Sunday 11 September 2022


On this rather cold, damp morning I visited Shamarra Alpacas, across the harbour near Wainui. They've got about 170 on the farm, which doesn't sound a lot, but boy! They are multiple-prize-winning and eye-wateringly valuable animals, especially the studs. Some of the alpacas I met will be on their way soon to Italy, France, Germany and other far-flung destinations, sought-after from here because their breeding is so good.  

I wouldn't know about that, but can certainly confirm that they are very cute, pretty, amenable and sweet. Also convenient: the females - hembras - come into season on command, and give birth only during daytime. They also spit at any males they encounter after being impregnated, which is endearing. They are shorn once a year, and have toe-nails that need trimming at least twice annually.

They haven't been shorn yet this season, so were very fluffy and soft to the touch. I did enjoy meeting them, and fondling both them and the jerseys, blankets and so on in the shop, made from their super-fine fleeces.

And that was that for my animal-focused trip. It made a nice change from the usual sort of famil, and it was fun. I stopped at the nearby Barry's Bay Traditional Cheese factory, and again at Little River to marvel at the unusual 4-star motel there made out of shiny corrugated iron grain silos, and admire the art in the gallery next door, and then, after a short detour to Birdlings Flat to look for jasper and agates, it was off to the airport and goodbye to Christchurch again. Till next time.

Saturday 10 September 2022

Aw, Hec (tors)

No need to worry about not having a long lens when you go Hector-hunting with Akaroa Dolphins. Out on a two-hour cruise on their fancy new catamaran, the first cute little Hector’s dolphin we encountered was very happy to ride the bow wave right below us, as were several others we found. They’re the smallest dolphin, have a Mickey Mouse ear-shaped dorsal fin, and are found in only a couple of places here in Enzed, so it was a delight to spot them - especially since, last time I did this cruise, in 2016, they were a no-show.

It was still an enjoyable outing then, as today, helped by the onboard dolphin-spotting dog (Albie today), dramatic scenery in this drowned volcanic crater, and lots of interesting commentary scattered with an impressive number of Dad jokes, considering captain George’s relative youth. There were also fur seals, shags and a salmon farm - plus loose chat about not only several species of whale, but also orcas, spit. Regular 😀readers will recall my in-vain life’s mission to spot an orca. And, look, these ones actually hung out with the dolphins!

Despite that, it was a good outing, and an excellent, environmental and conservation-oriented family company. Recommended.

The animal theme continued with a walk up the Children’s Bay track past a crocodile, four penguins, four giraffes and a pig, to a rhino at the top - all sculptures, natch, but there were also real bees, bellbirds and cattle beasts. Plus a view, if somewhat cloudy. And that’s Akaroa, done - for this time. It’s such a lovely place, it’s hard to believe the population is shrinking, down to just 623 permanent residents currently. Tch.

Friday 9 September 2022

Pellets to pillows

This morning I filled in an odd gap in my personal history - I visited Willowbank Nature Reserve, which opened three years before I left Christchurch on my OE, never to return to live. I can't think why I never went there, but am very glad I have now. It's a gorgeous place, really pretty and well laid-out through woodland threaded with ponds and streams, and dotted with old farm buildings and equipment. It's full of interest. It's also, after yesterday's solid hike around the Ashley Estuary, much less demanding to explore, so it was busy with mothers pushing delighted infants along the paths and boardwalks.

It started out as a zoo, but soon transitioned into conservation, though its appealing difference is that it's not rigidly exclusionary of all exotic animals - there's a range of unusual farm animals from the pioneer days, there are geese and parrots, wallabies and deer, all of them long-established in NZ, and lovely to see. Even rabbits from Enderby Island, and pigs from the Auckland Islands! It's nice, to see them recognised as part of our history, and not discriminated against as non-native.

Of course there's a wide range of endemic and native species, including a handful of kea, or alpine parrots, which fully lived up to their reputation as nuisances. Having happily photographed one mugging a schoolgirl, I then got attacked myself and had to fight really hard to snatch back the glasses case it stole out of my backpack. I had fun feeding the eels - I had pellets for the birds and farm animals too, and that was really good for up-close interaction. Alpacas are very delicate and polite nibblers, I can report.

I loved seeing capybaras sunbathing, horses being bolshy, ducklings everywhere, otters splashing about, lemurs canoodling... it's a really lovely place to spend time.

Then I headed away out of the city, onto Banks Peninsula to visit Akaroa in its collapsed and drowned volcanic crater. I was delighted to discover that, for the next two nights, I'll be staying at French Bay House, which is so pretty that I had already taken photos of it on a previous visit. The house was built in 1874 as the doctor's residence (also surgery, but they're not emphasising that part) and is decorative outside and elegant inside. And my pillows are SOFT! The front door is left unlocked 24/7, which tells you a lot about Akaroa.

The town was first settled by the French, who arrived in 1840 (ten years ahead of Christchurch, spit) so it was appropriate, if entirely coincidental, that my guide for the afternoon's outing was Kevin, who is as French as his name isn't. He drove us, chattering informatively all the way, over to the outside of the crater, to Flea Bay for a Pohatu Penguins tour. We passed new-born lambs on the way - literally two hours old - and met some more, super-cute Valais breed with their black eyes, noses and knees, at the farm in the bay, where we were given bottles of milk to feed them. Always fun!

Then we visited three of the over 200 wooden nesting boxes on the farm where white-flippered little penguins lay their eggs, as well as down burrows. They are only found here, and were seriously endangered before the Helps lived up to their name and worked hard on their conservation. Now their numbers are good, and we heard all about them as we went to a hide to watch a raft of them floating out in the bay, socialising, and waiting for dusk to come ashore. It would have been nice to see that, but we had at least got close-up views of the nesters.

Then we drove back as the moon rose, and I wandered in total safety around town in the dark for a tasty meal at Aihe, and then back home again to luxuriate in those comfy pillows.

La reine est morte. Vive le roi!


Since I’m in Akaroa, famously (and, touristically-speaking, helpfully) French-founded, it’s the Tricouleur at half-mast today, to mark the death of the Queen. Had to happen of course, but still a bit sad, even from this distance. ClichĂ© unavoidable: it truly is the end of an era. 

I had a couple of near-encounters with the Queen while I lived in England, both described elsewhere on this blog: at the Badminton Horse Trials, where I tried to get nearer for a photo of her, up on a wagon in her headscarf, watching the cross-country. “Not so close, sonny!” growled one of her (less sharp-sighted) bodyguards. 

And, invited via lucky draw to a Buckingham Palace garden party, we signally failed the audition we didn’t realise was happening as we chatted to a courtier while waiting for the Queen to walk past along a marked-off route to her afternoon tea tent. We were clearly judged too boring to bother with, so it was another nearby couple who were selected to duck under the rope to wait for Liz to stroll along and pause for a quick chat. Shame. I bet my answer to the standard “Have you come far?” would have trounced theirs.

So, RIP, Your Royal Highness. And hello King Charles spaniel.

Thursday 8 September 2022

Bit of a twitch

Now, if I were properly professional, or even could just be bothered, this is the sort of photo I might have got this morning, on my 4 hour birding expedition with Steve Attwood. But I can’t handle, literally, hauling that gear around, so this is Steve’s photo of some bar-tailed godwits, taken on his Canon with a lens so big that it stopped three separate passers-by in astonishment. My photos are much less impressive, see:

No contest.  But I did enjoy my outing this morning around the Ashley Rakahuri estuary, even if it did involve four hours of solid walking and two wadings through the river, which is, this being early spring, still rather chilly. But there was so much chat and information going on, it really didn’t matter. Apparently we saw 24 bird species, plus some foreign interlopers like mute swans and Canada geese, spit. Excellent morning. Give Steve a whirl: Auldwood Birds.

Then it was back to Christchurch, to look pretty much in vain for places from my past, mostly eliminated by the earthquakes. But there’s a lot of new stuff to enjoy, plus some still recognisable features. Like the Arts Centre, once the University of Canterbury’s Townsite campus - and where I would have been staying tonight, at the Observatory, if blasted Covid hadn’t got in the way. Shame.

Wednesday 7 September 2022

Ready for a close-up?

After snowing yesterday morning, it was -4.7 degrees overnight last night here in Christchurch, so I really can’t blame all the animals at Orana Wildlife Park for mostly just lying around in the sun today. The otters were busy, and the lemurs, and the African wild dog was restless, but virtually all the others - especially all the big cats (no surprise) - were just blissed out in the sunshine. 
So it’s just as well Orana has a full programme of animal presentations right throughout the day, all the ones I saw involving, of course, food. The park is big, and the animal numbers are mostly modest, but the programme means that visitors can get up really close to the creatures - and I mean really close. Like, a metre from three massive white rhinos, six inches (through glass) from a silverback gorilla, an arm’s length from a hungry lion - and actually feed a giraffe.
I did all that, and much more, and was utterly delighted. SO CLOSE! It was a marvel, and a treat. I spent six hours trailing around the park, listening to the enthusiastic keepers, looking at everything from an axolotl to a bison, sharing tips with other visitors, and as happy to watch a large family of mallard ducklings crossing the road as I was to see a trio of Tasmanian Devils sprawled out in the sun, for once all with their mouths closed. Good day. Thanks, Orana. (And sorry, host Khloe, for continually harping on about having seen so many of these animals in the wild. I know I’m lucky. But Orana is next best, honest.)

Tuesday 6 September 2022

Left is right

OK, it worked this time: sat on the left, flying down to Christchurch, and there was Mt Taranaki in all its symmetrical, snow-capped glory, right below me. Score! What a brilliant sight.

I know it’s been officially spring for a whole week now, but I was expecting more snow on the Kaikouras. It was also, though, officially our warmest winter for quite some time, and I guess this is the proof. When I fly home again on Sunday, also sitting on the left, I shall inspect the Southern Alps with interest, to see if they’re similarly only dusted. 

Before then, though, there will be animals - lots and lots of animals, most of them exotic. Watch this space! 



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