SOUTH ISLAND - SEA LIONS, PENGUINS AND THE RIDERS OF ROHAN - robmellors

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I said in my last postcard that there was one more out of the way place we wanted to go. Well, make that several. Our first destination was to be an area on the East coast between Invercargill and Dunedin and called the Catlins. Not only is it an intriguing name but from all that we had read it had a varied and beautiful landscape which few people bother to explore. The Catlins bills itself as New Zealand’s hidden gem. So, when the Stewart Island ferry docked, we collected our car, drove to Invercargill, stopped at an internet café, pulled out the netbook and started searching for suitable accommodation. And drew a blank. After an hour all we had been able to find was one B&B that didn’t look that good. So much for a hidden secret. We gave up for the time being and drove on, thinking that once we got to The Catlins we might find an information site which could book something for us. An hour or so later we reached Fortrose which is on the coast and which declaims that it was the Gateway to the Catlins. Another café, another session on the computer but again no joy. How come our secret, out of the way place, had become popular all of a sudden? So, we decided on another strategy; drive until we found somewhere that had a vacancy. The Catlins really is a beautiful landscape. Dramatic ocean cliffs to the east, low but sharp mountains to the west and rolling valleys and farmland in the middle. It was a joy to drive through. We slipped in and out of small villages, looking for the elusive ‘vacancy’ sign but the very few places we saw really didn’t appeal to us. We weren’t that desperate. Yet! And so, after a few hours and the day getting on somewhat, we rolled into Owaka, the largest settlement in the Catlins. Largest as in just a bit bigger than a hamlet, though it does have a fire, ambulance and police station. Plus a museum and a heritage trail. Even the smallest place in New Zealand seems to have a museum and there are heritage trails everywhere leading to some very odd items indeed. In Curio Bay, for instance, you will pass a sign which reads, and I kid you not, ‘Heritage Trail’ And written proudly underneath ‘Concrete Horse Trough’ Sadly, we just didn’t have time to visit this wonder but have promised ourselves that we shall return another year. If Fortrose is the gateway to the Catlins then Owaka is its back door. Apart from some possible accommodation in Kaka Point that was it for the Catlins. If we couldn’t find a place to stay here it was ‘move on someplace else’ time. We could see signs everywhere for motels so we parked up and started walking the streets. A nice tourist couple told us the place they were staying in had 3 empty rooms that morning but when we turned up at the office a note told us that the owner was out – driving the school bus! Every other place we tried was full so we went to the i-site to see what they could do for us. A very helpful girl rang around a few places but they were either full or, like the bus driver, the owners were out. She had one last place to try, The Newhaven Holiday Park about 5 klms out of town. Lyndon, the owner, told her that he could put us up for one night but not two, as we wanted. There was a pause. And then he said a wonderful thing. His parents had a holiday home next door to the park which they let out. It was free at the moment and we could have it for NZ$120 a night. We skidded off down the gravel road, got to the holiday park and Lyndon showed us into a virtually brand new 3 bedroom cottage with all mod cons, a large garden and a great view. We’d fallen on our feet again. The cottage was right on the edge of Surat Bay and after settling in and a quick meal we wandered out just as the sun was setting. Behind the beach is a tidal lagoon and it was to this that we first walked. The setting sun, the mirror like lagoon and some artfully placed clouds was making one of the most glorious sunsets I have seen and I spent a happy half hour or so photographing the scene. And then we walked round the corner onto the beach itself which stretched out far into the distance. And then the moon rose. We had the sun setting and moon rising at the same time. Helios and Luna – what could be more magical than that. The following morning we couldn’t wait to have breakfast and get down to the beach to take a stroll. Well the stroll lasted three hours because Surat is one of the most beautiful bays we have seen. It’s a vast, wide wilderness with waves crashing on the shore and huge sand dunes. We had certainly found our hidden gem because, in addition to seabirds Surat has the largest colony of Hooker Sea-lions in New Zealand and the rarest sea-lion in the world. And here we were living within a few minutes walk of them. At the near end of the beach was a large male basking in the sun and looking for all the world like a huge rock. In fact, despite their size, it is possible to pass by a sleeping sea-lion without even noticing it. Sea-lions are an ‘eared’ seal, like the Fur Seal. The seals we have in the Northern Hemisphere tend to be earless (or, more correctly, they don’t have ear lobes). Our seals also galumph along on their front flippers and bellies. Sea-lions, however, use all four of their limbs and they can move very fast – faster than the average human – despite their huge size. So, you don’t go up to a sleeping sea-lion and poke it with a stick to get a good photo. You take your photo from a safe distance and just hope the lazy blighter will move sometime within the next 2 hours. We walked on passing many slumbering forms on the way (Sea-lions hunt at night so spend the day recuperating). At the far end of the bay there were some rocks and pools and here there was some more action going on – some ‘lions, probably youngsters, frolicking about in the sea, another big male with his mane, two females and, best of all, a pup. This family group was very active, though we couldn’t quite decide if the two females were on friendly terms as they seemed to be snarling and snapping at each other but perhaps this ‘bickering’ was just normal behaviour for these creatures. At times the pup looked in danger of being crushed, poor thing. What we didn’t realise until someone told us later was that this pup was one of only two Sea-lion pups on the whole of mainland New Zealand. We had so very nearly not stayed at Surat yet here we were witnessing yet another rare moment. No wonder we dallied so long on the beach. The following day we wanted to explore inland, through the back country and found a wonderful walk down a river valley clothed in trees and full of birdsong. It was here that we found two of our target species of birds; the diminutive Rifleman which looks a bit like a virtually tailless version of our Wren, though coloured green, and the Yellow Head which, as the name implies, is a bright canary yellow at its front end. Another delightfu and successful day, though later on we did try to find the Yelloweyed Penguin which is supposed to abound in Roaring Bay but gave up after an hour or so of staring at the sea. Three days in the Catlins passed by in complete contentment and then we moved on to the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin. We were quite looking forward to seeing Dunedin which is named after Edinburgh, both ‘Dun’ and ‘burgh’ meaning town or settlement. I’ve no idea what ‘Edin’ means, perhaps a corruption of Eden. Edinburgh is a rather nice place to visit so we were looking forward to spending perhaps half a day in Dunedin before making the short journey to the Otago Peninsula. We lasted two hours and half an hour of that was spent in a supermarket stocking up. We just couldn’t stand the traffic, the traffic lights, the noise and just the feeling of being in a city. We’d got used to a quiet and calm pace and just couldn’t adjust. And, to be honest, Dunedin didn’t have anything to hold our attention. So we high tailed it out of town. The Otago is right on the doorstep of the city yet it is a world removed. On the West side it forms the shores of an incredibly large natural harbour with sand spits and rocky coves. It is very rich in marine life and hence has a high population of sea birds, including penguins. A spine of steep hills runs down the middle and the East coast is wild and rugged. It’s almost an island in its own right which makes it a very good place for wildlife. At the far end of the peninsula is a bluff on which sits a lighthouse and the only mainland breeding colony of Albatross anywhere in the world. Normally, to see these magnificent creatures you have to go out in a boat in the freezing waters of the Antarctic, or somewhere equally inhospitable and get tossed around, chilled to the bone and wet through to get decent sightings. At Otago you can drive to the car park of the Albatross Centre and see, provided the wind is right, Northern Royal Albatross soaring in the skies, going out fishing and returning to feed their chicks. The only way you can see the chicks is to take a tour of the centre but as there are only three nesting birds you can actually get to see we decided just to watch the parent birds. There are also Southern Royal and White Capped Albatross that glide in from time to time, though they don’t land here. These birds have a wingspan of 3.3 mtrs so it was certainly an arresting sight and made the decision not to dally in Dunedin all the more worthwhile. In the evening we returned to the Albatross Centre, paid a small entry fee and walked down to a viewing area right on a little rocky bay in Otago Harbour. We were not there for the Albatross this time but to see Little Blue Penguin as they returned home from their daily fishing. Little Blues are the smallest penguin in the world at about 13 inches high and you rarely see them in the daytime. You have to wait until after the sun has set before they make their appearance, which makes both seeing and photographing them a tad difficult. However, at Otago they have this sussed because they have installed low level lighting set at a frequency which does not disturb the birds. So we all stood around peering into the gathering gloom and looking out to sea. Suddenly one of the guides said ‘there they are’ and pointed to an area of sea which appeared to be rippling. It was the Little Blues swimming on the surface in a raft. It was rather like watching the swimming part of the Triathlon in miniature. I swear that the leading two looked just like the Brownlie brothers!. The penguins swam swiftly to shore and then started hauling themselves up the rocky beach. Bearing in mind their diminutive stature, anything bigger than a stone you might send skimming into the ocean presented a major obstacle to these birds. Still, they all managed it and then proceeded to waddle past us, totally unfazed by the lights and our presence, up the sandy slope towards where they had built their burrows. However, half way up they all stopped and huddled together. ‘Are they frightened of us?’, asked Jane. The guide replied that, no, they were just drying off before going into their burrows. They don’t want to go in there with wet feathers to get cold and dirty, which makes sense really. One bird, however, headed not up the adjacent hill but in a completely different direction. We followed it wondering if had somehow lost its way. And then we noticed that nearby there was a burrow which contained two chicks. As soon as they saw mum (or dad, they both feed their young) the chicks started calling and pestering their parent for food. Just like hungry teenagers! We were privileged to be able to watch for about an hour and several rafts of birds came in. A guide told us that they counted 118 birds in total and there may have been some we missed. It was another of those great spectacles that we were chuffed to have witnessed. After that we just had to have a go at seeing the Yellow-Eyed penguin which also nests on the East coast. We booked ourselves onto a tour and at about 6pm the following day found ourselves bumping over some private farmland to where the tour company has set up a small reserve, not only for penguins but also Sea Lions. There were several on the beach, though not nearly as many as in Surat Bay but it was the Yellow-Eyes we wanted to see and see them we did. To be fair, once you know where to look they’re not difficult to spot being quite a large bird. But they are also very solitary and won’t tolerate having any other yelloweyed in their immediate area. In fact, they won’t even mate unless they are completely hidden from any other prying eyes, which makes you wonder how they manage to have sex and produce young. Normally, the yellow-eyed is a very lovely bird with sleek black feathers and a bright yellow stripe just above their eyes, hence their name. However, at this time of year they go into moult and when they do they stand around looking very bedraggled and shedding feathers everywhere. The first one we came across (named Scar because of an injury to his flipper caused by a shark) looked very disgruntled, just staring at us as if to say ‘Don’t you dare laugh or I’ll come over there and peck your face’. It was hilarious. There were quite a number of penguins in this state and a few who had almost grown new feathers and were looking a lot more sleek. But what was so amusing was the sight of all these birds dotted about the shore, up the sand dunes and even 70 feet or so high up on a hill, ignoring one another and looking for the world like soldiers pretending that if they couldn’t see anyone, no one could see them. It rounded off our visit to the Otago Peninsula a treat. We were now in the final four days of our trip. We had the choice of going up the coast and staying in somewhere like Oamaru. It’s a nice enough place and we had a good lunch there at a Victorian style café and we could have hung around to see Yellow-eyed and Little Blue penguins again but we decided to head away from the coast back towards more mountainous country. At this point we could have gone back to Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook village but decided that was being greedy. Besides, there was a place we wanted to see which had featured heavily in the Lord of the Rings film – Edoras. Before leaving Otago I’d emailed several B&B’s in a place called Methven. It’s really a winter resort because there are some very good ski slopes in the area. But it does attract sufficient summer visitors for a handful of restaurants and accommodation places to stay open. Unfortunately neither of the B&Bs I emailed had got back to me so we just motored up there in the hope of finding somewhere to stay. It was a long drive but once we got off the busy coastal highway the views became more interesting and varied. We were just about to turn off the main highway to go into Methven when I spied a sign for one of the places I’d emailed – a farmstay called Glenview. We drove up the track, parked the car and went to the door just as Helen, the owner, came round the corner. It seems they’d been away for a few days down in Dunedin, had returned just 15 minutes ago and had emailed me to say they had room. It seemed like fate. This was our first time in a farmstay and it was great. I lived on a farm in Wales for a number of years when I was a lad so I was in my element amongst the sheep and cattle. Graig Goch, the farm I had lived on, was about 120 acres of mixed upland. Glenview was 1200 hectares of pasture, plus perhaps half as much again in unusable land, farm tracks and buildings. It was vast and stretched right to the foot of the Hutt Mountain. Run by the wonderfully friendly and hospitable Mike and Helen, they have just one worker plus the odd contractor at times when it is necessary. At the moment there were 8,000 sheep and about 1,000 cattle, mostly young bulls. Mike buys in the stock from breeders to fatten them up before sending them to slaughter. The cattle are destined for Japan and Macdonald’s in America. The sheep are going to Holland although Mike also has contracts to supply Waitrose. It’s a very efficient business. The stock is rotated between grass, Kale and other crop pastures depending upon their stage of development and when they are going to slaughter. Helen took us on a tour of the farm and I was in my element. The area around Methven is very mountainous. Not on the Mount Cook scale, of course, but pretty impressive none the less. Right from when we started planning our trip nearly a year ago, we had always wanted to visit and walk up Mount Sunday, about 50 Kilometres from where we were staying. When Sir Peter Jackson filmed Lord of the Rings he built a set up on Mount Sunday to represent Edoras, the city of the kings of Rohan. The views of Edoras, a fortress surrounded by a plain and ringed by high mountains, had always impressed us and we just had to visit it. Before long we were driving on gravel roads, past two lovely lakes and climbing up into high mountain country. We rounded a corner and both gasped. There, set out before us, was a vast plain criss crossed by the gravel tracks of a river, surrounded on all sides by high hills and mountains. And in the middle of it, just as in the film, stood Mount Sunday, though without the film set. Mount Sunday is not a mountain and from where we were parked it looked like a small pimple but when we got down to it and started climbing we appreciated how steep and high it is. And what a commanding view it gave of the countryside for miles around. If you were a king of the Rohirrim you would undoubtedly site your fortress here. There was snow on the distant mountains, there was a river running through the valley and there was utter peace and quiet. We sat for ages in the sun drinking in the view and saying, once again, just how lucky we were to be here in perfect weather. Mount Sunday is noted for having either a vicious wind which whips up through the valley or low clouds obscuring the ring of mountains surrounding us. We had a clear, uninterrupted 360 degree view and not a breath of wind. It was so good that, for once, I took a video with my camera. And, Monika, you will be proud because Jane sang Te Aroha (a Maori prayer song) whilst I panned the camera around. That evening we joined Mike and Helen for a wonderful meal (lamb, of course) and just relaxed in their company. And it was so easy to relax and chat – just as though we were with friends. The following morning it was time to wind down our journey and take a relatively short drive to Christchurch where we were staying for two nights prior to coming home. Of course, we got in a walk up part of the Rakaia Gorge on the way. Any excuse to delay going into a city – I just don’t know how we’re going to cope when we get home. Our B&B in Christchurch, The Lilac Rose, was situated in an area of Christchurch close to the airport. The effects of the 2011 earthquake were not too bad here, although in this one property alone the insurance claim amounted to some NZ$90,000 (about £45,000). And this in a home that didn’t have much structural damage. Not that you would know that Lilac Rose was ever in an earthquake. It is immaculate throughout and has one of the most beautiful entrances I have seen – a tunnel of perfumed roses which at this time of year in New Zealand are flowering in purfusion. We were greeted by Pam and her husband, Dennis and by a young and boisterous puppy called Maddy and at once were made to feel at home. Kiwis (and non-Kiwis who run holiday accommodation) just make it so easy for you to stay with them which means that you can get on with the business of enjoying yourself. Christchurch itself has been much affected by the earthquake two years ago, especially in the central district around cathedral square. The cathedral itself is a damaged shell and there is very visible evidence of the shocking events. Work is going on to clear collapsed buildings and to repair ones that can be saved. But much of the central district will be changed forever. Now that isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. Although it is sad that some of the Victorian splendour will never be replaced, Christchurch has the opportunity to re-invent itself and there are signs that this is happening. Container City is a thriving area of kitsch shops and coffee bars made out of the containers which normally go on container ships. There is the danger that, because they attract a large number of tourists, the containers could become a permanent fixture instead of a short term solution. There is always the danger in any disaster situation of people just cashing in on the publicity such an event brings. But I think Christchurch will renew itself and it would be good to see how it does so. Our time in New Zealand was sadly coming to an end but we had a special evening to go out on a high. I told you in my last email that we’d been on a Doubtful Sound trip with a bunch of other people two of whom, Holger and Kerstin we formed an instant bond with. Via email we learned that they were dropping off their camper van in Christchurch the first day we were there prior to flying back to Germany. So we arranged to go out for dinner that evening and had the most hilarious fun filled evening with them. I can’t tell you all that we spent the evening discussing but Holger’s description of the time he proposed to Kerstin, which went on for fully half an hour, had us literally crying with laughter. We were having our own end of travels party (Holger and Kerstin have been travelling for two years!) and even the waitress said ours was the best table that night by far. And that evening with our two new found friends about sums up our time in New Zealand. We’ve seen and done some incredible things, been stunned by the beauty of the land, mesmerised by the wildlife and have had our weather genie shine on us for almost the whole of the six weeks. Even today, on the flight from Christchurch to Auckland we saw the perfect volcanic cone that is Mount Egmont in Taranaki revealed in incredible detail from 28,000 feet up. Egmont is normally wreathed in cloud and you are lucky to see it. I guess we’ve had a fabulously lucky six weeks. It was certainly a busy one; we travelled over 6,500 Kilometres and I took 5,962 photos. But for all these wonderful things, I shan’t forget the people we have met along the way; B&B hosts, motel owners, tour leaders, fellow travellers and ordinary people in the street going out of their way to help a slightly lost tourist couple. Thank you one and all. I write these final words in seat 16J, on flight MH130 bound for Kuala Lumpur. There’s a G&T by my side as we’re celebrating Jane’s birthday today. In the compartment above my head, in a concealed little pocket of my camera case is a treasured memento from our journey – two small, pale brown feathers. On the tiny island of Ulva, about as far south in the world as Jane and I have ever ventured, one of the DOC men reached into the bag which had held the juvenile Kiwi he’d captured. He handed to me these two feathers. “If the customs man asks”, he said, “tell him you found them on the track”. And he winked. His two colleagues gave soft laughs. Like the flightless Kiwi I too need the intervention of humans to transport me away, not from my home but from somewhere I’ve come to love. I hope that, one day, the Kiwi’s feathers will find the means to fly us back to New Zealand’s shores. Perhaps on Stewart Island we will be able to see her offspring at the edge of the forest, in the bright moonlight. Farewell New Zealand. Until we meet again.

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