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...two travellers in search of the world's wildlife

16 April 2011

Kiwi adventures

Written by Maureen

People come to New Zealand to experience the great outdoors and we were no different. Thanks to Matt’s parents, we were able sample some of the best experiences the country has to offer. We cruised, walked, messed about on kayaks, tottered on a glacier and saw enough cetaceans, pinipeds and avians to keep us happy. The one thing we didn’t manage to do was jump into the water since the flipping dolphins never showed up. Twice. All prices in NZ dollars.

Bleak Sound: Doubtful Sound cruise

Cost: $287pp with Real Journeys
Description: The cruise is three hours long, but it takes two and a half hours to reach Doubtful Sound by boat and coach. This makes for a very long day. However, the boat transfer across Lake Manapouri is quite scenic and you get a tour of an underground power station to break up the trip. You can always sleep on the return trip.
Our experience: Doubtful Sound reminds me of the Inside Passage of British Columbia – picturesque without being overly impressive. We had typical fiordland weather (wet) which gave the Sound a “moody atmosphere” according to our guide, deliberately not apologising in an apologetic tone of voice. We saw the rare crested fiordland penguins squalling in the water, as well as some fur seals and distant albatross.
Verdict: The boat, coach and catamaran were all comfortable. The long day and constant rain made for a tiring, though rather pleasant, experience.

Not Doubtful: Milford Sound nature cruise

Cost: $92pp with Real Journeys
Description: Two and a half hours cruising the Milford Sound.
Our experience: Our day started wet, but cleared towards the afternoon, so we were treated to the grand sight of hundreds of temporary cascades decorating the walls of the Sound. All the boats, including ours, performed the trick of standing under a waterfall to give the few brave passengers standing outside a thorough soaking. We saw some dolphins and seals, not much else.
Verdict: Milford Sound is undoubtedly more impressive than Doubtful Sound, but also more crowded, as you might guess from the size of the coach park outside the visitor centre. Our boat felt big and clumsy, and even though this was billed a nature cruise, not much attempt was made to highlight the wildlife we encountered.

Into the Wild: Routeburn guided trek

Cost: $1,395pp with Ultimate Hike
Description: Three days guided trek, including two nights of luxury bunk-style accommodation and one night at the Novotel hotel, Queenstown (pre-trek). Also included are all meals during the trek, all transfers, and the loan of backpacks, raincoats and sleeping sheets, should you need them.
Our experience: The four of us joined twenty other keen walkers and three guides on this trek. Day one was a very soggy walk in atmospheric beech forest dripping with moss, with lunch in a crammed and steamy public hut with nowhere to sit. At least our lodge, beautifully sited above lake Mackenzie, is warm and cosy. After a hot shower, a three-course meal and some wine we were positively radiant with happiness. The next two days were sublime, with glorious sunshine and views all the way. The lodge at Routeburn Falls was just as luxurious, and we ended the walk tired but exhilarated.
Verdict: The Routeburn trek deserves its reputation as one of the great treks of New Zealand. To my mind, this package is worth the high price tag – the only other time I have experienced such luxury in total wilderness was on a safari in Botswana. Though we were in a group, we walked at our own pace and were often rewarded with being the only ones around to enjoy lovely views stretching away.

Float-some and Jet-some: Jetboating in Dart River valley

Cost: $200pp with Dart River Jetboat Safari
Description: The experience lasted around one and a half hours. It is a scenic jetboat ride, so less focussed on adrenalin-filled stunts than other jetboat rides.
Our experience: Jetboating down Dart River was splendid fun, combining the awe-inspiring natural beauty of the Dart valley with the thrill of speed as the jetboat skates over water only inches deep. The occasional 360 degree spin was pretty cool too.
Verdict: A memorable experience, and not just for the thrill seekers!

Lord of the Wings: A tour of the Royal Albatross Centre, Otago peninsula

Cost: $40pp for the hour-long Classic Tour
Description: The hour includes a 15-minute introductory video and a guided tour of the observatory at Taiaroa head, the only mainland breeding colony of albatrosses in the world.
Our experience: We saw four albatross chicks sitting on nests and several adults flying about the peninsula head. Apparently, the staff weigh each baby albatross twice a day for the first month of its life. How’s that for dedication?
Verdict: Mildly diverting, but the albatrosses were quite distant and watching them through a glass window made the experience feel a bit remote. We have since had much better sightings of these birds. But at least the money went to a good cause.

Petrels, penguins and pinipeds oh my: A wildlife cruise in Otago Peninsula

Cost: $46pp with Monarch Cruise
Description: One hour cruising in a converted fishing boat with commentary on wildlife and history of the peninsula
Our experience: We saw a sea lion trying to eat a flailing octopus, lots of seals, three species of albatross, a bobbing blue penguin, and plenty other sea birds up close.
Verdict: An enjoyable introduction to the wildlife in the area and lots to see in only an hour

Moby Dick: Whale watching in Kaikoura

Cost: $145pp with Whale Watch Kaikoura
Description: Three hours, including video briefing, bus transfer, and approximately two hours on the water looking for whales. The presence of the Kaikoura trench means that whales which are normally found in deep ocean may be seen only a few miles off shore
Our experience: Good view of three sperm whales, dusky dolphins riding the boat’s bow waves, porpoising seals, albatrosses and other birds. However, sperm whales surface for only 15 minutes between deep dives, so you end up spending a lot of time bouncing at high speed over rough seas looking for the next cetacean.
Verdict: The crew were adept at finding and delivering whales. This is a slick and professional outfit, but to me the whole thing feels a bit “pack-em-in-pack-em-out”.

No dolphin no cry: Swimming with wild dolphins, Kaikoura

Cost: $165pp with Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura
Description: Three hours, including a video briefing on what to expect and how to behave around dolphins. You are then kitted out with wetsuit and snorkel gear before setting off to look for the dolphins. The coast off Kaikoura is home to a huge resident pod of dusky dolphins, the most acrobatic of the dolphin family. To swim with them, you must be a confident swimmer who won’t freak out in the open ocean
Our experience: We didn’t find the four-hundred strong pod and never got into the water. Even though two boatloads of people had that morning successfully swam with the dolphins. Even though the company has a 98% hit rate (or had). Even though the lady at the information centre had told us that she cannot remember an occasion when a group failed to swim with the dolphins (we asked before signing up). We did see a young humpback whale breaching and slapping his tail for several good minutes, but no dusky delights. Our guides seemed genuinely embarrassed about the lack of dolphins and we got a full refund.
Verdict: Although disappointed, we were satisfied with the refund and determined to try again.

Flipper, flipper, wherefore art thou?: Swimming with wild dolphins, Queen Charlotte Sound

Cost: $150pp with Dolphin Watch Ecotours
Description: A short briefing, wetsuit and snorkel gear, and almost three hours in the Queen Charlotte Sound looking for dolphins to swim with. You can also come dolphin watching only (no swimming) for $100pp. The Sound is visited by five species of dolphins, and you may swim with dusky dolphins or their larger bottlenose cousins, depending on the time of year. We were hoping to swim with the latter.
Our experience: No bottlenose dolphins showed up, and we remained dry again. This time our consolation prize was an amazing view of a pod of Hector’s dolphins, the world’s smallest dolphin and endemic to New Zealand. Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to swim with them. So we watched the Hectors playing chase, jumping out of the water, spy-hopping, and generally having fun for many minutes through crystal clear water. Because we saw some dolphins on the trip, we only got a partial refund of $50 per person.
Verdict: Although we’re chuffed with our sighting of the Hector’s dolphins, this experience ended up not being quite what we’d hoped!

Charlotte Trampling: Independent tramp, the Queen Charlotte Track

Cost: $208 total for track passes and boat transfer, $180 for one night at Mahana Lodge. The i-Site at Picton made all the arrangements
Description: To walk the whole trail takes four days, but we cherry-picked just two days, with an overnight stop. Beachcomber Cruises transferred us to Ship Cove, with a stop at the predator-free Motuara island to do a spot of bird-watching. From Ship Cove, it was a five-hour hike to Furneaux lodge where we were transferred by boat to Mahana Lodge to spend the night. On day two, we walked a further six and a half hours to Torrea saddle where a boat took us back to Picton. We carried only day-packs, the rest of our luggage being transferred for free.
Our experience: The QCT is not one of the Great Walks of NZ, and yet it is a wonderful walk. For most of day one we walked through pristine native bush with plenty of bird life. On our second day more viewpoints opened up and we could see the magical Queen Charlotte Sound on one side, and the Kennepura Sound on the other. Our overnight stay, Mahana Lodge, was one of the original homesteads on the QCS now transformed into a boutique lodge of just four rooms. It is set in a sublime position right by the water and the owners, Anne and John, will cook you a tasty three-course dinner for $50pp.
Verdict: The QCT is perfect if, like us, you love hiking but don’t enjoy camping, cooking your own food or carrying everything yourself. The views, especially on day two, were as glorious as anywhere we have been. Glad we waited until the weather cleared

Abel Seamen: Freedom kayaking, Abel Tasman Park

Cost: $300 for a two-day kayak hire from Abel Tasman Kayaks including transfer into the Park. $195 for a private cabin on Aquapackers, a floating backpackers in Anchorage bay – this includes a BBQ dinner and a simple breakfast. The i-Site in Motueka made all the arrangements
Description: Because this was an unguided trip, we were given a two-hour safety briefing where we learnt how to stow the kayak, launch it, beach it, and how to survive a capsize.
Our experience: From Marahau, we and our kayak were taken by boat to Onetahuti bay in the Abel Tasman NP to start our adventure. Our first day was sunny, the sea breeze blowing from exactly the right direction to make paddling a doddle. We visited seal colonies where baby seals frolicked curiously by our kayak. Our cabin on the Aquapackers was small but comfy and the boat is a chilled out place to spend a night in the middle of the beautiful NP. The next day, the weather turned against us and we spent five hours battling the elements and struggling to return to base before our arms fell off.
Verdict: The Abel Tasman is a beautiful place to mess around in a kayak, with golden beaches and crystal clear blue water. There are many options for guided kayaking, but we enjoyed the independence of travelling at our own speed. We even enjoyed the adrenaline-fueled dash along “Mad mile” on the second day, where massive rolling waves loomed over our heads before breaking violently against the kayak (and us). I exaggerate only slightly.

Fox Glacier Mince: Walking on ice

Cost: $298 for the “Nimble fox” a full-day guided walk on the Fox glacier
Description: You are given the use of boots, crampons, and warm clothes (the waterproof trousers being particularly useful, this being one of the wettest areas in the world). The experience started at 9am and finished around 4pm, with around three and a half hours spent walking on the glacier.
Our experience: After being kitted up, our group of ten accompanied by two guides were transferred to Fox glacier in a coach. We walked to the terminal face of the glacier where we donned crampons and ascended freshly cut steps on to the ice. The walk is fun and not very strenuous, though you do have to watch every step. Every now and then, the guides cut new steps with their pickaxes. It even stopped raining around lunchtime.
Verdict: I can’t really use the word “treacherous”, “death-defying” or even “extreme” to describe the experience. The glacier walk felt very safe, perhaps a little too safe. I am satisfied with the experience without wishing to repeat it any time soon.

Our top three

  1. The Routeburn trek
  2. Jetboating in Dart River Valley
  3. Kayaking in Abel Tasman Park


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