Piha Hike

We’re off to see a waterfall.  It’s a nice day, not raining for a change.  The trail, like others before, is pretty amazing.  As for instance, the overhead shot here of fern tree “umbrellas”.  Fern UmbrellasI note to Ginger that it feels like we have been shanghied into a Star Trek episode and here we are, beamed down on this wild planet, and there are probably dinosaurs around the corner.  She says, no, it’s more like “Honey I Shrunk the Kids”.  Well, I don’t remember seeing that movie, but I get her point.

Below are pictures of the trail.  Not bad.

FlowerThe flowers are interesting as well, such as this one.  Whooo boy, those are stamens!  Making a statement!

I’ll end with the waterfall.  Not spectacular, but definitely pretty.  Kauri were logged here years ago, there are some old pictures.  The loggers built a dam near the top of this waterfall to float the kauri trunks and then flush them down this river – over this waterfall! – to the shore.  Turns out the logs were so dinged up from the fall that they had to find another way.   Duh!

NZ Birds, Birds, Birds

If you aren’t very interested in our fine-feathered dinosaurs, you might want to skip this post, which is mostly just a big dump of NZ bird pictures.

New Zealand was basically a bird sanctuary during most of its existence.  Other than a couple types of bat, it had no mammals of any kind, and therefore no predators of birds.  Birds thus evolved in strange ways, such as several flightless types like the moa, an ostrich-sized bird now extinct.  When mankind arrived, bringing big appetites as well as dogs and rats, the birds took it on the chin (I love metaphors!); particularly the flightless big birds.  Well, other birds have since arrived (including the house sparrow, darn it), but there is a huge effort here in NZ to protect the native birds from predators (which are still very limited in type: feral cats, mice, rats, stoats, wild pigs, possums, ferrets).  And except for privately owned dogs and cats, there is quite a strong eradication program for those mammals.  Dogs are popular here, but interestingly, in many places they are simply not allowed to run free.  Many parks/forests have fences and metal gates to keep dogs out.  If you take a dog into the forest, he has to be on a leash.  So I guess you’d have to say that birds still rule, here.

We took a guided tour to Tiritiri Matangi, a predator-free island.  The island had been farmed for a century before being abandoned, and was essentially devoid of trees.  In a textbook example of citizens working with the government, the island was planted with a quarter-million native trees (read – trees producing food for birds), mostly by volunteers, with explicit instructions on how to do it to get a “real” random forest.  Today it is solid forest indeed, and the songs of birds everywhere is impressive.  Below are some shots from the island.  As you can see from the first picture, we’re still close to Auckland.

I hoped to see a Takahe, a turkey-sized flightless bird named from fossil bones and Takahethought to be extinct until discovered in 1948.  Today there are 150 of them still living, 7 on this island.  From their pictures, they look spectacular.  And on arrival, our guide hears one calling in the forest near the wharf, unusual for them.  Whooppeee!  And there are signs around saying “Please do not feed the Takahe”, another good sign.  Unfortunately it’s a pretty large group of visitors today, the ferry being cancelled the day before due to rough seas and today a (Grayhound-sized) bus of Kiwis from Whangarei arriving in the nick of time (groan).  There are plenty of guides, and our group with guide is only about 10 people, but the groups are everywhere walking around the paths making noise.  Not such a good sign.  We do see a Kokako, a pigeon-sized bird that is rare.  Alas, no Takahe show up for us.

Below are the bird pictures from our month in NZ.  Some I have included more than once, if I thought they offered something extra.  The Tui, for instance, are pretty fantastic.  These birds are everywhere in the woods, a large and aggressive bird almost the size of a magpie.  They are quite pretty, with two white balls at their throats, a shawl-like patch of feathers on their shoulder, and black going to blue/green iridescent feathers everywhere else.  What is really cool is their call(s).  They have two voice boxes (really!), and their call is something you’ve never heard before.  It reminds me of glass breaking in the most melodic way imaginable; it’s quite beautiful.  Ginger says my descriptor is all wrong, it is instead unbird-like otherworldly beautiful (and sometimes ending with a caw-like high-frequency gate creak that breaks the spell).  OK, there you have it.  Now you know what they sound like.  They are also incredible mimics, and seem to be able to duplicate the calls of other birds well enough to confuse the guides.  Below the bird pictures.

That’s if for the birds!


We’re off to see the stormy west coast again, but catch a sunset this time.  The NZ west coast is truly wild along its entire length; the term is “tempestuous shores”.  There are lots of signs saying to swim at only certain spots, and to be careful that waves don’t come over the boulder and wash you off.  Yeah, sure, until you stand on a boulder admiring the view and suddenly the 20th or so wave comes in and sends you scurrying for your life!  Rip CurrentThe warnings are not idle. If you look at this picture, you’ll see a wave right-center coming at you that’s just about to crest.  However, click on this image to make it bigger, and if you look to the left of that cresting wave, you’ll see a smaller one about to crest at an angle 90 degrees from the first!  The water swirls and crashes and tries to suck the sand away.  And yet the beaches often have surfers hard at work (in their wet suits), making you wish you could do that too.

I’ve booked us into a lodge almost on the beach – a 2 minute walk.  The web site looks great, and my NZ guidebook says “suite with big deck, French doors and quality furnishings and bedding.  $220/night. ” Well, the price was accurate.  The furniture is 1950’s, the kitchen pots and pans are older, the bathroom is away downstairs along with the shower that has a trickle of hot water, and there’s not much heat down there.   Message to self: stiffen upper lip.

However, the Piha beach is gorgeous, and I am going to bombard you with photos from this place.  First, a LAST look at Northland scenery.  In your mind you should join these two images to get a better feel for the view.

Now a look at where we are.  We’re at the top of a hill (visitor center; we arrived 5 minutes

too late, but I’ve stopped and so need to take a picture).  Looking east (left picture), Auckland is in the distance (the beach we’re heading to is a popular weekend getaway).  Then turn 180 in the direction of the beach, and you see primeval forest.

I can’t help but take advantage of some tourist attractions, so here are the pictures.  Isn’t the picture on the left a pretty one?  The Maori carving on the right shows tattoos in some of the most unlikely places ….

OK, time to get serious.  After navigating narrow twisty roads going down, Piha appears.

It’s pretty.  I’m showing you this beach over several days from several heights.  Although Piha is a town, there are no stores and there are no gas stations (there is one restaurant of sorts).  The road to Piha does not subsequently link with any of the other towns along the shore.  It’s there and back.  If you want to buy anything, you go back up the twisty narrow road and then quite a ways further to civilization, at least an hour away.  But who wants to go back to civilization with these views?  The beach is a black sand beach, which is kinda Black sand beachcool, but I wonder about it’s allure under a hot sun.  In my experience even white sand can get pretty ouchy.  Still, it’s gorgeous.

Of course, being on the west side, there are sunsets over the ocean.  We didn’t get a great sunset, but a couple weren’t too bad.  Let me show you one of these.  You do know to click on one of the images for the show, correct?

Finally, a quick retrospective of the other (lesser) sunset, as the light fades.  Please click.

Well, it was more red than that, but I won’t complain.

Let me leave you with one last picture of what one should be doing Chillin'in this beautiful country, and what the Kiwi seem to think they should be doing rather than “getting ahead” or “making more”.  We call them “laid back”. They seem to think enough is all they need.  We’d probably be opening up a gas station on the corner … hey, with a mini-mart, a two-fer.  Big sign.  Make a killing, no competition ….  Be open 8 – 8.  Retire at 70 and … get a place on a beach like this ….  Are we missing something here?

Gannet Colony, Muriwai

Gannets are interesting birds.  They normally breed on islands, but there are a few places Gannet In Flight where they nest on the mainland instead, and return every year.  Muriwai is one of those places; a place of thundering surf, cliffs, and howling wind.  When we were there, we had jackets zipped and were leaning into the gale off the Tasman, cold as could be.  The birds, instead, looked like they were sunning themselves on a beach, happy as a lark.  Um – wrong metaphor.

The pictures below show you this Muriwai coast.  Part of that wave action is due to the wind, let me tell you. The churn is impressive.

Now let me show you where the gannets nest.  Pretty picturesque, eh?  They’re on 3 separate flat areas at the edge of cliffs (there are two separate cliffs in the first picture, a

third in the second).  Each is a separate cliff.  There is also some spillage of nests up the side of the headland in the second picture, not shown.  Probably from overcrowding, or maybe the nests were cheaper out there.

Let me digress and regale you with some gannet lore.  They catch fish by diving into the sea and pursuing their prey underwater.  They can hit the water at a speed of 60 mph (Ouch for the bird!  And for the poor fish, it must seem like you’re being chased by a bird in a porsche).  When juvenile birds get kicked out of the nest, it’s a one-shot jump off the cliff.  Once airborne, the young gannets leave the colony and cross the Tasman Sea to Australia (about 1500 miles), no one knows why.  Two years later, they return for good to secure a nest site at the same colony, home.

OK, back to my story.  As you can see from the images above, gannet nests are very close together, so landing (in high winds!) is an air traffic controller’s worst nightmare.  Landing birds have to glide over the raised beaks of their neighbors – so getting it wrong is a bad idea (we watched an interesting “whoops”).  These are big birds with a wingspan of six feet, landing on something like two square feet of open space, and their mastery of the onshore updrafts (gales?) is impressive (er – most of the time).  We did note that it’s a

convivial group down there, as shown above.

As mentioned, we watched some take-offs and landings for awhile (a take-off means spreading your wings, and the wind lifts you up…).  One landing went awry, and the bird did this ignominious kerplop summersault face plant.  Sorry I missed a picture of that!  Expecting some Bronx cheers from the neighbors, we were surprised at zero reaction.  The bird gets up unruffled and steps over to a nearby bird, and they proceed to smooch and snuggle!  I can imagine her saying “Oh honey, that landing was soooo much better than the last”.  I’m sure that’s what Ginger would have said.  Pictures of the “Honey I’m home” event below.

Well, all for now.  We’re off tomorrow to one of those predator-free islands to see (hopefully) some rare birds.  Next post maybe I’ll show you some bird pictures?


Kiwi House

Kiwis are the iconic bird of NZ, but bordering on extinction.  These flightless, nocturnal birds occupied a mammal niche here in NZ, and then mammals got introduced – mice, rats, stoats, dogs.  Signs say one dog killed 150 kiwi in one night; apparently a kiwi smells like chocolate to a dog.  Now there is an enormous effort within NZ to preserve these (and other) threatened birds (and lizards).

We wanted to see a kiwi, and so went to a Kiwi House (and museum).  There are a lot of these houses around NZ, part of the breeding program.  The houses switch lighting by 12 hours, so the confused animals think daytime is nighttime, and we can see them (maybe).  Our bad luck, the female had been sent for release and a new young one had just arrived and was experiencing jet lag; the male’s territory was cut in half, and he was hiding.  We came back another time and another day, and fared no better.  We did see the resident Morepork (owl).  Below are pictures, including my shot of the kiwi (or rather his beak, poking from his lair).

Stuffed KiwiWe’ll visit more of these houses, because these birds are ‘way too cute!  A stuffed kiwi is shown here (from the  museum), along with the single egg the female lays.  She lays a single egg for obvious reasons.  Ouch!

The museum had a number of interesting Maori artifacts that I’ll show off.  The first is a “Mere”, a Maori club typically made from NZ jade called “greenstone”.  It’s basically in the shape of a flattened tear drop, with sharp edges.  It’s about a foot long; hand-to-hand combat are us!  Mere must have been very popular, because they are in many (most?) of the Maori carvings.  Then there is a Maori powder horn, a purse made of flax, an instrument used for tattooing (the cutting part made of bone), and a cloak – a flax garment with feathers woven into it.

These are basically Stone Age people doing all their cutting with jade (sometimes obsidian), but they did have talent!

Whangarei Head

I wanted to climb one of the small mountains on a headlands, and Whangarei Head looked like a good place.  Besides, the area has some wineries worth visiting (our version of multi-tasking).  We found a good-looking B&B on the internet, but y’know, those sites often don’t give you the full story, as we have discovered quite a few times.   The surprise with this B&B was getting to it; we had to travel on a narrow, twisty, steep, cliff-edge, white-knuckled road, much to Ginger’s dismay.  Even then, the gravel, rutted, pot-holed up-and-down driveway to the B&B was a challenge.  Once we arrived at the B&B it was quite pleasant, and certainly quiet!  However, the specter of doing that drive twice a day was a bit daunting – and going out for dinner meant returning at night. B&B View This travel stuff is always exciting, requiring a certain amount of stiff-upper-lip fortitude, and maybe a good sense of humor.  The picture is the view from the B&B’s back yard (notice we’re high up?).  The peak with the jiggles on top, just left of center, is the one I’m going to climb tomorrow – Mt. Manaia.

Ocean Beach

Ginger, bless her heart, has decided to accompany me on the mountain climb, but we miss the trailhead turnoff and end up at Ocean Beach on the other side of the little peninsula (I realize we’re on the wrong road, but there’s no easy way to turn around on the narrow road, and besides we’re exploring).  Not a bad little beach, eh?  They’re a dime a dozen, and at least for this time of year they’re lonely, looking for love.  But we have hiking to do, so back we go.  Between us and Mt. Mania is a promontory, Busby Head and Smuggler’s Cove, Busby Head and Smuggler's Covereputed to be scenic, so we decide to hike here first.  That little chunk of land with a hill on it, protruding into the bay, is where we’re hiking.

It’s a nice, sunny day – rare for us!  And the hike is very pleasant, with lots of birds to see.  Swallows zipping by on the ocean breezes, impossible to photograph – they’re haulin’.   I’ll show you some birds I did manage to catch a bit later.  Pictures of the hike follow.

Here are the birds, or at least some of them.  Some you’ve seen already – Pukeko and Tui are everywhere, but I don’t need to show them again.  Others I haven’t identified yet, but hey, there’s enough here to keep you entertained, yes?

So now on to Mt. Manaia!  On, on!  I have twisted my ankle on Busby Head by stepping into a hole while walking off trail beside Ginger, but I will not be deterred!  It’s the same ankle that I sprained in Brussels, where I walked miles on it every day, and it was just now getting better (it takes longer to heal at this age, I note).  The trail marker says the hike is very steep and will take 2 hours round trip, and Ginger decides she has had enough hiking and that only an idiot would do that climb with a sprained ankle.  Yep, she is right.  The trail doesn’t start out that steep.  I meet a couple of people coming down the trail, but it’s late afternoon and I am all alone now.  It’s a pretty trail, and it is increasingly steep.  Mt. Mania trailThe Dept of Conservation (DOC) here is amazing.  The parks and hiking trails and bird sanctuaries and mammal pest removal programs are everywhere and done very very well.  I wish we had trails like these at home!!!  They’re gorgeous, well-maintained, I could say perfect.  On this hike they have installed what seems like a million wood stairs going up this steep mountain.  A little wierd; I came here to hike, not climb no stinkin’ stairs!  But then I get it.  Brilliant!  The switchbacks that we would have had in the US would have made this hike about 3 times as long, with all the erosion problems inherent in switchbacks.  These stairs have a water channel on one side leading to pipes going under the trail.  Impressive.

More pictures of the trail, above.  That tree in the middle is a kauri, growing all by itself.  The last image shows 3 stair sections going up, the last one maybe lost in the sunlight, top of image, center.  The trail is steep!

Finally the last scramble up some rocks.  Views from the top are a little disappointing; the

view is NOT 360.  There are vertical stone outcroppings that block the view front and back (those “jiggles at the top” I mentioned in the initial picture from the B&B), and moving around them is impossible – the end of the climb is a small piece of slanted rock with a steep drop all around, the wind is blowing like crazy, and the sign says if you even try to get around the crags you are trespassing on sacred Maori land.  Nevertheless, the view isn’t too bad, eh?

On the way down, there is a small unmarked side trail that I had noticed going up, and I take it, and it leads to an outcropping that has even better views.  The picture on the right shows that Busby Head again, where we took the earlier walk.

I am pleased that I make it down in 1 1/2 hours, a bunch less than posted.  Now to look like I’m not limping when I approach the car, otherwise I’ll get an “I told you so, idiot” from my adoring wife ….

The Northlands – Bay of Islands to Waipoua Forest

We’re off to see some Kauri, the world’s 2nd largest trees.  With some regret we leave that gorgeous apartment in the Bay of Islands, home for 10 whole days.  Quite a luxury, that length of time in one spot, but it was some good R&R and allowed me to get this blog functional, finally.

I’ve shown you a few pictures of the gorgeous Northland in earlier posts – green green green, impossible shades of green, rolling hills to mountains or ocean.  It’s really spectacular, and yet we know it is not the prettiest part of NZ.  Save the best for last, they say.  Let me show you the journey to the Waipoua Forest before I tell you about the Kauri.  Ladies and gentlemen, the land of sheep and cows.

I can’t leave you without a picture of NZ’s most numerous resident, can I?  They’re Sheepeverywhere, dotting the landscape as beige blobs on a green background.  Cows too, in this neck of the woods, but they’re less photogenic.  Apparently many residents outside the cities use cows or sheep to cut the grass.  No need for a lawnmower.  This was the case for the B&B we’re headed to, but a part of me thinks of the ditty about the little ol’ lady who swallowed a spider.  I’m betting the lawnmower is less work.

Of course there is more to the Northland than gorgeous green hills.  One is never

far from water!  Here are a couple shots from Hokianga Harbor.  Looking out to the Tasman Sea, the incoming waves are ferocious, true for the entire west coast of NZ.  The smaller images look across the harbor to (big) sand dunes.

OK, on to the kauri.  Today they only survive in NZ.  The Northland and regions slightly lower were once covered by these magnificent pine trees.  They can live to be 2000 years old, reach 150 feet, and be 60 feet in diameter.  The Maori used smaller kauri for their war canoes that could hold 100 or 150 fighting men (and a village didn’t need too many of them!).  Then the Europeans sailed in.  The trees are straight as an arrow, and the Europeans saw the younger trees as perfect for tall ship masts.  Later, the straight-grained, durable, blemish-free, easy-to-work and beautiful wood dominated the NZ economy, supporting many cities.  Getting those monstrous logs down to sawmills was quite a challenge, and Northland still has remnants of small dams (some 60 feet tall) that were built and then demolished to send these trees crashing over waterfalls and down mountains.  By the early 1900’s, the trees were almost all gone (and with them, the economies of most of Northland’s cities).  Waipoua Forest75% of all surviving mature kauri trees exist in just two forests, together covering only 60 square miles.  The Waipoua is one of those and has the oldest kauri.  The biggest boy is about 2000 years old and has a name, Tane Mahuta (Maori for “God of the Forest”).  I’ll show him to you a bit later.

The forest is fascinating, with moss everywhere and epihytes Epiphyteseverywhere else (epiphytes grow on trees but get nutrients from air and rain).  I’ve seen epiphytes before, but not where they totally obscure the bark of a tree, all the way up!  They are varied and beautiful.  Something that resembles Staghorn fern, or maybe it is Staghorn fern, is frequently seen in the trees.

The walk through the forest to the big Kauri is magical!  It appears to us to be a tropical forest.  This is definitely not Kansas!  Today it is of course raining in a drenching kind of way (hmm; are we being taught why they call this a sub-tropical rainforest?), but we are undaunted (expecting the rain, we carry umbrellas).  A couple pictures of the hike below:

The kauris are magnificent.  They have a whitish bark, the younger ones look like growing Tane Mahutatelephone poles, and branches do not occur until you have craned your neck ‘way back.  The big guy (picture to side) is, of course, Tane Mahuta.  Others are also quite striking, as shown below.  I confess, I think the California Redwoods are more spectacular.  For me the redwoods have a cathedral-like quality to them, and I feel a quiet reverence in their presence.  They are also more numerous and taller, and pretty much all by themselves; you are surrounded by the pillars of that cathedral.  The kauri, on the other hand, are here and there and surrounded by a riot of almost-jungle.  Nevertheless, the kauri are so very old and so very massive, yet still so very beautiful, and the thought that they were almost eradicated from this world in order to make a buck is sobering. Respect your elders – isn’t that a Maori prinicple?  Pictures below.