Monday, May 24, 2010

Whakatane rocks

When Alice and I were living in Taiwan we experienced the occasional earthquake in our apartment which was on the 5th floor. The building itself had 11 floors. Obviously I am not too sensitive to these sorts of vibrations as on several occasions Alice said to me `Can you feel the earthquake?´ First I thought that she was kidding me. But when I noticed the circles on the surface of the water in Alices drinking glass I believed her. A couple of times I also woke up during the night when there was a bigger earthquake; the bed rocked and the closet swang impressively. For somebody who is not experienced in earthquakes it is not a very comforting feeling to sit in the middle of an apartment block when the walls suddenly start to swing back and forth  - especially not for one who lived most of her live in an area where natural disasters of any kind are almost unknown (Praise the Oldenburger Country...)

When we later moved to New Zealand I was prepared to expect earthquakes there as well. And it wasn't long after we moved into our new house that the walls were swinging and the floor vibrating. And so I said to Alice, `Oops, that must have been an earthquake´. But Alice, who was used to earthquakes for her entire life, explained `Na, that was no earthquake, that was just a truck passing by on Domain Rd´.   And we had this sort of dialogue more than just once in a seems that Domain Rd is build on sand dunes, which wobble rather a lot.

Two days ago there were about 13 earthquakes within less than 24 hours in this area, which is a lot even for a country that is used to earthquakes. Two of them were so intensive that they woke me up in the middle of the night. Lying in bed in such a situation I suddenly knew how the Gauls felt - refering to Uderzo & Coscinny - when they feard that the sky would fall onto their heads - whereas I would have contented myself with the ceiling and the roof. However I still wasn't sure whether it was an earthquake or passing trucks on Domain Rd.  And I asked myself how many passing trucks and how many earthquakes I would have to experience to be able to tell as accurately as Alice, `Ah, that was just a truck passing..´

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tour with Whale & Dolphin WatchNZ Ltd

After my previous dissappointment in dolphin watching Alice treated me to a dolphin watching tour with Whale & Dolphin Watch NZ Ltd for my birthday.(2011 update:  sadly, Putauaki trust have stopped this business, but the service has been taken over by Diveworks.  I've written a 2011 update at the end of this entry)

Here is one of their boats, the Taniwha ("water spirit"), which is used for the Whale Island tour

The Blue Sky is used for Whale and Dolphin Watching tours

We chose this company because this tour comes with a guarantee that if you don`t see dolphins they will give you a voucher to go on another tour later . Whale & Dolphin Watch NZ Ltd is owned by Putauaki Trust which is a Maori land trust formed from descendants of Pahipoto Hapu of Te Teko. It is a great thing that Maori People now have the chance to profit from tourism at an ownership level as opposed to the more traditional patterns of exploitation where operations were typically owned by Pakeha, and Maori resources were used as the attraction. Hence Maori seldom saw the profits from early tourism.

The day we went out was in March, near the end of New Zealand´s summer, and also approaching the end of the dolphin watching season. The sky was clear and the oceans were calm. We shared the boat with a couple from the Netherlands and a young working visa traveller from Germany.

Our tour guide`s name was Elise and she was very charming and hospitable. She had a lot of local knowledge about the area that surprised even Alice despite the fact that she had grown up here. Several times, as the guide divulged intimate knowledge of burial grounds and marks on rocks, Alice was heard to mutter, `Why didnt`t they teach us this in school?´

Elise also gave Alice lessons on how to overcome sea sickness by focussing on the horizon. Soon Alices head was bobbing up and down like a wobble dog, and she was very happy for the entire journey.

We sailed around for quite a while looking for dolphins. This was done partly by listening to radio reports by other boaties and by following Gannets who were fishing. At one point we found the dolphins. We could see them so clearly swimming around the boat in the clear blue water. However, by the time we got into the water the main pod had arrived and swam straight through us, obviously on some urgent mission. I had the misfortune to be looking in the wrong direction and missed them completely. My German compatriate on the other hand found herself in the position of `chicken on the highway´ as dolphins zoomed past her left, right, up and down. After they had gone we got back on the boat and headed off in search of more congenial company. Our 2nd attempt was something of a fizzer, and once again I was noted for swimming in the wrong direction entirely. The dolphins weren`t particularly sociable but they were very beautiful. Unlike Moko who is a large bottlenose dolphin, these ones are common dolphins and have small light grey bodies with dark coloured backs and yellow stripes inbetween.

 These dolphins also wandered away and while a less determined skipper may then have given up and told us that we had swum with dolphins, however briefly, the `Blue Sky´ boldly took course to find yet another pod of dolphins. Finally on the third try I actually got to be in the water with some dolphins that I could ssee. I even got to play around with my camera and tried filming them. It is amazing how clear the water is once you get away from the beach.

Elise really impressed me with her free diving skills. She was swimming so deeply and quickly and got such obvious joy from being with the dolphins. At one point Alice heard Elise whooping through her snorkel. It sounded very comical. After that we went to Whale Island and while we did not have the permit to embark, we did rest in the shade of a beautiful cove and ate snacks and drank hot chocolate - which was really nice and warming after being in the water three times. While we were chewing and sipping, Elise told us some more stories about the area and we watched for seals which did not materialise. There might have been the chance to swim with them, but we were too tired anyway.
Without a doubt we returned to shore a tired and happy bunch of tourists. We were invited back to the shop for showers, but at that point Alice and I said good bye and went home for a shower as we live in the neighbourhood anyway. I was really happy that  I went on the tour because now I have had the pleassure to meet both Moko and Whakatane`s wilder dolphins. I also learned a lot more than I thought I would and feel inspired by Whale & Dolphin Watch`s passionate service.

Wet suits, diving mask, snorkel, snacks and hot chocolate were provided.

If you want to book a tour you can either go on their website or directly to the Blue Shop in 96 The Strand

This is the Blue Shop:

Here is a map:

Größere Kartenansicht

Prices (2011):

Swimming with the dolphins                adults                       $160

                                                          kids                          $130

Watching                                            adults                        $130

                                                           kids                          $100

Whale Island                                       adults                       $90
                                                           kids                          $70

2011 update:  Sadly, Putauaki Trust have moved out of the shop and sold their lovely boats to Diveworks, the other Whale and Dolphin tour operator.  I suppose that this means that the market has been too small to support two businesses, and it's really a shame in several ways.  Firstly, it's a shame that we can't  choose to support a business that supports tribal development (Diveworks and Putauaki trust have both contributed to ecological protection, so it's not all bad!).  Secondly, Putauaki's beatiful boats are currently without a skipper, so only the diveworks boat is in use - not Alice's favorite boat as she got seasick on it.  And we miss Elise, the bubbly tour guide!  Another sad thing is that only drinks and candy are served after diving. Also, Putauaki had guaranteed a dolphin experience.  If they were unable to get you swimming with the dolphins, they issued a voucher so you could try again another day.  Diveworks does their best to find dolphins for you, but if you don't find any, that's just too bad.   Lastly, and perhaps saddest of all,  Putauaki had obtained a license to bring passengers onto Whale Island, and we were looking forward to taking this tour.  Now, nobody is able to offer this tour, and we can only look at Whale Island (protected by the department of conservation) from sea.
Luckily, the dolphins are still out there, and there there is at least one tour that offers the swim with the dolphins experience.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Te Urewera National Park: the Waikaremoana Track and a Mainland Island

Te Uruwera National Park is a huge, 212,672ha national park that lies between the Bay of Plenty and Hawkes Bay.  The area is completely covered with native bush at a range of altitudes.  It can get pretty cold, and this is perhaps reflected in the name "Urewera" (burnt penis), which apparently relates to an incident where somebody slept too close to the fire!
There are some pretty grueling tracks in this national park.  Alice has never really forgiven a certain school teacher for dragging her and 60 other kids through some pretty harsh terrain when she was a kid.
However, there are also some fairly attractive walks and since the 1990s there have been a number of conservation restoration projects undertaken in parts of the Ureweras which should make it interesting to visit.
I should mention that I haven't been to the Ureweras yet; I've been far to busy with Moko and the beaches around here.  But people keep telling me about Lake Waikaremoana, so I thought I should find out more and make plans to go there.  The bush restoration projects around New Zealand are also very interesting.

Lake Waikaremoana is the biggest and most popular lake in the Ureweras, and there is a track called the Wakaremoana Track that follows the western shore of the lake.  You can see a map of it here. The track is one of New Zealand's 10 Great Walks, as listed by the Department of Conservation.  It is a 46km walk, described as a track of "moderate" difficulty which can be completed in about 5 days.  The beauty of the track is that it is often by the water, so you can swim or fish any time you like.  Another beautiful thing is that there are water taxis on the lake who can either give you a ride further along the track as a kind of short-cut, or can organise to deliver your gear for you, so that you don't need to carry 5 days of supplies on your back. There are huts and camp sites dotted along the track, and you book these when you buy your ticket (either online or at the visitor's information center at Aniwaniwa).  If you are only making a day visit to the park, you don't need to buy a ticket.  The best description I have found regarding the timing between huts and the quality of accommodation are at this website:

Another attractive prospect is commercial accommodation on the lake, such as Big Bush Holiday Park and Lake Waikaremoana Motor Camp.  Both places have a range of accommodation options, and the Motor Camp has a General Store for grocery supplies.  So, I could pack my espresso maker and buy fresh milk for my cappuccino, sipping it by the lake....

If you don't have a car, there is a bus that runs from Rotorua to Waikaremoana during the summer months (November - April).  The Rotorua Visitor's Information Center can organise it.

The other big attraction is Te Uruwera Mainland Island in the northern part of the park, near Opotiki.  This is a 50,000ha region where predator control and bush restoration is more intensive.  New Zealand has a problem with imported predators that native birds and plants haven't evolved to protect themselves from.  In the Mainland Island (or TUMI for short) there is intensive trapping of predators, and monitoring of native species.  Some very rare plants and birds have been reintroduced to the area, including the North Island Brown Kiwi,  the beautiful Kokako and the long-tailed bat.  There are two tracks that you can take through this area, and hopefully get an idea of what the bush was like before the arrival of introduced predators!  This area doesn't seem to have any accommodation nearby, so I guess you'd have to look in Waimana or Opotiki.

Here is a youtube video of a baby long-tailed bat:

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Kiwi release ceremony

As I mentioned earlier, the Kiwi bird is the most popular bird of New Zealand but also the most threatened. Therefore people put an enormous amount of energy into helping these long-beaked little fellas to steadily increase their numbers. Volunteer members of the Whakatane Kiwi Project go through the bush searching for their eggs, collect them and transport them to breeding stations where people take care of them until the kiwis are old enough to be released into freedom. An even more important task for the volunteers is pest and predator control (the main dangers are rats, possums, stoats and cats).  Because the flightless kiwi nests exclusively on the ground, the eggs and chicks are an easy catch for predators.

Project manager Bridget Evans and her colleagues label every single egg and the eventually hatched Kiwi so that its heritage and trail can be traced back. 

Since 2001, Whakatane Kiwi Project was able to breed and release more than 100 Kiwis. When it comes to the point where the grown birds can go back to the bush, a shared ceremony of Maori and Pakeha takes place during which the kiwis get a blessing for their future life in the bush.
Last Saturday we took part in such a ceremony:

The man who is standing and touching the kiwis is saying a prayer and blessing for them.

The setting for the ceremony of the brother and sister kiwis took place at the back of the school in Ohope. I was stunned by the large number of people who wanted to share this experience. 

Also many children were at the ceremony who learned at an early age to appreciate the gems of their country.  Kids were given special privileges such as being able to sit much closer to the volunteers when they were putting the transmitters on the kiwis, and the volunteers were very generous in letting the children ask questions and touch the kiwis.

Here, the transmitter is being secured to the kiwi's leg.  This way, workers will be able to locate the kiwi, and hopefully find it's nest in the future!

Kiwis, I have learned, are the only birds who have their nostrils at the end of their beaks - just as mammals do with their noses. They are able to supply their complete water demand from food which enables them to survive even in dry areas. As Kiwis are nocturnal they protect their bodies from the sun, thereby also conserving water.
Unfortunately the ceremony didn´t happen in the same place where the release for the birds itself eventually  took place; it would have beenvery nice to watch them doing their first steps into freedom, but this was a private affair.
It has to be mentioned that even though a dog is part of the mission in field work (dogs who had to undertake a test for skills and harmless and have to wear a muzzle while on duty) , dogs are banned from Kiwi zones. Dog owners who ignore this ban have to pay a fine.
There are kiwi aversion training classes offered for dogs on a regular basis. They work in the following way:  An electro collar gets attached to the dog. The dog is allowed to wander and when he finds some carefully placed kiwi poop, he is given an electric shock.  After this is repeated a couple of times this `treatment´ should ensure that dogs stay away from Kiwis.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A close look at the New Zealand Bush

When we were at the Kauaeranga Visitors Center in Thames, we took some photos of these trees.  We can identify some of them, but some others are a mystery.  If you know your trees, please can you comment  and tell me what they are?  Also, if you know any stories about these trees, please share them here:

It was dusk when we took the photos, so I apologise for the dim lighting.

Cabbage trees look like the trees from Dr Suess books.  It's Maori name is tī rākau, and it was used for food, medicine and cloth. Over the last 20 years, Cabbage trees have been dying from a virus, and the only way people have found of protecting them is to cut off the flowers to prevent them from catching the virus.
Kauri grow very straight and tall.  The biggest Kauri tree is in Northland, Tane Mahuta.  Early European settlers over-harvested Kauri trees for wood and gum, so now the tree is protected and is being replanted.

I think this is a Kahikatea.  The burned wood from Kahikatea were used by Maori for making tatoos.

Gully Tree Fern or Puunui 

Whekii with mysterious creeper

Silver Fern, or Ponga

Can anybody tell me what these are?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hats off to the beautiful Coromandel - by Alice

The Coromandel is a beautiful peninsula, enfuriatingly close to Auckland and consequently overcrowded to the point of insanity in the summer holidays.  As a result, my attitude towards the area is often one of slight resentment (what have they got that we haven't got?) and annoyance (I'd like to go there for a drive, but I'd better wait until after the peak season).
However, Chris and I recently booked a bed and breakfast in Thames and were pleasantly surprised.
The purpose of our journey was to visit the German consulate in Auckland and we figured that Thames was close enough to Auckland to break up the drive, and far enough a way to shift the price/quality balance in our favor.  People say that Thames is a great place to go, but I never really understood why until now.  We found ourselves staying at Huia lodge, about 9km inland from the Thames coast.    Last time, we stayed in a beautiful motel on the Thames coast, but to be honest, the beach didn't impress us much.  Huia Lodge, on the other hand, was deep into the bush, and staying there made a lot of sense.  I was surprised to find that most of Celia and Murrays guests were from the U.K., with Germans being their next biggest group of visitors.  Apparently their cottage is very close to the Pinnacles, a mountain range I hadn't even heard of until that moment, and yet it is a major attraction to trampers all around the world!
We had arrived shortly before dark, but we had a little bit of time to zoom down to the Department of Conservations visitor's center for a look.  We took a short walk to a model dam, a replica of the kinds of dams early woodcutters built for floating logs out of the bush.  Everything was just so beautiful, and even though I would usually put my nose in the air and say that the Ureweras (near Whakatane) are just as good, at that moment I had my doubts.
So, I have to say, at this moment, credit where credit is due, the Coromandel is definitely worth taking a look.  If you want to go there, I would strongly recommend hiring a car, and if you like to camp, take a tent.  Coromandel has a lot of problems and prohibitions on freedom camping, and for the price of hiring a campervan and then paying for a campsite, you may as well stay in a nice B&B like Huia Lodge.

Here are some photos from our trip:

coffee in Katikati, the cafe is called "Robert Harris", a popular franchise here.

Riding the old steam train in Waihi

Walking over the old bridge in the Waihi Gorge.

These are the Pinnacles.  

The visitor centre is beautiful, and gets a lot of sponsorship from the mining company.

The kahikatea track is a shorter exhibition track.  The track to the mountains isn't this good!

We took the photos in the evening and the light was really beautiful, but I guess the camera had other ideas.  This is the model dam, built to give visitors an idea of the technology used by early woodcutters.

It was approaching night and we got a little bit nervous about getting lost in the bush.  Having found our way back to the car, our anxiety was further increased by the slightly confusing system of roads for getting out of the park.  These teeth are built to stop people entering through the exit, but we weren't entirely confident that we hadn't come out the wrong way and had to check that the teeth weren't meant for us!
Having ascertained that we weren't trapped in the national park for the night, playing with this new technology was kind of fun!

Back to Huia Lodge for a cup of tea.

Here is Celia with Huia Lodge's record of where each visitor comes from.  

Here is the Autobahn cafe, a popular place to stop on the way out of Auckland.

Autobahn Cafe, Bombay, South of Auckland.

Good food!

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