Craig and Ross in New Zealand

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January 28th 2015
Published: January 28th 2015
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Episode 5 (Wednesday, 28.01.15)

With our remaining days in New Zealand becoming numbered, we progressed from Napier south towards Wellington. We stopped at a little town called Woodville for lunch. While eating in a café, I noticed a dress shop called “For Frock’s Sake.” In Wellington, we stayed at the Copthorne Hotel by the water, with sweeping views of the city around the harbour. Wellington is a charming place, and again our days were bathed in sunshine (26 degrees in Welly and not a breath of wind !). Ross particularly loved the rows of lovely (San Fran like) wooden houses both along the boulevarde and terraced up the hillsides around the city. Meanwhile, sitting in bean bags drinking beers in the late arvo sun down at the Macs BrewBar is most agreeable (as Lady Catherine De Burgh - from Pride and Prejudice - might say)!

Now, this next bit about birds and evolution is for all my science mates, so if this is not your thing, skip to the next paragraph……

Like most tourists, the first thing we did in Welly was catch the little red cable car up the hillside for views over the city. While up there, we then caught the free shuttle bus from the cable car station to what I can only describe as an outstanding treasure: Zealandia ubran eco-sanctuary. (Thanks gain Brent and Shirl for the excellent recommendation, and you mentioned it too, I think, Katie Ayers ?). Zealandia was the name given to the land mass precursor to current New Zealand as it parted company from its Gondwanaland parent. Zealandia aims to recreate the “New Zealand” environment prior to human habitation, allowing wildlife to recover from predation and habitat destruction. This has involved erecting a robust fence around a large area of forest, eradicating pests such as rats, stoats, cats and Australian possums. In a measured and careful way, they have put feeders out for the birds. The result is that native birds have returned or have been reintroduced and are doing very well. It was excellent. We walked along forest tracks and various birds, including cheeky wild kaka and kakarikis (both are types of parrots). In addition, there is an outstanding interactive display section, featuring a huge screen showing a movie describing the NZ wildlife and how it has been decimated (with no commentary given or needed). Lots of great info on the extinct flightless moa – boy, I wish they were still with us. We learnt that the legacy of the moa exists and can be seen today in the current New Zealand vegetation. Moas loved eating leaves, flowers and buds. One New Zealand bush (still found today) has sharp spines that would have matched the position of the moas eyes, a protective device. Another plant species looks drab with dead-looking - but very much alive - leaves, making them unattractive to moas. Another tree grows straight up to over 10 feet before it starts to send out its branches and leaves – hence, out of reach of the tall ostrich-like moas. These plants still exist today throughout New Zealand, but with no particular evolutionary pressure to abandon their moa-evading strategies. Fascinating.

The other thing we did on Monday morning is visit the nation’s premier museum, Te Papa. Ross initially tried to pull a shifty by insisting that Te Papa only opens at 11.30am on Mondays, and I almost believed him, until I double-checked and saw that it opened at 9am. His strategy of garnishing an extra sleep-in was hence thwarted. We really enjoyed the museum and spent over three hours there. Lots of great stuff, including a special exhibit on 75 years of Air New Zealand. While in Wellington, we also went to the Weta Cave – the shopfront of Weta Productions- famous for all their special effects work on Avatar, King Kong, Spiderman and most famously on Lords of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogies. This company does most of the costumes, outfits, weapons, and the CGI. It was fascinating – amazing how much effort, talent and high tech goes into those movies. The Weta Productions Group, in a quiet suburb of Wellington, is now one of the major special effects production houses in the world.

Our final port of call on this NZ trip was Waitomo caves. We drove a long way from Wellington to get to Waitomo, via New Plymouth, in an attempt to see Mt. Taranaki, which we saw in parts, as it was mostly shrouded in high level cloud. So, in Waitomo, we did a combo tour, involving the famous glow-worm caves plus Ruakari cave. The latter has great cave formations (stalagtites, stalagmites, straws, pools, etc). The climax was easily Waitomo Cave, specifically the glow-worm viewing from a boat in the complete darkness, as we glided silently along and the scene above us looked like a multitude of blue-tinged stars on a clear night. Everyone was dead silent, the only sound coming in the pitch black coming from water droplets occasionally dripping into the underground river that we were moving along. Now, I must say that I agree with Thomas, the cost of entry is very pricey to borderline rip-off (now $49 per person for Waitomo Cave alone). We did get a bit pissed off by the large number of people on our tour (tours run every 30 minutes) because people were constantly babbling to each other when told to be quiet, or they were touching delicate rock formations that they were told numerous times not to touch. Ross said that they should at least run smaller group tours, but why would they, when they can snap up $49 pp all day long?

While in Waitomo, we also went along to Otorohanga Kiwi house, to see kiwis up close in a nocturnal house (among other birds). There are several species of kiwi. Otorohanga has the only captive large spotted kiwi in the world. We watched it being fed and it put on quite a show, strutting around its enclosure like a lunatic, jumping up and down on its keeper, and calling out its high pitched squeaks. We learnt that the large spotted kiwi sleeps for 20 hours per day, emerging only for a few hours to feed and potter about the place. (These characteristics have led biologists to believe that it is closely related to a Southern Australian creature, called Ross stuartus.)

So, that’s it then. Another excellent trip chalked up. We have had an outstanding time here in NZ. I love how relatively safe and peaceful New Zealand is. Here, the traffic will stop for you even if you are thinking about crossing the road. This is a country where I mistakenly left a bottle of duty-free Frangelico on a table at Auckland airport, only to rush back to find it still there 45 minutes later. It is a place to get locked into pleasant conversation with anyone - from any walk of life - anywhere. There is a peaceful and gracious “vibe” about this place that goes beyond its clean/green image, a vibe that is precious and that I hope never disappears from this great country. (But while I think of it, one thing we did not like - given the near parity exchange rate - was the high cost of petrol. Anywhere between $1.60 and $1.90/L here, compared to about $1.10 in Melbourne at present. And they said on the local news that it is the lowest in five years!).

Some people prefer the South Island of NZ, for its wild scenery (snowcapped mountains, glaciers), its marine life (seals and penguins) and the groovy British-type cities such as Dunedin and Christchurch. Others love the beaches, islands and volcanic and geothermal wonders of the North Island, together with the energetic harbour cities of Auckland and Wellington. I love them both, for their respective reasons given above.

While here in New Zealand, I was very shocked to learn that a colleague from the University of Canberra had suddenly passed away. He was only a few years older than me, and was an undergraduate with Glenn B. and I at Macquarie Uni in the 1980’s. I had reconnected with him in 2013, when I gave a talk there in Canberra and he was head of Department (a testament to his success as a scientist). I very much feel for Dave’s wife and two kids, whom I met at the time. It made me reflect again on human frailty and how any one of us could simply leave this mortal coil at any time. So that old adage is so true: live every day as if it is your last. OK, most of us have to work, but outside of that (or as well as that), follow your passion – be it family, dogs, cats or other pets, food, or - as in my case - the world and its creatures. Should I drop off the perch tomorrow, I will die a very happy man. I have already achieved my two teenage ambitions of becoming a biologist and getting out to see the world. This truly wondrous world.

We fly home to Melbourne tomorrow. This New Zealand trip represents our overseas sojourn for 2015. I now need to knuckle down in my new job at Monash University and work for a year before I can scratch my eternally itchy feet again in 2016.

Peace and love to all,

Craig and Ross.

p.s. additional pics shown below. click to enlarge.

Additional photos below
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