Thursday, April 26, 2001. Week 3, Day 1. Punakaiki to Haast. Stops at Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers.

Ten minutes past seven, and the beginning of our third week, if you ignore international datelines and time differences etc. We left on a Thursday and today's Thursday. "On the Road Again." - Willie Nelson

Up and at them, and I decide to take a photo of the electrical plug at the end of our motorhome power cord, because they are totally unlike anything in the U.S.

7:52 and we see a duck-spotted lake. There are Australasian Shovelers. Possible Grey Ducks but no Brown Teal, a bird we're missing.

Almost 8 AM and we're stuck behind a coal truck -- a tandem one. We have followed him a long way because of the curvature of the spine characteristic of the road. We finally pass him, and about 100 meters later, he turns off. We see lots of signs of coal. Coal piles, Coal Creek, and I'm quite sure many houses here burn coal for winter heating fuel.

We pass through and leave Greymouth and Sharon finds the red and white post box, where she tosses in the postcards she wrote last night. These show where we are in New Zealand right now.

We approach a bridge crossing a river, and there is a huge flurry of signs to read. I see one which appears pointed at some railroad tracks. It says "Slow 10," but I can't figure out if it's talking to me. The bridge, I then notice is a one-laner, but holy cow, the rail tracks go across the same bridge we're about to cross. Not only is it one lane for cars to share going each direction, but it's also for trains to share going each direction. Sharon said among the sign flurry was one showing a guy falling off a bicycle, having gotten his front wheel into one of the gaps in the pavement on either side of the track.

Well, I never. This makes what you call efficient use of resources. After waiting for a big bus to exit, a big logger truck in front of us heads onto the bridge, so we follow, using him as our blocker. Later we have to yield the right-of-way to an oncoming bus, and I get a photo of the bus exiting the bridge, just in front of us, while we wait behind the designated "Give Way" line.

8:35 and we pass through a pleasant little town called Hokitika. Kids are going to school and a lady walking her dog bends over with her hand inside a baggie, at the same time her pooch scratches backwards in the grass with its two rear paws. A universal picture, recognized by all responsible dog-walkers.

There is a Hokitika horse race track here, and lots of holiday parks. The town of Haast, our goal for the night, is straight ahead. I stop for gas at a Caltex station, where it's 80.9 NZ cents/liteer. I believe, by the star logo, that this must be Texaco.

A White-backed Australian magpie flies over as we approach four Pukekos stretched across the road, like a roadblock. As we near them at high speed, three jump and fly off, but one stays. I honk and honk, but he doesn't move. Until the last possible second. Thought we had a dead Pukeko there. We of course decide that it was playing chicken, probably not the first time.

I am practicing with my new phone card, which is very interesting. Now, the digital mobile phone the motorhome rental people gave us to use is cool, but as birders in New Zealand, it works almost nowhere we go, unless we are passing through a city. I wanted to get one of the cards that you just slide into a card slot, then it showed how many minutes you have left, counting down backwards as you talk. But the place I bought this had only one type.

"You just doil the free oh-eight hundred numbah. Then you just pop in you' cahd numbah. Then you just dial you' numbah," the girl told me. What I heard was, "You dial a ten digit number, then you wait a bit, then you dial a sixteen digit number, then you wait a bit more, then you dial your area code, then you dial the only number you really wanted to dial. Then you wait a bit and a man says, 'Sorry, that number is busy,'", or something so you do it all again. Pop in the numbah. Hah!

"Well, that sounds like a big pain in the butt. You don't have the other type?" "No," she says, "but there are advantages to this type. You can use it from any phone, and the rates are much cheapah than those othah ones. We only have the $20 ones though. Do you want one?" I want one. We've gotta make reservations for two nights on Stewart Island, then make reservations for the Kiwi Spotting night, then make reservations for the flight over. And our mobile phone doesn't work here. Man, we got a card, now we need a PHONE.

But back to my phone card tirade.

Using the card in a pay phone, the phone is slow to beep when you press a button. So it's 0, wait half a second, beep, 8, wait half a second, beep, etc. Only for 0800, the third zero has a second and a half delay. So you don't know whether to press it again or not. Then it finally beeps and you go on.

Then I "just pop in my cahd numbah" the same way, and it's pretty funny, then I just pop in the numbah. And the phone card fellow interrupts after your cahd numbah to say something like (for a 20 dollar card, aka $8 U.S.) you have 19 dollars and 72 cents remaining. Then after the cahd number, he says, "You have one hundred and two minutes to make this call." Then a hesitation and he says, "I'm sorry there's no answer. Would you like to dial all those damn numbers again, or just bang a hammer on your thumbnail?"

After about three rounds of this crap (all ending in a busy signal or "no answer"), I just punch in the whole 0800 number and the others without waiting for the beeps. Well the beeps trip all over each other, and I think, "Mm, yeah, like this is going to work." But it seems to.

I can't connect with the kiwi guy, the airline people, or our desired lodge, but I finally connect with our second hotel choice on Stewart Island, ask them some questions and tell the friendly girl that I might call her back, but to make no reservation yet. "Good as gold," she says.

I decide to drive some more, towards our destination. I'll try the phone numbah a little latah. It's six minutes till 10. We're zooming along and our next attraction will be Franz Josef Glacier Car park. But first a word about possums.

The possums here are not the O'possums of America. They are from Borneo or Sri Lanka or someplace like that. They are a sort of weasel, dark rusty red and black. Real pretty color, with a long bushy tail. Their mouth looks like a lemur, or a like a smiling weasel, who is just about to chomp down on something you don't want him to.

This is one of the mammals that are so bad for kiwis and ground birds.

10:13 and there are mountains to our left, covered with bush. To our right are pastures and farmland -- a lot of fenced areas. We pass a power line, and both see a pair of birds perched on a pole. We stop and check, and its a pair of Paradise Shelducks. We're never seen them perch this high before, but have seen them fly this high lots of times. These birds are spread all over New Zealand. Mostly in pairs, but sometimes you will see a large group together in a field.

We pass a herd of 30 to 60 elk, of all ages, and almost never do any have antlers, but we see a nice set on two males here.

11:14 and a sign says Franz Josef about 61 km, so it's probably an hour away or so. Earlier I told Sharon we'd get there about 1:30 or so, but I must have screwed up changing miles to kilometers. Yesterday we thought we were maybe at the top end of the Southern Alps, but we weren't. NOW we are. Looking to the left, high on a mountainside, I can see two long, vertical patches of snow. These are big, big mountains.

We see a sign at the edge of a town called Hari Hari, that says Maori Carvings, 2.5 km. Actually it says 2-5 km, because almost all of the time, a 'dash' is used instead of a decimal to separate km from tenths of a km. We go in and Sharon loves everything in the store. We load up so much that the owner/carver comes out and introduces himself. He admires Sharon's stick and said it is a "talking" stick, held when engaged in the whakapapa, and he demonstrates a little. Pretty cool. He does a hongi with Sharon, and then with me. His English name is Lou, and he's authentic Maori, and is a great person. Plus he gave us 15% off. AND he gave us each a free piece of greenstone on a cord to wear around our necks as a gift. Their gallery is called Kotuku, which means White Crane, or Egret. Those are the fairly rare birds which nest not far from here, and the only such place in New Zealand. We take off and find a phone booth, to make some calls.

11:33 and I just got a nice photo of a snow-covered peak, over forest, or bush. Sharon says it's either Mt. Tasman or Mt. Cook,with the sun shining only on the peak. From the map, I'd pick Mt. Tasman.

Speaking of possums. When Sharon was little, she had a coat that had a possum fur collar. But it wasn't the gray of the possums she was familiar with. She never understood this until seeing the New Zealand possums. Now we understand.

We arrive in the town of Franz Josef and go into the visitor center parking lot, but neither of us can think of a question to ask, so we drive up to the glacier car park and have our lunch. We go for a short walk and see Franz Josef Glacier, Silvereyes, South Island Tomtits, with their yellow-not-white bellies, and Pied Fantails. Not too impressed, we head back to the car park, intending to move on to Fox Glacier.

1:25 PM and we're in the Fox Glacier car park, ready to go up to try for the Rock Wren. This little bird will be very tough. At the beginning of the trail, we see about five Brown Creepers. We come to a section going across a zone of falling rocks, and a sign says, "Do not stop for the next 200 meters," and I don't. I get to the other side, turn around, and there's Sharon, stopped about two-thirds across, checking for birds.

Sharon is doing her bird calls, when we hear squeeky calls. Sharon yells, "*KEA," and by golly one flies over, followed by a second. I get a photo of the second one, looking like the F117A Stealth Fighter or something. We thought we heard another bird, but now the sound has stopped. Sharon takes a photo of me with the Fox Glacier in the background.

On the way back out, more Keas land on a rocky outcrop and we get excellent looks.

I had the strangest dream last night. I was explaining to some unknown friends of Jim and Helen Leininger (friends of Sharon's and mine) how I used to bet on thoroughbred horses (which is true). The man was very interested, and kept saying, "Come with me and tell me more, as we're walking." I'd follow him, and continue explaining. I got into a limo with him, and off we drove, me still going over my system. Soon we came to a house. He walked in, with me trailing, still explaining, and him totally interested.

Just as we walk in, about 30 couples yell, "Surprise!" And it's a surprise anniversary party for him and his wife. He is embarassed because he forgot about it. And I'm sitting around, alone, while everybody crowds around him. All I can think of is, "What the heck am I doing here? I have to get back to Sharon." Then I woke up.

Sharon says she had a dream too, something about a date with Mel Gibson, but she's hesitant to give any details.

It's a bit after 4 PM, and we're at Lake Bruce, I think. Here comes a little orange cat, cute as anything. Sharon spots three ducks, and one is the best example of a Grey Duck we've seen. Very striking black and white face stripes. In addition to this individual there is another pair, one of which has just jumped on top of the third, in the water. This may be an illustration of why ducks like water so much. And a few minutes later we pull over at Lake Paringa. We just can NOT make those Australian Black Swans be Australasian Crested Grebes, no matter how hard we try.

4:32 PM and we're now at Lake Moreaki, which is smooth as glass. But we're not seeing any of our target grebes. Five minutes later, and we've moved a little further down the lake, and pulled over again because we saw some birds down here too. I scan with binoculars and figure they're probably all shags, but go back for the scope anyway, to make sure. Meantime, Sharon has found two extremely likely suspects halfway across the lake, in the wider part. I check with the scope and make up my mind, then say, "See what you think." Later Sharon says that usually this means I have decided that they are NOT the bird we're after. But I try to keep it as neutral as possible.

"Those are two *AUSTRALIAN CRESTED GREBES," she says, and I say, "Exactamundo!" We watch them a little, and they are great.

We come up over a rise, and suddenly we emerge back on the coast. It's Somebody's Lookout at Knight's Point, and out to the right is the ocean. It's overcast, except for two little holes in the clouds maybe 200-500 yards apart. The sun is shining straight down through them, such that it looks like two spotlights. Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. By the time I get the camera out, there are more rays of light coming from the clouds.

4:49 and Sharon spots a New Zealand Falcon zipping straight overhead, from our front to our back, but I was trying to keep the stupid motorhome on the road (can you imagine the idiocy?) and missed it. About five minutes later, we're coming down a hill with a great sea view to the right and we see a yellow bird. I pull off to the right to check, and we both get out. Sharon's starts with her bird call and we notice about a dozen Pied Fantails, swarming over the bush across the road like insects. Sharon keeps calling when ZOOM, a big black bird with a white neck flies across. "What was THAT?" I yell. "Wasn't that just a Tui?" she says. "Oh. Maybe." I need to turn my excitement knob back down to "objective" here.

Then she says, "Black Fantail, right over there." he's gone, but then I see one, then another, of the BLACK FANTAILS. Fantastic. They have a tiny white dot behind the eye, otherwise they are all black. Pied Fantails usually show you their rear end, with the white and tan fan all spread out. But the fans of the Black Fantails are B-L-A-C-K, man.

I get a shot of the coast marking the Black Fantail site, then we get back in the motorhome and continue on down the road. Sharon reads in our new blue book that "sometimes a white teardrop can be seen behind the eye of the black fantail," and our older book portrays it nicely. Not as nicely as what we saw though.

We are about 10 km from Haast. I was expecting to be in mountains, but it looks like it will be flatland.

5:14 PM and we are crossing a long, long one-lane bridge, but it has two passing bays. These are triple-road-width sections, about 30 feet long, so a bus can pull to one side, and let another bus pass him, head on.

This is Haast River, and the town is just the other side. I stop to fill up with petrol, and in the station is a man on a four-wheeler ATV, one son in front of him, straddling the bike, the other smaller one backpacked on Dad. Sharon says, "That's cool, giving them both a ride." The man says, "Daily event," and smiles.

We fill up and choose the motor camp by the road, not the one 20 kilometers towards the beach. But we get a nice SONG THRUSH pair first. We can tell by the looks of it that we will be camping in a modified parking lot, but with nice vegetation around it. It will be our lowest rated one so far. But, hey, after dark with the curtains all pulled, who cares what it's like outside, as long as it's secure and safe? Anyway, this is a combination motel/motor camp. The advertisement says it's "in the bush," which you can SORT OF agree with, since two sides are scrubby brush.

The fellow who runs the camp gladly waits while we (Sharon) buy all kinds of crap, absolutely essential to the rule of ten percent. That is, you must spend an additional ten percent on souvenirs, most of which are gifts for other people, actually. "Yes, but it's my Christmas shopping too," says Sharon, gift master of the universe, and she's right, mostly.

After we set up, I go in to use the rest room, then check out the communal room. There is a nice young couple in there, and a fireplace is warm and inviting. As I walk by them, I see "The Hobbit" resting on the table in front of them. "Who's reading the Hobbit?" I ask. "I am," the girl says. "First time?" I ask. Yes, she says. "I am SO envious," I say. Then we discuss the movie of the same name, which we all three know was shot in New Zealand. The guy says it's coming out in December, and I can't wait. We've seen several hobbit-like settings while birding -- gnarly trees, almost completely moss-covered. Stuff like that.

Sharon fixes dinner, and it's the meat pies we bought at a grocery store a few days ago. They are delicious, and they make me think of the small chicken pot pies I used to buy, warm up and eat as a student, living away from the dorms. But without all the stupid vegetables. And change the chicken to steak. And make the pie dough scrumptious. They have these things all over the place in England too. I need them in America, and when we get back, I'll bet I can find them. They've probably been there all the time.

Anyway, it's a wonderful meal we have, including the cauliflower. I catch up on some trip reports and thoroughly enjoy reliving the events I am reviewing.

If we're lucky, tomorrow may see Yellowhead, Rock Wren, Rifleman, Yellow-crowned Parakeet. And maybe New Zealand Falcon. I'm so stoked at all these possibilities!

Bird Summary:

Life Birds:
Today:2. Kea, Australasian Crested Grebe.
For the Trip: 62.

Trip Birds:
Today: 4. The lifers plus Black Fantail (technically only a different subspecies from the Pied Fantail, but we like this little bird so much, we're counting him as another Trip Bird), and Song Thrush.
For the Trip: 86.

Friday, April 27, 2001. Week 3, Day 2. Haast to Te Anau. Headed for Milford Sound.

7:37 AM. We've had breakfast after getting out of bed -- an interesting, daily experience.

We are headed for Haast Pass and three other locations in that vicinity. In the rain.

7:50. So after going the wrong way a time or two, ignoring the GPS, I finally have us headed south. There are lots of blackbirds out this wet morning. They must love this rain. Fifteen minutes later we cross over Roaring Swine Creek, then Full Bluff, then Half Bluff and finally Chink Creek. Some creeks have English names and some have Maori names.

It's 8:22 and we still have not reached what's called the Gates of Haast. We don't know what this means, but we're going to find out in the next few minutes. It has almost totally quit raining, and I think it's my imagination, but Sharon points out also, that the ground looks dry.

A few minutes ago, we crossed Pleasant Flats Bridge. We stop now and Sharon reads that our first stop, for today's target bird, will be at Thunder Falls, then next at a trail at the Gates of Haast. We're finally starting to increase altitude, and suddenly here we are. We learn that the Gates of Haast refers to the narrowing of the river, and the tumbling of the water over the huge boulders, far, far below the bridge.

I pull over and we check the little trail. It takes off just short of the beginning of the bridge, but there are a few problems. It's raining, the trail looks very narrow, very steep, muddy, slippery, two signs say "Track Damage, proceed with Caution," and if you DO slip, you're going to find out first hand about the Gates of Haast the hard way. We walk out onto the bridge to look down on the Gates. The downstream side is impressive, with the water cascading and crashing onto huge boulders. We are perhaps 50-70 feet above the rocks and water.

I just remembered something I saw about a kilometer before we got here. The thing I called a cattle guard in Missouri is called a cattle stop here. Anyway, there was one that went exactly halfway across the highway. I guess it was because they wanted to stop cattle from coming up the hill, but it was OK for them to go down. Nice little mystery there.

We play our Minidisc bird calls and get Tomtit and Grey Warbler. A bird comes in which Sharon sees for just a second, before it disappears. She thought its back looked a little like a sparrow, and it may have been a female Rifleman, but she's not sure, I never saw it, and we don't even think of counting it. We are rolling again and all the rest of the cattle stops go all the way across the road.

9:07 and we stop at Fantail Falls. We take the two-minute walk to the falls, but get nothing. Fifteen minutes later and we are on Haast Pass, ready to walk the Bridle Trail. I turn around and look back the way we come, noting the town and distance sign, remembering something about each entry on the sign. Then we are off.

Just one minute onto the trail, Sharon says, "Check this bird. I'm sure it's a Rifleman. And there's the female." I can't get on them, but then I get the male *RIFLEMAN for about ten seconds, as he works his way up the tree, just as advertised. Then the birds are gone.

We continue the track walk. About a hundred yards in, we hear a squawk, Sharon looks up, scans a little and picks up a green ball. She's sure it's a parakeet. I play the disc of the Long-tailed Cuckoo, which this bird is supposed to mob, and Sharon gets it when it swivels its head to look. Then she plays the call while I look. It's a pair of *YELLOW-CROWNED PARAKEETS, one of the more regular "bush" birds.

We walk the trail a while, but don't get any more new birds. Sharon notices this cool purple mushroom, amidst the regular brown leaves on the forest floor.

At 12:40 PM, we leave Lake Wanaka, cutting over a bit of land, headed for Lake Hawea. Here we stop for lunch in this little Tea room. I have steak and mushroom pie, which is delicious. Sharon has a scone, vegetable soup and tea, of course. I buy a package of candy-coated chocolate, but the center is a hard peppermint candy. Pretty weird. I decide the way to eat them is first, pretend it's an M&M peanut. Just let it melt in your mouth till the candy shell and chocolate are gone. But instead of eating the peanut center, throw away the peppermint center. Sharon is disgusted at me spitting out the centers, but bears up nicely.

12:50. Just a few minutes ago we came over the pass, and it was sort of cloudy and overcast. Then boom, we came into bright sunlight and brown grass. At 1 PM, we are dropping down, down to the level of the lake. We see lots of green pine trees and the first indication of the drought in this area -- a huge rainbird. An hour later, we pass through Cardrona, which said "Alpine Resort." It's really dry here, and reminds us of driving Panoche Road, off of Highway 5.

We come down this unbelievably steep, windy road, slightly scary, making me wish I had taken the long way instead of this short cut.

There is a creek on the left and the sky is very blue. We're down now, almost to the valley floor. We turn a corner, and there are maybe 80 to 100 juvenile elk in a tightly bunched, oval-shaped herd. There is one large male who is doing the herding, and one little tiny one in the mix. We are just a couple of kilometers short of Queenstown, but we turn before we get there, headed for Te Anou, if we can drive four more hours.

After driving a while, we come to a town where there are lots and lots of tall trees, and they are mostly golden orange and yellow, dropping leaves with the smallest breeze. I get out and walk over to one. Hey, this is just like autumn! I get back into the motorhome, and just as we turn the corner, I have to pull over for one more photo -- of the attraction Puzzling World. Sharon has read that this place is famous for its maze (no big deal there, I'm sure you've heard about big mazes that people pay to get into, then find their way out), but this is a three-dimensional one! Continuing on, there are giant rolls of hay sit in the hayfields, and a sign says "Welcome to Frankton." This is where we turn south. There are sheep on the right and Paradise Shelducks on the left

Thinking back to lunch, I bought a can of Fresh Up apple juice to drink at the time. On the side it said something like, "You may have seen two guys on TV playing on a golf course. They would hit the ball, then run like crazy. This is a new game called Speed Golf. You add your golf score to your time it takes to play a round. Then it said that the game is played with more refinements in the U.S. and to go to for more information.

4:08 and we've got a bird flying over really fast, with fast wingbeats. It's gone in a blink, and we discuss whether it was a falcon or not. We finally put it firmly in the category of "I don't know."

4:37 PM and we're in Te Anau. We pull into the Holiday Park, noting the two English Sparrows in front of us. I set the parking brake, and we check in. Long, long day but it feels very good to be here at the Te Anau Holiday Park. It's one of the best parks we've been in, and after checking in, and being assigned a great site which overlooks Lake Te Anau, we settle in.

We're both dead tired, but Sharon tries the laundry anyway. At first, all the machines are taken, but finally one of the washers opens up. She follows the directions, and they are so normal, that you already know what they say. Anyway, after sliding the two-dollar coin in, the light "In Use" comes on but nothing happens.

She reports this, and I walk down to check after about five minutes. She's right, no water, no sound, nothing. I go to check-in and the extremely friendly fellow Reese says he'll meet me up there in just a minute. I go up to wait, and when he arrives, he lifts the lid, and HUH? the machine is full of water.

Here are the new things I learned. First, the water fills from the bottom, not the top. Second, it's completely silent -- there are not water flow sounds. And third, all that takes about ten or twelve minutes to happen. So if you have a big load, you won't even see water for ten minutes or so. Reese says, "You just have to wait a little, sometimes."

Minutes later, we get a nice little sunset.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds:
Today: 2. Rifleman, Yellow-crowned Parakeet.
For the Trip: 64.

Trip Birds:
Today: 2. The 2 lifers.
For the Trip: 88.

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