 20 kph (12 mph). We circle around them, still getting within 10 ft. Our goal is to reach a blind on the beach for penguin watching. Yes, penguins! The endangered Yellow-eyed Penguin, the biggest penguin in a temperate climate, makes its home on this beach and comes in to roost every evening at dusk. How cute! Our first sighting of a penguin occurs as we are still walking down to the beach. We follow a high-pitched loud noise to its source. It is a penguin making its presence known to us. I see other penguins floating in the ocean waves pushing them to shore. On sand, they stand erect, look around and spread their flippers, then cautiously make their way to their nightly roosting sites on the hill. They are afraid of the sea lions and usually will wait for a partner to make the dash for safety on the hill. Actually the sea lions could care less, and are more interested in finishing their daytime nap or playing with each other. The penguins are so cute as they waddle as fast as their two little feet will take them. When they reach the hill, they stop to rest and preen before walking farther up to safety. I feel so privileged to see these birds as I fell in love with them a few years ago when I watched the movie “March of the Penguins”. At that time I wanted to see penguins in the wild. I never dreamed I could. These penguins do not have to migrate as ones in the movie did. They only go out to sea during the day to feed and come back at dusk. Day in and day out, 365 days a year, they follow the same routine for their whole life. What a treat indeed to see this happen! I do not even care that it is raining and cold. The trip was worth every minute.
(Bert) We watch the albatross and shag colonies for an hour and then drive to another part of the peninsula. Our guide and van driver Tony opens a locked gate marked private and continues down the farm road, opening two more gates before stopping atop another promontory. From here we hike downhill, across a sheep pasture, and are soon in view of the broad sandy beach below. Dark blobs group like huge black boulders, but these are animate and with my binoculars I can make out the features of the New Zealand Sea Lions (also called Hooker Sea Lion). We continue hiking downhill until we reach a grassy area where Tony tells us the penguins nest and spend each night. Just after he tells us the penguins have not arrived as yet, one stands up on the hillside and waddles through the grass. It’s a Yellow-eyed Penguin, the rarest (5-6000) of the world’s 18 species of penguins and only found in New Zealand. Strange as it seems, this is a forest penguin and Tony and a few others spend part of their winter season restoring the coastal forest so that more of these penguins will reproduce and choose this area to live. They plant three native shrubs: Flax, which doesn’t look like anything I’d call flax in the U.S.A., Hebbies with tiny white flowers, and Ngio.
We turn our attention to the sea lions and Tony says they are unafraid of us and we can walk up to them, yet we keep a safe distance as they can easily outrun us across the beach. The sea lions are also the rarest of the world’s five species, and like the penguins they are endemic to New Zealand. Almost hunted to extinction by the Maori, a few remained on secluded islands and eventually returned to this beach. All of the 22 we see are males, part of the 180 that reside on the mainland. Strangely, 160 are males and 20 are females. All females are descendents of a single female that happened to follow the males to this wintering home and reestablished it as a nesting colony.
We skirt the 1000-lb. bulls, walking through the grassy dunes, to a steep hillside where a blind has been constructed. Here we watch as Yellow-eyed Penguins emerge from the sea, pause to let their above water eyesight clear and then shuffle across the sandy beach. If they are alone, they may wait for one or two more to join it, feeling safer in numbers as they waddle through sea lion territory. They tackle the first dozen feet of the hillside, now entering the grass, but still standing well above it. Here they pause and stretch their flipper wings at a 45º angle to their bodies. Tony asks us why we think they extend their wings and after a dozen guesses, we still haven’t hit upon the correct answer. I’ll let you think about it and give an answer in tomorrow’s journal.
In all, we watch 20 penguins return from the sea and head to the hills. Rain has resumed and we begin the long climb back up the sheep pasture to our van. Shari takes it at a slower pace and I follow Tony to the other side of the point, in pouring rain, where we again descend to the rocks below. Here a colony of New Zealand Fur Seals lie and play on the rocks. Dark seals on black rocks in the semi-darkness of dusk makes the seals hard to find, but we must be seeing 40-50, mostly pups. An albatross flies distantly at sea and closer in pass Spotted and the much larger Stewart Island Shags. We return to the van. My blue jeans and socks are wet to the skin, but most everything else is waterproof. A half-hour later we are back in the RV with the heat turned full blast and climbing out of our wet clothes. We are cold and wet, but filled with the warmth of a memorable nature experience, one rarely shared by others.
(Bert) Shari doesn’t hear any TV news about road closures to Twizel so I walk to the campground office for information. A check on the AA website reports no road closures either, even though yesterday had heavy snowfall in the mountains outside Dunedin. We see snow-covered peaks soon after we make the turn toward Twizel but it isn’t until we are fairly close that the pasturelands and hillsides are covered with snow, right up to the edge of the highway. Snow in June! What a pretty site!
(Shari) We depart at 9:30 for Twizel, a town that almost never was. Workers from the construction of the hydroelectric dam loved the area so much that they lobbied not to have the construction site leveled after the dam was built. In 1968, it became a town and has grown over the years to a cute, bigger than I expected, town in a valley in the mountains. Yesterday our guide told us to check the weather and highway reports, as the road to Twizel was closed due to snow, as were schools in Queenstown. We check and all roads are open. We do not see snow until an hour before arriving and then it seems hardly worth closing roads for. It almost covers the grass but the mountain tops are spectacular as they glisten in the sun with their new coat of snow. Twizel is situated along a chain of eight dams and we stop at a lookout for the first one across the street from a cute café. The waters above the dam are a beautiful aquamarine. As we drive to the site where the Black Stilts are suppose to reside, we travel beside another long aquamarine lake reminiscent of Lake Kluane in the Yukon as I imagine it to be without the snow cover that I always see. Alas, no stilts but we know where to look in November. Arriving at camp before 5 PM is a treat and we relax with a glass of New Zealand white wine and crackers with salmon sashimi that we purchased at a salmon farm just outside of town.
(Bert) On the outskirts of Twizel we stop at a salmon farm and as Shari talks to the vendor, I check out the small flock of New Zealand Scaup floating near the salmon cages. Another bird pops up and lands on the dock, vigorously pumping its tail. Binoculars confirm my suspicion: it’s a New Zealand Pipit, my first. I see many more when we continue to a site where I hope to see the extremely rare Black Stilt, probably the rarest wader in the world. I don’t find the stilt, but see 11 others species in my short walk. Now that I know the site, we will check it out in November, though spending more time in the search.
Again we reach our campsite in the dark and after setting up the RV I walk in the Wilding Pine forest surrounding the camp, hoping to hear an owl. Instead, I hear a dog and find eleven rabbits, a Mediterranean mammal introduced in 1777.
By the way, the answer to why the Yellow-eyed Penguins pause and stretch their flipper wings at a 45º angle after crossing the beach is that they have generated so much heat after leaving the cold water that they are cooling off their bodies, wings extended.
(Bert) Snow still blankets the hills and, patchily, the campground, though none of it is fresh since yesterday. An idyllic wintery day, crisp, bright and wild but for the perpetual flocks of sheep, we glide through the flat mountain passes, pause for photos of the highest white hills and stop for breakfast in one of the few villages. Rain falls, continuously it seems, in Christchurch as we conduct more caravan scheduling arrangements.
(Shari) “I am sorry to tell you that you are the last to arrive and that you have been eliminated from the Amazing Race.” I suppose if we were in the race for $1 million, we would have lost. But, I know the system now! I will back up a bit and mention that we left camp at 8:30, when it was just light enough to see. Every day is a new vista and as we make our way down from Twizel to sea level we pass more gorgeous scenes; some snow-covered fields, some dormant winter brown fields covered with snow, and as we get lower, green fields. All are surrounded by snow-covered peaks. We pass aquamarine lakes, shedding their evening cloth of fog.
I record a road log to the RV rental agency, as Christchurch is the city
where we turn in our keys when we end our trip in November. We determine the
logistics of doing all the necessary things before we park our RV. We intend to
take a city bus downtown to the immigration office. Now that we have all the
necessary information, I can apply for a temporary work visa to conduct the
caravan. Alas, it is Friday and the office cannot process our application today.
As we are departing early on Monday, we will have to do all the paperwork in
Australia. The bus driver on our trip into town told us where to catch the bus
to come back. We go to the bus exchange as told and it’s teeming with people
like Grand Central Station. We determine bus #14 or #16, the ones we need,
departs at platform D1, roadside. We are in building C. Walking one way shows us
the buildings are decreasing and we have to go up the alphabet not down. We
surmise, we need to be on the street. We find D1 and wait. We wait maybe 30 min.
when bus #14 arrives. As we board and ask the driver to tell us when to get off,
he says we are on the wrong side of the street. Well, I think this is where we
get eliminated from The Race. We walk across the street and wait at E1. Not D at
all and it is correct. We get back to our RV, dump our tanks, fill with water
and enjoy some wine and salmon. Tomorrow is another full day in Christchurch,
organizing things for our return in November.
(Bert) Ever since Bob and Dusty told us about the International Antarctic Centre I’ve been anxious to see it. I’ve never been to the Antarctic, but this facility near the Christchurch airport gives me a feel for what it might be like. Part of it is commercialized entertainment, but much more is educational. We start by donning rubber boots (to keep the snow clean) and heavy jackets, then enter a refrigerated room with Antarctic wall scenes. Lights dim in the Antarctic perpetual night and a wind machine quickly drops the wind chill well below freezing to simulate a storm. The kids like it; for me it is like growing up in the North or visiting Gambell or Churchill in June. More to my liking is the Blue Penguin exhibit, housing injured penguins. We arrive just at feeding time and a good opportunity to photo them above and below the water in an enclosed pool. This, the smallest of all penguin species, stands only 40 cm high. Some are blind in one eye, one is blind in both, many are missing a foot or flipper and in other ways that prevent them from successfully returning to the wild. One that cannot swim to the offered fish is hand fed and it swallows fish after fish like a conveyor belt. Its gullet must be huge. Like a high-tech museum, I view dozens of exhibits about seals, penguins and other birds of the Antarctic as well as the life of scientists living under extreme conditions. Fascinating is a saltwater tank kept a degree above freezing and holding several fish that produce a glycol-like antifreeze that allows them to survive this temperature. Finally, a movie shown on an enormous wall-sized screen has dramatic aerial scenes of flying over the Antarctic. As in most museum-type visits, Shari left early and I continued until 2 min. before the parking permit expires.
(Shari) How did we get around without a GPS? I just tell May where to go and I still am surprised when as she says “Arriving at destination on right”, and there it is. Today she takes us to the Antarctic Center, where we get a nice tour of the place. I do not like museums much and finish before Bert. Since our home travels with us, I am able to go and take a nap while he reads every printed word on the walls of the center. I was finished after watching the feeding of the 20 handicapped penguins rescued by the center. It rains all day and we do the wash, shower and nap. May then leads us to dinner. Alas, she does not pay. We enjoy a very pleasant evening of Maori education and entertainment, delicious New Zealand food and kiwi watching.
(Bert) Today’s highlight for me is watching the kiwis at a facility that raises them from eggs taken from the wild, releases them on a predator free island and when they reach adulthood, recaptures and returns them to the mainland where the eggs were originally taken. Adults are able to combat introduced predators–stoats, possums, rats, mice–but almost all chicks succumb. So without this program, kiwis would continue their decline on the mainland. At one time the population of Bushy-tailed Possums, introduced from Australia, was estimated to be 90 million. Through an aggressive reduction program that number is now thought to be 39 million. Although we did not see any live possums in the wild this trip, owing to their nocturnal nature, we saw countless road kills. The major benefactor of the road kills is the Australasian Harrier, whose status changed from scarce to abundant.
It is after dark when I watch the kiwis scurrying across a large enclosure open from the top. Oblong bodies without tails and wings present only in a skeletal view, with the head added, the shape becomes a pear tilted 45º from vertical. They show no concern for our presence, running quickly on powerful stilt legs, pausing to inspect the ground, sniffing like pigs for something to eat in the loose soil. Unlike other birds, kiwis have olfactory sensors at the tip of their stout pencil-like bills. The bill clicks like a short bamboo pole against the meshed wire enclosure and the kiwi is so close I’m tempted to reach out and touch its densely feathered brown back, but I resist.
(Bert) Rain is still falling, now for three days, as we begin the task of packing all our belongings back into suitcases. I start first, having difficulty finding all the nooks and crannies where I stuffed things in this small campervan, while Shari moves to the kitchen and Internet building. Then we switch places, finish up and take off for the rental return facility, making is just before Sunday’s 1 PM closing time. A taxi takes us to a B&B for the evening and our host drives us to a restaurant area where we choose Thai since it is the cuisine we find least in our travels. A pleasant meal, we are surprised we are the only diners the whole early evening. I’m prepared to walk back, thinking it is only 1.5 mi. but Shari wants to take the bus. When we read the schedule at the bus stop, our wait time would be 35 min. so I suggest we walk, since the rain has stopped. Shari grumbles halfway through our walk, yet the bus still hasn’t caught up with us. When it finally does we are close to the B&B, so let it pass. The 55 min. walk suggests my original distance estimate was off by a factor of two.
(Shari) Today we have to turn in our rental RV. I find it to be a lot harder getting out of the RV than into it. After breakfast we decide that I will depart to the computer room and work on road logs while Bert packs his things. He is to get me when he is finished. There obviously is no room in the RV for both of us at the same time. One and one half hours later, he says he is finished and it is my turn. First I have to sort what goes in the backpack and what goes in the suitcase. This is a difficult task as there is no room to put the sorted items and I can only work on one pack at a time. I pile as best I can using the front seats which are already full of Bert’s stuff. We decide the sweeping out will have to wait until we reach the RV center and we can remove our suitcases. When I am finished, Bert moves his stuff from front seat to the back of the RV. Now we cannot move around but hopefully have it all. This operation takes us 4 hr. We eat a sandwich of leftovers and head to the depot. Forgetting to dump our tanks and fill with fuel, Bert has to go out again while I fill out a customer survey and wait. A taxi takes us to our B&B and we have a delightful afternoon sipping tea and chatting with the owners. He is an electrician and she is a nurse and they have three children ages 14 and twins 11. We try to solve the problems of the world and find we are in agreement on most issues. They offer to feed us dinner but we ask him to take us to a Thai restaurant instead. The drizzle has stopped by the time we finish sharing a meal. Intending to take the bus back, we find it to be a 35 min. wait. Since it is too cold to wait, we decide to start walking and walk as far as we can and then take the bus when it catches up to us. The bus catches up 30 min. later, but we only have four blocks to go. We continue walking. Since we have to get up early to catch our flight, we go immediately to bed. It is hard to believe we have spent three weeks in New Zealand. It is a lovely country with lovely people and deserves more time. Next time I want to spend 3 mo.–but not in the winter when it rains too much and is cold.
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