Exploring New Zealand From the Left.

luthj

Engineer In Residence
Stewart and Ulva Islands, Part 1
For some time we had planned to visit Stewart Island and its companion, Ulva Island. Located south of Invercargill, these islands are known for their remoteness, and mostly-unmolested native forests. Uniquely, ferrets, stoats, and weasels were never introduced here. With only rats and mice to predate, the native bird life has had a fighting chance. The vast majority of the island is a national park, and very little was logged. Ulva Island is much smaller, and sheltered inside Patterson Inlet. A campaign was conducted some years ago to wipe out the rats and mice here. Ongoing trapping prevents their reintroduction. Some very rare species (once widespread) such as the saddleback can be seen here.

There are two ways to get to Stewart Island. The first is by ferry (only for people, no vehicles). The straight is fairly narrow (and shallow) but the Southern Ocean is relentless. Thankfully we had a calm day. The other method is by small aircraft. We opted for the ferry (both ways), as it was cheaper.

Upon arrival ,we decided to do a couple of short walks nearby the island's only town, Oban. With only 400 full-time residents, it is a small and unique place.

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Penguins often cross the roads at dusk/dawn.

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This remote settlement has a varied history. Antarctic whaling vessels would lay up in this bay to process the whale carcasses. The winch on the left was used to haul the carcasses up the beach. The vessel on the right is called a try pot. The whale fat would be boiled therein to render out the valuable oil.

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I find it strange to see mallard ducks swimming in the ocean…
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The view was somewhat marred by the floating piece of western luxury, the cruise ship. If you look close, you might see a white-capped mollymawk in the center. They have a wingspan of over 6ft, and a very distinguished brow.
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Flying thousands of miles with nary a wingbeat, they are dauntless gliders. Using the difference in wind speed near the surface and the trailing edge of the waves, they exert almost no effort. They repeatedly soar up into the air, and swoop down, wingtips often just brushing the surface.
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A few more birds waited for us along the walk. Such as this pair of shelducks.
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And this very frustrated bellbird.
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A few tui were hanging about.
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A nearby beach had a wrecked boat, so we went for a wander.
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We watched the sun set from “observation rock” which was a letdown, as the trees blocked the sunset…


And then Jen had us wandering the streets, trails, and parks in search of kiwi (which outnumber humans on the island by nearly 50 to 1 and the only species not considered to be endangered), with no success, either.
 

luthj

Engineer In Residence
Stewart and Ulva Islands, Part 2
That night we went out kiwi hunting on the trails near the town. We hear a couple, but were unable to cross paths. We had an early morning the next day, so we didn’t stay out late.

We were up before sunrise, as we wanted to visit Ulva island right at dawn, and hopefully see some bird life. The Māori name for Stewart Island is "Rakiura", which means "Glowing Skies." You can see why below, though it is also probably a reference to the Aurora Australis.


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Our off-schedule taxi was 30 minutes behind the scheduled time, so we arrived after sunrise a bit. We still heard a couple pairs of kiwi surprisingly. Had we arrived earlier we may have had a chance of spotting them. Lighting was poor due to cloud and tree cover (Jen thinks the glowing skies refers to the fact that it never seems really bright here, just kinda "glows" instead), but we got a few photos.

Here is a pair of kaka. They are quite noisy. Flying and climbing about, using their wicked beaks to tear dead trees to pieces.
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A very blurry photo of a red-crowned parakeet. They often wandered the forest floor, making this odd clicking noise. We had no idea it was a bird at all…
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No birds here, just a fun tree trunk. Stewart Island has none of the beech trees which dominate most of NZ's forests. Instead podocarps such as rimu are much more common here.
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The elusive saddleback. They are extinct from all but a few tiny rat-free islands. Nesting on the ground, they are easy food.
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A very fat wood pigeon. They are heavy birds, preferring to use a rapid nearly-vertical ascent to slow their approach on landing. It gives them a kamikaze feel.
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We were out of season for it, but in the summer sooty shearwaters and many penguins come ashore at night to nest. The penguins clambering up steep forested banks, the shearwaters dive bombing into bushes in near complete darkness.

Our ferry boarding passes. They stay like this a long time; they used to use them as post cards!
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On the return ferry trip there must have been some fish in the area, as a large number of seabirds decided to camp out in our path.
 

luthj

Engineer In Residence
This white-capped albatross, Buller's Mollymawk, was paddling along beside the boat. Check out the distinguished brow! It helps deflect wind and debris from their eyes during the endless hours of flight. Their nostrils are placed to provide them with a near perfect measurement of their true airspeed. A necessity with no references for land speed at sea.
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A yellow-eyed penguin popped up for a break and some air.
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They apparently have no trouble floating on their backs.
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This albatross decided to land right next to the boat. Pretty sure it could have splashed us if it wanted. It just cruised right up doing a hairpin turn about the bow, and touched down just ahead.
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Being mid-sized for most albatross species, his wingspan was only 6.3ft, and weight around 8lb.
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Then a raft of blue (little) penguins appeared.
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The prop from a sunken whaler.
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Here is a paua tree.
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A parting photo, and we were back on the ferry to the mainland.
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luthj

Engineer In Residence
Invincible Mine and Skippers Canyon
By Jen.

Stewart Island is as far south as we will get in NZ, so all of our travels will be mostly northward from here on out. As we have done a couple of figure 8s of the South Island, we only have a few things left that we really want to do, so we started picking them off as we went north. First up was Invincible Mine.

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We had to get to the walk first. I find the ford sign very entertaining.
While the walk supposed to feature a pretty cool mine, I felt it was more appropriately a mushroom walk, as there were tons of many different varieties that lined the path.

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When we got up to the mine, they had left a device there that was used to get gold from the leftover tailings.

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A surprising amount of the water wheel was still intact.

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They apparently had a good view for smoko.

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While most of the mining was from the surface, they did have a few shafts.

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There was also a “concentrator”, which was also used to pull gold from the leftovers.

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On the way out of the road, we were eye-level with a falcon!

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Typical NZ road.


 

luthj

Engineer In Residence
Next on our list was Skippers Canyon, which is known as a 4WD track that is fun. It was a fairly nice gravel road, but narrow and with precipitous drops. I felt like this one should also have that fun parachute sign, but it didn’t. The road leads to an old gold-mining, ghost town, surprisingly there is cell reception there still.

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We were going to drive all the way to the town, but at 1.3km out we had to stop because we were overweight for the bridge. Our vehicle masses close to 3900kg at the moment. Didn’t want to risk it, so we parked by the bridge and walked the rest of the way.

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Still a lot of the original-construction pieces, but had been reinforced with some modern pieces.
 

luthj

Engineer In Residence

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If this area looks familiar, it is because it part of the seen in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Arwen stops the pursuing Nazgul and orcs by summoning a flood down the river. Love that scene! Rescued when they thought all hope was nearly lost.

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The old school building.

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There was also a lovely historic homestead here as well, until this December when it burned down.

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They are in the process of killing off the wilding pines, an invasive species here.

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Those level terraces are the result of gold mining here.

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Hand-laid retaining walls.

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Overall, a very scenic and fun drive. Highly recommend.
 

luthj

Engineer In Residence
Mt Cook National Park
A major tourist draw (and worldwide mountaineering destination), Mt Cook park is the heart of the Southern alps. With numerous peaks rising over 2,000 meters from base to summit, and Mt Cook itself exceeding 3,000 meters, the reasons are obvious.

Even from 45km away, Mt Cook dominates the skyline. Its flanks shaped by relentless glacial advance and retreat, the sides are steep and unforgiving.
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The majority of tourists see this view from the valley floor. A few brave souls will climb to Mueller’s hut, climbing up over 800 meters of steps, for 1,100 meters of elevation gain. An adventurous few with unyielding fortitude (and thigh muscles) will climb one of the surrounding mountains, with hundreds of mapped routes. Some will even brave Mt Cook itself. Every year a tragic few are lost to the slopes. Ice falls, fatigue, injury, exposure, landslides, and sheer stupidity all take their share.
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Our first stop was the Tasman Glacier. Flowing alongside the eastern side of Mt Cook, it is a massive thing. The lake in this photo was a few hundred meters of ice in the early 1900s. The ridge we were standing on is the terminal moraine, endless tons of rock gouged out by the glacial engine, and dumped at what was once its terminal face. Now only 24km long, it once extended to the where we stood.
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Even this late in the season, a few icebergs floated in the milky water. This one is about the size of the van above water, and 10 times its size below.
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With a bit of daylight left, we walked down the Hooker Valley to see the other large glacier in the park. Note the smaller glaciers clinging to the upper slopes. These chunks of ice are at a minimum 100ft (30 meters) thick.
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There were numerous bridges on the walk.
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Crossing this one, a falcon flew a few meters in front of us, and landed on one of the bridge cables.

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Where it promptly hopped onto a rock to get a drink of water. Diving at over 100mph, they catch their prey in mid air, knocking them unconscious. Like all falcons, they have a special tooth on their beak, which they use to dislocated their preys necks.
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Here is Mueller Lake. Stained an opaque gray by “rock flour” ground up by the glacier, it will eventually turn a milky blue farther downstream.
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Check out that snow on Mount Cook (below)! In the 1990s, about 15 meters of Mt Cook’s top fell straight off! On the right side of this photo, thousands of cubic meters of rock broke free, falling over 2,000 meters to the glacier below. It blasted across the kilometer wide glacier to the other valley wall traveling hundreds of meters up the other side before finally coming to rest. This slide registered as a 4.3 magnitude earthquake in a town 45km away! So Mt Cook is just a little bit shorter for this millennium's climbers. Give it a few hundred thousand years and it will gain the height back though!
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Check out the 30m tall ice towers on the upper glaciers!
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The scree fields coming down the naked mountainsides were intense.
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We hoped to do the climb to Mueller Hut, high on a ridge above the valley the next day. However the wind changed directions, and the entire valley was filled with rain from the early morning. As is typical of NZ mountain weather, it was partly cloudy and dry 45km to the east!
 

luthj

Engineer In Residence
Molesworth Station
By Jen.

Easter found us at Molesworth Station. This was recommended to us early on, as an off-the-beaten track place to take the van, especially since some of the roads are 4WD roads. Molesworth Station is owned by the government here, but is also the largest working cattle farm with about 10,000 head of cattle. It is known for its varied terrain, so we were eager to go see it, especially since it closes for the season on April 8 this year. We had considered going several times before, but we had either chosen to go someplace else or we had a flat tire or two. So, we decided to head up the rougher western road first.
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Lake Tennyson.
Continuing on past Lake Tennyson is a 4WD road, though it really wasn’t bad at all. Turns out, it also heads up to Island Saddle, which makes it the highest public road (unsealed, of course) in NZ.

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The road in front of us.

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The scree fields on the mountains here are pretty large.

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Lake Sedgemere has a unique fish that only lives here.

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We continued on that road until the toll gate (enters private land), and then turned back.

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On the way back to the main road that passes north-south through the station, we were hearing louder than normal thumps while going over bumps. I told Jonathan that it wasn’t normal, so he stopped and investigated. We discovered that we had crack in our bracket that holds the Fox shocks (added on for comfort in addition to the original front shocks).

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The left bracket. You can see the small crack on the edge that goes from the top of the picture to the right side.
Upon tightening the other bracket to prevent the same issue, we found that it was rocking awkwardly every time it was tightened (something it shouldn’t do). So we removed that bracket there and planned on getting the other at the campsite. Turns out the upper bolts (1 of 3 for the bracket) on each bracket had fallen out (probably somewhere in Australia). The resulting strain made one of the brackets crack and the other broke a hole in the frame where the bottom bolt was supposed to be tightened. The looseness of these brackets also explains why we recently started experiencing squeaking when the wheel areas got wet.
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The hole in the frame where the bottom bolt was on the right side.
As a plus, that evening when we were took off one of the shocks, we were able to greatly entertain about 6 children ranging 3-5 years old. First, when we set out the awning, they were awestruck. They had been running about like chickens with their heads cut off, but as our awning started rolling out with no one visible to do it, they were amazed! Even the parents were pretty absorbed in watching. We only set it out partway to make sure that the window was in shade, so when Jonathan went out to get his tools, they wanted him to extend it further. I extended it to max length and then they started following him around like ducklings as he set to the task of removing the last shock and bracket. So, I came out to see if I could distract them a bit.

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By mid morning on Easter Monday we were already out of the station and left with a decision on where to go next. We decided to head to Kaikoura and try and see some sperm whales.
 

luthj

Engineer In Residence
Kaikoura and Lake Daniells

With a goal of seeing some sperm whales, we headed to Kaikoura. Only just reopened after the 2016 earthquake, the whale watching tours had been operating out of Christchurch. The continental shelf is only a few miles offshore from Kaikoura, where the ocean floor plunges abruptly to over 3600ft of depth. A combination of cool Antarctic and warm tropical currents make this a very fertile and productive ocean region. This draws large amounts of wildlife, including dolphins, whales, seals, and seabirds.

The sperm whales spend most of their time (around 75% of it) swimming and hunting in the total darkness of the deep ocean. With a recorded dive time of over 2 hours, they will often only spend 15-30 minutes on the surface before diving again to hunt.

Sadly, our first tour was not successful, all the whales were far off shore, and not within range of our 3-hour tour (the boats are fast). In exchange, we got plenty of vomit. The swell was up, and the crew had used all the available time looking for whales, so we had to take the shortest, fastest, and roughest route back. I stopped counting after the 15th passenger filled a motion-sickness bag. Mostly because I had to duck down and make a deposit of my own. The vessel we were on was a shallow-draft catamaran with about 2,000hp. It basically just surfed the swell, which didn’t help. Here are a few photos of other marine life we got to see on the trip (not for long usually).

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Having missed the whales, we were entitled to a 80% refund or a rebooking. We opted to rebook (with a 20% discount after the 80% refund) for the next day. Sadly the next day was also a failure. Thankfully, this time it was not as rough, and we took some travel sickness medication beforehand. Much less vomit all around.

So we had the option of a 80% refund (off the 20% discounted second fare) or a rebook. So we rebooked for two weeks out, and planned on changing it when we heard the whale and weather forecasts.

We headed south to Christchurch to get some supplies, and do some kayaking in the various bays on Banks Peninsula.

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We saw a Hector's Dolphin (the smallest species, endemic to NZ only). Sadly no pictures.

From there we headed inland through Lewis Pass. We stopped over at a DOC campground there. Before the day finished, we walked to Lake Daniells. It was nice to have a track mostly to ourselves. Only a few locals were present.

The valley bottom follows the alpine fault line, a curious concrete wall had been built right across the center.
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Back before GPS, this wall was an experiment to see the the fault moved slowly, or in sudden jumps. In the decades since, the fault has not moved at all! About 10 years before this wall was built, the fault shifted a meter vertically, and several meters horizontally during an earthquake. You can see the slight incline in this photo.
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During the 2014 earthquake, the fault line running along the Kaikoura coast shifted violently. In less than a minute, the seabed rose between 2 and 4 meters. The old shoreline is easily visible as we walked the coast. The Kaikoura marina was left too shallow to use, and large rock outcrops are now exposed to the air. They don’t call NZ "the shaky isles" without due cause!

We continued onwards to Lake Daniells. This feature, called the Sluice Box, is a 20ft wide, and 20ft deep channel flowing between two walls of harder rock. With a smooth, flat bottom, only the ripples give away the rushing torrent (over 20mph). Not a good place to swim!
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luthj

Engineer In Residence
Like many predator-controlled areas in NZ, there are stoat/ferret/weasel traps scattered about the tracks. Having been in place for several years, most are rarely called to action. This one had just recently caught a stoat! About the size of a ferret, and native to Europe, these skilled hunters take down rabbits often weighing over 10 times their body weight. For that reason they were introduced in NZ to control rabbits, which were introduced because settlers were stupid, I mean, homesick. Of course, stoats much prefer the birds, eggs, and chicks of NZ's native birds. Having evolved for millions of years with no mammalian predators, they were easy pickings!

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I wonder if there is a kiwi hiding in there?
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luthj

Engineer In Residence
Takaka Hill, Harwoods Hole, and Farewell Spit


On our hiking list was the Tablelands Circuit in Kahurangi National Park. The access road is a narrow and very steep dirt and gravel climb to over 900 meters elevation. Upon arriving at the car park (a Sunday morning), we found it completely full! With only a few bunks in our ideal first hut, we decided to come back at a later date. After visiting the track, we discovered that most of the cars were likely from hunters and mountain bikers who were doing day visits.

With our first option on hold, we decided to drive up the coast from Nelson, and across Takaka Hill. The whole of Takaka Hill is an enormous outcropping of limestone which is riddled with sinkholes and streams, making an enormous cave and waterway network.
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They apparently have a feral hog problem.
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Our next stop was Harwoods Hole. Starting out as a sinkhole, it eventually became a waterfall and underground river. After the river found another route, the hundred-plus-meter-deep hole and canyon approach were left high and dry.

Evidence of the river that once raged through here abounded.
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Don’t want to trip!
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At one point a torrent of water fell, starting in the upper right, and slowly eroding down and back, eventually starting its fall from where we were standing.

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Cavers will repel down into the depths, before exiting several km away via Starlight Cave.

Check out the moss prints on the rock.
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Our next stop was the Farewell Spit. A narrow strip of sand dunes jutting out into Cook Straight, this 27km-long sliver of land is a bird haven. During nesting season, hundreds of thousands of seabirds nest on dunes, and probe the vast mudflats at low tide.

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