Wednesday, December 30, 2009

NZ Sth Island - Pt 7 Wanaka to Glacier Country and Okarito

Day 15 (Sunday 29 November)

Surprise surprise I'm up for sunrise! The sky is painted with colour and the first rays of the sun shine pink across the snowy ranges beyond the lake.

By 8:30 am we are on the road again. This time, as I believe is entirely predictable, we are off across the pass and down to the West Coast and Glacier Country. We have a booking for a heli flight grand tour with snow landing at 3:30 this afternoon (weather permitting) and we expect that this should give us ample time for stopping and exploring along the way.

Somehow I was expecting this drive to be more involving of winding roads with precipitous drops, but in the main I find the road far less hair raising than I had anticipated given some of the reports I have read. Now the drive up the mountain at Mt Kaputar National Park in NSW - THAT is hair raising. The road is however is quite exciting territory with interesting winding sections and bridges over white water. But lets not get ahead of ourselves.

We started by heading out along the lakes past beautiful views that we are completely taking for granted by now. Soon enough we're travelling among beautiful beech forest. Our first stop is at the Blue Pools. We read the signs and it seems interesting so we decide to give it a go. A decision we do not regret.

As we meander down the forest path we come to a large tree the ground around which is covered in fallen bright yellow honeycomb structured balls reminiscent of 1970's christmas decorations. The fallen balls extend to the other side of the path. There must be hundreds of them. We are puzzled as to what they are. Are they a fruit? A fungus fruiting perhaps but there are SO many. They are growing all over the tree in positions many of which would not be inconsistent with fruit of the tree itself, but we end up concluding that they must be fungi fruit. They are textured like fungi. Squooshy but firm. Yeah, we're pretty sure they're fungi. Hmm. Nifty aren't they.

The path is gently sloping heading downward to a suspension bridge that takes you out over a braided river unsullied by any obvious weeds. In the clear water below you can observe trout swimming in the stream. The water is not as crystal clear today as the signage by the road would have us expect. However as our eyes adjust to the task we see more and more large fish riding the currents. We bounce across the first long bridge admiring the beautiful blue of the water. Not unusual in our travels so far, but we have not become in the least blase about the intense aquatic colours in so many of the beautiful watercourses and lakes.

A short gravel path around the edge of the hillside and we come to another suspension bridge over the blue pools themselves. Today the river is more blue and more striking than the pools which are quite turbid with comparatively dull colour and low visibility. I am enticed to explore a little further along the path which causes Daughter some consternation. I just wanted a quick squizz... We are simply blown away by all the parks infrastructure virtually everywhere we have been. I know that tourism is a major industry in New Zealand and they certainly don't seem to take that for granted. Virtually everywhere we've been you couldn't ask for better maintained tracks, bridges and facilities in general. It really is very impressive. Virtually everywhere has secure boxes for people to make a donation towards the provision of better infrastructure. I can only assume that many people donate generously as I can't imagine a country of 5 million people or so could cheerfully afford infrastructure on such a scale otherwise, especially as I would imagine in such an extreme climate the maintenance required must be considerable. Here the suspension bridges appear quite new attracting yet another round of admiring comment.

My quick foray completed, Daughter and I hurry back to let the others know there's no need to go further than the first bridge. By the time we get back, Sis is already heading back. She's doing her best to be stoic, but she's suffering a bit of pain and is having a bit of a struggle to stay engaged in the activities.

Mum too is looking a bit strained, but she seems to be enjoying herself. We help her spot the trout which she had not been able to see by herself, but she gets the hang of it with some pointers and is quite excited to see the fish there. I'm often surprised at what she can see. Her eyes aren't that flash either really. Cataracts and a few other problems. I think she's keen to see what she can while she still can, as her father went blind from cataracts for a time.

It doesn't take long to take our fill of the river and we head back to the car. It's all uphill this time, though luckily not too steep. I can't believe I'm typing that. Before we left home a slope like this would have been a major drama at least and more likely impossible without a great deal of time in which to cover it. It is again when we get home, but adrenaline can work miracles can't it. Like that Turk in the battles for the Dardanelles who was lifting absolutely massive shells into the artillery guns. They tried to get him to repeat the feat for the photographers after the battle but he simply couldn't lift them. They did get photos but they are staged with dummy shells. Fortunately someone is on our side and mum's uphill trek is punctuated by some first class birdwatching. Birdwatching is the perfect hobby for someone like mum. Having to stop frequently she can use the breaks to both catch her breath and look for birds. First up some twittering alerts us to the presence of someone new. Someone we haven't seen or heard before. We look up and scan around the trees in the direction from which the call has come. There are several smallish birds foraging in the trees nearby and they are conveniently making their way closer. Mohua!! YES!!!!! And there are at least three of them. We work on giving ourselves a respectable dose of birdwatchers neck as we admire these lovely creatures. God bless them they are in no particular hurry to move away. An active looking middle aged couple approaches on their way to the river and look questionly at us. They have bins around their necks. "Yellowheads" we say. At which they stop and give a look through their bins for a minute or two before heading off down the path. Not very friendly really.
We continue to watch until the Mohua's foraging takes them beyond range. Mohua! Well! How about that!! That was worth the stop!
Breath regained we head on. Daughter is photographing close ups of pretty fern foliage. Collecting potential home decor. Sis has been keen to capture the trees in the beech forest. She wants to be able to show "the girls" (her grand-daughters aged 7 and 5) that it was so cold even the trees all wore jumpers. She did get some shots of this in Fiordland, however we find the forest here has some good candidates and daughter and I snap some shots as backups in case sis's photos don't turn out or get lost.

As we continue slowly along the path we spot some movement off in the bushes. A tiny bird flitting quickly here and there. Absolutely silent. We wait and watch patiently as it works its way closer to us. Gasp. Is this a rifleman??? It has a very sharp pointy and slightly upturned bill, a bit like a varied sitella. It is working the trees in a way that seems consistent with similar sorts of species at home. We are almost holding our breath as the bird gets closer and closer to the path. It perches but not long enough to get a shot of it. It flies across the path between daughter and I. It can't have been more than a metre and a half away from me. And yet it was so silent no sooner had it gone than I was wondering if I had imagined it.
"That WAS the bird wasn't it? Not an insect or something?"
"yeah, that was definitely the bird". It perches again on the far side of the path. Daughter manages a quick portrait. It's not got the green we have seen illustrated for the male rifleman. If it is a rifleman maybe it is a juvenile or a female? TICK TICK TICKETY TICK!!!! You can see I'm not a twitcher I'm sure. I'm not sure my identification has been competent enough for someone who keeps lists, but whatever bird this is I haven't seen one before and it is absolutely BRILLIANT! I'm persuaded by the intense silence of this little darling that a rifleman is a definite possibility. I think I've read/heard that that's why they got the name..

I'm walking on air as we head back to the car. I would have been very disappointed to head home without seeing mohua and a rifleman. I'm not absolutely sure it's a rifleman, but sure enough to be pretty damn chuffed just the same. Please say it's a rifleman Zappers.. (fingers and toes all crossed). Daughter thinks maybe it was a rock wren or something judging from the illustrations in our field guide.

My euphoria is interrupted by a sweet little brown bird (LLB) daintily skipping about foraging on the path ahead. None of us are especially interested in disturbing it, so we proceed extra slowly and it doesn't seem too fussed by having us nearby. No idea what he might be and mum still has the field guide for photo comparison.

I stop for a quick look at the information boards again and as is fairly typical for me, snap a picture to read it later. Had we paid closer attention we would have seen the advice about sandflies. Apparently Black, red and blue clothing seems to attract more attention than white, green and yellow. The signage confirms that some people seem more attractive to the sandflies than others. This is certainly consistent with our experience. Daughter is at this stage progressively collecting a large embellishment of desperately itchy bites. She says they're getting her even through her clothing, though I have to say her clothes are quite lightweight compared to mine. I, albeit more comprehensively covered up, have no bites whatsoever. Occassionally I've caught one having a bit of a go at my hand, but a quick splat and that's the end of the argument. No bite. No itch. Nothing. Neither of us are fond of covering ourselves in toxic chemicals, so for now daughter is preferring the bites, though she may live to regret it.

Down through Haast Pass and some pretty dramatic white water and our next stop is Fantail falls. Sis and daughter are waterfalled out. That is NEVER going to happen to Mum. We pull over and she and I hop out to take in the sights. the signage informs us that the road through from Otago to Haast was only opened in 1960. Gosh, it's not much older than I am. It's only a very short path to the viewing area for the falls which are situated across a pristine creek. There is the usual grey stone providing a sort of braiding effect and as we are finding more and more frequently people have erected stone cairns from some of the larger rocks. The water is absolutely crystal clear. Mum is a bit restricted in getting down from the made path due to the rocky surface of the creek surrounds and decides to rely on her zoom. I wander across to enjoy the water and the rocks as the water sparkles and quivers around them. It is an idyllic spot and the falls are particularly lovely. Mum and I are both very glad we made the effort. We tell the others they're really missing out, but we are unable to raise any enthusiasm.

In almost no time at all we are pulling up at Thunder Creek Falls. Fantail Falls were so good Mum and I are keen to have a look at these ones as well. Again it's only a short walk and the river and falls are pretty, but if we had to award a winner Fantail Falls would win hands down. Thunder Creek Falls is more a straight up down job, whereas the Fantail Falls are arrayed like lace across a tastefully scaled rock outcrop.

By now it's coming on for 11:30. We head past ..was it Roaring Billy Falls? Something Billy Falls anyway. According to my trip plan we'll need to be a bit business like from here so we give these a miss.

An hours passing finds us on the west coast marvelling at the vegetation along the road. A Japanese master gardener could not hope to do a better job of sculpting the shrubs and trees. It is simply extraordinary. Natures defence against apparently consistent and powerful westerly winds off the ocean. This demands a stop.

We can really feel the change in climate which is reflected in the forest now showing greater diversity and density of plantlife. It is bright and clear and the ocean is a rich sparkling blue in flashes at the occassional lookout lay by. Along the way southern rata are flowering sporadically. South Island Christmas Bush. It's flowers are a bright shining red. The occassional bush with a larger density of flowers absolutely glowing. What beautiful trees, although the peak of flowering is some way off I expect. I think Hubby and I should be in Northland when the pohutukawa is in flower and these southern rata are really sharpening my anticipation for that floral display.

Knights Point is a more substantial lookout and we chose this to take a short break. It's a beautiful spot and there's rata about, but we don't really manage any shots that do it justice. We wander across to the lookout shelter and admire the ocean views. A quick comfort stop at the local facilities which are OK but not quite up to the usual kiwi standard, and we are on our way. Actually, thinking about it the toilets on the west coast were not as impressive as on the eastern side of the south island. However we find that here on the west coast they are more inclined to give motorists advance warning of slower speeds ahead and the signs graduate from 100 down to say 70 before finally hitting a 50 zone. Ah. That's easier to manage. Thankyou west coast roads authority.
Another little quirk of the west coast administration is revealed when we come to the first of the "boob" signs. We have a similar sign at home that means "dip". This is where the road dips noticeably as it crosses a swale in the landscape and where periodically, if we're lucky enough to get rain, the water will cross the road. Go too fast across a dip and you're quite likely to become airborne. We slow and drive carefully. Nothing. We've got no freakin' clue what these boob signs are on about. We brainstorm, we watch the road environment for hazards. We draw a blank. We check the road atlas page that lists the road signs and what they mean. No joy. It's a complete mystery. We keep our eyes open for generously busted young women on the roadside... no... none to speak of. That can't be it... and surely warning of them would only further distract any virile young men who happen to be passing. None the less the frequency of the signs suggests that the roads authority seems particularly keen that we should be looking out for stray boobs. We resolve to do our best.

Having been travelling through forest for a while, it's clearly time for another sojourn along the ocean and this has thoughtfully been provided at Maori Beach. The most striking feature here is the illustrated rocks stacked along the beach. Tourists have left their names, or a message to mark their passing. The dry wall of messages stretches a considerable way and where something on a lesser scale might look a bit tacky, this has reached the proportions of something of a minor spectacle. A quick inventory of our gear in the car reveals that we simply don't have the wherewithall to participate in this modern tradition. We stop and manage a portrait that I have to say is quite misleadingly flattering of the general beach environment. We're happy to move along to Fox Glacier fairly smartly.

First on the order of business now we have arrived in Fox is to check into our accommodation at the Rainforest Motel. We're a bit uneasy about this after Rakiura Retreat as it does not appear to be a Qualmark property and with the high rainfall on the west coast this could be another disaster. Our fears are completely unfounded and we find that the Rainforest Motel is conveniently situated, clean, comfortable and homey. Perusing the little information folder provided we are deeply impressed at the thoughtfulness and friendliness of the hosts. We unanimously vote this the best information folder we've ever seen and we feel very welcome. Not only clean and comfortable, but at a very reasonable rate. We're more than happy with our choice for tonight's accommodation.

I was supposed to ring Ian of Okarito Kiwi Tours last night. The lost night of fatigue in Wanaka. Oops. I realise the oversight and am anxious to ring asap. Poor Ian was wondering if were going to show after all. Details confirmed, we head up the road to check with Alpine Adventures as to the status of our intended grand tour. We pull up in the car park and there is a Kereru sitting in a tree in the carpark. We see Kereru a lot. They're all over the place. We thought they were supposed to be harder to see than that. Maybe we are just overflowing with good luck!

The weather has been blowing up some cloud and it's looking decidedly iffy for our flight. The advice is that there is a band of cloud obscuring the lower parts of the glacier, but it's clear up top around Aoraki and such and the top of the glacier with all the craggy stuff you want to see is also OK. It's up to us or we can leave it and see what the weather does. Forecast for tomorrow is also a bit iffy. Having never done this sort of thing before it's a tough decision but it's mainly the glaciers we want to explore. We are advised to leave the decision until right before flight time and see how things evolve. We amuse ourselves in the cafe with a snack that included a pretty average milkshake for me. Sis and Daughter sampled the toasted sandwiches and thought they were quite nice. By the time the flight is scheduled to go conditions have worsened and there's no flying. It might open up again, and we can hang around if we like. They can call us on our mobiles, although once you get beyond the township reception can be unreliable.
..Us hang around doing nothing? .. doesn't sound likely does it. We need to be up at Okarito for the kiwi tour tonight so Sis is is keen to head towards Okarito. Daughter is massively keen to head to a Glacier for a look. Mum's in favour of visiting the Glacier too, although I warn her it involves walking and she wouldn't be able to go right to the glacier. Consensus reached we opt to go north to Franz Joseph Glacier.
It's quite a long drive into the carpark from the turn off and the road follows the path of the river running off from the glacier which lies across a very broad braided river bed. Some kilometres out from the carpark we pass a sign that says this is where the glacier came to in 1750. My God! Really. I must have been huge. I had no idea it had retreated such a long distance in that time. The glaciers advance and retreat according to the snow fall high up in the mountains. We park and climb out of the car. The weather is very dull and sort of threatening. We um and ah as to whether to take our brollies (those of us that have one) but in the end decide we'll risk it as we are with our coats. There is a pair of kea in the carpark. Just hanging out. Plenty of people around admiring them enthusiastically but noone feeding them as there are signs prohibiting feeding the kea. They're cool of course, but we want to beat any rain that might be heading in so we move along pretty smartly. It's a pleasant well made path down to the viewing area but fortunately pretty level. As per usual Mum and Sis take their own slower pace and daughter and I move along quickly to reccie the ground. I suggest that perhaps as we are well ahead and I imagine Gma will take a while to cover the distance we could duck up the Sentinel Rock walk for the "spectacular glacier views". Daughter is firm. Nah, we don't have time. Just stick to the Forest walk. Disappointed I obediently stick to the agreed route. We enjoy sweet little violets and buttercups along the path, but there's no question this walk is for one thing - getting to the glacier viewing area.

The viewing area is reached and there is a seat and beyond the viewing area a path. A tempting path. And the glacier is seemingly kms away. There's no restraining Daughter. Glacier fever has her by the throat and it's not letting go. She blithely walks down from the lookout and sets off for the face of the Glacier her mother trailing behind making feeble protestations about the distance and the time it would take.. didn't the sign say an hour and a half.. it's got to be several kms way... all these objections fall on deaf ears and with apparently glazed eyes and robotic responses of "nah, it's not that far" she is trudging purposefully ahead to commune with the icy deity.

As we walk choppers buzz overhead. So they are flying again then. No point second guessing ourselves though. We can only hope tomorrow morning is OK.

I fall a little behind taking photos of a very pretty waterfall coming down in a triple strand across some attractive boulders. I'm worried about Mum and Sis. What if it rains. Then the penny drops. Who has the car keys? Daughter was driving! Yep we've got the keys, the others are stuck in the elements if it rains. Final straw. I swap with daughter. Camera for car keys, and turn back. We'd come a long way in that time. I ford the little trickle we'd passed and trudge back past the waterfall for what seems an age before I get back to the viewing area where Mum and Sis are waiting. Daughter is nowhere in sight.

I'm a little anxious about the time, and dinner, but nothing for it but to make the best of it. We take some happy snaps of each of us in varying combinations with the glacier view behind us. Thinking daughter will be an age I borrow mum's camera and head off on a side trip to Sentinel Rock, carrying instructions from Mum to be sure and photograph the patch of buttercups along the path on the way back (see above). The path up to Sentinel Rock is fairly steep and has a number of hair pin turns in the path but in a fairly short time I'm up at the lookout taking in the information boards and admiring the view across the braided river and the glacier in the distance.

I stay long enough to feel the effort was worthwhile for reasons other than the size of my rear end and head smartly down the hill to meet up with the others. Daughter is still nowhere in sight, but mum is huffing and puffing along the path to the car park. The kea must know we have some time to kill and are putting on a concert. They are perched in likely vantage points. One on a rock by the garden and the other atop a high trunk of a dead tree fern. They take turns in calling with their lovely voices. Very easy on the ear for a parrot. We take a nice long video to record their performance for posterity. Wonderful, wonderful birds.
As we're just finishing up with comfort stops and so on (facilities quite pongy) daughter appears and gives her report on her adventures. She's taken some nice photos to show us, but says they involve a lot of zoom and you don't really see that much better from the further lookout to make it worth the walk. Definitely not for Aunty and Gma at any rate.

One of daughters favourite things about the glacier view up close was some of natures artistry where bright orange lichens and green mosses decorated the rocks.

After some continued enjoyment of the kea we pile into the car. We've got 1/2 an hour to grab some dinner. The others are optomisitic we might be able to pick something up in Okarito and just want to get there to be sure we're not late. I don't think it's likely we'll be getting anything in Okarito, but whatever. I turned out to be right...but we're not going to fade away to a shadow any time soon!

My interrogation of google maps told me that it would take us the better part of an hour from Franz Joseph to Okarito. We found this to be needlessly generous, today at any rate without much in the way of traffic. Without speeding it only took 40 mins so we're in Okarito a little early. As we drive in a pair of paradise shelducks with several ducklings is moseying about on the verge, but at our approach smartly tell the kids to get down in the rather deep and unattractive ditch that runs along the side of the road. How cute!
We explore down to the beach. It's raining lightly and this keeps us in the car so we read the signs near the path across to the sand with our binoculars.

At the allotted time we head into Okarito Kiwi Tours and make our greetings to Ian and to Paul, our guide for this evening. There's a bit of concern about our clothes. Noisy. We need to be very very quiet when waiting for the kiwi to emerge. We have a choice, maybe we have something else to change into, or they can loan each of us a polar fleece. Don't worry about possible rain, you can't view the kiwi in the rain anyway as the noise of the rain on the forest prevents you hearing the kiwi and they are chiefly located by the sound of their footfalls in the forest. We take the offered hats with fly nets, some don borrowed polar fleece, I change into my other coat. We also have torches for getting back to the car when we're done if we need them and gloves are also available.
Paul is decked out in black, with a black beanie. Sis, as she informs us later mentally dubbed him the "kiwi commando". He looked the part I have to say. I should note here that no disrespect is intended by that title in any way. After all, commandos are highly skilled professionals are they not, and getting to see wild kiwi on cue demands military style planning.

Along with us tonight on our tailor made tour - specially adapted to accommodate the frailties of our party - are a young couple who are brimming with excitement to be seeing Rowi (aka Okarito Brown Kiwi). They have done their research and are keen as #. We get our briefing for what's to happen then we drive our own cars following Paul to the car park near where we will be viewing this evening.
[#keen as = extremely keen. Kiwi's and Aussies both use this sort of phrase.. following a word with "as" is pretty much the same as preceding something with "extremely" eg "she was angry as, eh" Often seen in NZ as "kiwi as" ie "it doesn't get anymore distinctly kiwi than this" - it can save a lot of words sometimes.]

Some jollity as we put our fly nets on and laugh at how ridiculous we look. Snap some quick photos. Then we're hushing up and moving as quietly as we can manage up the path. Paul spaces us out like a rugby back row along the path. In the bush in front of us about 20 metres or so away is a pair of rowi who at the moment are sitting on an egg. As dusk falls one of the rowi will come out to feed. The female. The male can watch junior. It's a bit early now so we need to quietly get ourselves comfortable then spend half an hour to 40 mins in absolute silence listening intently. We need to adjust to the sounds of the forest so that when the kiwi's substantial footfalls begin we can distinguish them from other things. My possie is in a possum's territory, so I have a particularly challenging job as possums are noisy. If the rowi gets round me, that's it. She's gone and we won't see her. We all must work as a team if we are to see the rowi.

In position in our listening posts our vigil begins. Itchy face. I reach up to scratch. Bloody hell my coat is noisy. Should have taken one of the polar fleeces. I hear a sound. I go to turn. The noise of my fly hat against the collar of my coat is deafening. Bloody hell. That hat's just going to have to go. As quietly as I can I knock the hat down from my head. In future as I turn I have to turn my whole body stiff like a board to avoid the noise, but I manage OK. Tip, wear or borrow the polar fleece!!

One awkward moment as the young woman needs to cough. She nearly chokes as she follows instructions and heads quickly away from our listening posts to actually do the cough. We don't want the rowi realising where we are. Composure regained she returns and takes up listening duty once more.

Paul is flitting like a shadow up and down the line. He has a radio tracker. Occassionally he turns it on and listens for the rowi's transmitter. Darkness encroaches. What was that? A hand signal from Paul. We listen in the direction he points. He glides spectre like to the other end of the listening pack. Then he's gesturing us in. In almost inaudible whisper "Can you smell that?" Sis indicates a firm yes (she is well known for her sense of smell). The rest of us shake our heads.
"Rowi shit. Has quite a strong fresh smell. Not at all unpleasant. She's out and about. Won't be long now."

The time goes quickly. We are all hanging intently on every twig snap, every slight move Paul makes. A false alarm. Then suddenly Paul points with urgency just off the path. We know from our briefing this means we all move quickly and silently (keep on grass not the gravelly bits of ground) to where he points. This accomplished Pauls pointing shifts. He's pointing into the forest. The rustling is getting louder. Pauls red light goes on. THERE! She's right near the path. Right there. No mistaking it. She's rustling in the undergrowth. Then Bam. She's out. We gasp. Sis lets out an involuntary whispered "ow wow!!" before catching herself. The rowi trots purposefully up along the path in front of us then heads into the undergrowth on the other side of the path. FANTASTIC. AWESOME! UNREAL!! Paul gestures and we follow quickly to where he points up along in the direction where the rowi has gone. We continue to listen to her leisurely foraging before it is clear that she has moved off deeper away into her territory. Excellent result. Paul comes back to debrief us. "Well done team! That was perfect. The rowi had no idea we were even there. You can see from her behaviour she wasn't alarmed at all. That's exactly what we're aiming for."
On cloud nine we walk back down to the car park where we can talk more freely. We have an option. Paul is going to be continuing to monitor rowi into the night. We get a run down on the likely scenario. Paul then leaves us all in the car park to consider what we will do while he ducks across to another nearby area to see if he can get a reading on some of the other birds. All of us chat with great excitement about our experience so far. Then Paul returns. "Did you hear that" The rowi have been calling off in the distance. We did have a rowi call played to us back at base so we would recognise it, but we've let our concentration slip in our need to vent our excitement.
It's 10pm. We decide to call it a night and leave the rest of the trekking about in the forest for the young couple unhindered by the old and frail. They kept on and didn't get back to the car park until midnight, but they did see more rowi. A wonderful wonderful experience. And brilliant value too. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

We're back at the Rainforest Motel and trying to get inside quietly so as not to disturb other guests. Sis can't find her camera. No she really can't find her camera. Everyone hunts. We go inside, but later she is back out in the car hunting. I go to help. No joy. Most of us aren't concerned. You definitely had it in the car park on the tour. It simply can't be too far away. In the end we have to give up and call it a night. The camera is a mystery we will have to solve tomorrow.

1 comment:

Okarito Ian said...
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