Category: new zealand

a few days ago, just as the sky began to get light, we were awakened by a crash. my first thought was that a kereru/native woodpigeon had flown into one of the windows of the next room. if it were a bird, it would almost certainly be injured, given the force with which it had hit the glass (we felt the impact as well as heard it). so i padded downstairs to see whether anyone was lying stunned (or worse) on the ground. in the grey early light, it was difficult to see, but eventually i did make out an unusual shape sprawled among the pale green leaves of the juicy succulent that is slowly claiming the ground outside our guest-room window. when i folded the wings back in and turned the bird over, this is what i found.

20150330_071910this is a ruru or morepork (Ninox novaeseelandiae), new zealand’s only remaining owl (the laughing owl, along with about half of our other native bird species, became extinct between human colonization of the islands and the end of the 20th century). i had seen them before (and we hear them reasonably often–they make over 20 different vocalisations) but never in the wild, and never this close. his mottled rust-brown and cream feathers were smooth and silky on the wings, incredibly soft on the belly, and almost spiderweb-fine down the legs, to the surprisingly yellow feet. when i picked him up, his head lolled and his eyes were closed, but one foot grasped a fallen cabbage tree leaf, he was breathing, and to my great relief, the remaining tension in his neck showed that it wasn’t broken.

i gathered him in to hold in one hand, pinning the wings to the body. i’ve studied wild birds in the past but the usual hold, with the head supported between first and second fingers, would clearly not work for a bird longer than my forearm. even a small owl has wicked talons and an effective beak, so i hoped i wouldn’t have to explain a slashed wrist to our local emergency facilities (although, good story!). he seemed far from a vicious panic attack, though, so i took my chances. i carried him up to our small deck and sat to examine him more closely. as we walked through the door from the house back outside, his wide yellow eyes popped open and looked around, and he turned his head a bit to get a better look at his surroundings—and me.

owl eyes are unlike most other birds’ eyes; they are proportionally very large, forward-facing and set in flat facial discs and supported by the bony rings common to all raptors. up close, their size and vivid color make for an intense, piercing stare; the bright yellow-orange irises and extraordinary large black pupils of this morepork seemed to convey a much higher awareness than the eyes of most smaller birds. this is probably why owls have their reputation for wisdom across many cultures; in the traditional facial moko/tattoos of the maori, women wear a stylized ruru on their chins for wisdom. i was glad to see that the pupils, although remaining large, expanded and constricted together. the owl’s clear gaze continued to hold mine as i debated whether to test his ability to stand, or check him for injuries.

in the end, his improving head control (i only rotated him a little—for science) and the foot continuing to grasp the cabbage tree frond convinced me to let him try perching. i positioned him behind a bamboo gardening hoop on the deck and touched the perch to the top of his feet; he flailed a little and then grasped, crouching a little lopsidedly and continuing to peer around. while his coordination showed he was not yet fully recovered, nothing seemed obviously broken, although he did slowly tip forward until he hung bat-like from the underside of the perch. i re-collected him into a tea towel so i could isolate each limb and sat down to examine him more closely. i felt along his legs and feet; tension was good, i couldn’t feel any broken bones and he didn’t flinch at my prodding. his ribs, sternum and skull all seemed fine, so although his eyes had closed again, i thought he had a good chance of recovering after some peace and quiet.

20150330_071922i carried him inside with me (to the cats’ consternation—as indoor dwellers they don’t get to see birds on their side of the windows very often), procured a wooden beer crate and brought it back out to the deck with some fat sticks to make perches. i set the box with the open side facing out, positioned the sticks, and gently inserted the owl behind a one, planning to retry the perching prompt. he grasped one of the sticks with a foot, but fluttered his wings and made an awkward hop that brought him out of the box. once in the open, he looked at me, sprang into the air, and made a smooth, swooping, perfect flight over the deck rail, around the corner of the house, and off into the trees. so he was clearly… owl right!

an unexpected party


the elf and i like to go walking some afternoons in a beautiful and unexpected patch of forest called smith’s bush.  the 1km-long loop boardwalk weaves between many different kinds of native trees, some of impressive stature, and none more than the giant puriri (Vitex lucens) that tower over one section of the walk.  these trees are always amazing, with their knots and gnarls and resident giant puriri moths (which i have never seen but keep hoping to), but in this bush block they have reached a size i never previously knew was possible.  one group of four trunks in particular, all part of a single tree, is simply too massive to be imagined without standing next to them.  the canopy of these trees is also full of astelias (or ‘tank lilies’, or ‘widow-makers’), making standing around too long in any one place perhaps unwise.

we were making our way around the loop late last week in the slow, thorough stroll of new walkers who intermittently want to be carried, or perhaps practice walking backwards, or touch all the leaves close enough to the boardwalk (glad nz doesn’t have native cacti or skin-irritating climbers), when we discovered something new.  and rather than try to describe our whimsical find, i think i’ll just show you.




the rail trail, day 2

i can’t say that getting back onto my bike on the morning of day 2 was one of the better parts of the trip.  we did sleep well, in the ‘music cottage,’ and had a nice continental breakfast in our room, then pulled on our only slightly damp bike shorts, repacked our bag for transport (it would have cost the same to rent panniers as it did to have the bag transported for us — $10 per day — so not a difficult choice), and went out to face our saddles.  i had brought my own seat with me, and although i was initiallly a little sensitive about its grannyish width and depth, the guy who’d installed it for me at the start of the trail assured me that he’d seen far more ridiculous models.  in hindsight i think bringing it along was one of my best decisions; i was still plenty sore (even with the added padding of a thick fleece jacket i wore tied around my waist), but can only imagine how it would have been without.  the pebbles certainly said he regretted not bringing his.  so we perched gingerly for the first couple of km, then settled into the rhythm of the day and allowed ourselves to be distracted by the scenery.

the first stretch was reported to be one of the most picturesque along the trail, as we traversed the poolburn gorge.  it included lovely river valley vistas, high bridges and two deliciously dark tunnels.  we had plenty of company, seeming to have started around the same time as many other cyclists, but traffic thinned out as we took our time to admire the surroundings, spotting chuckling quail in the trailside scrub and tickling spiders out of their rocky funnel retreats.  the tops of the mountains were veiled in cloud when we set out, but gradually lifted through the morning and were clear by lunchtime.  before stopping, we cycled a long straight 12km through the bucolic ida valley, some of us privately hoping (fruitlessly) that the pre-lunch distance of 22.5km had been somewhat overestimated.  but we were among the first to arrive into oturehua, choosing to dine at hayes’ engineering, which, in addition to having lovely historic grounds, a museum, and a cafe with outdoor seating (and, more importantly, padded benches), was the first food opportunity we encountered.  after fortifying ourselves with a steaming bowl of sun-dried tomato pasta (me) and a hearty toasted sandwich (pebbles), we took ourselves on a tour of the machining sheds (originally powered by a windmill that drove a single central shaft to which all the machinery was connected; now driven by a water wheel but the same original drive shaft), gardens and homestead museum.  we took our time and ended up departing at the tail end of the lunch business, which left us pleasantly on our own for the rest of the day.

which was probably for the best, because the closest we came to toy-throwing was during the next leg, in which we climbed to the highest point on the trail, 618m above sea level.  while not as steep as the previous day’s climb (which is to say, not steep at all), the steady slight incline was still wearing over a distance of 8km, and there may or may not have been a few tense moments and bad words as we stopped in the shade of a pine tree about a kilometer from the summit.  luckily, when we did make it to the highest point marker, we were joined by an elderly couple coming in the opposite direction who had a good supply of chocolate that they cheerily shared in celebration. 

with the psychological boost of knowing the rest of the trail was downhill, we coasted for the next few km into wedderburn, famous for not much except being in a graham sydney painting, which i suppose still makes it more famous than most other points along the trail.  here we also had the chance to look around the conserved old station, the smallest size class of (once-)manned stations along the line.  it had most recently been manned by feathered tenants, but at least the ladies’ waiting room was a good step above the tin sheds elsewhere on the trail, and i actually quite liked the bank of old post-boxes that still remained in the station-master’s office.

we continued our cruisy downhill pace all afternoon, maintaining about 18km/hr except for one good section where we put in a turbo-boost to break 30km/hr, just because we could.  we came into ranfurly around 4.30pm, in time for naps before dinner (during which time all the shops in town closed, problematic because there was a water-boiling advisory posted due to recent flooding, and no jug provided in our room), then showered and went for a quick look around the art-deco-intensive  main streets (both of them). we discovered that our best food option was probably the pub next door to our hotel, we did have decent steaks, and then settled in to wait for the final world cup match, even managing to stay awake through to the victorious close, although not long past — despite the best efforts of celebrating patrons in the dining room below us.  with 98km on the odometers and the knowledge of another 60 (our longest day) to come in the morning, we were deeply unconscious within minutes.

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the rail trail, day 1

every once in a while, the pebbles and i decide to use some holiday time for domestic adventures; after all, we live in new zealand, so we don’t exactly have to head overseas to find spectacular scenery.  one such destination that has long been on our ‘someday’ list is the central otago rail trail, 150km of former steam-train line between clyde and middlemarch, in the central southern south island.  we have a few sets of friends who have cycled the trail (some of them with parents or elderly friends/relatives, which is encouraging for those of us [me] who haven’t been mountain biking since before we could walk), and all have proclaimed its excellence as a few days’ outing.  so when the february earthquake ruined our plans to go to christchurch to see weird al in concert (i realize that in the grand scheme of things, this complaint is pretty trivial… but this is the third time i’ve been thwarted in seeing him, so i’m a little bitter), i suggested that we re-book the flights to dunedin and do the rail trail over labour weekend, for our third anniversary.

so we did.

let me say in advance that i am a slug as far as physical activity goes.  i do some aerial circus stuff, but that requires short bursts of core strength and is generally aided by gushes of adrenaline as the body finds itself hanging (and/or falling) high above the ground in unusual positions.  i do not run, or otherwise move faster than a walk, without some kind of motorized or equine assistance; i used to swim, but my lifeguarding days are comprehensively over.  cycling an average of 50km/day in unknown conditions (and, frankly, rather ominous-looking conditions as the time drew near) therefore required a little training.  so we started doing some local rides, which is to say i started trying to accustom certain personal regions to long periods of sitting on a bike seat and certain muscles to prolonged pedaling action.  i say prolonged; our longest pre-trail ride was about 20km (the pebbles actually managed to find a truly flat cycling route in auckland, a herculean feat), which took about 1:10.  more often we would do about a 9km, but much hillier, loop around our neighborhood, or go mountain biking out west in the woodhill forest park.  in total, we probably did about eight such rides over the six weeks leading up to this past weekend.

in the preceding days, people would ask, ‘are you excited?’ or ‘do you feel ready?’ and were often bemused by my honest response, which involved puffed-out cheeks and some variation on the ‘i guess we’ll find out when we get there’ theme.  well-meaning friends and family (both veterans and non-) assured me of their confidence in my fitness level and the trail’s certain ease compared with my dark imaginings (after all, steam trains couldn’t manage steeper gradients than 1:50); my perceived pessimism was roundly dismissed.  don’t get me wrong — i suggested the trip in the first place, and i did really want to do it; i just didn’t know how it would go, having never cycled long distance before, let alone in the company of someone who can (without training) get on a bike and ride 100+ (hilly) km in a single day, someone to whom i hoped to stay married beyond this third anniversary.  and i was all too aware that this person, generous of spirit and maddeningly patient, would never let on that he was bored, or wanted to go faster, or was disgusted at my pathetically wheezing soon-to-be corpse wobbling along on spaghetti-noodle legs; in fact, that he would probably not even think those things, and his words of encouragement would be genuine rather than patronizing; i would just imagine the worst.  in short: i was embarking on something i was not good at, with someone who was good at it, and i hoped i could get through it without being too much of a bitch.

you know the nice thing about marriage?  your partner knows all this stuff about you and marries you anyway.  on purpose.

day 1
our travel to the trail itself suffered somewhat from the curse of the chatty stranger.  on our flight to dunedin, the pebbles was stuck next to a perfectly friendly but verbally diarrhetic man who talked to him for the entire two-hour flight, going so far as to recommend local sights and activities even though he’d found out early in the conversation that the pebbles had previously lived in dunedin longer than this man, a recent immigrant, had been there himself.  in the shuttle from dunedin out to clyde (about a 3-hr ride), warding himself against a repeat situation, the pebbles snuck into the window seat, leaving me in the middle.  we had about an hour of just us, enjoying the lovely scenery and promising weather, and then we stopped to pick up a group of six other riders in their 40s and 50s.  i will not dwell on them, but suffice it to say that the man who sat next to me was there because his own wife did not want to sit with him for this trip, and the chatter level was enough to make the pebbles and me agree later that we’d each rather be stuck on a desert island for all eternity with the guy from the plane.

but let’s get on the trail already.  we reached clyde at about noon, got kitted out with our rental bikes and changed into our diaper-like padded shorts, and were ready to embark at about 12.30.  during the shuttle ride (while pointedly staring out the windows) we’d seen the flush of spring green leaves, riots of cherry blossoms, and lush green fields (unusual for central otago, in our memories, but due to heavy rains and flooding in the preceding week), and were eager to enjoy the scenery at a cycling pace, and in our own company.  the first 25km were essentially flat and traveled along vineyards, pastures, and orchards, and crossed one (or several) swollen rivers on picturesque wooden bridges.  we stopped after 9km for lunch in alexandra at the old courthouse (greeted, with slightly sinking hearts, by a shout of the pebbles’ name when we arrived — our friend from the van.  we sat on the other side of the outdoor area), then continued through sunshine and light breezes to galloway — one of many stops along the way that proved to be merely an information site situated inside a corrugated tin shelter, representing the original ‘station’ or stop along the rail line.  several of these were actually designated ‘ladies’ waiting rooms’ and included chimneys at the back — i can only imagine what it would have been like to wait there for a train on a truly wintery day.  for our purposes, they provided interesting bits of trivia about the trail and occasional breaks from the sun if needed (or wind — wait for day 3), or indicators of distance, although we also had odometers.

from galloway we continued on to chatto creek, essentially a single pub with a nice outdoor area, where we and most of the rest of the rail trail traffic stopped for a drink.  we sat in the shade/sun (depending on breeze and cooling sweat), adjacent to some evidently grumpy donkeys in a paddock, and took stock of our efforts so far.  i was feeling good apart from very itchy arms that came from the constant shudder of riding over packed gravel, but was a little foot-draggy about resuming the trail, knowing that the steepest section was next.  in hindsight i can definitely say that none of it was as steep as i’d feared — it’s one thing to calculate a 1:50 gradient in your mind, and another to look at the condensed elevation maps that the information sites provide.  in any case, we climbed about 150m over the next 12km, which turns out not to be much at all.  we could tell that there was a slight incline compared to the early part of the trail, but comfortably maintained a speed of 12-14km/hr. the tin shed at omakau signaled the top of the climb, and from there it was an easy 7km on to our end point for the day.  we rode past idyllic scenes of sheep and lambs under snowy mountains, fruit trees in bloom and humming with bees, rural messages of support for the all blacks (the world cup final would be played the next day), and coasted into lauder, to our accommodation at the old school house b&b, about 47km from our start point.  i won’t deny that i was tired and very happy to dismount for the day, but it had been a good one.  peeling off the damp layers. sluicing off under a hot shower, dinner at the hotel across the road and then watching the stars come out while lounging in the outdoor spa completed day 1, and we went to bed exhaustedly content.

orua bay

this weekend we celebrated our one-year anniversary.  we still had an outstanding wedding present (outstanding indeed), a mystery weekend away, and decided to cash it in for a getaway in celebration of the past twelve months.  (actually a week early, but who’s counting?  … er, obviously, we are.)
our destination turned out to be a lovely bach on orua bay, at the northern tip of the awhitu peninsula.  the bach was only accessible for two hours at low tide (by driving along the beach), so once we arrived on friday afternoon, we were in for the weekend.  and it was blissful.  we only saw other people from a distance, strolling on the beach.  the manic rain-and-shine weather was perfect for reading, watching movies, beachwalking, and cuddling up on the old couch on the porch, sheltered by an overhanging roof and about 20m from the water’s edge (depending on tide).  tuis sang all day and kingfishers perched on the power lines, watching for their dinner in the waves lapping below.  herons strutted and seagulls dropped unlucky seastars and shellfish on the rocks.
we discovered the long-beached hulk of a small sailboat, nearly snarled in the roots of an overhanging pohutukawa tree; under the roots was a cave fully tall enough to stand up in.  we watched the sunrise on saturday morning, then went back to sleep until 11.  we followed the decadent menu our friends had planned and provided for us, prowled the exposed seagrass beds and pools at low tide, napped, and lounged around in companionable sloth.
do we really have to wait one more whole year for the next one?

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this is my favorite spot in the waitakere ranges. it’s where we would have gotten married if the weather had permitted, but it is no less dear for the prohibitive mud of last october. its boulders, silky waterfalls, icy pools and hidden mossy grottoes need no real description, but i do wish i could capture the chorus of tuis, the whistle of woodpigeons in flight and the constant shush and trickle of the stream as the soundtrack to these images.

the hole in the water

out west, at little huia, you can look down to the bottom of a reservoir.  there's a giant spillway funnel built in as part of an emergency overflow system, and a bridge to give the best possible view into the whirling depths.

when the weather's been dry for a while, the water level sits several meters below the lip of the funnel, so no spillage occurs.  intrepid plants sometimes colonize for a season, and you can actually stand down at the other end and look in the funnel mouth (although technically there's no public access there.  we won't delve into that too deeply).

but when the reservoir is full, gentle waves lap over the sides and curtain down the sides of this massive drain. and when rainfall has been particularly heavy, it starts to roar.  (i have a video of the roaring that i'm trying to dig out, but for now the stills of the calmer day will have to do.)

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i spent most of last week freezing in wellington – i must truly have a flat learning curve, to have gone down there with neither scarf nor umbrella.  both were sorely missed.  i did manage to see the colossal squid display, finally, and was delighted to discover a current exhibition on monet and the other impressionists (which i missed in college, when it was on at its home, the boston museum of fine arts).  i also discovered a sandwich that made me nearly as rapturous as the windfall of german food: reuben sandwich on a jalapeno cheese bagel.  hot DAMN.  i had to have two of those, plus two additional bagels, over the three days i was in town.

sadly, due to wind/rain/general meteorological misery, wellington itself afforded no decent photos.  i did get some nice behind-the-scenes ones at the museum, but it’s not the right day for those yet.  ;)  the flight back on friday, however, presented some very nice vistas indeed.

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easter eggs

sooo, it’s good friday, and i’m at work, and i feel a cold coming on.  our original plans for easter had us scheduled to fly to cairns today and be sleeping aboard a dive boat on the way out to the great barrier reef tonight.  sadly, the company we wanted to go with – the only company that did research as well as dumping tourists in the water to poke the pretty fishies (sorry, impending cold snark) – folded in february.  rescheduling with a different operator would have cost us about $1500 each and we didn’t feel that good about going with one of the non-eco outfits.

we decided to head over to australia anyway and visit the pebbles’ dad and stepmom in gold coast, and to catch up with tomboy for the first time in a year.  so tomorrow we head out in the afternoon, to start sunning ourselves and avoiding sharp, poisonous things for five days.  (by which i mean the aussie fauna of course.  what did you think?)  if i get lucky, maybe i’ll come back with some wicked new spider pics.  if i get unlucky, maybe i’ll get back with some wicked new spider pics and fond memories of a recent trip to the emergency room.  in which case a large haul of new stuff from our closest ikea (brisbane) will be necessary to assuage the trauma.

the weekend should bring merry reunions, cheese fondue, chocolate eggs and maybe even a vampire dinner show.  bring it on!  and in honor of the star-crossed cancelled dive trip and the spring (heh) fertility festival, i give you our own local brand of pastel easter eggs… from the arrow squid, Nototodarus gouldii.  courtesy of tony enderby.




we just got back from a stunning weekend in dunedin, but before i launch into those pics, i should probably finish up with the poor knights. our little camera obviously isn't going to be used in any high-tech underwater filming any time soon, but it does convey some of the marine magic a little better than the still shots do.

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