Marine Mammals

My favourite fact of the trip is that NZ has no native land mammals. Think about it…there are a couple of native species of bat, but apart from that NZ is land of the birds, isn’t evolution amazing? It explains why a lot of the native bird population are flightless as there was no need to fly away from predators, and why so many of them became endangered or extinct once people began introducing mammals into the country.

Of course, one thing that NZ does have which we don’t tend to see around the UK is a amazing array of marine mammals and we have been lucky enough to encounter quite a few if them up close.

Dolphins
Everyone loves dolphins, they are playful, elegant and intelligent to boot. There are so many opportunities to see dolphins here that we have really been spoiled, you can do dolphin ‘safaris’, but we have actually seen dolphins on a lot of the other boat trips that we have been on from The Bay of Islands to Doubtful Sound. The dolphins love the boats and often surf along in the wake water either in front of, or behind you. So far we have seen Common, Bottle nosed, Dusky and Hector’s dolphins. My personal favourites were the Dusky dolphins in Kaikoura, who put on the most spectacular show of jumping and appeared to be by far the most playful.

The most exciting thing that we did involving dolphins was to swim with them. We did this in Akaroa where you can swim with the Hector’s dolphins, the smallest species of dolphin and one of the most endangered. It was an amazing experience to be in the water with them and to watch them as they darted past and around us in groups of two or three. I had been a little worried about the cold and about the deep water, but with an incredibly thick (and buoyant) wetsuit on it was all no problem. While swimming with the dolphins you probably don’t get as good a view of them as you do on a boat, but for the sheer thrill of being so close to them, you just can’t beat it.

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Whales
The other marine mammal I was desperate to see was a whale. In Kaikoura you can take whale watching trips with a view to (hopefully) seeing sperm whales. The day before we did our trip, there had been no whales to be found, which does remind you that there are no guarantees when it come to nature. However, we were exceptionally lucky on our trip and we saw three different whales surface, breathe and dive (two up close and one much further away). The trip was well organised, informative and, although busy, didn’t feel too much like a tourist trap. Again, being right up next to these huge creatures is an incredible feeling. You see only a fraction of the whale above the surface of the water from the boat, but the way that they move and dive is just amazing.

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Seals
The final mammal in the trio that we have seen are seals. In fact, it’s quite difficult not to see seals around Kaikoura, there are seal colonies right next to the roads in that area and all it takes is for you to stop off and take a look. You do need to be a little careful with them as they can be aggressive when they feel cornered, but it’s great to be able to see them both in and out of the water. They are as elegant as dolphins when they swim and we have seen them on a few of the trips that we have been on too.

All in all we have been exceptionally lucky with what we have seen so far, the only things that we haven’t encountered have been sea-lions, which apparently live around the south coast. I don’t think I can complain too much about that, though.

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P…P…P…Penguins!

I realise that NZ may not be obviously associated with penguins, but there are in fact loads of different penguin species here. Seeing penguins was really high up on my list of things to do for the trip.

One of the best known places for viewing little blue penguins is Oamaru, where you can sit in a purpose-built grandstand watching them return to their nests. The ‘penguin parade’ is all lit up and the penguins have got so used to it that they no longer display the more natural behaviour of returning to their nests under cover of darkness. Needless to say this didn’t appeal at all…we wanted natural penguins, or no penguins at all! So, we gave the Oamaru penguins a wide berth and went for some other penguin viewing experiences instead.

Pohatu, Akaroa is the largest Australasian Penguin colony on mainland New Zealand and the team not only run tours, but help to preserve the birds and their habitat. The penguins are a white-flippered variant of the little blue penguins found in Oamaru and only found on the Akaroa peninsula. We booked an evening tour and were picked up in town and taken out to the colony in a 4wd vehicle as that is the only way you can access it. When we arrived, we were joined by one other couple and issued with binoculars and camouflage tops. As it was still light, the adult birds were mostly out at sea and we would get the chance to wait in hides and watch them return to shore as it grew dark.

As part of the conservation project, the team provide the penguins with nesting boxes which some birds use instead of digging burrows and they check the boxes for chicks and monitor their progress. We hadn’t really known what to expect, but I think all four of us were really surprised when our guide told us that he would check some of the boxes while we were there. Sure enough, there were penguin chicks in the nest boxes only feet away from us! The camouflage gear is actually so that you don’t disturb them too much when the box lids are lifted, and there is strictly no flash photography allowed.

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From there we walked along to the hides and watched the adult birds swimming in to the shore and propelling themselves torpedo-style onto the rocks. They wait there until darkness falls and then go back to their nests. We all became pretty good at spotting the birds in the water (easier when you know what to look for) and saw loads of them swim in. It really helped that we were provided with binoculars as it is quite difficult to see once the light starts to fade. If you want an authentic-feeling penguin experience then this a great one to go for and we absolutely loved it!

The Penguin Place on the Otago peninsula also runs a penguin conservation scheme, but this one is for yellow-eyed penguins. In fact, their conservation scheme is funded entirely by tourism. One of the differences between blue penguins and yellow-eyed ones is that the yellow-eyed ones come and go from their nests at any time of day, not just evening, so you have a chance of seeing them return at any time of day. Also, there is always one adult bird with the chick in the nest so you can watch them in their burrows. The penguin place has a series of underground hides which makes it possible to view the adults and chicks up close, again you mustn’t use camera flashes or make any noise. During our visit we so one of the birds land on the beach and begin walking back to its nest and had a chance to view lots of other birds on their nests. The guide who took us around knew all about the birds and was, in a lot of cases, able to give us information about the particular birds that we saw.

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Out final penguin encounter was on Doubtful sound, where we saw a couple of Fiordland crested penguins sitting on a rock we cruised by. It was great to see them sitting there and it completed a hat trick of penguin species!

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I love penguins, they’re brilliant!

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New Zealand’s Great Walks

One of the things that I’ve been really impressed by during our trip has been the walking, or ‘tramping’. NZ has an huge array of amazing walking tracks, which you might expect given the scenery here. What is really impressive though, is how accessible, well maintained and well publicised these tracks are. This seems to be mostly due to the Department of Conservation (DOC). There are a series of multi-day ‘great walks‘ around NZ, many of which you can access for day walks. The DOC produce brochures for each of the routes, provide hut accommodation for walkers (sometimes staffed), maintain the tracks and signposts, and provide visitor centre information at each location. Another thing which really helps the accessibility of the walks are the companies that provide shuttle transport to the start and end points, we’ve used both bus and water taxi services so far.

Here’s a little summary of some of our great walks highlights so far:

Tongariro Crossing, 10.11.12
We were massively lucky to be able to complete the crossing back in November and it deserves a post of its own (you never know, I might just write one) but here are some photos for the time being…

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Queen Charlotte Track, 20.11.12
A beautiful walk through native forest along Queen Charlotte Sound. We started at the beginning of the track, by water taxi from Picton and were picked up at Furneaux Lodge later in the day.

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Kepler track, 11.12.12
A water taxi across Lake Te Anau took us to the Kepler track, and we walked to the control gates and on to Rainbow Reach car park.

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Routeburn track, 12.12.12
An amazing walk from the Divide, on the Milford Road, to Key Summit. Beautiful views, amazing weather and very little time needed.
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Oops..

OK, so I started my New Zealand trip with the very best of intentions: I would blog, probably not every day or about everything that I did, but I would try to post regularly. As you can see, that hasn’t really worked out recently. I could make excuses about lack of available internet, but the honest truth is that I’ve been too damned busy enjoying myself to write.

I’m currently having a bit of downtime in Queenstown, so I should really try to put things right. It doesn’t make much sense to write about things day by day now so the next few posts might just be a bit different from usual: more around general themes than a blow by blow account. Let’s see how it goes!

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Monthly reading roundup – October

Finished

So many this month because I’m travelling!

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster – Slightly postmodern New York detective fiction, could definitely do with a re-read!

Breakfast at the Hotel Déjà vu, Paul Torday – A ‘novella’, so a short and easy read. Holiday book.

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes – Ooh, liked this one! Older gentleman looks back at his precocious youth. Lots about memory and how you edit your own story.

The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst – Enjoyable read.

Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan – Amazing! Read it.

Less Than Zero, Brett Easton Ellis – It’s exactly what the title says it is, which I think is probably the point… Not totally sure that I enjoyed it but then I’m not totally sure that you’re supposed to.

The Waterproof Bible, Andrew Kaufman – Another holiday read, and a great one! A little bit unusual but great!

In Progress

A Man of Parts, David Lodge

Lonely Planet New Zealand Travel Guide

Downloaded and ready to go

The Siege, Ismail Kadare

A History of Modern Britain, Andrew Marr

And a whole lot more…

What are you reading now?

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The White Island

If you want to be able to tell people that you have walked on New Zealand’s only active marine volcano, and you don’t mind the smell of sulphur, then a trip to the White Island is for you.
click on the photos for a bigger view

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The Coromandel

A lady that we met in Auckland told us that she thought that the coromandel peninsula was more beautiful than the bay of islands. We were surprised, but after a day driving round the area we could see what she meant. Spectacular coastline, lush greenery and wonderful views.

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The only way to reach the beach at cathedral cove is to walk to it and it’s so beautiful that it’s well worth it. There’s a natural rock archway which you need to go through to reach the second beach in the cove.

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I would defy anyone not to love spending an afternoon digging a hole on hot water beach and sitting in the thermal water. Just be warned that with the water temperature being around 60 degrees centigrade, you need to add a bit of sea-water to cool it off.

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Van in Northland – Cape Reinga, 90 Mile Beach and Giant Trees

We headed north to Whatuwhiwhi on Friday 26 October, which was our quietest stop so far. The idea was to get a bit closer to the far north and to give us the chance to visit 90 Mile Beach and Cape Reinga. We decided against the organised trips which tend to include the coach driving on the beach and boogie boarding on the Te Paki sand dunes and chose instead to drive the van up the peninsula. On Saturday we began with a walk on 90 Mile Beach at Waipapakauri and our first encounter with the Tasman sea, which seemed very different in character to the Pacific. The beach itself was amazing, long, flat and shrouded in sea spray. It seemed to go on for as far as the eye could see and beyond. I have no clue why anyone would want to drive on something so beautiful.

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We continued up the peninsula to Houhora Heads and stopped for lunch, marking the place as a spot to spend the night if necessary as we weren’t completely sure how long we would need to get to the cape and back. We drive on past the Te Paki dunes, which are absolutely enormous and reached the Cape Reinga car park. The walk tot he lighthouse was beautiful and we did it in bright sunshine. The beaches and scenery are spectacular, but the most impressive bit for me was the meeting point, where the Tasman and Pacific seas meet. It’s like a giant whirlpool and it changes and swirls and churns in a way that I could have watched for hours.

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We headed back down the peninsula and ended up at the kiwi holiday park at Ahipara which meant that we were back on 90 mile beach at sunset.

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On Sunday we headed off to look for some giant Kauri trees. We found Tene Mahuta easily as he is just off the highway and very well signposted. Unfortunately we missed the next turning for the kauri walks and ended up at the Kauri forest information centre from which we did a damp and muddy 2 hour tramp up to the lookout, which was shrouded in low cloud when we got there. The top10 kauri forest site has eels in the river and glow worms under the bridge, but it rained too much for us to be able to see either of them!

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Van in Northland – Orewa and Russell

On Tuesday we picked up our home for the next 2 months, a campervan from Britz. The pick up seemed to take ages, but once we finally got on the road we could start heading North. We had booked the Orewa beach top10 holiday site for our first night as it wasn’t too far to drive and it would give us a good base to get to grips with the van. As it turned out there wasn’t any need to book, we are early enough in the season that all of the sites have enough room to just turn up and book in on the day and I can’t really see this changing until nearer Christmas.

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Orewa beach itself was beautiful, our pitch looked right out to sea and we walked along the beach to the town to get some supplies and cooked the first meal in the van. Since then we have got wise to using the kitchen and barbecue facilities at the sites (no need to use up your own gas or make the van smell!). We also paid up for Top10 site membership which was only $48 and which has given us 10% off all of the Top10 sites and also local discounts on trips and food at some places, so we had made our money back by day 3!

On Wednesday we headed north to the bay of Islands Top10 at Russell. The staff at Orewa had given us a handy guide to Northland which they had written which suggested routes to the Top10 sites in the north. We stopped for lunch at a place on the map with a nice name and some coast, Waipu Cove, and were really glad that we did. the beach was beautiful (by now we’re realising that they ALL are!) and the beautiful mural painted on the toilet block told the history of the town and the arrival of the first Scottish migrants, driven away from their homes by the clearances.

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Back on the road, we made our way to the car ferry to Russell and a lovely campsite. We still had time to drink some local Rosé at the Duke of Marlborough hotel, by the water and to eat the poshest bar snack ever of yummy calamari.

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We had booked two nights at Russell with the intention of going on a boat trip around the Bay of Islands and the following day we booked onto the cream trip, which follows the route of the boats which used to go around the bay picking up the cream produced on the various islands and delivering post and supplies to the islanders. The trip also promises dolphin watching and swimming if the conditions are right. The weather was pretty grey to begin with so we decided against taking our swimming gear and in the end there wasn’t any dolphin swimming so I didn’t feel that I had missed out! We did, however, see absolutely loads of both Common and Bottle nosed Dolphins. They played around the boat, fed and jumped and surfed in the wake of the boat. When they feed, they stir up all of the fish under the water which makes it easier for the seabirds to catch them, so we were also treated to seeing gannets diving into the water like torpedoes to catch the fish that the dolphins we hunting. It was quite a sight.

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Apparently there was a penguin swimming with the dolphins, but unfortunately I missed him. Penguins are still on my list of things I’d like to see… We did see some seals later on and the boat also went though the hole in the rock and did an island stopover at for lunch. We had enough time there to have some food and go for a walk up the hill to see some stunning views of the bay.
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We ended the day back at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell for some fish and chips. It was the first time that I’d had Gurnard and it was lovely.

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Auckland

Arriving in New Zealand takes a bit of time, the country is very concerned about visitors bringing in natural products which might contaminate their environment. You have to throw out any food that you are carrying and declare any items such as walking shoes that have been used outdoors so that they can be checked. After we had got through this process though, everything was really straightforward. We got the airport link bus to the city and got off at a stop just opposite our hotel. We were pretty lucky with this, because shortly afterwards the street was closed to traffic for the triathlon event that was going on that weekend.

Once we’d settled in, we walked into the city centre and met up with our friends Dan and Emma who have been living in Auckland for a while and who were fantastic tour guides for us while we were there. They took us for pizza and New Zealand Sav (easier to say the Sauvignon Blanc!) at Tyler Street Garage.

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On Saturday we all went to the Sky tower and watched Dan do the jump from the top. From the observation deck you can see the whole of Auckland, the harbour and the nearby islands. After that, we took the bus to Mission Bay beach and had a lovely walk, followed by some mini lamb burgers and bruschetta at the Attic. Our final stop for the day was a restaurant called Moo Chow Chow where we had some amazing Thai-inspired food to share: crispy duck rolls, salmon salad, and two different curries, one beef and one lamb.

Sunday was very wet, so we took the opportunity to do some laundry and also to watch some of the triathletes as they came past. Dan and Emma chose the Botswana Butchery for dinner, which was absolutely brilliant food! I had Crispy Squid, Lamb Rump with Lambs Fry (liver), and Dark Chocolate Fondant – yummy!

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Monday was a much brighter day and Emma had booked us all onto a wine tour on Waiheke island. We took the Ferry from Auckland and were picked up when we got to Waiheke by Wayne, who was our guide for the day. We started out at Jurassic Ridge winery where we had a great tasting, starting with whites, moving to rosé and ending up with some beautiful reds. Slightly worse for wear, we were ferried over to Kennedy Point where we got to taste some more wine and were taken out to see the vines and the fermentation tanks. Our final winery was Peacock Sky, which was my favourite tasting as they paired each of the wines that you taste with a little nibble of food. You taste the wine on its own, then have the food, then taste the wine again to see how the food has affected it. It was a brilliant idea!

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We bought a bottle of bubbles which is labelled ‘method traditionelle’ as its made in the traditional champagne style but not from Champagne, hopefully we’ll be able to save this for Christmas. We also had lunch here, the food was beautiful and included in our tour price which was a nice surprise. The menu options were all named after dogs and Andrew and I shared a chihuahua and a bulldog (burrito and burger). The final part of our visit was a muddy little trek up through the bush to the vineyards, after which we were taken back to the Ferry to return to Auckland.

All in all we ate and drank like kings while we were in Auckland and thoroughly enjoyed our time in the city. It really helped having local guides and we loved seeing all of the parts of the place that they enjoy.

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