Back to Auckland

For the umpteenth time, I was heading back to Auckland today. Due to the wireless internet which died on my the previous night suddenly becoming active again at 7:10am, I wasted a lot of time first thing and only just made it to the ferry in time to get back to the mainland.

The crossing wasn’t as smooth as the way out so I spent most of the trip out the back where the boat didn’t bounce so much. I got talking to a nice chap called Derek, a birdspotter from Essex. I won’t ever use the word “birdspotter” in a disparaging way again after the last couple of weeks (although I may still say bad things about Essex). He’d spent some time on Ulva during the daytime as well and got some great photos of the “robins” there. They’re apparently not really robins, but they were named as such way back when and the name stuck.

Apparently they used to be fed by people with tins of food, so if you head to the island and tap the top of a tin or a jar with your fingernails then scratch the ground as if you’re dropping things, they’ll flock around your feet. Using this method, Derek got up very close for some really impressive photographs. He also offered me a lift into Invercargill to save me getting the bus. I’d intended to get back to the I-Site and walk to the airport (about 30 mins plod), but this saved me the effort. Thank you Derek! In return I just have to send him any of my pics of Sirocco that came out alright. Fair swap!

As a result, I ended up at the airport at 10:00 with my flight not until 13:30. Quite a wait especially as I still hadn’t caught up on any sleep. I blew an hour watching a TV special on Komodo Dragons that Dave Haddock very kindly burned to CD and mailed me in Hanoi (I got it in HMC City when the hostel kindly forwarded them). Very interesting though overly-dramatised by the presenter Austin Stevens. Kind of like Steve Irwin, but more trying to make himself sound impressive than the animals. Great footage though.

After that, a few episodes of bro’Town which nobody outside of New Zealand will have heard of.

Finally my flight was called – slightly late – and I propellered off to Christchurch where my connecting flight was literally sat on the tarmac waiting for me. I’d barely go on board and fastened my seatbelt when the plane started to reverse out.

I arrived in Auckland pretty much dot on time and got the bus into the CBD to see Lou for the first time in two months. Food was had, DVDs watched and arrangements made for the next few nights. As Lou’s working shifts I can’t stay at her’s so I’ll be crashing with Indy and Lisa in Onehunga – thanks folks!

Kakapo trip!

Back in the hotel I made full use of the shower and free internet until dinnertime – including finding out about the sad death of Steve Irwin. People as driven and as passionate about wildlife as this man are pitifully few in this day and age. He may have been a complete Aussie nutcase, but he was a complete Aussie nutcase who cared about our world and the creatures we share it with. I suppose one small comfort is the stereotypical view that he went in a way he’d like to go – doing something dangerous, not sat on his backside at home.

Perhaps in some small tribute to this man, about seven people boarded a boat at the harbour and were taken to a smaller island called Ulva, where they would meet an animal that has been brought back from the brink of extinction by the hard work of people like Mr Irwin. Not a dangerous bird – far from it – but just as valuable and worthwhile a cause as any of the snakes, crocs or insects that he used to specialise in.

Ulva itself is a comparitively small island and used to be used for the postal service of the surrounding area up until the 1950’s. The entire island bar one small section is now in government hands, the odd bit being a holiday home. We were arriving after dusk as the Kakapo is a nocturnal bird so I was unable to appreciate the island as much as I’d have liked. One of the guys who was on the trip – Derek from Essex – had been over during the day and had a great time. Maybe on my next visit!

As an added bonus, we found out on the way over that Siroccos’s keeper for the week was one Don Merton. Don has saved at least three bird species that I know of from extinction (along with a lot of help obviously), but has been the driving force behind so much work. He’s hugely respected in his field and rightly so. Douglas Adams is quoted as saying that Don has “probably done more than any man living to preserve the threatened birds of New Zealand”. I reckon he’s handled more birds than Peter Stringfellow, and that Don’s have been better looking.

We arrived at the dock and had to clamber onto land. Our pilot promised us he’d ship some more water in for our departure so that the boat could sit higher. We trusted him on that and headed into the darkness. Our two guides had a lamp each and we were individually supplied with a torch so that we could see the ground at our feet – there were some tree roots to be careful of. The island was very quiet except for the occasional bird cry. Our guide stopped us for a quick natter before we proceeded. When they started doing the trips, the first group were quite noisy and apparently – friendly though he is – Sirocco was visibly unsettled. The next group that went out were told to be very quiet, which they did. And scared the bejabbers out of the poor feathered beastie when he turned round to see an army of faces gazing at him. He literally jumped backwards. We were to settle on a compromise – “mumble to each other. Rhubarb rhubarb.”

As we mumbled and rhubarbed our way along the path, we also kept an eye out to the sides on the offchance a Kiwi toddled into sight. It has been known and they do start to surface around that time of night. Not tonight, though.

Five minutes walking and a couple more off the designated trail got us to Sirocco’s temporary home. A large wooden and perspex pen with climbing trees, feeders and the like inside. Sirocco had already tried to flee once by climbing up to the top of one of the trees and jumping. He almost made it, too. So they chopped a few feet off the tree in case he hurt himself trying again!

Sirocco was partly raised by humans as he had trouble breathing as a chick, and as a result is very friendly. He’s also huge and utterly beautiful. From beak to bottom, not including tail feathers, I’d estimate he’s a foot and a half long (50cm or thereabouts). His wings are impressive but definitely stubby in comparison to his body size and contribute to the flightlessness of the Kakapo. The other main factor is the weakness of the muscles used for flapping. Instead, the wings are used primarily for balance as the Kakapo climbs and also as air brakes as it jumps. A form of parachuting (or parrot-chuting as one wag put it) to soften their landing.

Far from being flighty, as soon as Sirocco realised he had an audience he walked straight up to the perpex and got as close as he could to his visitors. Even in the low light we could see him clearly, down to the whiskers round his face and his earholes – Kakapo have very good hearing. Unfortunately, the dim light made photographing our star for the evening very hard. I took over 200 pictures, but only a dozen or so are even worth working with. The running commentary from Don – a fountain of ornithological knowledge – was on a par with anything that David Attenborough could run off for the Beeb and without a script. Sirocco played to the crowd, and was even coaxed onto a “swing” to be weighed while Don fed him grapes from a jar.

Our visit lasted over half an hour, but seemed to be a fraction of that. I did hear a sound that I dearly hope many more people get a chance to experience – a Kakapo “skraak”-ing. Sirocco almost always does it for his visitors, and maybe in the future there will be enough of the birds that such a sound will be relatively commonplace.

We all thanked Don – it was truly an honour to meet someone who’s done so much worthwhile work – and were guided back to the boat which, as promised, was now sitting higher on the freshly-imported water. The conversation was active as we made our way back to Stewart Island, everyone seemingly on cloud nine after their experience. I think I may have “sold” a copy of Last Chance to See to one of our guides who’d “heard the name” Douglas Adams, but wasn’t sure where from. With any luck, she’ll be off to Dymocks the next time she gets to the mainland. T-shirts, beanies and pictures were available for sale, but I just didn’t have enough cash. What I do have are some pictures and the memories.

I’m not going to be twee and say that this was life-changing, but it was certainly eye-opening. I worked out a while ago how much this one trip for a 30-minute birdspot had cost me, but you know what? Who cares. I’d have paid twice as much to do it. Now, I know the people organising this make next to nothing from these trips. They’re doing this so that other people can be as lucky as they are and see one of these marvellous creatures, and also to raise awareness. I hope what I’m writing and what I’ve told everyone on my lead-up to this visit has done this.

There are a gazillion endangered species on this planet. The Kakapo is just one of them, but thanks to the hard work of people like Don Merton and the Department of Conservation these disastrous trends can be reversed. Admittedly, the Kakapo has been a relatively easy one to deal with given some luck. There were spare islands to house them on, males and females were found and the New Zealand government seem to care more about their native environment than many others in the world. The Kakapo, as a result, has been fortunate.

Kakapo poaching doesn’t happen. Their feathers aren’t used in some bizarre medicine, though many years ago they were prized in some Maori clothing. They have no natural mammalian predators (the ones they suffered from were all imported by us), so removing those threats on unspoiled land was a relatively simple if long-term job.

Other animals aren’t so lucky. Rhino, tigers, lions and the like have a major problem in that their most dangerous predator is… us. 200 people working to rescue these creatures can have all their efforts undone by one greedy bastard with a gun. But still, good people give up their money, time and efforts to try and save them. Simply because they deserve to be saved. Our world would be a hugely less interesting and magical place were these amazing animals to disappear.

So now a little plea. Same as last year for those who know me. It’s September so it’s perhaps a little early for this but come December please do not send me a xmas card. I’ll still be travelling and I’ll have nowhere to put them. Instead, locate a shop or a person on the street or the relevant web page and donate a couple of quid to the World Wildlife Fund. Or Save the Rhino. Or the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. Or the Kakapo Recovery Program. Take your pick. Any of these charities or another one with similar aims. Just a couple of quid (or dollars or whatever). Help these people improve our planet, to give these animals a chance to spread and grow back to respectable and safe numbers.

I’m just happy I’ve seen a few of these creatures very close up recently. We’re running out of time faster than I like to think for many of them and if I can do anything at all to convince you to put your hand in your pocket – or even volunteer to work – then all the expense of travelling around and the time of writing this up is a small price.

Soapbox away again. Posted by Picasa

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Stewart Island

 By the time we arrived, I should have been exhausted. After all, I’d barely had 2 hours’ sleep the night before but for some reason all I wanted to do was wander around instead of crashing out. The South Sea hotel I’d booked into was right on the front by the bay so very easy to find. At NZ$60 a night, it was also a bargain though on arrival I found out there were several backpacker places I could probably have gotten for significantly less. Mind, once I saw the room… it was huge with two beds, a kitchen (no oven, but a fridge, toaster, kettle and microwave) and a lovely bathroom with a big shower. And as another bonus… free wireless courtesy of another leaky signal.

 I unpacked then walked round to the Department of Conservation office to pay for my trip to Ulva later in the evening. I also asked about any decent walks that would take a couple of hours and was given several suggestions.

A quick trip to the local store and I had beans on toast for lunch – the first time in over two months! Then I saddled up and went walking.

 Before I launch into all the details, Stewart Island is a phenomenally beautiful place. It has a tiny human population and the vast amount of it is unspoiled nature. Given how close it is to the Antarctic, the woods look almost like rain forest with thick trees everywhere and the birdlife is magnificent. At the start of my walk I was deluged with birdcalls, from the R2D2-like bleeps and farts of the Tui to squawks from huge parrots. As one point, I turned a corner to see an enormous bird with a scary beak and wide claws diving in to attack me. Well, that’s what I thought when I yelped and jumped backwards. It was actually a parrot braking in midair before swooping up onto a branch.

 In two hours of walking I saw three other people. They were together as a group and sat having a rest after just doing the same walk as me, but in the other direction. After that – nobody. It was wonderful. In places, the sounds of life were deafening. In others, there was no sound, especially on some of the beaches. Two birds wading about stabbing into the ground for insects or whatever and the sea barely whispering as it washed gently up and down on the sand. Utter silence.

I was toying with walking for another hour, but rain started to drizzle down and I didn’t fancy getting drenched. Posted by Picasa


 Invercargill is 150 this year. I feel about the same age after my journey down. The coach set off at 5:30pm from Christchurch and was pretty much fully laden after a pickup at the airport. Most people on board were only heading as far as Dunedin, where we were due just before midnight. I was long-haul. All the way to Invercargill on the south coast. ETA – 3am. In fairness, this isn’t too bad given than Hanoi to Danang was 17 hours! Costwise, this trip was a weeny bit more expensive, though. Roughly £23 as opposed to nearer a fiver for the Vietnamese journey.

I went with Knightrider – the only other bus service undertaking this journey does so during daylight hours and costs a fair bit more. Trains don’t run this far down, I don’t think, and a flight would have cost three times as much. My only regret is that I was being driven through some beautiful scenery… all of it after sunset so I couldn’t see it.

 Rest breaks were frequent enough, including a half-hour stop for KFC at 9:30. We also came to a halt around 10:30 for a driver change. It seems one guy drives from Christchurch down to here, then swaps buses with the northbound driver. That way he ends up back in Christchurch at the end of his drive, while the Invercargill based guy drives back to his own home. Smart enough.

There was a delay on the changeover as the northbound coach had a flat tyre. They couldn’t fix it, so had to wait for a towtruck. I’m glad I was heading south!

The coach itself was fairly small, comfy and had a telly at the front. In total, we watched three films: Entrapment, Mr and Mrs Smith and Arnie’s Eraser. I’d seen all three before and the volume was a little low most of the time due to the big diesel engine chugging beneath us, but entertaining nontheless. Reading wasn’t an option as the lights were out and I always nod off when I read on buses anyway. This isn’t comfortable and I often end up drooling on the person next to me.

 We offloaded most of the passengers in Dunedin, and five of us continued on to Invercargill, arriving there more or less at 3am on the dot. I managed maybe an hour’s sleep in the latter stages as I had two seats to myself at last.

Invercargill is chilly. Even I had to put on my loaned fleece (thanks Rob!) and my teeth chattered as I walked in search if the I-Site from where I would be picked up the next morning. Well – later that same morning. I didn’t bother booking a hotel or a hostel as it didn’t seem worth it for the four hours I’d be there. Besides, I had investigated and there is nowhere in Invercargill with a 24-hopur reception in the vicinity of where I arrived. I wasn’t about to fork out $100 for 4 hours, plus a taxi to the I-Site the next morning.

Stopping at a police station, I picked up a map and directions from a very helpful policewoman and found myself at the I-Site/museum at 3:20. Only five hours until my coach arrived.

The sky was clear, but the streetlamps glared so it was hard to see the sky. To the left of the museum I spotted an observatory. Storing my bags in a fairly large phone box, I walked round and the skies just cleared. There are no lights round the back of the observatory and it’s astounding how brightly the stars shone overheard. I was tempted to clamber up the observatory (the spiral stairs round it were open), but I spotted a security camera and a car in the car park. I wasn’t in the mood to be arrested as they may not have released me in time for my bus and ferry.

 I had walk slightly further afield, locating a petrol station (where I bought some munchies), a park and a war memorial. I took some nice night-time snaps and then bedded down for an hour in the phone box. This isn’t the first time this trip I’ve slept on concrete, but the last time it was pitch dark and around 30 degrees. In Invercargill, I had security lights blinking and it was nearer 6 degrees.

When I woke up, I meandered down to McD’s for some brekkie. Like Singapore, they have wireless. Unlike Singapore, it’s secure and unavailable to Joe Public. Boo. However, they open at 6:30, have very clean loos and you can watch the sun rise around the war memorial from the McCafé window so it’s not all bad.

While sitting having breakfast, I went through the local paper – The Southland Times. It’s typically “local” with “local” stories and 3-days-out-of-date international news, but it passed the time. It also contained a 150th Anniversary special about Invercargill with some nice pictures and history in it. I’d already noticed about a dozen streets named after UK rivers (Tyne, Don, Dee, Tay, Forth, Tweed…), but there was other nice trivia in there. Such as when vehicles were eventually regulated, there was a speed limit set for going around corners of 10mph. Also, Invercargill monitored its own traffic untill 1995 when it merged with the national department. The sepia photos of every mayor over the last 150 years was also quite an eye-opener. Some impressive beards before the turn of the 19th/20th century!

Come 8am, I wandered back up to the I-Site and waited for my bus to Bluff. It was a very small bus. In fact, it was a taxi. There were only three people to be collected, so the ferry company didn’t bother sending the bus out. Nice! The taxi driver and the other two passengers (two Aussies) were really chatty and the 20-minute drive to Bluff passed quickly.

The ferry terminal is located about as far south on the mainland as you can get. It’s quite close to an aluminium smelting works, and I think the company that own the works are one of the main sponsors of the Kakapo project. After a short wait, we jumped onto the ferry for the choppy ride to Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island. Despite the catamaran design of the ferry, it wasn’t the smoothest of journeys so I stayed outside for most of it. Losing my lunch at Kaikora is still an all-too-recent memory. Posted by Picasa

Christchurch once more

I arrived yesterday from Sydney at around 2pm. And I didn’t get through to meet Rob in the arrivals area till almost 3pm as I was “randomly” selected to have my luggage gone through by a very pleasant (no sarcasm, he was) customs official.

Apparently it was to check for drugs and stuff as I’d been to Thailand on my travels. My issue is that although I have been there, it was in March. Since then I’ve been to Vietnam, into New Zealand once, back into Vietnam and then through Singapore (where I’d have been given the death sentence for carrying anything dodgy if I was stupid enough to do so), then Oz where my luggage was checked with typical Oz-style thoroughness before going back into NZ. So let’s face it – given the timescale, had I bought any drugs I’m sure I’d have used the damn things in that length of time.

Anyway, as I said, the guy was pleasant enough and he didn’t even bat an eyelid at the three bags of piratebackup DVDs I’d purchased in Vietnam. In fact, he at first thought they were bags of photos I’d been taking on my trip!

So bags once more packed, I wandered through to be greeted by Rob who’d waited patiently – along with my ATM cards which had arrived that morning. YAY!

We stopped for some shopping on the way home and had barbequeued burgers for lunch. By this time I was famished and the food was very welcome. And rather delicious. We sat and watched Dodgeball which was still fun the second time around, killed a few (actually a lot) zombies in a game demo and then Rob went to collect Pam from the airport as she’d been up in Auckland for a work conference.

Tea was had and beds gone to.

The best night’s sleep I’ve had in weeks, and to top it all I had two cats on the bed for most of it. I miss having cats snuffling under my arms when I’m snoozing!

In the morning, Rob and I decided to go to the QEII leisure park and partake of the water slides. And swim. Because swimming is healthy. But mainly for the water slides. This turned out to be a really good idea. The leisure centre is superb with a semi-sunk ship with slides in it for the under-8’s, wave pool, circular pool with a “current” pushing you round, 25m pool, 50m pool, sauna, steam room, spa bath and five water slides (two of which you zoom down on rubber rings). All this for NZ$16 per person. Just a swim is only NZ$5. As it was a Saturday, the place was heaving but nicely so. The queues for the slides weren’t more than a minute or so and the larger pools were fairly empty.

After we towelled off, we drove round the corner to… mini golf! Rob had located four in Christchurch I’d not already been to and one was right next to the pool.

I won. But only by three strokes. Quite a nice course with some entertaining scenery, based on a “lost world” scenario. Two statues in particular really make things great, both squirting water. One of them jets a stream over one of the bridges you have to cross, so if it’s windy you could be in for a soaking!

Afterwards, we drove back to the house and checked the weather for Sunday… and decided that snowboarding was a no-go due to rain and fast winds. Ah, well.

It did turn out, the following morning, that the slopes were open but by then we’d have been pretty short on time. Mt Hutt is two hours away, I hadn’t packed and my bus for Invercargill departed Christchurch at 17:30.

So after batting ideas around for a while, we had lunch and Rob handed me the X-Box360 controller and I spent 4 hours playing Elder Scrolls IV; Pam painted, pastelled and in other ways was arty; Rob did internetty things; the cats chased wasps, dug holes in plantpots and – on the whole – were just cute.

In all, everything a Sunday should be. Utterly chilled out and relaxing.

My hosts gave me a lift into town for my bus around 5pm, even arming me with some supplies for the journey – one of Pam’s triple chocolate muffins. Like Elven bread, one piece of muffin is enough to keep anyone going for hours! If bigamy were allowed in New Zealand, I’d marry Pam purely for her baking!

Again, a “thank you” to the five of you (Pam, Rob, Merlin, Amber and little Mogglet) for two cracking nights’ sleep and a chance to wind down after all the travelling – and rest up for the next lot!