Monday, 2 July 2018

New Zealand: Geothermal Grandeur, Maori Charm & Wildlife On the Mend (Part 1)

By Gloria Seow, travelling with Timothy Pwee
28 October to 20 November 2016

For Tim and I, go south has become our latest travel theme. It was Australia in 2015, segueing into New Zealand (NZ) in 2016. Our three-week spring tour from 28 October to 20 November 2016 spanned NZ's North Island (Auckland, Tiritiri Matangi, Rotorua and Wellington) and South Island (Kaikoura, Christchurch, Mount Cook, Te Anau, Dunedin and Bluff). Part of our self-drive route hugged the coast, with stops for marine/pelagic life including fur seals, sea lions, dolphins, the Sperm Whale, penguins, albatrosses and inter-tidal critters. Highlights include netting the Little Spotted Kiwi twice on top of a slew of other wildlife sightings, gawking at geothermal formations, Milford Sound's unbelievable waterfalls and sampling Maori food and other local fare.

Preparing for any three-week trip is time consuming. It involves scouring bird trip reports to identify target birds and hot spots. Birding areas are usually good for herping and mammal watching, verified through yet more research. I have long abandoned one dimensional trips with just wildlife watching. Attractions like museums, shopping, and cultural areas are a must to inject variety. In recent jaunts, food has become a target in terms of street fare and fine dining. After mapping out the best route with a minimum of two nights in each location, the slew of bookings begin with priority given to plane tickets, followed by accommodation, transport (rental car, train, bus), restaurants, and attractions (only if required to pre-book). If time is not on our side, we secure rooms for the first leg and book more on the go. I prefer hotels to Airbnb to cut out the nonsense of to-ing and fro-ing with the host on arrival times, key collection and return. 

Aotearoa (NZ's Māori name) is the start of the western end of the horseshoe-shaped Pacific Ring of Fire. The photos show Rotorua's fiery nature, characterised by sulphurous hot springs and their attendant steam clouds, boiling mud pools, smoking fumaroles and gushing geysers. 

Roughly every hour, the Prince of Wales geyser erupts, followed by the 40-m high Pohutu  geyser (photo on the right), the largest in NZ. We marveled at these spouting hot fountains at Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve located 3 km south of Rotorua city centre (NZ$35 per pax).

Once thought to belong to the continent of Australia, New Zealand is now considered part of the newly-discovered eighth continent Zealandia. Zealandia was proposed in 2017 after 20 years of research. It is the youngest, smallest and thinnest of the continents, with 94% of its landmass submerged underwater. Its 6% of dry land is made up of New Zealand and New Caledonia. At 4.9 million sq km, this hidden continent formed 5% of Gondwana before fragmentation occurred 100 million years ago. Zealandia qualifies as a continent as it has: i) elevation above its surroundings, ii) continental geology with rocks such as granite, limestone, quartzite and schist, iii) crust (10 km to 30 km) thicker than ocean floor (7 km), and iv) unconnected area greater than one million sq km. Zealandia is separated from Australia by the 3,600 m deep Cato Trough.

Throughout our trip, we sought out native fare including takeaway fish and kumara (ie. sweet potato) chips (see photo), pāua (NZ abalone), Bluff oysters, whitebait fritter, Lemon and Paeroa drink, Goody Goody Gum Drops and Hokey Pokey ice creams, afghans (chocolate cookie with cornflakes, chocolate icing, topped with a walnut), pavlova (meringue cake with cream and fruit), Whittaker's peanut slab, Pascali pineapple lumps, and Maori food (hangis, boil-ups with pork, watercress and pumpkin, fried bread, rewena bread). Some food that hail from NZ are available in Singapore too: Marmite, NZ green-lipped mussels and kiwi fruit. 

Even though a tourist attraction, the draw of Te Whakarewarewa The Living Māori Village is its status as a real Māori village, complete with boisterous street kids. They cajoled us visitors up on a bridge to make a wish and throw coins into the cold river below where they were waiting. A tossed coin would trigger a wet scramble to see who gets to it first. Our Maori guide confessed that she was one of those enterprising kids in her youth. I was glad to see that her iwi (tribe) enjoys the best of both worlds: communal living 
steeped in Maori culture such as architecture (eg. marae - a carved meeting hall), family baths, geothermal cooking and burial plots, and earning their keep as guides to the Pohutu geyser and the Maori way of life.  
Most lifeforms can live in temperatures up to 40°C. In contrast, thermophiles are comfortable between 45°C to 80°C. They include insects and crustaceans (up to 50°C), plants and fungi (up to 60°C), certain bacteria and archaea (above 60°C), photosynthesising cyanobacteria (up to 70°C) and non-photosynthesising bacteria (above 70°C). Greenish cyanobacteria can photosynthesise in acidic waters. They exist as floating mats in geothermal regions worldwide including Rotorua. I am guessing that my photos above are of cyanobacteria. The useful Thermus aquaticus (above 70°C) bacteria produces the Taq polymerase enzyme for DNA replication and fingerprinting. 

Going one level up, hyperthermophiles live in conditions exceeding 80°C. They are mostly archaea, found in hot springs and deep sea hydrothermal vents (eg. Sulfolobus acidocaldarius lives in the hot springs of both NZ and Yellowstone National Park (USA)). Some use sulphur instead of oxygen in cellular respiration while others oxidise sulphur to sulphuric acid as an energy source. The ultimate heat-tolerant champions are both archaea: Pyrolobus fumarii (max 113°C) and Strain 121 (max 121°C). 

I love the meditative blue-green tones of Rotorua's hot springs. It was fun to nosh on sulphur-flavoured hard boiled eggs and corn-on-the-cob cooked in the waters of Te Whakarewarewa
New Zealand does not come cheap. Our Maori cultural show-cum-dinner at Mitai Maori Village cost NZ$88 each. Some Maoris milk their heritage for a living, but I guess it is better than becoming an average Joe working in a vanilla job. At Mitai, our hangi meal of earth-steamed chicken, lamb, corn and potato (see photo) was tender and flavourful. Hangi was served buffet style with delectable international fare like seafood chowder and salad. We were with an estimated 400 tourists in an air-con marquee eating and watching the programme. Judging from audience participation, many were Australians and Americans.

For me, the rousing haka war dances had insufficient sticking out of tongues (to intimidate the enemy, made famous by the All Black Sevens national rugby team). The poi dances charmed with rhythmic and deft moves using poles and pendulums. There were mock ceremonies, enemy tribe exchanges and fights. As the owner's son, our host performed and afterwards fielded questions on Maori culture. He revealed that his dancers' facial "tattoos" were just paint as the real thing could lead to discrimination in finding employment and other areas. The show then moved outdoors where "warriors" in dug-out canoes rowed upriver and marched into battle, chanting fiercely and wielding flaming torches. The programme wrapped with a mini bushwalk, where guides with torches pointed out tree ferns, plants and luminous glow worms hanging from a river bank. 
The next morning, we picked up a sedan and drove 31 km to Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Reserve Park (NZ$35 each), a must-see for Rotorua. The place was replete with geyser action and geothermal land forms including pulsating hot springs, smoking craters, ethereal mineral lakes in all sorts of colours, a thermal waterfall, fuming fumaroles and bubbling mudpools

Wai-O-Tapu's Lady Knox Geyser is induced to spout at 10.15 am daily, a fascinating "science experiment" performance achieved by dunking soap powder into its vent (see right photo). The powder acts as a surfactant, breaking the surface tension between the layers of hot and cool water. The resulting eruption gradually reaches 20 m in height (see left photo). 

I felt that Wai-O-Tapu is definitive Rotorua. It contains the largest primrose sinter terraces in New Zealand. Some surface features are due to super-heated groundwater with high mineral content. Forced upwards, the cooled groundwater deposits minerals that run the gamut of colours, from green (colloidal sulphur/ferrous salts) to orange (antimony), purple (manganese oxide), white (silica), yellow (sulphur), red (iron oxides) and black (sulphur/graphite). The park's icon is the striking Champagne Pool (see photo). 

Wai-O-Tapu's hot pools are cloaked in a mesmerising mist in a state of flux. I was lulled into a dreamy stupor watching the wispy shifting forms, helped by distant bird calls and a cool breeze. I had the experience of walking through cloying steam that suddenly scattered with a gust of wind, only for the sulphurous curtain to close in again

The water on the white primrose sinter terrace was surprisingly cool to the touch, explaining the absence of steam.

Wondrous colours painted by dissolved minerals. A friend mentioned that Iceland has similar lakes.
We came across our first wild Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) flowers in Rotorua (see  right photo). Manuka is native to NZ and Australia. Bees use it to make the over-hyped Manuka honey. 

After lunch, we visited Hell's Gate (Tikitere) where volcanic vigour reigned. The earth here was also alive with sizzling mud pools and diaphanous steam.
Clockwise from top: The Southern hemisphere's largest hot-water waterfall at Hell's Gate; a spectacular ball of explosive mud; boiling water trapped in a clay cauldron. Hell's Gate felt like one big kitchen with mud as the main dish.
Hell's Gate has 50 acres of mud pools, geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, craters, hot-water waterfall and NZ's only 2-m high mud volcano (see bottom right photo). It is the only acid sulphate geothermal system in NZ. Water temperatures here can exceed 100°C. In comparison, other geothermal spots have more colourful alkali chloride systems. 

Hell's Gate felt more otherworldly than Wai-O-Tapu. Perhaps it was due to the lateness of the hour with nary a soul about. It was magical to see the raw energy, the hellish steam, and sparkly crystal deposits of sulphur (yellow) and maganese oxide (black) clinging onto exposed rock faces. But unlike the tumult of hell, I felt a deep calm treading the grounds. 

Our NZ$90 ticket came with an outdoor mud spa and hot spring soak. I was forced to rent a loose-fitting bathing suit. We slathered ourselves in mud but it proved too chilly to wait in the open for it to dry. We ended up clouding our private hot tub with mud for the spa duration of 20 minutes. Next was an extended soak in the outdoors hot spring pool, where we savoured a sunset while submerged in therapeutic waters. When it got too hot, I sat out in the cold air and watched my skin issue steam. Tim alternated between extreme hot and extreme cold with an icy pool dip. The arrival of four Americans ended the reverie with their intrusive discussion of the US Presidential Election where they pooh-poohed the idea of a Donald Trump victory. The spa ended not too well - with just one bathroom, I had to contend with washing up in an open-air women shower with no doors. 

Some tourists cannot cope with the inescapable rotten eggs smell of hydrogen sulphide that hangs over Rotorua. Chronic exposure has led to nerve-related and breathing ailments (eg. asthma and bronchitis) being five to 10 times higher here than elsewhere in NZ. But to residents, it is the smell of home. Tim adjusted fine whereas my chest felt heavy throughout our three-night stay.
After a laundromat stop and breakfast, we drove 243 km to Palmerston North on highway SH1, followed by 141 km to Wellington. It was evening by the time we motored into NZ's capital via the scenic coastal route. Our Cambridge Terrace hotel had lobby fireplace which offered free WiFi. 

We devoted the next morning to exploring the sprawling Te Papa National Museum, situated next to Wellington Harbour (top photo). Learning about NZ's earthquake measures and seeing a locally-invented underground shock absorber was enlightening (bottom photo). 

At Te Papa, I was enthralled with the display of the biggest invertebrate on earth, the Colossal Squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni Robson). Heftier than the Giant Squid, this behemoth lives at an oceanic depth of one kilometer. As the only specimen exhibited worldwide, the 470-kg/4.2-m squid was captured in February 2007 by the San Aspiring with baited long line hooks meant for Antarctic toothfish, hauled in from the Ross Sea in the Southern Ocean (Antarctica). Wet specimens shrink up to 22% in alcohol. Our squid has tentacles armed with teeth and hooks, a sharp beak and 10-inch saucer-sized eyes. Its lower rostral beak length (LRL) measures 42.5 mm, smaller than beaks found in the stomachs of sperm whales with LRL of 49 mm. Te Papa also exhibits cultural artifacts from across the Polynesian islands and nature wonders such as extinct Moa bones and stuffed Kakapo (night parrot).

We made it a priority to see Zealandia, the world’s first predator-free fully-fenced urban (versus island) wildlife sanctuary located on the outskirts of Wellington. Built around a reservoir, this 225 hectare reserve has a jaw-dropping 500-year vision to restore its forest and freshwater ecosystem to as close to its pre-human state as possible. The story of how it managed to eradicate 13 non-native pests such as rodents, cats, possums, mustelids, rabbits, hedgehogs and hares, the design and testing of its 8.6-km barrier fence to keep out jumping, climbing and burrowing predators (see photo), and its ongoing bio-security measures can be read here

Depressingly, NZ's habitat is in peril. The story arc stretches back 600 odd years. As the last major landmass to be settled, its forest cover was cleared for farming and husbandry by Māori (14th century) and European (18th century) colonisers. 
Habitat loss, hunting pressures, predation by introduced species, competition from foreign plants and animals, as well as imported parasites and diseases led to mass extinctions including 57 endemic birds (eg. all 14 Moas), three lizards, three frogs, one freshwater fish, one bat and four plants. There was no concept of moderation in the 18th century. For instance, entire populations of sea lions, fur seals and whales were killed for their pelt and oil around the South Island and sub-Antarctic islands.

Today, indigenous forest cloaks 23% of NZ, while 10% of its wetlands remain. Some 2,166 alien plants have become naturalised: gorse, wattles, marram grass and tree lupin, replacing native pīngao. Maori and European settlers brought along 11 invasive predators that continue to threaten wildlife. Fourteen introduced grazers like goats, deers and rabbits affect forest regeneration patterns. The good news is that things are on the mend. There are poisoning and trapping programmes to control invasive predator numbers (see my write-up below on the Kepler Track) in wild areas. The Kiwis have also created several predator-free islands and mainland sanctuaries to protect 30 odd threatened species. 

Zealandia has reintroduced 18 native species at its sanctuary. We were charmed by a Kākā (Nestor mieridionalis - top photo) that flew up to prance on a wire bridge just metres from us. The Pied Shag (Phalacrocorax varius) in the bottom photo appears to be nesting. Easy ticks here included the Tūī honeyeater (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) and New Zealand Pigeon or Kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae). Both birds were once rare in the central Wellington area. 

I was chuffed to get my number one target at Zealandia - the nocturnal Little Spotted Kiwi (Apteryx owenii). Around 100 of them are free-ranging, but there is no guarantee of seeing it. Our only stab at the Kiwi was joining a two-hour guided night tour. This turned out to be a high-tech walk with earphone speakers. However, I was unused to the requisite red film on my torch and low light levels. As with many of my mega sightings, the bird appeared at the last moment. With only 10 minutes left, our guide suddenly detected some rustling. Out walked a darling Little Spotted Kiwi onto the tarmac. I had swell views on my bins before a Japanese ignoramus spooked the Kiwi by marching up to it. Thankfully, I managed to locate it again in the bush as it probed the earth for dinner. Yay, yay, yay! I did not regret choosing to enjoy the Kiwi in my bins over trying to snap a photo in the poor light

New Zealand has five Kiwi species: i) Little Spotted Kiwi - 100% under active management, kept on several offshore islands and two mainland sanctuaries including Zealandia; ii) Great Spotted Kiwi/Roroa (Apteryx haastii) found in NW South Island and around Arthur’s Pass; iii) Northern Brown Kiwi (Apteryx  mantellifound in the North Island; iv) Okarito Brown Kiwi or Rowi (Apteryx  rowi) found in Okarito forest on the West Coast of the South Island and v) Southern Brown Kiwi (Apteryx  australis) or Tokoeka, found in the South Island (Fiordland, the Haast Range and Stewart Island/Rakiura). 

The conservation of the Little Spotted Kiwi is a harrowing story. In 1912, five birds originally from the South Island's Jackson Bay were transposed to Kapiti Island, 5 km from Wellington for conservation. The Little Spotted Kiwi was once widespread on both main islands. Introduced predators, habitat loss and the skin trade led to it being declared extinct from the North Island in 1900 and in the South Island by the 1980s. As the last stronghold, Kapiti's five kiwis bred themselves out of a severe genetic bottleneck to a 2015 population estimate of 1,800 birds. Today, the Little Spotted Kiwi is the second rarest after the Rowi (500 individuals). It is 100% managed with no truly "wild" birds. However, its long term survival is threatened by the lack of genetic diversity. Read more here.

Another endemic flightless bird that has a precarious existence is the South Island Takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri). Given its bulky bill, thickset legs and formidable built, I can well imagine it being of dinosaur descent. Within Zealandia, a pair is kept in a walk-in enclosure. It was absorbing watching them peck the ground, clip the grass, and poke their heads into the food bin. Superficially resembling the Pukeko (Porphyrio porphyrio - Purple Swamphen), I am amazed that people can confuse the two. It is like comparing a body builder to a ballet dancer. The Takahē wins with its proud gait and handsome plumage. Its rarity is the clincher - shockingly, there are just 347 birds alive (2017 census). We saw the Takahē again in the island sanctuary of Tiritiri Mantagi near Auckland - a lone bird silently popped out of a forest trail next to me, giving me a slight fright.

As the biggest rail alive, the Takahē was presumed extinct until famously rediscovered in 1948 in the remote Murchison Mountains by Invercargill doctor Dr Geoffrey Orbell. He refused to believe the Takahē extinct as hunters, surveyors and hikers continued to report "Takahē sightings" in Fiordland but none brought back evidence for 50 years. Dr Orbell cleverly plotted these "sightings" on a map and noticed that they occurred below the bush line and in years of heavy snowfall. No one had searched for the bird on the tussocky mountain tops. This was exactly where he found them subsequently. Today, there is a programme to breed, track and trans-locate the Takahē. They are hosted on seven islands and several mainland sites. Importantly, the Murchison Mountains are out of bounds to casual visitors. 

Sited just 30 minutes from Wellington city centre, Zealandia offers good forest and river habitats (remember its 500-year vision).
A zoo exhibit-type lifer was the Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) - see photos. In Zealandia, they inhabit natural and artificial tunnels next to the main path, separated by a low fence. Individual tuataras are identified by the pattern of beads on their napes. The Tuatara belongs to the Sphenodontia order from 200 million years ago. It is the sole survivor, with other members dying out 60 million years ago. It is not a lizard as it has a lower body temperature range. When young, the Tuatara is diurnal to avoid cannibalistic nocturnal adults. I was intrigued by its third eye situated at the top of its head. Visible only on young Tuataras, this parietal eye has a retina, lens, cornea and nerve endings. At four to six months old, the growth of scales and pigment start to obstruct the extra eye (used to sense light, helping it judge the time and season, and is believed to absorb UV rays). Another quirky feature is its dentition. Teeth are direct projections of the jaw bone. Two upper rows fit between one lower row. 

Our Zealandia night walk was through forest and open areas. We stopped at a stream to admire a 110 cm long female New Zealand Longfin Eel (Anguilla dieffenbachii). It is the largest and only endemic freshwater eel. Males are 66-73 cm while females are 73-156 cm. This particular eel was positively Pavlovian, responding to taps on the water surface. Within half a minute of being called, it came gliding forth and was rewarded with a can of dog food. It was ridiculous to see a ginormous eel eating from a can. My photo's red tinge is due to Zealandia's "no flash, only red light" policy. We also saw the endemic Giant Wētā, one of the largest insects alive. Flightless and nocturnal, this cricket-like critter was ensconced in a sawn-open and bored wooden trunk, visible through an acrylic pane covered by a wooden door. 

The bottom left photo shows Zealandia's barrier fence. The bottom right picture is the California Quail (Callipepla californica), an introduced game bird that was relatively common in Zealandia, always foraging in male-female pairs.
We crossed the Cook Strait in a 3.5-hour ferry from Wellington (North Island) to Picton (South Island). We were joined by an American birder on the open deck for a protracted round of birding. The American and I doggedly looked for anything that flew despite lashing winds and occasional sea spray. We saw a fair bit but due to unfamiliarity, our best bet was to snap first ID later. My reward was the Fluttering Shearwater (Puffinus gavia - photo on lower right), identified by Gerard Francis via Facebook. Flocks of them were flying low when we entered Marlborough Sound. There were distant albatrosses and seabirds too far away for positive ID. We did not get dolphins or whales. I found a large black-and-white bird flapping alongside our ferry which turned out to be the rare King Shag (Leucocarbo carunculatus). I learnt later that one can charter a boat to see the King Shag colonies living only in Marlborough Sound. 
We tarried two nights in coastal Kaikoura, with the targets being whales and albatrosses. Although we paid for two pelagic tours of 3 hours each (NZ$150 per trip x 2 persons x 2 trips = NZ$600), we only made it for the whale watching trip. The albatross tour was forfeited due to Tim's bad stomach (causing us to miss the boat) and me feeling too nauseated to attend back-to-back boat trips.

Nevertheless, we saw plenty in one outing. Our boat was equipped with sonar and was in radio contact with other whale-watching vessels. After putting some distance between our boat and the jetty, our captain learnt from his contacts that our target Sperm Whale had deep dived. He shut off the engines for the hour-long wait for the Leviathan to resurface. The pitching and yawing that ensued triggered a horrid bout of motion sickness in me, made worst by my upset tummy. Some adrenaline-fueled relief came when I spotted the Antipodean Albatross (Diomedea antipodensis). I was awed by its supreme 4-m wingspan and enormous proportions compared to a gull. The Antipodean Albatross cannot be told apart in the field from the equal-sized Wandering Albatross. Both are the two biggest albatrosses alive. More lifers piled in with the appearance of the Shy Albatross, Salvin's Albatross and Northern Giant Petrel (see photo of the blackish bird).  

Our Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) finally resurfaced a 10-minute ride from where we were waiting. All were summoned to their seats and off we sped. Other boats had already claimed the prime positions by the time we arrived, but it was no issue given that we had our trusty binoculars with us. I squeezed my way to the bow for sterling views of the spouting, bobbing mass of the spermaceti whale of Moby Dick fame. 

In old whaling days, Spermaceti ('whale seed') is the waxy substance stored in the spermaceti organ found in the head of the Sperm Whale. It yields 2,000 litres of the finest oil, once mistaken for coagulated semen. Spermaceti remains sweetly scented even with time, and was used in ointments, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, candles, textile finishing and as a lubricant for clocks and watches. In fact, candlepower was defined as the light emitted from a candle of pure spermaceti burning at 7.776 grams (120 grains) per hour. 

Scientists believe that the spermaceti organ is an echolocation focusing lens used for detecting the whale's favourite food, the Giant Squid. Another possible use is as an acoustic gun to focus pulses and stun smaller prey

The excellent Mazda CX5 SUV anchored our exploration of the South Island from end to end (ie. Picton to Bluff). Its smooth handling and high seat heightened the pleasure of the drive. I credit Tim and Google for being awesome navigators. 

One trip spoiler was being slapped with a NZ$120 speeding ticket for hitting 120 km/h. I believed I was going faster but spotted the officer in ambush moments before he laser-gunned me, giving me time to apply some brakes. The sting ops happened 75 km outside Christchurch. After that downer, I toed the line at 110 km/h as the penalty for a second speeding offence is a rental car ban. Then, I was unaware of the auto-pilot function to keep the speedometer from inadvertently climbing. The locals seemed to be able to beat the police at their own game. Even though many of them whizzed by me, they appeared to know when to slow down. Darn, my first ever speeding ticket!

The journey down the rugged Kaikoura coast and inland to Mount Cook with backdrops of snowy peaks were my favourite drives. But most of the South Island was nothing but boring pastures dotted with grazing ungulates or a monoculture of some crop. I suppose this was symptomatic of NZ's wild habitat loss. *Yawn*
A sampling of the aesthetic beauty of NZ's plant life.   
Kaikoura's rocky shoreline hosts congregations of New Zealand and Australian Fur Seals. We stopped to spy on a frolicking pair spinning round and round in mock combat. Mostly, these fur seals were content to jostle lazily for sunbathing space. 

NZ's geology is fascinating. The greenish stones which I assembled to form a footprint (see photo) were found along a beach, likely to be pounamu (greenstone). Pounamu is a generic term for hard rocks including nephrite jade, bowenite and serpentinite.

Christchurch was struck by a 6.3-magnitude earthquake on 22 February 2011. The quake's epicentre was 10 km southeast of the CBD at a shallow depth of 5 km (the nearer a tremor is to the surface, the greater the damage). Flattening most of the city, it exacted a devastating death toll of 185 persons. Six years on, Christchurch seemed far from regaining its former form. Its CBD felt like one big construction site with frenzied rebuilding or plots of empty land cleared of debrisDue to infighting, the Christchurch Cathedral (bottom right pix) was left in this dismal state for nearly seven years. One camp wanted restoration while another preferred to demolish it and construct anew. A decision was finally taken in September 2017 for restoration, a project that will span the next 10 years. 

Meanwhile, its temporary replacement has stolen the show. The 700-seat Transitional Cathedral (main picture) opened in August 2013. We love its adaptive avant garde architecture, and so do millions. Fondly called the Cardboard Cathedral, the building was designed by Japanese disaster architect Shigeru Ban. With a concrete foundation and a base of eight 6-m shipping containers forming the walls, the Cathedral extends 24 m skywards using timber, steel and 96 cardboard tubes spaced two inches apart to let in the sun. The tubes are reinforced with laminated wooden beams and coated with waterproof polyurethane and flame retardants. This permanent structure is capped with a polycarbon roof and decorated with stained glass. All 15 furniture items including the chairs, pulpit, music stands, donation boxes and candle holders are also made of wood and cardboard tubes. The Cardboard Cathedral sits on land belonging to St John the Baptist Church, hence the Church gets to co-use the building with Christchurch Cathedral. Apart from religious services, the place hosts concerts and other civic events. 

Another post-quake set-up was the now-defunct Re:Start Container Mall. It was constructed in 61 days to give Christchurch city centre's retail scene a jump start. Operating for 6.5 years from October 2011 to April 2018, it became an international icon. Newly-built CBD retail space had led to its closure. The last I checked, its structure was being re-purposed into a Farmers MarketWe visited this outdoor mall when most shops were already shuttered for the day. Luckily, there was still one hardworking stall dishing out scrumptious freshly-baked pizzas. We enjoyed the al fresco dining experience, sharing our umbrella-table with another family.
We had a private room at the YMCA Christchurch Hostel and encountered an interesting hodgepodge of guests there. At the shared kitchen, a fellow boarder helped himself to our bread and almost stole our cooler bag on the pretext that he thought we did not want it. Juxtapose that with a quartet of elderly Japanese guests who took pains to prepare an elaborate dinner of steak and vegetables paired with wine. We were content with supermarket-bought supplies - Tim fried up some eggs and burger patties for breakfast. The YMCA also had shared bathrooms - some old, some refurbished. As an events venue, the place felt vibrant compared to the lifeless city centre with many local families milling around.

The YMCA is within a stone's throw of the historic Antigua Boat sheds, a launch point for punting on the Avon River. It was quite a sight seeing folks gliding by on flat-bottomed punts, poled by a punter decked out in Edwardian attire. The Avon River runs through the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. I was lucky to spot a Short-finned Eel (Anguilla australis) when crossing a bridge. It swam slowly in the gentle currents before disappearing. Tim was lagging too far behind to see it.

We birded the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, taking in the countryside atmosphere and its untamed woodlands. A pair of endemic Paradise Shelducks and their adorable ducklings made our day.

Our best birding around Christchurch took place at the Ashley-Rakahuri Estuary located 25-km north of the city. The medium-sized braided Ashley River is surrounded by 150 ha of mudflats rich in shore birds. We chalked up a good list including the Banded Dotterel (Charadrius bicinctus), Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia), Australasian Shoveler (Anas rhynchotis), Grey Teal (Anas gracilis) and Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica). 

I had a fresh appreciation for the Bar-tailed Godwit when I learnt that it has the longest non-stop migration of all birds. In 2007, several individuals were satellite-tracked flying from NZ to the Yellow Sea in China, a staggering 11,026 km nine-day journeyOne female even flew onward to Alaska for the breeding season. Later, she set a new flight record of 11,680 km, winging non-stop from the Avinof Peninsula in western Alaska to the Piako River near Thames in the North Island.  

The photo shows whitebaiting at Ashley Estuary. We observed two SUVs parked next to their baits. One even came with a trailer home. Whitebait is a generic term for the fry of food fish including herring, sprat, sardines, mackerel and bass. These one- to two-inch fries school along the coasts, estuaries and rivers and are caught with scoop or set-netting traps. Shoals do not necessarily return to their river of origin. In NZ, clear-bellied Inanga comprises 95% of the catch. Whitebaiting is a hit or miss affair. The best hauls coincide with the highest tides after rain when there is strong flow, or with the last incoming tide. Signs of their presence include hovering gulls and terns, swimming shags, fishing herons, and sea-trout swirling on the surface. However, whitebait is not an ecologically-viable food source. NZ has a harvesting season between 15 August and 30 November each year. Later on when we got to Dunedin, we had a chance to try lip-smacking whitebait fritters at a Farmers Market. 

The drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook took us higher and higher through some of the most picturesque parts of NZ, particularly the route hugging Lake Pukaki (see photo). The icy blue hue of this glacial lake is gorgeous, derived from glacial flour suspension of finely pulverised rock that reflect the purest blue rays.

Our most expensive room for the trip was at Hermitage Hotel (NZ$285 per night) in Aoraki Mount Cook. We booked it out of necessity rather than desire. It was either stay here or skip Mount Cook with no other available rooms. We luxuriated two nights, waking up to vistas of misty mountains and the mellifluous tune of the Bellbird (Anthornis melanura or Korimako) wafting in from the balcony. Was disheartened though to see invasive European Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) silflaying (ie. foraging) on the lawn.

Our first walk at Mount Cook was up a long stairway for a sweeping view of Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake, its icebergs and moraine wall. The majestic backdrop of snow-white mountains is visible from anywhere in Mount Cook. While ascending those stairs, we passed the Blue Lakes (see photo). There were few people around possibly because of a drizzle, adding to the serenity and the light-as-air feeling of being surrounded by lofty peaks.

Alpine vegetation at Mount Cook.
The icebergs at Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake come in all forms. The main picture looks like a dragon in repose (reminding me of the Toa Payoh dragon playgrounds). Ice appears white (versus transparent) due to the presence of microscopic air bubbles. Blue-striped icebergs (lower left photo) are caused by freshwater filling ice cracks and freezing rapidly to reflect blue light. 

The Tasman Glacier (Haupapa) is NZ's biggest measuring 23.5 km (length) x 4 km (breadth) x 0.6 km (height) in 2018. Sitting at an elevation of 3,000 m, the glacier covers an area of 101 sq km. Haupapa used to be 28 km long for the longest time. Since the 1990s, it has been retreating at 180 m per year. Alarmingly, its melt rate has accelerated recently to between 477 m to 822 m a year. At this rate, it could disappear in 10 to 19 years. Haupapa's shrinkage has resulted in the corresponding growth of the terminal lake. From next to nothing, the lake is now 7 km x 2 km x 245 m. The 2011 Christchurch (Canterbury) earthquake triggered a major calving event where 30 to 40 million metric tons of ice broke from the terminal glacier face and crashed into the lake, creating 3.5 m high waves that damaged some boats.

This is one of the snowy peaks in the Southern Alps, the range that spans the length of the South Island. At 3,724 m, Aoraki Mount Cook is NZ's tallest mountain and part of the Southern Alps. 

We forked out NZ$90 each for the Big Sky Stargazing tour. Being far from city lights, Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve is the world's largest such reserve. We started the tour athe Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre's planetarium with an educational digital dome video of the universe, the Milky Way Galaxy and the southern night sky. Draped warmly in long coats, we piled into a coach that took us to a spot with 360-degree views of the southern night sky. My most memorable sighting was of the aptly-named Jewel Box, one of the crossbar stars of The Southern Cross. Appearing as a faint light, the Jewel Box resolves into a cluster of young stars when viewed through the massive telescopes provided. The bright orange star Kappa Crucis is surrounded by almost 300 blue-white stars

I was astounded to see for myself the incredible speed at which satellites orbit earth. We saw one that appeared to move only slightly slower than a plane. Satellites circle 240 km to 36,200 km above the earth. Low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites which form the majority are within 800 km of earth. They cruise at a smashing fast speed of 27,400 km/hour to keep from being drawn back into the earth's atmosphere. Another astronomy staple was viewing the mountains and craters of our moon - always a pleasurable sight. I was also hoping to catch the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights). No such luck as the kp index that night was way less than the threshold of kp5 for Mount Cook. We tried again later in Bluff but failed. 

The melt water has the loveliest shades of blue. 

We hiked the Kea Point Track to Mueller Lake, all the time looking out for Keas (alpine parrots). None were seen, but I got lifers like the petite Rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris) and the cute Tomtit (Petroica macrocephala). 

Water Fern (Blechnum fluviatile), a native ground-hugging fern common in Mount Cook.

The gushing streams are also powder blue.

It was fascinating to watch a massive roll of dense cloud blocking out the peaks, a phenomenon we saw twice. 

Two giant clouds cut a spectacular swathe across the sky at a rest stop in Lake Pukaki. 

The wind-tumbled look of native Red Tussock Grass (Chionocloa rubra) reminds me of sheep dotting a plain. It was one of the precious little wilderness we saw in our drive to Te Anau. 

More sheep than humans, the reputation of NZ.

Te Anau is the closest gateway to the crème de la crème of NZ's attractions - Milford Sound. Every gushing superlative that has been said of Milford Sound is true. Rudyard Kipling even declared it the eighth wonder of the world. The allure began with the 121-km drive to get there. Along Milford Road, I was completely taken in by the magical sight of hundreds of waterfalls pouring their liquid load down steep rock faces. We passed pristine snow fields and crisp alpine vegetation. Our day tour used a coach with a glass roof to maximise the views. There were requisite pit stops including Mirror Lakes, Monkey Creek (where we witnessed crass Chinese tourists rushing out of their van to fill their bottles with glacial water), the Chasm etc. We traversed several suspension bridges, and passed through the mountains to the other side via the Homer Tunnel. 

I was relieved and stoked to finally see the Kea (Nestor notabilis) on Milford Road. They were an attraction in their own right. A flock of six curious birds landed brazenly on some vehicles, and proceeded to poke their bills into everything, sparking off a paparazzi fest. One Kea attempted to pry apart the rubber lining of a car while others toyed with a rubbery mat. The Kea is clever. It can fashion and use tools, solve logical puzzles and work together for rewards. Endemic to the South Island, it is the world's only alpine parrot with a wild population of some 3,000 to 7,000 birds. Its underwing is a distinctive bright orange. As an omnivore, it eats roots, leaves, berries, nectar, insects and carrion. A most worthy bird and one of my favourites.

As part of Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is situated southwest of the South Island. Our two-hour nature cruise took us down the 15-km length of the calm fiord into the Tasman Sea where the waves were rougher, and back again to the pier. We saw many basking Australian and New Zealand Fur Seals but no dolphins. 

Milford Sound is amongst the wettest places in the world with an annual rainfall mean of 6,412 mm. The sight of slim waterfalls everywhere reminds me of Rivendell in 'Lord of the Rings'. Fed by heavy rains, these falls last only a few days. The most famous of the Sound's geological formations is Mitre Peak.

There are only two permanent falls in Milford Sound - Lady Bowen Falls (near the pier), and the 15,000-year-old Stirling Falls (see photo). Some tourists gamely donned raincoats and were taken directly beneath the torrent. Bystanders like us were partially drenched too. We had a drink of waterfall water collected in cups. Mostly, we stayed on the outdoor deck looking for wildlife while many sipped their tea and enjoyed the views from indoors. 

Our nature guide found us the rare Fiordland Crested Penguin (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus). This cutie was bathing in its own penguin-sized cascade in a quiet inlet away from the main fiord traffic. I had difficulty spotting it in the dense vegetation (see its yellow crested eyebrows?), made worse by the forward crush of eager guests. It was an unexpected bonus as the penguin was not supposed to be in season. 

I selected a tour which included a visit to the Milford Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory. Located in Harrisons Cove on the north side of the fiord, it is part of the Piopiotahi Marine Reserve. We descended 10 m to enter a 360-degree underwater viewing gallery. Milford's magic works beneath the waves too. Due to its high rainfall, a layer of tannin-stained fresh water run-offs from the surrounding forest floats above the cold sea. This creates the phenomenon of deep water emergence where animals usually found between 50 to 5,000 feet flourish at much shallower depths. The brownish fresh water and narrow fiord conspire to carve a dim habitat similar to the deep ocean. It was a privilege to see deep sea species such as Black Coral (see photo - the black indicates the coral branches) as well as the Scarlet Wrasse (Pseudolabrus miles - see photo).

It was a downright fascinating 30-min stopover at the underwater observatory where we saw eight-armed sea stars, sea urchins and various fishes. The photo shows the Marblefish (Aplodactylus arctidens), sponges, anemones and what looks like a Christmas tree worm. Hopefully, we would return for a dive someday. Our guide said that she once had a school group admiring a cute octopus when a fur seal swam up and ate the subject, leaving behind a bunch of traumatised kids!

These lovely waterfalls made Milford Road unforgettable. This road is hazardous though when the temperature drops. Tire chains then become compulsory to deal with iced-up roads.

That evening when returning to Te Anau, I was horror-struck and shocked to learn that Trump had won the US presidency. 
New Zealand has an extensive poisoning and trapping programme with the ambitious goal of becoming predator-free by 2050. Every last rat (three species, origins: Polynesia and Europe), possum (origin: Australia) and stoat (origin: Eurasia) has to go, for threatened birds and wildlife to once again thrive. Land-based predators arrived via human agency - rats stowed away on ships, possums were bred for their fur, and stoats were ironically released to control introduced rabbit and hare numbers. As unintended consequences go, they destroyed habitats and attacked flightless and ground-nesting birds, causing numerous extinctions. Today, some 80% of NZ's birds, 88% of its lizards and 100% of its frogs face extinction. The traps and signage in the photos above were seen at the Kepler Track near Te Anau. 

Here's an overview of the poisons used by the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC): 
A) Sodium Fluoroacetate or biodegradable 1080 is aimed at ground-dwelling mammals, all of which are introduced. NZ has only two native bat species while all its native mammals are marine species. NZ's DOC deems aerial drops of 1080 poison to be effective and safe, particularly over vast rugged terrain. Green 1080 cereal baits biodegrade within one to two weeks in warm and moist conditions, or over several months in dry and cold weather. It kills over 95% of possums and nearly 100% of rats. However, rat numbers tend to rebound in one or two years. 1080 poison also kills stoats that salvage the bodies of poisoned rats. Studies show its efficacy at "returning birdsong to wild spaces, increasing reptile populations and reducing browsing pressures on threatened plants". However, 
hunters and animal activists contend that 1080 poison is inhumane and could kill non-targeted mammals such as dogs, horses and even children (hence the warning signs). Antidotes such as acetamide are used to save dogs within four hours of ingesting 1080-poisoned carcasses.

B) Pindone is an anticoagulant rodenticide bait for culling rat and rabbit populations. Made of cereal dyed green to discourage birds from eating them, pindone causes internal haemorrhage and death within four to 11 days.

C) Potassium Cyanide is targeted at possums. It is regarded as more humane as death occurs rapidly at lethal doses, by stopping oxygen uptake to the brain. 

NZ's poisoning programme relies on scientific breakthroughs such as the tweaking of pest genes to cause them to die out, using biosensors aimed at specific pest species, deploying lures that attract with the scent of sex rather than food, and utilising pressurised carbon dioxide to reset traps. 

The fern-filled forest at Kepler Track.

A serendipitous moment to end this post: I was photographing this yellow flower when a long-legged fly landed on it. Part 2 of our NZ trip will be covered in my next blog entry.