Whaletrip: New Zealand - New Zealand is extremely far away and completely isolated. Here everything is a bit different. Also the Whale Watching.

A DIFFERENT WORLD

Extremely far away and completely isolated: In New Zealand everything is a bit different. Even the whale watching.

A DIFFERENT WORLD

A true oasis at the end of the world: four weeks in New Zealand!

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Theresa on our way to Isthmus Peak. Long way to go!

Whaletrip: NEW ZEALAND

»Good morning! Would you please show me the soles of your shoes? Oha, soil! Were you hiking with them? Do you also have a tent with you? If so, please put it out there. Thank you!«

It’s September 22, very, very early in the morning. We stand at the airport in Auckland having a 14 hours flight behind us. At our departure in Vancouver we had September 20, the 21 somehow didn’t happen, we just missed it on our way. Maybe a nice travel idea for round birthdays, which you would like to skip.

Anyway, we are a bit tired and ruffled, and the friendly border official is very interested in some soil crumbs under my hiking boots. And the tent was also no joke: He would love to see it.

While the officer crumbles the dirt of my hiking shoe with an expert’s eye in his rubber gloved hand, a sniffer dog is gently guided around our bags. He sniffs a bit, sits down and looks at us with bored eyes. Obviously everything is fine.

The welcoming at an airport often says a lot about a country. In the USA you are often asked if you intend to break the law in any way during your stay. In Canada it is often a happy ‘Welcome to Canada!’, combined with the very best wishes for a super good stay. And here in New Zealand it is the Bio Security Check.

It is neither about biological weapons nor about rare diseases, but about normal food, plants and animals, no matter how small they may be. It is about seeds, germs and therefore also about soil.

New Zealand is quite remote – on some world maps it has even been completely forgotten. In the last few million years, it has evolved totally different from the rest of the world. This is especially the case for New Zealand’s flora and fauna.

Most native species never had real enemies. Many birds here can't even fly. The New Zealanders are now trying hard to protect them.

There is an infinite number of endemic species here – animals and plants that are found nowhere else in the world. Most of these species never had serious natural enemies. Many of the birds here cannot even fly. This is how safe they felt.

Then man came along and brought invasive species that were more robust and nastier than the native ones and therefore spread rapidly. That didn’t go well for long. At some point the New Zealanders began to contain this development and, where possible, to reverse it. Things have been going quite well so far.

For example, there is the ambitious plan to kill all rats by 2050. On both islands. Completely. The population takes part, rat killing as a national sport. In general, many of the introduced species are now seen with other eyes.

The New Zealanders know that their unique nature is their greatest treasure. And this is exactly why most visitors come here. Tourism is the most important source of income, despite the red wine, despite the merino wool, despite the kiwi fruits, despite the Lord of the Rings.

New Zealand is a true oasis. And the New Zealanders have been trying very hard for some time to keep it that way. We took a look at it: four weeks from north to south.

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Mount Doom! The New Zealanders call it Mount Ngauruhoe. Sounds okay, too.

New Zealand: RAIN, RAIN, RAIN

We had to work our way in, during the first days it was pouring down horribly. Flooded streets and closed peninsulas - rain all day long.

The weather forecast for every other place and every further day only brought more rain, rain, rain. An endless monsoon, and in between I wasn’t so sure if it was a good idea to visit New Zealand at this time of the year.

In other countries with unstable weather, we didn’t make plans and routes in advance. We just followed the good weather. That was the plan for New Zealand, too. But it gets difficult when the weather is bad everywhere. What’s the plan then?

So we had a little rain crisis conversation in the first week. I was a bit desperate and disgruntled, but Theresa said that this is the way it is now and that we have to accept it. So we accepted it.

When it rained heavily, but not very heavily, we went hiking anyway, and I quickly noticed that New Zealand is a very, very spectacular country even when it rains heavily.

After one week I didn’t care about the weather at all – camping with five degrees and hiking in continuous rain is no problem for me now, probably traveling is good for such things, too: I am now weatherproof. With Theresa it all seems to be a pure attitude thing anyway. Exemplary!

The best place for rainy days is the Fiordland. Here you don’t need the sun at all. The mountains in Milford Sound rise a good thousand meters vertically, they are made of the most massive and heaviest granite in the world.

Quite a popular choice: shorts, flip flops, rain jacket, backpack. You should always think of this beautiful look while reading this text. As a basic feeling.

When the rain falls in Fiordland, the water plunges into thousands of small waterfalls down the endless black cliffs. The whole fjord sinks into the fog, colors disappear, there is only black, white and gray left. Maybe a rainbow in between. Magic!

And the New Zealanders are lucky, you can really rely on rain in Fiordland, it rains here about 200 days a year. And while rainfall elsewhere is measured in millimeters, the Fiordlanders calculate in meters: six to eight per year!

In terms of clothing and equipment, the best thing to do under such conditions is to stick to the locals. Quite a popular choice: shorts, flip flops, rain jacket, backpack. It is best to think of this look as a base layer for the whole text.

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Theresa hiking the Coastal Track in Kaikoura. Now rain in sight!

New Zealand: CONSERVATION

Glaciers, volcanoes, rainforests, geysers. Green hills, white mountains, black beaches. New Zealand is extremely diverse - and in geological terms not even finished.

New Zealand is still in the process of being formed: Directly below the two islands the Australian and the Pacific Plate collide head-on – not rarely with quite a rumble.

In the north, the Australian Plate slowly pushes itself over the Pacific, resulting in enormous volcanic activity – steaming, bubbling and boiling all over the North Island, home to some of the most active volcanoes in the world. In the south, the Pacific Plate pushes its way over the Australian, resulting in the Southern Alps with their many 3,000 meter peaks. At some point they might even become four-thousand-meter peaks: Every year the South Island is pushed a little more up.

Nature is the measure of all things in New Zealand. And when driving around you get the impression that it is also a main topic for most of the people. In Norway, which has a similarly spectacular landscape, we sometimes noticed that people are a bit careless with nature. Maybe because they have so much of it.

In New Zealand it seemed a bit different to us, conservation always seemed to be a present topic here, which somehow concerns all people. They seem to be involved in both big and small things.

The Abel Tasman National Park, for example, goes back to the private commitment of an immigrant who simply bought a small coastal strip in 1921 and turned it into a nature reserve. Today, the park is considered to be one of the most beautiful in the country.

At Tongariro National Park you can look back even further: In 1887, a Maori chief gave the sacred volcanic land to the English Crown as a gift – including the obligation to leave the wilderness untouched forever. Today, the Alpine Crossing is considered the most impressive hike in the country.

The people get involved in both big and small things. In New Zealand business and conservation seem to match a little better than elsewhere.

At the Otago Peninsula, a small eco-tour operator has bought a whole section of coastline to better protect the endangered Yellow-Eyed Penguins and the vulnerable Hooker’s Sea Lions that live there. In small groups, guests are personally guided through the reserve.

In Fiordland we have seen a ship owner, who always keeps one of his crews out of the daily business in order to clean the beaches of the fjords from washed up garbage. Just as a normal part of their paid work. And as a matter of course.

During our four weeks on the North and South Island we have heard, seen and experienced many of these stories. Of course it’s always about business, too. But also about nature. In New Zealand both seemed to match a bit better than elsewhere.

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The classic fluke shot with the Kaikoura Mountains in the back. Beautiful. But not enough.

New Zealand: WHALE WATCHING

It's a pity now that of all things a whale watching tour just doesn't fit into our story of the exemplary local operators. But it is as it is.

You can see many different whales and dolphins in New Zealand, whale watching has a long tradition here, commercial tours are offered since the 90s. Kaikoura is even one of the absolute hot spots worldwide: Directly off the coast opens a huge underwater canyon where sperm whales live all year round. There are not many places in the world where you can observe sperm whales.

At sea you can locate them quite well with a hydrophone. In the depths, sperm whales do not follow sight, but hearing: Like bats, they permanently emit click sounds that are echoed back by obstacles (and fleeing prey). This is how sperm whales can ‘see’ under water.

These click sounds can be easily followed on board of the boats. As soon as the sperm whale begins to emerge, its clicks cease, and the whale watchers on the boat search the horizon in a tense, concentrated and joyful manner: where is the blow?

That’s a pretty important part of whale watching: finding the whale. You stand on deck, scan the horizon, look from left to right and back again, always looking for irregular waves, a glitter in the sun or, best of all, a blow.

The search makes up the largest part of the entire trip. A four hour tour usually requires 3:45 hours of searching and – if it goes well! – 15 minutes of watching a whale emerge, rest and dive.

During the rest of the time you might get a really good feeling for the bigger picture: the sea; its endless vastness; the problems; the unexpected dangers; and maybe even your own vulnerability. Waiting and looking on deck can be all about everything.

Maybe this is the inevitable price of overly commercial whale watching. But then a nice documentary on TV would probably also do.

And that is exactly what’s not happening on the tours in Kaikoura. The guests are asked to stay safely in their seats inside the boat until the crew 1) has found the whale and 2) the whale is best right in front of the boat. In this ‘ideal case’ you only have to go out for a short time to take some nice fluke shots. How comfortable! But unfortunately a bit too little, even if the fluke shots with the mountain range of Kaikoura in the background are very, very beautiful.

I’m not sure if it’s always like this in Kaikoura or only in stronger conditions. Staying inside was probably about the safety of the passengers during the fast (?) trip. In the few minutes outside on deck, however, I didn’t notice any particularly demanding weather. Also from inside everything looked absolutely calm. The huge panoramic windows were a bit dirty, though, maybe I misjudged, and outside the waves piled up.

Perhaps this is simply the price of overly commercial whale watching. Faster and more effective than on these tours you probably wouldn’t get the many people handled. But for me a nice documentary at home on TV would probably also do.

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A yellow-eyed penguin somewhere on Otago Peninsula.

New Zealand: PENGUINS & ALBATROSSES

Instead of being on boats, we started to hide in small shelters and sly places to wait patiently for albatrosses and penguins. What a great idea!

Penguins like to have their privacy. They don’t appreciate it too much, when, after a hard day in the sea, they are greeted by euphoric humans on the beach. Then they often prefer to stay in the water. Therefore, in many places in New Zealand there are well camouflaged hiding places in some distance to the beach. There the people wait patiently for the arrival of the penguins, often for hours. What a fantastic activity!

Three different penguin species live in New Zealand, something not many countries can claim. With a little luck you can observe Yellow-Eyed, Fiordland and Blue Penguins here. We met them in the Marlborough Sounds, in Fiordland and on the Otago Peninsula – the long hiding time was always worth it.

A good hiding place is especially important for the little Blue Penguins. They are the smallest of all penguins and very shy, usually they come waddled out of the water at sunset – but then very determined and in large numbers, in Otago there were over a hundred, Theresa fell in love immediately.

Fiordland and Yellow-Eyed Penguins, on the other hand, are more likely to be seen individually; they are among the rarest penguins in the world, with probably only five to six thousand specimens left. They live exclusively in New Zealand, but especially the Fiordland Penguins like to go on longer trips, which sometimes lead them several thousand kilometers away from Fiordland.

Albatrosses would only laugh about such distances. They spend 85 percent of their life on the sea and can easily circumnavigate the earth in one tour. Yes, the whole earth. Sometimes albatrosses don’t have solid ground under their feet for a full year.

With up to three and a half (!) metres of wingspan, albatrosses are the largest birds in the world. They have big troubles at take-off and even bigger troubles at landing, but once they make it into the air, albatrosses are the most elegant and efficient gliders under the sun.

Albatrosses have big troubles at take-off and even bigger troubles at landing, but once they make it into the air, albatrosses are the most elegant and efficient gliders under the sun.

And although albatrosses only visit the mainland every two years, they can be reliably observed at Dunedin. This is the only mainland breeding site in the world: albatrosses stay together for life and breed where they hatched.

The rangers of the Royal Albatross Centre protect the parents and chicks from intruders and, if necessary, even help with feeding. Here you can observe how skillfully albatrosses use the up winds between the steep cliffs and deep wave valleys. We watched them fly for hours, and their flaps could be counted on one hand. It’s just a permanent glide, without any strength and effort.

By the way, I probably had photographed the wrong birds for days. As we have learned at the Albatross Centre, there are two large albatross species in New Zealand (Wandering and Royal Albatross) and several smaller ones. Besides there are shearwaters and petrels and also some big seagulls. And they all glide across the sea!

How incredibly huge such a Royal Albatross is first became clear to us when it flew above us on the cliffs of Taiaroa Head. The sky really gets dark for a short time.

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Theresa meeting a Kea. Shortly after this picture he had only eyes for the car.

New Zealand: KEAS

Despite sperm whales, penguins and albatrosses - I was most happy about our encounter with the Keas. Keas are the best and funniest birds in the world.

Even as a little child I had hoped to see Keas in real life sometime. At that time there was a German TV Show called ‘Tiere vor der Kamera’ (‘Animals in front of the Camera’), Ernst Arendt and Hans Schweiger travelled in a rickety and rusty Unimog to the remotest corners of the world to film exotic animals. I didn’t miss a single episode – and the Kea episode was the best of all.

Keas are mountain parrots, they are the only parrots in the world living in alpine regions, they don’t mind the snow and cold at all, they probably don’t even notice the circumstances while they are playing. Keas play all the time.

Curiosity and playfulness are important signs of intelligence, and if it comes down to these, Keas are probably the smartest animals on the planet. They are interested in everything and have no fear at all. For them everything is just a game.

If, for example, they spot a few people with a car somewhere, then they immediately hop in curiously and drag and tear at everything that somehow blinks, swings or moves: shoelaces, bag straps, rear-view mirrors, windscreen wipers. Keas can devastate entire parking lots, with tremendous joy and perseverance.

Keas can devastate entire parking lots. With tremendous joy and perseverance, they drag and tear at anything that somehow blinks, swings or moves. Till it's off.

In their documentary, Hans Schweiger and Ernst Arendt had their beautiful old Unimog patiently deconstructed by a whole horde of Keas. I still watch it with great joy – here is a short excerpt:

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Best episode ever: some Keas inspect the old Unimog.

Since this episode I really wanted to experience New Zealand and Keas one day. And since you should always save the best for the end: It all worked out!

On our trip through the Fiordland we met several of them. Quite by chance, when we made a short break at some pass. The car survived.

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