Marlborough Sounds Tour (Oct 29)

After our previous visit to Picton we knew we wanted to return to Marlborough Sounds and get out on the water on a wildlife tour or on a water taxi to a hiking destination.

During our recent trip with Leigh and Christine they both spoke highly of their recent experience with Dolphin Watch Ecotours. We called them and learned we could drive up the next day and do the tour we had in mind -- a scenic half-day tour out from Picton looking for dolphins, birds, and other marine wildlife. Part of the trip included a one hour guided walk at the Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary.

We left Blenheim for easy 30 minute drive to Picton, checked in at the tour office, then walked around Picton for a few minutes before returning to grab our gear from the car and get ready to board the tour boat, a nice catamaran with a two person crew -- Damien, the skipper, and Amy, the naturalist/guide. There only 3 other people on the tour, all from England.

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Mike was especially keen to see King Shags on the trip. King Shags are a rare shag (cormorant) endemic to New Zealand and only found in the coastal waters of Marlborough Sounds. There are only somewhere between 500 and 1000 of these birds but they are considered "vulnerable" rather than "endangered" because their populations have been stable.

We were also hoping to see dolphins in the Sounds and we expected to see the New Zealand Fur Seals, too, but we have seen them in many other places and were somewhat less interested in them. Susan was especially looking forward to the walk on predator-free Motuara Island, as we hoped to see a Saddleback and perhaps more Bellbirds. There are Kiwis (the bird) on Motuara too, but since they are nocturnal we had no expectation of seeing one.

King Shag
The weather was cool, breezy and a bit overcast, but were were well-equipped and ready to go.The boat left the marina at Picton Harbor and headed out. We'd probably only been out for about 20 minutes before we saw our first King Shag on a rock near the boat. The skipper slowed to a stop so we could all observe and photograph the shag. Amy had told us that the King Shags are somewhat skittish, but this fellow was pretty calm about us being there. She explained that because there was also a Spotted Shag on the rock and they are more relaxed, so then the King Shag would be too.

After a bit we moved on and found another rock in the Sounds with 3 more King Shags hanging out with more spotted shags. After watching them for awhile we moved on.

At Motuara Island we got off the boat and did the guided walk. Unfortunately we didn't see any Saddlebacks. They told us that DOC had just moved about 100 of them to other locations, so this could be the reason. However, we did see several South Island Robins, numerous Bellbirds, and even got to 2 Yellow-crowned Parakeets.

Mike at the "watering hole" near the dock
After a hike to the high point of the island to enjoy the expansive 360 views we hiked back down and boarded the boat to head back.

We stopped a few times to watch some common dolphins, which was a real treat. But while photographing them Susan came out to tell me that the interislander ferry was to pass by and it was likely that the dolphins would play in the large ship's bow wave. And play they did! They were just rocketing out of the water just in front of the ferry, which was traveling a bit over 20km/hr. It was so much fun to watch them having so much fun, and we got some decent pictures of their huge leaps.

After the ferry passed us we moved on and on the way back we saw a couple of Australasian Gannets, some Hutton's Shearwaters, and a raft of Fluttering Shearwaters.
We soon arrived back at Picton Harbor, got back into the car and headed back to Blenheim. All in all a very nice and fun little day trip!

Kaikoura is Better with Friends (Oct 25-27)

We wanted to return to beautiful Kaikoura and do a whale or bird tour at some point, so when we learned that a friend from Colorado and her mum happened to be in the neighborhood (Nelson) and were also interested in exploring the Kaikoura area, we suggested they join us.

Leigh and Christine arrived in Blenheim time for us to enjoy three wine tastings on Monday. First was Cloudy Bay, which Christine had visited years ago, followed by Alan Scott across the street, and last but not least Hunter's. Next we took them out to the Wairau Spoonbill colony, followed by a delicious dinner at Raupos in Blenheim.

Tuesday we all slept in and took care of a few errands in town before heading down Hwy 1. Can you guess where we stopped for a break along the way? You got it, "The Store," seal pups pool and spotted shag nests. Leigh and Christine seemed to enjoy all three stops.

After making reservations for the next day's Albatross Encounter tour and booking rooms for the night, Mike and Leigh walked part of the Kaikoura Penninsula Walkway. Christine and I opted to stay warm and wait in the car where we had a good chat while watching the seals and shorebirds at low tide. The recommendation from someone at Hunter's for the Green Dolphin restaurant proved to be a good one, and we enjoyed a great dinner with great conversation. We didn't get back to our rooms until 10:30PM!

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Wednesday morning the skies were still cloudy, but it was calm and seemed warmer than the day before. We took a short bus ride over to the South Bay side of the Kaikoura Peninsula and by the time we got out on the water the mountains started to peek out behind the clouds. Soon we were watching many albatross and other pelagic birds at the back of our small boat in quite a feeding frenzy.

We were "chumming", or dragging a loose meshed cage full of frozen chum behind us to attract the pelagics.  We wondered about the eco-sensitivity of this, but from the perspective of the tour guides, we were helping to counter-balance the negative impact of humans on these birds. We saw an example first hand, as one of the juvenile wandering albatross had a fishing hook stuck clear through his leg. Our guide prepared gear to bring the bird onboard to remove the foreign object, but was unable to entice the less confident juvenile to come close enough to be picked up and treated. "What would happen to the bird now?" someone asked. "Hopefully the hook will rust and fall out, and the bird will not get tetanus." was the guide's response. Chumming, or serving "ice cream" as the crew liked to say, no longer seemed like a questionable practice.

During the tour we saw a large number of very excited and sometimes feisty albatross and petrels, as well as smaller pelagic birds. On the way back to the peninsula, we saw some Dusky Dolphins - be sure to check out Mike's glorious shot of one jumping!

After a quick lunch on the Albatross Encounter Cafe patio, we headed back to the Penninsula Walkway on what was now a very sunny afternoon. After spending some time exploring the tide pools, this time all four of us climbed up to the Kean overlook. Leigh and Christine reluctantly had to head back about half way to whaler's point, so we said our goodbyes in the high green hills between the ocean and snowy mountains. Mike and I decided to go down to the shore at Whaler's Point this time and my concerns about being trapped at the rising tide proved to be unwarranted.

After our walk, we drove up Mt Fyffe Road a bit and passed the Old Convent and Donegal's B&Bs which looked like interesting places to stay well out of the main tourist area of Kaikoura. On our return to Blenheim, of course we stopped to say hello to the Spotted Shags and seal pups.

Dunedin and Otago Peninsula (October 19-21)

Tuesday, October 19 is the start of our third week on the road. On our way out, we stopped at the Niagara Cafe where Mike enjoyed his last Porpoise Man breakfast and Susan tried the French Toast with Bananas. Without our usual internet for several days, we read the newspaper weather and learned rain and cold was expected all over the southern South Island. It was easy to agree that Stewart Island would be no fun in this kind of weather.

Busy Dunedin
Instead, we headed east in pouring rain which continued all the way across the Catlins to Dunedin. Our only stop was in Balclutha to get gas and add brake fluid. A wet Dunedin in the cold wasn't particularly appealing in spite of the Gothic architecture and rhodies in full bloom. We found a multi-level car park garage then walked to the iSite to make our our motel reservation on the Otago Peninsula and grab some area info. The Otago Museum was an easy walk and seemed like a good way to get out of the rain as well as pop into a few shops along the way. Moa skeletons were the best part of the museum, although the Mindpower exhibit in the children's section was pretty cool. The point was to relax and somehow your brainwaves, as monitored by a headband with three metal contact points, would cause a little ball in a tube to move away from you. When the ball reached your opponent's side, you won. Susan lost. So much for mind control.

It was a bit of an adjustment to come from driving in the slow paced coastal rural beauty of the Catlins to bustling Dunedin, which apparently had been much busier earlier in the day when the first cruise ship of the season docked.

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We watched the behemoth ship work its way out of the harbor from Tiairoa Head in the early evening, as we looked for Royal Albatross to come sweeping up in the high winds on the other side of the rocky headlands. The RA Centre Observatory is closed this time of year because they are nesting, but we got a good look at them from the car park. The rain was only on and off now and the skies clearing, and we saw a vivid rainbow over the ocean. Just beautiful! Mike had left his windpants back in the room, and was chilled through and through from trying to photograph the large birds.

While Susan was watching from the car, she noticed Pilot's Beach just behind us. This was an area where the Little Blue Penguins could be seen at dusk heading to their nests near the shore. We went a few hundred feet to a pull off and decided to try to see them, even though the winds were brutally cold. Susan put on her windpants, GoreTex winter jacket and OR mittens (which were the very same style on display at the Edmund Hillary Alpine Center used by mountaineer Mark Inglis) and was barely warm enough while we waited for the penguins to arrive. According to the DOC sign, ETA was 8PM.

Another couple was already waiting and shortly two DOC volunteers arrived. The wind was relentless but at least it wasn't raining. It was almost totally dark when we gave up and headed back to the car hoping it would be warmer the next night, but we asked the DOC volunteers to wave if the penguins showed up...and when Susan looked back one more time, she saw 4 people wildly waving their hands at us. The penguins were arriving!! We walked back as quickly as possible, hoping our rapid movements wouldn't scare the little guys away. What we saw was wonderful - a little herd of about 20 Little Blue Penguins gathered together on the sand, heading towards their nesting areas in the rocks and shrubs. We could barely see them, especially once they got to the rocks where they waited until they felt safe before moving further inland. We observed two more "waves" of penguins for a total of about 60 birds. In Summer, there can be as many as 150 per night. It was so much fun to watch them. First you'd think you saw something, perhaps a gull but that didn't seem quite right. Then there'd be many little upright figures standing there, seeming to appear out of nowhere, and then they waddled inland together like little shadows.

They worked their way along, hopping up the rocks and some even came up, single file, via a little beach stairway built for humans. It was so dark they were hard to see clearly, but their little white fronts gave them away in the grasses after they climbed up the rocks. Apparently some nested quite close to the beach, but some nested in bushes and shrubs behind the roped off viewing area in which we stood. Susan backed away from them a little and sat down on a large boulder, following the lead of the DOC penguin volunteers. After just a minute or two, Susan noticed 2 of the little guys heading right toward her! But then they froze and sized her up for several minutes. She stayed as still as her excitement would allow, hoping she hadn't scared them. Soon enough they approached and walked right past her within touching distance! But of course Susan remained still, only turning her head to watch as they went by. They were SO CUTE! This experience was the highlight of the trip for Susan. Mike was 20 feet farther away, but grinning ear-to-ear as we got to observe this totally unique wildlife experience.

Otago Peninsula -- penguin country!
After a lazy morning, we headed out to see the sights of Otago Peninsula. We ended up taking three great wildlife tours, and all were great experiences with few or no other people along. First, we walked on to a Monarch cruise, a one hour trip out past Tiaroa Head in hopes of seeing more Northern Royal Albatross. We saw some flying and one in the nest, which was a great experience for a calm afternoon. We also saw our first Hutton's Shearwaters and Cape Petrels. Afterward, we visited the Northern Royal Albatross Centre -- well worth the stop with interesting displays on the birds and other sea life. 

Next we headed toward the Lanarch Castle, but then turned around on a whim to take another tour at the end of the peninsula with Natural Encounters. This outfit puts you on an AWD vehicle with 8 wheels and shows you some great viewpoints along the way to wildlife viewing, including more New Zealand Fur Seals. We saw YEPs in the nest, but no faces and they were fairly far off. The LBP nest viewing was great - we easily saw 2-3 of them nesting under rocky outcroppings from very close range in great light. The seal viewing was also interesting with bulls coming in early to stake out their territories. Next we headed back toward the Lanarch Castle, but once again were sidetracked and decided to give Penguin Place a chance. Susan wasn't sold on YAPVT so soon, but went along with Mike on the idea and was so glad she did. They maintain an extensive system of trenches and hides throughout the hillside from which a number of YEP nesting sites can be seen close up without bothering the penguins. The YEPs nest in little A-frame's provided by the Penguin Place folks to give the endangered critters a leg up in the penguin-unfriendly world.

New Zealand Fur Seal nursing
Mike also spotted a penguin on the beach heading out to sea, or so we thought at first. As it turned out, he was trying to get back to his nest, but a sea lion was snoozing very close to the entrance of the penguin's path to his nest. We observed him standing and turning about and seemingly unsure about about what to do. We watched tensely for a few minutes and it was quite dramatic knowing the danger the sea lion posed to this little guy. Finally he opted to scurry past the sleeping sea lion and we smiled and silently cheered him on as he climbed up the hillside to safety.

We also saw some wooden nesting boxes for Little Blue Penguins, but couldn't see much more than their backs. Near the end of our tour, a juvenile Yellow Eyed waddled up quite close to our hide, then walked parallel with us for a bit, giving us a great view.

Walking distance from our Portobello accommodation, we ended the day with a tasty late dinner at 1908, a very nice restaurant where we also sampled three good beers from Emerson, a boutique brewery in Dunedin.

Susan woke up in the middle of the night feeling travel burnout and thinking about heading back to Blenheim. In the morning we talked about the idea - was it just one of those late night angsty things? In the morning, Miked jumped on the idea at once and we were glad to be in travel sync. It meant we would have to make another trip south to see Stewart Island, but we'd figure it out.

On our way out, we wanted to visit the Lanarch Castle and some representative Gothic Architecture in Dunedin. The Castle and its gardens and views were all wonderful, even in the rain, which eased as later in the morning. We enjoyed a breakfast of ham quiche, scones and shortbread cookies served by women in long tartan skirts in the castle cafe. We warmed up, seated next to one of the three roaring fireplaces, then were off to Dunedin.

We peeked in at Dunedin's First Church then parked across at the famous Railway Station designed by George Troup who was hence known as "Gingerbread George." The station is used by the Taieri Gorge Railway and inside houses the New Zealand Museum of Sports and at least one art gallery.

Moeraki Boulders
By 2PM we were finally heading north. Plugging the destination "home" into our Garmin with the "Kiwi Karen" voice, we learned we would arrive at 2200. Hmm, the seed was planted. Probably too late to make it in one day, so we lingered at the Moeraki Boulders at high tide then considered taking another penguin tour at Oamaru. 

Instead we drove around gawking at Oamaru's old limestone buildings with Susan doing what Mike has dubbed "guerilla photography" out the window of the moving car. She may have discovered her art. Steampunk HQ was written in huge red letters on one building and we later learned Oamaru is the NZ home of the edgy art form. Eventually we got back on the road, stopping for a late dinner at the Jolly Potter's, a pub decorated with old school Temuka Pottery.

I guess we were just too lazy to find a place to stay, so we ended up driving all the way from Portobello to Blenheim in one day, although technically we arrived the next morning. It did feel good to be home away from home!

The Catlins (October 16-19)

View from our room -- rainbow over Porpoise Bay
The seas were going to be rough and the weather chilly for at least the weekend, so we decided to visit the Catlins before heading to our next intended destination, Stewart Island.

We opted to bee-line to Curio Bay via the main Southern Scenic Route, saving the Southern Coastal for later, in hopes of seeing penguins at dusk. On the way in we noted that some of the accommodations were already full, so after a brief exploration around the fantastic lookout between Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay, we headed back up the road and got the last room at the Curio Bay Boutique Accommodation. For much less than we would have expected to pay, we stayed at a gorgeous self-contained ensuite studio with a wall of windows overlooking the beach at Porpoise Bay. Little Blue Penguins waddle by our door on the way to their nesting sites in the wee hours and return to the ocean around 4-5AM, as owner Nick proved by pointing out penguin poo right outside our door. Not exactly the sort of thing you'd read in an advertising brochure, but we were excited at the possibility of having our own March of the Penguins. Nick & Dani required no deposit, credit card or signing paperwork of any sort for us to take the room. Just grab the key from the lock and write your name on the blackboard out front. How refreshingly simple!

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After settling in we headed to the Niagara Cafe, a short drive back back up the road. This is the best, and perhaps the only, restaurant around. After a nice meal in their conservatory, with a view out back to lambs frolicking around child sized patio furniture in the yard, we visited the actual Niagara Falls of New Zealand, highly recommended by our friendly Austrian server Renata for solitude.

Rare yellow-eyed penguin (juvenile)
We returned to the Curio Bay lookout and walked down to view the 160 million year old Petrified Forest as evening approached. Very interesting, but our main hope for the evening was catching a glimpse of the rare Yellow-Eyed Penguin. While visiting with a couple from Denmark who had seen a penguin up in the bush, a couple we'd met earlier in the evening from Barcelona and some others were pointing towards another penguin coming ashore. We had the pleasure of watching this little guy amble across the wide rocky area at low tide all the way back to the edge over a period of about 45 minutes. It started to sprinkle, so we headed back up the staircase where we saw another Yellow-Eyed penguin hopping across some much steeper terrain on the other side of an inlet too deep for us to cross.

We went to bed hoping to hear Little Blue Penguins as they passed by in the night.

We did hear LBPs calling to each other Saturday night late and again in the morning, but could not see them as it was dark. We left shortly after 9AM for Nugget point on eastern end of the Catlins drive. At the Cathedral Caves turnoff, we learned low tide was at 4:30PM so planned our visit to the coastal cave for the way back. One more stop at the info center in Owaka where a small group of locals were just hanging out on a dreary Sunday morning, but they were keen to help us with travel information and tell us about the unusually deep snow that fell just two weeks ago.

As we pulled into Kaka Point, a pair of lost looking black and white Paradise Shelduck chicks popped out at the road's edge. We snapped a couple photos, but still no sign of mom or dad as the chicks waddled around directionless. We reluctantly drove off, hoping they'd be okay, but at the same time, we heard a loud emergency siren. Susan immediately, and she admits irrationally, thought "Tsunami!" as we were right on the water's edge. A few cars seemed to be suddenly moving around the otherwise quiet town, so we followed one around the corner and came upon the volunteer fire brigade. The undulating siren was the signal for volunteers to report to the fire station. Later we learned that a steady siren indicates a tsunami or earthquake warning.

Purakaunui Falls
The rainy and blustery weather continued as we stopped for brunch at The Point Cafe where only a handful of locals sat around reading the paper or drinking coffee. The big screen TV dominated the bar side of the cafe with a Maori program of some sort. We were greeted by a friendly man with a distinctively different accent, a little harder to understand. We ordered our standard drinks - a Mochachino for Susan and Mike had his usual Long Black. If you want coffee with cream, order a Flat White. With only one or two exceptions, everywhere we've ordered coffee in New Zealand, we've been served a fresh grind made by the cup. Warmed by our drinks and meal, we headed out to Nugget Point, where we ran into Javier and Elizabeth, the Spanish couple we had met at Fossilized Forest the night before. In spite of the high winds and sprinkles, the walk to Nugget Point was beautiful with blue green seas and little islands teeming with birds, seals and sea lions. The weather improved all afternoon and it was sunny and dry when we walked out to pretty Purakaunui Falls. Our last stop for that day at Cathedral Caves began around 6PM, well past low tide so we stepped up our pace a bit. We had a great time exploring this giant U-shaped cave on the beach in the increasingly wet sand.

Beach near Cathedral Cave
The Niagara Cafe requires reservations for dinner and since we had not called ahead and no diners were expected after us, we arrived to a closed kitchen. Renata offered us bowls of hearty Hungarian Goulash Soup so we did not go hungry, and the meal was topped off with a tasty apple crumble dessert. We learned that Renata and her husband had lived in Ft Meyers, Florida, Iceland and Norway before settling in New Zealand, where, "when someone says it is so, it is so."

Mike stopped in to pay Nick and Dani for our stay, and request an additional night. Susan was tired and made her way straight to bed so missed visiting with them, but Mike learned that Dani is from Bavaria and the couple also operates a sheep and cattle farm. We would have accepted Nick's offer to visit his farm on a warmer day.

Mike woke Susan up around 11PM because he thought he saw something that might be a penguin out near our front porch. We got out the camera and tiptoed around excitedly, but it turned out to be the owner's cat, Molly. We did hear lots of penguins squawking a little later, then again around 4AM. Sure wish we could SEE these guys! But still it is fun knowing they are around.

Our plan for the next day or so is to do nothing and wait out Tuesday's storm, which might bring more snow, before heading to Stewart Island. We enjoyed the morning sun rising over Porpoise Bay from our bed until 10AM. It is sooooo relaxing to be here! Some Hector's dolphins were sighted in the bay the day we arrived, and this area is the closest they ever come to land. The chilly weather might have kept them away because we saw none during our stay.

After another brunch at the Niagara Cafe, we drove out to Slope Point, the southernmost point of the South Island. Then we took a drive up into the wild Waikawa Valley. We stopped at the Curio Bay camp store to pick up a couple things, then lounged around our room deciding where to go tomorrow.

Road to Invercargill (October 15-16)

The Southern Alps were disappearing behind us as the landscape spread out to lush rolling farmland and pastures.

View from McCracken's Rest
The driver of an approaching vehicle waved his hand out the window signaling for us to slow down - gosh we weren't speeding! But soon we understood. Around the next bend, a large herd of sheep filled both sides of the road. What are we supposed to do? Mike pulled off to the side and we both jumped out of the car to watch the scene.

Apparently the sheep were stalling out because of the 3 cars on the road. The farmer was calling and whistling to the sheep dog, across the road a neighbor was shooing the sheep from the gate at the front of her property, Susan was attempting to be helpful by occasionally clapping her hands when sheep with panicky eyes moved in her direction, and Mike was behind our car shooting pictures. What a wonderful wooly mess! The farmer called out to Susan to move our car farther off the road because it "was holding everything up" so Mike sheepishly (groan) moved it behind a group of mailboxes. The sheep finally made their way down the road, and so did we.

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We opted not to stop at Lake Hauroko, New Zealand's deepest lake, or the Giant Tortoa tree in favor of getting in early at Invercargill. We did stop at McCracken's Rest, a lovely viewpoint over the ocean, beaches, and mountains.  From here we caught our first glimpse of Stewart Island. Our lunch spot was Mrs Clark's Cafe in the heart of historic Riverton, New Zealand's oldest European settled town. It was impossible to miss the brightly painted old building! Our server insisted we head back and drive up to The Rocks, a wonderful little coastal drive we would have otherwise missed.

Ian and Jenny, our Bushy Point homestay hosts
As we neared Invercargill, Susan was reading about birding spots in one of our library books and noticed Bushy Point just a few kilometers away from the town center. It was privately owned and a good spot to see fernbirds. Interesting. Even more interesting, the owners also ran a homestay, or at least had done so at the time the book was printed. We stopped at the Invercargill iSITE and learned that Bushy Point Fernbirds was still operating, got the address and decided to try our luck and pop in without a reservation. It was on the way to the airport, then south through some suburban residential areas, then became more rural as the road turned to unsealed. At the very end of the road we found the address we were looking for, 197 Grant, where we were greeted by a pair of Welsh Corgis, Rocky and Meg. We met Ian in the driveway he invited us into their home where a room was available for the night. We jumped at the opportunity.

Ian gave us the overview of the bush walk that he and his wife Jenny had developed, or should I say un-developed, over the years. As the progressively taller layers of native coastal vegetation were removed by humans, the tallest windswept trees were exposed to the full brunt of the subantarctic winds, often causing them to die. Bushy Point, privately owned but under the protection of a Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, is one of the few remaining coastal areas that contain the native succession of plant life inland.

The very informative and peaceful stroll through the bush with Ian pointing out native flora didn't produce any fernbird sightings, but the afternoon was beautiful and we enjoyed views back across to Invercargill and all the way out to Stewart Island. When we returned to the house, we met Jenny who had been out on her bicycle. Later in the evening we took another bush walk and this time saw several of the secretive birds, as well as a lovely sunset. More great conversation and a glass of wine with Ian and Jenny, then off to bed in our cozy room with original Rimu wood floors.

Saturday morning we didn't get out into the bush until after 10AM, after relaxing over a tasty continental breakfast which Jenny prepared. After Ian arrived home from work he joined us and we did see quite a few more fernbirds. Mike and I felt like we were really getting the hang of this. After a coffee break we went out again without our hosts for a last try to see the curious little birds. I don't mean that they look curious, they *are* curious. Unlike all other birds that we are aware of, the fernbirds are attracted to noises and movement and come around to have a look when you walk by. Ian and Jenny had shown us that normal human speech can attract them, as well as mimicking their call. But you don't get long - once they peek from the bush to check you out, they are usually off again straightaway. They don't fly as much as scoot around near the ground, but a few times we did see their short flight above the jointed rushes and Mike captured their body position in flight in an unusual ethereal photo.

With a new appreciation for the coastal native bush, we lingered until almost 2PM when, armed with a stack of info on the Catlins and some road snacks from our generous hosts, we said our goodbyes and headed down the road.

Fiordland (October 11-15)

Monday morning, well rested, we woke up super early to leave Wanaka by 7AM to take the Doubtful Sound overnight cruise with Real Journeys. out of Te Anau. We traveled again over the Crown Range Road which was icy in spots, but it was a beautiful frosty drive with snow covering the pastures below. We drove past the Remarkables Range, but scooted past Queenstown following the southern end of Lake Wakatipu without a stop to be sure we arrived in time for our noon cruise.

Fjordland Navigator in Doubtful Sound
After checking in for our cruise with time to spare, we strolled around the Te Anau lakeview trail and saw our first Tui feeding from Kowhai tree blossoms. We had a 20km drive to Pearl Harbor in Manopouri, our point of departure, where we snacked on food we'd brought along instead of buying Real Journeys' box lunch. The cruise was beautiful. It started with a pretty 30 minute boat ride across Lake Manapouri. Then we transferred to a bus which would take us over Wilmot Pass along the only road to Deep Cove, the beginning of the Doubtful Sounds cruise. We learned that Doubtful Sound (originally Doubtful Harbor, but actually a fjord) got its name because Capt James Cook doubted he could sail out of the inlet if his ship, the Endeavor, entered it.

Starting off the cruise, we still had snow at a fairly low level from the storm the day before. After initial orientation and safety instruction, we got the keys to our cabin, which was nicely appointed and had 2 windows. But we didn't spend much time there. On deck and in the observation lounge and dining area were great views, good food and interesting people from all over the world. The crew included a naturalist, who did a great job of pointing out penguins, seals and dolphins along the way. Later in the afternoon, we took a tender craft ride with about 10 other passengers to explore the sounds at closer range. Kayaking was another option for this part of the cruise, but we wanted to stay dry and be able to take photos. Five passengers also chose the swimming activity. It looked like great fun to jump off the back of the boat into the freezing fiord… well maybe if we'd done this 30 years ago! Next, a choice of 2 soups was offered in the dining area and we sat with a nice couple, John and Janelle, from Newcastle, Australia.

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We were cruising along Secretary Island on our way out of the fjords to the Tasman Sea when the first Fiordland Crested Penguins were spotted. We also saw a New Zealand Fur Seal colony nearby. It was pretty exciting to be right at the island-studded mouth of Doubtful Sound at the Tasman Sea. Near here we also saw our first Little Blue Penguins.

A dinner buffet with lots of great choices was served a little later and this time we sat with a young Austrian couple, Karin and Markus, who were 8 months into a 16 month trip around the world. We learned that their favorite place so far was Burma. After dinner our naturalist did a slideshow presentation on Doubtful Sounds, its ecology and wildlife. It was getting late and we were ready for bed, but spent a little more time on deck to take in the stars under the cloudless night sky.

Breakfast was served at 7AM Tuesday, and we had to be ready to have our linens changed by 9. We sat with our new Australian friends again. On the way back, our ship, the Fjordland Navigator took us down some of the hidden arms of Doubtful Sound before heading back to Deep Cove. We saw the "Blanket Bay Hotel" a very remote overnight spot for fishermen. Though there wasn't much, if any wind, the crew deployed the ship's sails just as a demonstration. Before we got back, the captain stopped the ship on the glass-like surface of the Sounds, shut down the ship's system and with the cooperation of all passengers, enabled a few moments of complete and total silence -- no one walked around, no one snapped pictures, and it was an almost magical few minutes!

After we docked at Deep Cove we got back on the bus over Wilmot Pass and then across Lake Manapouri to finish the trip. Returning to Te Anau around noon, we were feeling pretty tired after a short night sleep. We were up for an easy walk from the Fiordlands DOC Info Center to the Te Anau Wildlife Conservatory where a pair of rare Takahe live, but they were not out. These birds were thought to be extinct until 1948 when Dr George Orwell discovered two of them in the Murchison Mountains. We did see the captive Antipodean Island Parakeets and Keas, before walking back to the DOC center to watch a video about Fiordlands. We finally checked in to Fiordland Lakeview Motel (had difficulty finding because they just changed their name and the iSITE gave us their former name, Campbells on the Lake) and had our first really disappointing dining experience of the trip at Settlers Steakhouse.

Since we'd cruised the larger Doubtful Sound, we opted to view Milford Sound from the shore. Driving the Milford Road was fantastic with stunning views along the way, especially on the west side of Homer Tunnel. One highlight of our drive on Milford Road was getting to see our first Kea.

Kea biting through a tarp
The Kea is one of the world's only alpine parrots and are extremely intelligent, able to solve puzzles and even work together as a team to solve problems. Many signs prohibited feeding and cautioned us about leaving out any small items they might find "interesting" (people have had their car keys stolen by a Kea). We observed one biting through a tarp covering a car-top carrier, staying in place even as the car was leaving the car park -- then flying to another car.

We arrived at Milford Sound proper at low tide so walked way out to check out the iconic Mitre Peak and as well as get a better view of Bowen Falls. We had a light lunch at the Blue Duck Cafe then headed back, stopping at The Chasm. We also drove out to Hollyford Road to view 900ft Humboldt Falls and took the start of the Marion Lake hike as far as the first waterfall. It was still daylight, so we went back out to view the Takahe at the Wildlife Conservatory and this time had a good look at the rare birds. Some very boisterous Tui in the surrounding eucalyptus trees entertained us as the sun began to set.

The owner of our motel highly recommended the Key Summit hike for great views of the area, so late Thursday morning we headed back up the Milford Sound Road as far as the Divide, which is also the start (or finish, depending on which way you go) of the Routeburn Track. We had fantastic calm weather and mostly blue skies, even at the 917m summit. At the Nature Walk Summit, we chatted for some time with a young Irish couple at the who have been traveling for 9 months.

Mike and Susan on Key Summit
On the way down, we sidetracked to visit the Howden Hut in order to see a NZ tramping hut firsthand. Quite a nice place, in the middle of the bush, with beds, kitchen and flushing toilets. There was a DOC group meeting on the front porch, and we said hi to a DOC worker, Kate, we had met on the Marian Lake trail the day before. Kate was with a coworker who approached Mike enthusiastically saying, "What are you DOING here?!" convinced Mike was an old friend he knew from Oxford (UK). He was sure he was his friend until Mike spoke to him in his non-British English accent. If he hadn't been wearing a DOC uniform shirt and been with another worker Mike would've been concerned, as he was walking to the trail carrying a chain saw! He was amazed and explained that Mike was a dead ringer for his friend. He even asked to take Mike's picture so he could send it to his UK friend.

Back on the main trail, we heard, saw, then finally photographed the tiny Rifleman and more Fantails. Driving the rest of the way back to Te Anau we were both pretty tired, but squeezed out enough energy to visit Mirror Lakes. A very nice viewing platform and excellent signage enhanced this easy roadside stop. We got to watch New Zealand Scaups diving for food and because of the clear water and angle of the sun, we could actually see them swimming underwater!

Mike met a German guy who had graduated from CU Boulder a couple years ago and also had ties to the city in Germany where Mike was stationed years ago. We got dinner at The Ranch after checking out the menu of a few other places on the attractive main drag of Te Anau, aka The Lane. Ready for a quiet dinner, we grabbed a table upstairs at the bar, which was deserted until a group of happy young people speaking French showed up and started playing pool. C'est la vie!

We planned to stay another night in Te Anau and make Friday a day off, scheduling only a visit to the glowworm caves. We were trying to catch up with some things online, but our internet went out (which apparently is not uncommon in Te Anau) and wouldn't be available again until 3:30PM. Maybe. So at noon, after our clothes were washed and dried, we headed off towards Invercargill on the Scenic Southern route. Shortly along the way, we realized we both would have preferred to stay put in Te Anau another day with or without the net - argh! So we agreed to work on better communication and forged ahead down the Scenic Southern Route.

Wanna Visit Wanaka (October 8-11)

Lake Wanaka
The weather had turned cloudy and rainy overnight. Friday began with no morning sun to motivate Susan to drag Mike out of bed, we slept in. A lot! With Susan still in recovery mode, and coming off a busy couple of days probably hiking a little too much in Aoraki, our spacious suite with a view at the Edgewater Resort was just what we needed.

Midday we managed to get out and drive the scenic and winding Crown Range Road, which is the highest main (or sealed) through road in New Zealand, reaching a summit of just under 1120 meters. It was a fun drive, even though the view was largely obscured by clouds. We also enjoyed our rainy windshield tour of the little town of Arrowtown.

Saturday afternoon the clouds were to lift, so we headed out around 11AM to drive the Mt Aspiring Road, do the first part of the Rob Roy track at the top, then drive up to Treble Cone on our return for more great views.  Our plan was thwarted by a damaged-beyond-repair tire, which Mike changed while Susan watched a lamb in its first minutes after being born. Because we planned to leave the next day we wanted to get the tire replaced quickly and were able to in Cromwell by the only shop we could find with after hours service. No local shops are regularly open Saturday afternoons, even in Queenstown.

Click here for larger images with captions.

Returning from Cromwell, the weather had turned fine so we drove out to Diamond Lake for a hike. Susan, who was to keep her heart rate low for another few weeks, couldn't go much past Diamond Lake because the trail suddenly became a steep rocky scramble. Noting the Diamond Lake lookout towering above, she encouraged Mike to go on without her as far as he could before dark. While he enjoyed a beautiful evening sky overlooking Lake Wanaka, Susan did the level loop around Diamond Lake and heard strange noises which she later learned were Bittern booming.

Sunday brought no relief from the cold rainy weather, so we decided to get some relief to our achy muscles with the help of a massage therapist. If you're ever in the area, we highly recommend Marg at Massage in Wanaka. We noticed the forecast looked great for Fiordlands, so we made a plan to leave in the morning to take a Doubtful Sound overnight cruise, then stay in Te Anau a few nights to do whatever else we fancied in the area, with the Milford Sound Road topping the list.

Aoraki/Mt. Cook (October 5-8)

The first stop on our southern tour would be Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Aoraki, or "Cloud Piercer," stands tall at 3754 meters, the highest peak in in New Zealand in spite of a rock slide in 1991 which caused it to lose 10 meters in elevation.

Lake Tekapo
Driving through MacKenzie Country, we passed a sheep hauling truck with an area behind the rear wheels where Mike noticed a sheep dog peeking out. After lunch in the cute town of Geraldine, we stopped at pretty Lake Tekapo, our first NZ glacier fed lake. Gotta love that glacier blue color! A bit further on, Lake Pukaki was at least as pretty. We stopped at the Pukaki viewpoint/iSite and inquired about seeing Black stilts, a rare and endangered NZ bird, and were advised to check with someone at the nearby airport. With pretty waters to our right along the long lake, we headed north towards the snowy mountains, stopping at the small airport geared toward tourist flight seeing adventures. One of the clerks there knew about the Kaki – Black Stilts – and told us that DOC had recently released 50 young birds into the area as part of their conservation plan. She also grumbled that DOC blamed the residents' cats for the recent demise of 15 of the birds, a local political issue that we were far less interested in than actually seeing and photographing the birds.

With information on where to see the young stilts in hand we headed a short distance down the road. Mike spotted another birder (carrying a massive 600mm lens and tripod) way off in the distance so we figured we had found the correct spot. The Dunedin birder kindly showed us the way to a Wrybill nest with eggs that he had stumbled upon while looking for stilts. We also spent some high quality time observing and photographing juvenile black stilts at close range.

We got into Mount Cook Village at around 6PM and found a room at the Alpine Lodge, the Lonely Planet Pick. It turned out to be a nice spot, convenient and with a fine view out our window. We were wiped out and after dinner at the cozy Old Mountain Man restaurant, called it a day.

Wednesday morning, Susan was moved by the view of the mountain from our window at sunup. At her urging, nay prodding, we jumped out of bed and drove out to the Tasman Valley at around 7AM... unfortunately in our enthusiasm took precedence over planning, and the hike to Tasman Glacier exceeded what we were prepared to do at that hour. No problem, we headed back to the “village” and grabbed a sustaining breakfast from the marvelous buffet at the historic Hermitage Hotel, where we also had a table with a view of the mountain in the advancing morning light.

After our meal, we tried again to check out the Tasman Glacier area, but the winds had picked up considerably. The first walk took us to Tasman Glacier Lake. Huge icebergs had calved off the glacier face and little boats took visitors out for a closer look, but none were on the lake this blustery morning. Next we headed on to the Tasman Glacier View trail.  Susan held back shortly after Blue Lakes, but Mike continued on in strong and gusting winds to the Tasman Glacier View.

Feeling a little tired, we headed back to the Hermitage to visit the Edmund Hillary Visitor Center, where we rested a bit while watching a couple video presentations and taking in some of the mountaineering artifacts.

Click here for larger images with captions.

Around 5PM we headed out again to see what we could see, this time in the Hooker Glacier Valley area. Two suspension bridges over schist boulders in glacier streams are highlights of this interesting hike. Susan turned back a bit before the second bridge, but Mike forged on, trying to beat the setting sun. Reunited again shortly after the first bridge, we walked back home, but not without another stop and photo op at the Alpine Memorial at sunset.

We went to bed the night before agreeing that we had done Aoraki/Mt Cook “justice”, but alas when the sun came up over a cloudless blue sky, morning-person Susan could not contain herself and headed out along the Kea Point trail. Mike caught up in a bit, the beauty of the morning replacing any regrets he might have had about not getting the early start on the road we had discussed the night before.

After checking out of the Alpine Lodge, Susan really wanted to take advantage of a tip from a Mt Cook Visitor center employee and see the early-blooming Mt Cook Lilies along the Governor's Bush Track. The lilies were exactly where she had described. We could have headed right back to the car, but with birds in the bush -- we saw our first Tomtit -- and pretty views, “just a little further” kicked in again and we ended up doing the entire 1 hour track. Time to go again... okay a quick look behind The Hermitage where we'd heard we might see Kea turned up none of the cheeky characters, but we did spot a falcon circling way up in the thermals. Gosh it was already past noon so we reluctantly said good bye to Aoraki /Mt Cook a final time under perfectly blue skies.

Back along Lake Pukaki, we stopped again to pay a visit to the young black stilts. We'd hoped to also spot an adult but no luck. After another brief stop at the visitor center viewpoint at the southern end of the lake, we headed off towards our destination for the night, Wanaka.

With only a brief stop for lunch at the Wrinkly Ram in Omarama (we'd missed the last sheep shearing demo of the day, but the owner suggested another one in Queenstown – Walters Peak) we landed at the Wanaka iSite just 10 minutes before closing. They helped us find an unexpected deal on accommodations at a fine resort located on edge of the lake, walking distance to town but away from the hustle bustle. We decided stay 4 nights so we could take in the sights AND rest up. We got some groceries and settled in to enjoy a lovely warm Wanaka evening.

Catching up on September

While waiting for Susan's surgery date to roll around, we continued to do some do some more birding and other activities nearby. The weather made getting out a challenge, and locals insist it was the wettest September ever. We saw the Riverside Amphitheater flood several times, even on into October.

The day after our Wairau Bar outing was still very windy, but Susan was able to hang out some laundry to dry without having it end up in the Wither Hills. In the afternoon we picked up a few things at Countdown, the closest thing to a Walmart in New Zealand, and we saw our first signs of Christmas. Near the checkout, they were selling Advent calendars with those little chocolates behind the dates. In the middle of September. No sign of Halloween commercialism, and of course no Thanksgiving Day hype. Christmas comes early to NZ, possibly because so many people have loved ones living across the miles and mailings need to be done early.

Montana/Brancott winery
In the afternoon we went to Montana/Brancott Vineyards for our first wine tasting and also paid admission to take tour of their facility. It turned out to be a private tour because no one else showed up. While it was interesting, it would be better when the various machines were in use. We sampled some really good wines complete with instructions on how to properly "taste" it, followed by lunch in their beautiful dining room. The large winery filled up a little when a small tour bus, foreshadowing the New Zealand summer, arrived.

Mike has been working hard to organize our New Zealand bird life list with unique photos. I think we were up to 37 out of about 300 or more possible species at this point. On Friday we got spreadsheet serious about classifying the various similarly marked cormorants, or shags as they are known in New Zealand. Learning to correctly classify them has been difficult, and some species go by 2 or 3 similar names. To further complicate the issue, some species look like another when they are immature or in a different color phase. After this exercise, we were pleased to be able to accurately label our photos.

The afternoon winds were still howling so we looked for some indoor activities. The Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre right here in Blenheim has a surprisingly good and creatively displayed collection, including the only Caproni Ca 22 remaining in the world and artifacts belonging to the Baron von Richthofen. This has to be one of the best WWI-era aviation museums in the southern hemisphere. Mike says, "My dad would've loved this museum!"

Ocean view at "The Store" in Kekerengu
Since we were in the neighborhood, we stopped at Wither Hills Winery on the way home where we tasted a new 2010 Rarangi Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. We were also treated to a 2000 Pinot Noir, although the younger 2008 was excellent, too. As usual, we enjoyed chatting with the staff -- a longtime Kiwi and a recent transplant from Victoria, BC. No other visitors in sight made the place feel kind of ghost town-y but our ability to enjoy the wine under these circumstances was not hindered.

On Saturday, after a bit of visiting with Haley and the kids, and then our neighbors David & Yvonne, we visited the Dry Hills winery and thus managed to avoid the wind for another day.

Sunday we drove to Christchurch on yet another windy day, stopping again at our favorite “The Store” in Kekerengu for brunch. We also revisited seal pup pool, and this time got off the trail to do some birding where Mike shot some fantails.

Click here for larger images with captions.

After checking into our Christchurch accommodation in Merivale, we took a little drive out to Lyttleton and Governor’s Bay, then headed back towards ChCh for dinner, choosing The Old Vicarage restaurant in Halswell because it looked cute from the street. At our table, we looked through windows bordered in colorful stained glass onto a lovely garden patio where adorable red-haired children wearing sweaters and leggings romped. Another idyllic NZ moment.

Getting back to dinner, we ordered an appetizer to precede our "mains" or entrees. Entrees in New Zealand means appetizers, but so does starters, and we're still not sure of the difference. But anyway, the garlic bread was tasty and we saved some of it to enjoy with our meal. For which we waited and waited and waited. We finally realized the server was waiting because it is customary to finish one's entree before serving the mains.

The Wobbly Kea in Arthurs Pass
Tuesday, September 28 -- Happy Birthday Mike! Your present from Susan is that her surgery is over. She woke up feeling surprisingly good so we decided to take a drive instead of going directly home. We headed out toward Rakaia Gorge, then opted to see if the weather would hold up at Arthur’s Pass. It did not, but we enjoyed the drive anyway. Lunch at a the Wobbly Kea was fun, then we checked out the APNP Visitor’s Center where we learned about carnivorous Sun Dew Plants, controversial 1080 drops to kill introduced predators, and bought our first souvenir, a Kiwi tea towel. We also talked to a DOC staffer who much prefers skiing in Colorado not just because of our better snow, but because we have trees. All the runs in NZ are above treeline, and are shorter than in the Rockies. On the other hand skiing here is affordable and uncrowded, but pack your snowshoes because you won't always find a lift.

Driving home from Christchurch, we stopping to check out Saint Annes Lagoon. It looked like a great picnic spot and we saw lots of bird activity. We spotted our first New Zealand Shovelers and Gray Teals here. Further up the road "our" Spotted Shags near Ohau had laid some eggs, and one nest had tiny chicks. 

The next week was dedicated to R&R, which was easy because the rain just kept on coming down. Mike took good care of me and even hung laundry on the clothesline when the sun came out. We managed to get all caught up on our TV viewing queue and discovered that we like the sitcom Flight of the Conchords after all.

After a few more days, we went back to the Wairau Lagoons because we'd heard of a Glossy Ibis spotting. No luck with the Ibis, but we did see our first Black Fronted Dotterels. Then across the road, a small flock of Bar-Tailed Godwits showed up. These birds make a non-stop migration from Alaska and Siberia to New Zealand every year. The bells of Christchurch rang to announce their arrival a few days later, but we saw them first in Marlborough on October 1!

We're Still Here

Our ride with Aoraki (Mt Cook), New Zealand's highest peak
In early October we began a rather spontaneous tour of some more southerly areas of New Zealand. During the nearly three weeks that we were away from home, we were unable to blog because access to the internet was spotty and slow. That, and there is so much to do that blogging has had to take a back seat to travel!

Also, we've been busy with some medical appointments to treat a little spot on Susan's nose that she'd convinced herself was "nothing." Positive biopsy results were received the day before we left Colorado, but rather than cancel or delay our trip, we decided to deal with it in New Zealand. We were pretty sure we could find a good surgeon in the ozone-depleted skin cancer capital of the world! Indeed we did, but he was located 4 hours away in Christchurch. She is doing great and planning Christmas gifts of sunscreen and hats for all the grandkids.

New Zealand Banded Dotterel by Lemurkat
After Susan's final doctor appointment, we got a tasty schnitzel dinner at Brewer's Arms, then met with a local artist to purchase some of her New Zealand bird art over a cuppa at Coffee Culture.

We set off from Christchurch in the morning, keen to see more of this beautiful country, but with no set itinerary in mind. It was fun to wake up each morning and answer the question "where to next?" together.

The overview of the trip is Aoraki/Mt Cook, Wanaka, TeAnau,  Doubtful and Milford Sounds, Invercargill, the Catlins, and Dunedin/Otago Peninsula. The highlights of the trip were . . . well, everything.

We'll post details and photos of our trip south soon...unless we wake up tomorrow and decide to go on the road again!