New Zealand Grand Tour — 2023

New Zealand Grand Tour — 2023

From Auckland to Stewart Island and back in 18 days

I had wanted to go to New Zealand for some time and when Speyside put on this holiday in 2020, I was keen to take the opportunity and signed up. Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic forced the trip to be postponed several times and it was only when New Zealand lifted their remaining restrictions that we could go. By this time my friend Carol had decided to come with me as she wanted to do one final big trip before she turned 80.

The tour leader was Roy Atkins, who I had travelled with several times before. The local guide was Mark Hanger from Nature Quest, who also drove the bus.  

Day 1 — Thur Jan 26

We arrived in Auckland feeling rather the worse for wear after a very long flight via Dubai. However, it was a lovely sunny day and we set off for a picnic lunch near Muriwai Beach on the west coast. To our delight, there was a rather obliging Barbary Dove sitting in a tree next to our picnic table.  After lunch, we visited the Muriwai Gannet Colony where there were boardwalks and viewing platforms that allowed us to get close to the gannets.  We had to tear ourselves away to go on to Whangaparāoa, on the east coast, where we were staying for the next two nights.

Day 2 — Fri Jan 27

When we woke, it was raining and the forecast for the day was not good. Our plans had to be changed as boats to Tiri Tiri Martangi were not running. Instead, we were to visit a couple of nature reserves.  However, before that, we had to stop at Warksworth where our leader, Roy, had to be checked out at the medical centre. We went to the Tawharanui Peninsula, where we saw some Brown Teal, and then to the Tawharanui Marine Reserve where we had lunch on the bus and went for a walk. By now there was a strong wind and the rain was coming at us horizontally; I was very quickly soaked through. Carol and I soon turned back, though the others continued on towards the beach. I had only just started to dry out by the time we reached our next stop. We hoped to see Fairy Terns there but there were none and I was now even wetter than before.

This was more than just a wet day. On the way back, we came across several landslides and flooding, causing delays. Shortly after we returned to our hotel, we heard that many roads had been closed, as had the airport.

Day 3 — Sat Jan 28

I woke, with flu-like symptoms, to another horribly wet and windy morning. After breakfast and medicine, we set off south to Rotorua. Our first stop was the Miranda Shorebird Centre at Pūkorokoro and then we drove to a beach where we enjoyed watching flocks of cute little Wrybills. We walked down to some hides where, to our surprise, a Grey-faced Petrel, came swooping down and nearly hit one of us. Roy was very excited. We had lunch back at the centre before setting off to Sulphur Point on Lake Rotorua. You could certainly smell the sulphur, but there were lots of birds on the lake.  A final stop, before reaching our hotel in Rotorua, was at the Waiotapu Mud Pools.

Day 4 — Sun Jan 29

After a restless night and an early breakfast, I dosed myself up and we set off for a walk in a forest at Kaharoa.  The weather was still quite horrible to start with but it had mostly stopped raining by the time we arrived at the forest path.  There were few birds to be seen but the forest was beautiful, with lots of tall, ancient podocarps and tree ferns: quite different to our forests in Britain.

New Zealand has 15 podocarp tree species belonging to the coniferous families Podocarpaceae (13 species), Phyllocladaceae (3 species). The best known are rimu, kahikatea, miro, mataī and tōtara. In its natural state, a podocarp forest can be lush with a dense undergrowth of shrubs, ferns and tree-ferns.

New Zealand Department of Conservation

We drove on to Pureora Forest Park where we had lunch and then another walk. We had a long way to drive but unfortunately I missed much of the landscape because I dozed through most of it. I was still not feeling well.  We stopped at a few river crossings looking for Blue Ducks before arriving at our overnight stay in the Tongariro National Park. It was a lovely spot with a distant view of a volcano from our room.

Day 5 — Mon Jan 30

The group got up early to look for the Blue Duck but I was still ill so Carol and I stayed behind. The group did manage to find one but got wet feet in the process, so it was probably just as well that we didn’t join them.  We had a long drive to get to Paraparamu where we had lunch before catching the boat to Kapiti Island. We had to leave the bus behind as there is no motor transport allowed on the island.

At Kapiti Island we were given refreshments and a Maori welcome speech by Wayne, a member of the Iwi tribe who own the part of the island where we were staying. The accommodation was either in tents or cabins; we had a cabin. After dropping off our luggage we were given a tour of the island. There were lots of Bellbirds and Tuis about and in the forest we found Whiteheads, one of the target birds, as well as Fantail, Silvereye, Saddleback and Red-crowned Parakeets. After our walk and a short rest, we gathered for cheese and wine on the terrace of the lodge. We were quickly joined by a Kaka that tried, unsuccessfully, to steal Carol’s bit of cheese. After a lovely evening meal, I retired to my bed while the rest of the group went off in search of Little Spotted Kiwis. One was eventually seen by half the group.

Day 6 — Tue Jan 31

I woke early the next morning to a glorious sunrise. As I was sitting outside our cabin a couple of large Takahes walked past.  These are large, flightless swamphens, found only in New Zealand. After breakfast, we found them again down the path to the beach and we all went to take some photos.  They were really tame and didn’t seem bothered by us at all.

Back on the mainland, our first stop was Wellington where we visited Zealandia, a small fenced-in nature reserve.  As we walked through the reserve, we saw a Tuatara sunning itself.  This is a rare reptile found only in New Zealand and they are the last survivors of an order of reptiles that thrived in the age of the dinosaurs. As we walked further, we came across two more of these fascinating creatures. Our target bird here was the Stitchbird and we found a pair in a clearing with some feeders.

We had lunch in the botanical garden before catching the ferry to South Island. The journey took a while but was comfortable and the scenery was lovely.  We stayed the night in Picton.

Day 7 — Wed Feb 1

In the morning we had a boat trip into Marlborough Sound. We saw some Spotted Shags with a couple of lovely King Shags in amongst them. A little further on we found a pod of Hector’s Dolphins. These are the world’s rarest dolphin, tiny with a rounded fin, not easy to see. We then saw two more pods: so about 15 dolphins in total. They came in close to investigate us. What a treat. We went ashore on a small island where we soon spotted the Orange-fronted Parakeet, another target bird, up in the tree canopy.  Back on the boat, we were given some hot chocolate and biscuits as well as some local wine for those who wanted it.

After a break, we had lunch at a viewpoint overlooking the harbour, where Clare, one of Mark’s guides, joined us to help with the driving.  Stopping along the way for some birdwatching, we drove on to Kaikoura where we stayed for the next two nights.

Day 8 — Thur Feb 2

After breakfast, we were off for a boat trip with the Albatross Boat Company.  It was quite windy and the sea was so rough that a couple of the party needed buckets. The captain threw a feeding cage overboard and we were soon surrounded by birds, including several species of albatross. It was fascinating to watch them all. The sea had become rougher and the afternoon’s whale-watching trip had to be cancelled. With the afternoon free, Carol and I retreated to our room as Carol was tired and I was still not feeling well.

Day 9 — Fri Feb 3

Clare had to leave us to help out another of Mark’s groups as their driver had come down with Covid. The day was spent being driven over to the west coast across Canterbury Plain and over Arthur’s Pass, making several stops along the way. One stop was at St Anne’s Lagoon and another was at Arthur’s Pass Village where we spotted our first Kea flying over. Our hotel in Hokitika had a good view of the sea.

Day 10 — Sat Feb 4

We had a more relaxed start to the day but the weather wasn’t great. Our first stop was a lovely forest walk near Lake Kaniere where we saw some beautiful tree ferns. We also saw a bright red fungus of the Hygrocybe species; this was probably Red waxgill, Hygrocybe rubrocarnosa, as was featured on a 40c New Zealand stamp from 2002. It had been raining quite hard but as we headed back towards the coast it started to ease off and Mark thought it might be fun to try a nearby treetop walk. This was a great idea. It was fascinating to see the trees from above and get eye-level views of some of the birds. We also spotted some lovely tree orchids and there were, what looked like, some interesting lichenised fungi.  As the weather had improved, we had lunch on some benches outside the walkway centre.

Our next stop on our way down the coast was Okarito. Here we had a walk along some boardwalks over a marshy area looking for Fernbirds. We eventually found them and managed to get some good views. We drove on up into the mountains to Franz Josef, our overnight stay. After dinner at the Alice May Restaurant, we went off kiwi spotting. It was raining heavily again and we stayed in the bus while a local guide went off to try to find the kiwis. After two hours we gave up.

Day 11 — Sun Feb 5

After a nice breakfast at Mark’s self-catering apartment, we set off early to try and avoid potential road closures on the next stretch due to the heavy rain. We had coffee at Haast before turning inland again. After a brief stop to admire Thunder Creek Waterfall, we crossed over the Haast Pass, stopping for lunch at a roadside cafe. By the time we had reached Twizel, our stop for the next two nights, the weather started to improve and we had a chance to do a bit more birding before dinner.

Day 12 — Mon Feb 6

The weather was pretty good as we set off in search of the Black Stilt, a very rare endemic species only found here.  As we drove up along Lake Pukaki admiring the scenery, one of the rear tyres on the bus blew out but, as the bus had double wheels, we were able to continue. We stopped at a nature reserve near a small aerodrome at Glentanner. The gate was locked so we had to crawl under the barbed wire fence to get in. There was lots of water running into a lake and we walked down a track beside one of the streams. Mark spotted two Black Stilts in the distance. They were a bit too far away to get good views but Mark and two of the party waded across a couple of fast-flowing channels to get closer. They were able to take some cracking photos. As we drove back along the Lake Pukaki, the flat tyre made a lot of noise as it started to shred. The garage was closed as it was a bank holiday so the tyre could not be replaced until the next morning. This left us with a free afternoon after lunch at a lovely place on the lake with views of Mount Cook in the distance.

Day 13 — Tue Feb 7

We had quite a long drive south to Invergill for the ferry to Stewart Island. After we had gone over Lindis Pass we stopped and had a delicious ice cream at a small place by the main road.  We made a slight detour up a small track towards the Kopuwai Conservation area looking for the New Zealand Pipit. We only caught a brief glimpse of the pipit but the views were amazing and well worth the detour. By the time we got to the ferry, the wind was quite strong and the crossing was quite rough. We had to leave the bus behind in Invercargill but were picked up from the ferry terminal in Oban by the owners of the cabins in which we were staying for the next two nights.

As we were having dinner at the only pub in town, in walked Paul and Shirley Graber.  We had known they were going to be there at the same time as us and it was lovely to catch up with them. After dinner, we went Kiwi spotting up on the air strips above town with a local guide. This was our last chance to see them and we were lucky to find several, including two juveniles playing together. What a treat.

Day 14 — Wed Feb 8

In the morning we had a boat trip to Ulva looking for albatrosses. Paul and Shirley were on the same boat but Carol was not feeling well, so stayed behind in our cabin.  We hadn’t gone far before we saw a small group of slightly scruffy Fiordland Crested Penguins huddled together in the entrance to a small cave; they had started their moult. A bit further on, we saw two more that still looked splendid.  When we arrived on Ulva, the group had lunch on the beach before taking a water taxi to the far side of Oban. I went back to the main harbour of Oban with Paul and Shirley and then back to our cabin with lunch for Carol and I. The weather was bad, with intermittent hail, but we were cosy inside, having found the heaters.

Day 15 — Thur Feb 9

The crossing back to the mainland was much better than the journey out and we stopped for a second breakfast at a cafe in Invercargill while Mark had a new tyre put on the bus. Well-fed, we set off for Te Anau where we spent the next two nights.  After settling into our hotel, we headed out through Fiordland National Park and on to Upper Eglington.  We stopped at a couple of places for a walk and, at Lake Gunn, we saw a Shiny Cuckoo being fed by a Grey Warbler.

Day 16 — Fri Feb 10

Carol was feeling quite poorly in the morning and we took her to the local medical centre where she was given some antibiotics for her chest infection. She decided to stay behind in our room to rest while the rest of us set off for Milford Sound. We stopped at Lake Gunn for a short walk and then had a brief stop at a good viewpoint. We stopped just before the entrance to Homer tunnel to look for Rock Wrens amongst the boulders. 

Alas, despite spending quite a while, we didn’t find any Rock Wrens so we continued through the tunnel to another viewpoint on the other side, where we had lunch. There were some lovely butterflies amongst the flowers but the stars of the place were two rather friendly Keas that wanted to get onto our bus.

When we reached Milford Sound, we didn’t have long to wait before our boat came in and we could board for our trip up the fiord. The scenery was wonderful with tall mountains and lots of waterfalls.

Day 17 — Sat Feb 11

This was our last proper day and we set off for Dunedin making a few brief stops on the way.  We had lunch in a park near the university and then went on to the Penguin Hospital and Sanctuary at Harington Point where we looked at some of the penguins that were being looked after. We then went by bus over to their reserve area where there were long stretches of tunnels to walk through so as not to disturb the wildlife.  We managed to see two Yellow-eyed Penguins sitting in the shade of a tree but quite a distance away.

Our final outing was another boat trip to see the nesting Northern Royal Albatrosses on the Taiaroa Headland. There were also plenty of other birds and we also saw a snoozing New Zealand Sea Lion deep in the sand on a beach. There was also another Little Blue Penguin.

Day 18 — Sun Feb 12

Mark took us to the airport where he left us for our flight back to Auckland. We had a rather long wait in Auckland for our flights home so we had plenty of time to do the trip round-up while we waited. We were also watching the flight boards carefully as they had begun cancelling flights due to the approaching cyclone. Luckily, ours went ahead.

The End

I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time and it was rather disappointing that I caught flu almost straight away.  That and the appalling weather meant I didn’t really manage to make the most of this whirlwind trip and I have to admit that a lot of it was a bit of a blur.  Mark was a great guide. He kept us amused on the bus and was generally very helpful as well as extremely knowledgeable about the fauna, flora and history of New Zealand. It was certainly an interesting trip and my fellow travellers were a good bunch. Roy was a great leader, as usual, and he was invaluable in helping Carol and I through the various airport checks and onto the planes.

It’s a shame New Zealand is so far away as I would love to visit again but in a more leisurely fashion, as did my friends Paul and Shirley.

All the photos were taken with my phone

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