There are a number of reasons we need to return to the West Coast at a different time of the year and it hasn't anything to do with the weather. Just north of the Glaciers there's a very big lagoon, Okarito Lagoon and just off the northern tip of Okarito Lagoon there's a very special sanctuary; the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve White Heron/ Kotuku Sanctuary, the only place in New Zealand where White Herons breed. Unfortunately it's not the breeding season and the boat tours (which leave from Whataroa) to the nesting site, run only from mid-September through until the end of February. We also missed the Westland Petrel's breeding season the last time we were on the Coast so we now have two reasons to return.
In the meantime we did a tiki-tour, visiting the seaside settlement of Okarito on a day that couldn't decide what weather to throw at us- one minute is was torrential rain, the next overcast, then blue sky and sun, but always with a cold wind blowing.
You can see how much rain we've had, Lake Mapourika's jetty is nearly under water!
We stopped to check out the double DOC camps at the northern end of the lake; Ottos Corner & MacDonalds Creek. The top three photos are of Ottos Camp, the bottom three of MacDonalds, which is just a short bush walk away.
There were two small pup tents set up in areas of Ottos, along with some fold up chairs and rain jackets under the sink in the shelter. And nobody about. Which in itself isn't unusual, but the tents were open and flapping in the wind and there was no personal gear inside, just a bit of bedding. They looked as though they'd been abandoned.
We've come across this a few times on our travels. Tourists leaving their cheaply(and not so cheaply) purchased camping gear behind after their last night in the country. Which isn't a good idea because the police are usually advised (in case they've gone missing on a walk or in the bush) and they have to keep checking back for any sign of the missing campers. There were 'missing posters' still tacked to the trees at a campsite at Lake Monowai, where we visited, 5 months after the tent had been reported empty. We later spoke to a DOC Ranger who visited the MacDonalds Camp while we were there and he told us he'd be clearing the gear out later in the day, it had been reported deserted a few days previous.
On our way out of the camp, a falcon dived in over the top of the ute and swooped up into a nearby tree. It sat there for a good 10 minutes surveying the scenery and quietly watching me as I tried to sneak up on it.
As I was inching my way forward around the bushes a tiny little male Tomtit/Miromiro landed on a flax leaf right beside me. Oh so cute! I willed him to stay put because I could see him ending up as Falcon dinner if he made a wrong move. Thankfully he disappeared back into the undergrowth behind us before he was spotted.
We turned off the main road and headed towards Okarito 13kms away right on the coast. These kiwi signs appeared all the way along the road beside bush. It's the first time I've seen a kiwi painted on the road. This is the home of the Rowi; the rarest kiwi of them all, with a natural population of just 450 birds.
The Rowi is only found in this small area of lowland forest near the Okarito Lagoon. Rowi vary from other Kiwi species in a number of ways; they are quite grey in colour and often have white patches on their face, they feel softer to touch as their feathers aren't as coarse. And the male & female take turns in looking after the egg. They also have a longer lifespan.
The seaside village of Okarito, with a permanent population of just 28 people, has the usual collection of rustic cribs and cottages mixed in amongst the more modern and architecturally designed holiday homes.
There are also a few historic buildings in the main street including Donovan's Store which is one of the oldest buildings in the South Island. Built during the 1860s gold rush it started life as a hotel and finally closed its doors, as a grocery store, in 1985. It's since been restored and is used as an event venue for travelling musical acts and exhibitions.
You can read about Jimmy Donovan and his wife Eva, on this information panel (click to enlarge) The Donovans were fair dinkum Kiwis and loyal Coasters.
Just down the street is Alberts Hut, a tiny, tall and very narrow rough-sawn hut. I couldn't find any information about Albert or his hut anywhere on the 'net so this one's a mystery. Although one blogger thought 'Albert either lives here or just keeps his toilet here'. (A reader has now added interesting information about Albert's Hut in the comments below)
I'm sure someone reading the blog will be able to fill me in. I did notice thought, that many of the sections along the road were long and narrow, so perhaps Albert's hut was the forerunner of the village's narrow building sites.
We drove around to the Okarito Camping Ground to check the site out and to have some lunch at one of their picnic tables. This lovely large camping ground is run by the community; you check yourself in at the kiosk and then find a spot to suit. There's a communal lounge, coin operated showers, an old wringer washing machine, rubbish collection and even a herb garden. Yes, this will be a place I'd like to spend a few days.
The camping ground is right along side the beachfront, although there's a bit of a walk through a reserve and coastal planting to get to the surf itself. It's cold and blustery and not very pleasant at all today. The rugged and wild West Coast is living up to its name.
We pass a 'marooned' lagoon on the way to the surf; a sand bar separates it from the ocean and the main Okarito Lagoon. The only sign of life we see while visiting the village are two children in the reserve, who tell us they're building a flax raft to float on, around the pond. They've already built the jetty to launch it from. Flax? Good luck with that one I say.
There's a fabulous view of the Southern Alps from the beach and the campground although I only had a short glimpse before the cloud settled down over the top of the mountains again. There's lots of green spaces around the village and in this one there is a very tall memorial obelisk. Of course I was thinking it would be a war memorial...
...but in fact it's a memorial to two great explorers and the many West Coast pioneers that settled the land. A rather nice way to acknowledge their achievements I thought.
And across the road from the memorial is historic Okarito School House which was built in 1901. From 1960, for 30 years, it was run as a YHA shelter before being restored by the community & DOC. Now the 12 bunk School House can now be booked by groups for overnight stays.
Three walks of varying lengths leave from the carpark beside the school house; the Okarito Wetland Walk, the Trig Walk & the Three-Mile Pack Track/Coastal Walk. We wanted to check out the wetland walk for birds, we'll leave the other two for another day.
And we weren't disappointed, in fact we were especially thrilled to locate the very elusive & shy Fernbird/Matata moving about in the wetland rushes and low scrub on the fringes.
Extremely well camouflaged, Fernbirds spend most of their time hopping about on the ground weaving their way through the tangled vegetation. They are usually in pairs and you'll hear them before seeing them, they constantly call to each other with a "u-click" call and although shy they can be encouraged to check who has arrived in their territory by clicking two stones together to emulate their call. They'll then pop up for a quick check before disappearing again.
Most people passing through would be totally unaware of this endemic little bird, known by early Europeans as the swamp sparrow because of it's likeness to that bird (they must have been blind!). Fernbirds have beautiful markings and the most unusual tail feathers, looking like ragged fern fronds. This photo (included so you can see the tail feathers) was from another sighting we had near Lake Manapouri a few months ago.
We found it fascinating watching one of them move off through the rushes at ground level. From our vantage point on the boardwalk we could see a very slight rustle of the reed as it moved through the dense plants and on a very winding route too. One or two reeds at a time waved in the air as it progressed, the direction changing often. I've heard them likened to a mouse and I can see why- if I didn't know any better I'd have thought it was a mouse (or rat) making it's way past.
Checking us out and wondering what all the fuss was about, was this lovely male juvenile Bellbird/Korimako. The cream cheek stripe tells me it's a juvenile, males are all green with a purple-ly coloured head & no cheek stripe, females are brown with a whiter cheek stripe.
On our way out of the village later in the afternoon we stopped at the old historic wharf and boat shed on the edge the Okarito Lagoon.
We also found another Fernbird (after hearing the familiar 'u-click') in the long grass beside the carpark, it shot away into the undergrowth as I approached for a photo.
The Okarito Lagoon, at 3240 hectares, is New Zealand's largest unmodified coastal wetland (click photo to enlarge and read). The lagoon is a very popular area to explore by kayak and boat and I'm sure we'll be back to check it out in the Takacat dinghy.
The old boat shed has been restored and the inside has been fitted out as a shelter from the elements, with seating, a picnic table and lots of information panels telling us about the history of the area.
During the 1860's gold rush, the Okarito wharf saw over 500 miners disembark in one day from vessels arriving from around New Zealand, Australia and the rest of the world. Okarito grew to be the third largest port on the West Coast during the gold rush days. A far cry from the serenity of today.
There was one more short walk we did on the way back to the main road, the Pakihi Walk to a lookout that usually has 360 degree views of the mountains, lagoon and coast. It's also a place to watch the magnificent sunsets that the West Coast is famous for. Right time, wrong day.
No matter, we will be back. Okarito was a place I felt in tune with, next time we'll stop for a time and really explore.
Crikey, that two weeks flew by and as you've probably guessed by the lack of blogs, it was a very busy two weeks too. We said goodbye to our freedom camping spot at Sulphur Point the morning after another beautiful sunset over Tauranga's inner harbour...
...and moved across the harbour to our regular camping ground at the Mount. It's a busy place (especially during school holidays) with people walking around the Mount, strolling along Pilot Bay, relaxing on the beach or at the cafes. While it's not everyone's cup-of-tea, I enjoy the atmosphere and the hustle & bustle of this busy seaside community. Only for a short time though, then I'm itching to get back 'Out There'.
It was lovely to catch up with our friends, Barb & Bruce, who also own an Ultima. They came down from Kerikeri for a few days to visit and do a few errands in the Bay.
Our usual camp site is on the ocean side of the campground, beside the boardwalk, but they've re-grassed the sites in that block, so this time we parked on the quieter Pilot Bay side of campground.
Unfortunately the weather Gods are following us around (or maybe it's just winter) and we had horrendous westerly winds for a number of days on and off during our stay. We couldn't have been parked in a worst place; the sou'wester blew straight in from Pilot Bay. We were buffered about something terrible and were under fire from the nearby Norfolk Pine with small cones constantly hammering our roof on a number of nights.
And then there was the rain, torrential rain that drowned out the TV at full volume and made the entry to our part of the park, a muddy bog. At least the kite surfers were enjoying the breeze, zipping in and out of the moored boats doing death-defying aerobatics high above the water.
David wanted to know why they didn't have to stick to the 5 knot speed limit.
Of course a stay at the Mount is not complete without the obligatory walk around the Mount Base Track (and sometimes a walk up), something I try to do usually every morning but somehow that was omitted off the memo this time, and I only managed a couple of circuits.
The sea was wild on this walk, and the wind, a strong northerly, roughed up the Main Beach and blew salt laden spray across to Pilot Bay. It also felt like summer, warm air from the tropics blowing in on the breeze.
I took my time around the track doing a little bird-watching along the way- I'm not sure if the pied shag chicks are a late hatch from last season or an early batch for the next, but whatever, one of them has paid the price for hatching out of season. Next is a Scared Kingfisher/Kotare- feeding over the top of the turbulent white water around the rocks, a juvenile Pied Shag/Karuhiruhi- taking a break from the rough sea, sitting on a rock right beside the track.
And lastly, a very shy Reef Heron/Matuku Moana, quite a rare bird with an estimated 300-500 birds in NZ. Reef herons are found around rocky coastlines and the Bay of Plenty is the only place I've managed to see them. In fact I saw two on this visit, one at Sulphur Point, skulking around on the rocks beside the boat ramp and then this one at the Mount.
This section of the walk symbolizes the Mount Base Track to me; gnarly old pohutukawa, large rocks protecting the track from wild seas, the odd seal basking in the sun, smelly shags roosting above, the narrow entrance to the the inner harbour, pine trees across the way on Matakana Island, boaties heading out for a day's fishing or sailing. All that's needed to complete the picture is a monster container ship punching through the waves, emphasizing how narrow that entrance really is.
We completed all our appointments and catch-ups during the first week while the family were away and were then able to spend the second week with the grandkids; separately and together. Maddie (7) was quite the young lady and has grown up so much in just a short few months. She stayed with us for a few days and was very brave the night we got a hammering from the wind. She lasted until 2am through the noise and the rock 'n rolling before the final straw; a huge gust whacked the side of the van shaking us violently. She shot out of bed like a bolt of lightening, calling out "it's OK Nana, I'm OK, it just gave me a fright". She did very well to get back to sleep. We had very little that night.
Joel (3) is still a little bruiser of a boy, all rough and tumble, full of energy and constantly on the go. Here he is beside a some street art we found down an alleyway while out walking (trying to tire him out) at Mt Maunganui.
I love this one with the faces peering at him over his shoulder and from the side. Joels' the spitting image of his Dad.
There's a new attraction beside the playground on the waterfront in Tauranga. This is Hairy Maclary & Freinds from the world famous children's books by Lynley Dodd, who resides in Tauranga. That's Hairy Maclary at the bottom of the pole, he's surrounded by Scarface Claw (top of the pole), Slinky Malinki, Hercules Morse, Muffin McLay, Bottomley Potts, Schnitzel von Krumm, Bitzer Maloney & Zachary Quack.
The tactile bronze sculptures are certainly very popular with children, I managed a rare moment of no people in the shot above but for most of the time there were children climbing over, riding on the backs of the bigger dogs or just resting on them. I love how the children all raced in to pat the animals and were even giving them kisses on the head and muzzle. The bronze was worn smooth and gold where many little hands had petted their heads and ears.
It wasn't only the little folk that were enjoying the sculptures, this tiny travel mascot belonged to a French guy in his twenties who was posting photos to his Instagram account. I'm sure I can see a terrified look on the little dog's face!
All too soon the second week came to an end and we once again said our farewells to the family. The kids sent us on our way with a parting gift- colds! A plus of being on the road is that we very rarely catch colds these days, these are just the second ones we've had in 4 years.
We were hoping to make it to Glenfalls on the Napier-Taupo road the first night but by the time we got organised and did a couple errands, it was the afternoon so we stopped for the night at Whakaipo Bay Reserve on the shores of Lake Taupo. Only 10kms from Taupo and not far from Kinloch, the bay feels like it's miles away from civilization.
The reserve is DOC operated (dogs allowed) and is a large long grassed area at the bottom of a short dirt track. The ground is quite uneven and it took us a few moves to find a level spot; we weren't unhitching so needed to have the nose level. The weather wasn't that great (what's new) but I'm sure this spot would be very popular over the summer. The K2K bike and walking track also passes through the bay.
It is a pity that you can only access the lake over the styles in the fence and through the bush that lines the bay (and provides shelter from the wind), we'd have trouble getting the Takacat inflatable onto the lake to go fishing if we came to stay.
It rained overnight and we were a little worried about pulling out, up the dirt road incline, back to the main road but it was fine; if it was clay, it had a bit of grit included to help with the grip.
There is a place on the Napier-Taupo road (just 17kms from Taupo) that I have been wanting to check out for a long time.
It's a place that I must have passed at least a thousand times in my lifetime but one I've never stopped at. I know the Napier-Taupo Road like the back of my hand, it's one of my favourite roads, more from the familiarity of it than the diverse and interesting scenery; it's a road that's carried me away (and home again) on family holidays, on overseas travels, to the snow for some weekend fun, business trips to the big smoke, just for the fun of it (driving to Taupo for takeaways at 10pm on a Saturday night when you're 17 seems a logical thing to do in the scheme of things). I even commuted from Napier to Tauranga 2-3 times a week for a few months when we were shifting cities. And then the trip reversed as I regularly drove from Tauranga to Napier (and home again) to visit Mum & Dad, deliver step-children home, visit new nieces and nephews and the extended family and old friends, and now more recently, with our home on the back.
I used to boast that nobody passed me on the Napier-Taupo, first in my hotted-up MkI Cortina (ok, well maybe they got me on the hills), then in a Subaru GT Coupe, amongst many others. Once I had my Golf GTI it didn't worry me anymore, I knew I had the power to pass them if I wanted to, or, just maybe, I grew up.
Anyway, that's enough reminiscing, the Opepe Bush Historic Reserve has a hidden secret located in a clearing surrounded by bush and birdsong, and just a short 5 mins from the roadway.
This is the grave site of nine members of the Bay of Plenty Cavalry who were surprised and killed by an advance guard of warriors belonging to Te Kooti's (Maori guerrilla leader), in June,1869. While looking for signs of Te Kooti in the area, the cavalry leader failed to post sentries before standing his men down for the night. The five survivors took several days to reach Fort Galatea, 70kms to the north-east through heavily forested land.
I can now tick that one off my list.
We arrived at our favourite camp site, Glenfalls just as the cloud disappeared and the sun came out, warming our cockles (and the solar panels) - we must be back in the Bay (that other Bay, Hawkes Bay). Does it ever rain here? It sure does, the Mohaka is swollen and dirty, there was no trout for dinner last night.
Glenfalls, just as we like it- deserted!
Next stop- Napier!
Newsflash! We're still not having trout for dinner but he did catch one!