Thursday, July 26, 2012

Fun with Endangered Species: Fiordland & the Otago Peninsula

View Fiordland in a larger map

Things I saw this weekend:  
  • New Zealand fur seals
  • Little blue penguins
  • Yellow-eyed penguins
  • Fiordland crested penguins
  • Takahe
  • NZ parakeets
  • Kereru pigeons
  • Kea
  • Morepork owls
  • Kaka
  • Kotuku
  • Paradise ducks
  • Glowworms
  • Freshwater eel
  • Sandflies
  • Sheep
  • Cows

Okay, so not all of those are endangered, and not all were in the wild. Still, not a bad inventory of sightings, eh?

Landing in Queenstown
The Weekend of Critters started out with a 5:15am SuperShuttle pickup. I think I’m keeping those guys in business single-handedly. The upside of getting out at such an ungodly hour was the view from the plane – coming out of Auckland there was a low fog over everything, with mountain peaks poking up out of the clouds and a sunrise behind. There may have been something worth seeing over the ride to Queenstown; I wouldn’t know, I was asleep. Queenstown is up in the mountains, so to land there we had to fly between the mountains, winding around and through over valleys and lakes, which made for a spectacular ride. Lucky me, I had a window seat and a good camera.

Noel, her mom, and Daisy got in about an hour after I did. The van ride out to Te Anau was scenic, to put it mildly. And in the spirit of the rural Pacific, our driver stopped every half hour or so to drop off the day’s newspapers at the little towns around the way. Mallory met us there that evening.

Te Anau is a lovely little town on New Zealand’s second-largest lake. In the summer it’s a rockin’ hub for all sorts of wilderness adventuring; in the winter it’s dead. Seriously, about 2/3 of the restaurants were closed, and plenty of the shops, and a good chunk of the activities. Which also means we basically had the place to ourselves.

Kea on van
Day two started with a bacon & cheese pie at the one place open that early, and a 7:45 pickup by the kayaking company. There’s only one that operates in the winter; luckily they’re good. More scenery as we headed into the mountains, with a hot-pink sunrise to boot. I pretty much spent the next two hours with my nose glued to the window, taking pictures of everything we passed. At one point, when we were pulled over at a scenic spot, a kea (world’s only alpine parrot!) landed on the roof of the van and started chewing on the door seals. Eventually we got to Milford Sound (‘Piopiotahi’ in Maori), which is technically a fiord, carved out of the granite by a glacier a couple thousand years ago. The sound gets about 270 inches a year of rain, we totally lucked out with a glorious sunny day. Picture bright blue skies, snow-capped mountains, glassy smooth water, hundreds of tiny waterfalls from recent rainfall, and a few bigger ones fed by runoff from the remaining glaciers up the mountains. We got outfitted in super-chic striped thermals and yellow lifejackets, and set out in our kayaks. I was in a double with Mallory, trying to steer. These kayaks had pedal-operated rudders, which was awesome. The catch being that to go right you push the right pedal, and left to go left, which is exactly the opposite of the push-the tiller-left-to-go-right deal I’m used to from sailing. Suffice it to say we veered the wrong way more than once. It’s also hard to steer right while you’re staring agape at the vista. But we didn’t run into any cliffs, so it’s all good.

Kayakin' in Milford
First sighting of the day was a fur seal. Apparently the young males like to hang out there and hunt, but mostly we saw them sunbathing and fooling around in the water. Next was the Fiordland crested penguin, apparently both one of the two smallest and two most endangered penguins in the world. The one we saw was a male, waddling along the rocks on the shoreline before turning back into the bush towards his nest. He was unfortunately much harder to catch on film than the seals, especially from our spot at the back of the crowd of kayaks. We might have paddled faster if I hadn’t been taking so many pictures, but look at the Picasa album and see if you can blame me. Once again I’m glad I sprang for the waterproof camera.

Bowen Falls
After the penguin were more seals, and a break for granola bars, and finally a paddle over to Bowen Falls, which is about three times as high as Niagara (162 meters vs 50) but looks tiny next to the peak behind it. On the way out we saw a kotuku, a species of white heron on the back of the $2 coin. Apparently there’s only about 120 breeding pairs left, and the one who hangs out at Milford is called Hector. Standing still he was too far to get a good photo of, but he flew right past us on his way out. The only things we missed were dolphins, which come up the fiord occasionally to hunt. On the way back, we pulled over at Monkey Creek, which runs straight down from the glacier, to fill up our water bottles, no filters or iodine needed. Eat that, Poland Spring.

Once we got back to Te Anau, the first order of business was wine. We ended up at the Redcliff, for a glass of mulled red and an antipasto platter that ended up being dinner. Between the warm spiced wine and four hours of paddling we slept well that night.

Kereru Pigeon
The plan for Saturday was to do some hiking around the lake, but the weather was gross so instead of a view we got a drizzly gray haze. It was a half-hour walk along the shore to the wildlife center, where the rest of the birds on that list were: another kea, a kaka (another endemic parrot), a tiny little owl called a morepork (???!), ducks, native kakariki parakeets, kereru (endemic pigeons), and the insanely endangered flightless takahe (aka blue swamp hen – aren’t the Maori names so much better?), which was thought to be extinct for about 50 years until they found a few living in the mountains. The gem of the afternoon was the glowworm caves. The boat ride across the lake would have been spectacular if we’d been able to see more than 10 feet out the windows. When we landed, the glowworm caves were about a 3-minute walk up a hill. We ducked under a low rock to get in, and from there followed a walkway into the hillside. Unlike the granite down at Milford, the rock at Te Anau is limestone, so the cave was carved out by a river (with the aforementioned eel in it), which created some amazing waterfalls and vaulted chambers. Unfortunately, no photography allowed.
Daisy at the glowworm cave entrance

The kicker was the last chamber. We climbed into a metal boat, and the guide turned off all the lights and guided us down the river by pulling us along a chain hung from the ceiling. At first it was total darkness, and then we started passing little blue pinpricks of light on the ceiling. They looked like constellations, but two feet from our faces. Technically we were looking at the glowing rear ends of fungus gnat larvae, trying to lure in insects to eat. But they’re pretty nonetheless.

That evening Noel and her mother had to catch a bus back to Queenstown, so Mallory and Daisy and I went out and spent far too much money on souvenirs, then picked up a bottle of NZ wine from the supermarket, drank half of it in the hostel, and went back to Redcliff for dinner. I got the venison – we passed pastures full of deer all over on the way in – Mallory got hare, and Daisy had rump of lamb. Bloody expensive but awfully good.

Sunday we caught the bus to Dunedin, on the east coast, where Mallory’s working for the season. It’s a four-hour ride, through the inevitable morning mist, along which the landscape goes from serious mountains to pastoral rolling hills, with even more sheep. (Not that they’re short on sheep even in the Southern Alps.) Starting about two hours in the driver got on the mic to point out interesting tidbits about whatever we were passing through. (“This is the town of Gore! It’s just down the highway from Clinton, so in mid-2000 the Geographical Board named this stretch the Presidential Highway.” Whoops.) Except that pretty soon he stopped putting down the mic in between the interesting tidbits and pretty much just yammered on for two hours. (Actual quote: ‘This bridge here has no real historical significance, but it was built between 1932 and 1935…’). So much for sleeping on the bus.

Driving out on the Otago
That afternoon we looked around the Otago Museum, then drove Daisy out to the airport. Monday was the fun one. In the morning, Mallory went in to work at the university and I went online to rent a car. After a lunch of pies we picked up our car and drove (on the left!) down the Otago Peninsula. More beautiful views, lots of sheep, some cows. The road winds along a cliff, and for long stretches its only one lane wide, even though it’s two-way. Between stopping for pictures and slowing down for curves it took us an hour to drive the 28km out to the end.

Curious seal pup
And at the end was a tour of seal and penguin breeding colonies. The first stop was a lookout over a cliff where shag, a species of cormorant, were nesting. The ocean there comes up on a current from Antarctica, which is why the penguins like it, and the water was full of huge ropes of kelp, good food for the hundred-something species of squid and couple of whales and dolphins that come through. Next up was a seal colony, mostly a few females and a big group of 7-month-old pups. One of them got curious and waddled up to the group on a ledge at about shoulder-height, and started checking me out. They’re funny-looking at that age, little and chubby with a pointy nose and huge dark eyes, all out of proportion.

And from there to Penguin Beach. There’s a hide running along the edge of the cliff overlooking the beach, and from there we saw the little blue penguins sleeping in their nests. None of them came out, but I can hardly blame them for that. Looking back out over the beach we watched a pair of yellow-eyed penguins come in from the water and start to climb the dunes to their nests. Too far for a good picture, but the guide had binoculars.

Penguins through a telescope
And finally out to the airport so I could fly home. I drove the first chunk, so I can say I’ve done the left-side thing and it’s not as bad as you’d think, and Mallory took the rest. We forgot to print directions to the airport so we got a touch lost going through Dunedin, but luckily her sense of direction is better than mine, and we were at the airport early, which out there means more than 30 minutes ahead of time. Gotta love domestic flights in this country – keep your shoes on at security, bring as much liquid as you want, and no sitting at the gate for an hour waiting to board. at 7:00 I took off, and by 8:30 I’d landed in Auckland. Postcards are on the way.

ETA: Sandflies! How could I forget the sandflies? Little buggers ate me alive while we were kayaking. Nobody else had much of a reaction, but I was itching away at what were indistinguishable from mosquito bites for the rest of the weekend. And here I thought the whole point of winter was *not* to get any bug bites.

Fiordland photos here, Otago here.

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