Marlborough Wine Trail

While there are other grape producing areas, 52% of the wines in New Zealand come from Marlborough. Not surprising then that tasting wine is a major tourist draw to this area and as November draws to an end we are seeing people arriving in much greater numbers, especially Americans.  Brown "point of interest" Marlborough Wine Trail signs are all around between Blenheim and Renwick. Paper maps are readily available as well.

We've often remarked that the region reminds us of California -- vineyards with a backdrop of grassy rolling green hills that turn brown in the summer -- a compelling landscape for an afternoon drive. Wine tour vans transport from winery to winery for responsibility-free tasting. Bicycle touring is another way to see the wineries and vineyards, but is one of those activities that sounded good before we got here. With no bike paths and with tourists still learning which side of the road to be on, we don't see how this could be safe or fun, especially after a drink or two. It is also seems a bit overwhelming to attempt to seriously evaluate wines by spending the entire day tasting. Our biggest tasting day included just three wineries, and we preferred to visit just one per day. In any case, a tasting day will conclude in the late afternoon as the vineyards close between 4-5PM. We tasted at about a baker's dozen of vineyards in the Marlborough region.

Without exception, the Cellar Doors have been great with attractive but simple decor using lots of wood and stone. Most of the vintners do not charge for tastings, and some only charge if you do not make a purchase. Our undereducated but eager to learn palates were never made to feel inadequate, but of course cellar doors are there to sell wine.

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Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are the region's best grapes, although most vintners also make Chardonnay and many have Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, Merlot and Syrah. Experimenting with new varieties is ongoing and the most interesting new red wine for us was a Tempranillo. Some even make sparkling wines, known as "bubbles" here.

Auntsfield's original cellar
Auntsfield Estate was the first vineyard, a Scotsman planting a few vines to make his port back in the 1800s, although the vineyard did not survive prohibition. Montana, or Brancott as it will soon be known as to prevent confusion with the US state, is the largest and led the way planting Sauvignon Blanc back in the early 1970s, which was the real start of the New Zealand wine industry. Production has exploded in recent years, and the current recession has burst the wine bubble. We've seen several vineyards for sale and some have gone up for auction. Also, many of the wineries are no longer New Zealand owned.

New Zealand has fairly recently almost totally moved to screw caps in lieu of either natural or synthetic corks. We didn't visit a single vineyard using cork. The entire industry moved towards screw caps starting in about 2001 and all but a few small boutique vineyards use screw caps. Vineyard staff we talked to said that the cork-tainting problem has completely gone away and that screw-capped  New Zealand wines are being universally well-received around the world.

It was also interesting to note some of the vineyards moving towards sustainable practices. Yealands Estate vineyard in the Awatere Valley is fully sustainable and carbon-neutral, as are about 6 other vineyards in New Zealand. (There are over 40 vineyards in the Marlbourough region.) When we tasted at Yealands, we expected the sustainable "badge" to be accompanied by higher prices. Not only was this not the case, the Yealands wines were some of the very best we had sampled.

Vines at Seresin
Another trend that may be emerging in the New Zealand wine industry is biodynamic viticulture. The Seresin Estate vineyard was one where we tasted wine produced using biodynamic techniques, some of which seem to have a spiritual or even mystical orientation. They claim that other vineyards are starting to embrace this practice. We were not as impressed with the Seresin wines as with some others, but they were certainly very good. Unlike Yealands, the Seresin wines were quite pricey, and are only exported internationally to restaurants, not retail distributors.

Another aspect of the business we found especially interesting was the use of the endangered New Zealand Falcon to "patrol" vineyards and keep away grape eating birds. In 2005 the Falcons for Grapes program reintroduced the raptors with the assistance of some vineyards in feeding chicks and monitoring nests. The jury still seems to be out as to the success of the program, and we did not observe any Falcons while in Marlborough, although one of the owners at Auntsfield sees them regularly near the south end of their property.

Our "immersion" in Marlborough wines was enjoyable and educational. Not only did we learn a lot about local vineyards and terroir, but a good deal about viticulture and winemaking. Our eyes were opened to some extremely good white wines, especially sauvignon blancs and pinot gris. Riesling varieties are very good here, too, and dry compared to German rieslings we've had before. We'd heard that some of the best New Zealand wines weren't being exported, but that's probably only for smaller vineyards. Most wines we tasted are available internationally and we're sure to be looking for New Zealand wines on US shelves.

Keeping it Local

Roses blooming at our home in Blenheim
After being on the road so much, we have been happy to stay in Blenheim and rest, limiting our adventures to a few small outings. Because our home is in a flat area, we tend to forget that we are so near to the ocean, and it still is a thrill to take a short drive, or even walk, to a slightly higher point and be rewarded with views of the Marlborough Sounds or the Pacific Ocean.

We've been to the movies which was not remarkably different than back home. A stroll in Pollard Park and Centennial Rose Garden was a lovely way to spend the afternoon. In fact, roses are in full bloom all over town and at our front door.
NZ flag at half mast

Right after we returned from our trip we were very saddened to watch the Pike River coal mine disaster unfold. This happened in Greymouth, the small coastal town we visited on our first day in Westland. Our sympathies go out to the families of these victims and to all New Zealanders for their loss.

One night our neighbor invited us to attend the Marlborough Camera Club meeting at which everyone shared two pictures for consideration by the group and ultimately the group leader. The focus of the group leaned heavily toward competing in photography contests, and we came away with a few new insights and it was fun to meet some new people.

You might be shocked to learn that we ate at McDonalds one night. We never eat there back home, but just wanted to have a kiwi Micky D's experience to compare. Our Quarter Pounder and Filet 'O Fish were just like in the States, although the inside of the fish box said that the fish came from local waters. Adjacent to the fast food counter was the "McCafe" counter -- their fare was nothing like McDonalds. With spinach quiche, deli sandwiches, Lamingtons and slices in a standard kiwi refrigerated display case, it looked like an earthquake had bumped a small local cafe against a McDonalds!

Susan was thrilled to finally visit Elite Pavlova, the Pav and Pie shop that we had driven past frequently, and enjoyed eating Pavlova on Thanksgiving. It was a bit strange to be in a land where Thanksgiving is not observed. But if you have Turkey Day with us next year, don't be surprised if the dessert it Pumpkin Pavlova!

We visited the well done Marlborough Museum. Displays of Maori and early European settler life are overshadowed by the Wine Exhibit, funded by local vintners. Also along these lines, we have done considerable catching up on our wine tasting outings, the subject of our next post.

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Ward Beach and White's Bay (November 28)

Surf at Ward Beach
We took our last New Zealand Sunday drive today. With not a cloud in the sky and temperatures predicted to be in the 70s, we headed south of Seddon to Ward Beach. In our typical fashion, the one hour return walk became a five hour outing.

The road took us through rolling hills, past a limestone quarry and ended at a large car park with signs warning to place nets in a manner that would not endanger any Hector's Dolphins in the area. We didn't spot any dolphins, but it was a great day for birding and the beauty of nature.

Susan at Ward Beach
Notoriously windy Ward Beach broke with tradition and we had a wonderfully calm day to explore. It was clear enough to see all the way to the North Island from some points. The long beach was scattered with interesting rock formations, and rock islands poked out off the shore. In the distance, the ends of the beach were framed with large limestone outcroppings. The surf crashed incredibly onto the rocky beach, with its smooth flat pebbles sounding like coins under our feet.

Soon a Banded dotterel caught our attention and Susan stopped to observe him while Mike was drawn ahead towards a whole dotterel family -- seven birds in all. Meanwhile, Susan's dotterel continued to attract her attention by vocalizing loudly as he raised up tall and straight with chest puffed up big. It became clear that he wanted to draw her attention away from a nest, so Susan took the bait and followed him to a pile of leaves and bull kelp. As he flew away, Susan stood still and watched as he revealed the nest site. A lone stick in a sea of gray stones marked the spot where three little pale green speckled eggs lay.
Banded Dotterel at nest with 3 eggs
As we approached a backbend in the beach line, we spotted quite a lineup of birds at the point. Red-billed gulls, Pied Shags and Black-fronted Terns were all out enjoying the sunny afternoon at the beach. Around the corner, a pair of squawking Oystercatchers were impossible to miss, and became especially irate as a little girl ran by to join the rest of her family. Mom ran up to meet her and protect from a possible Oystercatcher attack. As the family left, the Dad called across the beach to us that there were eggs. We carefully walked around a little, but didn't see anything so kept moving towards the end of the beach where jagged white limestone caught our eye. We were at the edge of the outcropping when we jumped, startled by a large New Zealand fur seal basking in the sun. He didn't move, we just hadn't noticed him until we got quite close. We scrambled around on the rocks a safe distance from him, enjoying the view from a higher vantage point.

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On our return, the Oystercatcher pair were still excitedly running around and squawking. Curious about their eggs, we lingered longer, stepping carefully while observing the birds, hoping to have a peek at the nest. We had just about given up when Susan looked over at a small pile of kelp, and noticed the two mottled eggs. The oystercatchers fell uncharacteristically silent as we approached the nest. We took our quick peek, snapped a photo, then left. Looking back, we noticed the nest was surrounded by our footprints in the sand. How could we have missed seeing it before!

Closer to the car park, we watched the dotterels again, and this time we both saw one getting up from a spot which we noted. Slowly we approached this spot from two angles and sure enough, Mike spotted our second little 3-egg nest. This one had a few twigs around as well as a tree branch, but still very little effort had gone into its making.

Whites Bay
Finally, we pronounced Ward's Beach "done" and headed back out the gravel road to the highway. But a few minutes ahead we spotted YAHS (Yet Another Herd of Sheep), but this time with a twist -- a little girl on a bicycle was doing the shepherding the flock. Gotta love New Zealand!

On our way home, we decided to head up to White's Bay on this still cloudless afternoon. The area was much transformed since our last visit in chilly September. Today the car park was almost full and people played all over the beach -- surfboards, kayaks and picnics said "summer is here!" It was low tide so we we able to walk around to the southernmost part of the beach and scramble up the rocks for a view of the Wairau Valley. We stopped at a couple other viewpoints on the road back home, appreciating the vastness of this rich valley.

Rarangi Beach panorama

Farewell Spit (Nov 17-19)

View of Nelson, across Tasman Bay
With our December 1 departure date drawing near and a fine weather window ahead, we headed out Wednesday morning towards Golden Bay and the Farewell Spit. The 3-4 hour drive included some great lookout spots, especially as we made our way over the steep and winding roads of "the hill" (Takaka Hill), although we mostly drove straight through to Collingwood.

We stayed at the Heron's Rest, a cozy B&B with views of Golden Bay from our room and the deck. We arrived to find an an envelope with our names on it taped to the front door. The note inside invited us to could come in and get settled, explaining that our hostess, Maureen, had forgotten about her hair appointment in Takaka. Maureen only knew that a couple named Mike and Susan were driving in from Blenheim -- she didn't even need a credit card to hold our room. This all seemed very normal to us, but we reflected back on how surprised we would have been to find this level of trust at the beginning of our trip.

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View from the deck off our room

The note further invited us to join Maureen for a glass of wine at 5:15PM, so we took advantage of the down time to take a little snooze before heading outside to the garden. Soon another couple arrived and we extended our hands greeted our British ex-pat hosts Angus and Maureen. They looked at us oddly -- we had the wrong Brits -- the couple was actually Trevor and Hilly, who were staying at the Heron's Rest Cottage next door. Maureen arrived soon enough but we didn't get to meet Angus as he was back in the UK visiting his mum. The five of us had a jolly chat before dinner. We were particularly interested in hearing about T&H's recent adventure to Antartica. (Penguins!)

Collingwood village was a handy 5 minute private bush walk from Heron's Rest and we didn't need to drive anywhere. We ate at the Collingwood Tavern, known as Tinky's by the locals, where we met up again with Trevor and Hilly and watched the sun setting over the bay through dinner in the back yard.

Mike about to board "The Gypsy"
Australasian Gannets
When we decided to drive out to Farewell Spit, the northern most area of South Island and further north than Wellington, we also had the Australasian Gannet colony in mind. Tours are not offered every day as access to the colony is tide dependent and we were glad the timing worked out for Thursday morning. Elaine was our guide for the six and a half hour tour. We boarded "Gypsy", a big red off-road bus with oversized tires to handle the changing sands. Our route was along the Collingwood-Puponga Road, past inlets with waders feeding at the tidal flats. At the entry to the gated Farewell Spit preserve area, we picked up a few more passengers and crossed through the locked gate onto the northeast facing bay. No other vehicles are allowed here, but hikers can walk out as far as the 4km marker. Now we were on pure sand and looking back toward Golden Bay and Collingwood. Mountains, dunes, beaches and ocean views surrounded us and Elaine did a great job throughout the day of turning the bus in large 360 circles so everyone could see everything. Her driving experience was evident as she skillfully avoided any soft or wet spots that might get us stuck. As we crossed the spit to the ocean side, the scenery became increasingly desolate but beautiful, with blowing sand creating a constant haze. Sea lions basking in the sun looked up at us nonchalantly as little dunes accumulated on their windward sides. From some points, it was possible to see to Separation Point which divides Golden Bay from Tasman Bay, and on especially clear days, the North Island.

Australasian Gannet
Upon arriving at the Gannet Colony two and a half hours and one "comfort stop" later, we walked for about 20 minutes across a windswept sandscape, the ocean at our back, a dune ridge ahead of us filled with gannet nests, and the Golden Bay out of sight beyond the birds. About 7000 birds have been nesting here since the early 1980s, their numbers doubling in that time. The attractive birds were curious about our little group, and would often fly overhead for a look at us. DOC places restrictions on nesting bird viewing, so we had to go back to the bus after about 30 minutes. This was plenty of time to observe and get some fun photos, though as always, we could have spent far more time observing these beautiful birds and their behavior.

Our return trip included a lunch stop at a lighthouse keeper's house, a little green oasis surrounded by tall trees the workers had painstakingly planted a century ago by carrying soil back from Collingwood, saddlebag by saddlebag. We passed some of the same sea lions on the way back and also stopped to watch an Oystercatcher open and extract the good stuff out of a mussel. The last stop was to climb around on a barchan dune, one of many huge crescent shaped-shifting dunes on the spit. Hiking up was tough from the side, but we had fun running back down the steepest slope of powdery sand.

Mike and Susan at the Mussel Inn
After we returned to Collingwood, Maureen met us in the garden as we hiked up the steep path from town, and recommended we head out for dinner at the Mussel Inn sooner rather than later as they could fill up. The day before she had invited us to join her for Quiz Night there later in the evening. Our fourth was Chiara, a WWOOFer from Italy who had just arrived to help out for a couple weeks. (WWOOF stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms and is an international program that connects volunteers with opportunities to live and learn on organic properties.) The Mussel Inn is also a brewery and a Lonely Planet pick so we were happy to spend the evening. We sampled their flagship antioxidant-packed brew, Captain Cooker Manuka Beer which will soon be available in the US out of a brewery in Utah. Susan also sampled the Happy Jackal Pumpkin Ale, but we went with the Dark Horse Black Beer. Dinner was good, and Susan finished with her first Pavlova, a popular baked meringue dessert. Delicious!

Quiz Night at the Mussel Inn
After tea (dinner), Maureen and Chiara arrived just in time for Quiz Night at the restaurant, now packed with locals ready for the fortnightly competition. With team members from three countries, we hoped we had a chance, but we struggled with the 20 questions on sheets handed out to every table. This night the questions were all "who said it?" While teams deliberated on the written questions, we were asked a series of another 20 questions. In the end, we did well on the written quiz (18/20) but didn't have a chance with the oral questions, scoring only 6/20. But it was great fun and a lot of laughs. Many thanks to Maureen for inviting us to tag along! I'll also have to write and ask for the recipe for her cashew muesli (granola) -- I almost felt back home with it on her homemade yogurt for breakfast.

Wharariki Beach
Friday morning we headed back out to the Farewell Spit to hike to Wharariki Beach on the West Coast. This is not just any beach, but a spectacular display of rocky outcroppings and caves that become accessible at low tide. As usual we stayed double the time we anticipated exploring, even though it was crowded. About 9 other people were also on the vast beach.

On the way home we stopped at Waikoropupu Springs, generally known simply as Pupu Springs, known for the volume and clarity of the waters flowing from its several vents. Fresh water comes from 8 different vents at the rate of 14,000 liters/second! Signage warns visitors to make no contact with the pristine water. A few minutes from the springs, we stopped for afternoon tea at the Wholemeal Cafe in Takaka and felt transported to home to Boulder in the hippie organic brightly colored surrounds. Their Carbonara, a pasta with bacon and mushroom cream sauce, is Susan's favorite New Zealand meal yet. Unless you ask for "streaky bacon", the bacon here is more like ham. On the way home again, one more side trip to see the pretty beach holiday town of Kaikerikeri, but it was quite hot, clouds were rolling in and we were pretty much beached out so we headed straight for Blenheim without taking as much as one photo, if you can believe that!

OK, well there was that one shot of hops fields outside of Motueka we took thinking of Mike's homebrew enthusiast son, Tony.

Glenorchy & Arrowtown (Nov 14-15)

Lake Wakatipu on the way to north to Glenorchy
Sunday morning we headed out in search of the New Zealand Falcon nesting site we'd heard about a few days earlier. The entire area north of Queenstown is stunning, as the road follows along the northern arm of Lake Wakatipu with Mount Earnslaw pointing the way ahead. The road splits north of Glenorchy and if you go left, after crossing the northern headwaters of Lake Wakatipu, the road turns south again into the Kowhai Bush Scenic Reserve toward Kinloch.

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New Zealand Falcon
This is the direction we headed to see falcons, about a one hour's drive out of Queenstown. "Third stream on the right, and don't go into the bush because there are hunters" were our only directions. But we didn't need to search because sure enough we immediately saw a falcon sitting in a large dead tree right from our car. Mike walked over the roadside ditch to take photos. Moving in just a bit closer, he was dive-bombed by not one but two of the falcons at a distance of about 8 feet! Wow, close enough to hear their wings. Though he couldn't see their nest, he was clearly too close to it, so he retreated a wee bit and they relaxed, posing majestically for photos. After a reasonable amount of time we left the birds to their parenting duties.

Down the gravel road to the north is the start of the famous Routeburn Track which leads to Milford Sound. We did the start of the Track via the nature walk, where we hoped to see Yellowheads, as this area contains 25% of their population. We saw many birds, but they were difficult to photograph in the deep shady bush. We're sure of sighting Yellow-crowned Parakeets and Yellowheads, also saw a group of Riflemen in better light foraging for insects on the big trees' bark.

After a quick trip back to Glenorchy for lunch we headed north again and this time stayed to the right in order to drive the road to Paradise. Besides a dot on the map, Paradise seems to only be a paradise for puns. But past Paradise is the start of the Dart-Rees Track and the Chinaman's Bluff walk, if you're game to drive the unsealed road and ford several streams. Mike tested Susan's comfort zone in our little afternoon adventure drive to the start of the track to Chinaman's Bluff. She had to concede that it was safe, after we passed another couple in a compact car.

Only our calendar drove our decision us to leave the Glenorchy area that afternoon, and we spent the night back in Queenstown.

Australasian crested grebe
We got up early to drive up to Coronet Ski Resort, where we happened to see two more Yellowheads, one right on the road! After taking in the pretty views surrounding Queenstown for the last time, we headed to Arrowtown for breakfast at a cute cafe followed by a stroll through the quaint mining town, this time on a dry day. We left via Lake Hayes, where we watched the waterfowl and especially enjoyed another great showing of Crested Grebes.

We continued via Cromwell ("Fruitbowl of the South") where Susan snagged a chocolate coconut bar for the road while Mike got diesel. Down the road at the glacier lakes we'd seen in October, with low clouds providing uninspiring light for photography, and most of our clothes in the dirty laundry bag, we decided fifteen days was long enough to be gone and headed "home" for Blenheim.

Stewart Island (Nov 11-13)

Obligatory photo
We left Queenstown early in order to catch the 11AM Stewart Island ferry which leaves out of the southerly port of Bluff. While the southernmost point of the South Island is actually Slope, Bluff is often considered to be so, and boasts a famous signpost near a lookout point at the southern tip of the town. We were good tourists and did the photo op.

Stewart Island/Rakiura, home to Rakiura National Park, is the third largest island of New Zealand with a permanent population around 400. The island's Maori name, Rakiura, translates to 'glowing skies,'  a reference to the long twilight sunsets or southern lights.

We'd heard stories about the ride across the Foveaux Strait being rough going, but the little white bags tucked in near every seat were not needed today as the sea was calm. We saw a few pelagic birds en route including albatross, and our captain also pointed out a shark diving vessel. There is some talk of allowing tourists to swim with the Great Whites in cages previously used to study the sharks, but there is considerable resistance to the idea.

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A petite woman holding a handwritten sign that read "Molloy" greeted us at the dock. Iris and her husband Peter would be our hosts and guides as owners of the B&B we had selected. After loading our bags in the van, she gave us the tour of the only town on Stewart Island, Oban. This took all of 5 minutes. She then drove us up to our accommodation on Kowhai Lane. The home had a birds-eye view of Horseshoe Bay, even from our bedroom dubbed the "Tui Room," and attractive gardens in the back.

Iris showed us around the home, which we had to ourselves for the two night stay. As part of the overview of the home and how things worked, she asked us to put our food scraps into a separate bucket under the sink for the worm farm. This was a first for us. After she left, Susan checked and happily noted that the worms were not actually in the bucket.

From our windows we were excited to see our first Kakas in the wild, large endemic parrots, flying high in the tree canopy. Some even flew onto the bushes surrounding our garden. After getting a few groceries, we took a long walk to Ackers Point where Little Blue Penguins and Sooty Shearwaters, aka Muttonbirds, nest. Light rain turned to pouring on our way back, but a local pulled over and gave us a ride into town. He suggested the South Sea hotel for dinner and dropped us off at the restaurant door. After a nice dinner we headed back for the room to dry out and catch up on our rest.

The next morning, Peter stopped by early to meet us and offered to give us a ride to and from Lee Bay from where we could do the 9km return hike Maori Beach, the first leg of the 30km Rakiura Track. It was a much more difficult walk than we had anticipated with lots of ups and downs at the various beaches and streams along the way. And even though we were as close to the South Pole as we would ever be, it was quite warm, and of course humid. Finally arriving at Maori Beach, our path crossed too close to an Oystercatcher's nest. The squawking future parent was quick to defend her nest and came after Susan from above. You have to have respect for a such a long bill!

Green-hooded orchid
On the way home, Peter showed us a recently discovered larger variety of Green Hooded Orchids. Fascinating that these plants have moving parts triggered by an insect visit. Peter demonstrated by touching the flower with a blade of grass. The plant closed up, which would trap an insect long enough to facilitate pollination. After dinner again at the Seaside, we watched Little Blues coming in for the night near the wharf. We ran into an English couple there, and the woman turned out to be Alice from our Okarito Kiwi hunt.

One of our main goals for traveling to Stewart Island/Rakiura was to visit Ulva Island, an even smaller island just off Stewart. Introduced mammals have been eradicated from Ulva, and thus bird life flourishes. But it is an ongoing challenge to keep the predators off of Ulva because, by stowing onto vessels or surprisingly, by swimming, animals, particularly rats, find their way back to Ulva again. Vigilant residents monitor traps on both islands, trying to keep the problem under control. Peter explained that 30 years ago when he was a ranger on Stewart Island, they applied 1080 poison to the back side of individual leaves in target locations where the predators were most likely to find it, with minimal impact on birdlife. Quite a change of policy from today's GPS-targeted aerial drops of the pesticide.

As part of our accommodation package, Peter took us to Ulva on his boat and guided us around the island. We were joined by a couple from London and, coincidentally, Alice and her husband John were there, too. We started out at the old post office and home of settler Charles Traill. Peter was full of historical and forest facts and pointed out all sorts of things from the tiniest Spider Orchids to the giant Rimu trees, that drop their fruit in random years. We saw ferns that cloned themselves with tiny mini-plants growing on the parent plant leaves, and hairlike strands of sweet liquid secreted by insects along tree bark.

juvenile Stewart Island Robin
While we were entertained by cute little Stewart Island Robins that visited frequently on our walk, Peter knew we were keen to see a rare Saddleback. These rich brown and orange-colored birds are extinct on the mainland and live only on outlying island sanctuaries such as Ulva. We were hearing a variety of bird calls in the forest when Peter suddenly stepped off the boardwalk into the bush. Signaling us to follow rapidly, he'd found our first Saddlebacks. There was an adult and one juvenile, and luckily they continued to move in our direction so everyone had the chance to see them. We also were fortunate to see Brown Creepers, another bird endemic to New Zealand's South Island and Stewart Island.

Hooker's Sea Lion
Near the end of the walk, Peter took us to the Sydney Cove beach where he wanted to show us an oystercatcher nest he had been monitoring. As we strolled along the beach we saw Weka and their chicks, and the birds found us interesting enough to come right up to us on several occasions.

At one point, a young Hooker's Sea Lion began approaching us from the surf, noisily and somewhat aggressively. He was barking loudly and moving toward our group. Each time he got too close to any of our group, Peter talked to him firmly and then calmly reached down and picked up a handful of sand and threw it at his face and he would immediately run away! He would go back out into the water, swimming and either popping up or porpoising out of the water to keep an eye on us. We kept walking on and he seemed to lose interest in us. So, lesson learned -- if you're every getting hassled by a Hooker's Sea Lion, just throw sand at him!

After getting past the sea lion, Peter hoped to be able to get the oystercatcher off her nest so that he could count the eggs. Unlike the oystercatcher who left the nest to dive-bomb Susan, this one would not budge without undue stress, so Peter backed off. The nest happened to be the southernmost point of our journey at 46 degrees, 50 minutes, South.

Devil's Staircase overlook on the way back to Queenstown
Too soon, our Ulva Island tour was done and Peter took us back to Oban to get our luggage and drop us off at the ferry terminal. Our one hour ferry ride back to Invercargill left at 3:30PM. We arrived on the mainland feeling good, so drove on back to Q-town, and this time found an inexpensive room overlooking the lake right were we had spotted the crested grebes a just a few days before.

Queenstown (Nov 9-10)

Cameron Flats on Haast Highway
Tuesday afternoon, with the glorious Haast River behind us, we continued through Mt Aspiring National Park on Highway 6 which now ran along the Makarora River. A bit past a lookout at Cameron Flats, the river flowed into the northern end of Lake Wanaka. The road then veers to the east and views of Wanaka's even prettier little sister, Lake Hawea come into view.

Back in familiar Wanaka, we stopped for gas in preparation for the scenic drive to Treble Cone Ski Field but the unsealed road up was closed. Last time here a flat tire cut short the Mt Aspiring scenic drive so now we *really* must return to Wanaka.

Lake Hawea
Onward to Queenstown via Crown Range Road, but no rain or snow this time, thank goodness! We appreciated flowering trees and in general more greenery all around the Southern Lakes area in late Spring. We found a reasonably priced motel just off the "Adventure Capital of the World" main drag, but still an easy walking distance to town where we wanted to stroll around and check out the Queenstown Gardens before dinner.

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We were prepared to not be as high on bustling and touristy Queenstown, but we were wrong. It is indeed bigger and touristier than most places in the South Island, but it is still very lovely. Maybe in the peak season we would feel differently, but for now, surrounded by the Remarkables, amongst other mountains, and nestled at the base of bright blue Lake Wakatipu, how could we complain? The Queenstown Gardens on a small peninsula in the center of it all was great too, with walking paths, disc golf, bowling greens and even an ice skating arena. Our need for thrills had been previously satisfied in Christchurch with "extreme medical tourism"  our surgery plus aftershocks adventure, so we passed on the opportunities to bungy jump, sky dive, hang glide, parasail, white water raft, jetboat or zorb.

Panorama of Queenstown
On Wednesday we would spend the entire day in Queenstown. We weren't sure exactly what we'd do, but there would be no driving anywhere! We happened to be awake and ready in time to take the first tour of the morning to Walter's Peak Station aboard the historic TSS Earnslaw steamship. Susan wasn't sure she'd like such a touristy activity, but Mike persuaded her to give it a try and we both ended up having a blast. The boat trip gave us yet another nice view of the area. Some Japanese tourists were hamming it up for the camera, and their antics amused us throughout the tour.

Susan's new friend at Walter Peak Station
The majority of the station was still in operation as a privately owned sheep farm, but the portion of the farm we visited had been purchased by the big tourism operator, Real Journeys. Our farmer, Lindsay, talked to us about the sheep industry before his sheep shearing demonstration, while a future sheep-herding dog was passed around to be cuddled. Next we watched a sheepdog in action and her movements reminded Susan of a special black dog from her past (sniffle). Sheep feeding was next. Everyone else was busily feeding sheep when Susan noticed a straggler black lamb standing quietly away from the rest. Changing her mind about feeding, Susan grabbed a handful of pellets and headed toward the little guy who eagerly munched down the kibble. Mike likes little lambs almost as much as ducklings, and jumped at the chance to hold one...right after Susan insisted he pick one up for a picture. But really, he enjoyed it.

The next activity, right after handwashing, was morning tea in the beautiful farmhouse overlooking Lake Wakatipu. Lindsay then lead the group past the gardens to see other animals, while offering more information about the station's history. They kept Highland Cattle for show, but Lindsay admitted that the weather was really too warm for them here. In another paddock, some visitors were totally thrilled to see Llamas and Red Deer. It's a big world.

Crested Grebe on Lake Wakatipu

Back in Queenstown, we stopped for lunch at the Bathhouse restaurant. We then booked our long awaited trip to Stewart Island trip at the iSite, and inquired about the grebes we'd seen at the lake. One of the workers, Matt, was a keen birder and told us just where to go along the lake to reliably see them, but he did not know where they were nesting. He did know of a New Zealand Falcon nest north of Queenstown near Glenorchy, and suggested an area where we might see some Yellowheads. We thought we were done in the area, but since we hadn't been to Glenorchy yet and with this new birding information, we had to come back.

After our Crested Grebe photo op, we took the gondola ride in late afternoon and enjoyed tremendous views. We're really running out of adjectives to describe the beauty of this country.
Where to next?

Haast, End of The Road and Penguins (Nov 8-9)

Monro Beach
Now south of the Glaciers, on Monday morning we were in the home stretch of our West Coast tour. Our first major stop was at Monro Beach for a 40 minute walk through the bush to the ocean. We had several sources report that this was the best place to see Fiordland Crested Penguins, but we only saw a sweet beach edged with rocky outcroppings. We began discussing whether we should hike down again late in the day to try to see penguins at this northern-most nesting location. On the way out, we spoke briefly with a whitebaiter who proudly showed us his catch.

We drove on down to Haast, stopping at lookouts along the way. With limited options in tiny Haast, we checked into a forgettable motel, ate a quick lunch, then watched a film at the large Haast Visitor Center. The center's employees didn't seem to know much about Fiordland Cresteds at Monro Beach and suggested that the rare birds' comings and goings were random throughout the day, rather than more common at dusk. We were dubious, not because we're penguin experts, but we did understand that penguins nest on land, this was nesting season, and every other penguin encounter we'd had involved the penguins coming ashore in the evening to feed their chicks. But maybe the Fiordlands were different. We continued to discuss a second 90 minute hike in a day to Monro Beach to try to see them at dusk.

Click here for larger images with captions.

Farthest south we could go on the west coast
We continued down to the fishing village of Jackson's Bay, marking the southern end of the West Coast Highway, or The End of The Road. Penguins could also be seen on Jackson's Bay road and the road signs reminded us to drive with care, but again we didn't spot any penguins. Heading north, a birding stop at the Hapuka Estuary on the way was unproductive.

Decision time -- should we go back up to Monro Beach for another 90 minute walk at dusk, in spite of the visitor center's discouraging words? Why not! We probably won't be back this way again for a long time, if ever, and all we had to lose was a little sleep. Headlamps to walk back in the dark and sandfly protection ready, off we went.

Fiordland Crested Penguin coming ashore
When we got to the beach in the beautiful evening light we met another couple leaving who had had just seen 3-4 Fiordlands! We thought to ourselves, "How could you lose count with such a small number?" We didn't know whether to be excited or discouraged by their success. Maybe all the penguins were already tucked into their burrows for the night? Or just maybe more would come. We walked toward the north end of the beach near where we had scrambled around on rocks earlier in the day and suddenly Mike saw it -- a little Fiordland Crested in the surf coming in after a long day fishing at sea.

More followed, waddling in and then hopping unbelievably upward with hunched backs and big feet, quite an accomplishment for animals with flippers for arms. As they approached, squawking from the burrows in the steep bushy hillside increased. Then others appeared from the burrows and started coming down at this parental shift change. So many were coming and going, disappearing behind the rocks from time to time, that we couldn't get an exact count, but we are confident that we saw at least a dozen individual penguins in the 45 minute period we observed. And we were the only two people on the entire beach to watch this amazing show! Excellent! We were careful to be quiet and still, and remained mostly hidden behind rocks while always far exceeding the recommended 3 meter distance from the two foot tall birds with the yellow feathered flair above their eyes. Not wanting to cause the birds stress, we finally pulled ourselves away from the scene. Exhilarated, we talked about our fantastic viewing experience all the way up the dark trail.

Gates of Haast
Tuesday morning we drove the fantastic Haast Highway, stopping to view Roaring Billy Falls, Fantail Falls, Thunder Creek Falls, and the Gates of Haast and bridge over the Haast River. We hadn't allowed time to do any of the other hikes along this stunning route, but would definitely do so next time.

The road continues down to Queenstown, the subject of our next entry.

Herons, Kiwis and Glaciers (Nov 4-7)

Part I: The Birds

It was still raining when we finally headed towards Franz Joseph Glacier where we'd booked ahead three nights in the heavy tourist area. We stopped at Whataroa to confirm our booking on Friday's White Heron Colony Tour, then drove on in. Low clouds still obscured our view, but after unloading the car we headed out anyway to have a look around. The drive through town revealed much less tourist action than we anticipated and could by no means be described as busy.

From the Glacier Access car park, we decided to do one or two short walks, but were compelled to continue all the way out to the glacier face in the cool rain. We immediately liked the rainforest juxtaposed with snow and ice. Waterfalls were all around the deep glacial valley and as the clouds lifted, even more were revealed. Suddenly a deep and echoing "crack" filled the valley as ice dropped off the glacier, producing a waterfall right on the glacier face. Competing for our attention, chunks of rock tumbled from the steep mountain of lateral moraine to our right, a little close for Susan's comfort. But we were well within the DOC yellow ropes defining the safe area, which was modified frequently as glacier conditions changed.

Just outside of the village we grabbed dinner. The local pub filled with regular Joe's served simple fare, and the proprietor kept everybody in line with her friendly banter.

With two birding tours booked, Friday would be a long day, so we slept in. The first tour out of Whataroa (pronounced Phataroa) was to see the only nesting colony of White Herons, or Kotuku in New Zealand. These are not the same species as the White Heron in the US, although the English common names are the same. The area around the nesting colony is protected and the only way to see it is through this DOC-concessioned tour, which limits the number of visitors per tour as well as the number of tours per day. To get to the colony, a short bus ride took us to the jetty where we boarded a jetboat. The agile little craft weaved its way through the shallow and braided Waitangi Taona River surrounded by thick bush giving way to ocean views near the end.

Click here for larger images of the White Heron colony with captions.

The easy forest boardwalk lead to an elevated blind providing fantastic visibility of the birds. Royal Spoonbills and Little Shags also nested here, but only the White Herons, their fancy breeding plumage flowing in the breeze, had chicks. We had plenty of time to watch and photograph, but would have stayed longer if it were allowed. On the way back our guide pointed out the almost inconspicuous Green Hooded Orchids along the path.

It had been sprinkling or threatening to do so all day, but after the Kotuku tour it started to pour in earnest. Hoping for finer weather, we drove on to Okarito Lagoon to look for more birds then check in with the operator of our evening Kiwi tour.

The Okarito Kiwi or Rowi, is the classified as "nationally critical" by conservationists. The most rare of all kiwis, all 350 remaining birds all live near the Okarito Lagoon. As with so many New Zealand birds, introduced mammals are their bane, with Stoats being the main problem in this area. Our guide, Ian, explained a bit about the birds and how our group of eight would need to work hard as a team to spot them. We then listened to a tape to familiarize ourselves with their calls, and the calls of other birds. On a dry erase board he outlined the territories of various kiwi pairs. Jim and Beaumont live closest to the car park. Further in are White Eyes and Husky, and recent widow (or widower?) BZ (pronounced Bee Zed, although I doubt the bird will mind if you don't get it right). Amazing that anybody knew so much about the daily affairs of the threatened little birds, but Ian was clear that he did nothing to interfere with their lives as he observed them.

When we arrive at the tour site, Ian strapped on a transponder device attached to a crazy looking apparatus he held that reminded me of a TV antenna painted bright blue. Since kiwi spotting is serious business, I resisted the urge to say "Who you gonna call?" but the Ghostbusters theme earworm stuck with me all night anyway. After more instruction on how to walk softly in the night and what his various signals mean, Ian looks around and selects Mike for his co-guide. This means that Mike also gets to carry a red flashlight, as well as a radio. Two other people also get radios so we can stay in touch after dark in the bush. Everyone gets a torch, but these are not to be used until our way out. Most everyone is wearing a bush hat with a bug net so it is difficult to tell who is who. Half the group is German, and a single UK woman rounds out the team. After about 20 minutes of hiking in the bush, Ian instructs us to wait and he will go on ahead to try to locate birds with his festive looking equipment.

We watch him walk out of sight ahead of us at dusk, and start to wonder if this is a snipe hunt. But wait, Mike's radio is getting a signal - Ian instructs us to continue waiting, but tells Mike to give us a heads up. We might need to grab 3-4 chairs from a box hidden in the bush to our left. Umm, okay. Curious giggly looks are passed between group members, and for unknown reasons one of the German guys who doesn't speak much English turns around and heads in the opposite direction. "Crackle" - it is Ian again - "Don't bother with the chairs, walk together toward me as a group." It turns out we might have used the chairs to help us wait quietly if a bird was detected near the clearing ahead. But we kept walking hoping to get closer to one of the little whiskered birds.

Klaus caught up with us again before we found Ian and shortly after we heard Husky calling unmistakably in the night. Kiwis call in the night to find each other, and with particular excitement once they connect. They mate for life, and Ian admits some regret with his prior involvement in a relocation program moving birds to predator free islands to save the species because pairs were unwittingly split up. Throughout the evening, Ian positioned us here and there in small groups or individually to listen hard, but we never did spot a kiwi in the bush. We walked out the long way, hoping to see Jim or Beaumont to no avail, but when we arrived at the car park at almost 11PM, Ian had a signal that Jim was close. We spent the next hour near the side of the road standing still in the cool night air with red lights looking for Jim, who we all heard foraging in the bush a few yards from our feet. But we never saw the flighty guy and at midnight, after almost 5 patient and cold hours, we called it a night.
Franz Josef Glacier

Part II: The Ice

Gillespies Beach
Saturday we slept in then headed out to spend the day exploring Fox Glacier. On the way, we stopped briefly at Franz Joseph to appreciate the view from Sentinel Peak in better weather, then headed out the narrow windy road to Fox.

After a quick brunch at Hobnail Cafe, we headed west of Fox for a better perspective of the glacier and the mountains. The Peaks Viewpoint had one of those stations with a moveable pointer that shows the exact location of various peaks, but unfortunately most of the peaks were not peeking out because of clouds. We did appreciate a fine view of the Glacier.

To the east the sky appeared blue, so we went out even further west to explore Gillespie Beach where brilliant turquoise waters pushed against a beach of round gray stones. Turn 180 degrees and there were the southern alps, with farmlands and then rainforest in between. What an incredible landscape.

Click here for larger images with captions.

Back at Fox Glacier, we did the one hour Glacier View Walk which included some stream crossings and lots of warning signs. The glaciers move quickly here, as glaciers go, and the faces tend to be quite unstable. Another little walk across a glacial river, then back to Franz Joseph. Six Paradise Shelduck chicks huddled in the road and wouldn't move so Susan had to get out of the car to shoo them away. After this roadside episode and a similar one at Nugget Point, we're starting to believe that Parries don't make very good parents!

Back in the "big city", we took in the local Helimax movie to get a feel for the helicopter ride we'd decided not to take. It was good footage, but a meh production with a poor quality print long overdue for replacement and therefore a bit overpriced.

Reflections of Mt Tasman and Mt Cook on Lake Matheson
Sunday we drove out to Lake Matheson to appreciate the "postcard" view of Mt Cook/Aoraki under clear morning skies. The walk around the lake was great with several outstanding viewpoints. Near the trail's end, we lingered to watch a Pukeko family. It seemed the birds were living communally, with one remaining perched on the nest while three others took turns feeding the chicks.

Lake Matheson Cafe made a perfect lunch spot with its glacier and mountain views. We headed back and did the Fox Glacier View trail and a couple other short walks before returning to Franz Joseph.

On the Kotuku tour we had noticed a trailhead near the jetty. We did some research and learned it was the Waitangitaona Wetland Walk, an easy wetland walk, which seemed worthy way to spend the rest of the afternoon. The bird we added to our New Zealand list here was not the bitterns or grebes we'd expected, but a curious little New Zealand Pipit who visited us on the boardwalk. Back at the car Susan walked across to the jetty area to have a peek and spotted a couple of Gray Warblers right in the open flitting around on the outside edges of a bushy tree. We had heard them often in the bush, but this was an unusual opportunity to get a great look at them. Luckily the little guys hung around long enough for Mike to catch up with the camera.

By now it was late and the cafes closed, so we revisited the little local pub on the north end of town. This time we had the opportunity to chat with the proprietor who joined us to apologize for the drunken whitebaiters sitting behind us. "They are good customers and hard workers, who come every year for their only holiday during the whitebait fishing season." She was the first to mention the other reason DOC is so keen to air drop the controversial 1080 poison - the possums also carry TB, which means a concern for humans as well as cattle and tourism. World Cup was on TV with a Kiwi leading in rowing, which had everybody pumped. The conversation moved to the economy, and the recession is still affecting this corner of New Zealand. Mike asked why Kiwis, facing high taxes and tough economic times, are still so happy. Her response was kiwi obvious -- "It wouldn't do any good not to be, would it!?"

With that bit of sage advice, we headed back for a good night's sleep, for the next day we leave for Haast.

Westland (Nov 1-4)

On the road again
On Marlborough Anniversary Day our trash bag looked very lonely kerbside in the neighborhood. So after noting the November 1 holiday on our calendar, we put the little blue bag back into the garage and headed for the West Coast of New Zealand. Another lovely drive through rolling farmlands turned more dramatic as we approached Buller Gorge, where we spent $5 each to walk across the country's longest swing bridge. The walk also included use of their toilets which we would have paid $5 for without the bridge walk after the several hour drive.

At Westport we turned north toward Karamea, but rain and low clouds turned us around a little past Hector. We stopped long enough in Westport to visit Cape Foulwind Viewpoint, which could also be called Cape of Many Wekas. At the car park some people offered white bread, which the wekas eagerly grabbed and shared with their nearby chicks. Susan was surprised to see a fernbird in full view for several seconds at the bottom of the lighthouse trail.

Click here for larger images with captions.

We stopped for the night at Punakaiki Resort with a good view of the ocean and surrounded by ferns of all types. The main attraction in Punakaiki is Pancake Rocks, unusual formations, complete with blowholes at high tide when the sea is big. The sea was calm that night, but we did enjoy a very pretty sunset.

Sunset at Pancake Rocks
As we strolled all around the Pancake Rocks we saw many more weka, but the most interesting encounter was seeing one hop up into a Kiekie plant at the edge of our walkway. We watched from close by as the bird drank or ate from the large central flower, totally unconcerned that he had an audience.

While photographing a wet spiderweb glistening in the late afternoon light, another couple stopped to see what we were doing. Janice and Barry live near Motueka, and suggested we stop by when we head up north again. Coincidentally, Janice once lived in the small town of Seldovia, Alaska where we had traveled by boat (because you can't drive there) last summer and won a prize in their July 4th fireworks raffle.

Hoping for morning blowhole activity, we walked around Pancake Rocks again with no luck. Our walk for the morning was the Truman Track at Paparua National Park, which was a Lonely Planet best walk. It was a wonderful rainforest hike ending at a pretty little beach. Beautiful coastline continued to the south and at one pullout with beach access we stopped to stroll on the beach and take pictures. Susan learned to pay better attention while picking up rocks after being knocked off balance by the surf and taking a rather abrupt sit in the sand. Luckily Mike was looking the other way and there is no photographic evidence. After a quick change into dry clothing, we opted to drive a short distance east to Arthur's Pass. We had been to Arthur's Pass during a previous trip from Christchurch and were happy to be able to see this scenic drive coming from the West Coast. Susan found another great waterfall on the map, so we took a short hike to the beautiful and impressive Devil's Punchbowl. Soon another couple joined us -- the first American tourists we've met and they happened to be from Colorado.

Mike standing at the shore of Molloy Bay on Lake Brunner
We headed back out of the mountains via Lake Brunner so we could see Molloy Bay. Unfortunately, there was no signage for our photo op, but we did see a sign for Molloy Creek, which emptied into Molloy Bay in Lake Brunner.

On to Hokitika for two nights. When we went into town for dinner at Stumpers, we saw smoke and drove a couple of blocks toward it and found a home totally engulfed in flames with the local fire department trying to put it out. Very sad to watch. After a late dinner and a beer at Stumpers we headed back to our room and collapsed into bed.

Wednesday morning we drove the Kaniere loop, which included a hike to the stunning Hokitika Gorge with its glacier-fed waters bright blue, even under high cloud cover. Later down the road a two minute walk took us to Dorothy Falls, which was also gorgeous.  We drove around Lake Kaniere then south to Lake Mahinapua but were not lucky enough to see bitterns and white herons reported to be in the area. We did several other short bush walks including the Jum Michel over ancient sand dunes, the Bellbird Walk and the Mananui Bush Walk which went to the beach.

We were able to reserve a spot on the Friday Okarito Kiwi Tour (advance booking is essential as only 8 people are allowed per tour). Since we would be heading towards the popular "Glacier Country" and tourist traffic was increasing, we booked ahead 3 nights in Franz Joseph before relaxing over a light dinner at Cheese & Deli. A wonderful little cafe, its cheese room visible from the dining room through a glass door and large windows. After stocking up on some groceries and cranking through some laundry, we headed out at sunset to the Glow Worm Dell. Glow worms are found in many New Zealand caves, but the Hokitika dell is the largest outdoor area to view them, and probably one of the easiest to access, with only a 5 minute walk required. It was also free.

Thursday we planned for rain all day, and the forecast was right on. We spent the morning checking out the town of "Hoki." First stop was the National Kiwi Center where as expected, we did see a kiwi, busily foraging under dim lights in his day and night flip-flopped (or should I say jandaled?) environment. We were told the second bird was at the "veet". "What?" Mike asked, but I understood she was saying veterinarian. I hope the little guy was just having a checkup.

Next was the giant long-finned eels  feeding, in which Mike had the pleasure of participating. The presenter was a good speaker, and provided an enthusiastic and knowledgeable overview of the long-living creatures. After the feeding, Mike got to touch them with wet hands and agreed with the peeled hard boiled egg description.

Hokitika is known for its Pounami, aka Jade or Greenstone, so we headed over to the Jade Factory to take their morning tour and saw all sorts of jadestone, carved jade and carvers at work. Popping our heads into shops along the main street, we finally came across the gallery of Juergen Schacke, the local fine art photographer whose attractive work we'd been seeing all over town. After a good chat about Germany, photography and tourists, we headed back to the kiwi house to have another look around and try to spot the Tuatara, which was still hidden and asleep earlier in the day. These endemic reptiles are the only surviving member of the order Sphenodontia and begin life with a third or parietal eye on top of the head. We then watched their kiwi video which told all about how citizens can help the kiwi by tracking and monitoring, and taking care in their community to preserve the adaptable little birds' habitat, before viewing the funny little bird once again on our way out.

Sock knitting machine
Last but not least, ok well maybe it was least, was a stop at the Sock Museum, which Mike oddly prefers to call the Sock Puppet Museum. Past a shop full of socks and other knitted products was a room full of antique sock knitting machines which the owner collects, refurbishes and sometimes resells. She also has a machine shop in which she makes new sock knitting machines selling for $2000 US. For some reason, most of her customers live in Michigan. When we showed interest in her gift shop, she was anxious to show us her unique socks, made on the antique sock machine, out of her unique blend of felted merino and possum. They *were* quite soft and since possums are overrunning the country, driving native birds towards extinction, we bought some.

The road from Hokitika to Franz Joseph seemed to be populated by Pukeko with a death wish. Luckily we avoided hitting any of the funny blue birds. Stopping only once at the notorious Bushman Cafe, we did not order possum of any sort, although our only seating option involved possum pelts. From the bold signs and cartoons posted everywhere, it would be hard to say if the cafe's owner hates possums or 1080 more. We got a good look at their Himalayan Tahr in a paddock just outside the cafe, where Susan got a bit wet-tahr in order to take his picture.