Exploring New Zealand From the Left.


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Peel Forest and Penguin Spotting

Like most of the east coast, the vast majority of the forests of Canterbury have been cleared for agricultural uses. There are only a few forests left with old growth behemoths like the totara tree below. Peel Forest contains the majority of these ancient trees in the Canterbury region. So we decided to give it a go.

This totara tree is over 1000 years old. It was well established when the first major Māori migration reached the South Island.

Its truck is 8.4 meters in circumference, and it towers above us at over 31 meters tall.

These monsters once dotted the landscape wherever fertile soil was available. Most were logged for timber, or burned by Māori during hunts, or to clear land for kumara (sweet potato) farming.

It was quite warm, so we decided to skip a longer walk Peel Forest, and head towards the coast. With slightly better weather, we hoped to have success spotting yellow-eyed penguins at Oamaru.

Yellow-eyed penguins nest year round at Bushy Beach, and they can be seen coming ashore a few hours before sunset. These are the rarest penguins, having only a scattering of small colonies on NZ coasts. We parked, had some dinner, and did the short walk to the lookout. People are not allowed on the beach during nesting season.

At about 7pm we were getting tired after waiting for 45 minutes with the sun in our eyes. All of the sudden a very fast ripple shoots across the water right next to the beach. A penguin pops its head out for a look around, zips up and down a few times, and waddles up out of the water. Their awkwardness on land is more than made up for by their agility underwater. These little birds are fast, with sustained speeds faster than Michael Phelps's 5-second swim sprint.

They look so small on the empty beach. They only weigh 5-6kg (less than 15lbs) and stand less than 20 inches tall.

You can see the yellow crest over each eye.

The Māori call them Hoiho, which is a close approximation of their call. When they come ashore they sing a loud high pitched “I’m home!” song with a little dance. Nesting as pairs, this helps them find each other, and generally lets them cool off after a long swim. Without the cooling effect of the seawater, they can easily overheat on land.


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You are exactly right. I'm 61 born and breed in NZ the cultural changes in the last 20 yrs have been big for the quite conservative Kiwi natives. The remote location has been hugely reduced with modern travel and of course the internet. I have traveled a lot with my work and holidays, most Kiwi's are travelers, a throw back to our pioneering past I think. Yes our sense of humor can be an aquired taste, we tend to take the micky out of each other which some people find a bit strange. Iove your posts

Cheers Leon


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Meandering Southward
By Jen.

When we came to New Zealand, a couple from the US that we had met in Australia gave us some contacts here, one couple on each island. It just so happened that we managed to met up with the South Island couple before the traveling couple left for South America and Antarctica! I love chit-chatting with couples that do similar things as we do so that I can get ideas. I found out how to take my vehicle through China by talking with them, which makes me very excited. I will not lie, I definitely have a bad case of fernweh. I always have a strong desire to be traveling the far reaches that I haven’t been yet. Anyways, the couple was kind enough to take us on a tour of their dairy farm, which was interesting.

They have 2 methods for milking. First more traditional method involves corralling them into lines in a barn.

The second, newer method involves putting them in individual stalls in a carousel.
Apparently in NZ since they produce much more milk than is consumed, they actually let the cow rest from milk production during the winter. Indeed, they produce so much milk that most of it gets dehydrated, turned into powdered milk, and exported.

From there, we took a drive over Danseys Pass. It has been toted as an unsealed, adventurous drive, but it was pretty calm and unassuming. Some good views.


Every country calls these differently. I grew up with cattle guard. Canada calls them Texas Gates. Australia just calls them a grid.



Within an hour or two, we were over the pass and on towards Dunedin. We picked up our mail (this time a DOC vehicle pass), and various groceries, and then decided to stay the night. It was the end of January and a super blue blood moon (meaning 2nd full moon, close to earth, and fully eclipsed) was supposed to appear that night, but thanks to former cyclone Fehi, the clouds covered it and we didn’t get to see it.

The rain was pouring the next morning and while emptying our grey water and filling our fresh water tanks, I discovered that my mostly waterproof jacket wasn’t waterproof enough. So, on the way out of town, I had Jonathan stop so I could purchase a rain jacket. I am sure you will see me sporting my new purple jacket in future photos. That rain continued for several days, so I was thankful for it. The rain and cold was making things a bit miserable outside that day, thus we decided to spend it catching up on internet-related things instead. Then, the next day, despite the lighter rain, we started exploring again. First off was Tunnel Beach, which is a steep walk to a cliff, which then turns down into a tunnel to a rich guy’s own private beach. At some point, it was made publicly available so we could all enjoy it.




It was a bit short for my tall husband. You can still see the pick marks.


The end of the tunnel opens up on a small and rocky beach, which that day had 2 waterfalls.


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I went to examine this small natural tunnel, but I got too close to that fur seal, who barked at me, informing me to vacate the premises.

The seal went right back to sleep after that, though.



The private beach from the arch that sticks in the ocean.

On the way back up, we spotted a small bird preening its feathers in the wetness.
From there, it was on to Nugget Point Lighthouse.

There must have been some fish or something caught in this pool as we the seals were going crazy swimming around it.


Lots of juvenile seals around here.

As well as nesting spoonbills.

Someone had fun decorating.

A colorful bird.​

Last stop was Jack’s “Blowhole”. We didn’t see it act as a blow hole, but it was pretty cool to see seawater and waves in a sinkhole 200 meters from the shore.


A fluffy bird.


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Catlins Coast
The next region of our southward drive is the Catlins. This area has a unique feel to it. Incessant winds from the circumpolar jet stream smash up against the southwest coast of NZ. At unpredictable times, these winds will find their way back down to ground level. Down here the east coast is spared the brunt of the roaring forties ever-eastward drive. The Catlins still have a strange remote and raw-nature feel, despite the farmland and small towns that dot it.

During our time in this region, we experienced calm beautiful sunshine and 20C (65F) temperatures, gale force winds, interspersed with hail and rain, and cloudy with light winds. All of this in the same day. 4 seasons in one day is not a figure of speech!

We started the day with a walk along the wind-and-wave-battered coast. Thankfully, we found some solace from the wind for short while.













Along the drive, we stopped to look at some petrified trees and ferns. Buried millions of years ago, this area has exquisitely-preserved trunks of ferns and trees.




Next along our route was Slope Point. Nothing very interesting here, except that it is the southern most point of the NZ South Island (there are other more southern islands). It was very windy at and near the point, easily over 80km/h (45mph).

Hard to tell from a photo, but it was difficult to stand, much less walk, within 100m of the cliff edge. We are closer to the south pole than the equator. 46 deg latitude is about as far south as the border between North and South Dakota of the USA is north.


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A strange confluence of Arctic-maritime climate and the rural isolation of a century long past has created an interesting city. With the weather being better farther north, we decided to spend a day in Invercargill, and wait till our next time through to enjoy more of the city on foot. Rain flying sideways tends to put a damper on the outdoor fun.

I really appreciate when these older cities make the effort to preserve their older artistic structures and public places.


Our first major stop was the Southland Museum and Art Gallery. An eclectic collection of history, science, biology, and archeology, this museum's main draw was the Tuatarium. Here they have a captive breeding program for the tuatara.

Tuatara are a living fossil in many ways. They are the only remaining member of the Rhynchocephalian reptile family. The earliest fossil records show this family evolving over 250 million years ago. Endemic to NZ and several of its smaller islands, these strange not-lizards are found nowhere else. NZ has no other native reptiles.


Some interesting facts about tuatara. They are carnivorous, eating just about anything that moves, and will fit in their mouth. They are survivors; they will remain active with body temperatures below 45F, when most reptiles would be immobile. Hibernating through cold spells, and only needing 1/4 of their body weight in food per year, they have long life spans. The oldest tuatara in captivity is over 100 years old. Which is good, because they take 25-30 years to reach full size!

They shed their skin every year like a snake. The fringe on their crest is actually soft, as is their skin. Despite looking like dragon lizards, they are very different internally. Males lack any external genitalia, instead mating similar to birds. Their skeletons and metabolism vary dramatically from true lizards.

Between their eyes and under their skin, they have a third eye-like organ. It senses light and temperature, and regulates their circadian rhythm. Males grow to 600mm long, and weight 1kg. They have no teeth, instead they have interlocking bony edges of their jaw.

Some other interesting displays in the museum:

Check out this dolphin skeleton, strange without all the blubber.

Sperm Whale teeth. Good for hunting giant squid, I guess.

Baleen whale skull.

The hand ground lenses from a lighthouse.

Moa were large flightless birds (not related to other flightless birds from Australia and Africa). They were hunted to extinction by the Māori within a few hundred years of their arrival in NZ. With over 12 species, they were quite diverse and widespread. Behind Jen in this photo is the leg of the largest species. Standing at 3 meters (9ft) tall, and weighing over 150kg, it was a monster bird. Given they roamed NZ only a few hundred years ago, I hold out the wild (ridiculous) hope I may rediscover some in the wilderness.


Here is one of the smaller Moa species. This one stands only 1.5 meters tall.

To make things more interesting, these Moa were hunted by giant eagles! Now gone the way of their prey, these eagles had a wingspan of 4 meters (12ft+). Now that is a big bird!

Here is a stuffed Kakapō. One of the endangered flightless parrots native to NZ. They forage and hunt in the canopy and along the forests floor. Quite beefy for a parrot.


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Southwest Scenic Route

Swinging south and west from Invercargill, we took the scenic detour on our way to the eastern lakes and the fiordlands.

This is one of the longest single-span suspension bridges in NZ at 366ft, and it is over 115 years old! The hand-cut timber deck is a nice touch. The supplies were drug in by wagon and ship, and the digging all done by hand. It wasn’t long before automobiles started using it, and it remained in active service until 1978. It was built for 5007 lb-sterling in 10 months during 1899. IMG_20180206_103203
At this point, the gale in my face definitely felt like it was born in Antarctica.

Just off our route was a limestone cave that we could take a 45-minute crawl/walk through. The cave itself was not particularly unique, however it was home to a fair number of glow worms. Native to NZ, these are actually the larvae of several species of fly.

Sure enough, after complete darkness had set in and our eyes adjusted, we could see dozens of light blue “stars” on the ceiling. Our cameras do not photograph super low light very well, but you can just barely see the clusters of glowworms in this photo.

Here is what they look like up close. The larvae secrete strands of sticky mucus which hang from the ceiling. A organ in their tails emits a faint glow, which draws flying insects into the trap. Once stuck in the mucus, they reel them in for a meal. The brighter the light, the hungrier the worm.


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Lake Hauroko and Borland Road

We drove up to Lake Hauroko on the edge of the Fiordlands park. Carved by many millennia of glaciation, this lake is the deepest in NZ at over 600 meters.

Because we enjoy punishing ourselves, the next morning we walked up to the Lookout Bluff. So we hauled our butts up the steep, muddy, and rough track.






Here is the bluff. Basically a chunk of mountain that escaped being pulverized by a kilometer-deep glacier.

The view was spectacular. To the left you might just barely be able to see the ocean to the south.





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Continuing deeper into the park, we took the Borland road into the Fiordlands. Built in the mid-20th century to facilitate the construction of the power transmission line from the power station at the South Arm of Lake Manapouri. This power station was built exclusively to supply ultra cheap power to an aluminum smelter 200km away. Interestingly, the plan to raise the lake's level by 30m (devastating the forests) as part of the power scheme was the start of a major environmental movement in NZ. Throughout these photos, you may see the ever-present high tension power lines to which we owe this unique access deep into otherwise-untouched wilderness.






We camped next to a transmission tower with no one for miles and miles. We had originally planned to drive to South Arm camp area, but a huge tree had fallen blocking the already narrow and winding road.


The next morning we drove back up the winding road to Borland saddle. Our goal was to hike up to Mt Burns, and get a view of the largest landslide anywhere in NZ (world record actually).



It wasn’t long until we cleared the tree line, and we walked across the tarn-studded tops.

The small mountain in this photo once towered 300 meters above where we are standing. The lake completely filled this valley.




Hard to imagine, but 27 cubic kilometers of rock fell into the valley, making the lumpy lake-filled bottom we see today.



Range after range of mountains and valleys extend for 60km in every direction.

We are headed for the peak in the middle of this photo. Although 13,000 years ago it was 300 meters higher, and part of the mountain on the far left!


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The adaptations of the alpine plants here are quite interesting (and prickly).



The landslide just continues on and on. Everything below in this photo was part of the mountain we are standing on.

Having exhausted our supply of snack bars, and found some cell reception, we started back down.





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Glacier Lakes, Rainforests, and Birds

By Jen.

Next along the road happened to be Manapouri and Te Anau. We had heard the Circle Track at Manapouri was a classic walk for the area, so we thought we would give it a go. Upon arriving, we discovered that you actually had to cross the river via boat to do the walk. A water taxi costs $20 per person, so we figured it would be just as easy to inflate the kayak and cross over ourselves. So after some short work and hauling the kayak down to the water (and a quick petting of a wandering neighborhood cat), we had crossed the river, stowed the kayak, and were walking along through the rainforest.



The viewpoint looks out at Lake Manapouri.

We took lunch at the viewpoint and had a little visitor. Another friendly South Island Bush Robin came looking for scraps and quite liked Jonathan. Apparently he looked like he dropped more crumbs than I. Naturally, I was quite jealous.




From there, we decided to visit another LOTR site, aka the Anduin River, which is featured in the opening scene of the Fellowship of the Ring.


The next day, the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary was the first on the list. This was quite fun. The birds here are ones that would not survive in the wild. We went early and were able to visit the birds before the crowds arrived for the feedings. Then we stayed for the feedings, even getting to go into an enclosure with some birds and feed the ducks.

These are a native forest parrot, called kākā.


These playful creatures are parakeets that are native to some subantarctic islands.


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This fatty got into the captive birds’ cage to steal the food. I think it is now too fat to get out.

Feeding a female Paradise Shelduck.

And the ducklings!

The stars of the show are the rare flightless takahē, which were once considered extinct.

The ones with the red-orange beaks are the parents.

This is a 3-month-old (to the day) juvenile.

This is their egg. They grow pretty quickly.

From here, we had planned on driving up to Milford Sound, but then read that January and February was the busiest time, so we decided to forgo until next month. Instead, we decided to swing over to the Mavora Lakes, where we could hopefully find less crowds. To finish off the day, we put in the kayak and paddled around the smaller lake.

This is also another LOTR site, where they finish their journey down the river in the Fellowship.



The next morning, I read that some “good alpine views” could be had by walking or driving up a 4WD road for a bit. So, we started off in the van down it, then decided perhaps it might be a bit troublesome and pulled off. Then walked the rest of the way. However, the rain and clouds only increased as we went along, so the views were unattainable. We decided it was time for an overnight hike, though. So swung around Lake Wakatipu, stocked up on missing supplies in Queenstown, and camped at the north end of the lake to finish preparing for our walk the next day.

The 4WD road.


Where the views were supposed to be.

Lake Wakatipu at sunset.