Baby Fur Seals and Other Animals

Fur Seal by Lucie Simpson

While I’m off travelling the world, my little sister’s having her own adventure in the South Island. She’s studying wildlife conservation, which, for a girl who’s been obsessed with animals since infancy, is a dream come true. Here are some of the photographs she’s taken of the animals she’s encountered. These first few are New Zealand fur seal pups. Credit, obviously, to Lucie Simpson.

Fur Seal by Lucie Simpson

Fur Seal by Lucie Simpson

Fur Seals by Lucie Simpson

Fur Seals by Lucie Simpson

Fur Seal by Lucie Simpson

How gorgeous are they? Now for some kea.

Kea by Lucie Simpson

Kea by Lucie Simpson

Kea by Lucie Simpson

Wait… is this one a takahe or a pukeko? (Lucie will not be impressed I had to ask.)

Okay, one last one…

Oh, South Island, stop being so gorgeous.

The Goblin Forest

POMS AWAY!

Before I went to Hogwarts, I spent my childhood exploring Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood. A few weeks ago, on the slopes of Taranaki, I felt like I’d returned.

Taranaki is a dormant volcano on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. When the clouds clear, it’s truly spectacular to behold. I went there with my family this summer – my mum, my dad and my grandpa, who’s visiting us from England. We didn’t want to actually climb the volcano, also known as Mount Egmont, but we drove up to the visitor centre to look around.

Though we were standing right below the peak, it was completely invisible, shrouded by stubborn clouds. Disappointed, we entered the building to see if there were any short, easy walks we could do. There were plenty to choose from, of course, and there were many mentions of a ‘goblin forest’ – apparently the bush…

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The Cave at the Edge of Reality

Waitomo Glowworms

It wasn’t raining, but it had been. The air was as grey as the carpark behind us. Before us, the path disappeared into the moist, black trees. Everyone we’d met in Waitomo had told us to do this, so here we were. At dusk. In winter. Entering the bush at such a time went against everything we’d been taught about staying safe.

“It’ll be fine,” I said, turning my head torch on. “It’s a popular walk in a thickly touristed area. It’s bound to be well signposted.”

Waitomo CavesI must admit, I felt a shiver of excitement as we started down the path. We weren’t doing anything forbidden, but the hairs on the back of my neck strained against the darkness. I jumped at the shadow of a man that turned out to be a wooden post; again at the shadow of a snake that turned out to be a branch.

New Zealand doesn’t even have any snakes. I knew that. It must have been one of those deeply ingrained ancestral instincts…

“Tim?” I asked, just checking he was still near.

He was.

It was probably different in summer. In summer, the path was probably teeming with tourists and their torches. But in winter, the only sound was the river, amplified by the night.

The river was barely visible, even when I shone my torch directly onto its frothing water. It was like the silvery, gossamer ghost of a river.

Waitomo CavesSo far, we hadn’t seen any glowworms. Seeing glowworms was the whole point of this walk. It was why everyone had told us to do it at dusk. I used my torch as sparingly as possible, trying to get my eyes to adjust.

Through the black branches above us, the grey sky seemed like pieces of a shattered mirror. Gradually, they lost their lustre. Electric blue pinpricks began to appear in the fabric of the night. Then the path turned and rose. It was bordered on one side by a towering wall of earth that had, apparently, been festooned with blue fairy lights. They could have been leading the way up to a Christmas grotto.

As we climbed the slope, I leaned in to look at them. They were indeed worms, so tiny that Tim couldn’t make them out, but I saw one or two moving. They pulsated grossly, sliding amongst their silken hammocks. Many droplet-adorned threads dangled like beaded curtains, as though each glowworm was a fortune teller in a gaudy tent, crouched over a blue crystal ball.

I tried to get a decent photo. Tried.

Waitomo Caves Glowworms

We passed a few small caves before the path turned into a tunnel. A tunnel which was barely wide or high enough to walk through. A tunnel which, I slowly realised, was crawling with F**KING ENORMOUS TUNNELWEB SPIDERS. They were everywhere, either side of me and above my head! I hunched my shoulders and pressed my arms into my body, trying desperately not to scrape the walls, or touch a web with my face or hair.

“One question,” said Tim, turning to look at me in the tunnel. “Where’s Shelob?”

I laughed, but a certain piece of music started playing ominously in my head.

Lucky I’m not a true arachnophobe, I thought. When I write about this walk, I’ll include a warning.

We emerged from the tunnel with no arachnid-based incidents to report, onto a boardwalk. I think there was water below, but it was too dark to tell. I turned off my head torch and suddenly we were floating in space, surrounded by blue stars.

Waitomo CavesI hated to turn the torch back on, but it would have been dangerous not to. The stars disappeared, replaced by rocks and earth and ragged foliage. We made our way down some slimy, wooden steps and were soon at the mouth of a large cave. More steps wound down into it, into the stalagmites and stalactites and shimmering curtains of stone. Some of the stalagmites looked like big, dribbling candles, except they were growing up from the ground, rather than melting. Others looked like dildoes.

The steps ended on a platform overlooking an immense cavern. This was the end of the walk.

“Abby,” said Tim. “Turn your torch off.”

I did. Blue stars materialised on the roof, densely packed as though forming a celestial pathway. I wanted nothing more than to follow the pathway as it curved around a corner into the unknown, but, you know, I would’ve fallen to my death. I felt like I was standing at the very edge of reality. My heart was filled with the universe…

Waitomo CavesThen Tim kissed me.

In life, very few moments are as perfect as they are in stories. This moment was.

So, cheesiness aside, the Ruakuri Walk is well worth doing when you’re in Waitomo Caves – and make sure you do it in the dark. (And take torches.) It only takes an hour and it’s free. If you’re scared of spiders, however, be warned: it will take you a great deal of mental fortitude to make it all the way!

Our First Year in New Zealand

I’ve been going through Dad’s old photographs, watching my sister and I grow up. The photos from 2001, our first year in New Zealand, brought back so many memories: places I’d forgotten we’d visited. I thought I’d share them with you now.

I was ten years old when we moved to New Zealand; my sister was seven. Dad emigrated six months before us, so when we finally arrived with Mum, he was bursting to show us the places he’d discovered. He couldn’t even wait for us to get over our jetlag!

It was the middle of winter, but the weather was still nice. Dad immediately took us to buy wetsuits and surfboards. I’d never been surfing before, as we’d lived nowhere near a beach in England, but I took to it at once. It was like riding a rollercoaster!

My sister enjoyed it too, at least until we realised her lips had gone blue! Maybe surfing in winter hadn’t been such a good idea after all. My sister had already thrown up in the local newsagent’s after OD’ing on kiwifruit, the first time we walked into town. She can’t stand kiwifruit to this day.

Despite the rocky start, and the frankly comical number of accidental injuries she gave herself that first year, my sister thrived in New Zealand. She’s a true nature-lover, so New Zealand is the perfect place for her. She’s currently down in the South Island studying wildlife conservation.

I, on the other hand, didn’t thrive. I missed England too much. I still managed to have fun, though, whether playing at Kariotahi Beach,

Kariotahi Beach

crawling through lava caves on the island volcano of Rangitoto,

Rangitoto

or pretending to be Merlin at the Waikato Museum.

Waikato Museum

We visited Auckland Zoo a lot,

Feeding Giraffe at Auckland Zoo

saw many of New Zealand’s North Island waterfalls,

Hunua Falls

had a ride on the Glenbrook Vintage Railway,

Glenbrook Vintage Railway

and found this old plane that someone had converted into a garage somewhere out in the wop-wops.

We went to Cathedral Cove,

Cathedral Cove

the Auckland Domain,

Auckland Domain

the Hamilton Gardens,

Hamilton Gardens

and so many other places – I’m not going to list them all. But I will mention Muriwai Beach so I can show you this picture Dad took.

Muriwai Gannet

It sure was an action-packed first year in New Zealand!

Finally, here’s a picture I found of our first Christmas in New Zealand.

It’s me and my sister jumping on our new trampoline. You couldn’t do that on Christmas Day in England!

Cute Animals and Hay Fever

Ducklings

“That’s how we know it’s spring,” Tim said as I tried not to sneeze on a duckling. “Cute animals and hay fever.”

I backed away, drawing out one of my carefully rationed tissues. Pollen filled the air like fairy dust, glistening as it swirled around the trees at the Taitua Arboretum. To be fair it wasn’t just hay fever – I was (and still am) fighting off a bad cold.

We were at the arboretum because my parents were visiting. We’d been before, but until now we’d never seen it bathed in sunlight. It was a little bit magical.

arboretum

Fluffy, yellow chicks flurried about in the undergrowth. (We couldn’t believe how many chickens there were, actually!) Fantails flitted coquettishly along the branches. Tui serenaded us from above, ducklings begged us for food, and geese drifted towards us. (Tim has a history with geese; perhaps they sensed this as they drifted away again quite quickly.)

fantail2

I felt like a mucus-laden Disney princess. We even found fairy doors on a couple of tree trunks.

doorintrunk

The most magical sight, however, was this.

sunonwater

The photograph doesn’t really capture it, of course: the golden beams of sunlight filtering through the branches; the branches bowing to kiss the surface of the pond; floating leaves forming an illuminated path to the far bank, upon which sits a bench in a sheltered clearing… All rather inviting.

stonecircle

The Taitua Arboretum is a lovely, peaceful place to go for a walk that I imagine would be great for kids. I look forward to visiting it next season. Hopefully I’ll be able to breathe properly then!

Another Reason to Visit Hamilton

Sumatran Tiger Hamilton Zoo New Zealand
Brown Capuchin Monkey Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Brown Capuchin Monkeys

Hamilton Zoo is a lot more than it first appears. It may not be as grand as Auckland Zoo, but it is certainly as good. Many say better. I went with my parents and boyfriend last weekend, and we found it more pleasant to walk around than Auckland Zoo. More intimate; more trees shading the paths.

Chimpanzee Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Chimpanzee

Auckland Zoo has more animals than Hamilton Zoo, but Hamilton Zoo is almost twice as large as Auckland Zoo in terms of land area. In fact it feels deceptively large. Entry into Hamilton Zoo costs $22, which is an absolute bargain, and it’s wonderful to see the animals in such massive enclosures.

Sumatran Tigers Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Sumatran Tigers – aww!

The Sumatran tiger exhibit was especially impressive. When we arrived, three of the tigers were sleeping all snuggled up together. It was a mother and two cubs, although the cubs were a year old and didn’t look like babies anymore! I spent a long time ‘awwing’ at them, but was soon reminded that tigers aren’t always so cute.

Ostrich Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Ostrich

One of the other tigers looked like it was actually trying to stalk the keepers that had come to feed them! The keepers were safe on the other side of the fence, of course, but it was only a few months ago that one of the Hamilton Zoo keepers was mauled to death by one of the tigers.

Cheetah Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Cheetah

Thankfully, the tiger in question wasn’t euthanized. It was just being a tiger.

Hamilton Zoo doesn’t have any lions, but it does have some rather majestic cheetahs.

Giraffes Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Giraffes

It also has giraffes, rhinos, monkeys, meerkats, red pandas, chimpanzees and an array of other creatures, including native New Zealand birds and reptiles.

Hamilton Zoo has the largest free flight aviary in New Zealand, complete with pond and waterfall.

The meerkats were adorable. One of them seemed intent on digging a tunnel to Spain, (Spain being the antipode of New Zealand,) and was already well on its way.

Meerkat Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Meerkat

The giraffes were spectacular, but their limelight was stolen by the rutting blackbucks that shared their enclosure, almost beneath their notice.

Rutting Blackbucks Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Blackbucks

The kea were amusing – as if one could expect anything else. They are, after all, New Zealand’s funniest birds. One of them was playing dead right next to the fence. Very convincing. It even had a wing cocked at an odd angle!

Kea Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Kea

And no, it wasn’t actually dead. It realised we were onto it and shook its head in annoyance. Apparently, it pretends to be dead a lot. Maybe it’s part of an elaborate escape plan.

All in all, we were walking around the zoo for three hours. We needed all day, really. We only just got round everything before the place closed, and we could have spent so much longer with many of the animals. I definitely want to go again at some point.

The gift shop and the café are nothing special, but there’s a playground and some okay picnic areas. The main focus is on the animals, which is as it should be.

Sleeping Peacock Hamilton Zoo New Zealand

Peacock

The Problem with Possums

Welcome to New Zealand, where killing small, furry animals is a sign of patriotism! Especially possums. Possums are evil, habitat-destroying, bird-eating, Australian bastards. If you see a possum on the road, you run the little f***er over. If you see one in the bush, you get your gun and you turn it into nipple warmers.

Possum fur nipple warmers are a big thing in New Zealand. They’re in all the souvenir shops, along with possum fur scarves and gloves and the like. My little sister bought a cuddly possum made with real possum fur. (Not just a stuffed possum – that would be creepy, even for her.) She used to love stroking it.

Possum fur is unbelievably soft. I had a friend who’d go out hunting possums with his dad, and they used to get quite a bit of money from the fur. The trick, he told me, was to pull it all off whilst the body was still warm. They’d get bags of it. He asked me if I wanted to come along once. I declined. Not that I’m against hunting possums. If there’s such a thing as ethical fur, it’s possum fur.

possum-246778_640Possums really are a menace to New Zealand’s native flora and fauna. Some European idiots brought them over from Australia in 1837, to establish a fur trade, and they quickly multiplied at the expense of the existing creatures. Not only do they eat the leaves, buds, fruit and bark of trees, decimating canopies and depriving endangered birds of food, they eat the eggs and chicks of those birds too.

New Zealand’s native birds evolved in an environment devoid of mammals. (The only native New Zealand land mammals are bats.) The introduction of possums and other mammals such as rats, stoats, dogs and cats was something they simply weren’t equipped to deal with. Possums have been seen actually flushing kiwi birds out of their burrows in order to feast on the contents of their nests.

It’s no wonder they’re so hated. In New Zealand, small, furry animals are bad; small, feathery animals are good. Still, the national enthusiasm for running possums over is one of the things that shocked me when I first arrived here, aged ten. I remember shaking my head, incredulous at the sheer number of flattened possums on the road into our town. People actually swerve to hit them.

possum

The flattened possum with a tyre track across it is one of the many symbols of New Zealand. I have met one Kiwi, though, who couldn’t understand the possum-hate. (I’m talking about the human inhabitants of New Zealand now, not the iconic birds.) She was an old cat lady, only one of her cats… wasn’t a cat.

Now she was a lovely lady, and I fully walked into the conversation about all the cats she’d ever owned, having fully accepted the fact that I am, myself, a crazy cat lady and destined to die surrounded by them. I don’t think I’ll ever cover my entire lounge in pictures of them, however. I don’t think I’ll ever have cat cushions and cat throws and cat tea trays. It was like a cat cyclone!

The walls and mantelpiece were covered in pictures of long-dead cats and, as I sat stroking a live one, I noticed that one of the pictures was different. I had to ask her if it was real. Oh yes, she said, it was real. It had even appeared in the local paper back in – I think – the 1970’s. I asked if I could take a photo of the photo. She was happy to let me and this is that photo:

Pet Possum

Just in case you don’t believe your eyes, that is a possum sitting in a highchair with a bib around its neck, eating its food from a bowl with a spoon like a human. She trained it to do that. It would sit on the couch like a human, too, when it wasn’t curled up on her lap like a cat. They make fantastic pets, she told me. She simply couldn’t see why people wanted to kill them.

Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten most of the details of the story, (I know – I should have written it down at the time!) but there’s one detail I’ll remember ’til I die: she castrated the possum herself. She sat him down on her lap, lulled him into a false sense of security and snap went the rubber band. At first he was too shocked to do anything, but then he began to shake and whimper.

I laughed in sympathy as the old woman did her impression of the traumatised possum. I wish I could do it for you now. Apparently, he didn’t run away; just sat there shaking and whimpering for a very long time. Imagine the awful, confused sense of betrayal he must have felt! He was completely fine afterwards, though.

I googled “pet possum New Zealand” earlier, but couldn’t find any trace of this woman’s story – it must be too old. Most of the results seemed to be along the lines of using possums as pet food. I did find this cute story, though: http://www.3news.co.nz/nznews/its-possible-to-love-a-possum-2015052518#axzz3mLKGmyXD… and this, uh, not so cute one:

I don’t know – is getting a load of children to dress up a series of dead possums really that bad? Is it any worse than turning them into pet food, nipple warmers and cuddly toy versions of themselves? Possums have been demonised in New Zealand, but for good reason. They’re not just pests; they threaten the very survival of what makes New Zealand environmentally unique.

Yet it’s not their fault.

Read: Fantastic New Zealand Beasts and Where to Find Them