New Zealand: Rotorua

We joined the rugby tour in Auckland and left on a bus. It was a pleasant change from driving, having done just over 2000 miles in the previous two weeks. We drove back down the Southern Highway and past Huntly but then turned off through Morrinsville amid dairy farming country and had a break at Matamata. It has achieved fame as the film set for Hobbiton in Lord of the Rings. You can tour the film set for $99 if you wish. We had a quick lunch and then completed our journey to Rotorua. The lake is a peaceful oasis late afternoon.

This black swan was just settling down for the night.

In the evening, we had a drink in Eat Street. The police and someone from public health were patrolling although it was quiet. As a street pastor back home, it is usually me keeping the streets safe while everyone else is eating and drinking inside so it was slightly strange to be on the other side for a change. Dinner was in a Chinese restaurant where we were the only non-Chinese customers. On Saturday morning, we walked out to Whakarewarewa, a Maori village with thermal waters on the south side of Rotorua.

The local community cook and bath using the waters. Very gradually they are having to move up the hill as sink holes appear in the very thin crust in the lower parts of the area.

This is an old hut they sued to shelter in on winter nights that is no longer in use.

We had a guided tour that lasts for an hour and which was very interesting, covering the geo-thermal activity, the Maori history and culture here. There are other options including cultural performances, dining on food cooked in the thermal ovens and walking trails around the village and lake, some of which we did. There are two overlooks giving good views of the geysers.

We also met a pukeko.

The woman who runs the gift shop and looks after around 15 cats, was working in the Chinese restaurant we ate in the evening before and recognised James. The money raised from the entrance fee and tours goes back to the community. There is a larger, more commercial thermal village a little further down the road which is busier and more expensive. We walked back into town and picked up some lunch before it was time to go to the rugby stadium. I have been to countless rugby matches over the years but the first game was the first women’s match I have seen. England were playing the New Zealand Black Ferns and won as did the British Lions who beat the All Blacks in the second game. It was very wet and I found myself watching some of the media. One guy from the Sky Sports Team was zooming around on a Segway and managing to shoot video at the same time. Other photographers were dumping one camera on the wet grass while they were using the other. It was quite amusing to see that the referee and lines people were sponsored by Specsavers, especially considering some of the decisions they made. Quite a few of the Lions’ fans had stuffed lions, hats and costumes but we met a group of Irish guys, one of whom was dressed as Pink Panther. After the game we eventually found the correct bus back to the hotel and planned a lazy day on Sunday before the next move.

New Zealand: the road to Queenstown

Another early start on a cold frosty morning to drive back down Highway 94 and then over to Queenstown. Milford Sound is a good place for dark skies as there is very little light pollution. Although I have been in the southern hemisphere numerous times, I always find the stars in the southern sky a little disorientating. The car thermometer read zero for most of the icy road down to Te Anau where we were accompanied by misty mountains and frosty leaves.

We had to drive carefully in order not to end up in in a ditch like one vehicle we passed with emergency services in attendance. We had stopped at one layby to look at the view and noticed two Kea on another car. They appeared to be trying to eat the rubber seals. I told the two women in the car that our squirrels chew the lead flashing on the roof for no obvious reason. I was quite pleased to get a shot of them as we had seen several Kea but they had all disappeared very quickly. I am still trying to identify all the raptors we have seen feeding on road kill.

At Te Anau we stopped for a coffee and then turned towards Queenstown. The sun had at last come out and the thermometer started to rise a little.

Our picnic lunch was eaten by Lake Wakatipu and then we endured the major roadworks around the construction of a new bridge into Queenstown. It was quite strange to be back among the crowds on a Friday afternoon in this busy town. It is a major base for winter sports and there were a lot of young people around. There are numerous outdoor retailers and obviously some wealth around as there is also a Louis Vuitton store. Needless to say we did not need to do any shopping but chose a walk around the garden peninsula instead. There we discovered a new sport. We had spotted a few people throwing frisbees and coming across one in the undergrowth, had assumed it was lost. We shouted over to the nearest family who told us to leave it which was a bit mystifying. We saw a few more lying on the ground, seemingly abandoned further on, but it was not until we left the park that I saw a notice saying that Disc Golf had been played there since the 1990s.

Some people thought it was warm enough to sit on the beach but it was not warm enough for me.

Fortunately our hotel is out of town a bit and fairly quiet for relaxing in before tomorrow’s journey.

New Zealand: Milford Sound

We were up before sunrise on a frosty morning to get on an early cruise on the Sound much of which was still in shadow.

It is the low season but even so, numerous coach tours arrive for the middle of the day cruises and an early start is advised. We were on a small boat with only around 20 people on board so no great crush to see what was going on or take photographs. We had a nature guide with us who provided a lot of interesting information on the geology, natural history and the settlement from the earliest Maori settlers to more modern times. The entrance to the Sound from the Tasman Sea is so narrow that even Captain Cook did not spot it when he was sailing by. Rudyard Kipling called it the eigth wonder of the world.

We could not have picked a better day weather-wise and my anxieties about rain were rapidly abolished. It was cold with a clear sky and hardly any wind at all. There are two waterfalls, the Bowen and Stirling. Some people got very close to the latter but I stayed well clear of the spray with my camera.

Even the boats are dwarfed by the vast cliffs.

There were a few New Zealand Fur Seals on the rocks but no dolphins or penguins seen on this trip.

At Fraser Cove, we were dropped off at the Discovery Centre where you descend into a submerged cylindrical room with views all around of the deep water with corals, fish, sea anemones, cucumbers and all sorts of other sea life. You can even sometimes spot a conger eel but we did not. If you do not dive it is a great way of experiencing life deep underwater. Back at our cabin we had a relaxing afternoon and this Weka decided to pay us a visit on the deck.

New Zealand: Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula

As today was dry and sunny we decided to devote the day to outdoor aspects of Dunedin. There are museums and many other things to occupy rainy days. Our motel was only a mile from the Botanic Garden and having missed the one in Christchurch, we decided to head there first. They have a large collection of camellias just inside the entrance which reminded me of deciding that I had wanted a white one for our garden. I had searched dozens of specialist camellia nurseries without success and then found one quite incidentally, for only £9.95 on a visit to B&Q for something else. Needless to say, those in the garden here are not in bloom at the moment. The winter garden in the glasshouse had numerous interesting flowers.
In addition to various collections of plants and trees, including native species, there are also aviaries containing birds from all over the world. One bird I did see in the garden is the New Zealand Pigeon which is also referred to as a Wood Pigeon.
We had a coffee in the cafe here where service was amazingly slow despite there being several staff on duty. It was getting busier as today was a public holiday for the Queen’s birthday, something we do not have in the UK so it was quite bizarre to find out that both Australia and New Zealand have one.

In the afternoon we drove along the northern edge of the Otago Peninsula past several bays and as far as you can go.
There is a Royal Albatross Colony here and you can visit the centre. A few flew overhead as we were on one of the cliff overlooks.
One of the main reasons for coming out here was to visit Penguin Place. This is a private conservation reserve for the endangered Yellow-Eyed Penguin. A farming family started it and all the ticket money raised from tourists who visit for a tour and viewing goes to support the reserve and the small penguin hospital where they are rehabilitated and released into the wild again. The reserve also tries to control introduced predators such as feral cats, stoats and weasels who are a threat to the penguins. Their numbers have also declined due to habitat loss and human interference. We saw penguins in the hospital – this one with a foot injury is being fed.
In winter, the only hope of seeing a wild penguin is when they return to land from feeding in the ocean. This usually happens close to sunset. We were bussed part way to the beach and then walked through tunnels designed to hide us from any penguins on land, and down to the hides. Eventually one penguin did appear and after waiting unsuccessfully for any of his friends, walked across the beach and up the track.
Afterwards, we drove back into the city and had our evening meal in an Irish pub just down the road called ‘The Bog’. Service here wasn’t very brisk either.

New Zealand: dodging the showers on the north Otago coast

Waking in Timaru we saw snow had appeared on the distant mountains. A few hardy dog walkers were already on the beach and a badminton team who had been staying in the same motel were packing up to leave. Today’s journey was to head south on Highway 1. The southern part of the country had had heavy rain overnight and it was just reaching us so we were treated with intermittent showers and rainbows. The road initially parallels the beach and the railway line through farming country. Just before crossing the Waitaki River we pulled over as two guys were emerging from their camper van having spent the night there. Most of the rivers in Canterbury and this one are fairly low at this point in the year and there have been a few years of drought: irrigation equipment is standing in many of the fields.

Oamaru has a lot of late 19th century buildings, interesting shops and would be a great place to wander around had the rain not become very heavy. After a coffee we drove down towards the harbour where a rather wet Farmers Market was in progress. These birds were sheltering on the quayside, waiting for it to improve.

We decided it was too wet to walk to the lighthouse and knew the penguins would most likely be out fishing until late afternoon, so we continued driving. The Moeraki Boulders are about 30 minutes south of Oamaru and fortunately we had a brief respite from the rain to explore them. They are large spherical boulders lying along a stretch of Koekohe Beach, probably best seen when the tide is out. It was just turning and going out when we visited. The coastal trail continues along here and you could walk along here to Shag Point.

The road continues along the coast with a number of picnic sites to pull over in.
We took the turning to Shag Point which was an early settlement site and also a coal mining area until the 1970s. There are notices urging you to stay on the marked paths to avoid falling into a mine shaft. There are mining relics around but it is now a reserve where fur seals and yellow-eyed penguins can be seen. We saw several seals with more in the distance, gulls and an oystercatcher but a heavy hail shower ended the wandering and we did not get round all the paths.

The road then swings inland to Palmerston and down towards Dunedin, our next destination.

New Zealand: walking in the forest and on the beach

Driving north of Geraldine towards Peel Forest we passed through farmland where large numbers of red deer were grazing. When we arrived at the forest car park there was only one other vehicle there. We set off to walk the trail to Acland Falls. There are various trails of differing lengths and difficulty. Ours had a steep climb uphill and then down towards the falls.

Peel Forest has a large collection of native conifers, some of which are over 100 years old. There are numerous other trees, plants and ferns and the forest is home to several species of native birds as well as a few of the introduced ones. Amidst all the unfamiliar birdsong I heard the alarm call of a European blackbird. We did see a New Zealand fantail who came quite close as they are known to do but darted away before I could get a photograph. New Zealand Birds Online is a very useful resource for identification:

Peel Forest has a small community living there and a wooden church dating from 1869 which is described as ‘historic’. Churches built in the 1860s and 70s do not make it into my copy of ‘Old Cheshire Churches’ at home. On the way back southwards we passed a holiday park just north of Geraldine called ‘Grumpy’s Retreat’ which raised a smile. Our destination was a motel perched above Caroline Bay in Timaru. The beach here is among the ten most loved in New Zealand.

Dolphins, seals, sea lions and penguins are known to visit the beach. In the middle of the day, only some seals could be seen offshore and dogs being walked kept scaring the birds. Several gulls were bathing and drinking in the stream that runs through the beach and there were a few oystercatchers.These are the most common South Island Pied Oystercatchers. The other day we saw some of the Variable Oystercatcher which is often black and which is declining.

There is a coastal trail and we walked some of it via the dune boardwalks and over to the Timaru Lighthouse which from 1878-1970 was the main harbour light.
It is a public holiday long weekend here so the motel is fully booked but we have a great view of the bay. In the late afternoon we walked back down to the beach. The bridge across the road is called the ‘Matrimonial Bridge’ and is yet another festooned with padlocks. There were still quite a few people, dogs and only one drone down on the beach as the sun went down at 17.03.

New Zealand: from the beach to the foothills – Okains Bay to Geraldine

Our host in Akaroa recommended the Maori & Colonial Museum in Okains Bay so we decided to visit it before we left the Banks Peninsula. As we were down at the bay before it opened we had a walk along the empty beach.

There were a few flowers still in bloom on the path down to the beach.

Oystercatchers in New Zealand are black and there was a pair along with a Red-billed gull and some other waders that flew away before I could identify them. Most of the shells were clams and mussels but there were a few others.

We walked back through the trees. There is a large campground here right behind the beach which would be a great place to camp in summer. The museum is housed in a former cheese factory and staffed by volunteers. It has a large collection and the Maori displays were the most interesting.

As the colonial collection only dates from the second half of the 19th century, many of the items were very familiar e.g. Singer hand sewing machines. For anyone whose ancestors lived here, there is a lot of information on local families and many of the items on display have been donated by their descendents. Across the road from the museum is a shed with the two canoes currently used every year on Waitangi Day.

We then re-joined the summit road which on a clear day would have good views over the peninsula. We were back on Highway 75 at Hilltop which is 476m and then descended to Little River for coffee. As we crossed over to join the Inland Scenic Route on Highway 72, we could see mountains ahead and forests. We were soon in the foothills of Mount Hutt Range and stopped at Rakaia Gorge where there are overlooks and short walking trails.
We met a couple of guys from Yorkshire who were also travelling around before attending some of the Lions matches later on. It was now time for us to descend a little, cross the Rangitata River and find our accommodation in Geraldine.