New Zealand’s Funniest Bird

You’ve probably heard of the Kea. Endemic to the South Island of New Zealand, it’s the world’s only alpine parrot. It’s endearingly curious and devilishly intelligent. It gets up to all kinds of mischief, from knocking over coffee cups to breaking into tourists’ cars.

Seriously.

I heard a story about some people who had a rental car or campervan or something somewhere in the South Island, and when they got back to where they’d parked they found a group of kea happily playing inside the vehicle, having peeled the rubber from around the windscreen until it fell inwards. So, you know, if you hire a campervan in the South Island, that’s something to watch out for.

Even if they don’t break in, they can snap off windscreen wipers and radio antennae.

And don’t leave your backpack unattended around them.

???????????????????????????????When my family were on our South Island campervan holiday, we went to a café in Arthur’s Pass. We sat at a table outside and watched in amusement as the birds descended. There was a sign saying not to feed them, so we didn’t, but that didn’t stop them. My mum had an apple, and as she raised it to take a bite, one kea got onto the table and reached up to take a bite from the other side! We shooed it away – admittedly, not very emphatically – and chuckled as they investigated my dad’s empty coffee cup, knocking it over to get at the dregs.

At a neighbouring table, there was a family with a baby in a highchair. The kea were quite interested in the highchair, which freaked the baby out a bit, and they observed intently as the baby banged the tray up and down. When the family had gone, some of the birds climbed into the highchair and proceeded to bang the tray up and down for themselves!

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It was quite interested in my camera…

Also, across the road from the café, there was a pub with an open door. We saw one kea walk quite nonchalantly into the pub, right past a “No Kea” sign, only to be chivvied out a minute or so later. We noticed that all the bins in the area had lids that were weighted down.

Kea are excellent problem solvers. They may even be the most intelligent birds in the world. In some areas, they’ve been known to use sticks to set off stoat traps to get at the bait eggs inside.

They’ve been seen deliberately sliding down roofs for fun, deliberately dropping things from a height to see if they’d smash, untying bootlaces, stealing gloves and kicking a can to each other as though playing football.

Despite their fun-loving nature, kea do have a darker side: they swoop down and take bites out of live sheep.

To see these dangerously intelligent birds at work, just watch this David Attenborough video:

So make sure you watch out for kea when you’re in the South Island. They can make a delightful addition to your holiday – if they don’t trash your campervan and steal your passport, that is.

Our Campervan Tour of New Zealand’s South Island

When I was twelve years old, my parents decided to take the family on a special holiday: a campervan tour of New Zealand’s South Island. We had been living in New Zealand for over two years, having emigrated from Britain, but in the North Island. The South Island, as we were about to discover, is completely different. It is, in a word, magical.

I must admit, though, that I was not looking forward to sleeping in a campervan for two weeks. I was at that age when one especially prefers the privacy of their own bedroom, and I was bitterly disappointed that we could not afford to stay in a hotel every night, but that disappointment melted when we first climbed into our campervan at the depot in Christchurch. The whole thing suddenly became rather exciting.

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Lake Wanaka

The campervan we had was laid out similar to this one. My little sister immediately bagsed the double bed above the cabin, which you had to climb up a little ladder to get to and had its own curtain, so you could create a secret den for yourself. I was stuck sharing the double bed at the rear with my nana, but I was consoled by the fact that the bed was brought into being by transforming the dining table and the couches around it. It’s the small things that delight, isn’t it?

So, having arrived in Christchurch, we spent a couple of days exploring the city. Bear in mind that this was long before those terrible earthquakes devastated the central business district. If you wanted to follow in my footsteps that spiralled to the top of the cathedral tower, you would no longer be able to do so. Fortunately, what my family considered the best part of Christchurch – so much so that we went back there before returning the campervan at the end of our holiday – was relatively unaffected by the earthquakes: the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura

Cradled by the Avon River, the Christchurch Botanic Gardens are wonderfully tranquil. The twelve-year-old me thought that walking through them was like delving into a fantasy realm, crossing enchanted bridges and ducking under trees. They are the reason that Christchurch is nicknamed the Garden City. The best part is you can take a punt ride along the Avon River – it was one of the most relaxing things I can remember doing in my life. You can kayak along the river too, which I also did. It was a lot of fun – good for people who don’t want to kayak on rough seas – and, most importantly, I beat my dad and sister!

After Christchurch, Dad drove us in the campervan to Akaroa, a peaceful, French-influenced village on Banks Peninsula. This is one place I really want to go back to. It’s so romantic, full of old-fashioned cottages with beautiful front gardens, wine, cheese, craft shops and, best of all, dolphins. The Akaroa Harbour is only place in the world where you can swim with the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin, the incredibly cute Hector’s Dolphin.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Akaroa also had the best campervan park I can remember staying at: the Akaroa Top 10 Holiday Park. It was located on top of a hill with an amazing view over the sparkling harbour, and it had a pool and awesome playground for us kids. This was when I realised that campervans are better than hotels. You don’t have to unpack and repack all the time – with the exception of making sure things are secure for when you’re on the move – and you have the freedom to go wherever you want.

From now on, I’m just going to talk about the highlights of our holiday, as to describe the entire South Island would make for far too long an article.

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A Little Blue Penguin

There was the Little Blue Penguin colony at Oamaru: you can take evening tours where you see the world’s smallest and most adorable penguins waddling up the beach, having spent the day at sea, crossing right in front of you to return to their nests.

There was the Otago Peninsula, officially one of the most beautiful places in the world, right next to the city of Dunedin: as well as stunning views, serene walks and a castle, there’s the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross colony. Seeing the huge, fluffy, white chicks was fantastic.

The Otago Peninsula

The Otago Peninsula

There was Lake Wanaka, a gorgeous glacial lake with mountains in the background, which is brilliant for swimming in and not as cold as you’d think.

There was Franz Josef Glacier, which you can land on in a helicopter or climb on with ice axes or, if you don’t fancy an expensive tour, you can simply walk up to it like we did. It was truly awe-inspiring. If you want proof of that, I wrote a poem after seeing it.

The Shotover Jet

The Shotover Jet

Then there was Queenstown. Now Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand. A few days there can bleed you dry, but – my goodness – I loved it. We did a jet boat ride in the Shotover River canyons. We’d been jet boating before in a few locations around New Zealand, including Lake Taupo, but this was by far the most thrilling of them all. It was the most scenic as well, as it was where they filmed the River Anduin scenes in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – you know, the bit where they canoe past those giant statues?

The River Anduin wasn’t the only Lord of the Rings location we encountered on that holiday. We did a horse trek with the Glenorchy-based Dart Stables that passed through Lothlorien and along a ridge overlooking Isengard and the Wizard’s Vale. The horse I rode had actually been ridden by one of the Rohirrim. My mum was aching when we got back to the campervan that day, but I felt so alive.

The Wizard's Vale

The Wizard’s Vale

What was nice about having the campervan was we could have quick showers wherever we were. I mean we didn’t have to wait until we got back to a hotel, as the shower was in our car, as it were. This was most useful when we at beaches. The campervan was like our own private beach hut, somewhere to get changed right next to the sand, and somewhere to cook a meal too.

The Gates of Haast

The Gates of Haast

What wasn’t so nice about the campervan was waking up in the middle of the night whenever someone rolled over in their sleep, shaking the entire thing. It wasn’t nice being cooped up with a certain someone who snores like a dying wildebeest. It wasn’t nice using having to use the toilet after someone had just showered, as the toilet and the shower are in the same cubicle. But these, at least, are the only downsides I can think of.

All in all, that campervan tour of New Zealand’s South Island was the best holiday my family ever went on and I’d recommend New Zealand campervan hire any day.

Gandering at the Muriwai Gannet Colony

One of the first places I remember visiting in New Zealand was Muriwai Beach. It was just over twelve years ago, (although I’ve been back many times since,) and my mum, my little sister and I had just got off the plane, and my dad, (who had already been in New Zealand for six months,) was eager to show us all the wonderful sights our new home had to offer. The ten-year-old me was quite impressed with Muriwai. It had the luxuriously soft black sand that was still a novelty back then, (and still is, frankly,) but what made it special were the breathtaking views of its massive gannet colony.

Muriwai’s only a forty-minute drive from Auckland City, on the wild west coast. It’s a good surfing beach – I’ve done a bit of boogie boarding there myself – and there’s a campground right next to it, complete with powered sites for campervans. It’s also a good fishing beach, which is probably why the gannets like it too.

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The gannets can be seen from viewing platforms on the cliff above them. They really are beautiful birds. They’re streamlined like arrows with golden heads and electric blue eyes. And there are shedloads of them. It’s amazing to watch the couples dancing about their nests, taking it in turns to fly out to sea, dive into the waves and return to feed their chicks. Even if you’re not someone who likes bird watching, you’ll be entranced by this.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the blowhole. It’s rather exciting waiting for the water to spurt geyser-like up from the round hole in the flat platform of rock. I remember begging my mum to stay for “just one more big one” and wanting to get as close as I could to it. My parents were right to be cautious though – I don’t know how many people have fallen down it and died, but the most recent one was last year.

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If you’re travelling around New Zealand, Muriwai Beach is definitely a location for your must-see list. I recommend taking a warm jacket, as it’s really windy on the cliff where you watch the gannets and you’ll want to linger awhile. Writing about it now is making me want go there again. Well… summer is practically here – it was boiling today… and my boyfriend’s parents do live out west…

Our Day on the Otago Peninsula

If you ever find yourself in Dunedin, New Zealand, the absolute best thing you can do is hire a car and spend a day driving around the Otago Peninsula. This is what my boyfriend and I did a couple of weeks ago and we definitely want to go back, maybe stay a night in one of the many B&Bs – it would be so romantic. (As a point of interest, CNN named the Otago Peninsula as one of the ten most romantic places in the world to propose marriage.)

We picked the perfect day for it. There was barely a cloud in the sky, so the sea was a pristine, sparkling blue and the hills were a bright, luscious green. Spring was in the sunlight that removed the bite from the boisterous wind and, in Dunedin, spring means lambing season. All over the peninsula there were newborn lambs bouncing around, kicking up their tiny hooves, counterbalanced by the comical staggering of the still pregnant sheep about to burst. Everything felt fresh – revitalising – and we knew from that very first view across the Otago Harbour that not a thing could spoil it.

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Our first point of call of was Sandfly Bay, named not, as I had feared, for an abundance of sandflies, but because the sand flies over the picturesque dunes. It’s a very pretty beach – we were satisfied by the view alone – but its main attraction is its wildlife: sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins. There are observation hides you can walk to from which, especially during the evening, you can see the penguins waddling up from the sea. There are a number of wildlife tours available on the Otago Peninsula, but they’re quite expensive. The wildlife viewing at Sandfly Bay is free.

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The Otago Peninsula’s main wildlife attraction is the world’s only mainland royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head, the very tip of the peninsula. This, you most definitely have to pay for, but it is worth it. My boyfriend and I didn’t go because we couldn’t afford it – but then, being poor students, we can barely afford protein – however, I was lucky enough to have been before, with my parents, on an NZ campervan hire tour of the South Island. The best part was seeing the fluffy, white albatross chicks.

Another attraction that we didn’t want to have to pay for was Larnach Castle, New Zealand’s only castle, built towards the end of the nineteenth century by a Scot – well, actually, an Australian. I’m sure the garden is very pretty and the interior very nicely furnished. Similarly, though less spectacularly, you can take a tour of Fletcher House, a restored Edwardian villa, or Glenfalloch Woodland Garden. I suppose these would be good ways of glimpsing the life of the early European settlers, but we found our own window, somewhere not advertised, a little hidden, and free: a graveyard.

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It wasn’t just a graveyard; it was graveyard in a beautiful spot on the edge of a cliff. I spent perhaps a little too much time trying to get artsy pictures of the headstones, some modern and some from the first European families on the peninsula. In the process I found – rather funnily – a grave that had absolutely nothing written on it but ‘RAPER’. No explanation. No dates. Yes, it was obviously someone’s surname, but what an unfortunate surname! And to have a tombstone that doesn’t even bear your first name or the year you died… ‘RAPER’ isn’t even engraved in a particularly interesting font.

After our accidental discovery of the graveyard, we went to find a shop where we could get a bottle of water. We were in Portobello, a charming settlement halfway up the peninsula. To my disappointment, there weren’t any mushrooms, but there were nice-looking restaurants, craft shops, antique shops and second-hand bookshops. The campground looked good too. There was an air of innocence about the place. It was almost twee, but in a good way.

In the shop where we bought the bottle of water, there was a section of what seemed to be local produce – tea or something, I can’t remember – that was ‘organically harvested’. Whatever this ‘organically harvested’ stuff was, it was being sold in brown paper bags that had written on them the following: ‘organ harvest’. I wonder if the person who settled on that unfortunate abbreviation realises why we sniggered so greatly. I’m inclined to think not.

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So we had our water and now we needed somewhere to consume our picnic. (For anyone who remembers our picnic from the previous article, this time we had more with us than a cooking pot filled with peanuts.) It took us ages to find somewhere, simply because we were spoilt for choice, and we are both very indecisive people. We eventually settled on a point that overlooked Mt Charles. The view, naturally, was amazing, but the wind was fierce, and the sun was falling. Yes, it had taken us this long to find a picnic spot. We kept getting sidetracked by various awesome things, including a cup of tea at the Natures Wonders café, which had huge windows and a very friendly owner, proudly proclaiming they had the best view on the peninsula. Seeing as it was at the end of the peninsula, next-door to Taiaroa Head, the view was mostly sea, so I wouldn’t say it was quite the best on the peninsula, but – my goodness – it was still breathtaking.

To be honest, I was at my happiest when we were just driving. Driving over the hills in the centre of the peninsula and driving around the winding bays at the edge. View after view drifted lazily by, each one soul-renewingly stunning. We covered the same ground a few times in our quest to cover as much of the peninsula as possible, but it never got boring. This is why I recommend NZ car hire if you don’t already have your own vehicle. Driving leisurely over the Otago Peninsula was the best day out I’ve had in a long time.

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