What are cars for?

First of all: what is a car anyway? Is it a vehicle to get yourself from A to B, along with other people perhaps and some stuff too heavy to carry otherwise?

I guess that’s not the whole story. Not for a lot of people anyway.

Having lived in Germany most of my life so far, I am very much used to cars serving more than just the purpose of transport. Their significance for many spheres of life here is huge and cannot be overestimated, with economy, culture, sociology, psychology and identity (individual as well as collective) all inextricably linked to one another. And whether you want it or not, you will always convey a message about yourself to the rest of society through your own personal relationship to cars. Which car do you drive (or not)? Which car(s) do you own (or not)? Do you have a car at all? Do you see your car as a useful machine, or is it rather ‘a symbol in your driveway’, as Jack Johnson sings? The car as an artefact is so central to German culture that it cannot be ignored, and it is impossible not to communicate through it. Whichever way you go, you will always send out a message.

I didn’t think about these matters a lot before I travelled to New Caledonia at the end of last year. I hadn’t thought about them in advance, so I didn’t really have any questions or expectations. However, the longer I was in the country, the more obvious it became to me that some things with regard to cars are a bit different from Germany. And I like differences!

In the above picture you see a little Japanese car (or perhaps Korean) that I rented from Ferdinand (the guy in the red t-shirt) during my first few days on the island of Lifou. Not very new, not very comfortable, but it did its job. And none of the windows were broken, which was good. You see many cars like this in the rural areas. They are not remarkable in any way.

This blue Twingo was another car I rented on Lifou, because I had some problems with the first one. It falls into the same category. But okay, those were rented cars, so maybe not so representative.

Many people drive utility vehicles such as pick-up vans of various sizes. Some of them are obviously used for practical purposes, and not for prestige.

In other cases, however, I was less sure…

I can already hear you say: that’s nothing unusual! Cars serve a whole range of purposes everywhere. What was so special about New Caledonia then? Where is the difference to Germany?

Well, up until now I have shown you cars which can be operated more or less the way they should. I mean, they have got four wheels (and tyres) to start with. While travelling around the country, however, I also couldn’t help noticing quite a large number of, ummm, former cars.

They don’t look so bad at first sight, but only until you take a closer look. Then you realise: they won’t drive another mile. I guess most of them are kept as a kind of depot for spare parts. But maybe it’s just too much hassle to have them removed and disposed of. And nobody seems to mind. Personally, I wouldn’t want a disused vehicle to stand in front of my house, but my opinion is obviously irrelevant here.

Okay, and then there are those which are a sorry sight already from a distance.

The funny thing is the lack of a clear distinction between those cars that can still be driven and those that are definitely out of order. It happened to me more than once that I saw in a car park something I thought was a wreck. And I thought, hey, what a waste of parking space. Until someone came along, opened the door (if there was one) and drove off. Here are some examples.

I must say, I’m impressed by this attitude. A car should be able to drive, for which it requires four wheels (yes, with tyres), an engine and a steering wheel, and that’s basically it. On islands like Lifou or Ouvéa, there are no motorways, no mountains, the weather is mostly sunny and dry. And you’re advised not to drive at night anyway. So what should be the problem? I think it is safe to say that such cars are definitely not symbols in driveways. And that is something I can absolutely identify with.

There is one more category of cars, however, that I haven’t mentioned yet. It’s the most problematic one, and also the saddest.

In New Caledonia you see burnt car wrecks at the roadside. Not one, not two, but very many. Drive on a country road for an hour and you will see at least five cars in the ditch, maybe as many as ten. What happened to them? How did they get there?

I can tell you the explanation I heard several times, not knowing for sure if it’s true. It goes like this: young folks from the rural villages (mostly young men) go to Nouméa on the weekend. Some of them hitchhike, some take public transport. They take all kinds of substances. They want to get back to their village at some point, maybe in the middle of the night. They steal a car and drive back. Sometimes they end up having an accident, sometimes they stop the stolen car near their village and burn it right there on the spot. Clearly a case where the car is used as a means of transport, and not for its prestige…

What I never understood, though, was: why doesn’t anyone remove these wrecks from the roadside? Are they kept there on purpose, e.g. to serve as a kind of warning?


But let’s end on a funny note, shall we? I’ve got a really good example for the relaxed attitude which most New Caledonians seem to have vis-à-vis cars in general.

In case you’re wondering: yes, the dog was lying IN FRONT of the wheel. And no, I did NOT run right over it. And yes, of course I hope the creature is still alive…


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Wobbly mattresses

Full title of this article: Wobbly mattresses and other things to keep you busy on your first day of the school holidays.

Main protagonists of the story:
the aforementioned wobbly mattresses (two),
a broom,
a door,
a curtain,
a wall,
little boys (three),
an unimpressed dog,
(a photographer).

It’s the first day of “les vacances”on the island of Lifou. Well, strictly speaking, school isn’t over yet. The holidays will only begin the following week. But the teacher at the primary school in Chépénéhé has told the pupils they don’t need to come anymore but are allowed to stay at home. Or so I’m told…

So the kids stay at home on this hot summer day in mid-December. Yet they discover quickly (albeit not voluntarily) that not having to attend school doesn’t mean you don’t have to do serious work…

They are asked to make themselves useful around the house. At least clean the floor and take out the mattresses from the living room where they slept. Laziness is not an option!

Easier said than done!

Well, the first mattress wasn’t so difficult.

Triumph!

But now number two. That one proves to be a lot more resistant…

What on earth is the matter with this thing? It can’t be THAT difficult, can it?

Oh but it can.

Stupid thing!

Victory at last! But is the dog impressed? Apparently not.

The kid on the right clearly is the perfectionist in the team. The mattress was clearly leaning against the wall already. Or maybe he wanted to impress the photographer.

“Can we go back to school tomorrow, please?”


Do you want to see all the articles on New Caledonia? Then please click here.

The ghost of the forest

For some strange reason, I have earned myself the reputation of being the German gentleman who likes to play it safe. (If you really, really want to have all the background info, just watch Kane Williams’ travel video).

Now, there is indeed no denying the fact that ‘no risk, no fun’ isn’t really my life motto. On the other hand, however, how does the following story fit into that picture:

This creature, my dear friends and readers, is not just an ordinary bird. It is a very rare bird. It can only be found in certain parts of Grande Terre, and nowhere else on this planet. It is one of the main reasons why I travelled to New Caledonia in the first place. And when do you think I went to search for it? On day 1, or day 2 – or perhaps on day 3 at the latest? Well, you couldn’t be more wrong…

I went to see the Kagou on my second-last day in New Caledonia! (day 35 of 36, if you must know). Now if this isn’t extremely risk-loving and reckless, then I don’t know what is…

By now you must be asking yourselves: what on earth is so special about this bird? Why was Sebastian so keen on seeing it? Why was he (the cowardly German gentleman) so certain to find it that he left it till the very end of his stay in NC? And why is he (the bird, not Sebastian) often referred to as ‘the ghost of the forest’?

Well, the Kagou (Rhynochetos jubatus) is one of a kind and a fascinating creature in so many different ways. An endemic species to New Caledonia, he is a flightless inhabitant of natural forests and woodlands on Grande Terre. For many years his population was so small that the species was close to total extinction. The two main reasons for this dire situation were (and still are) (1) habitat loss and (2) predation by dogs, cats, rats etc.

For millions of years, there were no terrestrial mammals on Grande Terre. The Kagou had few enemies, mainly large birds of prey. But no predators on the ground – except humans, of course. There was no real need for the Kagou to fly, hence he ‘unlearned’ this ability. The Kagous of today still have wings, but they cannot fly.

This wasn’t a problem until the late 18th century, when European settlers arrived in the archipelago. Because they did not come unaccompanied. They introduced a whole range of predators to the islands (sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident) which had a devastating effect on entire populations of birds and other animals.

Today, the Kagou is largely confined to two areas on Grande Terre: the Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue in the south of the island, and the Parc des Grandes Fougères in the centre. At the Blue River the population is healthy, thanks to strict protective measures. And the birds are used to the presence of humans. Hence it is not at all difficult to observe them.

Further north, in the Parc des Grandes Fougères, however, the population has significantly decreased in recent years, probably due to stray dogs in the area which destroy the nests and kill the chicks.

Those of you who have read my article about the Société Calédonienne d’Ornithologie (SCO) will remember that the Kagou also inhabits other parts of Grande Terre outside of the aforementioned sanctuaries. However, due to their rather secretive lifestyle and the large size of their territories, they are not at all easy to find. Nobody really knows for sure how many birds there are – the estimates range from 1,000 to 3,000 individuals – and what their distribution across Grande Terre is.

Every visitor to New Caledonia will see Kagous for sure, though not as wild animals. The bird has in a way become the country’s symbol, a kind of heraldic animal. For instance, it is the emblem of OPT-NC, the national telecommunications and postal services company. Many other companies use it as a symbol too. One of the Pacific Franc bills is also graced by an image of a Kagou in full nuptial display.

But why ‘ghost of the forest’? He doesn’t make much noise, the Kagou, although sometimes he does bark like a dog (hence the onomatopoeic name). He moves about the forest floor more or less stealthily in his search for food. Takes a few quick paces, then stands absolutely still for half a minute or so.

A truly enigmatic creature. I love him.

All the above pictures where taken in Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue where I went together with Kane, my fellow traveller, on December the 26th. It was a fantastic day, and that was even before we discovered the lunar landscapes around Yaté reservoir!

But what about those photos at the end of this article?

Well, those of you who have made it this far in the article, you really deserve to learn to truth about me. Forget everthing that I wrote earlier on about myself. I am indeed the German gentleman who likes to play it safe.

?!?

Already weeks before our trip to Rivière Bleue I paid a visit to the wonderful Parc zoologique et forestier in the capital Nouméa (practically a zoo), in order to take photos of the Kagous there…

I wanted to make sure to bring home with me decent photos of this amazing bird, the emblem of modern-day New Caledonia, that’s all. Do you really expect me to take the risk of returning home empty-handed? No way!

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Neither are you, I hope!


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Kaikoura landscapes

All in all, I didn’t spend an awful lot of time in New Zealand as part of my trip to the South Pacific. Many people will tell you (as they told me!) that a mere 16 days on both islands is basically a crime against…, well, … against what actually? Against New Zealand, I suppose.

My standard reply was that, (a) 2 weeks is still better than 0 weeks and that, (b) it was never my ambition to explore as much of NZ as possible. I always knew that my time there was limited, and I also knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see during my stay.

One of the highlights of my trip (partly even in unexpected ways) were the three days that I spent in and around the little town of Kaikoura in the first week of the new year. My main reason for including this spot on the east coast of South Island in my travel itinerary had been the albatrosses, of course. As you know, my expectation to see these magnificent seabirds was not the least bit disappointed… But I know now that Kaikoura and the peninsula of the same name have a lot more to offer than birds!

It’s a well-known fact that New Zealand is characterised by a lot of seismic activity, including frequent earthquakes. In November 2016 the region of Kaikoura was badly affected by a strong earthquake, in fact the second largest such event in NZ since European settlement of the country. As a result, the ground was uplifted by several metres in various places. This means that the landscape in the immediate surroundings of Kaikoura looks rather different now than it used to before November 2016, in that parts of the former bottom of the sea are now well above sea level.

Kaikoura itself is a little tourist town and not very remarkable in any way. But the surrounding landscapes are absolutely stunning! I was rather surprised when I made this discovery on a couple of walks around the peninsula. The landscape is very diverse, the ocean is beautiful as always, and the scenery is made even more dramatic by the backdrop of the impressive Kaikoura mountain range.

On my first day in town I wondered if it was really a good decision not to rent a car. The peninsula was larger than expected, and my photo equipment heavy as always… But in hindsight I would say that it was definitely a good thing to rely on walking and hitch-hiking – not least because it meant that I met some nice people.

The pictures I am presenting here are basically from two different walks on subsequent days. On the first day the sky was largely overcast and without any direct sunlight, but with the most spectacular sunset in the evening. I think the cloudy skies and subdues colours complement the interesting structures of the rock formations on the ground in a rather attractive manner.

But see for yourself!

My main reason for walking along the northern coastline of the peninsula right down to the tip was the colony of fur seals which can be found there. But taking many photos along the way, and all the while not walking very fast, both meant that I arrived there a little bit late in the day. There were a few seals, yes, but if was already rather dark and the light not good anymore. (I will present the seal photos in another article here).

What I did witness, however, was a marvellous sunset – even though the actual sun had already disappeared behind the nearest hill. But the sky was aflame all of a sudden in the most amazing colours!

Seeing a salmon-pink sky (and taking pictures of it) is one thing. Even better is the reflection of these stunning colours on the surface of ocean and rocks. Truly amazing!

All the hardship of carrying the heavy photo equipment around with me didn’t matter anymore…

So that was day 1 in Kaikoura.

The following day brought completely different weather conditions: it was very windy, the sky was bright, the sun shone as if there was no tomorrow, and the air was crystal clear. At first I thought that this was not ideal, but after a while I got used to the conditions.

This time I walked from the southern end of the peninsula towards the eastern tip and the seal colony.

The later the afternoon, the longer the shadows, the more beautiful the scenery. It’s as simple as that. No black magic involved!

Just like the day before, the walk took me a lot longer than expected, simply because there was so much to see and admire. At some point I had to acknowledge the fact that I wouldn’t be able to walk back the whole way in order to see the penguins return to shore at dusk…

This stretch of the path made me think of the Ukraine. Look at their national flag and you will understand why.

And so it happened that my second walk around Kaikoura peninsula ended in more or less the same spot as the first one. This time, however, I made sure not to be behind the bend and to miss the setting sun. There were rocks and seals and gulls, and it was a fantastic evening. And there was Will, a landscape photographer from the UK. He gave me a lift back to the town centre. And he takes great photos. He is now probably in Vietnam.

I am pretty certain that Kaikoura isn’t among the most impressive photo locations in New Zealand. But I, who had gone there primarily for the wildlife, was extremely impressed by the beauty and diversity of the place. (And I haven’t even shown you the fur seals yet…) I surely wouldn’t mind going there again one day!

Christmas in the lagoon

We have already established two important facts with regard to Christmas 2019 in New Caledonia: Firstly, yes, they do know it’s Christmas. And secondly, I had the huge privilege to spend a wonderful Christmas Eve among complete strangers (now friends). But that’s not even the whole story! More miracles were to happen.

Ever since my first week-end in New Caledonia at the end of November, I had been in contact with David and Liliane from the Société Calédonienne d’Ornithologie (SCO). David had told me that he intended to go on a boat trip at the end of December, the destination being the mangroves and coastal lagoon near his hometown of Moindou in the central part of Grande Terre’s western coast. The first date had to be cancelled due to high winds. But the trip was re-scheduled for December 25th, which was luckily just before my departure from New Caledonia. I was invited to join in, and you are correct in assuming that I gladly accepted!

Now in case you are wondering what could be so special about this lagoon that merits getting up on Christmas morning at 5 am (after barely four hours of sleep) and driving an hour and a half in the early morning in the car… – be informed that the entire complex of coastal lagoons of New Caledonia was inscribed in the list of UNESCO World Heritage in 2008 as a site of ‘outstanding universal value’.

The following description can be found on the website of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre: The tropical lagoons and coral reefs of New Caledonia are an outstanding example of high diversity coral reef ecosystems (…). They are the location for the world’s most diverse concentration of reef structures, with an exceptional diversity of coral and fish species and a continuum of habitats from mangroves to seagrasses (…). They still display intact ecosystems, with healthy populations of top predators, and a large number and diversity of large fish. They are of exceptional natural beauty (…).

That alone is quite a strong argument for getting out of bed (read: sleeping bag) early, don’t you find?

And in addition to that, let’s recall for a second my main reasons for travelling to New Caledonia in the first place: to get to know local people, to hear and speak French, to make new friends, to be inspired by close encounters with people and wildlife, to have good photo opportunities, to have authentic experiences to share with everyone back home… And you know what? All of these were to be fulfilled on this very Christmas Day!

So let me briefly introduce to you the main protagonists of this remarkable day (besides myself and Kane, my reliable companion who kept me awake in the car and provided me with some great photos of the day):

David, clearly a man who knows what he’s doing.

Liliane, his mother and congenial companion.

(Photo courtesy of Kane Williams).

The lagoon (and coral reef).

The birds.

The mangroves.

And, last but not least, the boat!

David and Liliane explained to me the purpose of the trip: there are several tiny islands in the lagoon, some barely more than naked rocks in the shallow water, that they wanted to check for breeding colonies of terns. Earlier that season they had seen various species of terns and also gulls at these sites, and now they wanted to find out whether these had begun to nest in the meantime.

I was also assigned a task. Namely to take bird photos.

Now that wasn’t so hard to guess, was it?

Black-naped tern (Sterna sumatrana, Sterne diamant, Schwarznacken-Seeschwalbe).
Bridled Tern (Onychoprion anaethetus, Sterne bridée, Zügelseeschwalbe).
Greater Crested Tern (Thalasseus bergii, Sterne huppée, Eilseeschwalbe).

The little boat was a bit shaky and the light not ideal either. So one could say that the conditions for photography were rather suboptimal. But, hey, please name me ONE thing that could be more exciting than taking pictures of sea birds in the wild from such short distances in the company of two local experts who will answer any question you might have? I was in heaven!

(Picture courtesy of Kane Williams).

After two hours or so of hard work, we became hungry and thirsty. So David steered the boat into the mangroves and parked it (I’m not a boat expert) in the shade of my new favourite tree, the flamboyant, which was in full bloom (I’m not a tree expert). There we had a break, had bread with deer sausage (I’m not a meat expert) and drank lemonade from the chillie bin.

Liliane and David answered all my many questions about New Caledonia, the independence issue, the cultural identity of Kanaks and other Caledonians – and they even permitted me to record our conversation! So I have tons of interesting material to present back home, for which I am most grateful.

Then we returned to shore, and the boat was hauled onto the trailer.

It took David and Liliane about 73 seconds to have the vessel out of the water. It wasn’t their first time, obviously. They sure are boat experts!

We drove back to their place in Moindou where Kane and I were served not only coffee, but also the most delicious mango fruits ever. From Liliane’s garden! I had three ripe mangos, juice flowing all over my chin and hands!

Liliane evidently also likes mango. Unlike me, however, she knows how to eat them in a cultivated and juice-saving manner…

Can I also have a house with a large front veranda and huge garden, please? And summer all year round, so I can practically live outside? With a large table in the shade where I can sit and chat with nice people for hours on end?

Oh, and not to forget: my obsession with parrots was also catered for. Here’s a particulary tame specimen:

So this is how I spent Christmas in the lagoon. I was so blessed to experience yet another magnificent, unforgettable day in the South Pacific. And if that isn’t the right thing to do on Christmas, then I don’t know what is…

A huge MERCI to David and Liliane for the invitation and everything it entailed, and DANKE to Kane for joining me and for the pics!


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Friends old and new (part 1)

One evening, a few days before Christmas, I happened to wander around Noumea’s Place des Cocotiers. I had met with Kane (my fellow traveller) and another guy called Jérémy to eat a falafel (slow and expensive, but delicious). Afterwards Kane was searching for some yoga friends in the crowded square, and I kind of followed him, not having anything else to do at that point. Then I heard someone call out my name.

I was very pleased to find that it was Sophie, whom I had met in 2014 during my first visit to New Caledonia. Sophie was in Place des Cocotiers together with her entire family, including her husband Daniel and their two children. It was lovely to have a little chat and to meet all these wonderful people. Had I not walked around the entire square three times, she might not have seen me among all those other people!

After a few minutes Daniel informed me that they would soon meet with some friends in a different part of the city centre. One of them, Stéphane, would surely be glad to meet me and to exchange a few words in German with me. At first I didn’t know what to say. Why should I want to speak German? Wasn’t I here to practice my French? My expectations were not particularly high at that point.

But when we saw Stéphane and his girlfriend Patricia, I immediately liked them. And I have to admit that it was good to speak German. It turned out that Stéphane’s mother is German. And then a most wonderful thing happened: Even though we had only just spoken for a couple of minutes, Stéphane invited me to stay at their place in Mont Koghis, a suburb of Nouméa. And as if that wasn’t enough already, he also suggested that I spend Christmas Eve together with him and his entire family at his mother’s place. Wow!

I thought this was very remarkable, and I still do. Especially since it wasn’t just me who was invited, but also Kane (who took the photos at the Christmas dinner table, by the way). I felt as if in a dream! Throughout the entire evening we spoke a wonderful mixture of French, German and English, and with Isabel (Stéphane’s mother) also Schwäbisch. Well, in fact she was the one who spoke immaculate Swabian German, not I…

It was a wonderful evening, and I felt most privileged to be part of it!

So Kane and I put up our tents in the garden of Stéphane and Patricia’s place and stayed there for the last couple of nights in New Caledonia. Once I visited Stéphane at his workplace, the aquarium des lagons in Nouméa.

Always worth a visit, even if you don’t know any member of staff!

Then I was asked if I could kindly take a few pictures of Patricia for her social media pages. DUH!

Patricia is a professional singer (this is her website: www.patriciasegui.com), and I felt very honoured, of course, to photograph her in her own garden.

And not just her, because after a while she was joined by Stéphane …

…and their four lovely dogs.

On my final evening in New Caledonia (December 27), I was invited to come along to the not-so-cheap Hotel Le Méridien in Nouméa. I saw many familiar faces there, I watched (and heard) Patricia perform French chansons, and I drank the most expensive beer ever. What a smashing evening, again!

So, yes, I am blessed with new friends now at the other side of the world! If everything goes according to plan, I will see Stéphane, Patricia and Isabel again this summer, as they are planning to visit Perpignan in France (Patricia’s hometown) as well as Stuttgart in Germany (where Isabel grew up) with a bit of Black Forest strewn in for good measure. I am already much looking forward to our reunion.

And who knows: maybe I will have the chance one day to stay in their newly built holiday appartment in Nouméa…? I definitely wouldn’t mind!


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Albatross!

The legendary Monty Python sketch, of course. “Aaaalbatross!” Who doesn’t love it? John Cleese as a very rude vendor in the cinema with a huge stuffed albatross on his tray. Yet this can’t be the whole story. There’s got to be some link to my journey too…

There is indeed! The possibility to see wild albatrosses was one of my reasons for coming to New Zealand, you see, and to Kaikoura on South Island in particular. It would be quite literally a childhood dream come true. And I was not disappointed.

After the time spent with my friends in Nelson I took a bus to Picton and then a train along the upper east coast to Kaikoura. There I stayed for three nights in the aptly named “Albatross Backpackers” (significantly raising the average age there), hoping for suitable weather for all the things I wanted to do during those first days of the year.

Most importantly, I had booked one trip with “Albatross Encounter Kaikoura” already months in advance. Then, on an impulse, I decided that one trip wouldn’t be enough, and I spontaneously booked a second one for the following day. I really, really wanted to be on the safe side with that one…

And everything went according to plan. I went out to sea on both days with Gary, the skipper. On the first day it was windy and cloudy and rather chilly (and the sea quite bumby!), and the sky was largely overcast. The second day brought totally different conditions: plenty of sunshine, mild temperatures, less wind. And we saw many birds on both days, including albatrosses.

The ‘albatross encounter’ always follows the same pattern: the boat goes out to sea away from the coast, but not very far. The birds already know what’s going to happen and approach the boat from all sides. Then the skipper throws a thick block of frozen ‘chum’ (fishy bits) into the water. Tied to the boat, the food swims on the surface of the water, immediately attracting the birds. According to the operator’s website, the chum is sourced naturally from local commercial fishers. What it definitely does is help to bring the birds in close allowing very close viewing and photographing opportunities – especially when the boat isn’t full.

This may not seem to be a very natural setting for watching seabirds. But do I really care?!? And besides, many seabirds follow commercial fishing boats in the hope for food, so it is part of their daily lives anyway. But I have to admit that it did feel a bit like a visit to the zoo…

We saw several species of albatross and mollymawk (smaller albatrosses). I must admit I haven’t quite figured out who is who on the photos…

Photographing birds that sit on the water is relatively easy, even though the little boat may sway somewhat in all directions. The really tricky business, however, is capturing the birds in flight. I must admit that I find the result of my endeavours to be not very satisfactory…

It’s okay as long as the birds are still in the distance. Plus, you can include the impressive mountain range of the Seaward Kaikouras in your frame as a backdrop.

But as soon as these huge birds approach the boat, focussing becomes more and more difficult…

And sometimes the result is, ummm, different from what you intended…

Albatrosses may seem peaceful creatures to the uninformed eye. Well, they are not!

They fight for food, they chase each other away from the boat. They can be really aggressive! To what extent this behaviour is aggravated by the feeding, I can’t say. I suppose they behave similarly when food happens to be available on the open sea, but I’m not sure.

Albatrosses are not the only seabirds which are attracted by the boat. Another common species to be seen not long after the boat has left South Bay harbour is the northern giant petrel (Macronectes halli). It is a bit special…

And not exactly beautiful. Gary, the skipper, told us that giant petrels are also called ‘vultures of the sea’ because they feed mostly on carrion. But they are also known to kill penguin chicks, among others. Booooooooh!

Okay, they may not be beautiful by common standards. But there is definitely something about their looks that fascinates me. Not to mention their behaviour!

I think it was during this fight between the two giant petrels that the American lady on the boat said: ‘I love how they interact’.

WTF?!?

Fascination, yes. Love, certainly no! But of course I can only speak for myself.

So, a childhood dream come true indeed. My life will never be the same again after those remarkable two days out at sea. Furthermore, never again will I mistake herring gulls for albatrosses, as I did when I was nine years old and my family and I were in Cornwall. Wishful thinking on my part, and an inexhaustible source of mockery in the family for years (and in fact, decades) to come… I have overcome my trauma at last.

“Gannet on a stick!”

(Click here for more bird-related articles on this travel blog).

Lunar landscapes

It was one of my last days in New Caledonia. Kane (he of Fellow Travellers fame) and I had gone to the wonderful Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue in the south of Grande Terre – he for some hiking and sightseeing, I mainly for the remarkable bird life there.

The park closed its gates at 5pm, and we didn’t want to drive all the way back to Nouméa just yet. Kane had announced already the day before that he would like to see the barrage de Yaté in the very south of Grande Terre. Why? He couldn’t really say. Probably because it’s there, and because it’s (supposedly) huge. And it’s a water dam, which in itself is an interesting concept in that it is entirely artificial and has a huge impact on the surrounding environment.

The area around La Rivière Bleue is already linked to the artificial lake. The greys and greens of the vegetation contrasts very well with the red tones of the bare soil which is rich in minerals. The sky was full of clouds and there was even a light drizzle from time to time, but also sunny spells every now and then. Everything looked promising!

Not quite knowing what would await us at the lower end of the reservoir, we decided to make the detour. It was clear that the water level of the lake was very low (drought!), thus exposing a lot of the ground that is usually below the water. The nearer we got to the dam itself (it lies at the southern end of the lake), the more interesting the landscape became. I stopped the car every couple of minutes in order to jump out and take pictures.

The actual barrage de Yaté is quite a distance away from the town after which it is named. There are no noteworthy villages or other settlements around the lake. But the road alongside its northern and western shores is rather busy with huge trucks from the nickel mines and other industrial vehicles. Spooky!

The dam itself was less impressive than we had thought. Also there was no possibility of walking on it or crossing over to the other side. Disappointing!

But the sky and the light, they became more and more interesting! Not to mention the skeleton trees. I felt as if I was on a different planet or in a post-apocalyptic scenery – not quite knowing which one I’d choose if I had to…

Then it started to rain again, while the sun was still shining. The atmosphere became more and more surreal.

A rainbow, of course!

All the while, on the car stereo I had Depeche Mode playing at full blast (well, nearly). “Music for the masses” and “Ultra”, thanks for asking. (Yes, the evolution of my taste in music came to a complete halt some time in the early nineties.)

It was a very remarkable evening indeed. A great Dankeschön to Kane for suggesting the trip! To me it seemed that somehow the gods had finally understood which ingredients I needed for some decent landscape photography – open spaces, interesting structures to incorporate in the composition, clouds in the sky etc. After weeks and weeks of complaining about a lack of real landscape in New Caledonia, I finally got what I wanted: an overdose of scenery and atmosphere as a belated present for christmas!


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Parrot progress

It is no longer a secret that I am fascinated by parrots. They are doubtlessly my favourite topic here on this blog, if you look at my previous posts from Sydney (Parrots galore & Do they fly) and New Caledonia (Particular parrots).

So believe me, it was all the more painful when I had to share this crappy photo in my article about the island of Tiritiri Matangi:

Horrible, I know!

Fortunately, however, I was lucky enough to be able to take better pictures of my favourite birds very recently. And I think I’m slowly improving my skills in parrot photography…

From my temporary residence in Wellington, the Kiwi capital, I went to a most remarkable place called Kapiti Island off the West coast of North Island. I will write in greater detail about this trip in a separate post. Let’s focus on the absolute essentials now.

One of two species of parrot to be found on that island is the red-fronted (or red-crowned) parakeet (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae), also known by its Maori name of kākāriki. New Zealand is nowadays inhabited by altogether five native parrot species (including the famous kakapo) plus one recently introduced bird from Australia. I had already seen the red-fronted parakeet on Tiri, but never got good views (hence the awful photo).

Kapiti Island was so much better in this regard (and not only). There were parrots everywhere, and not even very shy. I was on cloud nine!

The first place where I found them was a helicopter pod where they liked to search for grass seeds on the ground. But they were always cautious.

They look right:

They look left:

They forage for food:

They gulp it down:

They get flown over by their colleagues (hopped over, rather):

They perch in a tree, searching for the next promising food place:

But that’s only part of the story! There is another parrot species on the island. Needless to say, I was very keen on seeing that as well, and maybe taking a few pictures. I am speaking of the New Zealand kaka (Nestor meridionalis), a close relative of the kea (which I’ve already shown you).

The kaka (or kākā) is very different from the parakeet in appearance and behaviour. Here’s what you basically need to know about it:

It’s darker and much bigger than the parakeet, with a very impressive beak.

It’s very curious and not shy at all.

We were warned to handle our food with utmost caution. Kaka are apparently capable of opening zips and bags in search of food… This one saw that I didn’t have anything edible with me at all, so he (or she) flew off into the trees after a few minutes.

And when they can’t rob food of unsuspecting tourists, they turn to their original diet, in which berries and other fruits seem to play a major role:

Not many birds are capable of using their feet like a hand (or their beak as a third foot, for that matter).

Mmmm, so good! (I don’t know about you but somehow these photos remind me of Joseph and the coconut).

Despite their impressive size these conspicuous birds can be surprisingly difficult to see when sitting in a tree:

But fortunately (for me at least), they don’t always hide among leaves…

The parrots were just one aspect of my time on Kapiti Island (much too short, of course). I will write about all the other fantastic stuff as soon as possible, I promise.

(Click here for more bird-related articles on this travel blog).

Hilltop hikes

While I was staying with them in Nelson for four days, my friends Yulia and Yarek took me to a number of really interesting spots in the northwestern part of South Island. We went for lovely walks amid breathtaking scenery (let’s say they were moderate hikes), and some decent birds were also seen.

On the last day of the year we went to Cable Bay near Nelson. We scrambled up the mighty hill to enjoy the fantastic views from the top. Yulia pointed out the ‘iconic New Zealand landscape’ complete with rolling hills and grazing sheep, undeterred by the fact that, of course, all of this is ‘man-made’ and not the least bit natural.

The way back down to the car park right on the shingle spit in the bay was a bit of a challenge for me, as I was wearing flip-flops. When dusk fell, the grass became slippery very quickly, and I went down to the ground more than once. I imagine the earthquake stations all around the country were a bit concerned about some unexpected seismic activity on the last day of 2019…

On the first day of the new year we went into the hills of Kahurangi National Park for the afternoon. We hiked for about three hours through some lovely native beech woods and across open plains.

The sky was overcast all day, and the light somewhat murky. And you know why? There was a huge cloud of smoke from the Australian bushfires all across South Island. The satellite images that day were quite depressing…

I had hoped to see my first Kea there. And I did!

What a magnificent bird! The world’s only mountain parrot! It was alone and behaved in what seemed to be a more or less natural way. Anyway, although apparently a bit curious, it didn’t approach us and try to open our backpacks in search of food…

On the above picture you can just see Nelson and Tasman bay in the background.

Our trip the next day led us to the Top of the South, which I have already told you about.

My final day in Nelson, however, saw us set off into the mountains once again. This time we had chosen the area around Saint Arnaud and Nelson Lakes National Park.

As you can see immediately, the weather had changed completely. The air was crystal clear, it was sunny, cool and windy. Promising conditions for a walk onto one of those hilltops!

And what a treat it was, again. We climbed Mount Robert (not all of it, to be honest) and enjoyed the magnificent views across the windswept summits.

What a great way to start the new year! I am particularly grateful because these were my only days in the mountains here in NZ. Without Yulia and Yarek I couldn’t have visited all of these places.

So once again, a huge thank you!

Top of the South

I’m in the northern part of New Zealand’s South Island now, practically in the very centre of NZ. My friends Yulia and Yarek are so kind to host me for a couple of days in their home in Nelson. Spasibo bol’shoe!

By the way, this is where we greeted the New Year together:

Nelson/NZ, 1 January 2020, 0001 hrs

Yesterday we went on a day trip to the so-called ‘top of the south’. Beautiful! The weather was far from perfect, frankly speaking, but definitely worth the trip nonetheless. The very tip of the peninsula is Farewell Spit, a long sand bar which juts out into the Pacific ocean. We didn’t see much of that, though, because we stayed close to the mainland near Puponga.

An overcast sky and the absence of direct sunlight brings certain advantages for landscape photography. I really liked the different shades of green, grey and brown along the coastline. And I think they come out rather well in the pictures I managed to take.

Okay, just a teensy-weensy bit of sunlight wouldn’t have hurt, but that’s life. It was a tranquil place, and I guess that’s visible in the pictures.

A second spot that we visited in the late afternoon was Cape Farewell. Legend has it that it received its name from Captain James Cook, because this was the last land seen by him and his crew as they departed on their homeward voyage. The weather deteriorated as we got there. The light was fading, and it was very windy and cloudy with some drizzle in the air. But that only added to the atmosphere of the place.

It was hard (i.e. almost impossible) to keep the tripod steady and the front lens / filter free of water drops. These are the best results of my endeavours.

Long-term exposure was not an easy task in such conditions! Especially if you’ve mounted the wrong grey ND filter… I’d love to return to this place one day. And perhaps I will make it to the ‘Windows 10’ spot then. Yarek told me that one particular view of Cape Farewell is one of the standard desktop photos of that software.

A wonderful discovery at this very spot were several seals playing in the water just underneath the lookout point. Watching them get out of the water and back in in playful pursuit was like being in a zoo – only miles better!

The were New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri, Neuseeland-Seebär), at least one male (the one with the hairy back), several females and also some teenagers. What a treat!

I am hoping to see some more fur seals at my next destination here on the South Island, which is where I’m going tomorrow. But I’m not telling you where exactly.

Not yet, anyway…

Tiritiri matangi

A man is an island. No, wait a second. A man VISITED an island. Yes, that’s it.

Hobbs Beach

(Hang on, I think I got it all wrong anyway. NO man is an island. Well, let’s better forget about this…)

Anyway, so on my first (and in fact, only) full day in Auckland I went on a day trip to a very special place: Tiritiri matangi (pronounced teeree-teeree MAH-tang-ghee), or simply: Tiri, an island in the Hauraki Gulf, just a couple of kilometres from Auckland harbour.

A human being (Homo sapiens, although not so sapiens at times) on board the ferry to Tiritiri Matangi with Auckland harbour in the background.

All very well, boat trips are always nice. But what exactly is it that makes this island special, and why did I want to go there at all?

Variable oystercatcher (torea-pango, Haematopus unicolor), an endemic bird that is widespread and relatively common along New Zealand’s coastline

For birdwatching, of course – what else! The great attraction of Tiritiri Matangi, for scientists as well as for ordinary tourists like myself, lies in two facts:

(1) the island is pest-free, i.e. without cats, dogs, rats and other rodents, non-native insects etc.

And that, in turn, is great news for (2) the many native bird species living here, many of them very rare and extinct on the main islands of New Zealand.

Pied cormorant (or shag) (Phalacrocorax varius varius) luckily not a rare bird species either

Every guidebook or website that I consulted in preparation for this trip strongly recommended a visit to Tiri for everybody even vaguely interested in wildlife. So for me it was a must, and I was well-advised to book the trip already months ahead of my visit. You see, it’s really peak season for summer tourism here in New Zealand. The local folks have their summer holidays, the Aussies are here (cruise ships full of them), tourists from Japan and China, and Europeans like me as well. This means that all the accommodations and main attractions are already fully booked, and there’s no way you can sneak in spontaneously and without prior reservation.

This, by the way, is the reason why I was only able to go on a day trip to Tiri. I would have much preferred to stay on the island for one or two nights, but there are only very few beds available, and they were already sold out half a year ago…

Can you read the sign? It tells you a lot about the main problems of conservation in NZ, and about the main approach towards its solution. The fauna and flora of the islands, be they large or small, just cannot deal with the presence of so many new organisms brought here (deliberately or not) by us humans in the course of the last several hundred years. The new arrivals either compete with the natives for food and habitat, or they even actively prey on them, e.g. by predating on eggs and bird chicks. Or they bring diseases with them. And the destruction of thehabitats of native animals, especially through deforestation and urban development, doesn’t help much…

New Zealand pigeon (kereru, Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), also a rather common species. It can also be found on the main islands. Endemic to New Zealand.

Upon arrival on Tiri, I decided not to join a guided tour but to make my own way instead. The island is small, and there are beautiful little foot-paths criss-crossing the beaches, rocky slopes, meadows and woodland. Everything is well maintained and clearly signposted. The sun was shining, the waves were lapping against the sandy beach. It definitely looked like this was going to be a good day!

And then I saw my first penguin. Like, ever!

Little blue penguin (korora, Eudyptula minor) in its nest box. An adult with two chicks.

Not that they were particularly difficult to find, one meter away from the main footpath…

But hey, who cares – a new species is a new species, a LIFER, right? And my first penguin, like, ever. But I’m repeating myself.

I had around 4.5 hours on Tiri in total. This may sound a lot to you, given the small size of the island. But believe me, it was much too short. I did see many nice birds though, and the landscape is very beautiful too. But time-wise it’s never enough…

Whitehead, (pōpokotea, Mohoua albicilla), formerly a common passerine bird on the North Island. Today, restricted to a few populations on pest-free offshore islands. Endemic to New Zealand. I saw several flocks of them during my stay on Tiri.
New Zealand bellbird (korimako, Anthornis melanura), another endemic species (of course). Fortunately, still quite common throughout New Zealand. Very common on Tiri.
Brown quail (Coturnix ypsilophora), an Australian species which was introduced to NZ in the late 19th century. WHY?!?
North Island robin (Petroica longipes), endemic to the North Island and some of the smaller islands.
North Island saddleback (tieke, Philesturnus rufusater), a once common forest bird which is now largely confined to predator-free islands offshore. Needless to say, another NZ endemic.
Stitchbird (hihi, Notiomystis cincta), one of the star species on Tiritiri matangi. Yes, endemic to NZ.
Tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae), another endemic passerine. Very common on Tiri and also not rare on the main islands. I really liked its song!
ACHTUNG, BABY: The worst parrot photo in the history of parrot photography!!! A red-crowned parakeet (kakariki, Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae), one of several that I saw during my stay. I hope I will get better views (and photo ops) in other places I intend to visit. By they’re always somewhere high up in tree-tops, and they never seem to sit still…
Brown teal (pateke, Anas chlorotis). Fewer than 1,000 adult birds overall at present…

One of the birds I had really hoped to see on Tiri was the Takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri), a kind of giant, flightless swamp-hen. This rare and rather odd bird didn’t originally live on Tiri, but was relocated here for the purpose for breeding and reintroduction to its original site on the South Island. For a long time, the takahe was believed to be extinct, but then a small population was discovered back in 1948. At present, approximately 200 birds are alive in the different sites, a handful of them on Tiri.

Again, finding them was one of the easier tasks… It felt much more like visiting a zoo than watching wild animals.

I think they are really handsome and photogenic, and that’s despite the horrible light at 2pm on a bright and sunny day. I cannot tell you how much I would LOVE to photograph these creatures in the early morning or evening…

So much for the slightly weird Takahe.

To round off this little account of my trip to this little gem in the Hauraki Gulf, let me provide you with some more landscape shots. What a day this has been! New Zealand is good to me so far.

To be continued!

Sydney 1 – Auckland 0

The good news first: Auckland has construction workers, yay! The biggest deficit I experienced in New Caledonia during those five weeks of my stay there was the almost complete absence of women and men in security gear operating heavy machinery in the streets. Or controlling the traffic. And you know how I have a soft spot for these guys.

True, there were occasionally some people in the streets of Nouméa and elsewhere doing some kind of construction work. But they were few and far between, and so non-descript that it was as if they didn’t exist at all. So you can probably imagine my huge relief when I laid eyes on the first orange-clad folks here. Even though it’s Christmas time AND summer holidays here.

And yet…

… they seem to be lacking in something important. I can’t really describe what it is.

I mean, they’ve got all the ingredients: the barriers, the clothes and other gear, the machinery. Yet somehow they are not half as cool as their Australian counterparts. Their clothes are a bit shabby and worn, they seem to be standing around more than actually doing something. The special aura is missing, if you know what I mean.

Also, their machinery is significantly smaller and way less impressive than the Aussie heavy-duty stuff.

Rather cute, don’t you think?

Anyways, I guess I shouldn’t complain. Auckland has been good to me so far, and a handful of scruffy construction workers is still miles better than none at all!

Kia ora!

I’m ready for the next chapter!

So much yet to be written about my previous destinations, though. I wonder how I’m gonna cope with that…

My hostel in downtown Auckland may look like the least glamorous abode from the outside, but it’s really nice inside. Plus, I have a great view from my window!

The weather is great and the sun won’t set before 8.30 pm here. That’s two hours later than in New Caledonia!

Do they know it´s Christmas?

They sure do!

There is simply no escape from Christmas. Not that that had been my intention when I set off to far-off destinations six weeks ago. Of course I was prepared to see Christmas celebrated in the south Pacific too. But the sheer scale of it certainly exceeds my expectations…

First some impressions from Nouméa’s main square, the Place des Cocotiers.

The giant christmas tree not only glitters from what seems to be a million little lamps. The highlight every evening are the ‘eruptions’ (for want of a better word) of artificial snowflakes. Much to the joy and excitement of hundreds of kids with their parents who are obviously having a great time.

Like in Europe, the commercial aspect is an integral element of Christmas celebration everywhere you look. It really is A LOT about consumption and entertainment.

Nouméa even boasts its own ‘marché de Noel’. The kids like it here, too. Even though they may never have seen real snow, let alone a full-grown snowman!

References to Christmas (mainly as decorative elements) can also be found outside of Nouméa, New Caledonia’s capital city. For instance, this Christmas tree was set up in the provincial town of Bourail already at the end of November:

It is strange for me to watch such a scene at more than 30 degrees in the shade, believe me… But quite amusing, frankly! The village of Farino had also installed its decorative street lighting already many weeks ago. Please note the wonderful representation of the Kagou, New Caledonia’s emblematic bird!

The best thing, however, I saw on a little market in Sarraméa at the end of November. And it’s probably also closest to the true meaning of Christmas.

Oh, and by the way, just in case you were wondering: in Sydney they also know it’s Christmas…


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