High Sheep Country and Hydroelectric Power

We started the day with a hearty breakfast at a leisurely hour. I think our hostess, a retired farmer, was somewhat affronted with our general inclination towards late rising. I suspect she’d mustered and sheared a couple of hundred sheep before we strolled into the kitchen.

Suitably fortified we sallied forth in the Mighty Chariot. The last time we did a road trip in NZ we asked for a small car. We were given a Fiat 500, which was hilarious. It never let us down, but with capacity for only one small suitcase in the boot, we resorted to stuffing the back seat full with luggage and hurtled into the Northland. We attracted some rather impressive tailbacks on the hills.

Our latest trip involves mountains, so again we asked the rental people for the cheapest smallest car they had. We were presented with that well-known mountaineer, a Toyota Yaris. Having actually owned a Yaris in the past, we were delighted. We still had to put luggage in the back seat, but this didn’t involve wedging anything through the front (only) doors on the Fiat. It turns out that the Yaris has remarkable back-country capability, with excellent stability on washboard roads and the body height gives a far amount of clearance for off-roading (please don’t tell the hire company.)

Toyota Yaris
Toyota Yaris. A Small car for Big County.

The glacial lakes and mountain altitude provide one of the world’s great opportunities for hydroelectric power, and NZ makes the most of it. From Lake Pukaki (which we visited the previous day) they have built a series of dams, each equipped with a large power station. There are five or six of these down the valley, providing a significant chunk of the nation’s electricity. We drove down the valley, taking pictures as we went.

Lake Panorama
Lake Panorama
Lake on a flat calm morning
Another Lake
Power Station
Power Station, looking down the penstocks. They are about 5m across, and there are six of them. The drop is about 40m. It’s engineering on a vast scale.
Lake, Mountain
Mountain Reflection
Alpine Scenery
Alpine Scenery
Alpine scenery
More Alpine Scenery
Lake in mountains
Yet more scenery. There’s really no shortage of it over here.
High Sheep Country
High Sheep Country
Mountain Cloud
Mountain Cloud. It’s surprisingly easy to get involved in the meteorology at this altitude.
One of the Locals. The Merino is the backbone of the agriculture on the South Island. They are wonderful animals.

Omarama, the small town that served as our base for this stage of the tour, is world famous for gliding. With fairly predictable winds, and surrounded by mountains, it’s ridge-soaring heaven.

Glider Tow
Glider Tow
Glider Tow
Glider Tow

We stopped for lunch at an excellent cellar door. We mentioned we were looking for something to eat. “Of course” they said. “Today we’re serving cheese platters only. And it’s this specific platter.”

We selected the cheese platter. It was absolutely excellent.

I raised the idea that we were going to be on the road for a few days yet, and how nice it is to finish the day with a glass of wine. After some negotiation with the Decision Maker we went to select some wine. We were guided by a charming Russian lady. The high country and sparse soils leads to a clean, focused viticulture. We selected a few bottles, stashed them in the car and headed back to our wonderful lodge.

A good day out in the high sheep country.

Social Media:

Christchurch to Omarama

Christchurch used to be a jewel of a city. With its cathedral and the river running through it, it echoed English cities like Bath or Chichester. Then the earthquakes hit, flattening it and killing almost 300 people. Even five years later the wounds are clearly visible. We used it as a staging post to pick up the Mighty Chariot. Leaving early in the morning (around tennish), we pointed the car at the distant mountains and headed towards the high country. I was doing the driving, so I didn’t get as many pictures as Other People.

River, Bridge
A River in the Mountains

Driving to the mountains is odd. You can see them from hundreds of kilometers away, and you seem to spend hours without getting any closer. Then you come around a corner and suddenly MOUNTAIN!

About two-thirds of the way to our destination we came to the mountain lakes, Tekapo and Pukaki.

Lake Tekapo and Mountain
Lake Tekapo and Mountain

The lakes are an incredible vivid blue. It’s caused by microscopic rock particles suspended in the water, called ‘glacial flour’.

Pacific Gull at Lake Pukaki
Pacific Gull at Lake Pukaki
Bridge at Lake Pukaki
Bridge at Lake Pukaki

We stood on the south shore of Lake Pukaki. Looking north the distant view was shrouded in clouds. Weather changes fast in the mountains, and soon we saw something looming out above the clouds. A quick check of the map showed us we were seeing Aoraki/Mt Cook emerging from the clouds. It’s the highest mountain in New Zealand at a around 12,300ft. It’s impossible to communicate the emotional impact from seeing a mountain at this scale. It was clearly much larger then the other mountains around the lake, in a different class altogether. What astonishes me is the way it imposes itself on the scenery even when it is 70km away. The pictures can’t capture the intensity of the impression it makes.

Aoraki/Mt Cook
Aoraki, being enormous. It’s 70km away in this picture.

The lake levels vary as the snow melts and the water is used for the hydro power stations. Sometimes a plane finds itself in the wrong place.

Determined Plant
Determined Plant, Lake Tekapo

It’s rocky terrain, what with it being in the actual mountains. Where there are rocks, there shall be idiots standing on top of them. Me, in this case.

Idiot on Rock
Idiot on Rock

A short drive later we arrived at Merino Lodge, an exclusive location run by Anne, a farmer. She’s not farming any land any more, so she runs the lodge to keep busy. It’s an utterly wonderful place. We had a fantastic couple of days there, which I shall post about later.

Social Media:

Auckland, Devonport, More Seagulls

Day Two of the Epic New Zealand Adventure started with bacon, because jet lag (yes, I know it’s only a three-hour difference but you have to get up really, really early. It hurts.) Suitably restored we strolled down to the ferry terminal and completely screwed up our timing. Left with 30 minutes to wait before our ferry we went looking for seagulls. We didn’t have to look very hard.

Pacific Gull
Looking for a Landing Spot

On the ferry for the 10-minute trip to Devonport I managed to elbow my way to the rail to grab this shot of an America’s Cup yacht hammering to windward under reefed main in a strong breeze. They cram about 20 guests on these amazing boats. It doesn’t look much fun.

America's Cup Boat
America’s Cup boat. Not sure which campaign she’s from.
Auckland, viewed from Devonport

There’s a lovely walk along the windy Devonport shoreline where you can see lots of seagulls. Look, I warned you about this. Seagulls are awesome and I will photograph them and post the pictures here and you can’t actually stop me.

Gull over Rocks
Gull low over volcanic rocks

You’ll see that the rocks a are luscious deep volcanic black. That’s because Auckland is built in a somewhat dormant volcanic caldera. The Maori have legends about the last major eruption, over 600 years ago. If the same thing happened now it would blow out several suburbs. It will happen again. Auckland government have an entire set of management and evacuation plans for various scales of volcanic catastrophe, up to a complete permanent abandonment of the largest city in the country. More likely we’ll lose a suburb or two every few centuries, which is pretty good odds really. Anyway. More seabirds.

Pacific Gull
Same gull, different rocks

Now for something completely different. A Herring. No! Sorry. Belay that. Not a herring. A Heron.

Heron over Rocks

And now, an Oystercatcher. This is a Variable Oystercatcher, so named because different individuals have different frontal colouring. This one is completely black.

Oystercatcher, Catching some Quality Snooze rather than Quality Oysters.

With that, we pottered back across the harbour and caught a flight to Christchurch.

Social Media:

Auckland, 14th January

We flew (business class, natch) across the Tasman to Auckland. For some reason, arriving in the City of Sails always feels like coming home. I think it’s because it’s functionally Plymouth on the Pacific. The seaport is right in the city centre. Just across the water is a town called Devonport which is home to the Royal New Zealand Navy. The harbour and Hauraki Gulf define the city. There’s the wonderful tang of salt and seaweed in the air. Big ships manoeuvre in the harbour at all hours. The CBD is on the waterfront.

Arriving at the excellent Pullman Hotel we dropped our bags, grabbed the cameras and set off to Viaduct Harbour to catch some of the ambience and see what we could photograph. There was also some beer.

This is Auckland Sky Tower. It’s quite lovely in a domineering and slightly phallic sort of way. I’ve often tried to find out what it’s actually for, and as far as I can work out its sole purpose is to act as something tall that people can climb and then jump off. As we discovered in Queenstown, this is something of a theme in New Zealand. There seems to be a well-developed culture of inventing new and exciting ways to dodge gravity.

Sky Tower, Auckland
The Defining Structure of the Skyline.

Not going to lie to you – expect lots of bird shots. In Auckland, that means Pacific Gulls. Huge, mean bullies, they mostly steal from the smaller Silver Gulls. Big and nasty they may be, but they are bloody beautiful. Elegant masters of air and sea, they inspire awe. Just don’t get downwind of a breeding colony.

Pacific Gull
Pacific Gull
Seaplane Operations in Auckland Harbour
Either a black-billed or a juvenile silver.
Pacific Gull
Another Pacific Gull

This is the hull of one IMOCA 60 that crashed hard in the Southern Ocean and the rig of another one that crashed hard in the Southern Ocean. Not having experienced enough hard crashing in monstrous waves, freezing spray, treacherous ice and howling gales the skippers teamed up to create a single functional boat from the wreckage. Here she’s doing trials in the harbour. A couple of days later she headed down to Dunedin to re-start the project of crashing hard in one of the world’s toughest places, thousands of miles from help. One has to admire this sort of attitude, in a slightly horrified way. There are many activities that are similarly dangerous that would be labeled ‘self-destructive behaviour’ by the medical profession. There are pills you can take, I believe. Lovely boat, though.


If you didn’t want seagulls, you should have gone to another blog.

Pacific Gull
Yet Another Pacific Gull

Then we went to the Northern Steamship Company for beer. The jet-lag was cutting in.

Social Media:

NZ Holiday 2018 – Redux

Social Media:


Some Mountains. There will be more.

View up the Valley
A Mountain over the Sound
A Snowfield melting on the top of a mountain
Milford Sound
A High Mountain in Fjordland
Social Media:

Milford Sound – Mostly Wildlife

It’s 120km from Te Anau to Milford Sound. For the first 50km the road follows the lake through farmland. It’s normal, everyday gorgeous. Once you leave the lake behind the road starts to climb. Soon, the terrain goes from ‘Gorgeous’ to ‘Utterly Mind-blowing.”

There’s not much of that in this post. Mountains will come later.

First, a glimpse of mountains to come. There are some shallow lakes in the flat glacial valley floor called the Mirror Lakes. Here’s why:

Mirror Lake Mountain reflection
A Promise of Mountains to Come

Jumping to the other end of the journey, the cruise boats do a loop from the head of the sound (actually a fjord) out to the Tasman and back. Here’s the view of the sound from the sea:

Milford Sound Entrance
Entrance to the Sound from the Tasman

Next: Dolphins! We were fortunate to run into a pod of 12-15 Bottlenose Dolphins happily messing about and hunting in a fairly desultory way.

Bottlenose Dolphins
Coming at you!
Dolphin surfacing
Bad shot. I wasn’t expecting them to surface so close.

Finally, these NZ Fur Seals were having a tough day on the rock. These are young males who haven’t established a territory, so they while away their days goofing with their mates, snoozing on the Team Rock and doing a bit of fishing. Life is tough.

New Zealand Fur Seals
Heat up on the rock, cool off in the sea.
Social Media:

South Island Robin

Native New Zealand birds have no natural predators. This leads to some very interesting behaviour. As you stroll through a forest, the birds will come and check you out. “What are you, and what are you doing in my territory?” Once they’ve decided you’re not very interesting they will get on with their normal activity.

We were exploring the forests at Cascade Creek and Lake Gunn when we almost trod on a South Island Robin (Petroica australis.) After giving us the once-over, it carried on with its search for interesting and tasty bugs. After a few minutes, another one arrived. I think this is a male/female pair. They mate for life. It might have been a parent/fledgling relationship.

Content warning: a bug has a very bad day.

Investigating the leaf litter


South Island Robin


South Island Robin with a bug
Has a bug!
Petroica australis
Robin poses for Portrait
Petroica australis
Close Up of Robin with Bug
Social Media: