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New Zealand - part 1
October-November 2018

Abel Tasman National Park
    Nelson Lakes National Park (Lake Rotoiti)
    Cape Foulwind Walk
    Paparoa National Park
    Okarito (Lagoon, Trig Track)
    Fiordland National Park (Kepler Track, Milford Sound and Eglinton Valley)
    Rakiura National Park (Stewart Island, Ulva Island)


In celebration of a collective 55 years (combining a milestone anniversary and birthday), we jetted off to New Zealand with the goal of seeing kiwis and penguins. During our planning stage of researching the country, we picked places by cross referencing where to see birds and where sanctuary islands were created (more on this below). Due to time constraints, we chose to focus on the South Island - the wilder, less populated island. Drawn to the larger number of national parks and natural areas on the west coast, we decided to start at the north end of the island, road trip down the west coast, and end on the southern tip.

A little history on New Zealand - it’s pretty screwed up ecologically. The Polynesian (Maori) and stowaway rats got there first in the 1300s. Their hunting lead to extinction of the 9 species of Moa. Then of course the Europeans came around in the 1800s and unleashed a slew of non-native mammals, including rats, stoats, possums, dogs, and cats. This was an ecological disaster to the island's birds (and amphibians, reptiles, fish, plants, etc) where the only native terrestrial mammals on New Zealand were two species of bats. The competition and predation of these invasive mammals was detrimental to many native bird species. Along with human-lead habitat destruction, the introduced mammals lead to the extinction of 46 of the 115 endemic species of birds since the Maori came to New Zealand. The vanity of men also lead to the purposeful introduction of European birds in the 1860s. Of the ones that were introduced 37 species of non-native birds still thrive on the islands - likely competing directly or indirectly for food and nesting habitat. Of the 168 species of birds that regularly occur on New Zealand only 20% of them are not at risk of extinction and 37 of them are at high risk of extinction in the near future. It’s a devastating truth that the government and many conservation groups recognize and are trying to take corrective actions. One of the things they are doing was creating sanctuary islands by identifying the best landscapes to support wildlife and removal of invasive mammals through bait traps and physical barriers. Mammal control was common throughout the island; bait boxes dotted many of the trails we traveled. Still it’s an uphill battle with the ultimate losers being the native birds along with the other flora and fauna of New Zealand.

Traveling to New Zealand
It’s a long flight or many flights to get to New Zealand. We flew Hawaiian Air through Honolulu into Auckland and arrived pretty late at night so getting through customs wasn’t too bad. We declared our hiking boot and food (candy), which we’re supposed to do, if we don’t and get caught it’s a hefty fine. We were aware of the regulations ahead of time, so we scrubbed and dried our boots before packing. The customs officer checked that our threads were clean and dry and we were on our way. Despite having a really short amount of time in Auckland, we stayed the night at the Novotel Auckland Airport Hotel, which was literally across the street from the international terminal. We got a few hours of shut eye before catching a flight to the Nelson on the South Island. We were somewhat surprised at the state of the domestic flight terminal - at least with Jet Star (the cheapo domestic New Zealand airline). There was no security to go through and we just waited in a little portable for the shuttle to take us out on the tarmac. It was a short flight to Nelson where we picked up our rental car and headed out to our first destination.

Abel Tasman National Park, Awaroa Lodge
Abel Tasman was the most visited national park on the South Island. We thought it would make a good first stop, being close to Nelson and reportedly very beautiful. We decided to stay at the Awaroa Lodge because of its remote location within the Abel Tasman National Park, only reachable by foot, boat or air. The lodge was also located along the Coast Track (a trail that ran north-south along the length of the national park's coast) that gave us more hiking options as well. The downside to the lodge was the expense - it’s definitely not for the budget traveler especially when you start factoring in meals. To tamp down the cost a little, we made a stop in Motueka at the New World grocery store to stock up on breakfast and lunch provisions.
We walked around the small town of Kaiteriteri and spotted the first birds of the trip - Variable Oystercatchers and Pied Stilts poked along the mudflats and in the nearby beech trees forests Tui and Bellbirds sang loudly, while a flock of Silvereyes gleaned the canopy. From Kaiteriteri, we took the Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle north along the national park watching for Spotted and Pied Shags and New Zealand fur seals. At Awaroa Beach, the catamaran dropped us off on a sandy beach littered with smooth purple and white clam shells and mollusk shells encrusted with barnacles. After a short walk through the woods along the sandy path, we were at the lodge grounds, which was perched along an open marsh and young rimu forest.
We spent the next few days hiking or I should say tramping the Coastal Track, enjoying beach strolls, feeding the tame eels, and glowworm watching in the stream bank. A really nice thing about the tracks of New Zealand were that they were very well taken care of (at least the ones we tramped during our trip). The Abel Tasman Coastal Track was no exception. The track was wide and flat with built in channels to keep the water from eroding the path. Foot bridges and boardwalks were well maintained, keeping our shoes dry from the salt water and mud. The Coastal Track crossed several beautiful sandy beaches, over hillocks of black and red beech trees, and through brackish marshes thick with flax. Black beech trees dripped with honeydew from the aphids burrowed into the bark that was encrusted with a honeydew-fed black fungus. Many birds, including Tui and Bellbirds, feed off the honeydew. Competition from non-native bumblebees, wasps, and possums have been detrimental to those bird populations. Between the dark trunks of the beech, grew tree ferns and epiphytic vines. Everywhere in between, ground ferns of every shape and size blanketed the surface. On the track, we came across many families of Weka feeding next to the path. Wekas are large rails that were hard to find everywhere else in the country except for the West Coast of the South Island. Instead of scratching with their feet like chickens, Weka used their large strong bills to search the deadfall and brush for food. When one of the parents happened upon some tasty morsel, they gave a high “come and get it” call to the chicks. These large rails weren’t shy around humans and were in fact quite bold upon our approach. One particularly curious Weka approached us, looking up at us and searching the grounds near our feet. It took a particular interest in Tor’s neon green shoelace and delivered a quick and hard peck to the top of his shoe. Tor moved in surprise, which caused the Weka to step away, but it still continued its search nearby for food. Perhaps co-evolving with Moas (and our resemblance to large lumbering animals) has lead them to inquisitive behavior.
One morning we took a water taxi north to Totaranui. From there we hiked back south along the Coastal Track through some of the more impressive forest that we saw at Abel Tasman. There were some impressively large trees in seemingly more intact forest. Nikua palms, supplejack vines, and tall tree ferns grew in the dense understory of the forest, giving the temperate forest a deceptive feeling of the tropics. If it weren’t for the cooler temperatures and the lack of a constantly buzzing cicada, I would have thought we were in the rainforest of South America. Along one of the sandy beaches, we spotted tracks from the forest leading down into the water. From the short strides and appearance of flipper marks halfway down the beach, we knew they were made by a Little Blue Penguin. There were several such tracks traversing the beach. It would have been such a treat to see them during their dawn trek across the beach to the ocean or their dusk return to their burrows on land. The Little Blue Penguin spends all of the day out fishing and returns to land for the evenings. Being of a smaller size they were more vulnerable than their larger cousins. We timed our hike to cross Awaroa Bay during low tide (the only time it was crossable without swimming). The mudflat expanse was larger than I expected. With many streams of water flowing out of the bay, we still had to take our shoes off to cross the bay during low tide, even then the water would go above our shins. I’d highly recommend tevas or sandals to cross the bay unless you have hardened and callused feet. The broken shells and sharp rocks along the bay floor could be pretty brutal to sensitive bare feet.
When we weren’t tramping the track there was more entertainment closer to the lodge. The Awaroa beach was often lined with pairs of Variable Oystercatchers spaced evenly down the length of sandy waterfront. At the bay entry, a small sandy area was marked off to protect nesting oystercatchers and Banded Dotterel (or Double-banded Plover). Next to one of the protected area signs was a Banded Dotterel’s nest with 3 eggs in the crook of a driftwood branch. A large flock of South Island Oystercatchers gathered in the evening to roost and two Australasian Gannets dove in the flat waters during a slack tide. From the beach, we could see Spotted and Pied Shags convening on the rocky shores. Below the dining area of the lodge was a small platform over the marsh where the “tame” eels crowded together waiting for handouts from the staff. On the stagnant waters of the marsh, a layer of scum formed either from the density of the eels or from the meat that was fed to them. The longfin eels didn’t seem to mind as they eagerly waited for their feeding each morning. A small cove near the lodge was our first introduction to the glowworms. At night, the glowworms fluoresced in the tall bank above a babbling stream. Glowworms were a nicer way of saying fluorescent maggot. These maggots created sticky threads that hang down like a curtain. In the dark, the glowing maggots sat above their sticky threads, which trap the attracted insects.
We had a nice time at the lodge and tramping the Abel Tasman National Park. It was a great introduction to the ecology of the island, to the birds, and to the plant life. After 3 nights at the lodge, we packed up and left via the same catamaran we took in. At Kaiteriteri, we picked up the rental car and headed south to our next stop.

Nelson Lakes National Park, Lake Rotoiti
The Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project drew us to Nelson Lakes National Park. This project, which started only 20 years ago in the late 1990s, comprised of 5000 hectares of forest on Lake Rotoiti where predator trapping was extensively managed. The results in this relatively short period were noticeable - native bird numbers increased, plant communities were restored, and a population of Great Spotted Kiwi were successful reintroduced to the area. We stayed in a house in the small town of St Arnaud, just a short distance walk to Lake Rotoiti and the many tracks that lead into the tall beech forest. Lake Rotoiti is surrounded on three sides by tall snow-capped mountain ranges. On the lake’s blue water, New Zealand Scaup and Black-billed Gulls picked along the edges. In the forest, Grey Warblers filled the silver and red beech canopy with their sweet song. Thick carpets of moss and ferns blanketed the ground between the beech tree buttresses. While tramping up the St Arnaud track, we heard the distinctive screech of a parrot. Searching the canopy, we spotted the Kaka walking along the dark branches of the beech trees and lapping up the honeydew. The Kaka was one of the birds to benefit from the intensive efforts to remove predators. Without the possum and wasps in the forest, there was less competition for the honeydew. Just as we reached the transition from forest to open alpine scrub, the clouds veiled us in a thick mist and dashed any hopes of a view from the top. We briefly enjoyed the different environment at the transition before retreated down the mountain when the rain finally set in. On the non-rainy evening, we made an attempt at spotting a kiwi in the forest - which we now know was a very naive thing to do. In our ignorance, we walked the easy tracks not really taking much effort to be quiet or keep our headlamp lighting to a minimum. As we were gabbing away during a brief stop, there was a sudden crash in the brush behind us. From how loud it was we thought it was a deer that had somehow made it into the sanctuary. A short search with our headlamps was fruitless, so we moved on without much more thought to it. After two days at Lake Rotoiti amid the song of Bellbirds and Tui, we were ready to move onwards out to the West Coast.

Cape Foulwind Walk
Our first stop on the coast was at Westport’s Cape Foulwind Walk. As we got out of the car, our friend the Weka showed up eagerly awaiting any handouts. We walked the breezy track above the steep coastal cliffs. Waves pounded the rock formations offshore, White-fronted Terns screamed at each other while landing on their nests, Eurasian Skylarks sang high above the sheep pastures, and the wind tugged at the flowering harakeke (New Zealand flax) and cabbage trees. We followed the wide track out to the viewing platform of the colony of New Zealand fur seals, which were sunbathing on the rocks below. Young fur seals scrambled along the rocks in their clumsy fashion, while bigger males and females settle disputes with quick nips and a roar. The smell was pretty horrendous. I could only think to describe it as rotten seafood chowder. After the quick, yet enjoyable walk along this track we loaded back into the car to head south down the coastline.

Paparoa National Park
We stayed in a beach house near Fox River just north of the Paparoa National Park. The house was also within walking distance of a a man-made glowworm cave - an old abandoned tunnel carved through the hillside. I don’t know its original purpose but about midway into the cave, we could see several glowworms starting to shine in the waning sunlight. Unfortunately recent damage to the riverbank washed out the trail to the cave so access was a bit precarious during daylight hours, we didn’t think it was a good idea to see how it would be in the dark. So we never got to witness the full glowworm experience of that tunnel.
Paparoa National Park was most famous for the blowholes and pancake rocks - a roadside attraction that many tourist buses stop at. As touristy as it was, Pancake Rocks was well worth the stop. This short loop trail lead to strange limestone cliffs formed from uplift, time, waves, and weather. During high tide, large waves crash loudly through the blowholes and punch bowl. Many White-fronted Terns nested on the ice plant-covered cliffs, New Zealand fur seals laid on the rocks below, and a small pod of the endangered and endemic Hector’s dolphins past by the limestone cliffs. Scoping out into the transition zone offshore, I could spot several pelagic birds gliding over the waters. I could discern Fluttering Shearwater and White-capped Albatross, but there were also other indecipherable species in the far distance.
In addition to the Pancake Rocks, the park also had some great tracks with amazing scenery. We tramped the Truman Track, a very short track through dense beech and palm forest to a fine pebble beach surrounded by limestone cliffs. We noticed several sets of Little Blue Penguin tracks across the pebbly rocks and returned to the beach at dusk to try to catch a glimpse of them. The beach however was busy with people exploring the limestone cliffs and even sitting to meditate on the rocks. Little Penguins were very skittish, at any sign of danger on the beach, they won’t come out of the water. We stood on the platform that overlooked the beach, hoping the penguins would show up in the small cove (and that the people would get off the beach). As we waited I scoped the waters and could see the same pelagic birds as we saw at Pancake Rocks, but perhaps a little closer. At sunset three Australasian Gannets flew south over the ocean. And alas night fell without a sign of the penguins - we trekked through the forest to the sounds of a Morepork calling in the distance and the bright Milky Way sparking above. During the day, we tramped along the Paparoroa River - a beautiful river surrounded by dense forest of rimu, kiekie, flax and beech. White sheer cliffs stood over the forest on either side of the river bank. The track was damaged during the cyclone that went though a year ago and repairs were still underway, so we couldn’t go very far on the track. The glimpse into the natural beauty of Paparoa was awe inspiring.
Continuing our southward journey down the West Coast, we stopped at Hokitika for a bit of shopping. Hokitika was known for its jade carving and art galleries. The jade or greenstone washed down rivers and was found on the beach in the area. The carvings can be fairly intricate and expensive. We were just looking for the “souvenir” grade greenstone, of which there was plenty from the leftover cuttings.

Okarito, Okarito Lagoon, Okarito Kiwi Tour
Okarito, which was once a booming gold mining town and now a tiny community, was on my list of places to see as it had the largest intact wetland in New Zealand. Not only did it have a great opportunity for seeing some wetland birds and doing some kayaking, the town also had a Kiwi Tour with a 98% chance of seeing a kiwi. We were very lucky with the weather so far in the trip. However, our first downpour of rain fell on the day of our arrival to Okarito, which was the same evening of our scheduled kiwi tour. Due to the rain, the tour was canceled due and rescheduled for the following evening. Despite the continued rain, the next day we ventured out to kayak on the Okarito Lagoon. During our visit, the lagoon was completely cut off from the ocean, so the water level was fairly high. Occasionally, the sandbar breaks open, allowing all the water to drain into the ocean and leaving behind extensive mudflats. We were outfitted at the kayak shop and sent out onto the lagoon in our double sea kayak. Following the channel markers, we paddled up the lagoon past the many, many Black Swans floating on the water. We turned up the Okarito River and paddled up the slow moving river past tall rimu and kahikatea trees. We also paddled up the Tidal Creek trail, which was a narrow little fern gully. Along the edge of the marsh were thick mats of a reddish rush. Through the cloudy sky, we could catch glimpses of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. A Royal Spoonbill fed on the edge of the marsh, a pair of Pipipi squeaked/sang while creeping the foliage of a rimu, and a White Heron sat forlorn on a snag over the water. Regardless of the constant drizzle, it was a beautiful area to explore by kayak. That evening the rain continued and we were rained out of the kiwi tour for a second time.
The following day the weather looked clear and promising. We spent the morning at Franz Josef Glacier and in the town just a 20 minute drive away, but returned in the afternoon to walk one of the tracks that started from the town. The Okarito Trig Walk started on a boardwalk traversing the wetlands and up through the forest to the top of a small hill with a 300 degree view of the Okarito Lagoon, the mountains (on a clear day), Franz Josef Glacier, and Three-mile Lagoon. There was also a track that continued to Three-mile Lagoon and a beach walk to Five-mile beach, but we ran out of time for those.
On our last and final night at Okarito, the kiwi gods smiled down on us and we had clear weather to go on the tour. We met up at the Kiwi Tour Center - which was basically the owner's basement converted into the meeting place. The 2 tour guides, Ian and Mike, gave us a run down of the Okarito kiwi (or Rowi), the rarest kiwi of the 5 species found in New Zealand. The Rowi were limited to the Okarito area and through a lot of conservation efforts had a stable but small population, mainly limited by suitable habitat. Kiwis were territorial and pairs generally kept to a patch of bush. They were nocturnal, emerging shortly after dusk to feed. The guides also drilled into us how we were going to successfully see a kiwi, explaining that while they (the guides) have many opportunities to see kiwis, this was likely our once in a lifetime chance of seeing one. In order not to waste it, we better follow their instructions - this included keeping noise to virtually nothing (no fidgeting, no Gortex, no wandering off, no talking, etc). We were teamed up with Mike and 4 German tourist. We loaded into the van and drove down the road a bit just past the edge of town. There we unloaded, donned our reflective safety vest and mosquito hats and marched out to where Mike had tracked a radio-tagged kiwi. BZ was a radio-tagged bachelor kiwi with a son that hadn’t yet established a territory of his own so stuck around dad’s territory. Mike was able to track BZ on one side of the road and knew the kiwi would cross the road in order to get to his girlfriend across the stream (crossing the road was the only way to get to her, because kiwis can’t swim) or to go to his favorite burrow. The best chance for us to see the kiwi was when it would make this crossing. Going into the bush wasn’t feasible because we would only end up making a lot of noise and scaring it off. Also it’s really difficult to see in the bush without any light. So the Germans and we lined up shoulder to shoulder on the road waiting for the kiwi to cross while Mike, our guide, continued to triangulate the kiwi. Occasionally Mike would signal for us to move down the road some, then we would march quietly as possible and get back in formation. Then he would sign for us to move back again. So it went for an hour or so - quietly waiting, marching up the road, quietly waiting, quietly waiting, marching back down, marching a little more, quietly waiting. Thankfully the mosquitoes weren’t horrendous so waiting in the dark with the occasional buzzing mosquito wasn’t torturous. Finally the first signs of the kiwi as it got closer - we could hear it crunching around in the bush. Then less than 20 feet away it LOUDLY called out! Kiwi calls weren’t the most beautiful thing, but they certainly were distinctive. It continued to rustle around in the bush - kiwis weren’t very stealthy and were rather large and heavy (their bones weren’t hollow like other birds). After a few more minutes of waiting and bush rustling, BZ popped out of the bush next to Mike, who switched on his red light so we could see the kiwi. The kiwi took a few tentative steps toward us, before running back into the bush. Since it didn’t go crashing off into the bush, Mike knew BZ was still planning on crossing the road. We stood silently and still for a few more moments before BZ reappeared. This time the Rowi began crossing the road and started to run right toward our group. BZ stepped on Tor’s foot and glanced off his leg. Despite being nocturnal, kiwi’s don’t have great night vision (about as good as we do), instead they relied mostly on their other senses. BZ continued into the bush on the other side of the road, loudly crashing through the forest. It was a pretty amazing encounter with our first kiwi! Although in light of what we learned this night, the crashing through the forest that we heard at Nelson Lakes was most likely a kiwi (different species) as well.

Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast Wildlife Center
Franz Josef town and the trails surrounding it were much busier than the small town of Okarito - part of the reason we choice Okarito over Franz Josef. Franz Josef thrived on tourism - with a lot of backpackers and tourists wandering everywhere. There were a lot of hostels, helicopter operations, and souvenir shops. Outside of town, we went to the large parking lot for the glacier walk. The trail started off through the forest. After rounding a hill, we beheld a large glacier spilling from the top of a mountain valley. We tramped closer following the open glacier valley filled with glow-orange and light green lichen covered rocks, waterfalls running the height of the mountains, and smooth ice worn boulders. At the end of the trial, we could see the blue craggy ice of the glacier. Helicopters constantly buzzed around, following the mountain range and over the glacier. A few of the helicopters actually landed on the glacier. As annoying as the helicopters were to the experience of the “wild” it still gave us a sense of scale as to how large the glacier was. The views along the track were amazing both toward the glacier and down the valley. It was a very rewarding walk for little effort.
In the town of Franz Josef, we stopped at the West Coast Wildlife Center - a center that worked to conserve two species of kiwis through education and by rearing chicks to release into the wild. They also worked with Tuatara, a prehistoric pre-reptile. We paid for the self-guided tour to see the kiwis and the tuatara along with the backstage pass to see the kiwi rearing operations. In the nocturnal house, they had two juvenile Rowi on display. Though they were 10 months old, they were only about half the size of the adult we saw in the wild. We could watch the kiwis closely - one of them probed the ground for food and the other one was running back and forth in the enclosure. It would pause occasionally to probe or look up the walls of the enclosure, but it was much more active than the other one. The wildlife center also had displays on glacier - including some fake glaciers - and a room with the Tuatara, which looked fake. Maybe it was the lighting, the fake plants in the display, the fact that they barely moved, or maybe they are just very odd prehistoric creatures and it’s hard to imagine them living somewhere in New Zealand in the wild. For the backstage tour, we were taken downstairs to the rooms where they received eggs, incubated them, and reared them up. The wildlife center received eggs collected by the DOC (Department of Conservation). Due to unnatural predation by rats and stoats, young chicks in the wild had a low chance of making it to adulthood. So eggs were collected, the young were reared until a year old, and then released with a much better chance of making it in the wild. At the center, they raised two species of kiwi, the Rowi and the Haast Tokoeka (a population of the Southern Brown Kiwi). The Rowi were more tolerant of humans so we were only able to see those on display. They had 3 baby kiwis in the incubators. One of them was only 3 days old. Though they were mostly sleeping when we saw them, but were very cute and slightly awkward. We learned a lot about the kiwi on the backstage tour, and it was worth it just to be able to take a (crappy) picture (something we weren’t able to do on the Okarito tour or in the nocturnal house).

Monro Beach Walk
Heading south along the coast, we stopped for the Monro Beach Walk just north of Haast. We had read the beach had a small colony of Fiordland Crested Penguins. And unlike the Little Blue Penguin, the Crested Penguins travel to and from their burrows during the day. The trail out to the beach meandered through some gorgeous forest thick with tree ferns, tall rimus, and spreading fuchsia trees, blanketed in small ferns, lichen, epiphytes, and club moss. We came out on a sandy pocket beach surrounded by rocky cliffs and waves crashing against the rock heads just offshore. The east end of the beach was closed off for the penguins, so they wouldn’t feel threatened by humans. I sat on the rocks for half an hour watching the waves hit the beach and hoping a penguin would come ashore. My efforts went sadly unrewarded, as we still had several hours of driving head and not enough time in the day.

Hasst Pass
Through Haast Pass, which traversed Mt. Aspiring National Park, we made several stops at viewpoints, which overlooked beautiful waterfalls and cold, crystal clear waters. While the Fantail and Thunder Creek falls were beautiful, the Blue Pools was the most impressive (and most popular) stop along the pass. The short walk down through tall beech forest lead across 2 bridges to the unnaturally clear blue waters of the Makarora river. It was well worth the stop and short hike to get there.

The only reason we stay here was I didn’t want to drive through the night to get to our next destination. I also didn’t want to stay in Queenstown - a much bigger and busier town to the south. So we stopped in Wanaka for the night. It’s a cute little town for adventurers, but everything closes up at 5 PM so unless you're into drinking there’s not a whole lot to do. We did have a really good dinner of lamb shoulder at one of the restaurants.

Crown Summit Range
From Wanaka to Queenstown, we drove over the Crown Summit Range. The mountains were covered with open fields of flax and tussocks. The blades of brown grass were crusted over with a layer of frost and ice. It was pretty windy and cold at the top, so despite the beautiful views we didn’t spend much time up there.

continue onto part II




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