Sunday, May 5, 2019

New Zealand Birds (But Not Kiwis)

Over the past almost six years, I've taken some amazing trips into nature. Some of these trips have involved exploring the natural features of our planet like forests or glaciers or mountains or even white sand dunes. Others have focused on wildlife, most notably in sub-Saharan Africa, the Galápagos Islands or here at home in Alaska (bears and bald eagles among others) and North Dakota (bison!). But I've never taken a birds-only focused trip. That is, until we went to New Zealand.

Now, I've never been much of a bird watcher. Call me unimpressed with the birds that have lived around me everywhere I've lived. Sparrows, robins and starlings? Can't go for these small, brown non-descript birds (I get that the robin has some red on it). Blackbirds and crows? Yawn! Sure every once in a while there's a cardinal or a hawk or something but the birds in suburban England, Connecticut and Washington D.C. never got me that excited.

But in the past couple of years, some things have changed about my appreciation of bird life on our planet. First, I saw my first in the wild toucan two years ago while eating breakfast down in Mexico. If there's a bird I love more than the toucan, I don't know what it is. The one we saw near Chichen Itza was right at the top of a palm tree so our look at it wasn't amazing. I have to find a way to get more of these birds in some future trips.

Then last year I made my second (of many, I'm thinking...) trip to the southern half of Africa and my eyes were opened. Not by the ostriches and the marabou storks and the secretary birds that I had on my must-see list but by the smaller birds: the fish eagle, the carmine bee-eater, the lilac-breasted roller and even, perish the thought, the vultures. These are some impressive creatures. I started to warm to the idea of bird watching. Enter New Zealand.

A variable oystercatcher on the beach of Ulva Island.
In the world of birdlife, New Zealand has a unique history so we actually planned several items on our itinerary specifically to watch birds. Crazy, I know! New Zealand was one of the last places on Earth to be discovered and occupied by man, meaning avian life on the two main islands and the various smaller ones around the perimeter were free to evolve without any interference from the world's number one predator and destroyer of species and the natural environment (that would be you and me). 

But New Zealand went one better here; there are also no land mammals endemic to any of the islands which make up this country, meaning the birds there were at the top of the food chain. And that led to some unusual things happening. Like birds there being the top dogs. Many, many species just got so complacent about the lack of danger that they just ditched their ability to fly. Heck, in some cases they lost their wings entirely. That's not to say that all birds in the country don't fly. Some certainly do and some are master aviators. But there are a ton that don't.

So where does one go to see birds in New Zealand? Well, seemingly anywhere you want but there are enough sanctuaries scattered throughout the nation that you are bound to be close to at least one. I'd suggest you go and see what this country has to offer. Even if, like me, you've never even been interested in something like this. There are no more 12 foot high flightless moas around (the Māori took care of wiping them out) but trust me there's a lot that's interesting. Maybe by the end of this post, you'll want to go find some of these things too.

This is the only kind of Moa you'll see outside of a museum in New Zealand these days. Good stuff!
Our bird watching itinerary took us from north of Auckland to south of Invercargill, meaning we pretty much covered all the way north of the north island to all the way south of the south island and many parts in between. 

It seems like the appropriate place to start when talking about birds in New Zealand is on the ground with maybe the country's most famous avian resident, the kiwi. I'm not going to do that because I've already written an entire post about our epic night quests to find these funny birds. But there are plenty of others that can't fly like the takahē, the pukeko and the weka. And yes, there are penguins, but we'll come back to them.

The motto of flightless birds everywhere. Rotoroa Island.
I can't imagine how scary it would be to be a flightless bird evolving in peace on your own private island (well, with other birds I guess) and then having some large biped bring over a bunch of rats, dogs, stoats, weasels and pigs that will seemingly systematically hunt you and your chicks and your eggs down for sport or a quick snack. And that's not even considering the bipeds might just kill you out of boredom. There is absolutely no way you can possible defend yourself against that kind of attack. You'd need another several millennia to evolve again. The problem is you don't have that amount of time. Not with a stoat on the hunt in your neighborhood.

There used to be nine species of flightless moa on New Zealand. Go to the Auckland War Memorial Museum and you can see skeletons and reconstructions clad with emu feathers on some of them to get an idea of their shape and size. There is no accurate record of exactly what these birds looked like. By the time people with an interest in preserving that kind of record got to New Zealand, the birds were all gone. I'm sure there are probably other species that perished along with the moa. Those that survived were either lucky or fast or isolated or cute enough that people started caring about that they might be destroying before it was too late.

There are two critically endangered species of flightless birds in New Zealand: the kakapo, a comical looking flightless parrot (which we did not see) and the takahē (which we did). Want to find either of these birds in person? Get off the main islands, because all the known specimens are now isolated to predator-free islands off the main coast of New Zealand. 

It is likely that there are fewer than 200 living kakapo today but at one time, the takahē wasn't so lucky: it was actually declared extinct in 1898. I guess some folks refused to believe this declaration, figuring that New Zealand was unexplored enough that there might be one or two last ones out there. They were right; 50 years after the last know member of the species died, a group was found in the Murchison Mountains in Fiordland National Park. All 347 alive as of October 2017 are descended from this single group. 

Takahē, Rotoroa Island.
We were lucky enough to see a family of four takahē roaming about Rotoroa Island, which is located in the Hauraki Gulf north of Auckland. They stand a little taller than knee-high when fully grown and have this gorgeous iridescent blue-green plumage and red bills. Apparently they pack quite a bite according to our Rotoroa guide, Toni, who's had the pleasure, and they also seem totally unafraid of people by our interaction with them. It's easy to see why they might fall prey to an animal looking to do them harm. We feel fortunate to have seen more than 1% of an entire species in one day. Think about that...

The takahē definitely owe their survival to luck and isolation (the kiwi probably fall into the cute enough to care category). One of the other birds we found on Rotoroa, the weka, probably owes its existence to adaptability, healthy breeding (up to four broods of chicks per year!!) and speed. Weka are not as remarkable physically as the takahē, sporting speckled brown feathers on a two foot long body, but they are for sure fast. We were warned of the weka's curiosity and penchant for theft when we landed on Rotoroa and seeing some around the island I can believe their speed did enough to keep enough of them alive when they didn't have the Department of Conservation looking out for their welfare.

Weka, Rotoroa Island.
If you are looking to find some birds that actually fly, I'd recommend a trip down to Ulva Island south of the town of Oban on Stewart Island. Here you'll find weka but you'll also find plenty of birds that actually use their wings to get airborne. It's a quick ride on a water taxi or ferry and we spent the better part of a day from early morning to mid-afternoon exploring the 3-1/2 hours of trails on the island (the Ulva Island guide available for $2 at the dock measures the trails in minutes, not miles). 

So what kind of birds can you find on Ulva Island? Well, it all depends on where you are. Spend time on the beach and you are liable to find orange and black (all the way down to the eyes) oystercatchers poking around between the rocks in search of food. You might also hear (and you are much likely to hear before seeing) the whooshing sounds made by a New Zealand wood pigeon or two (or three) trying to get the attention of a mate. These are the biggest (and likely most attractive) pigeons I'd ever seen in my life and their mating ritual, which involves flying noisily about maybe 10 feet above the forest and then seemingly falling straight down into the woods like bags of wet cement was the strangest way I've seen to garner the attention of the opposite sex. Although we humans do some pretty odd things too.

But if you want to get a good look at an incredible array of gorgeous species, most of which are about impossible to photograph, head into the woods. We missed out on good pictures of fantails, tūī and saddlebacks, although we got blurry ones of the latter two. These things move too darned fast and won't sit still for us tourists. What are they thinking?

New Zealand wood pigeon. That is not a small tree. These things are bigger than your average pigeon.
I'm disappointed we didn't get even a reasonably bad picture of any of the many, many fantails we saw on Ulva Island (in addition to the ones we saw on Rotoroa Island and in Te Anau). While not brightly colored like some other species we saw, these birds as their name suggests are able to spread their tail feathers like a fan to draw attention to themselves. For me, they were one of the enduring images on New Zealand. Unfortunately, they flit from branch to branch so quickly that it's impossible to get a camera lens on them. I need to be a better photographer. 

But we did get some great looks at some parrots and some parakeets and that was worth missing out on a good picture of a fantail here and there. Parrots, you say? Aren't those birds found in the tropics, which New Zealand and particularly Ulva Island at almost 47 degrees south latitude (the tropics end at 23.5 degrees), are most definitely not? Well I'm sure they are but New Zealand boasts three species of parrot as well. We saw the kea on our trip to Milford Sound scampering up our car windshield. On Ulva Island, we hoped to see the kãkã, a mostly brown parrot with hints of red and orange on the head. 

And see them we did. They are all over the place, sometimes in twos and threes in the canopies overhead. The trees admittedly make it difficult to get a good look at these birds because they tend to stay in the highest branches which makes you look about straight up through tens of different limbs to see a darkish colored bird clambering about a long way from the where you are on the ground.

But stay after it and you might find one from the right angle on one of Ulva Island's paths to get a great look and some good pictures. We managed to do that with the bird shown above, who we watched clamber about the branches of trees for about 15 minutes until he or she decided to stop and strip some bark off the limb above, presumably in search of food. The lighting in the back of the kākā almost makes it seem like I've pasted the bird into the photograph but that's not true. Thank goodness for the fantastic camera that we brought with us. The Nikon COOLPIX P900 we bought a couple of years ago continues to pay dividends.

This is the first trip I have ever taken where I've seen parrots in the wild (and yes, we also saw some parakeets on our day trip to Ulva Island) and while the kea and the kākā do not have the colors that some of the more famous parrots from Central and South America, it was something I wouldn't have expected to see this far south on the globe. Need to make sure I make a note to see some of their cousins on a future trip, right below the toucans on that same list. 

New Zealand parakeet or kākāriki, Ulva Island.
If you make it all the way down to Stewart Island and Ulva Island, I'd suggest one more bird-watching trip and that's to hop in a boat and head out to sea a little. There are some pretty impressive birds out there on the right sorts of days.

I've seen plenty of seabirds on any number of trips out to watch whales or on ferries or fishing boats (I was way younger when that happened) or even on a massive cruise ship off the coast of Alaska and Canada. Heck, I've even seen plenty of them from the shore in many locations including most recently off the coast of Washington state. But I've never seen anything like we saw off the coast of New Zealand this past March.

All told, we spent about 90 minutes way out on the ocean off Oban in a small boat with a skipper, two other passengers and a giant orange bucket of chum. No, we were not out searching for sharks or something like that but we were looking for something with a voracious appetite. We also deliberately went on a windy day because the windier it is, the greater the chance of seeing some of the largest birds on our planet: albatrosses.

Not an albatross. Two shags on the way out to find the albatrosses.
New Zealand was not the first place on the planet I'd been where we had the chance to see an albatross in person. There are a species of these birds in the Galápagos Islands but unbeknownst to us when we booked that trip they are only found on one of the islands. And it wasn't one of the ones we were visiting.

There's a romanticism to the life of an albatross. I'm sure some of my personal fascination with these birds comes from one of my favorite poems ever, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the protagonist of the tale shoots and kills an albatross, a traditional bringer of good luck, with his crossbow and brings ruin upon his whole crew and himself. I was pretty sure we were in for none of that on our couple of hours ride out of Stewart Island.

Outside of the mythology surrounding Coleridge's slain albatross, these creatures are the ultimate ocean flyers. They can stay for months out on the open water, flying as much as 100,000 miles or more in a single year. Basically when they are not breeding or raising chicks, they are in flight or at rest on the open ocean. And that's over the course of 40 plus years for some individuals, meaning over a typical lifespan, they can travel 40 million miles or more. And they are enormous. Royal albatrosses can reach wingspans of about 12 feet.

I've been on a number of nature trips where the conventional wisdom was that we would see tons of whatever type of animal or bird we were hoping to spot and found instead pretty much nothing. If there's a bird that symbolizes this sort of futility, it would be the flamingo, a bird I've chased on three continents without a close look at the species in mass. It would not be that way with the albatross this past March. After all, we had a bucket of chum consisting of some choice blue cod scraps. What could go wrong?

All eyes on the chum. 11 albatross waiting for a free snack. There are others off camera.
One of the things albatross have come to realize is that where there are boats, there are fish. So they have a habit of finding fishing boats and following them hoping to snatch their catch or benefit from the discarding of the undesirable (to humans) fish parts. There is every chance the boat we were on has been and is used for fish so naturally we drew some attention from a couple of birds. But once we stopped the engine and started tossing fish parts into the water, we drew a pretty good sized crowd.

I hate the notion that I am participating in any activity that turns wild animals into beggars but let's face it, that's pretty much what I did on this day. I guess we fed a good number of birds but we also did it to get a close up look at them, including the way they squabbled over the fish thrown into the ocean.

The albatross we saw that day were primarily lesser albatrosses or mollymawks, although we did see maybe one or two Buller's albatross. The mollymawks are not the giant albatrosses we had hoped to find but with a wingspan of about six to eight feet they are not tiny either. When they are at rest on the ocean, these birds are about the most serious looking, well put together animals out there. There is not a feather out of place on their entire bodies, but particularly on their heads. It's almost as if they have been made up super precisely. The eternally furrowed brow and the horizontal line each bird has on the sides of their faces almost makes it seem like their beaks are held on with string which has made an indelible mark on the birds' heads. They also all look exactly the same, although I'm sure all humans look the same to the albatrosses. 

Is this a serious face or what?
But we didn't travel all that way to see an albatross sitting on the water. We wanted to see them fly. And when they did it was truly amazing.

Our boat was followed by a number of different species of birds that morning. After all, it wasn't just the albatrosses that wanted a free meal. Some of these birds, like the shags and cormorants and gulls, worked hard to keep up, flapping their wings furiously to keep pace with the speed at which our engine was propelling us through the water. The albatrosses cruised, barely moving their wings while managing to easily outpace any other bird trying way harder than they were.

This was truly amazing to see. Sure there was a wing flap here and there with the albatrosses but by and large, they floated on the wind in a way that was embarrassing to pretty much every other species of bird out there.

Floated isn't really the right word because it's not like they hung in the air in one spot. They dove and soared closer and further from the water and sped up and slowed down as they wanted to without seemingly moving their wings at all. Now I'm sure that's not quite true. I am positive there were minor adjustments imperceptible to me, that took advantage of warmer and cooler air and strong and weaker currents, or something like that. Their bodies are so extremely well adapted to live in the air on the open oceans. At one point we watched an albatross chasing the boat for what seemed like five minutes (but was probably about three) and the bird didn't flap once. He (or she) just hung and followed. Fast.

If the wind had been stronger that day, maybe we would have seen some larger birds. While the albatross is a gorgeous bird in flight, its landings and takeoffs leave something to be desired. When you get up to 12 feet of wingspan it's pretty much impossible to take off from the surface of the ocean without a pretty strong gust of wind. We were told it would need to be much windier to make the largest albatrosses come close enough to get some free fish. Or we'd need to go much further out to sea.

Before I close this post...a word about penguins. Actually much more than one word. If there was a flamingo of this New Zealand trip, it was the penguin. And you know that doesn't mean anything good.

Yellow-eyed penguin. The one we saw. And eyes closed of course. :)
We had high hopes in the birds department for this trip. I hope that's obvious. By and large, they worked out well. Kiwis? Check! Flightless (land) birds? Plenty of those. Parrots? Yep, two of the three available species sighted. Wood pigeon? Didn't know there was a pigeon that big but yes, got it. Albatross? Very happy with the results. We just needed a few penguins here and there. And by a few, I mean a lot. Like tons. Expectations too high? Maybe. Thinking big with nature doesn't always work out.

There are a few species of penguin living in New Zealand, predominantly the little blue penguin, the yellow-eyed penguin and the Fiordland crested penguin. We visited Fiordland. We didn't see penguins.

Stewart Island was the furthest south we went in New Zealand so we figured we would have the best shot at seeing penguins there so we asked around when we arrived: where do we see these things? 

The answer in the town of Oban from everyone that we talked to (and I really do mean EVERYONE) was that you can spy little blue penguins returning from their day of fishing at dusk down by the town dock. It sounded like a sure thing. We spent three nights on Stewart Island at a hotel not far from the dock so we spent every evening from anywhere from an hour to 30 minutes before dusk to when we couldn't see anything any more alternately scanning the harbor and staring at the rocks near the shoreline looking for any sign of penguin activity. 

Know how many penguins we saw down at the town docks? Zero. And we weren't the only people down there. There was a crowd anywhere in size from 10 to 20 people each night. And nobody saw a thing. We are convinced the entire permanent population of Oban watches and laughs at all the tourists each night when they send us all down to the town docks. 

Penguin watching. Or more accurately not penguin watching.
Our last shot at penguins was our boat ride that was so successful with the albatross sightings and legitimately we did see some penguins. Like seven or so. At a great distance. Am I disappointed? Yes. Do I have any right to be? No way. Absolutely not!

Now admittedly, we did see two different species of penguin in those seven or so individuals: one yellow-eyed penguin and about six or so little blue penguins. The yellow-eyed penguin was a solitary individual standing on a rock with his eyes closed. Not that we were close enough to see the yellow eyes anyway, but I'm taking our captain's word for it on this species identification. The picture is above. He looks fluffy because he's molting. I assume the rest of the family was out fishing.

And the little blue penguins? Just heads in the water while they were out in the ocean, alternately visible and then invisible as the waves rolled and the boat turned. Never saw a whole one in the three days we were down on Stewart Island. The best look we got at these birds is shown below. The look was so poor that I had to post a picture with a piece of my finger in the upper left corner. 

Two little blue penguins.
I shouldn't complain like this. I know how fickle and unpredictable nature can be and I've said so many times on this blog. 

We came to New Zealand to see birds and we obviously saw tons. It is rare that I include 16 pictures in a single blog post but this one has that many (admittedly one is of a glass of beer) which I think is a testament to the quantity and quality of bird sightings we had. And I had to leave some pictures on the cutting room floor. We saw pretty much everything we wanted to see in New Zealand except for tons and tons of penguins. And even then, we did see penguins. By every account this trip was fantastically successful from a bird watching standpoint. 

I'm not sure when the next bird watching trip is. It certainly isn't likely to be in 2019 with our trips for the rest of the year planned. But one thing is for sure: what started in Africa got stoked here a little in New Zealand and I now have one or two more birding trips in me I'm thinking. Got to get some more toucans at least into my future. 

How We Did It
Our birdwatching activities in New Zealand ranged over the entire country but were pretty much concentrated in two spots: Rotoroa Island and Stewart Island. I've already detailed how we got to Rotoroa Island when I wrote about tramping in New Zealand so I'll refer you to that post for how we did it.

We stayed on Stewart Island for three nights which made our trip to Ulva Island and our morning albatross-watching trip convenient for us. We took the Ulva Island Ferry over to Ulva Island first thing in the morning (at 9 a.m. if I'm remembering correctly) and took the 2:15 p.m. ferry back which gave us about five hours on the Island itself. I'd say that was about the right amount of time over there. If you go over lunch, take your own and bring everything back with you; there is no food for sale on the island and you shouldn't leave any trash over there. The Ulva Island Ferry leaves from Golden Bay. Check the Stewart Island website for the latest schedule and cost before you go. There are precious few places to buy lunch to go first thing in the morning but the Four Square grocery store in town sells pre-made sandwiches.

There are also water taxis available from Stewart Island if you want to go on your own schedule. I can't recommend those because we didn't take one except as noted below.

For our albatross and penguin (barely) watching trip, we booked ahead before our arrival with a company who cancelled the trip on us due to weather. Or more accurately said they were thinking about cancelling and then never texted us as they promised. We switched to Rakiura Charters and booked their half day Pelagic Bird Tour which was outstanding. Everyone we interfaced with at Rakuira Charters was fantastic and our captain, Mack, took great care of us while we were out on the water. I can't say enough good things about this company. The cost of the tour wasn't cheap, but then neither is any other tour on Stewart Island. If you need a water taxi to Ulva Island, Rakuira can take care of that for you also.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

There And Back Again

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

So begins J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 novel The Hobbit. For a while, oh...let's say seven or eight or years or so, I read The Hobbit every Christmas when I was home with my parents for the holidays from school or my job in upstate New York. The copy I owned (and still own) is the 50th anniversary edition bound and boxed appropriately in gold with full color illustrations of Tolkien's own drawings. It cost me $9.50 at the Dawn Treader bookstore in Ann Arbor. I know this because the price is still written in pencil on the first page of the book. Suffice it to say, I love this book.

What does all that have to do with my travel project, you might ask? Well, there's a place in New Zealand where the not nasty / dirty / wet, nor dry / bare / sandy hole from The Hobbit exists. Sort of. So do a lot of other hobbit-holes. Sort of. There's a whole hill of them, with rocking chairs out front and ponds between them and paths connecting them. There's even a mill of sorts and a tavern. And it's all completely made up and fake and it's also completely awesome.

When it came time for director Peter Jackson to adapt Tolkien's three-volume Lord of the Rings epic novel into a series of three films, he elected to transform his home country of New Zealand into Middle Earth. Mount Ngauruhoe became Mount Doom, Fiordland National Park became Fangorn Forest, the Southern Alps became the Misty Mountains and a small part of a cow farm near Matamata was transformed into a slice of the Shire. The Hobbiton part, to be precise. 

The first glimpse of Hobbiton.
So the story of Hobbiton starts with Jackson and some assistants combing the countryside of New Zealand looking for a patch of land with a hill, a lake and a big tree on top of the hill and somehow, someway they decided that about 1% of a farmer's field in the middle of nowhere was the spot they had to have. How this happens I have no idea. Why this field? How were they even in a field in Matamata to begin with? Did they roam all over every square inch of the country? Really? I mean, really? Of course I could have asked all these questions of our bus driver, but I did not. Complete fail.

Our journey to Hobbiton started in Auckland. And yes, since we had a bus driver we obviously took a bus. I mean, why not? It was either that or drive ourselves which was just out of the question for us in the first few days we were in country on the north island. South island later on in the week? Sure. Drive out of Auckland. Don't think so.

The ride from Auckland is about two hours to the visitors center and then it's a timed, guided tour from there. Seems restrictive? I thought it would be too and it's really not. There was plenty of time to see everything with maybe one last bit which we'll get to.

Our tour started with our guide, Mike, who read us the rules of the road and anointed us all hobbits for the hour plus that we were under his care. This was important because any time anyone fell a little behind the tour we'd be admonished with a cry of "come on, my hobbits!" It should be noted that we were hobbits in name only and did not get to dress up, especially not in the real bonafide movie version of the costumes because that would have taken two hours. We didn't have that much time.

After our quick orientation, we were off into Hobbiton proper, starting with the spot where Gandalf stopped his cart after Frodo Baggins told him he was late at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. And as we well know, a wizard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.

It is difficult for me to convey how a place so artificial and non-natural can inspire such wonder in me, but walking through the gap in the trees and taking my first steps onto a path in Hobbiton was incredible. I know it's a movie set that is supposed to look perfect and ideal but honestly I had no idea it would make me think something like "Oh my God! I'm in Hobbiton!" I know it's completely made up, but it worked on me.

The initial view of Hobbiton is shown two pictures above. You can see the whole place all the way up to the massive (and not real) tree at the top of the hill, which is right on top of Bag End. Between Bilbo Baggins' place and where you are standing are tens of hobbit-holes with different colored (and as it turns out different sized) painted round doors. One thing you struggle to see is tons and tons of fellow tourists, which I was truly surprised about. Sure there were some there, but the majority were well hidden by the undulating paths climbing the hill.

The details are incredible. Chairs and tables in the front yards. Freshly baked bread (not really...but it looked real) left to cool off and newly caught fish (again, not really but...) drying on a line outside the fishmonger's house. Giant vegetables (again, not real) in wheelbarrows lined with straw. Paper lanterns hanging to light the paths at night. A village notice board with advertisements of fiddle lessons and the Buckland Fair. Clothes hanging on washing lines. And the smoke from the chimneys. Which isn't really logs burning in a fire because it doesn't look as smoke-like as the fake stuff.

And I know making fantasy seem like reality is what the people who made this place are paid to do. It still doesn't make it any less amazing. We were in The Shire. There's no doubt in my mind.

Samwise Gamgee's place...
and Bag End, home of Bilbo Baggins and, later, his nephew, Frodo.
Most of the attraction here is being transported to a place that exists that has no business existing. There's a fascination in seeing, smelling, touching (not everything...just a few things) and taking in everything about a place that has before this only been real in your mind's eye and in the films you have watched, whether it's the super excellent Lord of the Rings trilogy or the why-was-it-three-films-again? adaptation of The Hobbit. But it's also fun to have some inside scoop on how this all came together.

We got a little. First of all, the place was first opened for visits after the Lord of the Rings was released. Then when the decision to make The Hobbit was made, they had to stop tours and rebuild the place. The tree at the top of the hill? As I already mentioned it's not real but originally it was. Or sort of. It was once a real tree but it wasn't in the location needed to they took apart a real tree and re-assembled it on the top of Bag End. They added the leaves by hand. Every. Leaf. By. Hand.

Speaking of trees...Tolkien mentioned plum trees in the books. Only plum trees don't scale right with hobbit-holes in the movies. Too big. You will only find citrus and apple trees in Hobbiton today but there are apparently plum trees in the movies. Again, sort of. There are actually apple trees with fake plums attached to the branches with wires. 

And the road we drove in on? Built by the New Zealand Army a long time ago before the same Army served as soldiers in the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers. The directors had to tell them to back off a little during the battle sequence so they wouldn't harm each other.

And then there are those hobbit-holes, which I've already mentioned are different sizes. It's true. And it's not because different sized hobbits live in them. It's all for the camera angles. It's all about the camera!! Some hobbit-hole doors are hobbit sized, some are human sized and some won't fit either hobbits or humans through them. Like me. Below.

So there are some hobbit-holes that you can go into and some that you can't then right?

Wrong! You can't go into any of them. Not a single one.

Now, I know what you are thinking: the picture right above here that I just pointed out after I said some doors were human sized shows me exiting a hobbit-hole, right? Nope. Wrong again! That door doesn't move. It's open just wide enough so tourists who have nothing better to do in New Zealand can get their picture taken appearing to step out of their very own hobbit-hole can do it. Did I mention by the way there are more tourists going through Hobbiton each year than any other spot in New Zealand?

If there was a disappointment for me here, it was this. And I have no idea why I thought I had any business to think that the doors of Bag End would open into a fully built out hobbit-hole. I mean OF COURSE they filmed all the interior scenes on a set somewhere. What else would they do? I'm a dummy. Apparently Bag End is painted to three feet inside of the door but that's it. No exploring Bilbo's pantries or larders or throwing a ring into his fireplace to see if there were runes on it.

But there is The Green Dragon.

That's right. Once you pass through Hobbiton and walk past the village notice board and the truly amazing and perfectly put together (but totally fake) mill, there's The Green Dragon, the most famous pub in Hobbiton. And yes, it's right next to the festival field so there's plenty of overflow space when Tooks and Brandybucks and Gamgees and Proudfoots (or is it Proudfeet?) and Boffins and Bolgers descend on the place for a pint or two of ale. Or I guess it's really something smaller than a pint since Pippin was surprised it came in pints when he stopped into the Prancing Pony in Bree. Right?

The Green Dragon is the only building in Hobbiton that you can enter and stay in and sit in and certainly the only one where you can have a beer. My impression is that you get a drink token with the price of your admission because that's what came with our tour (I could be wrong...). One token gets you one drink of beer, cider or ginger beer (ginger beer is everywhere in New Zealand) and all four drinks (there are two varieties of beer) are custom brewed for Hobbiton and Hobbiton only. 

You can see my dilemma already I'm sensing. One token and two types of beer. That math doesn't work for me. Ale or stout? Stout or ale?

Fortunately, additional cups of ale or stout are available for an additional fee. Or apparently they are if Don is around because Don somehow collects all the money. Don wasn't around when I was in there so I got my second for free. I'm lucky sometimes, what can I say.

One cup of ale and one cup of stout. Perfect! It (correctly) does not come in pints at The Green Dragon. 
The beer is the product of New Zealand's own Good George Brewing. And you know I'm going to review the beer. 

Now I'm not sure how the hobbits (who have never been real; have to keep reminding myself) flavored their beer but I imagine a pretty simple beer is what makes a hobbit happy. And if simple's what you want, I'd go with the ale because it was for sure that. Not a bad beer. I've certainly had worse. Just plan, is all.

Want a little more flavor? I'd opt for the stout which has some coffee notes and was on every level far more tasty than the ale. I could have had a few cups of this (after all, it's not even a pint) and sat for a while if our tour had allowed us the time but they rushed us along. Both the stout and the ale seemed very heavily carbonated and it's not a New Zealand thing I don't think because no other beer I supped while over there was this carbonated.

After The Green Dragon you're done, unless you have purchased a lunch on your tour (we had) or you want to buy souvenirs of Hobbiton at the gift store on the way out (we did). It lasted all of maybe an hour and a half and it's completely fake. But it was completely awesome at the same time. I have never been anywhere simultaneously so pointless and so incredible. We visited The Shire. I'm sure of it. Even though I know it's not real and never will be. Sometimes we need to suspend belief sometimes and live in our imaginations. Hobbiton for me was for sure one of these times. 

This post is about Hobbiton but if 90 minutes there doesn't scratch that Tolkien itch enough for you, there are tons more places to go in New Zealand to experience more. I am sure there is every variety of tour company that can take you to filming location after filming location to get your fill and more of all things Hobbit and LOTR. We went smaller scale, including one which is completely free. Well, completely free if you happen to be flying through Wellington International Airport.

What other time am I going to get my picture taken holding a troll's big toe?
Most of the props and models including models of Helm's Deep and Gondor and the arms and armor used by most every character in all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies were conceptualized and built at the Weta Workshop just south and east of downtown Wellington. The workshop today is still involved in blockbuster movie and television production but also runs tours of their place for those of us determined to get more Middle Earth on our vacation.

No photos on the inside portion of the tour but it did get us a look at and a feel of some of the armor and arms made for the films and some stories about the tricks used to make the whole thing come to life. There is maybe a little too much information shared in some spots especially the story about the dwarf milk made of sweat and talcum powder squeezed from the body suit of some of the dwarf characters in The Hobbit. Not a good visual.

And yes, the three trolls that Bilbo turned to stone by making them argue until the sun came up about the best way to eat the dwarfs are all there outside the studio. The trolls are in their pre-stone form but because they aren't real they may as well be stone. What other time are you going to be able to walk right up to a troll and get a picture.

If you manage to make it to Weta Workshop and have to fly into or out of Wellington, you might notice a pair of eagles flying over the food court and Gandalf sitting on the back of one of the two birds. If there's any place where the entwined identity of New Zealand and Middle Earth comes together for me, it's here. Where else does an airport have a tourist attraction like this? Grab a sandwich, a bag of Bluebird salt and vinegar crisps and maybe a bottle of L&P and hang out below some movie props while waiting for your flight. I don't know of many better ways to spend time at an airport.

Apparently before the eagles were in the airport they had a giant Gollum sculpture. Sorry we missed that but the eagles were cool enough. But neither the eagles nor the Weta Workshop topped Hobbiton. That place was one of the highlights of our trip to New Zealand. Even if it is completely fake.

How We Did It
There are any number of ways to get to Hobbiton but all of them probably involve driving there. I'm sure it's easy to get there in a car once you get out of Auckland but we decided to bus there. There are many many bus trips you can take. Sign on to Viator and search for Hobbiton and you'll find any number of different options. My search while writing this post found 60!

We opted to go to Hobbiton with GreatSights because they offered a tour that started in Auckland, stopped at Hobbiton and Waitomo Caves (home of the famous glowworms) and ended in Rotorua. Since our first stop in New Zealand was in Auckland for three nights and we planned to spend the same amount of time in Rotorua as our second stop, knocking off a couple of our must sees while being driven from one place to the next was ideal. Instead of a day trip from Auckland followed by a day of transit to Rotorua, we managed to take care of two things in one trip. I'm sure there are probably other companies that make the same journey but I can say that other than not showing up at our hotel on time to pick us up (which I guess is kind of a big deal) this company was fantastic. They were super clear about schedule and transfers which I appreciated. And if Raphael is your driver from Auckland to Hobbiton say hi for me. He was fantastic.

If you end up in Wellington and want to get to the Weta Workshop, there is a shuttle bus that takes you from downtown Wellington to the Workshop. There are two tours offered when you get out there: one through the Weta Cave which shows you a lot of their model making capabilities, including some props developed for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and one through their set for the Thunderbirds revival which, as a former Thunderbirds fan growing up in England, brought back memories. The entire experience was about four or five hours from start to finish. There are several options for departure and return times. Check their website for details.

Finally, if you are even just passing through Wellington International Airport on a rushed connection, go see the eagles. Just for five minutes. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Porridge, Pies & Pavlova

It's been a couple of years since I've written a country-wide post about food so I think it's about time. The last trip that yielded one of these was Japan in 2017 and honestly the places we've been since then were either uninspiring from a food standpoint; repeats of past trips; or filled with not quite enough awesome eats to fill a whole post. New Zealand broke that mold.

Not familiar with New Zealand food? Neither was I. I quite frankly wouldn't have been able to intelligently articulate anything about food from that country more than maybe six months ago. But some advance research, some paying attention along the way and refusing to back down from anything that sounds like I've never heard of it before got me some interesting meals and snacks. So here are a few words about food and drink from our latest excursion. OK, maybe more than a FEW. And the drink is not what you think, I'm guessing.


I'm starting with breakfast, I guess. If the above picture isn't the prettiest bowl of porridge you've ever seen, then you didn't grow up in England in the 1970s eating Ready Brek.

At its most basic level, porridge is ground starch or grains of some sort mixed with milk or water. Before New Zealand my experience with the stuff was limited to instant oat cereal made with hot milk and maybe a dollop of jam on top for some flavor other than the standard sugar that could be sprinkled all over the top to sweeten it up a little. The kiwis are taking this stuff to a whole new level. Polenta porridge with lime and macadamia nuts? Yes, please! Yummy!! And with a iced chocolate drink on the side. What a way to start the day.

As frou frou as this bowl sounds (edible pink flowers? really?), it was actually delicious and I would have loved more but it was honestly pretty difficult to find porridge on menus. An internet search for the stuff yielded some advice on where to head including a dedicated porridge restaurant which it appeared had closed. I mean, I might have had a craving for the stuff while we were in country but I don't see a restaurant surviving long exclusively serving this dish. If my one New Zealand bowl was the last one I have, I'm happy with my lifelong porridge experience. 

The Dairy

Ever since I visited Japan, I've been curious about convenience stores all over the world. If you have no idea what I mean by this, go to Japan and spend some time in a 7-11 or FamilyMart. Tell me you can't walk out of either one of those places with like eight or ten delicious food items.

In New Zealand, the convenience store is more often known as the dairy, even though it has nothing to do with milk or cheese or anything else related to dairy production. Some of the things we found here were purposeful pilgrimages; others were accidents. I think a quick couple of sentences or so is worthwhile for each item that we found there.

I hate to keep bringing up Japan like it was one of the best trips of my life (although it was) but one of my favorite Japanese snacks are strawberry Pocky Sticks, thin sticks of cookie coated with oh so delicious faux strawberry creme. Imagine my surprise when I saw what looked to be a dead on knockoff in boxes of Lucky Stick. The cookie sticks are thicker, meaning the cookie to strawberry ratio is higher. I'm in it for the strawberry; higher cookie ratio is bad. Just one box here for me.

I cannot explain Chocolate Fish being marshmallow covered in chocolate but I'd eat these things occasionally in the U.S. if they made their way stateside. I mean who doesn't love flavored marshmallow and chocolate? If they did ever make their way to America, they'd have to lose the "as kiwi as jandals" slogan. Don't ask. I cannot explain this either. 

Any hankering for dark chocolate with orange candy shells? See, you didn't even know these things existed but I got you thinking now. Jaffas were probably the hit of our dairy exploration. Dark chocolate and orange is a classic combination. Or maybe fake orange if you prefer me to be more accurate. Good stuff.

If there was a supreme disappointment in New Zealand convenience store fare, it was Pineapple Lumps. Yes, I know the name sucks. Who would really want to eat anything called "lumps"? But pineapple flavored whatever coated in chocolate? On the scale of awesomeness, how could this do anything but rate "supremely awesome"? 

It wasn't. Honestly, I felt like I was chewing chemicals eating these things. Totally disgusting and totally disappointing. The most disappointing thing about New Zealand by far. I threw half of the bag away. And I really had to choke down the first half. I take notes when I travel. My notes about Pineapple Lumps read "gummy and unpleasant". And there was such possibility...

Lemon & Paeroa 

Sure, I could have put this in the same section as the rest of the delicacies and disgustingness I found at the dairies but I decided not to. L&P is the only drink I'm featuring in this post and it deserves its own spot. You thought I was going to write about beer, didn't you?

I would describe Lemon & Paeroa as a cross between lemon-lime soda (although no lime really) and cream soda, but with the cream soda backed off to like 15 or 20% of cream soda-ness. Just a hint of that bite that cream soda sometimes has. I don't drink soda really ever, and certainly not non-diet soda, but I had three L&Ps when I was in New Zealand. If I could find this stuff locally, I'd buy some every now and then. I'd put it in the same soda category as Faygo Rock & Rye and Vernor's ginger ale. And yes, that's some high praise.


If there's a kiwi food that deserves a special place in the food of the world pantheon, it's New Zealand's hand pies, mobile hot pockets of savory deliciousness. Now, this is not the first time I've written about the joy of pies. I had plenty of steak and ale and chicken and mushroom and every other kind of pie in England in 2014 and 2016 (even if I didn't write about it that last year). But whereas you need a knife and fork and plate and plenty of gravy and some time to digest what you've eaten in a pub in Britain, New Zealand's pies are an on the go food.

How's that work, you might ask? Well, folks that make these things have made the insides solid enough (yet still moist) so that you can bite into them without the whole filling (or even a part of it) dripping out and onto the floor, sidewalk or, worse still, you. Does that inhibit the flavor? Not as far as I can tell. At least two of the pies I ate in New Zealand were some of the finest bites I had on this trip.

Mince and cheese pie in Rotorua. Almost gone and no mess. Genius!!
These things are pretty much everywhere. We found them in supermarkets just waiting to be taken away and eaten (I did), in dairies ready for a quick meal while walking to wherever you are going (we didn't do this), in dedicated pie shops (so good...) and in honest to goodness full blown restaurants. The variety is astonishing but they are generally flavored in the British style but lighter, meaning beef and chicken with mushrooms and even butter chicken (albeit the kiwis somehow dump a ton of sugar in their butter chicken; not sure why) but without all the artery clogging fat or suet in the crust. Or at least I like to think so anyway.

The other great benefit of New Zealand pies? The smaller size means they are cheaper. The best pie I had during out two weeks in country cost me just $4.90. That's $4.90 New Zealand dollars, meaning about $3.25 U.S. These are the one food I miss on a weekly basis since we got back. Someone in the Washington, D.C. area needs to open a New Zealand pie shop and quick!

Hokey Pokey Ice Cream

I don't normally eat ice cream when I travel. Not that I don't like it or anything; it's just not part of my regular diet. True, I spent pretty much all of my time in Italy four years ago looking for gelato, but never since. 

Until New Zealand. I knew about hokey pokey ice cream before we landed in New Zealand and pretty much the first time I saw an ice cream stand the day we got there I was over at the counter checking to see if they had some. They didn't. But we found some on day two in country after a tramp to the top of One Tree Hill. There's a creamery at the bottom of the hill, in case you are interested.

Hokey pokey ice cream is vanilla ice cream with small pieces of honeycomb toffee to provide some crunch (and which WILL get stuck in your teeth) and some extra flavor when you are working your way through a cone or bowl of plain vanilla. It's apparently the number two selling flavor of ice cream in New Zealand after (you guessed it) vanilla. It's a rite of passage to get some I guess. I settled for one bowl while I was over there, although we did get some on the airplane ride home across the Pacific.

Fun facts: hokey pokey was apparently a slang term for ice cream sold by street vendors in New York City during the 19th century. It's also the generic term for anything honeycomb in New Zealand. My beloved Crunchie candy bars that I get every time I go to England are also available in New Zealand but instead of the wrapper advertising honeycomb covered in chocolate, it's hokey pokey covered in chocolate.


So after working your way through Chocolate Fish, a box of Lucky Stick, maybe some hokey pokey ice cream and some Jaffas but definitely no Pineapple Lumps, are you finally done with the sugar in New Zealand? Not until you've had some pavlova, you aren't. 

Pavlova was invented either in New Zealand or Australia (yes, there's a debate about this) to celebrate a visit by the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova to the two countries in the late 1920's. It's pretty much completely made out of meringue and whipped cream with a little fruit scattered on top or around the sides (to make it seem healthy I guess?). The trick with this dessert is getting the ingredients and the bake right to have the meringue crisp on the outside and the cooked to the texture of marshmallow on the inside. The whipped cream can then be piled on top to complete the effort.

This stuff is pretty darned good. I'll take this over a trip to the dairy or some almost vanilla ice cream any day. Plus the fruit makes it healthy, right?

Muttonbird and Paua

No trip to a foreign country would be complete without at least a little bit of adventurousness at the breakfast, lunch or dinner table. If there's something I've never heard of or a vegetable or animal I have heard of but have never seen on a menu, I'm mostly all in. I've tried springbok in Zimbabwe, guinea pig in Ecuador, runny and mold-covered cheese in Paris and who knows what it was I ate in Marrakech. In New Zealand, it was muttonbird and paua. Not together.

So I get that neither of these dishes was particularly out there on the strangeness scale but you have to work with what you are given. Muttonbird is the name given to the meat of the sooty shearwater seabirds that make their home on the islands around New Zealand. The meat apparently tasted to someone like mutton and hence the name. If you find some on a menu like we did way down on Stewart Island, give it a try but know that the bird has been harvested as a baby from the nest while its parents are off fishing for food for the day. Nice, right? The meat is dark with a deep flavor of red meat, albeit it a little dry like most wild meat tends to be. This is a truly New Zealand dish; I'm not sure you are getting young sooty shearwaters on too many menus outside the country. The image above is a plate of muttonbird artfully arranged with some side vegetables.

Paua, on the other hand, is a type of mollusk. If you remotely play tourist in New Zealand, you will find the iridescent shells of the paua for sale in pretty much every city you visit. Paua is a Māori word for the giant sea snails that live close to the shore of the country; in other places in the world, they might be called abalone, if that means anything to you. I had my one plate of paua in a restaurant in Wellington the first night we were in that city. I am not sure the dish I had was representative of the general quality of this meat; if it is, I can't imaging a lot of people would eat it all that often. I'd characterize its texture as rubbery, not unlike poorly cooked squid. I'd take muttonbird over paua, but I'm not really hankering for either as I write this.

A dish of paua with clams. The paua are the mushroom looking things. If only they WERE mushrooms...
So that's my food report on New Zealand. No it's not the culinary wonderland that is Japan, but there's enough here worth seeking out even if it's just a pie washed down with an L&P and finished with a big plate of pavlova.

The cover picture of this post is me downing a colossal cream and caramel donut at the Thursday Night Market in Rotorua. While the food there is not particularly New Zealand specific, the atmosphere, the choice of dishes and the prices made Thursday night in the Māori capital of the country one of the more enjoyable food experiences we had while we were over there. I'd recommend scheduling a Rotorua trip around Thursday night just for this market.

How We Did It
I am fairly sure that if you visit New Zealand you can find some of the kiwi delicacies in this post with just a little searching, if you even have to exert that much effort. Although maybe not the muttonbird. In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, however, we felt the following places served us outstanding food while we were in country and we would recommend you seek these places out if you are in the neighborhood and have a hankering.

If you are in Rotorua and you want a great pie, head over to Gold Star Bakery at 89 Old Taupo Road. These were definitely the best pies we had in our two weeks in New Zealand. And at just $4.90 NZ, they were also the cheapest. I can highly recommend the Mince & Cheese. If I lived or worked in Rotorua, I'd eat here a lot. Like four or five days a week.

The only other pie spot I'd recommend (and I know this is a total curveball) is the food counter at the Invercargill Airport. I know it sounds really weird to have airport food endorsed but the chicken, mushroom and leek pie was amazing. And don't worry about which food counter at the airport I'm talking about; there's only one. Just like there's only one door to the runway.

If you want the prettiest bowl of porridge ever shown above, make your way to Chuffed Coffee at 43 High Street in Auckland. There's only one porridge option offered there and I can't speak to the rest of the menu (because we both got the porridge) but that dish was pretty darned good. I'd definitely eat it again even with the bananas which are not by any means my favorite fruit (in fact I pretty much avoid them everywhere...except in Ecuador).

Seeking some good pavlova? We got some at the South Sea Hotel on Stewart Island and took the picture in this post above. We might have more pavlova recommendations (because honestly who doesn't like meringue and whipped cream making up 90% of their dessert) if we could have found it more often. The picture above represents exactly half of the pavlova we ate. I definitely would have tried more if it was available where we ate.

Finally, because I know it's probably not going to be on most menus in New Zealand, I just wanted to give a quick shout out to our hotel, the Church Hill Lodge, for serving mutton bird on their menu. This is the only place we found this dish. If you are in Stewart Island, I'd recommend a meal here, especially because there are like three places to eat dinner on the entire island. Make a reservation.

And if it didn't sink in the first time. if you are ever in Rotorua, go to Gold Star Bakery. You will not regret it. Will not.