Tuesday, January 21, 2014

New Zealand 2013-2014

[If you're not familiar with our trip reports, here's the deal: there's going to be a ton of pictures and a ton of words. It's pretty much all birds and kids. Block off an afternoon. You might want to leave the evening open too.]

Impy and Gimpy, Daddy's parents, are in New Zealand for 6 months and they generously offered to donate airline miles to fly the kids out as long as we could get the miles together for Mommy and Daddy. Who can turn that down? We've been aggressively stocking up on miles for just such an occasion. So off we went for 17 days--long enough to get a flavor of the country but short enough to miss everything which in retrospect seems the best. We rented a small car, drove a ton, camped as much as we could to cut costs and planned on an itinerary full of adventures and endemic birds. In the map below you can follow our path--teal circles indicate nights and purple circles show the locations of the pictures. Our camera gear is getting quite old and we had some photographic challenges related to that, but don't think that means you get fewer pictures: we selected 100 for you!

We'll start with a non-chronological list of random tidbits that might be more interesting to the casual reader than our epic travelog, which will follow. 

First, a little bit of stuff
This is where we share an assortment of random tidbits from the trip that don't fit into the narrative.

1. NZ is excessively British. The USA may get its cultural heritage largely from the Brits but NZ is still culturally intertwined with England. 

2. Relatedly: mince pies. Yeah. They're disgusting but great. 

3. Daddy drove on the left side of the road for several thousand kilometers. It turned out not to be that big of a deal; the roundabouts are fabulous. 

4. We found it generally difficult to have trivial conversations with the locals, due to the gruffness of their pleasantries and our inability to process their vowels. Daddy's strategy was to nod until people looked confused, then start shaking his head. He defaulted to pulling out his credit card in case the confusion persisted. 

5. More on language: in a [mostly subconscious] effort to not sound like an ignorant American, Daddy found his accent slipping off in erratic directions every time he opened his mouth. He had no idea how to sound like a kiwi, so instead it had elements of Russian, Spanish, and probably bantu inflections and vowels. Somehow he always said "howdy"--that most American of greetings--in a kinda Balkans-y way. And when he chatted with that young German birder family, his accent was all over the solar system--people could identify the kids as American from one syllable but they always hesitated to guess where Daddy was from [it reminds us of Grammy, walking into a Sanchez burrito joint in Tucson and ordering a "burrrrrrrro, gracias."]

6. Every single person we met commented on what they saw as a Grand Irony: that we live in Hawai'i and were choosing to spend our holiday in New Zealand. It makes a huge amount of sense to all the folks trapped on this crowded, hot rock with us. 

7. There didn't seem to be any poverty in NZ. Everything was manicured lawns, hedgerows and English-style pastorality. Or at least that's the view from the road. 

8. An excessive amount of sheep.

9. NZ really has radically less wilderness than you might imagine. What green land left that isn't covered in a carpet of sheep is usually offensively ugly plantation pines from North America. Native bush was a very rare treat. 

10. NZ pizza: just don't. Shudder. 

11. Galoshes and shorts is basically the default style for women, men and children. Short shorts. It kind of gave the entire country an adorable-manly-dork vibe. 

12. We don't feel nearly as bad giggling at anthropological observations about locals on a tourist trip to a foreign land when the foreigners are just British-types.

13. ...not to exclude the 30% of the population that are not British-types, ethnically, but from our perspective the British cultural domination was overwhelming in most places. 

14. What's left of the wild New Zealand communicates something ancient and alien unlike any place we've ever been. Even the familiar upon closer inspection is alien; the product of convergent evolution more than relation. 

15. The people we did meet in any depth--one Maori family [Impy and Gimpy's friends], and a couple rural folks on the South Island--were phenomenal people. The type of people to give impromptu hakas or meet on the beach with galoshes and short shorts and a few glasses of white wine, respectively. You know, those kids of people. 

16. Our kids are just great little people. They just roll with whatever life gives them. They adapted to this trip in a day and made the most of it--fighting tooth-and-nail in the car, hiking for hours at the drop of a hat and for no apparent reason, scouting out the best of NZ's world-class playgrounds. Sleeping in tents in the rain ain't no thang. They broke out into ninja battles on bridges, dance parties in parking lots, and dead sprints in the middle of challenging hikes. They're just cool that way. 

17. New Zealand is substantially smaller than California in land area, but the country is WAY bigger than that in practical size and presence. Not only are the roads slow and meandering, but its space is bigger than normal space, you know? It's a continental personality bottled up in an island body. 

18. 18 total hours with 3 young kids in a plane? No problem. Seriously. 

19. Three cases of the flu, one slow-leak tire, a broken pinkie toe, wipe-out level hay fever, one misplaced reservation, and a gigantic Antarctic storm? Not a big deal. It all worked out fine. Somehow almost all of the rain lined up with our driving and we never got more than damp overnight. The destruction the rain wrought on our schedule just opened us up to other experiences and places. The rest of the problems just faded to the background whenever anything awesome was happening. 

20. Mommy was cold every single second of the trip. Just for the record. 

Triplog phase I: Auckland to the Otago Peninsula
We spent two days driving from Auckland to Wellington to catch our evening ferry to the South Island. We stopped at a few places to do walks and see excellent birds, but mostly drove [on the left side of the road, like savages]. On the first day we had a personal greeting from a tui, the bird that neatly symbolizes NZ to us. 

[1] A tui along the Tongariro river. A NZ classic. Bud: "We saw those at the boat." [No, we didn't. But we did see them.]

After sleeping at Wammy and Wampy's house, we spent most of the second day walking around an "inland island" called Zealandia, just outside Wellington. The place is completely isolated from introduced predators and has some of the last remaining populations of the rarest of NZ endemics, all wild but managed. Among those, we had a neat little chat with a couple of the formerly "extinct" takahe. This bird may not have traditional songbird looks, but it is an astounding bird. It's a classic NZ riff on the familiar global purple moorhen: a giant, flightless, nearly-extinct moorhen. The kids seemed to understand how special the birds were. Well... Bud thought it would be fun to tackle them. We caught him just in time. 

[2] Takahe at Zealandia. Bud: "We saw those in New Zealand a lot." [No, we didn't. Just the once. ]

[3] Kaka, the most common of the endemic NZ parrots, at Zealandia. Bud: "We saw those in our trunk!" [No, we didn't. He's thinking of kea.]

One of the most charming NZ endemics is the NZ robin. We saw our first at Zealandia; like many NZ birds, it has never evolved fear of humans, who first arrived in NZ only about 800 years ago. But the NZ robin takes the boldness to a whole new level--the kids learned how to stand perfectly still and let the robin forage inches from their faces. Later we cleared some leaves from the forest floor with our feet and sat around the clearings, letting the robins grab worms from the bare earth we had just uncovered. It's rare that birding is a participatory activity for kids and they loved it. At this point Buddy did something heinously naughty but we've repressed the memory and choose to not try to recall the details. 

[4] NZ robin at Zealandia. Bud: "And we saw those at Costa Rica." [No, we didn't. But good guess.]

Little has been learning about economics in school, which is why she pontificates on scarcity to us quite frequently. So when we found some stitchbird feeders in the forest, Little had an appropriate appreciation for these extremely rare and special birds. She stood still next to a feeder, with her face showing delight and concentration. She soaked in the experience for at least 15 minutes.

[5] Little's reverie in front of the stitchbird feeders. Little: "I was so close to the feeders and so still that I actually got a bird to get like a foot away from me." Bud: "And we saw that. That's [Little]. That we saw when we were just hiding."[Yes! We did!]

[6] A banded male stitchbird at Zealandia. Little: "This is the bird I got really close up to." Bud: "We saw that in the other cave when we were boating for it." [No, we didn't. But we DID see it later after a boat ride, so maybe?]

There's a really, really, really unbelievably weird and cool reptile in NZ and Daddy's been eager to see them for many years: the tuatara. Littler spotted this one on her own--a great big male, with a laundry list of bizarre and primitive traits. Littler reminded us for days that she was the tuatara-spotter. 

[7] Littler's tuatara. Littler: "I found that lizard at New Zealand. I felt happy that I found it. It is spotty."

The ferry to the South Island takes three hours and we departed after 7pm, arrived at our campsite at 10:30pm and discovered that it was full. We finally settled at a beachside field on Ruby Bay around midnight. 

[8] Littler: "Me and Bud are climbing rocks at the beach at New Zealand. We are going to go on a ferry." Bud: "Littler and me climbing up rocks, cause those are rock climbers."

[9] Waiting at the ferry terminal in Wellington.

[10] Our ferry in the background.

[11] Bud: "Well that is a picture of me, that I know I love that."

[12] Littler: "We are looking at some black swans, and I was climbing rocks and the black swans were in the water."

[13] A single illuminated cloud after sunset, from the ferry somewhere in the Cook Straight. Bud: "Woah. That's thunder, right?" [No, Bud... it isn't]

In the morning we played at the beach a while before heading off to Kaikoura. 

[14] Ruby Bay. Littler: "Me and Bud are making a sandcastle at the beach near our campsite." Bud: "Well, not good. Cause there's mud. Littler and me in mud. And I just kicked some mud in my shirt and pants. And my legs were sooo tired!"

[15] Little on flu day 1 for her.

[16] Littler taming the sea. Littler: "I am running into the beach wave."

Before the trip, Daddy said sensible things like "pack light" and "it's summer down there" and "you're going to regret hauling winter clothing all over New Zealand" and "one light jacket for each person should be plenty" and "let's just bring shorts and sandals." Or, more precisely, these statements WOULD have been sensible if not for the two-week-long Antarctic storm that loomed over us for almost the entire trip. A more sensible statement would have been "bring every piece of warm clothing we own."

Our plan for the next day was to spend it hanging around Kaikoura, hiking, looking for sea birds and cetaceans, and maybe some kayaking. But this is the day the storm arrived and we spent a lot of time shivering and soaked. 

[17] Little checks out some shorebirds at Kaikoura. Little: "I'm looking at birds."

[18] Little with the binos.

[19] On a small hike in the rain over the Kaikoura headlands.  Little: "[Littler] and Bud are walking through the fog."

[20] Littler: "We made a mud cake!"

[21] Interesting underwater geology from the Kaikoura headlands. Little: "The ocean all cracked up."

[22] No flu can block fart-joke giggles.

That night we put our tents down at the Meatworks beach freedom camp. This is a big NZ thing--freedom camps are basically unregulated, free but officially supported plots where people can just throw down a tent or park a campervan for free. We chose a patch of comfy grass and settled in for the night--which proved to be quite cold and damp. 

[23] Meatworks beach.

[24] Our second night of camping, at the Meatworks freedom camp. That sag in the adults' tent provided a nice cool pool of water in the lap right at the beginning of the night.

[25] Mommy taking down the adult tent in the morning.

The next day we drove down through Christchurch, stopping at the Ashley River estuary along the way. Bud slept in the car while the Little, with her flu, stayed and read. So Littler came with Mommy and Daddy to explore the delta and even ford a small stream or two. She was buoyant with enthusiasm and eager to please, telling us how much she loves birding, proudly pointing out house sparrows [yay...], and offering to take pictures of us. Littler aims to please and made this little walk extremely enjoyable. 

[26] Littler's portrait of Mommy and Daddy at the Ashley River Estuary. She took a couple dozen pictures and managed to get a single one with most of the parents in it. Littler: "I took a picture of Mom and Daddy going across the little river."

[27] The excursion with Littler at the Ashley River Estuary. Littler: "I remember this: I said 'I can do it' and I was so far away but I still knew that I could do it."

We tried several routes to get to Lake Ellesmere but each one included deep mud and water, and after we attempted some things which may or may not have violated our rental agreement, we decided to give up.

[28] One of our many attempts at getting to Lake Ellesmere ended with our rental car refusing to even try this modest puddle.

Daddy has always had a bit of a purists distaste for penguins. They're just so populist, you know? All that unsubtle cuteness. The fact that they seem more like parodies of birds than actual birds. All the commercials and stuff. But he had never seen one in the wild (except as a dot in the binoculars on the ferry); nobody in the family had. And on top of that, penguins have an extremely prominent place in our kids' lives. They just love penguins. And that's why we decided to drive so far south--so the kids could see some penguins. So we went to a beach outside of Oamaru and decided not to tell the kids there would be penguins there. We told them we were looking for "pudu." As the penguins started shuffling up the beach we scoped a nearby one and let the kids see their first-ever "pudu." They got a huge kick out of that [video below--the excitement might not radiate from the video, but the reaction you can see in the video was mostly a stunned disbelief. The spastic excitement came just after]. 

And Daddy's penguin ambivalence? Well, three of the penguins had an infinitely anthropomorphizable spat on the beach, which started with cuddling [and flipper-flapping] and ended with one hopping away on two feet like a frog. The sheer mass of cuteness and fun breached the gates of his skepticism and he became a true penguin lover. Entire chordate classes have less summed personality than a single one of these penguins.

 Everybody seeing penguins for the first time. If you can't hear Bud, he says "Nothing but... a penguin!"

[29] Yellow-eyed penguin! At Bushy Beach near Oamaru. Little: "Woah! Penguin! This is a yellow-eyed penguin. Penguins are awesome!" Littler: "We saw some yellow-eyed penguins at the beach making footprints." Bud: "They were making parents? Were they?" Littler: "Footprints!"

[30] The two penguins on the right chased off the third--it's hopping away on two feet for speed. Little: "These are three penguins."

A major lightning storm stranded us at the beach for about half an hour, but the kids were cool with that. They haven't stopped talking about penguins since [though Little insists that little blue penguins are cuter than yellow-eyed, despite the scarcity argument that so moved her with the stitchbirds]. 

That night we freedom camped again, so far south that it didn't get dark until extremely late. So Daddy and Little and Littler went on a very long walk around Warrington Reserve on the beach. Little monologued the whole time, mostly about penguins. Littler stopped every 50 feet to write the most complicated math equations she could imagine in the mud; Daddy had to solve them before we could continue. It was freezing, rainy, dark, late--and perfect. 

[31] The beginning of Little and Little's long dusk-time walk with Daddy at Warrington Reserve.


[33] Littler scratching some math problems in the tidal flats. Little: "This is [Littler] drawing in the sand." Littler: "I was writing math problems for Daddy."

The freedom camping spot at Warrington Reserve had a playgound, which isn't surprising at all because NZ has the most and the best playgrounds in the world. We feel confident saying this despite never having been to most of the world because the density, funitude and quality of the NZ playgrounds stress fundamental physical limits. So we played around for a bit in the morning before heading off to what became possibly the best day of the trip. 

[34] Daddy trying slacklining on a chain at Warrington Reserve.

Our main target, and the destination of our relentless southward driving, was the Otago Peninsula. We had a marvelous day planned out, but on our drive in we passed the dock for Monarch tour boats. It's a little company we'd heard fantastic things about, so we dropped in and asked if they had any space on the boat. They did--in 5 minutes. So we just went, and got way more than we bargained for! 

[35] The beginning of our boat ride along the Otago Peninsula. The two flu-y kids, Little and Bud, are very cold.

After a neat path around the peninsula, getting very close to nesting northern royal albatross and bronze shag [endemic and very local], we headed out into the open ocean for what promised to be a very short little foray into the albatrosses' foraging grounds. The kids were basically unimpressed, and now that both Little and Bud had the flu they were both tired and cold, so they laid down in the bow. And then...

[36] The kids were astonished to see real dolphins so close to the boat. It pretty much blew their minds. Little: "Me looking at dolphins. It felt kind of weird to see dolphins. I was excited!"

Dolphins! Here's the hierarchy of animals with the kids: 1. Orcas [Bud's obsession is monumental]. 2. Penguins. 3. Dolphins. So when we alerted the kids to a small family of dolphins swimming immediately beside the boat, it blew their minds into space. 

[37] Dusky dolphins on a Monarch boat tour. Little: "These are dolphins. We saw them on a boat. We got to look at things through the binoculars on that ride. We also got to use coats from the boat, it was really cold! We saw a lot of things: dolphins, albatrosses and other seabirds, and a boat with tons of birds flying around it."

The little tour we were on sees dolphins only sporadically, so we felt extra blessed to see them on the end of what was already a very cool boat tour. But then the skipper jumped out of the steering room and called out to her assistant: "Hey! I'm sorry but you're going to miss your lunch today!" Then she pointed the boat right at an incoming fishing boat which was swarmed with seabirds. So we joined up with the little fishing boat and followed it into harbor--the skipper skillfully and doggedly pursued every interesting shearwater, albatross or petrel we could see. She seemed to feed off our enthusiasm for the birds and made it an incredible pelagic birding experience at a fraction of the price of a dedicated pelagic cruise. Albatrosses are phenomenal. The petrels were surprisingly handsome up close. Even the kids couldn't help but be in awe [they are pretty hard to impress, generally, bird-wise, for reasons that by this time should be quite clear]. 

[38] Our lucky fishing boat with its attendant hordes of gulls, albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels. Little: "This was the boat with tons of birds flying around it. It's a fishing boat."

[39] White-capped albatross off Taiaroa Head. Little: "This is an albatross." [Clearly getting more descriptive as this activity wears on]

[40] White-capped albatross laboriously taking off from the water.

Given the horrible weather that followed us all over NZ, the one day of sunlight we were given for this boat ride felt divine. Given Little's new-found obsession with little blue penguins, we cancelled our plans for the rest of the day [which involved surfing sand dunes--probably not the best choice for flu-y kids] and shelled out some not-insignificant money to go to a penguin tourism outfit called The Penguin Place. They maintain many viewing hides of wild yellow-eyed and little blue penguins and do excellent and entirely privately funded conservation work. 

We walked through camouflaged fox trenches to see the one surviving yellow-eyed penguin that had hatched at that beach this year. Once again, Little stood transfixed, with a look of wonder, cuteness, and reverence. 

[41] Little's penguin reverie. Little: "I'm looking at a penguin. I have almost never seen one before, I've only seen them in a zoo. It felt awesome to see penguins!"

[42] The baby yellow-eyed penguin, seen between wooden slats at the Penguin Place on the Otago Peninsula. Little: "We saw a baby yellow-eyed penguin." Littler: "Oh! The baby penguin!" Bud [as Oggy, in an affected high-pitched squeak]: "Baby bembin!"

 Buddy made up this penguin dance at least a year ago. He does it constantly:

[43] Mommy and Daddy think the endemic red-billed gull is the second-prettiest gull in the world [nothing beats Heerman's, of course]

We chose to stay at a motel that night to do laundry and get baths for everybody. Very good idea... 

Phase II: the meandering route back home
The next morning, still buzzing from a phenomenal previous day, we intended to drive all the way up to Arthurs Pass, and due to our improbable success at Otago we basically expected orange-fronted parakeets, kea, rock wren, yellowhead, blue duck and probably Gandalf to just fall out of the sky in front of us when we got there. The idea was to freedom camp in Hawdon Valley for three days, exploring, hiking, seeing the mountain birds [the aforementioned endemics], and trying to avoid driving as much as possible before heading to the west coast. That was the plan, at least. But first, we stopped at a nifty little cave hike just before the national park. We got all geared up to explore the caves--an old family-favorite activity--and the clouds broke open and dumped on us for at least half an hour. Mommy and Daddy decided to cut losses and leave, but Littler wanted to cave so desperately that she convinced them to wait for 5 more minutes to see if the rain would stop. And it did! We took a glorious walk, explored the mouth of the cave, and had a wonderful time. As you'll see, this ended up being our only time in the mountains in the South Island, and we're indebted to Littler for making it happen. 

[44] Little and Littler walking near Cave Stream.

[45] Littler can't believe how pretty Middle Earth is.

[46] Littler is so happy that we got to go see the caves that she did a little happy dance. Little: "Woah. Sometimes can you take a picture upside-down so it looks like I'm jumping off the ceiling?"Littler: "It looks like I'm flying, doesn't it? Thank you for taking it in the air!" Bud: "Like a bunny rabbit!"

[47]. Bud. Mommy. Little: "Bud is being really cute with Mom, and he's looking at something and they are standing near the mountains."

[48] Bud exploring the cave. Littler: "I was so excited to be in the cave."



[51] Bud: "Where's the spider in that picture?" [???]

[52] This is the facial expression Little makes when she's talking about something cute. The face itself is just adorable.

[53] More cute-face. She's probably expositing on the cuteness of little blue penguins.

For the first--and last--time on the trip, we ran into actual birders at the Cave Stream parking lot. They were a young family like us who had bought an old campervan for a 3-month birding extravaganza. Daddy immediately started planning some completely absurd things. Anyway, they warned us that they were fleeing Arthurs Pass due to impending storms. Given that we had planned on three nights in the tents, this was unfortunate news. Tired Littler can be a bit of a monster; tired and soaking Littler will eat villages. Not a good plan. Since it was nearing dark we decided to go up to Arthurs Pass anyway and check out our campsite. It was inundated.

[54] Our intended campsite, in the mouth of the distant valley. That's all rain.

 So we drove up to Arthurs Pass Village, hoping against hope to find a room for the night--perhaps the next day would be clearer? At the top we were met with frigid temperatures, driving torrential rain and heavy winds. Mommy jumped out of the car to try to scrounge dinner from the trunk, and a kea just landed right in the trunk! This is one of NZ's most distinctive, bold, curious, charming and absurd birds and was one of our biggest goals at Arthurs Pass. 

[55] The kea that wanted to join us for dinner. It was very dark; forgive the blur. Little: "That bird's feathers look kind of like our stuffed animals' when they're wet."Littler: "hahaha, kudu. Tudu."

The kea took particular interest in Buddy, eyeing him curiously while Buddy exploded in hysterical laughter. Facing the disappointment and challenge of the night, this was a huge treat--everybody in the family fell in love with this inquisitive and naughty alpine parrot. 

[56] Buddy and the kea examine each other. Little: "That's a really cute picture. Bud looking at the kea, and the kea looking at Bud. Bud's smiling and the kea's, like, ehhh? What's that boy doing?" Bud: "Hahah, and he was in the trunk, right?"

[57] This drenched kea is dreaming about eating our car. Seriously; it tried to pick out the rubber weather sealing from around the doors. Little: "Looking smart kea. He looks like he's looking down at his paper and looking at work."

We found a hostel to sleep in and got on WiFi for the first and only time on the trip. We discovered that what we'd been experiencing was only a hint of a huge wall of rain that was about to sweep right up the South Island. We used computer projections of the storm path to plot a course for the next day that would put us in the only spot on the island that we could camp without flood-grade rain. Even then, the model predicted that we'd get hit hard around 9am. The one 8-hour hole in the rain just happened to be Kaikoura, where we had spent the night a few nights prior. Unfortunately, this required us abandoning Arthurs Pass 3 days early, not even going to the west coast as planned, and a lot of driving and uncertainty in our future. 

Our drive out the next day confirmed that this was the right call. All the birds were blown off the mountain and drowned anyway. 

[58] Sheets of rain falling on Arthurs Pass.

[59] It's pretty until you think of it as the invasive weed it is. Bugloss/blueweed.

We decided to drop back to the Ashley River estuary on our way though, since we had heard that there was a black stilt there. This is one of the rarest birds in the world and an NZ endemic, so we had to try. The wind at the estuary was so fierce that Daddy had to go alone and even then he couldn't keep the tripod standing straight up and his legs got sandblasted raw. All the birds were hunkered down. We didn't see the stilt, but the family we met the previous day saw it a couple days later. 

At a loss for what to do, we decided to let the kids play at a local playground for a while. We didn't have any clue how phenomenal the playground would be, in this random small NZ town. We spent hours riding the zipline--about 100 meters long and so fun it would be banned in the US. At one point a couple young boys joined us. One of them asked Little "how old are you?" and Little said "seven." That's all the boy needed to instantly conclude "you talk funny!" Daddy wanted to point out that sivin isn't even a word...

[60] Littler had a good time on the zip-line.

[61] Bud had a good time on the zip-line.

[62] Little had a good time on the zip-line. Little: "I am on a zipline at a park. It's not a normal zipline, like I've been on when I was younger, but it's a zipline that anyone can go on. It's really fun, and it goes really fast, and it swings you, and you can go really fast, and sometimes when.... [talked way too fast to keep up with the rest!]"

[63] Everybody had a good time on the zip-line.

We went right back to Kaikoura and the Meatworks freedom camp quite late and crossed our fingers that the rain would hold for the night [we can handle drizzles in the tents--hard rain tends to be a disaster]. Upon arriving there was a feeding frenzy just off shore--dozens of fluttering shearwaters fed until dark then settled down for the night just right there. Very cool!

The night worked out, and we took it easy in the morning as we tried to decide what to do that day.

[64] The girl tent.

[65] It turns out that tents don't stuff into the bags very well when they still are full of monster. Little: "It's like a trick picture, because it looks like a rock with a reflection on it."Littler: "I remember me and Little were having fun in that tent."

In the morning, we explored a random river bed somewhere near Kaikoura, just wanting to enjoy what sun we had while it lasted.

[66] Exploring some random river bed near Kaikoura. Littler: "I remember that I was climbing on rocks and having fun and I was the leader."

[67] Little started to feel better around this point.

We drove out to Pelorous Bridge to take a hike in virgin rainforest--not on the original itinerary, but the hike ended up being a huge highlight. The kids hiked for several kilometers with increasing enthusiasm. 

[68] Freaking the kids out with tales of headless cicadas at Pelorous Bridge. Little: "Dad was showing us a cicada."


[70] Hiking near Pelorous Bridge.

[71] A rare family portrait.

At the end of the day we found ourselves at a coastal camping area near Abel Tasman National Park in the northern end of the South Island. After setting up the tents we hung out on the beach for hours; Bud with Mommy, turning over rocks to find "crab parties!" and Little and Littler with a bunch of local kids playing out in the mud and surf, oblivious to the frigid air. Daddy hung with the parents of the local kids, who said things like "why would anybody come from Hawai'i to holiday... here??" Apparently a pod of orcas had just visited the beach two nights prior, just offshore, hunting stingrays and leaving carcasses washed up on the beach. Not only are orcas Buddy's favorite thing in the universe, but he's seen the documentary on this particular pod [on youtube] probably a half-dozen times. So we were excited to be in their presence even though we were bummed not to see anything. 

Buddy and Mommy looking for "crab parties."

[72] Little and Littler play with their new friends at dusk. Little: "I was playin' in the mud!"

[73] Temporarily, the kids forgot how cold it was.

[74] The charming fantail. Daddy mimicked the call of the first one we saw and it tried to land on his head, then Mommy's. Not exactly a shy bird; this picture was taken with a 90mm lens. Little: "A reason they're called a fantail is their tail looks like a fan when it's spread out."

[75] A walk in Abel Tasman National Park.

[76] On the ferry ride back to the North Island. Little: "We made a coat out of [Littler's] yellow blankie. We were going to get ice cream later."

[77] Bud receives his "megaweapon."

[78] Bud attacks a random hapless passenger. The two battled for at least an hour. Little: "Oh! Haha. Bud found someone that he thought would be good to wrestle, and then he started fighting and that man thought it was funny and they kept doing it for a long time, and then [Littler]'s balloon popped, then Bud's balloon popped, then I gave my balloon to Bud."

We then spent several nights with Grindy and Grandy in Feilding, sleeping on the floor and making short excursions to nearby destinations. By popular vote we visited a litany of small-town wonder-parks. We also went to the Manawatu estuary to see the incomparable wrybills, and then to some more parks. We had a lovely hike in Totara Reserve with Crammy and Crimpy in primary forest. Overall we took it easy and enjoyed our time with the grandparents.

[79] Hanging out near Bimmy and Bimpy's place in Feilding.


[81] Little: "That one just looks too crazy for me to write about! Hey, Dad, you said that? Dad, really, why'd you do that? [tackles Daddy]"

[82] Littler, as is her custom, found some other young girls and marinated herself nozzle-deep in some nearby water. Totara Reserve.

[83] Wrybill! At the Manawatu river estuary.

A big motivation for this trip was spending time with Impy and Gimpy and giving the kids some super-memorable settings for memories of their grandparents. It also gave us a way to experience a bit of NZ culture, since we spent quite a bit of time with Gams and Gramps' friends, call them the Matrices [for what will be obvious reasons]. The Matrices are a local multigenerational Maori family that opened their doors for us, shared food and most of all had in their possession the most wonderful of all possible Buddy friends, a 3-year-old boy named Matrix. Matrix is the type of kid who's named Matrix, you know? We just knew he and Bud would get a kick out of each other. And they did...

Bud gets worked up in Matrix's presence. 

[84] Bud and Matrix. The magnitude of their combined silliness is excessive. Little: "Matrix and Bud playing together. Matrix is a lot like Bud, and he's basically the same: he's pretty good at fighting, like stuff like that."

[85] We can't even release the next photo in this series onto the internet, for fear of causing a scandal. Little: "Woah. Hahaha!"

Just some random Bud/Matrix life. 

One night at the Matrices, we had an impromptu demonstration of a haka by the father of the home. Upon conclusion, Bud raced into the room, got down in a wide-foot stance and started haka-ing, basically, for 20-ish people. Except instead of intimidating it was blastifyingly cute and silly. 

Our last day in Feilding we went up to Tongariro National Park with Ramses and Rampses to hike along the timberline at Waitonga Falls. It was drizzly and frigid up until we began hiking; we hiked ~4km, saw some classic NZ bush, and didn't get rained on one bit. 


[87] Little: "Me, going to win." [not at all competitive...]

[88] Little in the tree-line tussock at Tongariro National Park.

[89] Bud doing ninja moves at Waitonga falls.


On the hike back, Little went ahead, followed by Littler and Mommy, then later by Bud and Daddy. Bud decided to run the whole thing--he leapt off bounders, sprinted up hills, ran literally the entire trail back. He and Daddy expected to catch up to Mommy and Littler at some point, but it turns out that Littler too had decided to run the whole thing. She and Mommy were trying to catch up to Little, who surely was not that far ahead. But it turns out that Little also decided independently to run the whole trail back to the car so she beat everybody back and nobody caught anybody. We finished lunch by the time Grams and Gramps showed up. 


We proceeded then up to Pureora Reserve, one of our top birding destinations for the trip. The rain was apocalyptic--several times we had to pull off the road to wait out hail or deluges that obscured the road entirely. Considering we were traveling into the storm and had planned on camping that night, we feared the worst...

[92] Driving from Feilding to Pureora. This picture is representative of pretty much the entire day. We had to pull of the road multiple times in impenetrable rain and hail.

We arrived at Pureora Forest Reserve late and discovered we had no cash to pay for camping, and the ground was flooded anyway. We suspected that it would rain all night long in any case. Because we were out of gas--and gas stations in NZ close at dark--we were forced to pitch our tents on the only dry ground available: the gravel parking lot of a popular trail. As we tried to go to sleep, we heard several boobook [morepork [owls]] and a kiwi coming from the primary forest near the tent. Daddy went out and walked for about an hour in the forest, chasing kiwi calls all over and marveling over the glow worm constellations on the treefall roots. Despite hearing several kiwi--and some from clearly close range--he saw nothing at all. For giant flightless noisemakers, kiwis sure are elusive! 

It miraculously refrained from raining seriously all night and in the morning we took a little hike with the kids to a canopy tower. We climbed 5 built-in wooden ladders to get to the top, where a not-entirely-good-natured ninja battle erupted. The tower wobbled perceptibly. We decided to kick the kids back down to the ground and enjoy the tower stress-free ourselves. [When it was Bud's turn to climb down the first ladder, he peered over the first rung, hesitated, then said "Here goes nothing!" and confidently descended. Apparently he's working on his catchphrases?]

After a short time, a kaka flew into an epiphyte right next to the tower and spent a good 30 minutes foraging around for nuts or fruit that had been trapped inside. The big highlight was a charming pair of riflemen--tiny, spherical, tail-less, hyper, spectacular, unique, bizarre, primitive, gorgeous--spending several minutes nearly within reach. These birds [along with another NZ endemic in the same family] are from so distant a divergent line that nobody is really sure what they came from and when. For people intimately familiar with the standard range of bird shapes, the rifleman gives a distinct impression of off-kilter disproportion. It was a tiny window into the deep ecological history of New Zealand and left us speechless [and pictureless--those guys are tiny and flighty, and frankly we were too preoccupied with gawking at them to even think about the camera]. 

[93] NZ robin in Pureora. A very charming encounter.

[94] Little babysitting the other kids at the bottom of the tower. Bud is in his "Oggy" character, as he usually is. Oggy is a little baby and needs to be held and only whines and faux-cries. Little: "We were playing school, and I was the teacher. It was a little bit better to them, so that they didn't fight as much. I was actually babysitting them."

We spent most of the afternoon at the Miranda Shorebird Center, walking the ~2km to the shorebird blinds and  the same back. The birds were great, but it was mostly just nice to have sun and enjoy a nice walk with the kids. We walked through a towering forest of wild fennel, which was odd. 

[95] Miranda Shorebird Center. This is where we caught ourselves in the bizarre act of sorting through countless wrybills to try to identify some sharp-tailed sandpipers [true birders will groan and laugh at this joke, just trust us].

Our very last day was one of the most wondrous, with a trip by boat to Tiritiri Matangi, an island north of Auckland which is one of the premier wildlife reserves in the country. It is completely free of introduced predators and the home to wild populations of some of the rarest and most unique birds in the world: saddlebacks and kokako--which fill the ecological niche of squirrels in the native NZ environment [which had no land mammals]--and stitchbirds, brown teal [the kids called them "chocolate ducks"], red-fronted parakeets and kiwi [we weren't there at night so we couldn't see those]. We saw all these [sans kiwi] and more, had an excellent walk, and generally put a great big exclamation mark on our whole trip [though Daddy was so mauled by allergies to the imported grasses that he didn't take any pictures at all]. Littler started getting wistful at this point, pointing out that we were almost done with our NZ trip and letting us know that she was already starting to miss it. 

[96] The boat to Tiritiri Matangi.

[97] Littler and her friend hiding out in a nook on the top deck of the ferry. After searching the whole boat three times we had convinced ourselves that she was probably bobbing up and down in the water somewhere miles [kilometers, really] behind us.

[98] Littler on the return ferry from Tiritiri Matangi island.

That's all! We had a phenomenal time and are deeply grateful to Grammy and Grampy for helping to facilitate this trip. We missed a lot--scratched the surface, really--due to time and weather, but we choose not to regret what we missed and revel in what we did and saw.  We saw fantastic birds but missed out on others we worked very hard to see [all kiwis, blue duck, weka, NZ falcon and black stilt the most prominent ones, not including those that we didn't even try for like Fiordland penguin and South Island wren]. But overall we saw 100 species of birds of which 81 were lifers and an unbelievable 38 are endemic to NZ--all surpassing our expectations for a short trip with kids and a minimal budget. We had a multitude of great experiences and shared it all together. Ever since we came home Littler has been reminding us over and over, "I miss New Zealand." We do too, and perhaps someday we will return and really get to know the South Island better.

[or: another way to make an excessively-long post even more excessively long]

Our life-list philosophy is this: there is no intrinsic value to a list of bird names, but a list that tells a story can have great meaning. We use our life-list to document our lives and travels in a unique way. In that spirit, below you'll find our NZ life-list entries courtesy of the Bubo online listing tool.