Australia & New Zealand – Days 24 and 25

Nature Watch

Our early morning stroll around Franz Josef was accompanied by the soundtrack that could have come from an episode of M*A*S*H. Choppers coming and going. The settlement is exclusively there to service tourism for the glacier above the town. (An Austrian named the ice for his Emperor. As always it was here long before he turned up and the Māoris had a name for it in any case.) Inevitably the ice is in retreat although it has over various years grown from time to time. It’s celebrity partly lies in it being in a rain forest area.

The town can, at a peak operate 70,000 helicopter flights a year. For a place so small and beautiful the noise is disappointing. Needless to say the locals wrestle with resident fury and making a buck: you can guess which is winning. However, some of our party added to the din by ascending onto the glacier that sits above the town in a chopper. Their photos were super and they had a memorable time.

Damn slippy

Anna and I decided that after previously experiencing horrific turbulence over the Grand Canyon on such a helicopter pleasure ride that it’d now take something like being unconscious and in the capable hands of the Yorkshire Air Ambulance to get us airborne again. (Also Anna also doesn’t fly Economy.)

So as an alternative we were on the water, the Waiho River. This was a low key trip around the shores with the knowledgeable owner of the craft, Dale.

The boy Dale

On it he revealed the NZ programme of predator eradication in engaging and expert detail. I think we can all understand that the introduction of non-indigenous plant species or animals disrupt, destroy and take over environments but he explained on behalf of one of the five species of Kiwi bird, the rowi. First you have to understand that the only mammal on the New Zealand islands was a bat when the Europeans arrived. Due to no previous known predators some species of birds didn’t have the ability to fly. The introduction of other mammals or predators meant that the indigenous bird species didn’t have the thousands of years to adapt and survive such threats. Literally overnight it was Armageddon. To this end the NZ government now has a programme to eradicate the bird predators by 2050.

So calm

Back to the rowi, these chaps had dwindled to hundreds in number and despite being physically a big bird it’s flightless and vulnerable to killing by rats, ferrets, possums and stoats. Rats came on ships, the British brought stoats and ferrets to control the pesky rabbits they’d introduces, which had started to breed like, err… rabbits and, much to every New Zealander’s delight, the Australians are blamed for possums.

The kiwi baby bird is born so big that it can leave the custody of its mother shortly after birth. In other words a reasonably sized lunch soon leaves behind the wisdom and protection of its mother and is quickly devoured. This meant that only 5% survived. In the case of the possum due to the ‘new’ NZ vegetation it lives in it no longer gets the enzyme that tells it when it’s full. Hence it keeps eating. Even worse is that New Zealand forests are low energy with many trees growing in only half a metre of soil. The possum has to wander a large acreage to eat and sustain itself. As does the kiwi. Food is scarce. The stoat is a vicious little thing that kills gratuitously. When the Brits introduced this killer they miscalculated that Mr Stoat would abandon the pursuit of bunnies and instead it climbed trees to eat bird’s eggs or birds. In the case of the kiwi they were soon killed.

So what to do? First of all retrieve kiwi eggs and incubate them out of the forest. When hatched return them to the forest when over a kilogram in weight. Secondly eradicate by poisoning all its predators. Whilst kiwi numbers are slow in growing the survival rate is up to 65%.

Eradicating predators seems impossible but they create ‘killing’ zones that are bound by rivers or mountains. Also there appears to be no wibbly wobbly emotion about killing these fury animals. In the UK I’ve visions of mass protests led by popular Knighted electric guitarists about the heartless murder of these cute, innocent beings that have a right to exist, roam and eat anything.

Deer are a similar problem further south, again the Brits are to blame for their introduction for hunting. They are devastating for the local environment with their appetite. So they’re caught, tranquillised, hoisted up into the air by helicopter, corralled and then harvested for their meat. (I did wonder if the Duchess of York could adapt her epic works to included Budgie the Little Helicopter meeting Bambi and hauling him to his untimely death whilst he’s still grieving for his mother?)

In such sumptuous scenery there is much peering up at mountains or birds by the guests. One guest, looking toward the glacier, barked out – ‘Look a heron!’. Dale looked up and squinted before gently advising ‘No, it’s a helicopter’.

Back to town we embarked on a trek in the afternoon to see some of the rushing meltwater from the glacier and rack up a few more steps. We’re doing about 13,000 a day. This walk was vertical! This ensuing weight loss is compensated by boozing regularly, eating cooked breakfasts and having many coffee and tea stops that are simply too wet without muffins, scones and meat pies to mop up the excess moisture. The bathroom scales may have traumatic news in store when we return.

I’ve eaten a few of these over the decades

On environmental matters then the geographical nature of NZ means the dependence on fossil fuels seems to be ending no time soon. Distances on the South Island are long, settlements few and scattered. Charging infrastructure would be difficult to install or maintain. Electric vehicles may be successful in towns but you really couldn’t drive around the country relying on convenient charging points. Also flying, whether for tourism or the practicality of getting about is very important but thirsty and climate warming. However, compared to the scale of activity in larger countries I think they have the size of footprint that wouldn’t keep Greta awake at night.

Some of our trek route Loop

Next day we left to head further south to the ‘Adventure Capital of the World’: Queenstown. Again, it was a long transfer. To ease matters she stopped regularly for us to stretch our legs and take photos including wild blue mushrooms.

The Kōkako mushroom

In terms of epic landscapes NZ was the gift that kept giving.

Beyond sensational scenery

Queenstown kept the record up for providing a hotel with us on the third floor with no lift/elevator. Coming from Australia it was hard to pack lightly with our being away so long. I now have arms approaching the length of a baboon. Where we stay-over more than one night (and avoid weight lifting exertions) there is much celebration on the bus.

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