As is becoming habit, I’m using packing for a new trip as an excuse to get all nostalgic about ventures past. This time we’re hopping over the Irish sea to Dublin and thence to Connemara, but two years ago I was filling a much bigger suitcase from a trip to the other side of the world. New Zealand is just about as far east as you can go without going west, and it’s wildlife is legendary. Albatross, kakapo, penguins, wetas, takahes… Expectations were high, so when I say it didn’t disappoint, I’m trying to give the country an enormous commendation.
With only two weeks to spend there, we barely scratched the surface of all the things there is to see- but I’ve cobbled together our favourite places, in case you’re looking for recommendations. Or pretty pictures. Or both. Here they are anyhow:
I insisted on this one from the earliest days of planning our trip, because there was no way I was going all the way to New Zealand and not seeing a kea. When we arrived in Arthur’s Pass we were both still jet lagged, but I clearly remember pulling up and hearing the world’s only alpine parrot calling high over the tree ferns. We had our best views of them at the car park by the Devil’s Punch Bowl trail, just outside the village.
Keas have some of the most stunning plumage I’ve ever seen- emerald green with bold outlines on their wings, crimson red underneath. They pottered around foraging, occasionally twisting their heads to listen to the calls of other parrots overhead and giving loud ‘keeaaa’ calls in return. They’re as full of character as their reputation leads you to expect, and have quickly climbed to very near the top of my favourite birds list.
The Otago peninsula has a great reputation for marine wildlife (though you could easily say this about countless other bits of New Zealand), but number one on my list was the chance to see penguins. NZ has three species; the little blue, yellow-eyed and Fiordland crested penguin, two of which can be found in Otago. The close ups here, of a yellow-eyed penguin, were taken on a tour at Penguin Place (with a long lens of course), who do work to conserve them by restoring habitat, providing nest boxes and monitoring.
However, you can also see them for free at Sandfly Bay, if you head to the little hide at the end of the beach (skirting your way around the sleeping sea lions) about an hour before sunset. As the light was fading, we saw two yellow eyeds emerge from the sea and gingerly start to make their way up the beach leaving tiny little footprints as they went. I was amazed at how something so seemingly small and ungainly could survive in such as enormous ocean- but anyone who’s watched the chinstrap penguins on Planet Earth II hurling themselves off cliffs and into enormous waves knows they’re incredibly hardy little things.
An important note, however. Yellow eyed penguins are both endangered (there’s only around 6,000-7,000 individuals) and really sensitive to disturbance, and I was dismayed to see some tourists that had arrived after us fully ignore the hide and wander right up to one. Please, if you do go, get there in good time before sunset, and stay in the hide while the penguins are coming ashore. No photo is worth causing that much distress.
OHAU POINT, KAIKOURA
An odd one, as it’s literally on the main road on the way to Kaikoura. It’s reasonably well signposted, and there’s a teeny tiny car park just next to the road, that doesn’t make a big fuss about the fact that you are standing right next to South Island’s largest fur seal colony. When we visited in March, it was mostly populated by young pups, which gambolled across the rocks and were using the little inlets as play pools. I repeat. FUR SEAL PUP PLAY POOLS (the video captures but a fragment of how cute the scene was).
Ohau point is also the starting point of a short hike that takes you to the famous waterfall (featured on Attenborough’s Life Stories) where the pups come up to practice their swimming in fresh water. Apparently this only happens from October to November (and when we checked in March there definitely weren’t any). It’s also worth noting that Kaikoura and it’s surroundings were badly affected by the November 2016 earthquake. I don’t know how things stand for visiting these places at the moment, and would recommend getting some up to date info if you’re planning on going.
ZEALANDIA (KARORI WILDLIFE SANCTUARY), WELLINGTON
Zealandia was a bittersweet experience. The 225ha sanctuary, a short bus ride from central Wellington, is a haven for iconic species including saddlebacks, little spotted kiwis, wetas and tuataras. They’re all wild, but are pretty tame and easy to see (though for the kiwis you have to book a night tour, which we sadly didn’t have time to do). It’s also surrounded by 8.6km of pest-exclusion fence. It’s high, it has a tiny mesh size, it has a curved top to stop animals getting in, and it continues on underground, to stop things like rats and possums burrowing beneath it. Nowhere that we visited was such a stark reminder of the havoc invasive species have brought to this once-isolated island.
Inside the fence is a wonderland- though it’s not completely native at the moment, a program of tree planting means that eventually the area will be repopulated by enormous podocarps and northern rata. Most striking of all was how different it sounded to other places we’d been to. The bird song was wonderful and unfamiliar, and until you’ve heard it, it’s difficult to understand the scale of what’s been lost elsewhere. We were lucky to come across a bellbird by one of the feeders, singing enthusiastically and occasionally taking breaks to chase off unwelcome intruders. We also managed to see kākās, tuataras, cormorants, and my personal favourites- two plump takahēs, which were retired from the breeding program for this endangered bird and were mowing the grass with their enormous beaks. What a wonder and privilege to be able to hang out with a bird that was considered extinct, until its dramatic rediscovery in 1948.
So, there we have it. A bit of a mega-post. I know four places is hardly even skimming the surface of this wonderful country, but you have to start somewhere. How much are those flights again?