Thursday, March 26, 2015

New Zealand, part 1 - Introduction and Itinerary

This is veering way off from topics related to Pacific Northwest butterflies, but New Zealand is on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, so it still counts (and even if it didn't, I'd make up an excuse anyway!).  I recently spent two weeks visiting my sister in New Zealand.  It was my first overseas trip, my longest road trip (we toured the north island for nine days) and the longest vacation I've ever taken.  The weather couldn't have been better, it was sunny and in the 70s and 80s (Fahrenheit, I never did get a good grasp on Celsius while there) nearly every day.
Before I dive into describing the trip and all the wildlife I saw, here is a note about Maori/Kiwi pronunciation (for Americans anyway!):
"wh" is pronounced as an "f"
"ao" and "au" both have an "ow" sound with slightly different inflections
"ai" is pronounced like "eye"
For example, the yellow flower kōwhai (which means "yellow" or "to be yellow" in Maori) is pronounced something like "ko-fy".
Remember to click on the photos to view at full size if you wish.
Day 1 - arrival and short drive south of Wellington to Mount Victoria
After settling in and relaxing for a couple hours, we took a short drive around the harbor to Mount Victoria for views of the city and harbor.  We also accidentally found The Weta Cave, a "design and special effects workshop", where most of the props for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies were made, along with several other movies.  Because these movies will repeatedly come up in my New Zealand posts, for those of you not already familiar with the abbreviation, I will hereafter refer to them as "LOTR movies".
View of Wellington (looking north) from Mount Victoria
View of the airport and surrounding suburbs of Wellington (looking southeast) from Mount Victoria
Day 2 - walking tour of Wellington
Took the train into Wellington and spent the morning wandering around downtown, then hopped on the cable car to the top of the hill above the city, which is where my sister works and is surrounded by the botanical gardens, both of which we toured of course!
Parliament buildings in Wellington (capitol of New Zealand)
Day 3 - day trip to Cape Palliser
Drove from Wellington to Masterton, where they hold the annual Golden Shears sheep shearing competition.  We wandered around Queen Elizabeth Park, then drove down to Martinborough where we ate lunch in the town square, a small park in the center of town.  Someone must have liked to travel, because the streets were named Texas, Kansas, Ohio, Cambridge, Cologne, Naples, Venice, Strasbourge and Dublin.  We continued driving southwest, through Pirinoa, then angled southeast along the coast to Cape Palliser, the southern-most point of the North Island.  We returned through Featherston.
Looking south towards Cape Palliser
Looking west across Palliser Bay (the Dr Seuss-looking plant is a Cabbage Tree)
Little Blue Penguin crossing at Cape Palliser
New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) mother and pup at Cape Palliser
New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) pups at Cape Palliser
Cape Palliser Lighthouse
Looking northwest across Palliser Bay from the Cape Palliser Lighthouse
Day 4 - began our road trip
Drove from Wellington, north through Porirua (Whittaker's chocolates headquarters!) and stopped at the beach in Paraparaumu (nicknamed Paraparam) to test the water and take a couple pictures of Kapiti Island.  Continuing north, we stopped in Levin at a very interesting kid's park/playground, where we tried our hand at the giant hamster wheels and zip line before heading up to Whanganui for dinner, then decided to push onward to Waitara (east of New Plymouth) for the night.
Downtown Whanganui, New Zealand
Day 5 - Mt Taranaki and Cape Egmont Lighthouse
Backtracked south to Stratford, then west on Opunake Rd and north to the Dawson Falls Visitor Center, where we hiked the Wilkies Pools Loop Track, and the Dawson Falls Overlook Track. We then drove west around the mountain to Pungarehu and out to the Cape Egmont Lighthouse for some photos and time on the beach before heading back to Waitara for another night.  On our way there, we stopped in New Plymouth, where everything was decked out in red, white and blue and several American flags were hanging in storefronts, apparently we stumbled into the middle of "Americana Days in Taranaki"!
The "goblin forest" on the Wilkies Pools Loop Track at Mt Taranaki
The "goblin forest" on the Wilkies Pools Loop Track at Mt Taranaki
The "goblin forest" on the Wilkies Pools Loop Track at Mt Taranaki
A mini waterfall along the Wilkies Pools Loop Track at Mt Taranaki
Dawson Falls at Mt Taranaki
Dawson Falls at Mt Taranaki
Coast line near the Cape Egmont Lighthouse, near Taranaki
Cape Egmont Lighthouse with cloud-capped Mt Taranaki in the distance
Day 6 - Waitomo Glowworm Caves and Hobbiton
Drove northeast out of Waitara, through Te Kuiti and up to Waitomo, for a morning tour of the glowworm cave.  No one is allowed to take photographs inside the cave, but it was great, it was like looking at a night sky full of turquoise-colored stars.  Afterwards we continued northeast through Cambridge and took a little country road towards Matamata to the Hobbiton movie set (LOTR and Hobbit movies).  They run tour groups every half hour, and right before ours started, a big thunderstorm rolled over and got us soaked, along with some nerve-wracking nearby lightning (I was in sandals, standing in water...).  After the tour, we headed north through Te Aroha to Paeroa (home of "Lemon & Paeroa" or L&P, a kind of fizzy lemonade), then east through the Karangahake (Kara-nah-key) Gorge, with a quick stop at Owharoa (Oh-fa-row-ah) Falls, through Waihi, then north up the coast to Whangamata (Fang-ah-mah-tah) for the night.
Sign in front of the Hobbiton cafe and tourist center
Hobbiton movie set
Hobbiton movie set
Hobbiton movie set
Hobbiton movie set - this whole tree is fake! It is made of fiberglass and metal, and the silk leaves are hand-painted and individually wired onto the branches. The birds don't seem to mind though!
Hobbiton movie set - I think this is Bilbo's home (I'm not as familiar with the movies as some of my friends :)
Hobbiton movie set - sign on the gate in front of this hobbit hole
Hobbiton movie set - apparently the two Monarchs (right) didn't see the sign on the gate, or maybe they're here for the party?
Hobbiton movie set
Hobbiton movie set
Hobbiton movie set - this dragon is coming out of the bushes on the edge of the pond.
Day 7 - Coromandel Peninsula and Cathedral Cove
BEST DAY EVER! After breakfast at a cafe on the beach in Whangamata, we headed north along the coast to Whenuakite (Fen-ooah-kitty) and over to Hahei.  To get to Cathedral Cove, you have to drive up a steep hill north of Hahei (which is on a beach), find parking somewhere (we had to pay to park in someone's driveway as the tiny parking lot was more than full and people were parking on the bits of grass over the curb), then hike about 30 minutes along the cliff through forests with puriri trees (host to the Puriri Moth which I'll talk about in the next post) before dropping steeply down (there are some stairs) to the beach.  Apparently this is where part of the second Narnia movie was filmed.  It is absolutely gorgeous there, we didn't want to leave!  Eventually we tore away and drove southwest to Coroglen and took the mostly-gravel Tapu-Coroglen Road over the mountains, stopping to admire the giant kauri trees, including a short climb up another cliff (more stairs!) to the Square Kauri, the 15th largest kauri in New Zealand.  It is believed it wasn't logged with the rest of the kauri trees in the area because of its nearly square trunk.  Once we hit the Firth of Thames (west side of the Coromandel Peninsula), we followed it south and had dinner in Thames, where we learned the road we needed to take back to our hotel in Whangamata was closed from a serious accident, so we had to detour another hour south to Paeroa and retrace our steps from the previous evening over to Whangamata for the night.
View north towards Cathedral Cove (other side of the cliff on the left), on the Coromandel Peninsula
Cathedral Cove, on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula
Several White-fronted Terns (Sterna striata) on this rock at Cathedral Cove
South end of Cathedral Cove
The sand at Cathedral Cove is pink! It seemed to mostly be made of bits of shells.
Grove of kauri trees along Tapu-Coroglen Road (one of these is the Square Kauri)
The "Square Kauri" above Tapu-Coroglen Road, it is the 15th largest kauri
The "Square Kauri" above Tapu-Coroglen Road, it is the 15th largest kauri
Day 8 - Rotorua
From Whangamata, we drove south through Tauranga to Rotorua, stopping for lunch at the lake and a quick walk through the weekend street market. Thus began a 24-hour stint in the land of air smelling of sulfur and ammonia.  First stop was Te Puia, home of several geothermal features in a park with interpretive trails, as well as a small museum and school that teaches Maori crafts such as wood carving and basket weaving.  They also have a building that houses two live kiwis, of which we saw one but it was sleeping and just looked like a basketball-sized bundle of feathers with no head or tail.  From there we drove south to Waiotapu, an area with numerous geothermal features, such as boiling mud pools, hot springs, geysers and fumeroles (steam vents).  We found the "secret spot", a hot spring that bubbles up next to a creek, forming a mixed pool of hot and cold water. There were a few people quietly soaking in the pool, and we waded in it a bit before driving a little further up the park road and taking a short walk to the "secret secret spot", another hot spring at the base of a small waterfall that is a couple hundred feet off the road on an unmarked trail that few people know about (my sister knows someone who knew where it was and gave us directions).  We topped off the evening with a quick stop nearby at a viewing area of a large shallow pool with several areas of bubbling mud.
Lake Rotorua with a family of Black Swans (Cygnus atratus)
Small geyser and other thermal features at Te Puia, near Rotorua
Small geyser and other thermal features at Te Puia, near Rotorua
Sulfur deposits on the rocks at Te Puia, near Rotorua
Maori meeting house at Te Puia (where they have a wood carving school), near Rotorua
Bubbling mud pool at the Waiotapu thermal area (this particular spout was exploding more than bubbling)
Bubbling mud pool at the Waiotapu thermal area
Day 9 - Huka Falls, Craters of the Moon and Lake Taupo
From Rotorua, we drove south through Reporoa towards Taupo. First stop was about three miles north of Taupo at Huka Falls, a several-hundred feet stretch of rapids ending in a short but powerful waterfall, all of which was brilliant turquoise blue. After taking in a scenery, we drove over to the nearby Craters of the Moon thermal park and spent an hour or so wandering the trails around several steaming craters of various sizes, at least one of which was the filming location for Gollum's lair in the Lord of the Rings movies. We had lunch and ice cream in Taupo on the shore of the lake before driving south around the east side of the lake and taking another pit stop in Turangi and continuing south on the "Desert Road", stopping to take evening photos of the three volcanoes: Tongariro (north, smallest), Ngauruhoe (center, "now-ruh-ho-ay", aka "Mount Doom" in LOTR) and Ruapehu (south, tallest). We then headed west from Waiouru to Ohakune, where we stopped for the night.
Huka Rapids, just above Huka Falls, north of Taupo
Craters Of The Moon thermal park north of Taupo (another LOTR filming location)
Craters Of The Moon thermal park north of Taupo
Craters Of The Moon thermal park north of Taupo
Craters Of The Moon thermal park north of Taupo
Mt Ruapehu, looking west from the Desert Road between Taupo and Waiouru (Mt Ngauruhoe is to the right, out of photo)
Mt Ngauruhoe, aka "Mt Doom" from LOTR, looking west from the Desert Road between Taupo and Waiouru
Day 10 - Tongariro National Park
From Ohakune, we drove north around the west side of the mountains to National Park (a town named after the park), then east to the little cluster of cafes, visitor centers and Chateau Tongariro (hotel) on the northern flank of Mt Ruapehu.  On the way there, we stopped at Tawhai Falls, another filming location for LOTR.  After lunch, we continued up to the end of the road at the ski village, but the mountain was completely covered in clouds at that point so we settled for a cup of tea in the cafe, then drove back down a bit to the Silica Rapids trailhead.  We decided not to hike the full loop, but hiked to the rapids and returned the same way.  We then returned to Ohakune and took another forest road up the south flank of the mountain to the other ski area (both ski areas are the highest points you can drive to on the north island and are above the tree line).  There wasn't much up there and the mountain was still mostly covered in clouds, but the landscape was nice (and it was also used in the LOTR movies). Our final stop on the way back to Ohakune was Mangawhero Falls.  Although there was only the tiniest trickle of water at the time, the gorge was spectacular. We also found out later that that was where the scenes of Gollum catching fish were filmed for LOTR.
Tawhai Falls, near Whakapapa on the northern slopes of Mt Ruapehu
Chateau Tongariro, north of Mt Ruapehu
Chateau Tongariro, with Mt Ruapehu in the distance
Mt Ngauruhoe, aka "Mt Doom" from LOTR, looking east from the Chateau Tongariro parking lot
View of the tussock grasslands from the Silica Rapids Track, north of Mt Ruapehu, looking northeast
View of the tussock grasslands from the Silica Rapids Track, looking north
Close-up of the tussock grass, moss and heather along the Silica Rapids Track
Silica Rapids, north of Mt Ruapehu (underground thermal activity produces silica that is deposited on the rocks in the rapids)
Silica Rapids Track, looking down a steep set of stairs on the trail
Cloud-capped Mt Ruapehu, view from the ski area on the south flank (end of Chakune Mountain Road)
Kiwi crossing!
The creek that feeds Mangawhero Falls (barely a trickle this time of year), with Mt Ruapehu in the distance
Day 11 - Ohakune to Napier/Hastings
Headed east to Waiouru, then south to Taihape.  We were supposed to turn east on Taihape-Napier Road before the town of Taihape, but missed the intersection and used the opportunity to stop in Taihape and see the giant gumboot (New Zealand likes their giant statues of fruit, vegetables, and the occasional random object).  After we got back on track, we followed the road to Napier, enjoying the beautiful sheep country on the way, and even stopping to photograph a couple sheep stations that were in the middle of shearing!  Eventually we made it to Napier and first checked out the beach before looking for a place to stay the night.  Come to find out, there was a cricket World Cup game being played in Napier that day or the next day, and every place was booked, or the last spots filled up just a couple minutes before we arrived at each hotel, so after three tries we finally found a place in the neighboring city of Hastings.
Romney sheep waiting to be shorn at Motukawa Station, on the Taihape-Napier road
Day 12 - Gannets at Cape Kidnappers and back to Wellington
There are two tours of the gannet colonies at Cape Kidnappers southeast of Napier (east of Hastings). One is essentially a wagon ride, sitting on a large flatbed trailer pulled by a tractor along the beach at low tide, providing views of the offshore gannet colonies, and allows you to have lunch on the beach and hike to the top of the cliff to the main colony. The other is in a more-or-less air-conditioned 4x4 safari bus that takes you directly to the main colony at the top of the cliff.  The tractor tour takes about 4 hours and is cheaper, while the bus tour is about 3 hours and more expensive.  We had debated for several days which one to do, and decided on the bus tour because 1) we were getting very tired at this point of the trip and 2) we still needed to drive back to Wellington and the bus tour would be done nearly two hours before the tractor tour returned.  The tractor tour seems to cater more to families with kids and I'm sure would have been fun if we had more energy, but after seeing how high the cliff is, we were very happy we chose the bus!
View of Hawke Bay from the cliffs at Cape Kidnappers, looking north towards Napier
The bus tour winds through the property of an American billionaire (can't remember the name), which includes the Cape Kidnappers Golf Course (apparently world-renowned and rated in the top 40 of the world if I remember right) and a luxury lodge/hotel and spa, frequented by many celebrities apparently, the cheapest rooms start at around $800/night.  Or you can rent the owner's cottage (when he's not there of course) for several thousand dollars a day, and it includes a chef and butler!
After we returned to reality, we came to the cliffs and some of the most amazing views of the ocean I've seen.
Island colonies of Australasian Gannets (Morus serrator) at Cape Kidnappers
Eventually we wound around to the end of the cape and suddenly came out on the plateau where thousands of gannets came into view, oh so much closer than I expected! It was wonderful, we spent nearly an hour there, photographing them and the other colonies lower down on the cliffs and on the beach.  They aren't afraid of people but aren't very curious either, so they stay on their side of the little rope fence and we stayed on our side, but we could get to within two or three feet of some of them, so I went a bit crazy with my new camera.
Australasian Gannet (Morus serrator) colony at Cape Kidnappers, New Zealand
Australasian Gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers
Australasian Gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers
Coming in for a crash landing at Cape Kidnappers (gannets are completely awkward on land!)
Australasian Gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers (see the little baby?)
Australasian Gannet with small chick at Cape Kidnappers
Australasian Gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers
Juvenile Australasian Gannet at Cape Kidnappers
Australasian Gannet with chick at Cape Kidnappers
Like parent, like chick - Australasian Gannets at Cape Kidnappers
Juvenile Australasian Gannet at Cape Kidnappers
Juvenile Australasian Gannet stretching its wings at Cape Kidnappers
Australasian Gannet at Cape Kidnappers
Australasian Gannet at Cape Kidnappers I love the blue eyes and black-lined beak,
and the wild greenish-cream colored stripes on its legs!
Australasian Gannet at Cape Kidnappers
Australasian Gannet beach colony at Cape Kidnappers
Australasian Gannet "saddle colony" at Cape Kidnappers (this is the one you most often see on postcards)
Afterwards, we hit the road again, back through Hastings and south to Waipukurau, where we unknowingly missed a turn and continued south on a little country road.  You would think we would have noticed something wasn't quite right, but most of the highways and major roads in New Zealand look like every other country road: narrow and winding.  So, over a half hour later we started wondering why we weren't seeing more towns that should have been along the highway, then we came across the little town of Porangahau, I tried to find it on the map and finally realized we were waaaaay off!  It was too late to turn around at that point, we were enjoying the drive and also realized we were already almost to the "world's longest place name", Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu (Taumata for short).  Eventually we came out at Dannevirke and got back on the right road and headed southwest, through Palmerston North, and back along the coast to Wellington.
World's longest place name: Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu (Taumata for short)
Day 13 - recuperation
We pretty much sat on the couch all day!
Day 14 - south coast and flight back home
I spent part of the morning packing up, then we drove out to the coast south of Wellington.  On a clear day you can see the south island from there, but there was just enough mist and clouds on the horizon to block it. It was still a beautiful view, and my sister showed me where her dive club is based, then we had lunch next door and watched a few scuba divers coming up onto the beach after their dives.  I didn't want to leave, but eventually it was time to catch my plane back to the states.

See my next blog post for a list of the insects I saw during this trip, along with more photos!