Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Downside of NZ

In an effort to take the sting out of our return to reality, a list of reasons to be here instead:
The tree nettle has allegedly proved fatal once, probably due to anaphylaxis.
The giant carnivorous Earthworm promise it's real, but eats nothing larger than slugs.
The giant carnivorous land snail, also real, but endangered as tasty to the possums. Watch this too.
It's addictive!
And don't forget the sandflies, the only real downside. The Maori myth about these vile creatures concerns two ancestors/gods: Tu-te-raki-whanoa carved out Fjordland in all its complex and convoluted beauty, planted all the lush ferns and forest, filled it with an abundant treasure trove of birds and waited for people to come and enjoy it. The goddess Hinenuitepo saw it all, thought firstly "these people are lazy, spend too much time standing admiring it all when they should be working" and secondly, understanding human nature too well, "if they hang around for long they'll spoil it all" so she made the sandflies.
Without the generous rain there would be no rainforest with its excess of lushness, although with all the introduced mammals Europeans have done their best to wreck it. Captain Cook described the birdsong as waking them while still anchored at sea, what a wonderful experience.


We're back! The weather hard one last little trick for us, Storm Katie sent us to Manchester, having got within 100 feet of the runway at Heathrow where Amy was waiting, having crawled out of bed on Bank Holiday Monday. We then sat & twiddled our thumbs&toes on the runway for three hours before flying back to Heathrow where Laura rescued us. At least we weren't abandoned, like some poor people we read about facing £500 taxi bills to get home.
Thanks girls x

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Sea Lions, Albatross! Penguins, Bye.

Our last day, I can't believe how quickly it's all gone. Went for a guided nature expedition around the Otago peninsula, started at a superb sandy beach with white-chocolate-coloured female NZ Sea lions, camouflaged brilliantly, the males are much darker. They reintroduced themselves a few years ago, and with help have thrived. Next the albatross colony, three fluffy chicks weighing as much as a large turkey. Shags also have a nesting colony, with their guano-volcano nests. Many fur seals lounging in the sun or playing in the surf. Two blue penguins lurking in their nest-holes moulting, they lose all their feathers at once, so aren't waterproof for a month or so and have to stay ashore. They may lose half their body weight in this time. Finally The Penguin Place, a sanctuary set up by a farmer, funded purely by tourism. They've planted local trees for shade and made nestboxes, hides and rodent traps, all with some success. Jim a 22 year old yellow eyed penguin was nearing the end of his moult, no doubt hungry. He's nearly twice their average age. They also run a small hospital for injured or underweight ones.
An excellent place and fine end to a brilliant holiday.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Still Sunny, Dunedin.

Woke early as engines started at 6.30, clear but really cold, about 6*, last of full-moonlight gave way to daylight as we had breakfast, off back to Deepwater Bay, stopped to watch bottlenose dolphins on the way. They started playing in our bow-wave, but rapidly lost interest when we stopped to discourage them interacting with a potentially dangerous species. Next stop, "Sounds of Nature" ten minutes in Hall Arm, one of the sound's branches, no engine or generators, we were asked to switch off our cameras, stand still and just listen to birds and waterfalls. 73/75 managed. How hard can it be not to take a photo of something unchanging for ten minutes?
As we drove back over the Wilmot Pass the clouds built up, but the forecast for our last couple of days is good. Long not-terribly-exciting drive to Dunedin, with its much photographed Victorian railway station and more hills, also an impressive collection of churches and statue of Robert Burns in the main square.

Doubtful, Sun, freshwater sea-swim.

Grey drizzly start to our cruise day so went to the Fjordland film in Te Anau, tantalising aerial photography of what it might look like in perfect conditions. Set off for the quay in Manipouri, while we were waiting the rain stopped, looking distinctly hopeful by the time the boat was on its way. We passed the mountains we crossed on the Kepler Track last year, looked so benign, but we were nearly blown off the ridge. At the far end of Lake Manipouri, a small quay and insignificant looking building, the top of the hydroelectric station, the water drops 700metres to an underground power station before running out into Doubtful Sound. A two Km 7metre wide road spirals down inside the mountain to service it, huge but so little to see on the surface. A coach took us over Wilmot Pass, fantastic blue-sky views of Doubtful Sound heading out to sea, Cook originally called it Doubtful Harbour. Our boat, the Fjordland Navigator was waiting, so off up the sound, actually a fjord as it's a flooded glacial valley, a sound is a river valley, the early pioneers couldn't see the shape of the seabed, or maybe the distinction has been made since they were named. Stunning mountainous scenery, still enough water to keep the waterfalls flowing. After a trip in the tender to take a closer look at the coast, and a swim (warm at 16*) we headed out towards open sea, gales, albatrosses and a seal island. The top couple of metres of water is fresh and brown from tannins leached out of fallen leaves, fools deep-sea life into living in much shallower water as it's dark, perfect for divers. More spectacular scenery, many small islands. Clear bright full moon over the water.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Out, Drought.

Set off at first light, around 7.30, the path mostly dry, unlike the tales we'd heard. Many birds, mostly invisible in the half-light under the  trees, but bellbirds and tui are easily recognised by their songs. Six hours along a good path, more streams, lakes, waterfalls and dripping ferns.
Bell Rock is an extraordinary feature, the sort of hole made by boulders in a wild torrent, then picked up and turned upside down. Imagine the power needed to overturn a rock with a cavity 15 feet high, wide enough to hold a dozen people, and to put it down without breaking it.
We made it back in spite of the weather's best efforts to stop us, in fact had a 30 hour near-drought, the rain starting again as we got on the open boat back to the road head, back to a spa-bath and glass of wine in Dunluce, our lovely B&B.

Waterfalls, More Waterfalls, Wekas, Keas & Something Missing!

Woke in gloom during the night, constant rainy sounds, so track certain to be impassable. On going out to the loo (inevitable if you go to bed as soon as it gets dark) found it was only waterfall & river noise. River levels significantly down, so off & up. 600m up through rainforest, beech then scrub,  grass and alpines. Stopped to photograph rock wrens and rifleman, tiny busy birds, both with legs too far back and almost non-existent tails. We were first to the saddle and McKinnon memorial, amazing views of the world, mountains & glaciers, many waterfalls all around. Thanks to all the people who wished us rain to see them at their best, we certainly did! After another short ascent to avoid the cliffs below the saddle Kea-squawks warned us of the hut. Highly intelligent and mischievous parrots, they dismantle anything, and seem to get a thrill from nicking boots. On down a total of 1100m, passing the spectacularly beautiful Anderson's Cascades, a series of crashing waterfalls, then the 580m Sutherland Falls: big, wet & noisy. Nosey Wekas followed us on&off. An hour's easy walk to Dumpling Hut, sadly the promised 300m thigh deep wade had fizzled to a small puddle and some mud. We are the first people in three days to get through.
And missing? Didn't rain all day!

Wet Milford, Sunny, Weka.

Grey drizzly start having poured all night. Really thought we'd be sitting at Clinton Hut all day, but the warden sent us off at 8.30ish with all sorts of safety instructions. The rain miraculously fizzled out by about 10, beautiful mossy rainforest, mountains starting to close in on either side and a million (possibly slight exaggeration) waterfalls. The main river, Clinton, in dramatically full flood, not one for swimming in, possibly rafting, but the side stream we'd been warned about had nearly emptied by the time we got to it.
The birds seem totally oblivious to the rain, I suppose you have to ignore it if you live somewhere with rain two days out of three, and 130mm in a night as a normal thing. A curious tui came to watch us having lunch, maybe attracted by the sandflies lunching on us. We saw a few Weka sniffling in the bushes, one swimming across a stream.
Rain again from 2ish, plans for tomorrow uncertain as we have a boat trip up Doubtful Sound the day after we finish, so can't afford to sit for a day waiting for the rivers to subside, and may have to backtrack.

Milford (not haven) Rain, boat, wet.

Set off in reasonable weather, Lake Te Anau is beautiful, farmland on one side, mountains on the other, including the start of the Kepler Track which we did last year. A boat came to take us to the far end of the lake, offloading a crowd of sad wet people who should have been coming out at Milford Sound, the end of the track, mountains closed in around us, sadly attracting the clouds and by the time we set off it was raining. We passed the island where Quintin McKinnon's boat was found, he explored much of this area, his fate never clarified. The next island had small caves where sixteenth century Maori artefacts were found. As we set off, more soggy dejected people came back to escape on our boat, with tales of walking waist-deep in cold water. An easy hour's walk took us to Clinton Hut. Gloomy weather forecast.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Weather update.

Pouring here, but seems to be less wet over by Milford Sound, so we're off. The waterfalls will be spectacular!

Weather & birds.

Forecast dire, but Wanaka was it's usual Mediterranean self, a brief shower but sunny all the way over the top to Queenstown and beyond. Really only got nasty as we approached Te Anau, gales and rain, on calling in at the DOC office found the Milford Track closed today as rivers up to three meters higher than usual. Unlikely to be significantly better tomorrow, so we might be homeless for three nights. If I don't post anything in the next couple of days we've set out, if more than five days we're stranded somewhere up there!
Late in the afternoon the weather in Te Anau improved, so we wandered along the lake to the sluice gates controlling the outflow to the hydroelectric power stations. On the way the DOC have a small captive breeding centre for takahe and other endangered birds, also a morepork, injured by another in a zoo, captive bred so unable to return to the wild. It would be reassuring to think their efforts might have a long term effect, but introduced rodents are a massive problem.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Civilisation, 60.

Inevitable wander to the loo in early hours, that's the trouble with going to bed as soon as it's dark, 1/2 moon over mist in the valley below, wonderful but would never come out in photograph. Woken at 6 by someone's alam, think they'd forgotten to turn it off as the owner never stirred. Grey but not as bad as forecast. Set off down the valley, easy decent (by our intrepid staandards) to the river to w as it for the jetboat. Thought we'd be clever & get down before the rain, so had a couple of hours. Sandflies and large bumblebees behaving like wasps meant we had to keep walking to avoid them. Many beautiful grasshoppers & crickets. Met some people who'd flown up to our hut that morning, walked down for a couple of hours & were jetboating out after a day of the "Siberia Experience" (the name of our hut, but in 2 hours easy stroll downhill?)
60 (at last) the jetboat trip, exciting but wet from spray and rain. You'd pay a lot for that sort of exfoliating treatment. They're so agile, whizzing in circles, jigging round obstacles at 60Km/hr or more. And someone gets paid to drive it all day!

Elvish staircase, Lake, 59.

Cloudy start, but forecast promised a good day, so set off up the valley towards Lake Crucible, an hour over easy flat grass, then 2 river crossings, bit chilly as the water was glacier half a mile up the valley. Left turn, then very steeply up the valley side, all on tree-roots like a thousand foot Elvish staircase, through the wonderful silver beech. The leaves are tiny and thicker than our beech, the bark like a cross between cherry and silver birch when young, changing to a beech-pine cross as it matures. The normal lush mosses and sprinkling of birds. Another river crossing as we came out of the woods to a scrubby archetypal glacial valley, the morraine hiding the lake looked quite close, until we started walking up again!  A steep up, then Wow, Blue lake, small glacier (icebergs earlier in the year) and towering grey cliffs on 3 sides. We had it almost to ourselves, Chris who's been at our hut for the last couple of nights had disappeared for a swim, then came back and made tea. Watched a friendly rock wren then spent an hour photographing insects, including a bright green Alpine cicada.
Oh, and 59... skinny dipped in total privacy behind a rock as I didn't want to walk down in wet undies!

More Gillespie, Glaciers

Grey-with-blue-bits start to the day, the forecast promises better. Started through forest, instantaneous change to scrub, then grass. One bridge over the river, then 900m almost vertically up the side of the valley, glimpses of Mt Awful, Mt Dreadful and a glacier as the grey gradually gave way to the blue. The top took us by surprise, a sudden flattening, and sooner than expected.  Wonderful views up & down the valley, intermittently back the way we'd come. A deep rift divided the plateau, in one bit a carpet of little white flowers, possibly Saxifrage, sheltered from the worst of the common gales. Edelweiss, white gentians and small blue or white bells on the way down, otherwise dead heads as it's autumn here. Steep rocky descent, then scrub including dwarf totara, usually a huge tree (not to be confused with tuatara, the iguana like creature)
More down, then easy 3/4 hour along the glacial valley to the Siberia Hut, in a fabulous location, mountains on all sides, snow and glaciers at either end and a river below.

Gillespie, Gandalf & Rain:

Started up Gillespie Pass Circuit, we took the easy option, so got a jetboat from Makarore, and cut over an hour off the day, saved wading a potentially deep and hairy river.
Beautiful beech forest, with the usual abundance of ferns and fungi. I'm always fascinated by the variety of fungi, these are brilliant, bright violet blobs, a blue-grey one just the shape of Gandalf's hat and a tiny delicate one only 5mm diameter.
Oh, and it poured most of the seven hours it took to get to the hut, but too warm & humid for waterproofs!

Monday, 14 March 2016

Dinosaurs, Blue Pools, Revisited.

One of our stops on the way down the coast was at Ship Cove or Tauperikaka, it's beautiful beach with sand dunes, and many dolphins or similar playing off the coast, just too far and fast to see properly. There's also a boarded walkway through swamp forest, a rare habitat now, almost unchanged since dinosaur times. The giant podocarps were initially harvested for ships' timbers, but the wood was too soft, sadly they didn't escape and were mostly cut down to be used as boxes for exporting butter and cheese, a bit ignominious for such a stately tree.
Next stop, the Blue Pools, possible starting point for the Gillespie Pass Circuit, other choices are wading or jetboat taxi across the river. The whole track is four days, including a day up to the mysterious Crucible Lake: the guidebook just says it's brilliant, but won't spoil the surprise!
Finally Wanaka, we were here at the same excellent accommodation, River Run , last year. Much of the building uses recycled farm materials either structurally or as artworks. A real treasure of a place, a hot-tub with a view too.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Fairydust, gems and sandflies.

Bit grey this morning, but no rain. Retraced our steps, surprising how different the track looks from the other direction. No more whio, but mad tui singing most of the way, still invisible. Many of the rocks are schist, with more-golden-than-usual mica, my boots now sparkle, apart from that, half-baked garnets in it make a very good non-slip surface. If the rocks had keen cooked a little deeper in the Earth's crust they would have been gem quality. They really need 25 Km worth of pressure.
The sandflies missed us, a swarm swamped us as we stopped at the last river to take our boots off. Some perverse evolutionary quirk means they're so heavy footed you can feel most of them land before they bite, but you're swamped by numbers.

Copland, songs and smells.

Off up the Copland Track, graded as easy-to-moderate, so I wonder why the 17Km is estimated to take seven hours, 2.5Km/hr, usually manage 4. Found out quite soon! Steep, quite rough path, lots of exciting bridges, many 1 person at a time, and quite apart from when the path runs up a stream, many streams to cross. Mostly hopping over stones, but two or three needed de-booting. Altogether an excellent walk, ridiculously green and exuberant forest, ferns growing in moss growing on tree and tree-fern trunks. Filmy ferns 18" long, often a dozen different types of moss and fern in as many square inches.
Bird-wise, the usual suspects, invisible tui sounding  as though they have Tourette's syndrome: gently tuneful bubbly whistles, then sudden raucous squawks. They're great mimics. Fanatics have ADHD, and love to taunt you by flying down, sitting quite close showing off their beautiful black and while tails, until they see a camera, then off... I saw one rarity, a whio ("fio", "wh" is "f" in Maori) or blue duck, endangered as most chicks and eggs eaten by foreign predators.
Eventually got to Welcome Flat Hut, relatively new, nearly demolished by a mudslide a few months after it first opened, had to be dug out. A few minutes away is a bridge up to the the next bit of track, really for nutters and climbers. It's 18Km as the crow flies to Mount Cook Village, where we were last year, but not this time, it's about 500 by road. This site was chosen in part for the hot springs, one luxurious hot pools, fed by red irony rivulets, lined with soft green mud where you can soak in faintly sulphurous bliss!

Friday, 11 March 2016

Glaciers and lakes.

Brilliantly clear start to the day, continued south, confusingly away from the sun. Stopped at Lake Ilanthe, beautiful, flat calm surrounded by forested hills. Watched a cormorant dive and come up with an eel or similar, at least as long as him. Interestingly he dived back down with it, not what I would have expected, swallowing while underwater must be a bit dodgy.
We wandered up the tourist path to the base of Fox Glacier, no time for proper walks by the time we'd sorted out tomorrow's hut. A bit crowded, but interesting to see signs showing where the glacier ended in the past, a bit scary!
After that, very little time as our lovely B&B, Misty Peaks, has all the guests for wine&cheese at six, so a quick sprint to look at Lake Matheson, well worth more time.
Mussels for supper.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Pancakes, Blow-holes and pub.

Off to west coast, greyer and gloomier as we got there. By lunchtime it was car-picnic weather, on what should have been a spectacularly beautiful beach, signs said take care of penguins, but too wet even for them.
Punakaika is famed for pancake rocks, limestone layers eroded into stacks of pancakes and blow-holes, with unnatural sound effects. We braved it at top speed, but were still drenched. By the time we'd dried off at our B&B 30Km down  the road the sky was innocently blue, so we went all the way back, well worth until we had to make a dash to beat the looming storm.
The next village down the road has 20 or so houses, and a pub on the beach, best fish&chips ever, delicately thin batter, lots of salad with really good French dressing. Locals very chatty, and happy to recommend and serve drinks if the barmaid's busy.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Early, Civilisation

Alarm at 5.30, set off in starlight, bright but not quite enough. Gradually lost all the height we'd gained, as the sun came up, reversing the change in flora back to tree ferns and warmth. Admired a weka chick on the way, lurking in the undergrowth until its parents came from the other side of the path to feed it.
Caught the shuttle bus back to Nelson, got clean then out for real food.
Off down the coast tomorrow.

Rain, more rain and... Trailwalker.

Rain as we set off, persisted until we got to Perry Saddle Hut, drenched to the undies. A pity as said to be some of the best scenery in NZ. (Bit like the WWA trip to the Ring of Kerry a few years ago). On the bright side, we saw a Powellephanta, giant carnivorous snail, nocturnal unless very wet and good rainbows shortly after settling in our warm & luxurious hut. Lots of tiny sundew, much smaller than ours, some round and very red, some elongated and greener, possibly as in shady places, possibly a different species.
As an afterthought, the whole four day tramp is less in distance and height gained than the Oxfam Trailwalker we did a few years ago. I can't imagine how we did it in 24hours 42minutes 54seconds!

Kiwis, wekas, moreporks.

Heard female Kiwi scraaking in the night, the male whistles in return but we didn't hear him. Several wekas squawking around the hut, we saw two families with black fluffy chicks later, mother makes a totally different gentle burbling sound to them. Shortly after leaving the hut, I was almost scalped by a morepork (small indigenous not-totally-nocturnal owl), who then sat for ten minutes watching us. The light in the canopy was lousy, but one photo was OK.
Two hours through rather cloudy grey weather, which made the forest less vibrant, but still lovely. Gentle climb to Mackay Hut, 600 m up over 12Km, changed from fern and palm, through different ferns and mosses and beech trees, then podocarps, then manuka and other alpine scrub. Drizzle and low cloud more troublesome, so sat in almost new luxury hut watching the clouds swirl around while soggy people appear.

Heaphy Track

Start of Heaphy Track. Apart from the six-hour planned bus ride to Kohaihai where the Heaphy Track in the wrong direction starts, we had an extra hour's wait as our bus broke down before leaving Nelson. That meant we were an hour late starting the track, 2.30, with a 5 hour walk & night falling at 7.30, but we did it in 4 hours, with some time to admire and photograph the Nikau Palms, ferns and coast. Many splendid bridges. The Heaphy hut is almost new, very smart but crowded with 2 large groups, unaccustomed to hut etiquette, and the dreaded West Coast Sandflies!

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Picton, Nelson, Victoria.

Very straightforward ferry journey to Picton, then short wait for the Nelson bus, with chatty driver who started by telling us that if we didn't wear our seat belts the police could give us a spot fine of $150, then that he would chuck us off immediately, without luggage if we smoked or drank!
We passed through Havelock where Ernest Rutherford, "father of nuclear physics" was born.
Nelson is a beautiful city, anywhere that labels its important trees has to be good. It's been a city since it was little more than village-sized because Queen Victoria decided from its location that it needed a cathedral, ergo had to be made a city: easy if you're the Queen.
Off to catch the bus for the Heaphy Track tomorrow, leaves 7.30 am. Back in 4 days.

Friday, 4 March 2016

58:automatic, Weta, coincidences

Mustn't forget the original aim of this blog, to do and record 60 things I've never done before. As an after-effect of an extremely hard day yesterday, R let me drive some of the way, so number 58 is driving an automatic. I wondered about the Glow-worm caves, but I pot-holed as a student, so adding the glow-worms didn't really make it a whole new thing.
After driving round Wellington for a while we found the Weta Cave where all the prosthetics and props for all the best films (LOTR & many others) we're made, the detail is phenomenal. Nearly everything is painted plastic, for weight & safety, but real metal things like armour and swords are used for close up shots. The orcs have chain mail knitted by the Wellington knitting club, but with no idea what it was for.
Our guide, Erica, was in the year above L at Wimbledon. The second crazy coincidence was a planned meeting with D&J from our walking club with their son & girlfriend, only to find we'd sat next to them on the flight to Singapore.

Thursday, 3 March 2016


Today, early (for us) start, shortly after seven, as perfect weather for the top of Taranaki. We met people on their way down who'd started at 3am to be up there for sunrise.
A short scramble up the gorge, then 500 wooden steps, then a million miles of ash-marbles on smooth rock. The last section an easy but long scramble on more solid lava, a small ice field, another slidey bit then awesome views from a clear top. Much of the world was under low cloud, but our old friends Ngauruhoe and Ruapeho clearly visible. Very pleasing as we could see Taranaki from the Tongariro Northern Circuit.
Cloud started to come up, so we started down. The scrambles were easier than I'd expected, the marbles as bad & seemed longer. I'll never complain about steps again, wonderful after an hour on the slipperies! Lunch in the lodge, then back to the visitor centre, two minutes after the cafe had closed a bit early. Wonderwoman from yesterday just said help yourself to icecream and give me the money. Brilliant when people put themselves out for you.

Pouakai, predators, swamp, nearly homeless!

Another clear start, walking through forest, lower shrubbery trees on the whole as still high. Increasing numbers of dead ones, learned later they were cedars, killed by possums eating too much of them, including the bark. Someone introduced them a cute things to live in the Forest. That was after rabbits were introduced for food, and became a plague, followed by stoats to control the rabbits: bad idea, given the choice of menu between a fast and canny prey, of predator-naive ground nesting bird and its eggs which should you choose? Within a decade about 80% of the birds had gone, most have not recovered.
Next down a long way to the swamp, not yet destroyed totally, but fragile so a wooden walkway has been built.
Finally up the other side along the flanks of Taranaki, above the tree line again to the Taranaki Alpine Club lodge. Sadly they hadn't given us the door code, we'd assumed it was open like all the DOC ones, my mobile wouldn't work so 500m down to the visitor centre where Wonderwoman just happened to know their secretary so phoned her to get the code, 500m back to the top in time for grub and a stunning sunset with Taranaki's shadow reaching all the way to Ngauruhoe and Ruapeho.

Forest, Pouakai, empty, woofers.

We had a reasonably early start on Tuesday, off on the Pouakai Circuit. The first part was through the wonderful beech and fern forest, plunging down twice to cross rivers on "swing" (suspension) bridges, then up onto the ridge again. The last stretch passes the tarn, where the iconic photo of Taranaki is taken, but the top was in cloud and a breeze destroyed the mirror effect. Later in the evening would have been perfect, but too knackered to walk back. Our accommodation was a standard DOC hut, basic but dry, and for such a wonderful place, surprisingly we were the only inhabitants. Three lads who were woofing, (working four hours a day in return for board and lodging) passed through with their host's son as guide.
 Perfect sunset.