Tuesday 31 January 2017

Mickey Mouse in Porpoise Bay, Catlins

Catch-up, we've been parked up at our personal POP in Winton once again, a bonus two week visit with the family while we waited for the weather to settle.  It's been far from ideal and I think we have had just a couple of sunny and warm days in the last 4 weeks. The wind has been relentless and the rain constant. Summer sure has taken a break in the deep South, but I hear it's been similar elsewhere in the country too. 

We left Winton this morning heading for the interior; this may be the last blog for awhile as I'm not sure if we'll have reception where we're bound. Tonight, we're parked up at the Lumsden NZMCA Park, one of our regular staging posts. And guess what? It's raining again, cats and dogs too.

Now, back to the Catlins.

Porpoise Bay is a surf beach, a beautiful sweeping crescent of golden sand that's not quite as famous as its close neighbour Curio Bay, on the other side of the headland, but well known all the same. As the name suggests, Porpoise Bay is the home of some very cute dolphins. Very cute, extra tiny and highly endangered, Hector's Dolphins, the only endemic dolphin found in NZ. 

A family group of Hector's live and feed in the bay and it's more than likely you'll see them if you spend a little time scanning the waters, especially in the early morning and late afternoon when they tend to move close into shore. The most noticeable feature of the Hectors is their dark round dorsal fin which looks like a Mickey Mouse ear.

Porpoise Bay is a safe swimming and surf beach and the dolphins are quite accustomed to sharing their space with swimmers and surfers. Of course they are just as happy playing and chasing each other in the surf by themselves too.

The dolphins are hard to spot when you're down at beach level, especially if they are out behind the breakers. The carpark near the Curio Bay campground and on the way to the lookout, is an ideal place to stop...

...and scan the waves. And with so many eyes looking, it doesn't take long for someone to let out an excited shout. 

If you're lucky the dolphins, especially the mothers & calves, can sometimes be seen swimming right below the bank in the sheltered corner of the bay. 

This father was helping his sons learn to surf on the small waves that were formed on a small reef just offshore when two Hectors came to visit...

...before moving further along the bay...

...and as word spread that they were in close, people started heading into the waves to swim with them. 

The dolphins had other ideas, and moved even further down the beach...

...to play by themselves. Unfortunately they were just about outside my lens range (and most people's view from the bank)- these shots have been heavily cropped and are a little blurry. But at least I got to see them playing and surfing the waves.

And to finish, a tail stand in their dinner suits! They look really unusual like this (don't forget to click on a photo to enlarge). One day I'll capture them up close, in the meantime I was happy to at least get a few shots of more than just their Mickey Mouse fins. 

See you sometime soon...

Friday 27 January 2017

Camp Niagara- The Catlins


After we left Hinahina, our next stop was the Niagara Falls. Yes that's right Niagara Falls, this is the New Zealand version of the famous falls. The falls were named by a surveyor with a sense of humour; that's them in the background, just a small cascade of water over some rocks. Mind you, a day later and the falls had doubled in height and the rocks had disappeared. I bet the better known version could never claim that.

We actually visited the falls on one of our previous trips through the Catlins and checked out the NZMCA Park which is just across the road, but this time we were staying.

It's a lovely well looked after park and the local branch have done wonders with the site- even though on our last visit we were aghast at the shingle laid down and no grass available to park on- after 3 years in the South Island we've learnt, you need gravel. There's a short loop track through a native bush grove which will attract and add to the many birds in the area. This Kereru/Wood Pigeon greeted us at the gate one evening, not moving until after I opened the gate.

The Park is an ideally situated base for exploring the southern end of the Catlins. Waikawa, Porpoise Bay, Curio Bay and the Petrified Forest are just a short drive away with Slope Point and Waipapa Point a little further south and the Chaslands Highway, Cathedral Caves, McLean Falls and Tautuku beach not too far north.

Once again the weather played havoc with out plans and we had two days of solid wind and rain. And once again we hunkered down, watching the comings and goings of other members who quite possibly were on their holidays and on more fixed itineraries. I did feel sorry for them, the Catlins is not nice in crappy weather.

David had a short burst of activity before the rain arrived; fishing the river that runs behind the site. But he found the nearly black and slow moving water a little spooky in the twilight and saw nothing rise so gave it away after a short time. 

The banks were also overgrown and very slippery with long grass running right down to edge. One slip and you'd have headed over the bank and into the water....as I nearly did from half way up! I forgot the memo- don't wear Crocs when clambering about on slippery river banks.

The caravans above and below are whitebaiter 'huts'. We're not very far from the Waikawa Estuary here and the river is a very popular during the whitebait season. We stopped to talk to a couple of locals who were re-cutting a track to their stands. They told us- with a bit of prodding- that they'd caught 30kgs & 50kgs respectively last season. Now that's a good haul! 

This caravan has a great name, perhaps it should be parked at the entrance to the NZMCA Park! 

In between rain squalls we did a tiki-tour up the Waikawa Valley, over the MacLennan Range down the Tahakopa Valley to Papatowai and back along the Chaslands Highway home. Not one of our more exciting road trips but interesting all the same. I did love the narrow alleyway cut through the Catlins Forest over the range. It reminded me of the kiwifruit shelterbelts back in the Bay of Plenty.

For much of the way, the trees on the left were up against a rock wall, the road cut through lower than top of the range but then I couldn't decide if it was rock or deep forest behind other sections including the right hand side.

The long Tahakopa Valley is mostly commercial forestry and the only other vehicles we met on the road were logging trucks. 

We stopped to check out a memorial to the area's early settlers, the 'MacLennan Clan' and after who the range and a settlement on the main road near Papatowai, are named after. 

Our next stop was at the once bustling settlement of Tahakopa, 9kms inland from the Tahakopa Estuary and Papatowai. There are just eight permanent residents here and a handful of cottages in various states of disrepair & restoration.

Tahakopa was once the rail head for the branch line from Balclutha; the Catlins River Branch serviced first, the logging industry (there were once 16 sawmills in the valley), and then the farming communities as the valley opened up to early settlers. The line closed in 1971 which sadly signalled the demise of the settlement. The old railway station is slowly being reclaimed by nature.

One bright beacon in Tahakopa is the restored  'Our Hut', once a church and then the local hall, the historic building was built in 1921.

 'Our Hut' is used for meetings and gatherings and also holds records of much of Tahakopa's history.

Back on the coast, the wind was whipping along and the rain squalls horizontal. We stopped at the Florence Hill lookout over Tautuku Bay, an iconic Catlins scene. The wind was so strong I could hardly push the door open to get out and then once I did I had to brace myself against the ute to take a shot. I managed one shot before stinging rain pummeled my face and the camera lens. Funny how this looks such a serene shot.

We drove down to the bottom of the hill and out onto the beach, hoping for some shelter so we could have lunch. Instead of stinging rain we got stinging sand! We backed right up to the dunes beside a stream and had lunch on the tailgate, the cab offering a little bit of shelter. I told David he had better hold tight to his mug of tea but he sat it on the tailgate, it wasn't long before it was over.

A surfer from a rental motorhome tested the on-shore breeze and even though the waves don't look much from here they were quite large and very messy. His friends got a little concerned for him (as did David) after he disappeared for a long while and then popped up way down by the rocks.

I did a little processing on this shot, a good one for a tourism company perhaps- I imagine the occupants sitting inside in awe of their surroundings and not quite believing that they could drive onto a beach and be the only ones there (until we arrived). 

We headed off home and it rained solid all the way back to Niagara.

The only problem with the Niagara site was that there is absolutely no cellphone coverage which in turn usually means no internet either. And while most people are on holiday and not bothered, it soon becomes a problem for those of us that live on the road and/or need to have some contact with the outside world. One day is OK, 2 days bearable, 3 days- get me out of there!

So it was just as well our Netspeed modem is mobile and 12V, we were able to un-plug it from it's cubbyhole in the van, plug it in the ute's lighter socket and take it for a drive until we registered a signal. It doesn't sit in the iPad (TomTom) holder, I just moved it from the centre console so it could be in the shot. So with a signal, it's just a matter of connecting to the modem from our smart phone, iPad or laptops as per normal.

And it just happened that signal was strong and clear at the top of the lookout at Curio Bay, 16kms from Niagara. Well in fact the signal showed up a little earlier but why not make the most of the outing by making sure we had a great view while catching up with internet chores and phone calls. This was a Vodafone connection through Netspeed, our Spark mobiles were very weak, in fact virtually non-existent, the first time we've found Vodafone better than Spark. 

As you can see the weather was once again wild and stormy and heading our way- this is overlooking Curio Bay and the Petrified Forest, which is at the far end of the bay. The wind is holding me off the edge here, it's gale force and quite thrilling and scary at the same time. 

It's a 50 foot drop onto the rocks below and the waves are crashing over the rocky platform. I watched numerous tourists near the edge jumping in the air and flying backwards onto the ground or actually trying to fly while friends took photos. I'm not sure how they would have fared if the wind had died suddenly.

Because of the weather the Curio Bay campground wasn't too busy each time we drove through it, but those that were there were quite sheltered in amongst the flax bushes.

Porpoise Bay was just as uninviting with very few people on the beach or looking out for Hectors Dolphins from the banks above the beach.

The rain came and went along with the tourists, in the end the wind got so ferocious there was just us and a lone seagull fighting the elements at the top of the hill.

Of course it made total sense, being a Friday night and all, to stop at the famous Waikawa fish and chip caravan to pick dinner up on the way home. T'was perfect too! I know one thing I'm going to miss when we do return to the North Island for good- Blue Cod! 

Tuesday 24 January 2017

'Monsters' From the Sea- Catlins; Part 2

Catch-up, I was thinking to myself - 'is this a catch-up post or a real time post?'  Because I am usually behind with the posts anyway so how far behind, is behind? So I made an executive decision and 'catch-up' is anything over two weeks old. And then I looked at the photos for this blog and they miss real-time by one day! You can't win.

As I mentioned in the previous post, David, and Peter, one of the other RVers staying at the Hinahina Reserve, were trying their luck fishing from the rock pile when they got the fright of their life when this little rat-bag came racing out of the depths of the channel at them.

And then wouldn't let them get anywhere near the water again as she skillfully ducked and dived along the edge of the murky water, popping up to surprise them as they moved along the rocks...

...growling and mock charging them everytime she emerged from the water.  

You'll remember me telling you about an aggressive leopard seal in the Pounawea Fishing blog. Well, I'm 99% sure this little girl is the aggressive seal the guys saw further down the estuary. 

I had contact with DOC at Owaka and was able to supply them with her tag number and it turns out that she is this female's last year's pup. This sealion is the one I wrote about which was resting on the bush track at Pounawea. She is indeed (as I thought) waiting to give birth and has weaned her last year's pup (our little monster) and set her loose all by herself.

Poor wee thing, no wonder she's mad with the world. She decided she not only owned the rock pile but the boat ramp too. 

It was great to hear from DOC that there were 4 pups born in the Catlins last year and they were all females. Which means they'll all be coming back to the mainland to breed. Great news for the endangered sealion, not so good for holidaymakers at Pounawea. Apparently the female due to pup had already been shooed away from under someone's deck where she'd settled in to give birth.

How cute is that look? 

As cute as she was, she was a feisty little madam; 

I couldn't work out whether she was being aggressive or just wanting some company, especially when she flopped down on the concrete and went to sleep. We all retired to our vans to give her some space and after a time she headed back down the ramp and off down the estuary.

I wanted to re-visit nearby Jacks Bay (after visiting there 3 years ago) to walk to the blowhole again and check for sealions on the beach. We couldn't wait any longer for the weather to fine up so headed there once the rain stopped.

There are expansive and impressive views out over the bay on the walk to the blowhole...

 ...including a view down into a secluded and rugged little cove where we saw Yellow-eyed penguins resting on a rocky ledge the last time we were here. We scanned and checked with our binos but saw none this time.

There were a steady stream of people walking to the blowhole...

...but unfortunately the sea (for once in a blue moon) was calm and the blowhole wasn't playing! We should have come when it was wild just a couple of days before. Can't win.

It's still impressive watching the swell rise and fall as the water's pushed 200 metres inland.

Jack's Bay is a well known place to visit if you're wanting to view sealions, especially if you're on a tight time-frame and only have a day or two to check out the Catlins.

What never fails to amaze me in places like Jacks Bay, is how many visitors, both domestic and foreign tourists, pull up in the carpark, go for a walk, maybe to the blowhole, scan the sign above, look up and down the beach, perhaps walk to the water's edge or a few meters along the sand hoping to see a sealion and then climb back in their vehicles and drive off. Can you see any sealions here?

No, and nor could I but I know they're mostly likely there and a quick scan with my camera on full zoom (my pseudo binos) and I spot a suspicious looking lump of driftwood about a third of the way along and up near the dunes. And way down the end of the beach a further two possible 'logs'. We drive back down the road and stop at the next track, near the first sighting; I can smell sealion before I see it and it looks like he has done the same (although I suspect the smell is coming from the resting areas other sealions have made in the flattened grasses above the beach). 

After taking a few photos I carry on to the end of the bay and sure enough there are more sealions; not two as I saw but 3, all fast asleep in the warm sand. Such cute faces, don't you think?

This is what you miss if you don't know what to look for or don't look hard enough.

After Jack's Bay we drove around to the entrance of the huge Catlins River Estuary, to the Owaka Heads part of what we could see across the water from the Pounawea Holiday Park.

It was very windy and there were dozens of waders sitting out the weather, roosting above the high tide line on the point; Bar-tailed Godwits, South Island Oystercatchers, Royal Spoonbills (bad-hair day), a few noisy Spur-winged Plovers and running around in amongst them all, dozens of tiny Banded Dotterels(no photos they move too fast).

And we spot another two 'monsters from the sea', a very big maned male who didn't look too friendly. He could smell another male but couldn't see him and sure enough as we scanned around the dunes we saw the second one resting further inland. It's quite scary walking through the dunes (as I was doing sneaking up on the birds), they're quite undulating and the grasses are very tall. You don't want to stumble on a sleeping sealion that's for sure. Luckily the 'nest' in the 3rd photo was empty.

The icing on the cake for our awesome nature experiences, and at the top of the 'monster from the sea' candidates, was this huge elephant seal. 

I received a 'hot tip' from the DOC office that an elephant seal had swum into the estuary the night before and hauled itself out of the tide beside the Newhaven boat ramp. We were due to leave Hinahina that morning but not before we raced around to the other side of the estuary to check out the sighting and hope that the seal was still there.

It was still there alright and if you didn't know about it beforehand, you certainly did when you stepped out of the car. Seals and sealions have nothing on the smell that was emanating from this big boy with the kind eyes.

One great big lump of lard with a number of battle scars and a little on the skinny side (according to DOC, he is probably quite old), you have to wonder who designed these guys and what's their purpose, they certainly can't move very well on land. Adult male elephant seals can measure 4-5 metres and weight 3600kg, females weigh a third of this and are 2-3 metres in length.

Here he's stretching out, or maybe relieving pressure?

The Southern Elephant Seal is a rare visitor to mainland New Zealand, their usual range is in the Southern Ocean around the Antarctic and sub-Antrarctic islands.

This is the second elephant seal I've been lucky enough to see; the first one was in Tauranga, 27 years ago, when Humphrey a young male came on a visit and decided to stay for a few months when he fell in love and tried to set home with a herd of dairy cows in Katikati, and where a sculpture of Humphrey now sits beside the stream he used as his private waterway from the ocean to his harem.

Humphrey also spent a few weeks (Christmas shopping?) lolling about at the The Strand carpark and wharf area in downtown Tauranga. My photography has come a wee way since these photos were taken.

Of course the most outstanding feature of the Elephant Seal is the inflatable proboscis, and inflate it certainly does. It's thought to increase the effectiveness of the bull's roar. I don't know about the roar but it certainly increased the snoring. I took a video of him, click to listen! That very loud bird you can hear is a Bellbird/Korimako. If it hadn't of been for the seal I'd have been hunting down the bird to photograph. And I'll not make a videographer anytime soon, excuse the clumsy filming.

Sweet dreams...is that a smile on his face?