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Posts Tagged ‘birding’

Today’s trip in the WayBackMachine takes us to the lovely and verdant paths of New Zealand’s North Island…

July 29
Saturday
Rotorua-Mt. Maunganui

New Zealand winters are gray and damp from what I can tell, but change to bright sun in a surprisingly short time. The steam from the sulfurous ground vents here in Rotorua blends with the misty air and settles in a chill layer on my skin.

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We checked out of the Sheraton early and cruised the main street in town looking for breakfast. The perfect spot turned out to be the Nomad Café, run with sloppy panache by a couple of middle-aged traveler types with style. The food was cheap, plentiful and very good, and came with a side of email thanks to the array of computers in the back. While we ate breakfast and planned the day our laundry was being done in a wash and fold storefront next door. The perfect arrangement.

Our next stop was the Maori village. As we pulled up a tour was just leaving, so we rushed over in time to hear the guide describe what it’s like to live in a village where the ground is hot enough to bake potatoes. I had a great time being deliciously scared by the steam vents, the boiling pools of crystalline blue water, and the pit of volcanic mud bubbling viscously away.

The pools are different temperatures depending on the source of the water, and can change size and temperature based on geologic shifts but are generally stable. The Maori use the hot water for bathing, cooking, and heating. After the tour we shopped a bit, didn’t eat corn boiled in the pools out of respect for Maureen’s delicate sensibilities, and headed over to the meeting house for a traditional dance demonstration.

The meeting house itself was an unremarkable concrete block distinguished only by its entryway. Carved wooden beams framed the roof’s eaves, window, door, and supported the roof’s center. These beams symbolize Maori ancestors’ arms, eye, mouth and heart protecting the village. While potentially hokey at times, the song and dance performance was compelling.

Men, women, and several children in training lined up three rows deep at the front of the meeting house wearing traditional dress. The grass skirts did not hide the dark tattoos or obstruct the whirling pompom balls the women swung like bolos. The men’s deep, often booming chants supported the women’s melodic harmonies. A Polynesian-style guitar played backup. It sounded a lot like a very pissed-off Hawaiian band, actually. Fun.

We bummed around town for a bit after leaving the village, picked up the laundry, stopped into the Old Bath House where visitors were treated to hot water treatments, and went to a park with steam rising from vents near the swing set. The sulfur smell oozed from the steam vents and flowed through town, never entirely disappearing. The top news story in my paper this morning was about an aging actress found dead in her ground-floor room at the Sulfur City Motel. Apparent cause of death: suffocating levels of sulfurous fumes in her room.

The plan for the day was to sightsee, driving north to the coast until we felt like stopping. The scenery on the road out of Rotorua was beautiful green forest around a lakeside. Dad, ever alert, swerved to look at a flock of black swans and again for a fabulous group of peacocks. That last brightened up the creatively named “Hell’s Gate,” a geologic hot spot where we pulled over and walked among bubbling evidence of the fire below.

For a few dollars we were allowed to risk our lives on paths winding through steam vents, hot pools, boiling mud, and sulfurous fumes. All walkways had been reinforced against collapse using lumber and stone, which made me feel a little better about the “Don’t leave the path” and “You’re risking your life – We’re not kidding!” signs everywhere. My brother would have loved it.

The rest of the drive was pleasant and involved a lot of careening up and down and around to the coast. Evidence of logging was everywhere for a while and there were large swaths of land devoid even of sheep. Farm animals were more common near the coast and included fun herds of ostrich and some unidentifiable herd animals that reminded me of deer.

Maureen found a likely stopping place in the guidebook and we headed up Route 2 to the Bay of Plenty. Mt. Maunganui is a beach town, about three blocks wide running the length of the beach. As luck would have it we came to the water just at sunset. Everyone else hopped out to look at the waves while I stayed in the car to nurse my stomach, grateful for a break from the winding road.

Next thing I knew they’d all disappeared. I sat in the car getting colder, peering out into the dimming light wondering if we’d stumbled into a town of mass murderers. Just as my paranoia was reaching the point when I’d have to jump out of the car and be captured myself they came back, all smiles.

It seems we’d had the good fortune to stop right between two beachfront hotels. One was a collection of luxury condos let out to lucky souls like ourselves. In no time I was inside the top floor of the Belle Mar, running between the three bedrooms, huge living room, spa, two bathrooms, and a kitchen with Italian fixtures.

The place was wonderful, had everything you’d want in a luxury apartment, and was so fabulous that we decided to stay for our last two nights in New Zealand. The apartment even had a washer that was also a dryer, full sets of cutlery and dishware, and a big broad balcony running the length of the building. Wide windows looked out on both the mountain crowning our little peninsula and the beach with its necklace of islands. All this for NZ$175, or around $85 a night. What a find!

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We’re in my own personal WayBackMachine again (a.k.a. my travel journal), hiking the red-tinged wilds of central Australia…

July 23
Sunday
Uluru

What a great day! Yesterday we spent time with the Rock, today we survived the Olgas!

That grocery shopping trip yesterday served us well. For breakfast we all had coffee and tea, along with bananas, apricot bars, and yogurt. We pulled white plastic chairs out onto the concrete apron around the cabin and had time to hang out in the sun, enjoying each others’ company. After an hour or so of sun-dappled relaxation we decided a morning hike through the Olga Mountains was a perfect Sunday activity. (Eek, a mouse in the room! Must be part of our high-priced entertainment package.)

The Olgas are the other geologic protuberance on the plain, but aren’t as catchily named as the Rock. Our housekeeper popped her head around the corner at the exact moment we were deciding whether to go and put in a plug for the Valley of the Winds. This is one of the walks through the Olgas and we decided we’d be fools not to check out the path this woman called “indescribable.”

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For the next five hours we hiked, scrambled, birded and panted through a gorgeous trail of red rock and almost voluptuous desert flora. The fauna (broadly speaking) weren’t bad either – I saw lizards and insects and tons of birds. As of this evening I’m the proud sighter of a handful of beautiful blue green black Port Lincoln parrots, a very chatty pallid cuckoo, and tons of delightful little zebra finches with orange beaks and rouged cheeks and striped tails. Outside right now I’m listening to the cries of wild dingoes in the desert.

The Olgas’ scenery was dramatic and varied, with changeable clouds overhead conveniently shielding our skin from the worst of the sun’s rays. Buoyed by the day’s beauty and the presence of three Snickers bars in my pack we opted for the full 7.6 km route.

It was a perfect day hike. The whole circuit took a lot longer than planned but the greenery and birds and interactivity of the place kept my attention. It was 1.6 klicks to the burnt-out tree, another kilometer to the lookout over both sides of the valley pass.

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Winding down out of the lookout valley the trail hugged the base of the main “Olga” and swept through a sheltered but open plain. The next two kilometers led over low hills and down stream beds, past uprooted trees and wildflower fields. Two point four klicks from the car we found a rain-fed water tank and rested in its shade.

The water drew birds to the trees around the tank and dozens of zebra finches braved our presence for a chance to enjoy the wet concrete under the tank’s tap. I watched the finches chatter and flit around the water spout, waiting for us to release a few drops of the precious fluid to replenish their bath.

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Five o’clock found us hot and tired back at the hotel, where we devoured the rest of our groceries. Bryan’s brie and salami were a huge hit with me, and everyone enjoyed the nacho cheese Doritos, leftover pizza, and roasted chicken-flavored chips. All washed down of course with vodka tonics from Bryan’s birthday bottle. A nice little happy hour, complete with sunset.

Back to our favorite restaurant. Between us we had the lamb, veal, lasagna, gnocchi, and of course more salad. I love being in countries where you don’t have to worry about water or fresh vegetables. We came home for a beer with the (one-man) band and closed down the Outback Bar at 10 p.m.

While I’ve been writing it has started and stopped raining. The drops sounded loud on the porch overhang and came down fast, but tapered off quickly. This is a very nice place, despite the price and lack of amenities and nightlife. I’ve always liked the desert, even with snakes and scorpions (and the fact that I like the East Coast smell of worms after rain because it tells me that the earth is alive). The desert is never as empty as it seems, and it’s full of survivors like the yellow flowering shrubs and pink-gray star flowers lining the paths today.

Tomorrow we move on to Sydney and true Australian winter. I’m looking forward to seeing what a city’s like here and to running water in my room. I also think, deep in my touristy heart of hearts, that it’s going to be damn cool to see the Sydney Opera House. There! I said it!

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Some years ago my father (an avid birder) bought me a bird feeder from Droll Yankees. It’s fantastic, sturdy and big enough to hold a lot of seed. The Dipper is also designed to be squirrel proof, with perches that collapse under too much weight. Each metal bar will hold chickadees and goldfinches with no trouble, or even a very juvenile cardinal, but not a squirrel. With a metal cap capable of withstanding squirrel teeth (ask me how I know) it has been the perfect foil for the fluffy yet gluttonous neighborhood Sciuridae. It’s not that they haven’t tried, coming at the thing from all sides, but their best effort was to throw themselves at the feeder to make it swing enough to drop a few extra seeds.

Until now.

A black squirrel was the first to figure out a way to secure a hold using multiple perches. It grabs on using its back paws and chows down with the front. I had hoped it would keep the secret to itself but no, the new knowledge is spreading. (Information just wants to be free, I suppose:) A red squirrel, smug and fat, hung upside-down from the feeder this morning.

Chalk one up for the Animal Kingdom (and I don’t mean me).

World's First PhD Squirrel

I’d better go get some more bird seed.

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