Sunday, 12 June 2022

Flight To The Lights

I wrote an article for the NZMCA magazine which was recently published so now I can share this incredible once in a lifetime experience with you (if you haven't already read it of course!). I haven't forgotten the next part of the Northland blog either, that's up next.

Oh. My. Goodness. 

I have just had one of the most incredible (& highly anticipated) experiences of my life. Early last year I was invited by Viva Expeditions to join them on a ‘Southern Lights by Flight’ journey to view the Aurora Australis from within the auroral oval, flying thousands of kilometres south of New Zealand towards Antarctica. 

After a couple of Covid related postponements my dream finally came true and on April 1st (I was hoping the date wasn’t ominous) I joined over 250 other enthusiastic passengers on an Air NZ 787 Dreamliner for a 10 hour return flight over the Southern Ocean.

Led by  Otago Museum director and astronomer Dr Ian Griffin- who organised the first-ever commercial flight to see the Southern Lights in 2017- the flight also included astronomers, astro-photographers and Antarctic Academy Director Miranda Satterthwaite. 

A ‘Pre Flight Mission’ was held  during  the afternoon before our flight where we toured the International Antarctic Centre and listened to & watched  presentations from Ian & Miranda who explained in detail,  information about our flight and what we could expect to see once we reached the auroral zone including information on the Aurora Australis itself. 

Photography workshops where also held with the astro-photographers assisting  guests with handy hints and tips on how to best photograph the aurora and also to help with camera settings for the flight.


Aurora flights are timed around the spring & autumn equinoxes when the aurora display is at its brightest. Thanks to a phenomenon called the Russell McPherron effect, auroras are known to be more frequent and brighter than usual in spring and autumn. 

Close to the equinoxes the alignment of the interplanetary magnetic field and Earth’s magnetic field is such that the two opposing fields can cancel each other out. This creates holes in Earth’s magnetosphere through which particles from the solar wind can flow, giving rise to auroras when they interact with the atmosphere. 

The flights are also planned around the moon phase, a bright moon restricts aurora visibility, so flights are timed close to a new moon when the sky is dark.

Once checked in & through security we had a pre-flight meet & greet near our boarding gate and as 7pm approached we made our way to the aircraft, excitement building in anticipation of the flight of our lives. The Dreamliner is the plane of choice because of the large portholes which makes for better aurora viewing. 

Casting an eye over the Departure Board I see that our flight, NZ1914, is flying to Christchurch. An unusual sight as all the listed departures are to other New Zealand cities. Not us; Christchurch to Christchurch with 10hrs lost in the middle somewhere. And I can’t wait!

There are various seating options available but essentially if you travel in economy, you & your neighbours in the row, swap seats every 20-40 minutes during the aurora viewing period. 

But don’t worry, we flew for 6 hours with the aurora on show so there was plenty of time to view the Southern Lights & in fact towards the end only the most obsessive aurora watchers were left ‘standing’, many others had retired to the middle rows or were just happy to listen to what others were seeing.

We departed Christchurch just after 7pm, flying up through the cloud cover and catching the last glow of sunset on the horizon as we headed south-east towards the Antarctic Circle, aiming for Latitude 64 & what is known as ‘magnetic midnight’. 

Though our ultimate flight path would depend on where the aurora was found. Magnetic midnight is the time of day when the magnetic poles align between the Sun and the Earth; it's said to be the optimum time for viewing auroras.

Full in-flight service is available on the flight (dinner, snacks & breakfast) and we’d only just finished dinner- about 2hrs into the flight- when an excited call came through from the flight deck to inform us that the aurora had been spotted on the horizon.  

I leaned into the window trying to shield the camera from the cabin lights & clicked a couple of photos off just to be sure they weren’t fibbing & sure enough two bright green auroral bands appeared on my camera’s back screen. There was a hurried rush around the cabin to clear the trays and turn the entertainment screens & interior lights off. 

The most important thing to do to view an aurora is to allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness. It can take up to 20 minutes for our pupils to fully dilate and even a glimpse of bright light for just a few seconds will set your dark adaptation back several minutes. This is why there is complete darkness in the cabin of the aircraft and also why people with cameras need to have them ready to go before the flight. 

To enhance the aurora viewing experience even further the plane has permission to fly in 'stealth mode', with all outside navigation lights turned off. Of course there are no other planes within thousands of kilometres; we’re the only ones flying around a dark empty sky on some crazy mission looking for an incredible light show. 

In the cabin around me the excitement was palpable as we approached the aurora and then, with everyone seated, cameras ready & eyes adjusted to the darkness, we entered one of nature’s most stunning, magnificent & unforgettable displays of power. 

For 6 hours we flew under, over & through the aurora, weaving our way back & forward over the Southern Ocean, crossing the International Dateline numerous times, the pilots often banking the plane, left & right so both sides were able to view the depth & height of the display. 

The star trails you can see in some of my photos weren’t caused by a slow shutter speed as is usually the case, the trails are caused by the banking plane, lovely graceful movements. 

We flew directly beneath a corona several times- the crown or centre of an aurora burst- the ultimate position to be to watch a burst of activity. I was lucky enough to capture the side of an exploding display a couple of times. 

And I know what  many of you will be thinking as you read this, ‘ Yes that’s all very well, but can you see the aurora with the naked eye?’  And the answer? Hell yes, you sure can! 

Though our eyes aren't sensitive enough to see the bright colours that show on the camera screen & in photos, you can sometimes see a hint of green & pink, with younger eyes seeing more colour. 

I could certainly see the huge shimmering curtains and pulsing waves as the aurora moved about, along with shooting beams reaching from far below us to high into the heavens above. An aurora becomes visible when high-energy particles from the sun rain down on Earth. 

As these particles get closer to us, they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and this channels them in the direction of both magnetic poles (hence only seeing the aurora close to the South or North Poles). As the particles are accelerated downwards, they hit atoms in our upper atmosphere (ranging from 90km to 700km high) and this process results in a glowing field of excited gas. 

This is what gives us an incredible natural light show and the range of colours;  oxygen causes the fluorescent green and yellow colour of the aurora (the most common), nitrogen the blue and red colours and sometimes pink, while neon turns the aurora orange.

After what felt like a very short time but turned out to be six hours later, the pilots did a final bank, the aircraft turned & we headed for home leaving dancing beams & a bright green band far behind us. I was still clicking photos as the cabin lights came back on and the plane filled with chatter & the lovely aroma of coffee & breakfast which was soon to be served.

What more can I say? If you hadn’t already gathered as much, I had the most amazing, incredible experience ever, and I would highly recommend the trip to anyone who would like to take a unique, once in a lifetime trip to witness one of the world’s most magical phenomena. 

No worries if you’re not a photographer either, Viva, with the courtesy of the astro-photogs on board, supplies copies of the best photos for all the passengers to download. So you can sit back, relax  & enjoy the show of your life. 

For an aurora chaser like myself this was the ultimate nirvana & guess what? I get to do it all again. I’ve been invited back for a September flight to help out with the photography (update- the fully booked September 2022 flights have been cancelled as Air NZ need their planes, here's hoping the flights in March 2023 go ahead). 


Shellie was a guest of Viva Expeditions

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Boulders, Beaches & Big Trees- Northland's West Coast; Part 2

Continuing on from Part 1

Rangi Point Sand Dunes & entrance to the Hokianga Harbour
Two well known tourist destinations, Opononi & Omapere villages are on SH12  near the entrance to the Hokianga Harbour, both have beautiful sand beaches that can be accessed from the road side. 

Across the harbour at North Head, huge golden sand dunes dominate the landscape. Sandboarding  the dunes is a popular activity,  charter boats can supply boards and take you across to the dunes from the Opononi Wharf. 

Opononi became world famous in the mid-1950s when a bottle-nosed dolphin named Opo made friends with the locals and stayed in the harbour until her untimely death several months later. 

Thousands of New Zealanders flocked to see her, some driving  hundreds of kilometres over gravel winding roads to say hello, swim & play with her.  A bronze copy of the original commemorative statue of Opo straddled by a young boy stands in the main street & it’s still popular to have your photo taken alongside her. The original stone statue is now in a local museum.  

On our way south we stop at a Pakia Lookout to say goodbye to the Hokianga Harbour and head on down the coast, coastal views are now replaced with the magnificent kauri trees of the Waipoua Forest. 

Pakia Hill Lookout
The drive through the forest is an experience in itself. The towering forest canopy closes in overhead forming dark green tunnels and huge ancient kauris have formed natural gateways where vehicles must slow to pass through. 

The road edges are fringed with emerald green mosses & luxuriant ferns fronds, it’s cool and damp inside the forest and the outside temperature takes a dive.  

Waipoua Forest is the largest remaining tract of native forest in Northland and it’s also the home of Tane Mahuta, the country's largest kauri tree, which is approximately 2,000 years old and still growing. A short five minute walk through the cooling shade of the forest leads you to the awe-inspiring sight of the majestic Tane Mahuta. 

Love my wide angle lens; makes me appear very tall!
It’s hard to comprehend how big he is until you stand beneath him; it’s nearly 18 metres to the first branch, 51 metres to the top and with a 4.4 metres diameter, it’s clear to see why Tane Mahuta is called 'The Lord of the Forest'.  A  boardwalk & surrounding wooden fence protect the tree from disturbance, kauri have sensitive surface roots that can easily be damaged. 

To get a full view of Tane Mahuta, you can move further along the track, which then leads to another viewing platform. I had my wide angle lens so was able to capture most of Tane Mahuta from directly beneath him.

Taken from the 2nd platform, further away
A boot wash at the track entrance is to protect Tane Mahuta & his fellow brothers & sisters from kauri dieback which has already killed many of the large kauri in the forest. 

The Waipoua Campground (#423) is a great place to base yourself if you’re wanting to explore the local area & forest. 

It’s a basic campground set in amongst the bush beside a river, the bird life is prolific and kiwi can be heard calling at night.

Waipoua River
Further south and just 35 minutes from Dargaville are the Kai Iwi Lakes, a sparkling turquoise jewel in the crown of Northland’s natural attractions. 

Lake Taharoa, Kai Iwi Lakes
Kai Iwi Lakes, there are three, are white sand freshwater dune lakes created over 1.8 million years ago when they were formed by the accumulation of rainwater in depressions of sand. 

Promenade Point Campground, Kai Iwi Lakes
Underlying ironstone prevents the water from leaking away. The lakes have no known natural inlets or outlets, their main source of water is rain, and with a sand base the water is crystal clear. 

Lake Taharoa is the largest of lakes, it’s fringed by pure white sand and when the sun is shining the lake is a vivid blue & looks to have been dropped into place from a faraway tropical island. All that is missing are the waving palm fronds.

There are two camping areas at Lake Taharoa and they are both looked after by the Kaipara District Council; Pine Beach Campground (#430) at one end is the busier camp, it has powered & non-powered sites, toilets, showers and a playground and it’s also more exposed to the hot summer sun. 

The stunning white sand beach is popular with day trippers, many come with their boats & assorted  water toys.

The pine trees that give the camp its name have now gone and natural vegetation is slowly filling in the gaps.

Sunrise with silhouetted dead old man pines behind Pine Beach camp
Promenade Point Campground (#427) at the other end of the lake is a more relaxed camping experience with large grassed areas and sites in amongst the lake side bush. 

It's where we spent several gloriously hot late summer days, and had the place to ourselves once the Waitangi Weekend crowds left.

There are shallow areas ideal for swimming at both camps and along the edges of the lake off the Taharoa Domain Road between the camps; you can also fish for rainbow trout or paddle a kayak. Hiking & biking tracks also circle the lakes.

I climbed the hill behind our camp ground to capture the sunset. The photo below is looking back over Lake Taharoa with our camp on the finger of land below the track & the Pines camp at the far end of the lake.

The view from the top of the hill looks out over farmland to the Tasman Sea beyond and a typically stunning west coast sunset.

To be continued...

Saturday, 30 April 2022

Boulders, Beaches & Big Trees- Northland's West Coast; Part 1

No, we've not returned to the North Island (yet). I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone. I wrote an article on Northland for the NZMCA magazine & thought I'd not waste my talent (haha, yeah right) & post it on here too.

I know some of you will have read it already but only the first part (and not with so many photos). The 2nd part won't be published for a few months so you'll get to see that before other members. I also know there are several followers who have been waiting (like forever) to read more about our Northland travels. Not looking anywhere in particular, aye Dad 😁

Koutu Boulders
Many people have heard of the Wairere Boulders Nature Park near Horeke at the head of the Hokianga Harbour in Northland but very few know of the Koutu Boulders, another collection of interesting rocks located on a remote Hokianga beach not too far from the harbour entrance. Both locations have unusual rock formations and both are well worth a visit.

The Koutu boulders are concretions and are similar to the more famous Moeraki Boulders in the South Island. Boulders are formed from a hard core within sedimentary rocks, a cementing mineral binds the rocks together and their round shape is formed over millions of years, probably by being rolled around on the ocean floor. 

Many of the boulders form interesting shapes and have been given sign boards with their name on them. 

Although many of the signs are now weathered & hard to read;  Dolphins (a group that do look like a pod of dolphins swimming by), Bertha, Plethora, Beached Whale, Turtle. You get the picture.  

Others might be described as giant cannonballs they are perfectly  spherical, one is huge and towers over me, another looks like a giant tomato complete with a stem dimple & creased top. Others have broken open and look like oranges with perfectly cut segments falling onto the sand. You could spend hours checking out the formations & letting your imagination run wild. 

Koutu Boulders are best accessed at low tide as they stretch for a kilometre or so along the beach and many are below the high tide mark. 

Beach access to Koutu Boulders
To get to the boulders, turn off SH12 onto Koutu Loop Road and then onto Waione Road. If coming from Kaikohe, the Koutu Loop Road is about 10kms past the Rawene turnoff or if you’re heading east the road is about 6km from Opononi. 

Nearby residents put their own sign up
There are two entry points to the beach, one is signposted off Waione Road, the other is at the far end of Cabbage Tree Bay Road which has limited parking & involves a short steep descent to the beach. 

The first entry point is level, with a good sized carpark, but involves quite a reasonable walk along the beach to get in amongst the best selection of boulders (though there are several groups along the walk), and you do need to keep an eye on the tide. 

Beach walk boulders
Whereas the Cabbage Tree Bay entry drops you right into the centre of the biggest & best boulders. The track down is relatively easy but it's a short steep haul back out.

I got distracted away taking macro shots of the wild flowers that grew alongside the track.

Not too far from the boulders, on a large grassy point overlooking the Hokianga Harbour is Koutu Mangeroa; a picnic & camping area owned & looked after by locals. 

Koutu Mangeroa Camping on the point, click to increase the size
The views are spectacular and there’s also easy access to the harbour to take a walk or throw out a fishing line. 

And as long as you’re fully self-contained (there are no services) campers are welcome to stay for a small fee ($10 per van per night, not on the app). 

The 'collection box' made me smile, they must expect hoards of campers, it's a shipping container!

If you head west along the beach below the camping area (at low tide), you'll come across these old piles. They make a great subject to draw your eye to the sun setting behind the giant Rangi Point sand dunes across the harbour from Opononi.

Wairere Boulders are further up the harbour, near the tiny settlement at Horeke. 

About 2km along the Taheke-Horeke Road turn onto McDonnell Road and you’ll find the entrance to the boulders 500m further on at the end of the road. 

It is best to visit these boulders from the Horeke direction as the road from Taheke to the boulders turnoff is long, narrow, winding & gravel.  A visit to the boulders can also be done if you’re cycling the Okaihau to Horeke section of the Twin Coast Cycle Trail.

The Wairere Boulders are not like the spherical concretions at Koutu, these boulders are generally larger and are a more  jumbled selection that at first glance seemed to have been tossed down a narrow valley by an incredible force. The Wairere Boulders are basalt rock, many of them are ridged and have deeply scored patterns on them. 

These rocks were formed by lava from an eruption at nearby Lake Omapere 2.5 million years ago. They once lay underneath a kauri forest but over time the acidic rain has eroded the rocks below the soil and they have cracked and broken apart The surrounding soil has then washed away exposing the stranded boulders, some nearly 10m high.

The Wairere Boulder Nature Park was formed in the early 2000s, the former owners built paths, bridges & boardwalks around, through, over and under (watch your head) the boulders and included quirky signs with information & directions. 

Also, hidden in amongst the boulders & rocks are painted fairy doors, houses and boulder ‘beasts’, seeking them out is a great activity for children on the walk.

The track weaves through lush tropical bush with the occasional glimpse & bridge crossing of the tumbling stream that dissects the valley on its way to the harbour. 

A side track leads to a beautiful swimming hole surrounded by Nikau Palms which  are reflected in the still dark water. 

The Boulder Loop walk takes about an hour and is relatively easy going although there are stairs to climb, bridges to cross and large boulders to duck under so you do need to be quite agile. The much longer Magic Rock Tramp & Lookout Track heads to the top of the valley leaving the loop track just as you turn to head for home. 

But it is a steep climb and on the day I visited it was slippery underfoot and scorching hot overhead so I only managed a few dozen metres before I decided I needed refreshments in the shade back at the café the latest owners have now added to the park...

... along with a large camping area (POP #383). Entry to the boulders is free if you stay overnight in the camp at Wairere Boulders.

Another place of interest near Horeke is the Mangungu Mission Station which overlooks the spectacular Hokianga Harbour (it’s also right at one end of Twin Coast Cycle Trail). 

The Wesleyan Mission station was established in 1828 and the Mission house built in 1838-1839. 

The largest signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in the country took place here on 12 February, 1840 with over 70 chiefs adding their approval while a crowd of up to 3,000 people watched on. Mangungu was also where honey bees were first introduced, providing a major contribution to the success of pastoral farming in New Zealand.

When Reverend John Hobbs and his family left Mangungu for Auckland in 1855, the house was moved to Onehunga where it was used as a Methodist parsonage and then sold to private owners.  The mission house was returned to the Mangungu site in the 1970s, restored on behalf of Heritage New Zealand, and opened to visitors in 1977.  

Historic Mangungu Mission Station Cemetery

To be continued...