We are sitting in our motel room at the foot of Mt. Cook (Aoraki). It’s a gloriously warm, cloudless day; we have the sliding glass door open. We really should be out hiking, but I’m recovering from a case of food poisoning that felled me yesterday. (That damned ham-and-cheese croissant at the roadside eatery, probably under-refrigerated.) Plus we’re happy to have the break from so much driving.
It occurred to me yesterday it’s been almost 25 years since Steve and I did any trip like this, driving day after day with only a night or two at each place along the way. We’re mostly only driving between 2 and 4 hours a day, but as people point out here,
It’s tiring. On the plus side, we’re loving the chance to see such stunning countryside: rolling green pastures so intensely green they almost hurt your eyes…A lake more neon turquoise than any swimming pool…Now these snow-covered craggy mountains.
This mode of travel also is freeing us to make spur-of-the-moment decisions, like stopping to taste New Zealand sauvignon blancs and rieslings and pinot noirs at wineries that are the polar opposite in their hospitality (inexpensive tastings, no fuss about making reservations) from what we experienced in Chile and Argentina this past summer. A more unexpected piece of serendipity took us on the hunt to see wild albatrosses in Kaikoura.
We were plodding down the coastal highway on the South Island’s northeast corner, where huge sections still are being rebuilt in the wake of the deadly 2010/2011 earthquakes. Sometime after 3 pm, I was reading to Steve Lonely Planet’s description of what there is to do in Kaikoura, the town where we had a reservation for the night. Tourists swim with the dusky dolphins that thrive there, but it was a chilly day, plus we have dolphins in San Diego. We have whales too, maybe not as many types, but we’ve seen enough gray whales to make the thought of spending almost $200 for whale-watching unappealing. Then I read the listing for the Albatross Encounter. “Even if you’re not a bird-nerd, you’ll love this close encounter with pelagic species such as shearwaters, shags, mollymawks, and petrels,” enthused the writer, who added that the albatrosses (“just awesome”) steal the show.
When he was 8 years old, Steve and his mother sailed from San Francisco to Yokohama on a steamer. One of his most vivid memories of that passage is of the albatrosses who accompanied their ship for the whole 5,000-mile journey. I’d never seen one, so this sounded like a magical opportunity. The magic started when I was able to use my iPhone (while we were driving along in our rental car) to reserve and pay for tickets for the first outing the next morning. I called the Albatross Encounter office to confirm everything. “Be there at 5:45,” the young woman on the other end instructed me.
The sky was just beginning to lighten when we checked in. I could see that only 6 people would be going on the trip. Two were an Ozzie couple, both bearing cameras fitted with lenses so huge they looked like weapons. The other pair were two young women who emerged from a camper van in the parking lot. One clutched the definitive guide to New Zealand birds; the other had her own super-long-lensed camera. I patted my beloved Sony and whispered that size wasn’t all that mattered, while Steve planned to use his iPhone.
Under the direction of a grizzled captain named Gary, we clambered up the ladder of a jet boat parked on a trailer.Gary and a helper quickly maneuvered it into the water, then we were off, pounding over a rolling swell. Before long we stopped near a fishing trawler, that had already attracted a raucous avian audience.
If one of our fellow passengers were writing this, you would probably get a much more detailed listing of everything we saw. Collectively, the other four must have taken more than 10,000 photographs, and one of the girls made eager notations in her birding notebook. I can only say: those birds put on quite a show. We saw hundreds of gulls and terns and Cape Petrels. Most of the latter are small but two giant species awed us. Even hard-bitten Gary seemed blown away by the presence of three Giant Southern Petrels.
They normally hang out in Antarctica. “I think we may have a world record with that one today,” the captain/guide declared.
Gary pointed out the Hutton’s shearwater, which nests in the alpine mountains but spends most of its life flying at sea. And he counted six different varieties of albatross. I loved the dapper, slightly sinister Salvin’s albatross.￼
The star of the ensemble, however, was the Gibson’s Antipodean Wandering albatross.
Those guys weren’t just soaring overhead, though they do that sublimely. They were landing (much more gracefully than brown pelicans, Steve and I remarked) and joining the feathered throng jockeying for scraps from the fishing boat or pecking into the bale of chum that Gary sometimes suspended overboard.
It was a squawking, jostling, intensely social scene.
Steve captured good video (on his trusty iPhone), and I tried twice to insert it here, but the Internet in the national park is very slow. I’ll make another effort to add it when I get back home, but in the meantime, I’ll wrap up with this photo of a red-billed seagull. They’re nowhere near as big as the albatrosses, and we didn’t have to pay to see them. They still have a lot of style, I think.