Fiordland National Park, Manapouri, Kepler Track We booked two nights at the Possum Lodge in Manapouri - the gateway to the Doubtful Sound cruises. Although we didn’t plan on a Doubtful Sound cruise, we stayed in Manapouri to try to see more of the Fiordland National Park. Manapouri was a much smaller town than the more popular Te Anua to the north, but they were only a 15 minute drive apart. Surrounding these towns were miles and miles of sheep, deer and more sheep farms, stretched out in ever flat direction. Across the waters of Lake Te Anua and Lake Manapouri was a different story - snow and forest cover the mountains in the horizon.
The Te Anua Bird Sanctuary on the lake's edge was not at all what I was expecting. I was expecting a small zoo like facility with staff. What it was was more like several 1960’s zoo exhibits in an open park. It was somewhat surprising to see the enclosures accessible to the public, with only hint of authority - a nearby DOC office. The main attraction and largest attraction of the sanctuary were the Takahes - a highly endangered large flightless bird that was closely related to the Pukeko (Purple Swamphen). As with many of the birds in New Zealand, the Takahe couldn’t adapt to the sudden introduction of land predators. There numbers were now dangerously close to extinction even with the many conservation attempts. Now they only exist on islands that have been cleared of rodents and a few pockets of remote areas on the South Island. The Takahe looked like the Pukeko on steroids - hefty swamphens with thick necks and giant beaks. Yet, they also looked enduring when they groomed each other. There were two pairs of Takahe in the enclosure - separated by a temporary barrier. It wasn’t clear if the DOC was trying to breed them, keeping them for display, or for eventual release. The other birds they had were Antipodes Parakeets, a Morepork, Shelducks (though it was hard to tell if those were supposed inside or outside of the display - because there were both), Kaka, and Kea.
Close to Te Anua was the Kepler Track, which we tramped on two occasions during our stay in Manapouri. The tracks that start from Manapouri require crossing the Maiau River by boat, but we didn’t want the hassle of organizing or timing a boat, which would have constricted us to a schedule and take away any flexibility for the day. We tramped the Kepler Track starting at the Rainbow Reach car park and crossing the swing bridge over the Maiau River. A mature beech forest awaited us on the other side of the river. Between the tall trees was either a pillowy carpet of moss or densely packet undergrowth of ground ferns. Tomtit chattered on the tree trunks ahead of us and carried insects to their nestlings in the tree crevice above the trail. A pair of Pipipi gleaned on the edge of the forest. Over the Maiau River, a small cotillion of Black-fronted Terns hawked over the waters. At Spirit Lake, the a flock of introduced Canada Goose honked loudly, disturbed by a DOC ranger with a shovel. It was unclear what he was doing as he failed to give much of an answer when I inquired. If he was harassing the geese, I wouldn’t have had a problem with it. If he was breaking eggs in a nest, I would have suggested he addle them instead. On the thick bog surrounding Spirit Lake were different types of tiny sundews - bright red with sticky dew drops on their tips. Traveling the other direction toward Lake Te Anua and Kepler Track trailhead, the track was not as pristine. The track from the swing bridge started off beautiful, through rich epiphyte-covered beech forest with pockets of sedge and wetlands. But after a short while the forest opens up to scrubby land filled with gorse-like brush. Historically there was a sheep ranch in the area and the damage and lack of restoration in this area was evident. After the open scrub, the track turned into a spindly and dense forest without any undergrowth. Even the birds seemed wrong in this forest - the constant chatter of the European Common Chaffinch was the only bird song. The trail continued through the sickly forest until an abrupt transition back into a healthy forest of large trees with ferns and moss in the understory. Past the Kepler Track car park trailhead, the forest was still intact with tree ferns interspersed among the rimu and beech. Perhaps it was wetter on this side of the trail. At Dock Bay, a South Island Robin joined us for a snack and a New Zealand Falcon flew over the lake.
Fiordland National Park, Knob Flat, Milford Sound, Routeburn Track At the beginning of our drive to the northern end of the Fiordland National Park, the rainstorm hit. We at least knew in advance that the rain was coming and that the road to Milford Sound was closed for most of the day due to the threat of avalanche from the heavy rain. We originally booked a Milford Sound cruise the following morning, but changed it to a later time because of the road closure. As we drove along the Milford Road, Eglington Valley was full low gray clouds and waves upon waves of rain dowsed us. We past some scenery that would probably be breathtaking if only the rain wasn't obstructing it. Fallen branch and leaves littered the road. Of the shear mountain sides that we could see, torrents of thin waterfalls cascaded down the rock faces. Without the urgent need to hike in the rain, we ended up driving to the end of the Hollyford road to the Humboldt Falls trail. We walked the short trail to see the roaring waterfall through the driving rain. The road to the sound was scheduled to open for two hours in the afternoon. Since we were unsure the road would open again the following day, we drove through when it opened. At least, we would have one chance to see the sound. The road past the closure curved along the valley floor with massive mountains ranges on either side. White ribbons of water tumbled from the cloud-obscured mountaintops upon the slate gray sides of the mountains. Due to the threat of avalanches, we weren’t allowed to pull off to the side of the road to admire the view. We could only do so at 50 km/hr. At the entrance to Homer’s tunnel, we queued up to allow the alternating traffic to pass through the narrow tunnel. The tunnel was pretty amazing - rough cuts still visible along the length of the tunnel that went straight through the mountain. The other end of the tunnel opened out onto an amphitheater of mountains surrounding the Milford Sound.
On the way to the Sound, we stopped at the Chasm. With the deluge of rain, the Cleddau River was roaring through the series of narrow rock slots. There was about an equal amount of water raining from the sky as there was being sprayed up from the churning waterfalls. At the Milford Sound, dark rain clouds sat low over the water. Barely the base of the mountains could be seen through the haze. Yet cruises were still venturing out into the water. Not sure what you’d see with all the rain, but there’s definitely a reason all the brochures show the Milford Sound on a sunny clear day and not on a more typical rainy day. The Milford Sound gets a lot of rain - one of the wettest areas in New Zealand. Six days without rain is considered a drought at the sound. We left the Milford Sound before the road closed again for the night and drove back down (in pouring rain) to Knob Flat in the middle of the Eglinton Valley where we stayed in one of the apartments. The weather even cleared a little in the evening to let us enjoy the scenery around Knob Flat. The knobs of Knob Flat were deposits of soil and rocks when the glaciers retreated. Some of the knobs had small stands of beech trees covering them, while others were covered in tussocks. A chain of snow-capped mountains lined the flat meadow covered valley floor. Black-fronted Terns flew over the Eglinton River and a New Zealand Falcon looked over the valley from the top of a snag. The next morning didn’t look promising weather-wise. Despite the continued steady rain, the road to the Milford Sound was scheduled to open mid-morning. Before the road was set to open, we drove up to the Lake Marian trailhead and hiked a short distance in the dripping rain along the series of short falls. The swollen river tumbled over smooth boulders and fallen trees. Rivulets of rain water poured off saturated moss and over the muddy trail. The road to Milford Sound opened ahead of schedule so we headed past the gates into the Hollyford Valley once again. We stopped at Monkey Creek to look for the Blue Duck (another endangered bird on the brink because of introduced predators) that was commonly seen in those waters. As we pulled into the parking lot a couple of Keas quickly flew in to cause trouble and/or look for a hand out. The Keas have a reputation of being cheeky and curious - they can destroy shoes, windshield wipers, tires with their sharp beaks and inquisitive minds. The Keas moved in with precision - landing in front of the driver’s side door and peering up. One Kea walked under the car, sidled up to Tor, and started nibbling on his pant leg. It easy to see how much trouble these mountain parrots can cause.
Down at Milford Sound, the rain came through in fits and spurts. There were several cruise company options to view the Sound. We chose the Southern Discovery ship because of its smaller size - smaller ship meant fewer people? The boat still seemed a little crowded, even though there was room for more. The cruise routes hugged the edges of the sound. There were many beaches to speak of in the Sound, just massive sheer rock walls emerging straight from the water. Waterfalls cascaded down the mountain straight into the Milford Sound. Beech trees, tree ferns, and tree daises hung on the thin layer of soil on these steep mountain sides. Occasional when a tree grew too large to be supported by a shallow root system, a tree avalanche occurred wiping out all of plants below it. This was especially obvious when looking at a mountainside of beech forest interspersed with swaths of tussocks and scrub. Shortly into our cruise another rain storm hit. Thankfully the open sheltered back of the boat allowed us to be outside yet be somewhat protected from the rain and wind. We couldn’t enjoy looking up at the tall mountains, but at least we remained somewhat dry… until the boat came close to one of the waterfalls that was pouring into the sound. That was when a large gust of wind picked up the falls and dumped it right on the boat. There was absolutely no warning as the entire boat was doused with water. Everyone who was outside on the boat, even those under shelter (as we were) got soaked. There was a lot of screaming then laughing during this unexpected event. This wasn’t planned like the advertised Stirling Falls soaking - there the captain warned people that we’ll be nosing into the falls for the opportunity to take a glacial shower. Eventually the rain did taper off halfway through the cruise and we managed to dry out some. At the penguin cove near where the Tasman sea comes into the Sound, we finally saw our first penguins of the trip. Three Fiordland Crested Penguins were on the rocks. One of them was hopping on the rocks trying to get up to the other two penguins. It ended up making a a couple of miscalculated jumps and fell back down. As cruel as it was to find humor in others misfortune, it sure was funny seeing a penguin fall down. We also saw the large colony of New Zealand fur seals - large males lounging around on the rocks. And of course in every direction was the breathtaking beauty of the Sound.
After our 2-hour cruise around the Milford Sound, we stopped back at the Chasm, where the water flow was tame compared to the roar it was the previous day. We also stopped back at Monkey Creek to try again to see the Blue Duck. Earlier in the day, we were chased off by a swarm of tourists trying to take pictures of the Kea that was standing on the top of our car. There were fewer people in the parking lot when we pulled up this time. But it also meant the Kea had only one car to go to - our rental car. The naughty Kea landed on the top of our car again. And as I was reaching into the back seat of the car, the Kea came over and gave the weather sealing around the car door a nip - slicing straight through the rubber. These parrots are trouble alright! When the Keas were distracted by other cars that pulled up, we scanned the waters of Monkey Creek. Tor spotted a duck in the waters. After trying to explain where it was to me, I finally spotted the duck that wasn’t exactly blue, but matched the bluish-gray rocks in the streams. It was effective camouflage, whenever the duck dipped its head underwater, it looked just like the rocks around it. These ducks feed in swiftly moving streams. Conservation efforts in the Fiordland National Park have been successful in repopulating the streams with these odd ducks. Tor kept the Keas at bay, while I scoped the Blue Duck feeding in the creek.
By the afternoon the weather finally cleared out. So we decided to tramp part of the Routeburn Track to the Key Summit. We didn’t really know what to expect as we started off on the trail. It was beautiful as most trails in the national parks of New Zealand. A Kaka was nipping the fuchsia flowers and tall rimus sheltered us from the sun that miraculously popped out in the afternoon. We climbed up the trail until the trees fell away and the backdrop of snowy mountains became visible. Key Summit was a 360 view of absurdly gratuitous beauty. I wish I were a talented photographer, painter, or even a writer to be able to capture the view with even a small percent of justice. Key Summit was an open field of scrub and tussock interspersed with peat bogs and pools of clear water. The small trees on the top were covered with every color of lichen, moss, and ferns. Of course what defined the beauty were the ranges of snow-topped purple mountains across the dark green forested valleys in every direction. This was one of my favorite hikes of the trip - the best for views. Our last day at Knob Flat was clear and sunny, of course. On our way out of the park, we stopped at Mirror Lake. Without the rain, there was actually good reason to check out the lakes that reflected the Earl Mountains in their waters. We left the Fiordland National Park behind as we drove south to Invercargill. The wind started picking up as we neared town. We dropped the rental car off at the airport and were picked up by the prearranged bus to Bluff for the ferry to Stewart Island.
Stewart Island and Ulva Island Stewart Island was on the top of my list of places to visit. What attracted me what the fact that the island was mostly a national park with the little town of Oban in a bay. It also was renown for its beauty, penguins, kiwis, and Ulva Island - a small sanctuary island off of Stewart Island where all unnatural predators have been successfully removed. It was a bit silly to make the journey all the way to New Zealand to go to another island to go to another island. We were the only ones on the bus from the Invercargill airport to the ferry terminal in Bluff. The driver was nice enough to stop at the viewpoint in Bluff that looked toward Stewart Island. As we entered the parking lot, he made a remark that the seas might be calm, but redacted that comment when we saw the white caps on the water. The saying goes that there were two ways to get to Stewart Island - either 1 hour of nauseating terror via ferry or 20 minutes of sheer hell via plane. Ready with a scopolamine patch AND non-drowsy dramamine, I boarded the ferry and grabbed a seat next to the window. As soon as the boat left the small bay at Bluff, the “terror” began. Large rolling waves dropped the boat and crashed over the top - the screams and nervous laughter followed. Shortly afterward it grew a little unnaturally quiet except for the Russian couple behind us that chatted the entire way. I kept my eyes focused on the horizon - trying to distract myself by looking for the occasional albatross and shearwater that glided between the waves. I ignored the boat crew member whose sole job was handing out cold compresses and barf bags. I ignored all the people who were getting sick around me. There was only me and the horizon and the thought that this ride was almost over - right? Finally through the wave-soaked windows I spotted land, shortly afterward the seas calmed, and everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief. As we offloaded onto the dock in the town of Oban, the wind whipped around us. We were greeted by one of the managers of the Rakiura Retreat, the place we were staying. He made several comments about how a few passengers still looked green around the gills. One ill-looking woman was a resident of Stewart Island. She must have really loved the island to put herself through the occasional toss around like that. Our host also commented how he spotted the plane landing sideways that afternoon. I guess the description about travel to Stewart Island was fairly accurate.
We spent four nights on Stewart Island. During our stay we hiked part of the Rakiura Track, took trips to Ulva Island, went on the Real Journey’s Kiwi Tour, and did a pelagic tour out to the Titi Islands. The Rakiura Track traveled along the entire coast of Stewart Island. We only hiked a small portion of it out to the Port William hut through forest, along sandy beaches, and above rocky shores. Red-crowned Parakeets squawked in the beech forest understory, Tuis powdered their foreheads with yellow harakeke pollen, and a Fiordland Crested Penguin swam along the rocky shore, pausing to give a loud screech. After a day of tramping, we hung out at the Oban dock in the evening hoping to see the Little Blue Penguin that we were told had a burrow next to the fuel tanks on the pier. It was not even dusk when I spotted our first Little Blue Penguin. It surfaced in the harbor away from the fuel tanks, then dove and resurfaced closer to the rocks. After a short swim along the shore, it ducked under the rocks. I was excited to finally see these penguins and shocked to see how blue they were. The little penguins were a bright baby blue with white eyes and light beak. The following day we went to the pier where a large crowd of birders had gathered at a chance to see the penguin. It was much later in the evening, so we weren’t sure if we’d be lucky again. But luck was on our side as we saw a Little Blue Penguin swim its way under the same rock as the day before. A few moments later, the penguin hopped up the rocks and into the crevice out of sight.
Ulva Island was off the eastern coast of Stewart Island. It’s only been a few decades since it was declared predator free. In the 1990s, several species of birds that were exasperated from other local native forests were reintroduced. The South Island Saddleback and Yellowhead populations on Ulva Island took a steady hold. Conservations efforts on the island remain strong, with monitored bait traps to ensure the occasional wayward rat was dealt with immediately. To get to the island, one could take the small ferry which left at set hours during the day or can make arrangements with private taxi companies in town. There was a series of trails, covering only a small potion of Ulva Island. We walked the trails slowly taking time to savor this little piece of what New Zealand once looked like before the destruction of man. One of the most noticeable difference was the constant songs and calls of native birds. Plants also thrived without the threat of rodents - plants could actually propagate without their seeds being decimated by rodents. The Kakas, Red-crowned Parakeets, Yellowhead, Pipipi, South Island Robin, South Island Weka, and South Island Saddleback were all common on the island. The South Island Robin was especially vociferous with their strange car alarm like song and was not shy about approaching us on the trail. They seemed to actively seek out humans to see what insects we would scare up - perhaps another bird that evolved to follow the Moa around. When the Kakas weren’t busy screeching at each other, they were feeding on sap by using their sharp beaks to peel off the bark and lap up the sticky substance underneath. The Weka on Ulva Island were a different subspecies than those we saw on the South Island. They were slightly smaller and more reddish, but they were just as inquisitive as their cousins on the South Islands None of them attacked Tor’s foot though.
During one evening of our stay on Stewart Island, we went on the Real Journey’s Kiwi Tour. It was much different than the Okarito kiwi tour. It still required quiet and patience, but those were pretty much the only things they had in common. The tour started off with a powerpoint presentation, which was actually very informative. I learned a few new things about kiwis. From there, we departed by boat out of Halfmoon Bay. Dusk was just starting to set in, but we still had enough light to see groups of Little Blue and Fiordland Crested Penguins feeding in the water. From the bay we went to Bench Island, an uninhabited island where Yellow-eyed Penguin nest. We could hear them calling from their burrows but didn’t see any. As the sun started to set, we headed to Glory Cove, southeast of Oban. Across the calm waters, we could make out distant albatross and shearwaters skimming over the surface, but it was difficult to make out any details in the waning light. By the time we arrived at Glory Cove the night’s darkness had settled in. With the guide leading, we marched through the forest armed with tiny flashlights. On the guide’s signal, we'd halt and turn off our flashlights to listen for kiwi. I was surprised the guide could distinguish anything above the noise of the tourists doodling along behind him. The woman’s gortex rain pants in front of me drowned out any possible noise from the forest. The path through the forest emptied out onto Ocean Beach - a sandy expanse with tufts of grass growing on the edge of the forest. On the beach, we walked behind our guide as he quickly shone the edge of the forest with his flashlight. We walked up and down the beach twice in this fashion, looking for any kiwi that came down to the beach to feed on the sand fleas. At the start of our third pass, we spotted a small juvenile kiwi on the edge of the grass. The guide changed to a red light so the kiwi wouldn’t be scared away. The kiwi darted back to the forest and shortly returned to feed on the beach. From a good distance away, we watched and photographed the kiwi probing the sand with its long beak. The kiwis found on Stewart Island were the Southern Brown Kiwi or Tokoeka, a different species than the ones in Okarito. On Stewart Island, the kiwi sometimes came out during the day; the only population to do so. Because of the relief from mammalian predators, the kiwis had become less fearful. Satisfied with our kiwi spotting, we hiked back to the boat and returned to the Halfmoon Bay dock close to midnight. As we were entering our room at the Rakiura Retreat, we were surprised by male and female Tokoeka calls from the bushes close by! We waited and walked to the road, hopeful to catch a glance or to hear them call again, but there was only so much luck.
Getting a mere glimpse of the pelagic birds during the kiwi tour prompted us to sign up for a pelagic tour with Rakiura Taxi. After the roller coaster of a ride across the Foveaux Strait to get to Stewart Island, I was hesitant to subject myself to that again. But the pelagic tours from Oban only go out to the Titi Islands - a set of small islands somewhat protected by Stewart Island. The waters were likely to be much calmer. We signed up for a pelagic tour with hopes to actually see the Yellow-eyed Penguin, the rarest resident penguin in New Zealand. A small motorboat with indoor and outdoor seating awaited us at the dock of a very rainy morning. But that didn’t stop us from sitting out back under the cover of the overhang. There was a French couple also on the tour who were interested in photographing the birds. Our captain/guide took us out on the waters back to Bench Island and to the Titi Islands to the north. With the help of his keen eyes and a bucket of fresh chum, we were able to get close views of Salvin’s and White-crowned Albatrosses, Cape Petrels, Sooty Shearwater, Brown Skua, and Common Diving-Petrels. We also saw more Fiordland Crested and Little Blue Penguins and a Giant Petrel from the small boat. Through radio contact, another tour operator informed our guide that there was a Yellow-eyed Penguin sighting. We rushed over in our little boat to Bench Island - and high above the rocky shore and up where the tussock met the dense scrub was one Yellow-eyed Penguin sitting out in the open. It was ridiculously far away, but we could at least see the distinctive characteristics of it. The captain dropped anchor off of Bench Island and we enjoyed some homemade chocolate cake and the warmths from some hot cocoa (although for whatever reason all the hot cocoa we had in NZ did not take like chocolate at all! - I’m not sure why NZ can’t make hot chocolate. It still baffles me). On Bench Island, we watched dozens of NZ fur seals on the rocky shore, while an army of Weka (there had to be at least 20!) were tossing around the mats of seaweed looking for bugs. Despite the rain, it was a great pelagic trip - without feeling sea sick(!) - with great views of the penguins, albatross, shags, and other tubenoses.
The ferry ride from Stewart Island was over blissfully calm seas. We could see the albatross and shearwater zip in front of the catamaran and everyone seemed in a good mood. The rest of our trip was not smooth sailing; our flight from Invercargill to Auckland (via Christchurch) was cancelled due to mechanical problems. New Zealand Air put us on a bus to Queenstown, where we caught a flight into Auckland. Thankfully we had a lot of time before our flight back to Seattle, so we arrived in Auckland with time to spare before flying home. The 40 hours of run around from New Zealand to home wasn’t the best way to end a vacation, but it at least gave us time to reflect on the trip. Stewart Island was the prefect cap (excluding the flights home) to our New Zealand trip. It would have been difficult starting from Ulva Island's prime example of New Zealand’s natural beauty to the gorse-infested shores of Lake Te Anua or to the scotch broom covered clear cuts and pine plantations surrounding Nelsons Lakes. Leaving New Zealand was bittersweet. While our trip was full of breathtaking beauty, there was always an undercurrent of loss and the struggle to save what was left. We traveled down a narrow corridor of the New Zealand’s South Island. There were so many places we missed and places it would have been nice to linger, but I think we made the best with the time we had. We came back with fun stories to tell and many (many, many) pictures to remind us of the beautiful landscape, flora and fauna, and friendly people that make up New Zealand.
Tips for visiting New Zealand: Driving:
--Get used to driving narrow roads and signage for one-lane bridges (and on the left side of the road) - many of the bridges we crossed on the west coast were only wide enough for one car (some seemed even too narrow for a truck). But know when to yield by following the arrow signs posted before the bridges.
--Learn how to use roundabouts - this is a tough one, because we came across many New Zealanders who didn’t know how to properly use these either. It’s not hard to figure out how to properly signal (use the same signals as if you were at a regular 4 way stop) or when to yield. It makes a difference when everyone knows how to use roundabouts and it’s not complicated.
--Beware speed traps - it was a couple of weeks after the trip that I got a speeding ticket from the rental company. The rental company charged me $30 NZD (~$20 USD) as an administrative fee for forwarding the ticket to me. The camera trap ticket itself was for $30 NZD. Looking at the ticket it took me a while to decipher where I got the ticket, since it captured on “Main Road.” Looking at the time and date of the ticket, I got the ticket shortly after I picked up with rental car. I had unknowingly gone 55 km/h in a 50 km/h zone - that’s 3 miles/hour over the speed limit! I’m sure all locals know about the speed traps, so these things were great ways to get money from ignorant tourists (like me) who most likely won’t contest a $20 ticket. On the New Zealand police website, you can look at where these speed traps are located.
Learn the European birds - By recognizing the European birds that live in New Zealand, one can more easily ignore them and focus on the native birds instead. There were a lot of Common Chaffinches in New Zealand - especially in the forests. After a while I learned the chaffinch’s many calls and songs, but it would have been nice to be prepared to ignore them in the first place.
Be ready for the rain - take rain pants and a good rain jacket. The west coast of the South Island is rainy (just like in Washington).
It's not tropical - yes, there are tree ferns and palms growing on the South Island. But the South Island is temperate (just like Washington). It's cold not hot and humid.