MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “whale”

Wildlife of Scotland

It is said that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. After spending over 28 years of my life living in Scotland, it took moving to the other side of the world to really appreciate some of my homeland’s special qualities. As brimming as it is with beautiful scenery, it is also full of wildlife, both urban and rural. Over the last few years I have become a bit of a bird enthusiast, and I’ve found myself paying more attention to the feathered creatures that flit about around me. Whenever I go abroad, I’m very conscious of the wildlife that lives in that foreign land, and now when I go back to Scotland, I see the wealth of wildlife with fresh eyes. From cities to lochs, and mountains to the coast, there is something to spot everywhere. Special mention goes to the otter, red fox, red squirrel, hedgehog, minke whale, harbour porpoise, bottlenose dolphin, basking shark, white-tailed sea eagle, buzzard, kestrel and osprey which I have had the joy of seeing but haven’t been able to photograph.

MAMMALS

Reindeer

There’s only 1 herd of reindeer in the whole of the UK and they roam the mountain tops near Cairngorm, many of them coming down daily to hand-feed from visitors.

Adult Reindeer

Reindeer calf

 

Red Deer

The ‘Monarch of the Glen’, the male deer in full antlers and rutting mode is a sight (and sound) to behold. Spotted in the mountains and moors.

Red deer in Glen Muick

 

Roe Deer

The shy and solitary member of the deer family. Much harder to spot than the other deer species. This one was spotted in Caithness.

Roe deer

 

Grey Squirrel

An introduced species that has played a major part in the decline of the native red squirrel, these guys are a common sighting in parks and gardens, and are easy to spot without even leaving the city.

Grey squirrel

 

Rabbit

Seen as a pest by some, rabbits are often easy to spot in farmland and open fields.

Rabbit

 

Common Seal

From a distance, the common and grey seal can look very similar. Usually spotted hauled out onto rocks up the west coast or on the islands.

Common seal

 

Grey Seal

Newburgh beach north of Aberdeen offers near guaranteed sightings of these seals. They usually haul out on the protected north side of the Ythan river there, and can also be seen swimming in the river itself watching the beach goers and dogs go by.

Grey seal in the Ythan river

Seals hauled up on the beach at Newburgh

 

Humpback Whale

A seasonal visitor to Scottish waters, they can be spotted for a very short time in the waters around the islands of the west coast.

Humpback whale off the west coast of Scotland

Humpback whale fin slapping

 

White-beaked Dolphins

Feeding pods can be spotted around the islands off the west coast if you are lucky.

White beaked dolphins in Scottish waters

White-beaked dolphin leaping

 

Common Dolphins

These deep sea feeders are my favourite species of dolphin. They can be spotted off the west coast if you are lucky.

Common dolphin

 

BIRDS

Pied Wagtail

These are commonly spotted garden and pasture birds and are widely spread across the country.

Pied wagtail

 

Chaffinch

The colourful male is easy to spot in gardens and green spaces. The female blends in more and is less distinctive, but the species is well spread across the country.

Chaffinch (male)

Chaffinch (female)

 

Blackbird

Another common visitor to gardens and green spaces. This juvenile was trying to grab the attention of its parents.

Blackbird (juvenile)

 

Wood Pigeon

This is the porky version of the common run-of-the-mill street pigeon that plagues city centres. Although they will occasionally be seen amongst their scrawny city-dwelling cousins, they are more usually seen in the suburbs or near woods.

Wood Pigeon

 

European Robin

The recognisable robin redbreast that adorns many a Christmas card is best spotted in gardens.

European Robin

 

Starling

A common and easily spotted bird in both urban and rural areas. These birds often flock together in mesmerising murmurations in the evening as they prepare to roost in large groups.

Bedraggled starling parent

 

House Sparrow

Another common and easily spotted garden bird.

House Sparrow

 

Song Thrush

These are the birds that I fondly remember from my childhood, singing away in the trees behind my parent’s house. They have a beautiful song, and are best spotted in areas with trees, but this includes many public green spaces and gardens.

Song Thrush

 

Carrion Crow

One of the county’s most diversely spread birds, they don’t seem fussy with their habitat and can be spotted in both urban and rural areas either singly or in groups. They are adaptable and have a varied diet, and are also known to be intelligent.

Carrion Crow

 

Swallow

Less spotted than the more common and similar-looking swift, these birds love to fly over high-insect zones such as farmland and waterways. They are exceedingly agile on the wing and are amazing to watch in action. It is also rare to see them on the ground and uncommon to see them perching as most of their life is spent on the wing.

Swallow

 

Common Linnet

This is a bird I never knew existed until I was going through my photos after my most recent trip home and wondered what it was. I’m certainly not aware that I have ever seen one before. This colourful male was spotted near the coast on Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands.

Common Linnet (male)

 

Mallard Duck

Anyone who has ever fed bread to a duck in a city park in Europe and North America has likely been feeding these guys. They are everywhere, and have been introduced to many other countries outwith their original range.

Mallard Ducks

 

Mute Swan

Another common occupant of urban waterways as well as coastal estuaries. I grew up knowing nothing but white swans, and remember a news story from my childhood about a black swan that appeared in the river in the town of Ayr south of where I lived. There is something very majestic about these creatures, although they can be very vicious if you get too close, especially when they have youngsters.

Mute swans on the farmland

 

Common Redshank

A lover of dampness, these birds are best spotted around marshes, meadows and lakes. Despite its name, its not as common as it used to be.

Common Redshank

 

Northern Lapwing

It is usually their cry that draws your attention to these birds. Although they are wading birds, they are best spotted on farmland and cultivated pastures. Unfortunately, population numbers are showing a decline and they are classified as a threatened species.

Northern Lapwing

 

Great Grey Shrike

I photographed this bird but didn’t know what it was at the time. Their preferred habitat is grassland with shrubbery, and it is uncommon to spot them. This particular bird was spotted near the coast next to some open farmland in summer time which is unseasonal as they usually migrate to breed elsewhere.

Great Grey Shrike

 

Pheasant

Native to Asia, the pheasant was introduced historically as a game bird. Many a painting adorning Scottish castles and mansions will depict dead pheasants hanging in a kitchen or off the arm of a shooter. Even today, these birds are still popular to shoot during the right season. To shoot them with a camera, they tend to be found in the countryside where they like to dash out in front of cars on rural back roads, and are occasionally spotted when out hiking in the glens.

Pheasant (male)

Pheasant (female)

 

Red Grouse

Another bird that is still shot in Scotland during the beating season. They are very difficult to spot, hiding in amongst the heather of the open moorland in the highlands and some of the islands. It is easier to spot them on a bottle of whisky where their image has had a worldwide audience thanks to the Famous Grouse brand. I came very close to standing on this little grouse chick that was easy to overlook and refused to move when I got close. I’ve never seen an adult in the wild.

Red Grouse (chick)

 

Eurasian Oyster Catcher

With their distinctive call, they can be the rowdy accompaniment to any beach walk and are one of many bird species that wander around the tidal zone looking for a meal.

Eurasian Oyster Catcher

 

Ringed Plover

These pretty little birds are another common sighting at the beach, feeding in the tidal zone, and often seen in small groups.

Ringed plover

 

Common Sandpiper

These migratory birds are only seen in the summer months but are beach goers that forage in the tidal zone, and are more solitary in their habits than the ringed plover who they share a habitat with.

Common sandpiper

 

Curlew

The largest wading bird in Europe, the curlew is sadly a threatened species. Usually seen on their own, they can be spotted either on the shoreline or inland.

Curlew

 

Temmincks Stint

One of many similar looking shore birds seen around the tidal zone.

Temmincks Stint

 

Common Eider

These large ducks are sea-dwellers, living along coastlines of Europe and North America. They are an easy spot in Scotland due to the distinctive colouration of the male and their size.

Eider (male)

Eider duck (female)

 

Red-breasted Merganser

This migratory diving duck breeds in Scotland, and this particular female was spotted in Loch Lomond cruising near the shore.

Red-breasted Merganser

 

Black-Headed Gull

A commonly spotted gull near the coastline.

Black-headed gull

 

Common Gull

As the name suggests, these are a common sighting, mainly on the coastline but can be spotted in cities and farmland. They are bigger than the black-headed gull but smaller than the black-backed gull.

Common gull

 

Black-backed Gull

The big bully of the gull world, there is no shortage of these gulls around Scotland and they will happily scavenge in urban zones as much as the coastline.

Black-Backed Gull (juvenile)

 

Fulmar

These birds are wanderers of the sea, only coming to shore for the sake of breeding. They are a loud and common sighting along many coastlines in the summer months.

Fulmar

 

Great Skua

Also known as Bonxie, these large birds are the robbers of the bird world. Why obtain your own fish when you can steal from another? They can be spotted at rest on land or more commonly seen swooping and mobbing at other sea birds in the air or on cliffs.

Great skua

 

European Shag

Shags and cormorants are terms used differently for different birds within the cormorant family. They are best spotted on rocks where they like to spread their wings wide to dry. This nest with juveniles was on Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands, but they are widespread along the Scottish coastline.

Shag parent with chicks

 

Gannet

This is one of my favourite sea birds and are most impressive when seen diving at great speeds from the air to catch fish. A flock of diving gannets can be a good way to find feeding whales and dolphins as they will often track feeding pods where the fish are pushed nearer the surface.

Gannets

 

Puffin

One of Scotland’s most special birds. Unfortunately their numbers are in decline as they are selective feeders. I remember seeing great flocks of these when I was younger, and now they are in small clusters. Despite their petite size, they spend most of the year at sea, returning to land only to breed where they nest in burrows. The cliffs on the west coast of Mainland Orkney, Faraid Head in Sutherland, and the Isle of Staffa are recommended places to spot them in the summer months.

Puffin

 

Guillemot

A similar size to the puffin, though much more populous, and often seen hanging around in the same places.

Guillemot

 

Razorbill

Another cliff-loving sea bird, they are often seen milling around near guillemots.

Razorbills

 

OTHER – THE OFTEN OVERLOOKED INSECTS, AMPHIBIANS AND FISH

Six-Spot Burnet

This pretty moth was spotted amongst the dunes on the Aberdeenshire coast.

bug at the beach

 

Hairy caterpillar

One of many reasons to watch where you tread. This guy was crossing the hiking path on the West Highland Way.

Caterpillar

 

Blue Damselfly

A pretty little dragonfly, their colour is mesmerising. Spotted near a loch in Sutherland.

Blue damselfly

 

Golden-Ringed Dragonfly

A beautiful and large dragonfly, I spotted this one whilst out hiking in Cairngorm National Park, although they are more widespread in western Scotland.

Dragonfly

 

Snails

Slugs and snails are a gardener’s pest but I like snails, and think the ground-dwelling creatures of the world are under-appreciated. This group of snails were hanging out on a post in Barra, in the Outer Hebrides.

Group of snails hanging out

 

Black Slug

The ugly slug of the slug world.

Black Slug

 

Brown Slug

The not-so-ugly slug of the slug world.

Mr Slug

 

Frog

The famously wet climate means amphibians can find plenty of habitat to choose from in Scotland. Unfortunately several species are on the decline due to predation, disease and habitat destruction. This frog came into a mountain bothy I was staying in whilst out hiking in the Cairngorm National Park.

frog

 

Blue Crab

One of many crabs that can be spotted on Scottish beaches. This one was at Faraid Head in Sutherland.

Blue crab

 

Sunfish

Also known as the mola, this is the heaviest boned fish in the world. It is really rare to spot these in Scottish waters, but they occasionally pop up due to the ocean currents. I was exceedingly lucky to spot this impressive fish off the coast near Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, many years ago.

Sunfish

 

Moon Jellyfish

One of the more common jellyfish in Scottish waters.

Moon jellyfish

 

Jellyfish

Another jellyfish in Scottish waters. To some people, jellyfish are horrible creatures, something to fear. Whilst I don’t want to swim amongst them, I certainly like looking at them move around the water.

Jellyfish

Cetaceans

As much as I love travelling, if not more so, I love whales and dolphins. One of the great things that travelling has allowed me to do is to pursue my dream of seeing these magnificent creatures in the wild. I have seen several species of each in various countries, and for once I’d like to focus more on the photographs and videos I’ve obtained of these glorious creatures. Below is a list of all the cetacean species that I’ve seen in my life. Unfortunately I don’t have photographs for all of them, or indeed have good photographs for all of those that I do have, but I’d just like to share my love of whales and dolphins.

  • COMMON BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN (Tursiops truncatus)

This is the species of dolphin that I have seen the most. They live in many parts of the world’s oceans, and I have seen them off the coast of Scotland, South Africa and New Zealand. They are playful and inquisitive and can be found in varying group sizes. I have autopsied a few that washed ashore in South Africa.

  1. SOUTH AFRICA – 2005:

Bottlenose DolphinsBottlenose Dolphins

 

Bottlenose Dolphins

Bottlenose Dolphins

Bottlenose Dolphins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. NEW ZEALAND – 2012:

Bottlenose DolphinBottlenose Dolphin

Bottlenose Dolphin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. ECUADOR 2015:

Bottle-nosed dolphins

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • INDIAN HUMPBACK DOLPHIN (Sousa plumbea)

These shy dolphins are normally not very acrobatic but I was lucky enough to catch on video a rare moment when one jumped out the water. They normally hug the coastline, and I saw a few pods of these along the coast whilst in South Africa in 2005.

  • LONG-BEAKED COMMON DOLPHIN (Delphinus capensis)
  1. SOUTH AFRICA 2005

This is my favourite species of dolphin: I love the hour-glass pattern on their body, which makes them look beautiful. I was lucky enough to see a massive pod of these in the deep ocean water off the coast of South Africa in 2005. Unfortunately, the sea was so rough and they travelled past the boat at such speed that I did not manage to get any photos of them.

  1. SCOTLAND 2016

Accompanying a feeding humpback whale and some white-beaked dolphins, it was a pleasure to see this species in the wild again.

Common dolphin

 

 

 

 

 

  • HECTOR’S DOLPHIN (Cephalorhynchus hectori)

These are one of the smallest species of dolphins, and they are highly endangered. They also live exclusively off the coast of New Zealand, and I have been lucky enough to see them several times in both 2012 and 2013.

Hector's DolphinsHector's Dolphin

Hector's Dolphin

Hector's Dolphin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hector's Dolphin

Hector's Dolphin

Hector's Dolphin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • DUSKY DOLPHIN (Lagenorhynchus obscuris)

Unfortunately I was suffering acute sea sickness on the trip that I saw these guys in 2013 (for the full story, read here). This is the one and only photograph I was able to take, and you can barely tell that there are 2 dolphins there.

Dusky dolphins

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • HARBOUR PORPOISE (Phocaena sinus)

Whilst on the ferry between North Uist and Skye in 2010, two islands off the west coast of Scotland, the ferry was followed by some porpoises that enjoyed the waves. I was too busy enjoying watching them frolic and play to take any photographs. Since then, I have seen the off individual on a couple of boat trips off the west coast of Scotland in 2016.

  • WHITE-BEAKED DOLPHINS (Lagenorhynchus albirostris)

Whilst searching for humpback whales off the west coast of Scotland, these guys joined in the feeding.

White beaked dolphins in Scottish waters

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • KILLER WHALE (Orcinus Orca)
  1. CANADA 2002:

I was lucky enough to see 3 super pods of Orca, an estimated 200 animals, off the coast of Vancouver Island in 2002. It was an amazing experience, and they are truly beautiful and mesmerising creatures. I am firmly against the keeping of these creatures in captivity, and it breaks my heart to know the treatment that has been endured by some individuals. The movie Blackfish is a real eye opener to their plight. I can still remember bobbing around on the Pacific Ocean surrounded by Orcas as far as the eye could see. The photographs are the good old fashioned pre-digital kind which require to be scanned onto the computer so they will follow in due course.

  1. ECUADOR 2015:

I wasn’t expecting it, but I was utterly excited to get a brief sighting of these amazing mammals. Look closely, and I promise there are two dorsal fins there!

Orca (fin tips just visible)

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • COMMON MINKE WHALE (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)

I have only ever seen 1 minke whale in the far distance whilst on a boat off the west coast of Scotland in 2006. It was too far away to get a decent picture.

  • HUMPBACK WHALE (Megaptera novaeangliae)

The majestic humpack whale is my favourite marine animal, and my favourite species of whale. Again, I have been lucky enough to see them multiple times in both South Africa and Australia. I was even privileged to take part in the autopsy of a humpback whale that washed ashore in South Africa.

  1. SOUTH AFRICA – 2005:

Humpabck WhaleHumpback whales

Humpback Whale

Humpack Whales

Humpack Whale

Juvenile Male Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Humpback Whales

Autopsying a Humpback Whale

The inner ear bone of a humpback whale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. AUSTRALIA – 2012:

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale

Humpack Whale

Humpback Whales

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. ECUADOR 2015:

Humpback Whale mother and calf

Humpack whale near the coast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. SCOTLAND, 2016

It is not that common an occurrence to see humpback whales off the coast of Scotland, but for several weeks, the sightings were very regular indeed.

Humpback whale off the west coast of Scotland

Humpback whale fin slapping

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. ICELAND, 2016

Witnessed on a trip from Husavik, in the north of Iceland, this is the furthest north on the planet that I have been.

Humpback whale, Iceland

Humpback whale fluking as it dives

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE (Eubalaena australis)

These strange looking creatures come into sheltered bays to give birth to their calves. This has allowed me to view them several times, and I was witness to several of them in South Africa and whilst in Argentina, I saw a mother with a white calf. I have found them to be very inquisitive whales, and they often seem keen to come near the boat and investigate. On one trip in South Africa, a juvenile bull whale practiced his courtship with the hull of our boat, rolling over and touching his fin to the hull.

  1. SOUTH AFRICA – 2005:

Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whales

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. ARGENTINA – 2010:

Southern Right Whale calf

Mother Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whale calf

Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whale

The white calf

Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whale calf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • BRYDE’S WHALE (Balaenoptera brydei)
  1. SOUTH AFRICA – 2005

With a similar body shape to Minke whales, these are very shy whales, proving very difficult to find. I managed to see one almost by chance when assisting on a research trip in South Africa 2005. It spent little time at the surface, and moved around so much that I was unable to take any photographs of it.

  1. NEW ZEALAND – 2015

Bryde whale lunge feeding

Bryde Whale

Bryde whale near Coromandel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • SPERM WHALE (Physeter macrocephalus)

This is the largest species of whale that I have seen, finally seeing a couple in 2013 both from the air and from the sea off the coast of New Zealand. They remain on the surface only to re-oxygenate their blood prior to long dives down into the depths of the sea in search of food. I loved getting to see all of the whale from the air, but unfortunately, the trip out to sea was the same trip I saw the dusky dolphins, so the experience was rather marred by the sea sickness that I was suffering from.

Sperm WhaleSperm Whale

Sperm Whale

Sperm Whale

Sperm WhaleSperm Whale

Sperm Whale diving

Stories from the South Island

Surprising people is immense fun; the looks on people’s faces when you turn up unannounced or the shocked silence on the phone when you call to say you are not far away makes up for the days and months of keeping a secret and covering your tracks. In 2012, I managed to keep a trip back to Scotland a secret from my family and friends for 10 months. I was immensely proud of myself for managing 10 months of keeping in touch with people without a single lie coming out of my mouth, all the while tactfully dodging the truth about my plans. I also spent a week in February 2012 pretending to my partner that I was going to be in Wellington, when in fact I was booked on the ferry to Picton and had a romantic weekend booked for us in Kaikoura.

Cook StraitThe sailing across the Cook Strait couldn’t have been more perfect. Notorious for some foul weather and rough seas, the day I crossed the sea was as flat and calm as glass, and it shimmered under the early morning sun that gleamed with pride from a clear blue sky. Queen Charlotte SoundsOver an hour of the crossing is spent sailing through the beautiful and majestic Queen Charlotte Sound, made up of multiple islands nestled amongst the finger-like peninsulas on the north coast of the South Island. I spent the whole sailing standing on the top deck breathing it all in. PictonPicton nestles quaintly into one of the deepest parts of the Sound, and from here I transferred to the Coastal Pacific train, part of the Tranz Scenic rail network. The first thing that struck me on the journey south was how brown the South Island was compared to the North. Trees were being felled for large stretches of the early parts of the track, and the landscape was of brown rolling hills rather than the greenery I had been accustomed to up till now. By the time Blenheim was reached, green pastures and mountains in the distance had started to appear, and this was more like the South Island that I had been expecting, and have come to love.

Cutting past pink salt pans, a sight I never expected to see in New Zealand, the tracks cut to the east coast and took us south on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, waves rolling gently at our side in the sunshine. The Kaikoura ranges shot up to the right of the train, towering above us, and New Zealand fur seals sunbathed on the rocks on our left, ignoring the passing train. At 3.15pm on such a beautiful day, the train pulled into Kaikoura and I stepped off, ready to embrace something new. After a day of silence, I finally made the phone call to my stunned partner to tell him where I was, and after he got over the shock and realisation, he jumped in his car and made the 2.5hr drive north from Christchurch to meet me.

KaikouraWhat the town lacks in size, the location makes up in grandeur. Sitting out on a peninsula, it sits at the base of the Kaikoura ranges, and is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Not far off shore is the Hikurangi Trench, an immense sea trench reaching depths of >3000m, which brings an abundance of marine life and an ecosystem that supports one of the largest creatures on earth: the sperm whale. Sperm WhaleAs an avid cetacean enthusiast, I take great passion from getting out to sea to watch whales and dolphins frolicking and surviving in the world’s oceans. We took a flight from the nearby airport which headed off the coast in search of sperm whales. Spending most of their lives feeding at great depths, they spend only 15mins at the surface re-oxygenating their blood in between dives. It took a bit of time, but eventually we found one, and it was fantastic to get an aerial view of a mammal that I am used to seeing from sea-level. It was beautiful, and we circled above it until it arched its tail and dived to the depths in search of giant squid.

Sperm WhaleThe following day, we opted for the sea safari. The weather was squally, and there was a high level sea sickness warning. Determined to get closer than the plane had allowed, we opted to go ahead with the trip. I normally have a pretty iron stomach out at sea, having spent months in South Africa doing regular trips out to watch whales, and various sailings in all sorts of weather, but stupidly I doubted myself on that day. Sperm Whale divingShovelling a herbal sea sickness remedy and some ginger candy down my throat, I almost immediately felt a burning sensation in my throat. This escalated when we got on the boat and headed out to sea, and it wasn’t long before I was throwing up. We stopped to watch some dusky dolphins, and 3 sperm whales, but I could only stand so much in between curling up on the deck and filling sick bag after sick bag. It was not the whale watching trip I had imagined.

New Zealand Fur SealWalking from the town of Kaikoura round the peninsula, takes you to a carpark from which New Zealand fur seals can be seen everywhere you look. Kaikoura PeninsulaThe peninsula walk itself is lovely, following the coast round to the south side of the peninsula and back into town. Kaikoura PeninsulaIf you know where to go in New Zealand, the fur seals can be found in abundance on both the east and west coasts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AkaroaAnother favourite place of mine is the French town of Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula.Akaroa A 1.5hr drive out of Christchurch, the road winds round then over the rim of what used to be a volcano, until the remains of the volcanic crater, now filled by the sea is visible, and within this lies the beautiful Akaroa. Hector's DolphinIt is a small settlement, but like Kaikoura, it has the draw of wildlife. New Zealand Fur SealReached either by 4×4 over the hills, or on a harbour cruise, there is another colony of fur seals just outside of the harbour entrance. Little Blue PenguinThe real draw here though is the Hector’s dolphins. Found only in New Zealand’s waters, they are one of the smallest cetacean species in the world, and unfortunately, they are endangered. On a sunny day, the water around Akaroa is so clear, that it is easy to watch these little dolphins even when they are below the surface, and they are always a joy to behold. On my second trip out on a harbour cruise, I even saw a little blue penguin out fishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I will always have a slight soft spot for Timaru because I spent a few months there working, but most people would drive through it without giving it a second glance. The beachfront at Caroline Bay with the park behind has been lovingly maintained, and I spent many an hour wandering through here and the coastline around. Further south, the next big tourist draw is Oamaru. OamaruIt has a few pretty old-fashioned buildings, but for me it held 2 draws: the large blue penguin colony that lives nearby, and as a base to see the Moeraki boulders. In the not-too distant past, the blue penguins came ashore every night to burrow into the hillside by the sea, on the edge of town. Many penguins were killed by drivers and dogs, as they negotiated the road, the railway line, and anybody who came along at the same time. As a result, an area was artificially created to allow the penguins to get to burrows without having to risk crossing traffic, and also to keep nosy people from scaring them. So as a result, you now have to pay to see them come ashore, but it is worth it. My partner and I were there in the dead of winter, and we sat on a viewing stand in the cold dark of an early night, the slipway from the sea illuminated by infra-red light, allowing us to see the penguins, but keeping us in the dark to them. After a bit of a wait, a single penguin negotiated the waves and came running up the slipway only to come across a fur seal that was asleep on the grass. The fur seal didn’t move, and the penguin slipped past and headed towards a burrow. Shortly after, a ‘raft’ of 6 penguins appeared. They hustled each other up the slipway, but this time at the top, the fur seal moved and sent them scattering, 2 towards the burrows, and the other 4 back down the slipway. It was amusing to watch them renegotiate the route back up again, taking small steps then pausing, looking at each other and nudging each other. It was as if they were daring each other to go first. They spent about 10 minutes with this game before eventually they made a run for it. This time the fur seal didn’t bother itself, and they all made it into the burrow area.

Immediately south of Oamaru is a beach where the rare yellow-eyed penguin comes ashore. We had been told to go at sunset to see them come in and sunrise to see them leave. We headed to the lookout and waited and waited and waited. After nearly an hour, not a single penguin had appeared so we headed off. The next morning, we headed out a little late, and met a local who reported that the penguins had arrived shortly after we left. We proceeded back to the lookout and sat for a while, but the sun was already quite up by this point, and we left having seen none.

Moeraki BoulderAbout 40 mins south of Oamaru is the Moeraki boulders, a natural phenomenon of wave erosion on the local mudstone that exposes near-spherical rocks that then appear to march towards the ocean where they break apart. Moeraki BouldersNo two visits to the beach are the same as the structures change shape and form as time and sea break them down. The beach is littered with them, and it was bizarre to wander along and see a newly emerging one appearing out of the cliff. Some were small like footballs, and others were as big as a person, and those that had cracked like an egg were big enough to climb into.

 

DunedinDunedin is referred to as the Edinburgh of the South; having been to both cities, I have no idea why. It is supposed to have an overwhelming Scottish influence, but aside from 1 restaurant that served whisky and haggis, I can’t say that I saw a lot of that influence myself. Nor was I ever aware of a lot of Scottish people living there, although there are a few Scottish surnames hanging around in New Zealand as a whole. I personally can’t say anything exciting about the city itself. My Scottish friend recently emigrated to Dunedin from Aberdeen, and she seems happy there, but I was not overly fussed with the city myself. Otago PeninsulaWhat I do love about Dunedin though, is its location, because the Otago Peninsula is just beautiful. Royal AlbatrossFollowing the coast road round inlets of perfectly still water, beside rolling hills, takes you eventually to Taiaroa head at the tip of the peninsula where the only mainland place in the world to view Royal Albatross is. When I visited in winter, there were several fluffy white chicks being catered to by their parents who came soaring in from the Pacific Ocean beyond.

 

 

 

Larnach CastleIn the lowering mid-winter sunshine, I headed onwards around the peninsula to Larnach Castle. Otago PeninsulaHeralded as New Zealand’s only castle, it is more like a mansion, but it sits atop a ridge of the Otago Peninsula and commands a stunning view from both the gardens and the rooftop view point. St Clair beachAt the southern edge of Dunedin is the suburb of St Clair which commands a view out onto the wilds of the Pacific Ocean and has a beautiful stretch of beach to wander along, as well as some good cafes that are always crammed full of people. Even on a cold winter’s day, I loved pounding the beach, my hair whipped around my face as I breathed in the sea air.

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving Dunedin train station is an old-fashioned steam train that travels through the Otago countryside and up the Taieri Gorge. Across viaducts and through tunnels we travelled through some beautiful countryside. In winter it is a 4hr return trip, but the summer offers excursions which allow the train ride to link up to the start of the Otago rail trail, a 150km bike trail cutting an arc through the central Otago landscape. Having regained a love of cycling (something which I used to live for growing up but as an adult had become the stuff of annual jaunts whilst on holiday) since living in Christchurch, I am looking forward to riding the rail trail in the summer of 2014.

QueenstownQueenstown is generally famous the world over for its adrenalin inducing activities and for Fergberger. I remember laughing when my partner insisted that I had to go there on my first trip to the town in 2012, but on arrival I was astounded by the lengthy queue out the door every day, be it lunch time or dinner time. Soon realising that there was no quiet time there, I joined the masses and quickly became a devotee. Anybody who has eaten there knows that there is no burger like it anywhere else in the world. They are hands-down the most scrumptious meal-in-a-bun that you will ever eat. Another favourite eatery was Patagonia. Having travelled in Patagonia a few years previously, I knew just how decadent ice cream was from that part of the world, so I needed no persuasion to visit this ice-cream parlour-come-coffee shop. Several days of my trip included a fergburger for main course and some delicious Patagonia ice cream for dessert.

Short of eating an extra few inches onto my waistline, I was keen to see what Queenstown was all about. The day I arrived in early March 2012 it was 28oC and the small beach on the shore of Lake Wakatipu was packed. 2 days later I awoke to snow on the ground – I couldn’t believe the transformation. Lake Wakatipu is a long, sinuous lake stretching for 80 km.The Remarkables Getting out on a boat cruise barely covered a tiny patch of this lake, heading from the harbour in the town centre, and round Queenstown gardens before heading up the Frankton Arm of the lake towards the Kawarau Rd bridge. Overlooking the town itself is a number of hills and mountains. The most visited is Bob’s Peak which is accessible by hiking trail and by gondola. I accidentally picked the mountain bike trail to hike up and was quickly yelled at to get out the way. The route was so steep that the bikes were zooming towards me at immense speed and I was in danger of causing an accident. Hiding my blushes, I headed on up the steep slog to the viewpoint at the top of the Gondola. It wasn’t the sunniest of days but the visibility was still great and the view over the lake towards the Remarkables Mountain range was spectacular. Never one for taking the easy route down, I had signed up for the zipline experience to ride 6 flying foxes back down to the town. This was as much splurging as I could afford at this point in time, and it was worth every penny. Each ride we got to try a different maneuver such as riding upside down or flipping positions and it was a new way to experience the forest, feet above my head and staring straight down at the leaf litter below me as the trees whizzed past my ears. QueenstownQueen’s Hill is also a rewarding hike starting in the back streets of town. The summit offers an alternate view of the lake, but unfortunately, the heavens opened when I reached the top, and the cloud cover came down obscuring a lot of my view.

QueenstownIn winter, Queenstown is all about skiing. The surrounding mountain ranges look pretty in glistening white, and there’s plenty of choice. Within easy driving distance is Coronet Peak, the Remarkables and Cardrona. In July 2013, my partner and I spent a long weekend in Queenstown enjoying the food and the mulled wine which was served almost everywhere. The weather was not in our favour, and the propeller plane we flew down on nearly wasn’t able to land as the clouds were so closed in. With lots of rain, we experienced the indoor life that the town has to offer. The Fear Factory is a new haunted house that has opened up on Shotover Street. In pitch black, you follow a maze of red lights whilst things grab at you from the darkness or leap out at you in a flash of light. The Caddyshack Mini Golf near the Gondola was also a surprise delight. We stumbled across it by chance, but it was full of 18 holes of electronically controlled fun. Embracing the cold weather theme, we spent some time in 1 of Queenstown’s two Ice Bars, Below Zero. Maintained at a chilly -8oC, we enjoyed cocktails out of an ice glass surrounded by ice sculptures. GlenorchyIn one of the few gaps in the weather, we managed the scenic drive round Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, a cute little village at the head of the lake. The views were stunning even in the low cloud, so it will be somewhere to head back to in the warmer months.

 

WanakaTo this day, Wanaka remains one of my favourite parts of New Zealand. Like the more developed and commercialised Queenstown, it is nestled on the shore of a large lake, but Wanaka offers everything I love: peace and quiet, fewer people, less commercialism, and reams of hiking trails in every perceivable direction. I spent several days here after my time in Queenstown, in March 2012, and the weather was generally perfect. I hiked east round the lake one day, taking in the ever-changing vista of water and mountains, up one of the rivers towards Albert Town, and then back to Wanaka via Mt Iron for an impressive panorama of the town and the surrounding countryside. Mt AspiringThe following day I hiked west to Glendhu Bay where my hand was savaged by a portaloo (a scar that I still bare to this day!) but I was rewarded with my first glimpse of the glacier streaming down from Mt Aspiring. The weather turned on the long walk home, and I limped soaking into a Greek restaurant in town for a tasty dinner and some well-deserved wine. Having imbibed a little too much wine, I took a slight detour on the way back to the hostel to climb a tree as the sun set.

 

WanakaMy favourite hike in Wanaka, headed west round the lake as the day before, but detoured half-way to head up the impressive Roy’s Peak. It was a hard and steady slog, winding zig-zagged up a rather steep incline. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the hike was very popular. From quite early on, the view was stunning. The higher I climbed, the more of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountain ranges I could see. The lake has several islands within it, and every where I looked was a disappearing expanse of greenness. Lake WanakaThe view from the top trumped it all though. Nearly the full extent of the lake was visible, with Mt Aspiring in one direction, and a stream of mountains in many others. The town of Wanaka itself looked tiny, and even Mt Iron which I had hiked a couple of days before was easily dwarfed. Peregrine FalconI ate my lunch amongst a cluster of other hikers sharing the summit, and I got great joy from an up close and personal encounter with a couple of falcons who flitted about the summit mobbing each other. Lake WanakaOn my final day in Wanaka, I opted for the water’s view of the place, taking one of the excursions out to one of the islands on the lake. The area reminded me so much of Cairngorm National Park in my home country of Scotland, and its grandeur took my breath away.

 

 

Mt CookThe MacKenzie District will always be a special place for my partner and I. In winter 2012, we headed inland to take up a deal at the Hermitage hotel in Mount Cook Village. Like a little alpine village in Europe, it is nestled in a valley surrounded by towering mountains including New Zealand’s highest: Mount Cook, or Aoraki in Maori. There was plenty of snow as we travelled up the west bank of Lake Pukaki and the village itself was white, with plenty of snow to tramp through and skid on as we negotiated the surrounds of our hotel. The hotel was fantastic, and our ‘cheap’ room included a balcony view overlooking the village and the behemoth of Mt Cook across the valley.

Southern AlpsThe unfortunate effect of the snow was that a lot of the local tours were cancelled as some of the roads disappearing through the valley were classed as treacherous. The only thing still running was a glacier flight. Mt Cook village sits nestled on the eastern valley of the Southern Alps. Directly west of there sits the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers in all their icy glory. We opted for the cheaper flight which took us on an aerial view around the glaciers, but when we got to the airfield, due to numbers, we got upgraded to the longer tour which encompassed the same scenic flight but included a snow landing on the ice field at the top of the glacier. From the airfield, we headed up and over the Tasman Glacier with its lake, and headed towards the ridgeline of the alps. Knee-deep on an ice fieldThe sun shone for us and sparkled on the glistening snow behind us, and we gawked at the view towards the peak of Mt Cook, and the west coast beyond. The plane circled above Franz Josef glacier before heading up Fox glacier’s ice field to land on the powder. First out the plane was a petite woman and her feet disappeared to her ankles in the snow. My partner got out next, expecting a similar experience, only for him to disappear down to his knees. I fared little better, and we laughed at each others’ struggles to negotiate the snow, and ‘walk’ about the ice field. The sun beat down on us from above, but it was the middle of winter, and with the altitude we were both freezing, neither of us having dressed for the occasion.

Lake TekapoLake Tekapo neighbours Lake Pukaki in the MacKenzie District, and we spent a few nights there over Easter 2013. The relatively new Spa Pools were a delight to soak in of an evening, enjoying the delightfully warm (though crowded) pools in the fading light. MoonAt the top of Mt John behind the Spa Pools is the Mt John Observatory. The whole region around this observatory has been declared an International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only 4 in the world. The light pollution is so low here, that it is an excellent place to go stargazing, and the Milky Way is often visible above the township. We took a guided tour to the observatory with Earth & Sky and the guides were so passionate. It was amazing to see Saturn’s rings through the telescope, as well as Jupiter and an amazing close up of the moon.

Near Hanmer SpringsWithin a reasonable drive from my home in Christchurch is Hanmer Springs. The main reason for visiting here are the amazing geothermal pools. I could sit in these pools for hours, happily becoming a prune, and there are varying pools of varying temperatures to satisfy the relaxation needs of adults, whilst a water park area serves the kids. Attached to the pools is a Spa offering massages and private hot pools. Aside from several trips to the hot pools, on our last visit, my partner and I opted to go on a quad biking adventure out of town. Near Hanmer SpringsOn the drive into Hanmer Springs is a bungee jump centre, and they also offer quad biking through the nearby river valley. Having driven quads before from my younger days as a milkmaid, I started off confident, keeping up with our guide. Unfortunately, within 20 minutes, I took an embankment too quickly and drove head-first into a tree. I did my best impression of Superman over the handlebars, and the tyre of the quad was punctured on a branch. My pride was just as hurt as my limbs were, and I sported some amazing bruises for several weeks after as well as an injured wrist that still gives me problems nearly 6 months later. On the day though, after my quad bike was replaced, I continued with the ride, albeit at a much more timid pace.

Lake BrunnerThe Tranz Alpine train runs from Christchurch to Greymouth via Arthur’s Pass and Lake Brunner. Part of the Tranz Scenic rail network, we took the ride west in July 2012, hoping to see some snow on the mountains. Devil's Creek WaterfallWe had previously driven to Arthur’s Pass and enjoyed a walk through the trees to a beautiful waterfall, but this time we could sit back and enjoy the scenery. The train speeds across the flat of the Canterbury Plains before snaking through the Southern Alps through river valleys, gorges and through tunnels in the mountains. Passing the side of Lake Brunner, it continues west towards Greymouth. It was a beautiful trip, and we spent the weekend at Greymouth before heading home on the train. Viaduct near Arthur's PassThere are so many beautiful vistas from the train, but even the road from the west coast is spectacular. KeaDriving along side glacier-fed rivers, and rolling hills, and across a viaduct, this is the land of Kea, mountain parrots unique to New Zealand. They are cheeky and bold birds, that will chew attachments to vehicles if given half a chance. Castle Hill ReserveResembling a scene from the Lord of the Rings movies, Castle Hill is a boulder-strewn hillside that is worth a wander around. Not far from there is Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, a cave system that is open for unguided, at-your-own-risk exploring. The day we visited we had come unprepared, not knowing of its existence, but now the owner of a wetsuit, I intend to get back here one day and go caving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Split Apple RockThe north-west corner of the South Island is a mass of National Parks, and the countryside and coastline are overwhelming beautiful. In January 2013, I spent my summer holidays road-tripping from Abel Tasman National Park down the west coast. Abel Tasman National ParkSpending several nights in Kaiteriteri on the edge of the National Park, it was an easy boat trip from the beach up the coast to a variety of bays to allow exploring such a beautiful area. The sea was blue, and home to New Zealand fur seals, and the land was lush with thick vegetation. The first bay, Halfmoon Bay, was home to Split Apple Rock, the most photographed piece of rock in the National Park. Abel Tasman National ParkWe hiked from Torrent Bay to Apple Tree Bay as well as from Tonga Bay to Bark Bay, both sections of a multi-day hike. Abel Tasman National ParkFrom Bark Bay we kayaked south to Anchorage, negotiating strong winds to make it back in time for the ferry back to Kaiteriteri. It was an amazing few days, and I loved it there. Along the coast is Golden Bay and Fairwell Spit, a large sand bar projecting north into the Cook Strait. It is infamous as a common stranding zone for whales that get disorientated and stuck on the expansive sand flat.

 

 

 

 

 

It was blowing such a gale and pouring with such rain, that we did not spend long in Nelson. Cutting from the north coast to the west coast meant heading deep inland across hills and through reams of farmland and forest, eventually linking up with the Buller river and following its course to Westport. The whole drive was in torrential rain, so we didn’t stop much, managing a zipline across the swollen river in a brief lull in the otherwise incessant rain. New Zealand Fur Seal & pupThere isn’t a lot to Westport, it is an old town that housed gold and coal miners, but on the western edge of Buller Bay is Cape Foulwind where there is a colony of New Zealand Fur Seals. The day we visited there were lots of seal pups on the rocks below the viewing area, and the males were making lots of noise and throwing their weight about.

West coastFor most of the drive south to Greymouth, SH 6 hugs the stunning coastline. The Tasman Sea is rough and unforgiving, the coastline scattered with weather-beaten cliffs and rocks, and dotted with stretches of beautiful sandy beaches. The mountains rose to our left, including those that supported Fox glacier, and the vegetation was thick. Tropical plants vied with temperate plants near sea level, and the only breaks in the tree line were where rivers coursed through. Pancake RocksThe surprise for me though, was Pancake Rocks, so called because of their resemblance to stacks of pancakes. These limestone formations are most evident near Punakaiki, and in several areas the erosion from the sea underneath has created caverns which become blowholes when wave conditions are right. It was a blisteringly hot day when we were there, but I could have happily spent a lot of time here ogling this unique coastline.

From Greymouth, we headed further south to Hokitika at the mouth of the Hokitika river. Another township founded due to gold mining, it is famous now for its jade, with multiple shops catering to this market. Hokitika countrysideSouth of here, we drove to the newly opened tree top walk. Having gone on one in Victoria, Australia, we went there with high expectations. We were mainly disappointed with the exorbitant entry price, but something just seemed lacking compared to the one in Australia that we had done the year before. Having said that, it was a nice viewpoint east towards the Southern Alps. Hokitika GorgeTo the east of Hokitika towards the mountains, was the Hokitika Gorge. Here, the river is fed from the glaciers and mountains above, and on a sunny day, the waters are a deep aquamarine. Hokitika GorgeUnfortunately, after days of heavy rain, the river resembled more of a milk bath, with immense quantities of silt having been washed downstream. It was still a great sight, but I can only imagine how beautiful it would look in all its glory.

After nearly 18 months in this country, I have explored so much. However, there is still so much to see. Milford and Doubtful Sounds are two big draws that have so far eluded me, mainly due to their distance and relative inaccessibility. Also due to time and planning constraints, I am yet to hike any of the Great Walks, something which I hope to rectify over the next few summers. The lesser-visited island of Stewart Island is also a place I long to visit too. My New Zealand adventures are a work in progress…

South African Odyssey

I have no idea what happens once you die, but I’d like to be reincarnated as a spinner dolphin. I have no recollection where my obsession with cetaceans came from, but as far back as I can remember I have been entranced and enthralled with films of whales and dolphins cavorting with each other in the oceans of the world. My experience with orcas off British Columbia sparked a thirst for more encounters. Whilst avoiding studying at university one day, I came across a program in South Africa that took volunteers, and after 18 yrs of solid education, I decided to take some time out after graduation and head to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time in my life.

On the bus into Cape Town, I had my eyes opened for the first time. After years of seeing slums and shanty towns on the news, here I was seeing them for myself for the first time. Rows and rows of ramshackle huts made of corrugated iron and whatever other materials came to hand. It humbled me, and made me realise that here I was in Africa. My place of rest was snuggled near the base of Table Mountain, and it towered over me from such proximity. It was impressive to say the least. The grounds had security entry and walking down to the main road brought me level with armed guards patrolling the neighbouring hotels. Yes, I was definitely in Africa.

It’s amazing how first impressions can be so false. I was so nervous and suspicious that day wandering round, but after subsequent trips back to the city, I have found it to be a charming and relaxing place that has a fantastic vibe and joie de vivre. In essence: I loved it there. Dolphin Roundabout, Plettenberg Bay5 hrs east of the city was my home for 3 months: Looking Across Plettenberg Bay to Robberg PenninsulaPlettenberg Bay, one of my absolute favourite places in the whole world. Lookout Beach and the Lookout Hotel, Plettenberg BayWords will never do justice to the beauty of that town and the surrounding Garden Route, nor will I ever be able to fully express the effect on me that that stay had. Keurbooms River Mouth, Plettenberg BayI believe everybody has a lifechanging moment or timespan where they grow or develop as a person, and my time in Plettenberg Bay was it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our elephant neighboursI lived on a farm about 20 mins drive from the town, which just so happened to share a fenceline with the neighbouring elephant sanctuary. Looking out the bedroom window across the field to the elephants bathing themselves in the pool, was a sight that never grew tiring, nor did the sound of their haunting trumpeting to each other, or the vision of the youngsters playing with each other.

The majority of the time was spent office bound, collating data relating to the dolphins and whales that frequented the area. The Centre for Dolphin Studies has been based in the area for many years, and is associated with the commercial company Ocean Safaris that runs whale watching trips out on the bay. There is a resident pod of bottlenose dolphins in the bay, as well as migrating humpback dolphins, common dolphins, humpback whales, bryde whales, southern right whales and orcas. The slopes of Robberg PeninsulaI was in my element. The research side was also investigating the diet of the local population of Cape Fur Seals, a task that involved monthly trips to the colony to pick up poo for sieving. Cape Fur Seal ColonyThis involved a terrifying scramble down the scree slope on Robberg Peninsula, avoiding mambas and other poisonous creatures, only to be engulfed with a putrifying smell of rotten fish, faeces and urine. Cape Fur SealsAdd in a temperature of 26-30 oC and you may come close to imagining how the task might have felt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The highlight of the week was the outdoor excursions. Humpback whalesOnce a week, we were allowed to join a whale watching trip with the tourists, and we joined in their awe as the whales came up to the boat and appeared to play with us. Juvenile Male Humpback WhaleOn one occasion a juvenile male appeared to practice his mating technique on the hull of the boat, and the dolphins loved showing off their acrobatics. My favourite whale is the humpback. I have watched countless reels of footage of them breaching and feeding off Alaska and Hawaii, and when that first humpback appeared near Plett, I could have cried. They were beautiful, elegant and mesmerising. After 3 months, I lost count of the number of cetaceans I saw. Southern Right WhaleCertainly, the Southern Right Whales and Humpack Whales were nearing the 100 mark, the dolphins were in the 1000s, and there were sightings of a few Bryde whales and a large shoal of hammerhead sharks which lived near the shipwreck in the bay. Bottlenose DolphinsMy favourite dolphin is the Common dolphin, and I was regularly disappointed with the lack of sighting of this species. As an open ocean feeder, they don’t tend to come into the bay, so seeing them meant heading out into open ocean. The entrance of the bay is an interesting affair to negotiate, and boy can you tell the difference in the sea swells! Several of the tourists on board the trip struggled to keep their lunch in their bellies. On only 2 occasions did we ever venture out the bay, and on one of those trips we were rewarded with a large pod of common dolphins racing towards us, and passing around us. I felt complete.

Whilst the real purpose of the trip was to explore my love of cetaceans, it was the out-of-work activities that made the trip. I made some fantastic friends there, 1 of which lived in a city I’d only visited once as a child, but following my return to Scotland, ended up being my home for the successive 5.5 years. Indeed, my first place of work ended up being 2 minutes along the road from her house!

As a group, we made the most of our weekends of freedom. Knysna SeahorseTrips to Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Outdshoorn, Knysna, Wilderness, and Tsitsikamma presented opportunities for hiking, canoeing, horse riding, ostrich riding and bungee jumping. Bloukrans BridgeThe highest bungee jump in the world is at Bloukrans bridge to the east of Plett. Guiness World RecordThe fall is 216m down towards the canyon base. The guys that work there are the epitome of the term lekker, and they were great at helping you put a brave face on. On my first visit, I took the zip slide from the gorge side to the mid-arch of the bridge, then offered support to my friends that took the bungee plunge. I always told myself that I would never do something as stupid as that, but yet a few weeks later, I was back again, strapped up and teetering on the brink. Looking out at the gorge in front of me, I had an experience which was as real to me as anything I have ever experienced, but which wasn’t real. I’ve never been able to explain it, and nobody has ever been able to explain it to me since. Standing on the edge of the jump site I had an out-of-body experience. The guys were running through the system checks prior to letting me jump, but yet there I was soaring through the air down towards the river below, falling, falling, until all of a sudden I was back up in myself on the jump spot. After the countdown, and the launch into the air, everything was as I had just felt it moments before.

 

 

For those who have never done a bungee jump, it is nothing like skydiving. This is very disappointing, considering I had just done a tandem skydive a few weeks before and loved it immensely. For those who have never skydived, well you don’t know what you are missing. The flight up from the little airport at Plett gave such an amazing view of the surrounding coastline and countryside that I was so distracted by that to care about the impending leaping forth from the plane in mid air. At 12,000ft, the door opened, and before I knew it I was sat in the doorway. 1,2,3 and we were out. The fact of skydiving is that you are descending towards a rather hard object (the Earth), at terminal velocity. The reality, or rather the perceived reality is that you are floating weightlessly in the air. There is no sensation of falling, just the peaceful feeling of floating like a gliding bird. It has to be experienced to be believed, but it was a feeling that I loved and wanted to repeat. Once under canopy, I had the surreal experience of holding a conversation with my friend Emma at an altitude of 3,000ft, her strapped to one guy, me strapped to another. I remember it so vividly, not the words, but just the image of her and I in mid-air talking to each other amidst adrenalin-hyped giggles, before separating in order to land safely. Certificate in hand, I vowed to do it again.

Bungee jumping on the other hand, is not so enjoyable. After launching off the bridge, I waited for the floating sensation to kick in, only to quickly realise that I was indeed falling, and falling upside down at that. I remember screaming as was instructed to be done, and then eventually the bungee cord kicked in and the bouncing up and down commenced. This part was thankfully quite enjoyable, and then there was just the matter of hanging around upside down waiting for a man you couldn’t see to rappel down to you and assist you back up to the bridge. It was all very surreal, and the way I see it, if I’ve done the highest in the world, why would I need to do it again?? It is a good way to burn off some calories thanks to the tacchycardia that develops, so perhaps it can be introduced into the weight watchers programme as a viable alternative to dieting, although probably not the best idea for people with underlying cardiothoracic issues.

During the last month I also had a go at something else I’d fancied for some time. Heading back to the little airport, I sat with an instructor getting some ground schooling before getting to take the controls of a Cessna to take to the skies. Heading west from Plett, we flew towards and around Knysna, practising stalling procedures, and getting to grips with the plane’s manouverability. Banking and climbing we surveyed the countryside below us before losing altitude and flying low over the heads of Knysna, prior to turning back east towards Plett. On the radio on the way back to the farm, the track ‘I believe I can fly’ by R Kelly came on, and it put a smile to my face. One day I will get back up there, and get myself a licence.

Table Mountain from the Waterfront, Cape TownOne long weekend, we headed back to Cape Town. Again staying at the foot of Table Mountain, we sat in the bar in awe at the view. From the V&A Waterfront, we took the boat out to Robben Island to see the infamous prison that held captive Nelson Mandela. The guide is a former prisoner himself, a man who was there at the same time as Mr Mandela, and despite his experiences there, he was still determined to stay there for work purposes in order to show tourists, who will never ever comprehend the realities of his experience there, around his former ‘home’. The cells have little room for stretching, never mind swinging a cat. The bed, little more than a mat on the floor, and the toilet simply a pan in the corner. It takes a greater mind than mine to stay sane in a place like that over the 18yrs that he was there for.

Cape Town City BowlThe next morning, after a hearty breakfast of fried food, the blanket finally lifted from the table top, and we set off for Table Mountain. When it comes to mountains, if there is a cable car up to the top, then I’d rather hike up. We chose a route up on the front face, which for about the final 80% of it is a near vertical climb. I find it difficult to keep pace with others, preferring to continue at my own rate, so when one of the party started to suffer from vertigo, I had to keep going in order to not have to look back or down, and fall foul of the same problem. It was up to Dawn to encourage Claire to keep going so that we could all be triumphant. Emma and I made it up to the top at the same time, gasping for air and water, followed by Dawn and Claire some time later. Eventually making it to the main tourist area, we wandered round sweaty and triumphant, only to be looked down upon by the cable car tourists, for our dishevelled appearance. Frankly I feel the view was so much more worth seeing after our effort to get there!

Warning at Boulders BeachOur hire car to Cape Town was from Banger Car Hire. It had no power steering, and it was old fashioned, but on the open road it drove like a dream. Thankfully, it also turned out to be baboon-proof. We headed down to the Cape of Good Hope, passing through Simon’s Town to visit the famous colony of Cape Penguins at Boulders Beach. Cape BaboonsAs we neared the Cape Point, numerous troups of baboons littered the side of the road and ogled us as we passed. Further on, there were ostriches wandering free, and eventually we reached the car park at the Cape where the wind took our breath away as we got out. Cape of Good HopeThe Cape marks the most South-Western point of the African continent, and is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Southern Ocean, a mixing line which can be clearly visible from the lighthouse at times. The rugged landscape was dramatic and the whipping wind added to it. We spent hours wandering around the varying walks and lighthouses that mark out the Cape. On the drive back to Cape Town, we came across a troup of baboons in the middle of the road. Stopping to take photographs, we got a bit of a shock when a male baboon jumped onto the bonnet of the car and looked through the windscreen at us. We sat for several moments staring at each other before he eventually climbed onto the roof. He refused to get off until he was coaxed to with a gentle drive forward of the car whence he proceeded to slide skilfully off the back and jump onto the ground behind us.

The South African 'Outback'Outdshoorn is a totally different world compared to the Garden Route. In the ‘outback’, it is a land of orange barrenness, sparsely vegetated and with an overwhelming majority population of ostriches versus humans. Cango CavesCango Caves sits in the rocks high above the town, and is a mesmerising maze of caverns full of stalactites and stalagmites. For added adrenalin, we opted to take the optional cave crawling tour. As we were warned at the start, this would involve passing through tight passages and gaps no wider than the length of an average ruler. One of the first challenges was ‘the devil’s chimney’, ascending 3.6m through a passage with a narrowest point of 45cm. I was one of the last people to enter the chimney, staring up at the arse of a complete stranger, only for them to freeze halfway up. There are occasions when I can struggle with claustrophobia. Thankfully it doesn’t happen that often, but I had to battle hard to fight off the demons when I was stuck in a chimney below a stranger who was having to be coaxed up the remaining climb. Following this, there were several narrow passages to squeeze through or crawl through, culminating in ‘the letter box’, a narrow slit in the floor of the cave, shaped like a letter box, and only 27cm high. This was a task that involved shimmying through on your back, or on your front if you fancied going head first into the next chamber.

Outdshoorn is most famous for it’s ostriches. For miles around, the road signs point to one farm or another, many of which are open for tourists to wander round. At the hostel we stayed in, we enjoyed a braii (bbq) of ostrich meat which was delicious, and every morning, an ostrich egg was opened to feed everybody for breakfast. It contains the equivalent contents of 24 chicken eggs, so all the guests could enjoy omelette, scrambled egg or whatever they fancied. Ostrich HatchlingsDown on the ostrich farm, a couple of hatchlings were breaking out of their shell in the incubator, juveniles were strutting their stuff in the fields, and the adults were racing against each other on the racetrack.Juvenile Ostriches Ostrich riding is much like sitting on a large feather cushion with a large joystick as a control. Bending the neck left turns it left, right turns it right, and pulling it back makes it stop. Eyeballing an OstrichTheir long sinewy necks are so flexible that they can bend them round in all sorts of angles, something which you need to be very aware of with the males when it comes to avoiding bites from an amorous bird. They are such fascinating creatures, and I could have sat on one all day if I was allowed to. Instead, I got a few moments of being ‘saddled’ up, whilst Dawn and Emma got the pleasure of riding one around the arena. It is a sight that will stay with me forever.

 

 

 

The Garden RouteThe Outeniqua Choo-Choo is a train ride that runs from Knysna to Wilderness and back through some of the most beautiful scenery of the garden route. The Garden RouteAcross lagoons, through glens, alongside lakes and rivers, we chugged west towards the rather sedate but understated town of Wilderness. WildernessThe beach of Wilderness is beautiful. Open and exposed yet clean and peaceful, it was a lovely place to get lost in your thoughts. There’s not a lot to do in the town itself, but it was a lovely day trip away and Dawn and I enjoyed walking along the beach listening to the roar of the Southern Ocean. Some weeks later, Claire and I returned for work purposes as a humpback whale carcass had washed up on the shore. Blubber samples amongst other things can give valuable information for researchers studying the lifestyle and habitat of these creatures, so we were dispatched with instructions on what to collect. Unfortunately, the local council had already started to break the body to pieces in order to get rid of such a mammoth body on the rather public stretch of beach, so by the time we got there, it was a mess. It was a stinking, rotting mess at that! The body had been spotted at sea a couple of weeks earlier so we knew it wasn’t fresh. Semi-rotten Humpback WhaleRotting already in the heat over that time, the corpse was a mass of blubber and rotting flesh. Collecting the samples that we needed involved wading knee deep into the quagmire. I was again in my element, fascinated by the anatomy. We appeared in the local paper, and my subsequent article was also published in the Plett newsletter. After a long day raking through rotting tissue for the samples we needed, we were starving. A quick wash in the sea did little to remove the goo that was by now caked to my bare legs and arms. Undeterred, we traipsed into the local petrol station to get some snacks, only to be met by several eyes above several upturned noses. We stank, but we didn’t care. On returning to the farm, the dogs greeted us with elation and started licking our legs and clothes. To them, we smelt of meaty heaven…

I spent a few more days in Cape Town before returning to Scotland. By then it was December, the temperature was hotting up, the days were lengthening, and I struggled to merge that in my mind with the Christmas tunes that were playing in the shops at the time. The flight back to London involved one of the worst spells of turbulence I have ever experienced, over Nigeria, and I found myself restless and sore in the seat, having spent the day hiking around the outskirts of Cape Town. We flew over Tunisia at night, and the cities twinkled below us. I returned home tanned but cold. The snow was not far behind my arrival in Scotland, and the realities of a northen Christmas soon took hold. The friends I made in South Africa are now spread far and wide. Another place added to my list of places to return to, and the far flung friends are a good excuse for further adventures abroad…

King of the Lions

White Rhinos

Giraffes

 

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