Monday, April 23, 2012

Feeding wild stingray on the Eastern Cape

I can’t take any credit for this one - I usually do my research and work out what there is to see and do in an area, but ultimately we were in Gisborne to meet up with friends and have a few days of bach time - relaxing and enjoying good food and wine while taking advantage of the ocean on our back door step. I gave the guide book a quick once over and didn’t even google what there was to see and do in the area, so when our friends asked us if we would like to feed stingray, it sounded like an excellent idea!

We headed over to Dive Tatapouri, which is located on the edge of a shallow reef which sits immediately off the shore, on the beautiful Eastern Cape coastline. It was only a few minutes from our bach and approximately fifteen minutes from the centre of Gisborne. When we arrived, the adults and older child (age six) were kitted out with some rather fetching waders and long bamboo sticks, before being given instructions and a safety briefing. They told us about the rays we would likely see - the resident short-tail stingray and the much larger eagle rays who live further out at sea, but come in for feeding, given it is a regular occurrence. They showed us how to use our bamboo poles to create a fence to protect ourselves, should we need too (eek!). They also warned us about the kingfish, who it seemed were also rather partial to the bait we would be feeding to the rays, and rather quicker in the water.

Don't you wish your family was hot like us!

Then the kids were set astride a giant banana boat, which our guide hauled behind him on a rope while the rest of us (probably about 12 people in our group, excluding our three little ones) followed across the reef in single file. Having never worn waders before, walking through the water in them was a novel experience, with a constant sense of foreboding every time you stepped into a patch of water any deeper than the top of the welly boot bit, although I needn’t have worried as my feet stayed perfectly dry for the duration. The bamboo sticks proved an absolute necessity within seconds of being in the water- for testing the depth of the water ahead  (mainly as our supposedly single file line suddenly resembled more of a web, almost as soon as we hit the wet stuff) and secondly for keeping us upright as we waded over the slippery rocks.

Walking across the reef in a single file line, ahem....

Kids on the banana boat - they were all from our group - there were some older kids on our tour too who walked across

We stopped at the far side of the reef and stood on a rock in a couple of inches of water, while the guide stood in front of us and shook his bait pot in the water. It didn’t take long for the short-tail stingrays to appear, along with the enthusiastic kingfish. Our  children were still bobbing on their banana boat a few metres in front of us, and watching their little faces light up as they spotted and recognised the marine life appear around them was a magical moment.

Our guide handed out bait and we took it in turns to bend down and feed it to the stingrays. It was a tricky manoeuvre, bending forward while balancing on the rock, holding the bait so that the stingrays could sweep over your hand to reach the bait with their mouths below, all while avoiding a nip from the eager jaws of the waiting kingfish. I was cautious at first, especially after the boy standing next to me wasn’t so lucky and the kingfish managed to swoop in over the stingray and give him a nasty nip as it whipped the bait from his hand. The speed that kingfish moved will most likely ensure he never ends up as sashimi.

The eagle ray weren't shy with our guide!

Touching and feeding the wild stingray was a unique tactile experience - they had a slightly slimy, vaguely bumpy cartilage feel to them, and as the bait is sucked up out of your hand it could only really be likened to a run in with a low powered Dyson.

The ray's mouth is really far back - look how far it went up his arm! 

When the little kids tired of being on the boat (it took a surprisingly long time) they were brought onto the rock with us and touched the rays too. We’d been out on the water for around 90 minutes, but all too soon we were making our way back to shore and it felt like we’d been out there for just minutes.

The guide placed bait in the end of his bamboo pole to encourage the rays to come to where we could feed them

I’ve seen and touched rays in aquariums a few times, but feeding them in the wild was different - this is one of my favourite things about New Zealand - we have been presented with so many opportunities to see wildlife which we may be able to see in zoos or aquariums elsewhere, but here we can see them in their natural environment; no bars or glass between us and them, little or no stress on the creatures involved, and often we can get much closer than we would be able to in captivity.

The beautiful coastline where the reef is situated

What did we think of our stingray experience? Let the Littlest Hobo tell you….

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Whakarewarewa; Rotorua's living thermal village

When we last visited Rotorua, several years ago, we spent an evening at a cultural show and hangi, which I really enjoyed. In spite of a few Kiwi’s telling me that it’s ‘just for tourists’ and ‘once you’ve been to one, there’s no point going to another‘, I was keen to experience it again, and in particular to let the Littlest Hobo see the singing and dancing, which I knew she would love. We were a bit wary, however, about taking her to an evening performance, where she would be up late at night and potentially unwilling to sit still and behave well if she got overtired . When we booked the Rotorua mystery hotel deal on and it turned out to be the Holiday Inn, I was excited to discover that it was right in front of Whakarewarewa Village, which Lonely Planet tout as one of the main draw cards to Rotorua.

Whakarewarewa Village, or to give it it’s full name Tewhakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahiao, is a living thermal village; living in the sense that a Maori tribe still live there today. The wharepuni - homes, sit amongst the thermal pools, swirling steam and geysers that are synonymous to Rotorua, and it’s essentially a tourist attraction by day and a Maori village once the gates shut to their paying visitors at 5pm every day.

Out visit started with a guided tour, where we were welcomed by our guide Ropetahonekihimitataupopoki iharaira piripi; Robert to you and I. He talked us through a short history of the village, explained that the tribe is all one family, and inside the complex should be thought of as their home, so once we stepped through the gates we became guests in their home. Although he now lives on a farm beyond the village boundaries, Robert grew up in the complex and his face lit up as he told us stories of a happy childhood playing amongst the hot water and mud pools, finding ways to make pocket money and running around plastered in mud, scaring tourists. He explained that many of the houses these days house the older members of their community, who had lived there all their lives, and were accustomed to living with the steam, so wouldn’t adapt well to a life with everyday mod cons like ovens and showers.

Immediately after passing through the gates, we crossed a bridge with a river and a cool water pool beneath it. Looking down from the bridge, in and around the pool were Maori children of varying ages. Robert explained that they were penny diving; many years ago, when the first tourists visited Whakarewarewa before the bridge was built, they would pay a penny to be piggybacked across the river. When the bridge was built and piggybacking no longer required, the tourists began to toss coins into the river for luck, and the villagers, not understanding why the money was being thrown in their river, would go down and fetch the money from the river and keep it. It became custom for the children to do this, and the activity has continued to this day.

Diving for pennies

Immediately upon entering the village, you can feel the warmth emanating from beneath your feet, and bending down to touch the ground, a few seconds is long enough, before your fingers start to feel the wrong side of warm.

We continued through the village and Robert showed us the oil baths - the outdoor bathing area where villagers go to wash, made up of several concrete baths which are filled via small channels running from the hot geothermal pools and derive their name from the oily texture and mineral deposits within the water that is used to fill them. The mineral rich water in Rotorua is said to have healing properties, and can be used to treat arthritis and eczema amongst other things - it's certainly very believable; Mr T suffers with eczema and found that it improved dramatically after a couple of dips in the Rotorua water.

One of the baths, with the water channel filling it from the hot pools

We were shown a couple of steam box hangi - wooden boxes built into the ground to trap steam so that it can be used to cook food. Again, these are still used today; villagers often put their dinner in the hangi at the start of the day and return to collect it, cooked, at the end of the day. In the pool next to the hangi, some corn cobs were cooking using traditional methods - wrapped in a linen cloth, tied with a long rope with a brick at the end of it, and lowered into the pool, which is just below boiling point at the surface. Robert explained that meat couldn't cook in this way as the fat would react with the water with explosive consequences!

Robert showing us the corn cobbs

One of the highlights of the tour is the view of the Pohutu and Prince of Wales Feathers geysers. The Pohutu (meaning big splash) is the largest geyser in New Zealand, rising at times to 40 metres, and the Prince of Wales feathers is the most active geyser. It is left completely to nature when they will erupt (some places add washing powder to make their geysers erupt at set times, as washing powder contains animal fat) and generally the longer they lie dormant the higher they will rise. On average, these two geysers erupt at least once an hour and you can get a feeling of how frequently they are to erupt by the weather - on a hot clear day they will erupt less frequently but shoot higher into the sky, whereas on an overcast or rainy day, they will erupt more frequently but to a lesser extent. For the duration of our visit they erupted constantly, and the sky was overcast. The bright blue pools directly in front of the geysers make good barometers for the villagers.

The geysers were erupting throughout our visit

After our tour, we headed to the cultural performance area for a thoroughly enjoyable 30 minute show that included dancing, singing, the haka, stick games and even a little bit of audience participation. I really love the melodious music and the short performance was just the right length to keep the Littlest Hobo’s attention so that we all had a fantastic time. Whakarewarewa had a really laid back, friendly and approachable attitude which made me feel very comfortable, particularly with a young child in tow. Although they requested that everyone remain seated, I think this was purely so that those seated at the back could still see, and they smiled down from the stage when our youngest family member got up on the grassy area to the side of the seating to copy their dancing.

I can’t recommend Whakarewarewa village highly enough if you are visiting Rotorua, and especially if you have young children with you - being in a living village made for a unique cultural experience, and the tour was incredibly interesting and educational. Robert was an excellent tour guide, peppering our visit with little tidbits of information which added to the overall experience and really left us feeling like we’d had an insight into life in the thermal village. With the show included in general entry, the visit was excellent value at $30 each for the adults and two year olds go free. Most of the other cultural performances that I looked into were topping the $100 per person mark (including dinner) and would probably have been a bit too long and late to suit our needs with a toddler in tow.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Easter in Napier - what's travel without the people you meet?

Traditionally, we’ve spent Easter with friends or family, and this year was to be no exception with plans to meet our good friends from back in the UK who now live in Auckland. We planned to hire a bach together in Gisborne and spend a week or so there, but it obviously wasn’t meant to be - we left it too late and were unable to find anywhere to accommodate us all. Instead we opted to take one that was available from Easter Monday, so Two and a half Travellers stayed in art deco Napier a bit longer than initially planned.

Looking for something a bit more than just our own company, we booked ourselves into Riverbend Family Lodge - with three holiday chalets sharing the grounds surrounding the owners house, as well as a pool, hot tub and trampoline we thought this would be a good option for meeting some other people.

When we arrived we were greeted by the friendly owners, Greg and Kendall, who showed us to our accommodation and made sure that we felt comfortable to give them a yell should we need anything. The rain was pouring down with a forecast for much of the same in the days to come, and we were the only people staying there - in spite of this we still felt that we’d made a good choice, with cosy, functional accommodation and friendly hosts.

We spent the remainder of that day and the following dashing between the lodge, the car, and various indoor venues, feeling soggy and damp. But on the afternoon of the second day, the rain stopped and the Littlest Hobo made a bee line for the trampoline. Kendall asked us whether we’d like to join an Easter egg hunt on Easter Sunday (weather permitting) along with the other two families who would be there.

The Napier beaches were pretty special

The other chalets filled, and as the weather dried up, the children made friends and played on the trampoline, in the garden and the swimming pool. The Littlest Hobo loved picking vegetables, playing with the rabbits, cat, dog and riding horses - she had a ball. The Easter Egg hunt was a hit with all the kids, in spite of a wide range of ages, and the adults drank coffee and ate hot cross buns. The Littlest Hobo’s first horse ride was another highlight.

Hunting in the vegetable patch
Checking out the stash in her home made basket
Hot cross buns and hot coffee made the perfect start to Easter Sunday
They had more hop than the Easter Bunny on that trampoline

Easter weekend had the potential to be a bit of a wash out, not only with the terrible weather, but after a couple of weeks where we hadn’t met many people and without being able to see our friends until Easter Monday, we thought we might feel a bit lonely. Thanks to the wonderful environment at Riverbend Family Lodge, this wasn’t the case, and we ended up feeling that this was probably the best place we had stayed in during our entire time in New Zealand. To coin a clichĂ©, we felt that we’d arrived as strangers and left as friends. This was largely due to our fantastic hosts but also our fellow guests, whose company we really enjoyed too. The Littlest Hobo particularly took a shine to the teenaged girl who was staying next door, and her and her step mum babysat while Mr T and I went into Napier for some lunch - an unexpected and much appreciated treat for this travelling family.

First horse ride ever - Emma (Greg and Kendall's daughter) was kind enough to  let the Littlest Hobo  have a ride on  Chloe

Hanging out in the hot tub with her new buddies Mabel and Charlie! 

For me, one of the most important aspects of travelling, and the element that can change a good trip into a great one is the people that you meet along the way. Interesting stories, little quirks, spontaneous fun and random acts of kindness are what make the average travel blanket into a veritable patchwork quilt.

How have the people who you have met added to your travel experience?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Kaikoura - in search of the whale's song

When I was young, my grandparents were models for Gary Blythe when he illustrated the childrens book The Whale's Song. I loved reading it, and although I was a teenager when it was published, seeing my Nana and Grandad in print added a touch of extra realism to the story, make believing that I could have been Lilly - the little girl who listened to the whale's song. This book was the start of a fascination for the graceful giants that roam our oceans, and since I first read it I have always been keen to see a whale for myself.

From living in Sydney, my understanding of whale watching was that it is a seasonal activity, taking place as the whales complete their migration from May to September, so when I realised that Whale Watch Kaikoura offer year-round opportunities, I was delighted. Inspite of having heard that Kaikoura was a veritable haven for aquatic wildlife, I was a little skeptical. On further investigation, I discovered that the Kaikoura Canyon, just 1km from the coast, offers a unique geographical situation, encouraging an abundance of marine life, including a never ending stream of passing whales, along with several resident sperm whales - one of the only places in the world where this opportunity is available throughout the calendar year.

My alarm went off and I jumped straight out of bed, in spite of the early hour, then proceeded to bash around the unfamiliar house in the dark, trying to dress without waking anyone. First light was just breaking as I arrived at the whale way station (ha ha - like all good New Zealand railway stations, Kaikoura’s has a dual purpose - in this case it houses Whale Watch Kaikoura’s base camp). There was only one car in the car park, so I walked slowly, looking out into the murky depths and wondering about the height of the monstrous waves that crashed on the shore nearby.

As more people arrived, I headed inside to check in. When you book your experience, you are warned that the trip is dependant on weather conditions. Out trip carried a sea sickness warning, and the rest of the trips that day were still marked as unconfirmed so far. After checking in, I joined many of my fellow whale watchers in purchasing a sea sickness tablet. I’d intended to keep it in my camera bag until needed, but in the end, mainly out of fear of not being able to find it at the right time, I downed it with a much needed caffeine fix from the on site cafĂ©.

After a quick introduction and safety briefing, we headed to our boat; as we piled on we were advised to sit at the back for a less bumpy ride. In spite of my usual wimpishness, I felt strangely compelled to sit in the second row from the front. We headed out to sea, being briefed that we must stay inside the boat and seated due to the high speed we were moving. You’re not kidding me - we flew across the water, jumping over each massive wave as we hit it. As we sped along, our host kept our attention, with a constant flow of interesting information about the canyon, the marine life it attracted, and the whales.

Before I'd arranged the trip, I had done some research into the whale watching options and had discovered that you could go by helicopter or by boat. The helicopter trip is often touted as the superior option, as from above you will see the whole whale, whereas on the boat you will most often only see the spray from their blowholes and a portion of their back, their dorsal fin and tail. In spite of this I was keen to go by boat, not only because the trip was much longer (approx two and a half hours as opposed to half an hour), but also because I felt that I would get a closer look and have the opportunity to see that all important flick of the tail as they swam back down from a better angle. Seeing the images that our hosts showed us on the boat really confirmed that for me that I'd made the right choice, as well as highlighting just how enormous these mammals are! I was also impressed with their ethical standpoint, using only their eyes and ears to track and respecting the whale's desires by staying well back and following their lead.

Being the first trip of the day meant that we didn’t have the knowledge of the previous boats to guide us straight to the whales. Our only option was to head out to one of the spots where the whales often hang out and listen for them. When we reached the canyon, the boat came to a halt and we headed outside, bobbing on the ocean, surrounded by an endless variety of bird life, gliding on the wind then diving down to the surface. Meanwhile, the Captain took out a long conical device with a pair of headphones attached, an underwater directional hydrophone, and stuck the end of it in the water. He was listening for the whale's click - the means by which they communicate and navigate while they are deep under the water. He heard a whale and we all piled back inside to race of to the place where he had pinpointed it.

When we arrived in the right area, we all rushed back outside and those of us who weren't too green (I was grateful at this point for the seasickness tablet...) climbed the stairs to the upper viewing platform, and started scanning the waters. An announcement came from our host to say that they could see the whale, but I could only see water and birds. Then one of the crew members pointed the whale out to me, logging; a small portion of him visible as he hovered near the surface gathering oxygen for his next dive to the depths of the canyon to feast on giant squid. I raised my camera to my eye and snapped as many pictures as I could as his tail shot into the air then he dove down and was gone.

Tiaki disappearing below the surface 

The whale, recognisable to the crew by his markings, was one of the resident males; Tiaki. As we headed back inside they explained that on average, a whale stays on the surface for approximately ten minutes before diving for around 45 minutes. As we couldn't hear Tiaki after we saw him, there was a chance that he was in the shallows and might reappear, but while the captain was listening he had heard another whale, so we headed in that direction. As we sped across the water, one of the crew members spotted the whale, and then saw it dive before we had had a chance to get to it... rather than a 45 minute wait we listened again, and headed off in hot pursuit of another round of clicks. Although there were clearly a few people suffering with the motion of the ocean, I found the thrill of the chase exhilarating, and bouncing over the waves in the hope of another sighting really added to the experience for me.

This time, we were rewarded for our efforts and as we headed out to the viewing deck we could see a spray of water rising five metres into the air every ten seconds or so. We could see Mati Mati, another resident male, on the surface of the water, where he remained for approximately four minutes. He looked huge, and I had to remind myself that I could only see a small part of him - adult male sperm whales can grow to up to 20.5 metres - truly as big as a whale! Suddenly, he started to curve up out of the water and the crew told us that he was about to dive.  He looked so graceful as the curved section rippled along to his tail and he lifted it high into the air before disappearing tail-tip last.

Logging, with a spray coming from the blowhole

About to dive down again - cameras at the ready everybody!

With a splash of his tail he was gone

Although we had only been there watching him for a few minutes, and we had only seen a small portion of the entire whale, it was a magical, breathtaking, awe-inspiring experience. I felt a real sense of camaraderie with my fellow camera touting whale watchers, as we all talked about what we had just seen and compared photographs.

At this point, as the whales weren't staying on the surface for long, the crew decided to call it a day on the whale chase and take us to an area which is popular with Dusky Dolphins for the remainder of our time. As soon as we arrived we were greeted by around 20 energetic dolphins swimming around the hull of the boat and performing for our cameras. Dusky dolphins are one of the most acrobatic species of dolphins, and they certainly didn't disappointing - leaping out of the water, flipping and synchronised swimming - there was so much going on that it was hard to know where to look! I found a new respect for wildlife photographers as I struggled to keep up with the speed of these playful creatures, who swam so close that I struggled with my telephoto lens - they coaxed out another set of smiles as well as squeals of delight from us all though.

I had a spellbinding morning with Whale Watch Kaikoura - when we returned to the shore I was ready to turn around and do it all again. My photos are hardly going to make National Geographic, but I'd had such a fantastic time, and I floated around on a high for the rest of the day. If you're ever in the area, it's worth making a detour to Kaikoura for the marine life alone, although the town itself, and the picturesque coastline with mountains right to the waters edge, is well worth a visit too.

Beautiful Kaikoura waking up for the day

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Matariki - it was written in the stars

We’d been on the road for over a month when we all got a bit sick of staying somewhere new every second night, so we decided that a one week stop was on the cards. Mr T found a farm stay in the Nelson area. The family who own the farm were away on holiday themselves, but said that as long as we were willing to look after ourselves the place was ours, and we got a great rate too.
The littlest hobo loved the garden at the farm

We were wowed by the remoteness as soon as we arrived, based on lush farmland, with sheep roaming in the foreground and mountains looming in the distance. The garden was phenomenal - huge, completely fenced in with a swing a little bike and toy tractor which left the Littlest Hobo desperate to get out and play all day. There were adult bikes too and a basketball hoop, and a vegetable and herb garden and fruit trees to help ourselves from. I mustn’t forget the longest washing line ever - perfect timing given the huge bag of dirty washing we were carting around, and better yet I could satisfy my inner cavewoman watching our smalls flapping in the wind as the sheep grazed nearby.

Our cottage was in keeping with the ‘grandma’s house’ charm that we have come to expect from many of the older bach’s we stay in, along with plenty of kids toys, and a welcome basket with all manner of goodies along with information about the local area. My only disappointment was discovering that the internet access that had been advertised was actually only available in the farmhouse, and as they were away we couldn’t access it. On top of that, but much more anticipated, we had no phone reception, so we were completely cut off from the outside world. Although this wasn’t in our original plan, it ended up being quite refreshing, very relaxing, and in honesty probably about as close as we will really get to that technology free month that Mr T was hankering after when we first planned our trip!

There were sheep everywhere!

The Nelson region is renowned for it’s good weather, and our week here was no exception; although we made a few trips (Golden Bay/Farewell Spit and Nelson on market day) we also had plenty of time to just kick back and relax. We had freedom to roam around the farm, so we explored the hills and rivers, walked through the stream, chatted with the cows (much to their disgust) and watched the sun, and the rainbows, come and go. The old Matariki school house sits in the grounds; it’s been disused since 1942, but the door was open so we went in to explore, with plenty of it’s history recorded and preserved inside, and we took pleasure in finding our hosts family listed amongst the students.

Matariki school house

I read some of the entries in the cottage guest book, and it made me feel sad that we hadn’t visited when the owners were home, everyone who signed the book sounded like they’d had an amazing time really experiencing the farm and really being welcomed like family. I was keen to see the dogs working to move the sheep and  Mr T was absolutely itching for a turn on the quad bike. I’m hoping we’ll be able to find an opportunity to do these things on the North Island before we leave New Zealand.

What're you looking at?!

Stepping outside after dark was the biggest treat of all; a veritable cornucopia of astrological delight enveloped me and captured my immediate and unwavering attention. Had it not been for the incessant attack of viscous sandflies I could have stayed there all night, every night, gazing up in awestruck wonder. As it was, it became a nightly ritual, after putting the littlest hobo to bed we would head out into the inky darkness and stand in front of the house looking up for a few minutes, the void of silence echoing on the mountains that surrounded us. I have never seen so many stars filling the sky - if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I would have struggled to believe it.

The farm was called Matariki. I didn’t know what it meant, so when we were in the children’s section of the Wellington library the following week, and I spotted a book by the same name I snapped it up and started to read. I discovered that Matariki is the name for the Maori New Year. The word has two literal translations - Tiny Eyes (stars) and Eyes of God. The celebration takes place in June, based around a cluster of seven stars, and focuses on the unique place in which we live and giving respect to the land we live on. With this new understanding I couldn’t think of a more fitting name for the cottage in the stars.

Staying on the farm was the antithesis of our life in Sydney  - from living on a busy road with a shop opposite, a pub five doors down and a constant flow of passers by, with every form of public transport known to man on our doorstep and one of the most iconic views in the world from our lounge window, to a little farm nestled amongst the mountains on a dirt track that sees only a few vehicles pass by every day, a fifteen minute drive to the nearest shop, and almost an hours drive to the nearest sizeable town, and all of nature’s bounty right outside your front door. While this life isn’t what I’d chose personally for the long run, I thoroughly enjoyed my immersion into it.