MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “Wildlife”

Escape to Otago

For weeks I was stuck in a triangle of home, work, and the supermarket. When New Zealand’s Government declared a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, I continued to work through as an essential worker, but outwith my work hours, like the rest of the country, I left home only to do a weekly shop or to go for a brief walk or bike ride around my neighbourhood. It was a strange 5 weeks. At first, we were granted movement within our region, and I was quick to include the coast in my off-day wanderings, enjoying the sunshine on New Brighton beach, and heading up onto the Port Hills to enjoy the views over Lyttelton Harbour. I even managed to find a trail that I hadn’t walked before. Being autumn, the light was low and it created a beautiful pale blue colour in the water and the sky. It was a novelty to see some wildlife too.

 

By mid-May, we were allowed to travel out of our region, and I was quick to book an Air BnB in Oamaru, Otago. A 3hr drive away, it was enough of an adventure for a weekend away without feeling like we were flouting any rules, and it felt great to get away from what had felt like a box for the last few months. The hillside to the west of Oamaru was creating a long shadow over the town when we arrived, and there was a late autumn chill in the air. We took a walk down to the harbour which still had some sunlight on it, before wandering through the deserted streets of the historic precinct nearby. As the sun set, the sky turned through pinks and purples before darkness fell.

 

For the first time in months, we went out for dinner. 15mins north of Oamaru is Riverstone Kitchen, a lovely little restaurant/cafe in the complex in front of Riverstone Castle, one of only 2 castles in New Zealand (and being Scottish, I use the term ‘castle’ here loosely). Despite the socially-distanced table placements and the lack of tourists, it felt almost normal to be eating out for dinner on a Saturday night.

The sun was shining the next morning but there was no doubting the time of year with the temperature staying low. We had a lovely view over the harbour from the balcony of the Air Bnb but there wasn’t going to be any sitting out on it that late in the season. We found a spot for breakfast in the historic precinct before jumping in the car and heading down the coast. Otago has some great wildlife viewing spots and I’m always keen to seek them out whenever I have enough time in this region. About 40mins south of Oamaru is the turnoff for Shag Point, a small community of baches hugging the coastline where it juts out into the Pacific Ocean. Where the road ends is a lookout and fur seal colony.

You can often smell fur seals before you see them. Most of them were fast asleep on the rocks so there wasn’t a lot of activity to draw attention. They stand out against the rocks better when they’re still wet from the ocean, but when they dry off they go pale and can often be overlooked from a distance when they’re snoozing and still. But as we walked around the coast, there were plenty to see, and the sea was calm by our sides, gently swelling to and from the rocks nearby. As my gaze moved offshore to some gulls and shags that were draped across some outlying rocks, I spotted some people fishing from a dinghy. It felt like a normal weekend day in New Zealand.

One of Otago’s most known attractions is Moeraki Boulders, a geological anomaly where perfectly spherical boulders emerge from the cliffs under the erosive powers of wind and sea. I remember the first time I visited them in 2012 there were certainly a few other people around, but in the years that followed, like elsewhere in the country, tourism numbers had soared to levels that in my opinion, were a detriment to many sites like this one. The tourism sector has taken a big hit thanks to the pandemic and many people have lost their livelihoods. It is a sad time for many, but I have to admit that I haven’t missed the crowds at all. As much as I know that the economy needs those foreign dollars, I’m not looking forward to see the influx return. We certainly didn’t have the place to ourselves on this day, but it was respectably quiet and I was able to enjoy exploring the boulders and marvelling how they’d changed in the 8 years since I’d first visited.

 

The boulders are quite concentrated in one area of the beach, but the beach itself has a lovely prospect out onto the Pacific Ocean and it’s a nice place to take a stroll even without the boulders. At the southern end the coast juts out at Moeraki, a small settlement with a fishing hub, a plethora of holiday baches, and a great pub to stop for a meal. It’s also where the road cuts off to Katiki Point where a lighthouse stands proudly at the top of a spit of a land jutting south. The lighthouse is not open to the public, but it marks the start of a track down to Katiki Point Reserve which is a must visit in the hours leading up to sunset. The gate closes and is locked at a set time each day, so it’s important to check this in advance, but the reason for going is the guaranteed sightings of hoiho, the yellow-eyed penguin, one of the rarest penguin species in the world and endemic to New Zealand.

The track follows the spit of land, remaining on its ridge, so you look down on the beach where the penguins come ashore. I’ve seen hoiho in several spots in Otago, but this is the closest I’ve been to them. A fence does separate the track from where the penguins are but that didn’t stop them jumping up the hillside to come closer to the band of people that were sitting on the slope watching them with glee. Further along the spit, the penguins were replaced by fur seals, gulls and shags. One or two fur seals seemed to share the penguins’ spot, but otherwise there did seem to be quite segregated areas for the different species to haul up out of the sea. Where they did overlap, there was often a loud bit of drama as the young seals chased the penguins or the penguins tried to stand up to the fur seals. Even just watching the interactions between the various penguins was like watching a soap opera. I could have stayed there till darkness, but the gate locking meant we all eventually had to head back to the car park and leave them to their own lives.

 

There was still enough daylight on our return to Oamaru that we took a walk along the perimeter of Friendly Bay past Sumpter Wharf. With the lowering of the sun ahead of sunset, the wharf was crammed full of spotted shags and gulls getting settled to roost for the night. It was incredible how many of them there were and there was a constant influx and occasional outflux of birds joining and leaving the throng. Like the night before, the sky turned pink and purple as sunset became dusk signalling time to go and grab some dinner.

 

I have to admit that one of my favourite things about not working Mondays is seeing most other people head into work when I know I don’t have to. We grabbed breakfast at a cafe not far from where we had stayed, and I smiled when I was presented with my coffee which had the words Good Morning on it written in chocolate syrup. I might not have needed to go to work, but we still had to head back to Christchurch that day. I wasn’t in charge of driving but I was allowed to dictate the route home, so rather than just heading straight up State Highway 1 and being home in a matter of hours, I chose to direct us on a detour to Elephant Rocks which I had discovered on a weekend away in the Waitaki Valley the previous autumn.

It was a bit of a convoluted route to get there, but although they don’t quite have the grandeur of Castle Hill in Canterbury, they’re still a pretty neat place to explore. On private land, they are publicly accessible but may be grazed by stock at times so there’s often a lot of dung around the place. There is also a pretty nice view across the nearby farm which is framed by some Otago hills and some taller peaks which had a light dust of snow on their tops. There is such a variety of shapes with a mixture of domes and wind-blasted exposed sides. There were a few other people there, but these rocks are so off the main roads and away from the typical tourist routes that they are quiet in comparison to their northern equivalents.

 

After snaking back and forward among them, it was time to head back to the car and start heading home. Although my favourite part of Otago is the Otago Peninsula, Oamaru and the nearby coast is a great spot for geology and wildlife. Having not stopped-off there in a long time, little did I know I’d end up passing through here again and again and again over the next 12 months.

Humpridge Track – Beyond Humpridge

A high bank of clouds hung over the mountain as the hut began to empty itself of hikers. It made for a grey start to a long day of hiking ahead up on the Humpridge, a little over 900m. I had a long descent ahead with my next bed an estimated 8hrs hiking away at an altitude of just 33m. There was a short trek up from Okaka Lodge to the ridge line and shortly after I turned to head downhill, I was greeted by a couple of kea. Kea are such cheeky interactive birds, and I always love to see them. They hung around only for a few minutes before taking off, revealing the bright orange underside of their otherwise predominantly green plumage.

 

Looking down either side of the mountain, wisps of morning cloud hung around the valleys and trees within view. I was facing directly out over Te Waewae Bay and Rakiura, surrounded by low alpine vegetation either side of the track. By the time I reached the track junction for the ascent I’d done the day before and the descent in front of me, I was walking through what is generally known as goblin forest, an ethereal type of forest typified by lichen-covered trees and moss-covered floors, where goblins and mythical creatures would not seem out of place. They can often be eerily quiet too, but on this occasion there were regular fantail and tomtit sightings as I moved through.

 

Back out on exposed ridge line, the descent was easy but the path was narrow making for the occasional jostle as faster hikers wanted to pass each other. There were great views looking behind and forwards, and I could make out the distinctive boulders atop Humpridge for quite some time. It looked stormy inland and then out of nowhere, a large cloud began to sweep up the eastern aspect of the mountain, enveloping the trail as I approached the area known as Luncheon Rock. The view was just obliterated and it became suddenly very cold. I waited it out for a bit, knowing from experience that it would only be temporary, savouring the view when it returned before disappearing into thick forest.

 

The rest of the descent was through forest similar to what I’d hiked up through the day before. I caught glimpses of kaka parrots feeding in the trees, and there was the sound of various bird species as I descended lower and lower. It took about 4.5hrs to reach the South Coast track at a mere 80m altitude and within minutes I found myself at the first of a series of historic viaducts. This coastal route used to be used by loggers and had a historic sawmill train running along it. The Edwin Burn viaduct was first, followed by the Percy Burn viaduct some time later. On the path between them, there were the hints of railway tracks just about visible through the soil. The viaducts themselves were huge wooden structures spanning wide gullies in the forest and as I crossed the Percy Burn viaduct, I could just make out the sea to the south, peaking out above the tree line.

 

After crossing the Sand Hill viaduct, the track continued to follow the contours of the coastline. I naively assumed I’d get a view of the sea as it skirted round Sand Hill Point but the forest was just too thick. Port Craig felt both tantalisingly close but also still some distance away. I was repetitively distracted by birds though with South Island robins keeping my company as I negotiated what was sometimes a rather muddy track. The foliage here meant sunlight didn’t penetrate well but being a typically wet part of the country, the undergrowth wasn’t getting the chance to dry out. By this point, the clouds had left and as the track started to turn north-east, I was bathed in glorious sunshine wherever the foliage would allow.

I reached Port Craig just shy of 8hrs since I’d left Okaka Lodge. Port Craig Lodge was a series of buildings around a central boardwalk, and my assigned bed was thankfully away from the snorer of the night before. The only view here was down by the helipad, but nearby there was a historic walk which led through some remnants from the sawmill days, as well as a track that led down to Mussel Beach at the edge of Te Waewae Bay. As I followed the beach track there was a lookout over the expanse of blue ocean and as I looked down on it, I saw a dolphin in the water. That was enough to spur me on to get down to the beach pronto.

 

The tide was out, and there was a gentle lap of water on the sand. I had no swimming clothes but I waded out to my knees to let the water soothe my aching feet and I craned my neck looking for signs of something break the water. My reward was the little rounded fin of a Hector’s dolphin feeding in the surf. Time and time again its fin cruised through the water and I caught it breathe as it moved back and forth across the bay. Sometimes it was tantalisingly close to shore, and then it would go out quite far till I could barely see it. At one point it was joined by a second dolphin and I couldn’t believe I pretty much had this moment to myself, despite how many other hikers had already arrived at the hut.

 

I spent over an hour either sitting or meandering on the beach. The dolphins kept me company for a large part of that before they moved further offshore. Latterly some other hikers joined me but they had missed most of the show. I felt so privileged to have experienced that. Eventually I headed back up the steps and walked the historical loop track past abandoned and rusting pits and chimneys. Back at the lodge, the common room began to fill up as everyone crowded in to to make and eat dinner. Once again, the presence of a bar meant I could indulge in a post hike cider. For the second day in a row, I’d hiked 21km, and I’d seen so much wildlife. I thankfully slept so much better that night.

The cloud had moved in over Fiordland National Park during the night and I woke up to a cooler and overcast morning. There was no great mountain to conquer that day but there was still a predicted 7hr hike back to my car. Te Waewae Bay is huge, and the trail was effectively following the coastal margin, although within the forest. The vegetation was so dense away from the trail and I was again reminded how easy it would be to get lost or disorientated if you strayed too far. I spotted kaka again as I moved under the trees then the rain began, and despite the density of the canopy above my head, it made it through the foliage and it was time to gear up in my waterproofs.

Despite the rain, I paused on the beach at Breakneck Creek where I could see the rain moving across the bay. It was steady enough to feel damp, and there was only so long I wanted to hang out in the rain before moving onwards. After another forested section, the trail actually cut down to another beach and the beach became the track. Among the debris on the sand I noticed a rock that looked like it had shellfish fossils in it. Among the waves some jagged rocks were being pounded by the surf but this didn’t seem to deter the spotted shags that were hanging out there. As I moved from one beach to a second beach, the rain began to ease a little and I could see that I was going to out-walk the bad weather. Finally though, I reached the track junction that led up to Okaka Lodge, and now I was retracing my steps from day 1.

 

Exiting Fiordland National Park through the edge of the forest, the long stony beach beckoned once more but it felt a little wilder this time, with the surf breaking on the rocks. A lone shag rested there despite the steady stream of hikers that passed by. The little beach shacks were passed and the last of the swing bridges traversed. Around 2pm I found myself heading up the stairs to the final forest section, eventually popping out at the car park, highly satisfied and tired.

 

I have to admit that often the first thing I’ll do when I come off a multi-day hike is to head straight to a coffee shop for a decent coffee. I used to only drink coffee on the weekends when I lived in Scotland, but the quality coffee in New Zealand means I’m firmly a daily caffeine consumer now, and I always crave a decent brew when I return to civilisation. I had good reason to on this occasion though as I had a 3.5hr drive to my bed for the night. Always one to pack the most into my time off work, I had one more adventure to go before returning to Christchurch.

Humpridge Track – Te Waewae Bay to Humpridge

I was torn between looking out into the surf and staring at my feet. The waters of Te Waewae Bay in New Zealand’s Southland are home to Hector’s dolphins, the World’s smallest dolphin species. I hoped to see some riding the waves as I strolled along the beach on the first section of the multi-day Humpridge Track, but the stones and shifting sand under foot meant I was constantly having to watch my footing.

 

It took about 1.5 hours to walk the expanse of the bay from the car park at Rarakau. I knew I had a decent climb ahead of me but I also wanted to savour the fresh sea air before the sweat and slog began so I hadn’t hurried myself too much. Once off the beach, it was an easy track that hugged the contours of the coastline, following the edge of the forest where the odd bird began to appear. Beyond a swing bridge across a river, the sun burst through the clouds properly, bathing me in sunlight as I came across a pretty little beach just down from the track. Eventually, the track headed into thicker and thicker forest until I found myself at the junction to begin the hard slog up into the mountains. Here, I was stepping into Fiordland National Park, the largest national park in the country, and one of my favourites. Down here, in the south-west corner of the country, the land feels so remote and so far from civilisation, and I was soon to discover, it was full of wildlife.

 

From the moment I took the turnoff the forest felt deep and impenetrable. A mix of cut trail and long boardwalks, there was a sense that moving just a few metres off track could see you lost and disorientated. For an hour and a half, the track meandered through tall dense trees with the sound of forest birds intermittently accompanying me. Somewhere off to the side a river was snaking through the forest but it was out of sight until eventually I reached Water Bridge Shelter where other hikers had also stopped to take a break. Ahead lay the climb, an over 800m ascent up to Okaka Lodge where my bed for the night awaited. But by now I’d already be on the trail for 4 hours, and with the altitude gain, the prospect was of another 4 hours to go. As I replenished some spent energy with snacks and water, a South Island robin watched with great interest, cocking its head as it flitted about.

 

The climb was exhausting but as I made my way up higher and higher in the forest, I saw flashes of tomtits following close by, and even kaka, a shy forest parrot. At one point I stumbled across a large group of riflemen, a really tiny bird that are normally very difficult to photograph due to their shyness and incessant need to keep moving. I would have been able to snap a photo of this group if I had thought to, but I was so caught off guard at the number of them just partying in the ground vegetation that I ended up just watching them without daring to move. There was a constant tag team of passing or being passed by fellow hikers but despite that, I still felt for the most part that it was just me and the forest and it was total bliss despite the effort of the hike.

 

After a couple of hours, a low ridge provided a break in the trees, and the higher altitude meant the trees were a little shorter. For the first time the Okaka Lodge came into view and it looked tantalisingly close. There was also a lookout called Stag Point which gave an incredible view over Te Waewae Bay and I could see over to Rakiura/Stewart Island. The cloud had moved in and the sun had faded but the view was still expansive.

I was by now exhausted and eager to reach the lodge, so I was a little disappointed to see a sign stating there was still another 1.5hrs to go. I could see and hear kea, an alpine parrot flying up by the lodge and the bluffs off to the side of it, and hoped they’d still be there when I reached it. As much as seeing kaka in the wild is exciting due to their rarity, they are typically shy and hide out of sight, unlike the kea which are inquisitive, comparatively bold and more likely to interact. Therefore, I’m always more excited to see kea than I am to see kaka.

Once more delving into thick forest, I finally came upon the ridge junction that would take me onto the alpine ridge towards the lodge. Shortly after making the turn, the track broke out of the trees and I was surrounded by stubby alpine plants and a chill in the air. To protect the fragile plants here, the track became a long boardwalk snaking across the ridge, depositing me at the turn off to the hut. There it was a drop down of about 20m to reach a beautiful lodge nestled between two ridges with a prospect overlooking Te Waewae Bay. I’ve stayed in many Department of Conservation (DoC) huts where it’s first come, first served for bunk beds, but the Humpridge Track is privately run and on arrival I discovered I had a pre-assigned bed. I was to be sharing a bunk room with a family group, of which the matriarch proudly declared to me that she was a loud snorer and laughed as she told me not to expect any sleep that night. I realised I hadn’t brought any ear plugs with me and sighed inwardly.

 

It was by now 5pm, but being summer, sunset was still several hours away, so after I felt adequately rested in the legs, I decided to head back up to the ridge to walk the Humpridge Loop track. Up at around 1000m, the ridge is littered with large and unusually shaped boulders which gives a distinctive skyline. I could see rain moving in from deep within Fiordland National Park, and the sky over me was growing greyer and greyer. I headed clockwise round the loop, where I could see across a span of mountains to Lake Poteriteri to the west. A couple of mountain tarns sat near the top and a few hardy alpine flowers were in bloom. In the far distance were some tall peaks with a dusting of snow still clinging to their slopes.

 

A few spots of rain began as I skirted round the top of the loop to come back on the eastern side. From up here, Rakiura was now in full view and I could see so far along the Southland coast also. It wasn’t quite the blue sunny sky I’d had earlier in the day but the cloud was staying high enough that the view thankfully wasn’t occluded. I took a quick second loop around the trail before the spots of rain became more of a drizzle, sending me back to the lodge for the evening.

 

Away from the bunkrooms, the common rooms felt packed with all the hikers congregated in one space preparing meals and chatting together. The novelty of this being a private lodge was the cupboard full of dehydrated meals, snacks, soft drinks and booze. It was a nice treat to end the long day of hiking by grabbing a can of cider to wash down my dinner and the evening was buzzing with chatter as people got to know each other. I much prefer hiking on my own, and am incredibly introverted in large gatherings. Nonetheless, huts on a hiking trail are a good chance to mingle and meet people from all over the country and abroad, and so I always force myself to talk to people in huts more than I would in my day to day life.

As I retired to bed, it wasn’t long before I discovered that my bunk mate was not kidding about her snoring. It was like a foghorn. I tried and tried to shut off to it but I just got tired and cranky. After a while I grabbed my sleeping bag and walked to the living room where I discovered two other outcasts asleep on the couches. Thankfully there was a spare couch, and I settled in for an awkwardly positioned sleep in a much quieter space. In the early hours of the morning we were disturbed by the early risers. Anyone who has slept overnight in a DoC hut in New Zealand knows that there are always those that rise early, and don’t seem to care who they disturb. As the three of us were occupying the common room, it was difficult for them to tread around us, so in the end, I acknowledged that it was time to get up. I’d hiked 21km to Okaka Lodge, and ahead of me was another 21km to my next bed. I might as well get moving.

A Journey Towards Fiordland National Park

New Zealand’s unique avian fauna has seen me morph into a bird nerd. I enjoyed the sight and sound of birds in my Homeland of Scotland, but I never went out my way to go bird watching, or cared enough to photograph them. But since moving to a country which has a high rate of endemism, having species found here and nowhere else, I found myself increasingly interested in watching them, photographing them and conserving them. With many ground nesting or flightless birds, the introduction (both deliberate and accidental) of predators has decimated many species causing extinctions or near extinctions across both islands.

One of my favourite places in Wellington is Zealandia, a predator-proof ecosanctuary behind the capital city where parrots, saddleback and hihi are free to fly without risk of predation, at least if they remain within the boundary. I’ve known about Dunedin’s version for a while, but never had the time to visit, so when I made plans to go hiking in Southland in February 2020, I decided to head down via Otago, stopping off at Orokonui Ecosanctuary on route. I’d returned home from a week away in the Chatham Islands just the afternoon prior, which was enough time to unpack, repack and recharge ahead of the 5hr drive south. Arriving at lunchtime, I stopped for lunch in the cafe before heading into the sanctuary proper. Although smaller, like Zealandia, its perimeter is a predator-proof fence, and likewise the birds are free-flying and capable of leaving the sanctuary.

Immediately outside the entrance-way was a wetland and the surrounding hills had their tops shrouded in clouds. It wasn’t long before I began to see birds. A welcome swallow watched me as I walked towards an open area where a takahe was wandering about. An artificial landscape had been created for native skinks and some of these were sunbathing on the rocks. There’s paths of varying altitude and length throughout the park, with feeding stations marked to give an idea of where birds may be best spotted.

 

I was mindful of the fact that I still had a few more hours to drive that day, but also wanted to get a good feel for the place and cover as much area as I could whilst still being able to stop and bird watch. The feeding stations were a great place to spot tui and korimako, and when I headed into the wooded areas, I was joined by south island robins, a bird I regularly hang out with while hiking. There was a surprising variation in vegetation as the paths circled over, round and down the nearby hillside. Sadly, there were no free-flying kaka to be seen here which was one big difference from Zealandia. However, there were some parakeets which are very camera shy but always noisy.

 

I sat for a while at a nectar station watching more tui and bellbirds feeding before I found myself at an area with a view down the hillside towards Blueskin Bay. Nearby there were some caged parrots which I found unusual, but I later discovered these were birds that had been rehabbed post-illness, and were being temporarily held for monitoring and wing-stretching pre-release. Beyond here, it wasn’t long before I found myself back at the entrance and back on the road.

 

I had two choices to get back onto State Highway (SH) 1: go back the way I’d come or cut over to Port Chalmers and drive through Dunedin. I decided to follow the road to Port Chalmers which I’d never been on before. A lookout above the port gave a good view over the port itself but also across the Otago harbour and the islands within it. I’ve been around parts of the Otago Peninsula before but I hadn’t previously explored the northern side of the harbour. I didn’t have time to stop anywhere else, instead making a mental note to come back and explore this headland another time.

 

It was a long 3.5hr drive to the far south-western corner of both Southland and the South Island. Driving is exhausting, no matter how well rested you are prior. I was pretty eager to get to my destination, with the last hour or so being particularly tedious and tiresome. Finally I pulled into Tuatapere, a small and quiet little settlement which felt deserted this late in the day. Tuatapere is ‘famous’ for the tuatapere sausage, so after checking in at the local backpacker lodge, I headed to the pub to see what all the fuss was about. When you know you’re going to be eating dehydrated food for several days, you tend to savour the last proper meal before a multi-day hike, and whilst I don’t really know what makes their sausage that different from others, the bangers and mash was a welcome feed.

The Humpridge Track is a privately run multi-day hike in the south-western corner of the South Island, starting at Te Waewae Bay before entering Fiordland National Park at its south-eastern perimeter. Bunk beds need to be pre-booked and are pre-assigned, and it is necessary to visit the Tuatapere Humpridge Track office prior to commencing to sign onto the trail. Shuttles are an option, but I had my own wheels so I headed off down the back road out of Tuatapere. Like a lot of hikes in New Zealand, the access road was unsealed for a large section of it. I only have a 2-wheel drive car, but this has done me fine for most back country roads that I’ve traversed. Only when its a steep gradient do I really hate driving on unsealed roads, and this was the case to reach the car park.

When at last I got there, the car park was mobbed and there was limited room to park. Although the Humpridge track is limited by the number of available beds, there are public walks utilising Department of Conservation (DoC) huts that also start from here. Multiple groups were setting off at the same time, so although geographically I was quite away from the bulk of the country’s population, I certainly didn’t feel alone.

With 21km to cover on day one, the track immediately ducked into forest, heading downhill towards the coast. Brief glimpses of the sea breaking on the coast below me began to open up into wider views of Te Waewae Bay. A flight of steps lead down to a lower track which broke out at a suspension bridge across the Waikoau river. I was surprised to see some beach shacks here, but there was nobody around despite a couple of them looking like they were occupied.

 

Shortly after, the track cut down to the beach, and in doing so, the view along the coast opened right up in all directions. The others who’d set off around the same time as me were ahead now, and in the distance I could see other hikers spaced out along the stony beach. I could also see the mountain I had to climb to reach my bed for the night, a 900m elevation from where I was standing. But I was excited for the three days of hiking ahead of me, grateful to be doing it under a blue sky.

North-East Chatham Island

There was a slightly awkward moment when all the seats on the bus were filled and two of us were still waiting to board. There had been a few hints of the island way of doing things in the short period of time that I’d been on Chatham Island, and that morning was no exception. In lieu of hiring a car and paying entry levies, I’d been invited to join a tour group for the day. My stay on the island coincided with a visit of an author and a tour group that were enraptured with her. They’d been travelling as a group for several days at this point, and I felt immediately like an intruder. I had no idea who the author was, and knew little about the topic that they all had in common, and now there wasn’t even space for me on the bus. Had it just been me, I probably would have just bowed out, but as it turned out, the bus wasn’t even big enough for the whole group, and two other cars ended up following behind, one of which I was able to get a lift with.

The island may not look big on a map, but the lack of sealed roads and the relatively slow speed limit as a result, means heading to the far edge of the island took longer than you would think. I’m not normally a fan of tour groups, but it was nice to have a bit of company for the day, and it definitely made it much easier to get to a couple of spots. A large lagoon cuts out a decent chunk of the centre of the island, and several lakes are dotted around it. To get to the north-east of the island, involves driving all the way to the north coast and skirting round the northern edge of the lagoon. Eventually the road became a track across a long grass field and after some time we finally pulled up at our first stop for the day.

I hadn’t even heard of this place before my visit, but the J.M. Barker National Historic Reserve is a site of great Moriori significance. Although this is a publicly accessible Department of Conservation managed region, I don’t think I would have got the same experience had I gone on my own. Hidden in the forest were a series of tree carvings or dendroglyphs, estimated to be a few hundred years old. Depicting faces and animals among other things, some were easier to spot than others, and I probably would have walked past a couple of them had they not been pointed out to me. After following the loop track through the woodland, a track cut down to a wild beach on the eastern coast of the island. Looking out across the windy Pacific Ocean, there is no landfall between where we stood and the coast of Chile in South America.

 

Back on the main road, we turned onto the peninsula that marks the very north-eastern part of the island. The last settlement here is Kaingaroa, a small village sitting on a gorgeous sandy bay. It was a week day, but the place felt like a ghost town with nobody around. There were several fishing boats moored in the bay, and as we went for a walk along the road to the pier, the only people around were busy here off loading from a boat. It was a nice vista to enjoy whilst we ate lunch, a couple of gulls eyeing us up for leftovers. A small little beach on the other side of the pier led to the headland, and were it not for the accents of the people behind me, I could have pretended I was in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland.

 

The main reason I’d joined the tour group was to get access to Point Munning on the very tip of the peninsula. This involved entering private property, and the track wasn’t marked or immediately obvious, meaning I probably would have gotten lost had I driven there myself. You’re never far from the ocean on Chatham Island, but here, it was a short walk through a coastal fringe of bush to reach a rocky outcrop receiving the rolling waves from the Pacific. Nestled onto and among the rocks was a New Zealand fur seal colony. Almost completely encircled by rocks, a small bay of water acted as a nursery pool and there were seal pups strewn all over the place, with adults hauled out the ocean for a snooze and a dry-off. A few seals porpoised across the bay, and we were accompanied by the noise and smell that always hangs around a fur seal colony.

We spent a good amount of time here, although not as much as I would have liked. The tour had other places to be, whereas this was the main reason I had come. I enjoyed watching some seal pups that came tantalisingly close, and a weka wandered among them seeking out something to eat. The pups liked to watch us as much as we liked to watch them, and a couple in particular captured my attention the most with their exceedingly cute faces craned in my direction with curiosity. I’ve visited several fur seal colonies on the mainland, but this was probably one of my favourite due to the proximity and activity that took place there.

 

Not far from here was the remains of a German missionary settlement, complete with whaling vat abandoned outside the building remains. A cemetery nearby is believed to be one of the earliest European graveyards in New Zealand. Nowadays, the area is farmland, and the crooked trees from the prevailing wind left me wandering why on earth someone thought it made sense to build a missionary settlement all the way out here. Like a lot of frontier outposts, whaling in the nearby ocean had a lot to answer for, a practice that I’m glad my country does not allow to continue.

We stopped at the farm buildings of the property we had had to cut through to get to Point Munning. At the back was a huge shed, which on opening the door I was shocked to be confronted by the immense fuselage of a Sunderland Flying Boat, NZ4111, that was built in the 40s, used during World War II in the tropics, and then purchased by the New Zealand Air Force in the 50s. It struck a rock in 1959, and while it was never able to fly again, it was at least able to be salvaged, finding itself inside a large farm building in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. It was incredible to walk around, it was simply massive, and I imagined a time when it would have been normal to see it take to the skies. There were all sorts of other vehicles in various states in the hangar with it, but it was definitely the plane that grabbed my attention the most.

We started the long drive back to Waitangi, following the north coast then turning south hugging the lagoon. We eventually reached the junction with the road that had taken me to the basalt columns and north-western corner of the island a couple of days prior. We turned up this road to stop at Admiralty Gardens, one of the accommodations on the island. Here there was also a garden full of local and introduced flowers. This stop was really for the benefit of the tour group I had tagged along with as they and the author that they were touring with, were highly knowledgeable about the flora they were looking at. I wandered around listening to them excitedly chatter away about the flowers, finding myself in the company of a very happy Golden Retriever.

 

This was to be the only time I didn’t eat dinner at the Hotel Chatham. Although I’d paid to join the group, I still felt like a bit of an imposter, but with their gentle coaxing, I was able to partake in the booze and amazing spread of food that was laid out. A couple of years prior, when I’d been on Stewart Island, I had excitedly ordered Paua at a restaurant, to try this seafood for the first time. Unfortunately they forgot my order so I was never able to try it, but finally I was able to try it both barbecued and curried and it was utterly divine. The food at the Hotel Chatham had been enjoyable each night, but this smorgasbord of a buffet was impressive, and I was grateful that the tour group had welcomed me into the fold. I was stuffed at the end of it all, and ready to fall into a food coma by the time I returned to my accommodation at the end of the day. The morning was to see me heading off on an adventure that I had been wanting to do for a long time, and I couldn’t wait.

Wildlife of Tanzania

From the open-spaces of the African Plains, to the slopes of the continent’s highest mountain, I saw an incredible array of wildlife in Tanzania. While the Serengeti is probably well known to a lot of people, a regular backdrop of wildlife documentaries, there is more to Tanzania than just this national park, although it offered me so much in terms of incredible sightings. Across three national parks (Kilimanjaro, Lake Manyara and Serengeti) as well as one conservation area (Ngorongoro), I had an incredible two weeks in a country that I found to be full of some very friendly and welcoming people. It was my second time in the African continent and this trip did not disappoint. From Africa’s Big Five to some of its smallest creatures, I was ecstatic with all that I saw.

 

MAMMALS

Warthogs

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP

 

Olive Baboon

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Manyara (Blue) Monkey

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

(Hilgert’s) Vervet Monkey

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Common Impala

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Wildebeest

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

African Buffalo

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Plains Zebra

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Giraffe

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Bushbuck

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

African Savannah Elephant

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Black Rhino

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Southern Grant’s Gazelle

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Thomsons Gazelle

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Eland

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Topi

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

African Lion

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Leopard

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Rock Hyrax

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Cheetah

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Hyena

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Dik Dik

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Hippo

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Mongoose

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Rat

Sightings: Arusha, Serengeti NP

 

Serval Cat

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Golden Jackal

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

BIRDS

Streaky Seedeater

Sightings: Moorland zone of Kilimanjaro’s slopes

 

White-necked Raven

Sightings: Moorland zone of Kilimanjaro’s slopes

 

Alpine Chat

Sightings: Moorland zone of Kilimanjaro’s slopes

 

Dusky Turtle Doves

Sighting: Alpine zone of Kilimanjaro’s slopes

 

Southern Ground Hornbill

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Saddle Billed Stork

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Grey Heron

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

African Jacana

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

African Spoonbill

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Cattle Egret

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

African Swamphen

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Hadada Ibis

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Squacco Heron

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Von Der Decken’s Hornbill

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Helmeted Guinea Fowl

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Ring-necked Dove

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Flamingo

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

African Fish Eagle

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Egyptian Goose

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

African Pied Kingfisher

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP

 

Common Sandpiper

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP

 

Grey Crowned Crane

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Speckled Mousebird

Sightings: Lake Manyara NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Tawny Eagle

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Serengeti NP

 

Marabou Stork

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Ostrich

Sightings: Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Caped Wheatear

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Superb Starling

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Oxpecker

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Hooded Vulture

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Finch

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

African Black-winged Stilt

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

 

Shrike

Sightings: Serengeti NP

 

Red-winged Starling

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Abdim’s Stork

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

 

REPTILES AND OTHERS

Long-tailed Admiral Butterfly

Sightings: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Mwanza Flat-headed Agama Lizard

Sightings: Serengeti NP

Ngorongoro Conservation Area

The sky had turned from black to blue as we arrived at the entrance gate. As with the previous parks, we had to get permits checked before entry, so in the freezing cold we sat watching the colours of the sky change from the top of the crater. The blues progressively lightened, and a rim of yellow appeared, before pink and purple tinges popped up. There was a decent bit of light by the time we were waved through and as we began the descent down the crater side, the road quickly deteriorated into a pitted and crevassed mess which we bounced over and round. It made for relatively slow moving. But on reaching the bottom, we almost immediately found the road blocked by a few other safari jeeps in front of us and with no way of getting round them, we stopped. There was a good reason for them being there though, because off to our right was a lion. As we waited, he gradually moved closer before cutting through the line of traffic and finding a rest spot off to our left. Not long after, two more male lions appeared out of the forest, one of them sauntering towards and past us to join their brother whilst the other hung back. In the early morning light, with the sun’s rays just reaching over the crater edge, they glowed as they walked and they were stunning for it. Another male appeared and as he approached his brothers he started to call, a low guttural noise that sounded haunting. The roaring male greeted the first lion, and eventually the last lion, scarred and dirty and with the biggest mane, joined them. These male alliances seemed rather common, as we’d spotted several on our various safaris in Tanzania.

 

As the jeeps ahead pulled away, we spent a little more time with the couple of lions that remained in view, but as we drove through the vegetation that bounded the rim of the crater floor, we didn’t have to go far to find the full-maned lion who had settled down in a patch of grass not far from a herd of antelope. From here, the expanse of the crater floor opened up, and we could see herbivores off in the distance, the nearest ones eyeing up the resting lion as it glowed in the sun. From the crater rim viewpoints, the crater floor had looked devoid of life, but now that we were down here, the place looked huge and there was life visible everywhere we looked. In fact we barely had to drive far to find more carnivores, this time a couple of jackals out on the hunt. They camouflaged well against the dry grass, but they skipped about, noses to the ground, occasionally looking up to look around. A nearby eland, huge in comparison, gave them no regard whatsoever.

 

A hazy waterhole housed a plethora of flamingos. The road never went near enough to see them in focus, but the blur of pink bodies meant there was no shortage of them. In the grasslands around it, the grazers congregated, and we drove past zebra and gazelles and wildebeest. There were several small groups on the near side of the waterway but in the distance we could see herds, and as we skirted round the water we spotted not only some impala but also a couple of black rhinos. This was the last of the Big Five that I had to see. I had in fact spotted a rhino from the view point when we first drove past on the way to the Serengeti, but it had taken the full zoom of my camera to see it and even then it was only just discernible as a rhino. I wasn’t going to be satisfied enough with that, so now seeing them from ground level, I was much happier. That being said, they still were some way away, and they were ambling away from the road, meaning I was still reliant on zoom to see them well. We gradually followed the road, stopping every now and again to watch the rhinos further, but nearer us we were among the zebras and wildebeest and I was loving watching them just as much. It was hard to know where to look, with animals mulling around on both sides of us.

 

There was a noticeable amount of juvenile zebras here, just like in the Serengeti, and the herds milled around, crossing the road in front of and behind us. We were gradually moving towards the centre of the crater as we watched, and at one point when we stopped to look at something on our right, I noticed that there was a sleeping hyena immediately to our left that no-one had noticed. I don’t think we would have parked so close had we realised ahead of time that it was there, but after initially raising its head to eye us up, it simply plopped it back down again and closed its eyes. We clearly weren’t worth worrying about, nor was it interested in the Thomson gazelle nearby. Another hyena appeared and drank out of a puddle on the road, but clearly a hunt was not even on the agenda.

 

We found ourselves by a large wildebeest herd, and unlike in the Serengeti, there was a plethora of calves among them. As odd looking as the adults are, the calves were utterly cute and fun to watch. The driver knew we had a lot to see, so although he stopped often, we encouraged him to move on once we’d got our fill of photographs. The zebra and wildebeest appeared to be everywhere, small clusters spread out across the plains of the crater floor and at one point we found some ostriches wandering among them. Even a hyena den didn’t keep the grazers away and with much excitement, we spotted a couple of hyena pups pop up from the hole in the ground and hang out with the adults. It’s really difficult to know which hyenas are male and which are female because for some random evolutionary reason, the females have a pseudopenis. They live in matriarchal groups so presumably most of the ones we saw were male, but it was weird to see them wave their pseudopenis about and when its presence results in infant mortality during birth, you have to wonder what on earth is its evolutionary advantage.

 

A change in vegetation as we drove meant bigger congregations of both wildebeest and zebra. It almost looked like there was a wetland behind them and some large trees were evident behind that. As the road rose up a little and came around a corner, a lake came into view and as we parked up next to it, we were given the opportunity to get out and stretch our legs. It was a gorgeous spot and initially looked innocuous but on closer inspection we could see rings appearing in the water nearby and every now and again a pair of nostrils would break the surface. Further away a group of hippos were just visible, and we realised that just metres away, below the surface, was one of Africa’s most dangerous animals. We were apparently safe to mill around the water’s edge here, within a few metres of the jeeps, and it was a great photo opportunity. I wandered along the road a little towards the other end of the lake but I was called back hastily. You never knew what wild animal was lurking about, I was told, and it was safer in a group. It was too easy to get complacent. Not long after I returned to the vehicle, one of the hippos came out of the water and stood on the bank staring at us. It was a juvenile, but it was still a chunky animal. It stared us down for a bit before walking back to the water.