"I love the Nature Safari outlook on life - very outgoing, making great fun even in extreme conditions ."
I rekindled my love and enthusiasm for the mountains and valleys of New Zealand last summer. It came so unexpectedly too. All through joining a 10-day Nelson to Queenstown. New Zealand Nature Safaris turned out to be more than just tramping in wilderness areas, having fun with a small international group and exploring New Zealand's natural history.
Mark Brabyn, owner-operator and zoologist was our guide. Adventure with Mark seemed certain as long as one enjoyed tramping and was reasonably fit. Especially since he has participated in whale studies and bird surveys in New Zealand through to wildlife projects with killer whales in Canada, bald eagles in Alaska, chimpanzees and elephants in Uganda and Humpback whales in Tonga.
I wasn't disappointed. Well-organized, thoughtful and relaxed in manner, Mark seemed so-at-one with nature and very keen to share his outdoors experience with us all.
Ready for Adventure
It was 27 December 1994 when nine of us set off by mini-van from Nelson. We were American, Swiss, New Zealanders and a Canadian working in Japan. After a food shop in Richmond, which provided the first challenge in working together, we drove to Flora Saddle in northwest Nelson. Here we had a divvy-up of rations to last us two days. Mark's pack included the billies, primus, tent flies and a mobile phone!
We set off on an easy four hour walk along a pack route through fairly open beech forest where Mark pointed out various plants and birds along the way. I'd never heard of Griselinia littoralis before - a broadleaf found only in New Zealand and Chile. Nor had I seen riflemen - New Zealand's smallest bird with a high-pitched shrill.
The soothing sound of rushing waters enticed some of us to brave our first swim when we came upon a lovely sunny spot in the midst of the bush. Appearances were deceptive - the clear shallow waters were freezing! But it was refreshing.
Everyone gave a hand to collect firewood when we set up camp that evening just beyond a goldminers rock shelter. Tent flies were erected on soft spongy tussocklands while the cooks produced spagetti bolognaise over an open fire. I hadn't carried an overnight pack for several years yet felt no aches and slept like a log.
A grey mist enshrouded us as as we set off the next morning and tramped through limestone country towards Gordon's Pyramid. Then the weather really clagged out on the tops where rain and wind assailed us from above and our boots squished underfoot. Five hours later we huddled in a shelter, warmed up with hot cups of tea and hungrily devoured salami, tomato, cheese and cucumber sandwiches. Returning to Flora Saddle we drove through to Buller Gorge and camped at Lyell sharing Nachos and salad and cheesecake with hoards of sandflies.
By now, we were well and truly broken in and ready for any adventure ... At Cape Foulwind, a desolate windswept headland aptly named by Captain Cook in 1770, we visited one of six breeding seal colonies on the West Coast before travelling further south and entering the dense podocarp forests of the Paparoas.
Limestone canyons towered high above us as we criss-crossed the Fox River in groups of four or five with loosened pack straps around our waists and firmly grasping each others shoulder straps.
The clear rushing waters looked shallow but again they were deceptive - they reached the bottom of my shorts, and I have long legs! That night we camped under the huge Ballroom Rock Overhang.
At Punakaiki we donned waterproof jackets and overtrousers in the torrential rain and walked down to the blowholes lookout. To our delight we discovered that the prevailing northwesters combined with a high spring tide, provided ideal conditions for an "awesome" performance. boomed at regular intervals as massive swells swept in under the pancake rocks, while 'ejected huge white plumes high into the sky. The clouds drew back as we reached Greymouth and fine weather greeted us at our campsite in Okarito. We hung out our wet gear and after a delicious haangi in the sands we joined a crowd who'd gathered at the far end of the beach around a huge bonfire and welcomed in 1995.
On New Year's Day we kayaked up the Okarito Lagoon on the incoming tide. Breathtaking beauty and peace abounded as we explored small inlets with binoculars and cameras at the ready. Several sleek white herons graced us with their presence from out of the dense coastal forest, performed a repertoire of coy show-off manoevres and then soared off out of sight.
In the late afternoon we walked up to the snout of the Franz Joseph Glacier which is advancing at the tremendous rate of a metre a day! In contrast to the sparkling clear inlet waters of Okarito, murky, grey, glacial waters gushed out from beneath these towering blue and white, moraine-dusted ice cliffs.
The weather looked threatening as we set off on a seven hour inland tramp up a rugged West Coast Valley. Soon we were immersed in forging the Copland River, resting on grassy river flats and plodding up a track through dense podocarp forest and one that had once been used by early explorers to reach a goldmine camp. It started raining only five minutes before we reached our destination. Quickly dropping our packs at the hut, we headed off for a soak in the nearby hot pools. The downpour provided an ideal shower when we got out!
We slept soundly even though the hut was crowded. Packed together like sardines on adjoining mattresses certainly kept everyone warm and cosy. It dawned a fine day so most of us set off for an hour and a half's walk up a nearby stream. At our lunch spot three of us dared to swim across to the other side of a freezing snowmelt pool nestled beneath a rushing waterfall. My toes nearly froze!
On the way back to the hut we stopped and sunbathed on the river flats and marvelled at the beauty around us ...bushclad scree slopes and patches of snow on the craggy heights, snowfields and crevasses and ice cliffs, a rushing river and even passing clouds that dispersed raindrops upon us from time to time. Fine weather followed us throughout our six hour return journey the next day. However by lunchtime our hungry appetites were game to try anything in our sandwiches - even adventurous combinations of jam, garlic and peanut butter!
We later camped on an isolated beach, ate venison for dinner and as the day came to a close we snuggled up to the warmth of a glowing fire. The final leg of the journey included visiting a beach seal colony and for the keen, a scramble back up a steep bushclad cliff face with the help of a dangling rope handhold. And at Ship Creek we walked part of the boarded walk through a swamp forest where rimu, rata and kiekie flourish along with kahikatea, New Zealand's tallest tree. On the last day I refrained from plunging into several aqua- blue alpine lakes. Perhaps it was knowing that a shower was awaiting our arrival in Queenstown!
After completing the 10 day leg of the safari and resting for two days in Queenstown, another international group, seven of us, headed south. Fiordland National Park was our first stop on the We negotiated bootdeep bog and waist-high tussock, climbed through undulating beech forests covered in luscious filmy ferns and some long-named mosses (Dendroligatroitum dendroides) and again listened to the high-pitched shrill of riflemen. A stunning sunrise greeted us the next morning at Greenlake Hut. A shaft of light pierced the darkness of the clouds and lit up the stilled waters. As we set off around the lake, the cloudsbegan to lift off the tops, blue skies peeped through and we were soon back in the beech forest with sponge-like softness underfoot.
After a "steep grunt", we thankfully climbed out onto the open tops while a kea screeched overhead as if to say "You're doing it the hard way. Look at me!" I had seen their mischievious antics before but didn't realise until Mark remarked, that they were the only mountain parrot in the world and that the occasional "rogue" kea does create sheep problems and is capable of leading all the others astray! "Look there's deerprints here!" I heard someone say. We sidled up the mountain stream and as we gained height I looked back to the full view of Green Lake. What a privilege to witness such beauty in the wilderness of our own country! Such variety of plant life proliferating in these exposed conditions right under our feet too. Giant buttercups, yellow-coloured buttercups, daisies, spaniards and hebes, to mention a few.
Patches of snow hugged the south facing slopes. We playfully glissaded on a long patch of snow with a safe runout, before climbing up to a high point at about 1,500 metres for lunch. A cup of tea boiled from a billy-full of snow never tasted so good!
The next three days were spent along the coastline of the deep south in the Waitutu area. Here we crunched over carpets of blue mussels, sprang across rock pools or followed an old pack route through mixed podocarp and beech forest. We arrived at Port Craig to a full hut but remembered the "three locals" we had passed on the beach in the morning who had told us about a sea cave as an alternative place to stay. We searched for it and found it - a lovely dry resting place with bushy side entrances and overlooking a beach cove.
Based here for two nights we explored the local forest and coastline, swam in the sea and dipped in a river. Of particular interest were the restored high wooden viaducts used during the1920's when Port Craig was the site of the largest and most modern sawmill in New Zealand.
But it wasn't until we camped at Curio Bay, just beyond Invercargill, that I saw for the first time, two hector dolphins. Swimming along the shoreline they seemed to be on a mission as they conducted their early morning inspection of the bay before heading back out to sea.
It was here that we also explored a nearby coastal platform of fossilised fallen logs and tree stumps - recognised as an international treasure and as one of the best examples of a Jurassic fossil forest in the world. Supposedly 180 million years old! Unique wildlife opportunities abounded as we continued up the east coast, especially on the Otago Peninsula. At Taiaroa Head we saw the only mainland colony of albatross in the world. With wing spans of up to four metres it didn't surprise me that they could regularly circumnavigate the globe.
At a yellow-eyed penguin conservation reserve we were given excellent close-up opportunities from hides and camouflaged tunnels to view these very dignified birds and some of their fluffy grey chicks. Others, waddling out of the sea with a day's catch of fish in their bellies, were clearly visible too as they made their solitary return journeys across the sandhills to their nests.
It was time for me to return to work in Wellington. As the mini-van pulled away to head off for Mt Cook, Arthurs Pass, Bealy Spur and Christchurch, I reflected how the previous 18 days had already refreshed me and brought me beside quiet waters.