I’m completely blind. I can’t see a thing, stumbling along, my feet shuffling as I take tiny tenuous steps and edge my way forward in the darkness. We take our five senses for granted until deprived of one of them and then it’s a whole new ballgame; mildly terrifying too and all of this over a wee bird. Other senses try to compensate. I listen keenly for other footsteps and I can both smell and taste the mulchy wetness of the rainforest around me. I reach out to touch Maggie for reassurance; she was right there in front of me seconds ago but she’s gone, moved on. I feel like I’m going to fall forwards. To steady myself I crane my neck skywards to glimpse the heavens but primeval rainforest canopy has shredded the velvet cloth only granting bejeweled tatters here and there, none of it enough to make a familiar constellation. I am even abandoned by the moon, although for our purpose tonight that’s supposed to be a good thing. I look to the ground and am astounded to see that parts of the sky have fallen here and there, blue flames of starlight shining out of the murk and then I realise that it’s only glowworms doing their thing. Up ahead a low glimmer of red light and silhouettes suddenly dance out of the darkness. It’s enough to let me follow the path, catch up with the group and continue the hunt for the elusive Kiwi.
We are in the Kauri Rain Forest north of Auckland on a night safari to find the famous bird of New Zealand. Bob, our guide, leads with an infrared lamp, our only hope of illuminating this nocturnal prey. Expectations had been managed beforehand as Bob explained that only 3% of New Zealanders have actually seen one in the wild. At the sight of any white light, they’ll be gone long before we can get anywhere near and likewise with any noise and strong smells. In fact anything unfamiliar will send them on a speedy flight to their burrows. Totally flightless, they forage in the night probing the forest floor with their long proboscis beak for grubs and insects. Unlike normal birds, which are hollow boned to aid flight, Kiwis have weighty marrow in their bones to further bind them to the ground. Their unique skeleton has all of their organs suspended from the backbone in a tummy cavity supported by a diaphragm with no sternum bones so they are easily damaged when roughly handled by predators like dogs and cats. They smell like puppy dogs too, so are easy prey for any hound who can dispatch up to 30 birds in a night. They reached endangered status as they only lay one or two eggs a year in their burrow, which is easily pilfered by foreign predators such as stoats, rats and even hedgehogs for a feast on whopping Kiwi eggs which are about 20% of the size of the adult that laid them. That makes for the biggest egg in proportion to its body size of any bird in the world. For comparison, the kiwi is about the same size as a domestic chicken yet its eggs that are about six times the size of a chicken egg. Baby Kiwis spend only a few days with their parents after hatching, feeding on their egg remnants before being driven off by the adults, who are very territorial. This means that over a range of land the senior birds are at the centre of the colony, with younger birds driven to the outskirts, where they are vulnerable prey. Fortunately all of this has been recognised by conservationists so Kiwi habitat is well protected and numbers are on the increase.
Back on the trail there was no sight of the wee buggers. We heard both males and females calling way off in the dark but it seemed that would be our lot for tonight. Still the sensory deprivation on the 2km trail was a novel experience and we did see those marvelous glowworms and a somewhat incongruous long-tailed eel, another native unique to New Zealand, living in a little brook up in this forest, quite a way from the sea. We wound up back at the carpark resigned to mild disappointment when Bob illuminated a stretch of grass and there on the tree line a little fellow, looking like Captain Caveman with his arms folded behind his back, was probing the leaf mulch with his big nose for dinner. It was an amazing sight, nay a privilege and one that awed every one of us. Even the wildlife in New Zealand was utterly magical.
In the last post I described the wonderful serendipity you get when traveling and things go wrong. It seems our misfortune with the bike was to bring us more delicious encounters. Bypassing Auckland we headed south to Rotorua to visit the thermal features there. When my bike had broken down in the north we had a kind offer of help from Lindsay Goodwin and his son Dave, who live in Taupiri near Hamilton, to check the bike over on their computer with a GS-911 diagnostic tool. Although the bike was now repaired and running well, it seemed like a good idea to perform this simple check in case any sensors or electronics were on the blink so we called by their shop where the bike was efficiently checked and given the all clear. The rest of a sunny afternoon was spent chewing the fat on bikes and travel with Lindsay, Dave and one of their friends, Des O’Sullivan, who regaled us with tales from his time in Mongolia. We learned too that Des had a somewhat strange collection of vehicles and were invited that evening to visit his ‘shed’. Now you might be expecting me to relate next how he had a shed full of old British bikes; Nortons, Matchless, AJS etc or even a shed full of splendid American muscle cars but it was none of the above; Des has a collection of tanks! Next thing we were staring down the business end of a 120mm rifled cannon on the other end of which was a Berlin Brigade Chieftain Tank, resplendent in its blocky urban paint scheme. In the corner sat a squat, mean looking WW2 era M41 Walker Bulldog. Several eastern-bloc armoured personnel carriers, a few trucks and other light armoured vehicles completed the collection and a great day was topped by a superb evening clambering over these monsters.
With a farewell to the guys who also kindly hosted us for the evening we had a pleasant days ride on to Rotorua, one of New Zealand’s top attractions with its famous fields of geysers, hot springs and other geothermal features. We visited the thermal park at Te Puia and I have to say we both found it a little underwhelming; perhaps we had been spoiled by having previously visited the insuperable thermals at Yellowstone. The hefty $69 per person admission fee made it a pricey excursion; at roughly $2 NZD to the pound that cost around seventy quid for both of us to enter. We had a grey day for our visit, which rendered a dullish tint of gloom to the setting of boiling grey mudflats. A horrid looking hotel spa had been built as a blot on the skyline giving the park the air of a back lot in Chernobyl. The saving grace was the Maori cultural experience, where we were entreated to a Haka welcoming ceremony followed by a splendid song and dance performance.
From Rotorua we took a short ride into the mountains to visit Waimangu volcanic rift valley, one of the youngest geothermal features in the world. On 10th June 1886 the Tarawera Volcano erupted, blowing the side off the mountain and opening a huge valley, which quickly filled to form several lakes and geothermal features including the largest hot spring in the world. Prior to the eruption, the area was already a tourist beauty spot and hosted a series of famous pink and white terraces, hailed in their day as the eighth wonder of the world as well as the world’s largest geyser. All of this was destroyed during the eruption, which killed 153 people and buried three nearby villages along with the famous terraces. It was quite a beautiful walk but again there was a hefty admission fee of $38 per head just to walk some tracks (this does include a bus ride back from the end of the trail but it would have been nice to decline this for a cheaper admission as we didn’t use it).
We decided against any further expensive excursions from Rotorua, a decision aided by the fact that the weather was now seriously impacting our activities. The remnants of a tropical storm washed in and we encountered heavy rain that drenched our little campsite over the next three days. We ensconced ourselves in the camp kitchen to utilize the time to write and edit photographs but the forecast showed no change to the wet weather and in the end we abandoned the central highlands and plans to walk to Tongariro Gap near Lake Taupo. We managed to pack the contents of our little tent and keep them dry but the outer skin was a soggy mess and we just rolled it into a bin bag and strapped it to the back of the bike. In over two and a half years on the road this was the first day we have had to set out to ride in seriously wet weather, in high country too. We had 150 miles to cover to get down to the east coast and the little town of Hastings and a promise of shelter in the form of a cheap motel.
The ride was anything but dreary in spite of a day so dreich and drizzled. The roads were pretty good allowing us to maintain a decent speed as we passed through miles of mountainous pine forest and dropped into a fantastic twisting descent that gradually lost the rain with the altitude. By the time we reached Hastings the sun was out and about. We unpacked the soggy luggage off the bikes and watched the steam rise as it warmed in the afternoon sun. We poured the tent outer from its bin bag and I swore there were actual fish in the deluge. We draped it over a hedge and within an hour or so it was dry.
Hastings was a little gem and it sparkled justly in the sun next day. It was largely destroyed in the 1930’s by an earthquake and was rebuilt in an art-deco style that was all the rage at that time. It made for a quaint and curious little town to while away a morning and plan our next steps. We already had a kindly offer to house-sit for some friends in Wellington for a month from the middle of April so that, plus the poor weather, decided us to abandon all further travels in the North Island and head south. Another splendid day’s ride took us to the beautiful city of Wellington, where our friends Ruth and Ian took us out for a somewhat unusual and brilliant St. Valentines Day evening at the local zoo. There we had a romantic picnic and a mooch around the animal enclosures. In the morning we bade our farewells and rode to the inter-island ferry that would take us on to Picton, the South Island and a whole new chapter of astounding places and what would prove to be some of the highlights of the entire trip.
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: New Zealand, Journey through the North Island.