Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

On Fiordland, Kakapos and the Fine Art of Cruising Around New Zealand

Dusky Sound, Fiordland
You might have been pondering the merits of indulging in an ocean cruise but never quite
taken the plunge? Well, there are worse ways to spend your time and money. I had been to New Zealand several times and on cruises before but combining the two seemed like a good idea, so we opted for a 14-day sojourn aboard the Sea Princess from January 13 to January 27 - departing from and returning to Brisbane,. That saved the bother of having to fly anywhere. Seabirds seen on the trip are discussed here with pics; this post looks at scenic attractions and the fine art of cruise vacationing.

Fiordland - Doubtful Sound
The highlight of the trip was the glorious scenery of the World Heritage-listed Fiordland National Park in the south-west of the South Island. I had visited Milford Sound twice previously but it is impossible to tire of that part of the world. On this cruise, in addition to Milford, the ship negotiated four other fiords - Dusky Sound and Breaksea Sound (in a south-north one-way diversion from the coast) and Doubtful Sound and Thompson Sound (negotiated in similar fashion further north).

With kakapo in 2002 - Codfish Island 
I was fortunate to have some memorable encounters with the kakapo - one of the world's rarest and most bizarre birds - in 2002 on Codfish Island, not far south of Fiordland (article here). On our cruise through Fiordland, we had on board a NZ Government wildlife expert who explained the significance of landmarks we passed. The flightless Kakapo was once widespread throughout New Zealand but was wiped out on the main islands by an onslaught of stoats and other feral pests. We were shown a spot high in the mountains above Milford Sound where the last of the species on the South Island was seen in the early-1980s. We sailed past Resolution Island where almost a century earlier - in the 1890s - 200 kakapos were moved from the mainland in a bid to save them from foreign predators; the effort was in vain, all the birds were slaughtered within six years of stoats reaching the island in 1900.

Secretary Island in Fiordland
We hugged the eastern shore of Secretary Island where, we were told, exotic deer had been almost eliminated, with just five animals left to dispose of. Moves by the NZ authorities to rid these islands of introduced animals - and put in place management practices to ensure they are not recolonised - is the key to saving kakapo and other threatened wildlife; the New Zealanders are world leaders in the art. We admired the moss-laden beach forests of Anchor Island in Dusky Sound, where kakapos were liberated a decade ago after stoats were eradicated.

Fiordland Coast
A couple of small boats were the only signs of humanity during our time in these more isolated southern fiords. As we left them, we soaked up the splendour of the Fiordland coast as we steamed north towards Milford Sound past an endless panorama of sandy beaches, rocky outcrops, valleys of seemingly impenetrable forest, and snow-capped mountains.

Milford Sound
Milford Sound, the only one of the 14 fiords of Fiordland that can be reached by road, was busier than those further south, as expected, but the views were no less inspiring. This area has some of the highest rainfall in the world and often bad weather prevents cruise liners from accessing the fiords, but fortune had smiled upon us.

Milford Sound
Anyone opting to embark on a cruise needs to make sure they get a room with a balcony. You can watch the ocean and sites from the comfort of a bed, or look for seabirds whenever you feel like it from comfortable balcony chairs.) The staterooms themselves are large, air-conditioned and very comfortable.

Stateroom deck
Cruise stateroom
The cruise ship offers recreational activities ranging from bingo, card tournaments and open air movies to aerobatic classes, carpet bowls and photography lessons. For our part, we didn't bother with the three pools, spa, sauna or much else other than a couple of late night live shows performed by a Freddie Mercury impersonator with a fine voice.

Dinner Time
However, the food managed to command our interest. It's THE thing about cruises. There is an abundance of food at any time of day or night in all shapes and forms. A huge buffet for breakfast, lunch of dinner necessitate a degree of willpower.

Formal Wear Night
We opted for fine dining at a regular table at the same time each evening. Some truly memorable food was enjoyed - think beef wellington, lobster, partridge, fat king prawns - and the service was excellent. Two nights were designated Formal Wear; not usually my style but when in Rome....

Top deck pool, bar and restaurant area
Ship atrium
The Sea Princess is a huge beast. It took some time to work out how to negotiate its 14 levels. Essentially, the heart of the ship is the 4-level atrium; you kind of learn how to get there and back from your room and the rest is automatic pilot after a bit. Beware of the plastic card you are issued that allows you to chalk up expenses. You are allowed to take on board just one bottle of wine per person.

We were at sea for two days after leaving Brisbane before reaching the North Island. The first port of call was New Zealand's biggest city. Auckland cut a fine figure in a blaze of lights reflected on its splendid harbour as we berthed late in the evening. You can opt for one of the cruise's expensive onshore tours at any of the six land stops, or sign up for one much more cheaply at the local tourism bureau when you get off the boat. Or you may simply wander about and do what you want, which is what we did most of the time. Generally the ship is in port for a full day, allowing plenty of time to poke around. In Auckland we visited the Maritime Museum before wandering the city streets for a bit.

Mt Maunganui at Tauranga
The next stop was Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty. Mt Maunganui was a good look here; a walking track around its base was a pleasant diversion. Native birds in the forest along the track included Tui, Grey Gerygone and Bellbird, while Variable Oystercatchers were on the beach.


Variable Oystercatcher
 New Zealand is awash with introduced birds like this Yellowhammer.
Our next stop was the key port of Napier, also on the North Island. The ship looked impressive from a lookout above the wharf.

Sea Princess at Napier
We admired the art deco homes built after the city was wiped out by an earthquake in 1931. Our bus was held up by a fatal car accident while returning to the ship. While waiting, I looked out the window and saw this woman and her dog on her veranda; I thought they looked eerily alike.

Napier- roadside street scene
We were next in the New Zealand capital, Wellington. I had been there before for work and remember it being continuously wet and windy. We were blessed here - as for the entire trip - with perfect weather; mild, wind-free and sunny. We took the cable car from the CBD to the botanic gardens. We wandered down steep suburban back streets(so San Francisco) past stately homes with views to die for before reconnecting with the city's fine harbour esplanade.

After leaving the North Island we moved on to the historic town of Akaroa, near Christchurch. We had been here before so didn't bother going ashore, but it was pleasant enough soaking in the tranquil environs of Banks Peninsula and its surrounding waters.

Akaroa, Banks Peninsula
Our final port was Port Chalmers, near Dunedin. We opted for a local tour to check out sights around town, visiting the small but impressive Lanarche Castle with its awesome view over the harbour. The coastline near Dunedin, as in much of New Zealand, was never boring.

Coast near Dunedin

Lanarche Castle Dunedin

View from Lanarche Castle to Port Chalmers
 After leaving Milford Sound, it is 3 days sailing across the Tasman Sea to return to Brisbane.

Heading Home Across the Tasman


  1. Your blog brought back many memories Greg. What a wonderful 2 weeks you two had and I can't believe you were blessed with such splendid weather. At least you missed the horrible heat of seQ while you were away.

  2. I know it's not good ecologically, but part of me would be quite happy to see all the interesting European birds in New Zealand - they have quite the collection! It's a shame that it's been at the cost of their natives, but obviously the stoats, rats, cats etc have done the real damage.

    That scenery is stunning, particularly the waterfall flowing into Milford Sound.

    Formal wear night... I'd probably end up looking like I was at a minimum-wage job interview. Will have to remember to aim for the 007 look! :)