north to south

I had assumed our journey from the North Island to the South Island of New Zealand would be in a north-south direction. In actuality, the crossing of Cook Strait is from east to west. Named after Captain James Cook, who first mapped it in 1773, the waters of the strait are considered among the most dangerous and unpredictable in the world. The regular ferry service is often disrupted due to rough water and heavy swells from strong winds. Fortunately, our early morning sailing from Wellington was on a sea of glass.

About half of the 70 kilometre voyage is in the strait before entering the spectacular Marlborough Sounds.

Many of the small settlements, surrounded by steep, wooded hills, are only accessible by boat.

With 1500 kilometres of coastline, the islands and peninsulas of the Sounds comprise one-fifth of New Zealand’s total.

Made up of four distinctly different Sounds (Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru, Pelorus and Mahua), it is boggling to think that 10,000 years ago, this stunning area was actually a valley.

Three and a half hours after leaving Wellington, we arrived in Picton Harbour at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound.

As we drove out of town, we paused to look back at the breathtaking scenery and bustling harbour before continuing our South Island adventure.

Zealandia

One of the places on our ‘must see’ list while in Aotearoa was Zealandia, the world’s first fully-fenced urban eco-sanctuary. For millions of years, native and endemic species had evolved without the need to defend themselves – until humans, and the mammals they introduced, managed to render at least 51 bird, 3 frog, 3 lizard, 1 freshwater fish, 1 bat, 4 plant, and a number of invertebrate species extinct. Formerly known as the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, the 225 hectares (just under a square mile) of forest, surrounded by 8.6 kilometres of pest-exclusion fencing, has reintroduced 18 species of wildlife to the area after being absent for over 100 years. We exited the visitor centre to the magnificent view of Karori Reservoir.

Completed in 1878, the Karori Dam and valve tower hailed the beginning of the municipal water supply to Wellington City and continued to contribute until the late 20th century.

There are many kilometres of walking trails through the sanctuary, we headed up the main path that followed the lake.

It wasn’t long before we encountered a gorgeous family of pied shags. Known in many countries as cormorants, they are brilliant swimmers and, because their feathers are not waterproof, can stay underwater for up to 30 seconds. Unfortunately, this means they get quickly waterlogged and cold and need to spend a lot of time preening and drying their feathers.

When a predator approaches a nesting colony, the chicks will jump into the water long before they can fly and are very good at climbing back up to the nest. Both parents build the nest, incubate the eggs and feed their adorable  young.

Further along the path, we encountered a pair of birds enjoying a drink at a sugar water bar.

The kākā is a large, olive-brown forest parrot with flashes of crimson and orange plumage under their wings. The word kā can mean ‘screech’ in Māori and so the name kākā is thought to be a reference to their loud call. Effectively extinct in Wellington since the early 20th century, fourteen captive-bred kākā were transferred from zoos between 2002 and 2007 and breeding has been very successful at Zealandia.

As the trail narrowed and foliage thickened,

we could hear unusual clicks, croaks and bell-like sounds. Looking up, we spied a beautiful black bird with white pom-poms at its throat.

The tūī is known for its complex vocabulary and can mimic other birds, ringtones of phones, door chimes and even human speech thanks to its ‘double voice-box’. While watching and listening, mesmerised, it became evident in the sunlight that the dark plumage was actually a dazzling iridescent green.

We stumbled upon what appeared to be old iron railway tracks in a clearing. Alluvial gold was discovered in the area in 1869 and local residents flocked to lay a claim. Two years later, quartz mining took its place with water wheels and crushing machinery installed. Presumably, these are remnants of the mine sites.

We traversed the upper dam wall, completed in 1908

and paused to take in the stunning vista across the upper reservoir toward urban Wellington.

We crossed a suspension bridge, enveloped by dense forest

to travel a different route back to our starting point. We didn’t expect to see the elusive tuatara but the mainly nocturnal creatures were basking in the sun.

Tuatara means ‘peaks on the back’ in Māori and they are considered to be messengers of Whiro, the god of death and disaster. Scientists refer to them as ‘living fossils’ because they are the only living members left of the Rhynchocophalian order. All other members became extinct around 65 millions years ago.

We first spotted these birds while staying at Motuoapa Bay. Though not a native species, the California quail is a welcome substitute for the now extinct New Zealand quail, helping to balance the ecosystem.

With a hint from this Tūī that lunch time was nigh,

we left Zealandia in search of sustenance.

extraordinary exhibition

Following our experience at Wētā Workshop the plan was to visit New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa (Māori for ‘the treasure box’). We were intrigued to see the ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’ exhibition after learning at Wētā that they were responsible for creating the life-like figures on display.

The giant sculptures, 2.4 times human size, took 24,000 hours to complete, not surprising considering the incredible detail and emotion on the faces. The exhibition opened on 18th April 2015 to commemorate the centenary of the ANZAC campaign and will remain until 25th April 2025. The diaries of seven soldiers and a nurse were selected to share the stories through the eyes of ordinary New Zealanders in diabolical circumstances. Stepping into the darkened room, the effect of a huge, spotlighted figure aiming a gun in apparent terror was startling.

Lieutenant Spencer Westmacott was one of the first New Zealanders to climb the steep hills to join the Australians. By nightfall, he had been evacuated with severe wounds to his right arm which was later amputated at a military hospital in Egypt.

A cut-through model of a soldiers’ kit shows the little protection they had from external armoury.

The despair is palpable on the face of Lieutenant Colonel Percival Fenwick as he leans over the fatally wounded Canterbury infantryman, Jack Aitken.

The 45 year old surgeon, a veteran of the South African war, recorded the hellish conditions and his disillusionment with the inept direction of the senior commanders in his diary.

The lonely figure of Private Jack Dunn, eating hard biscuits covered with flies, tells a tragic story.

Malnourished by bad food, he was hospitalised with dysentery but returned to duty while still sick. He fell asleep at his post and was sentenced to death by firing squad. Although his sentence was rescinded, he was killed in action a few days later.

The exhibition is also comprised of 3-D maps and projections, miniatures, models and interactive modules. The daily life activity station hosts a realm of surprises in drawers and cupboards.

Lieutenant Colonel William Malone’s detailed diary entries echoed Percival Fenwick’s disenchantment with his superiors and the conduct of the campaign. Inside a replica of his dugout, built according to a sketch made by Malone, an actors voice reads the last letter he wrote to his wife, Ida. The moving epistle suggests Malone was certain he would die in the August attack the following day. His intuition proved correct, he was accidentally killed by supporting artillery fire.

The ‘machine gunners trio’ was recreated based on a paragraph in the diary of Private Rikihana Carkeek.

He and fellow Māori soldier, Friday Hawkins found themselves on the same machine gun team under the command of Lieutenant Colin Warden who was unfortunately shot through the heart just after giving the gunners their range.

Almost immediately, gun Corporal Donald Ferris was shot through the head and killed instantly. As the scene depicts, Private Hawkins took charge of the gun while Private Carkeek moved into position to feed the belt. Shortly afterwards, Friday was shot through the wrist and Rikihana took over the gun before being shot through the base of the neck (yes, he survived). It seems all subsequent gunners were shot and badly wounded.

Auckland nurse Charlotte (Lottie) Le Gallais planned to meet up with her brother, Leddie, in Gallipoli. She was selected for the first voyage on the hospital ship Maheno, bound for Egypt but by the time she arrived, Leddie had been killed in action. She is portrayed having just learnt of his death, four months previously, when her letters to Leddie were returned unopened.

Having survived Gallipoli, Private Cecil Malthus then fought on the Western Front where he was promoted to sergeant and was then wounded in action at the First Battle of the Somme. He is the final figure in the exhibition, positioned in a muddy crater which has been filled with poppies by visitors, some bearing handwritten notes.

Wētā Workshop

Having experienced the spectacle of Hobbiton, as well as myriad locations featured in The Lord of the Rings movie, our trip to new Zealand wouldn’t have been complete without a tour of Wētā Workshop. The company, based in Wellington, is the creative home of special effects and props, and they have been producing sets, costumes, armour, weapons and creatures for television and film since 1987. Sneaking past the huge stone trolls cavorting on the lawns

we made it through the Hobbit door entrance.

There was no shortage of memorabilia in the gift shop

and I wondered what was lurking under the loincloth of Lurtz.

The first part of the tour led us on a discovery of miniature effects including real television shooting stages for Thunderbirds Are Go! I remember the original TV series in the 1960s and couldn’t pass up the chance to ride up front with Virgil Tracy in Thunderbird 2.

We were then taken on a fascinating journey through the creation of props, costumes and creatures for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Photography was only allowed in designated areas throughout the tour, hence the absence thereof. At the end of the tour, we were ushered into a room, seemingly guarded by a life size figure of Orc-lord, Azog.

Here we met special effects artist, Warren Beaton, his appearance the epitome of a mad professor.

Various heads kept watch from above

as he demonstrated his expertise of making prototypes using tin foil and a spoon.

I’m sure it’s not as easy as he made it look, the results are remarkable.

With a fond farewell to Bert (stone trolls need love, too) we headed off in search of sustenance before our next adventure.

Mangaweka Gorge

We had no particular plan for sightseeing on the drive from Motuoapa Bay to Wellington but it wasn’t long before we saw a sign indicating the presence of a historic bridge. Of course, we went to investigate and found the Mangaweka Bridge. Built in 1904, it is the only cantilever road bridge left in New Zealand.

The bridge itself is quite impressive but the views from the centre of the Mangaweka Gorge are truly magnificent.

Across the bridge we were surprised to find Awastone Riverside Haven, comprising accommodation, a campground and café. We enjoyed coffee and cake along with a different perspective of the bridge, rising 17 metres above the riverbed and the vertical white ‘papa’ cliffs.

The Rangitikei River, one of New Zealand’s longest at 253 kilometres, has cut spectacular gorges through the soft clay on its way to the Tasman Sea. The dramatic backdrop and series of rapids along the way make it a popular destination for a memorable kayaking experience.

Since our visit, a new bridge has been built to cross the river at this point because of safety concerns. The old bridge will be retained as a tourist icon for foot traffic and cyclists and those wanting to take in the majestic views.