New Zealand cycle trek, Chapter 7: Okarito to Fox Glacier

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman February 17, 2016 08:15

Bateman’s Blog

Journalist Chris Bateman, 69, and son Ben, 28, continue their 500-mile ride across New Zealand, from Christchurch to Queenstown.

Okarito (Pop. 30) to Fox Glacier (Pop. 375)

Distance: 51 kilometers. 

Net elevation gain: 640 feet   

We played tourist today, kicking it off with a 90-minute bird-watching cruise on Okarito Lagoon and ending it with a helicopter ride up to the top of the Southern Alps and onto snow-covered Fox Glacier.

In between, Ben and I found time for a bike ride. But let’s start with those birds.

The star of the Okarito show is the great white heron, which has a small but stable population of around 200 in all of New Zealand and three breeding pairs living at the lagoon, a heron sanctuary.

So naturally, when we stopped at Okarito Boat Tours to book the 7:30 a.m. Saturday cruise, I insisted on a guarantee we’d see herons.

“No guarantees,” answered Paula, who with husband and guide Swade owns the business. “But I’d say your chances of seeing at least one heron are 99 percent.”

She talked with the assurance of someone used to dealing with boorish American tourists, so I bought in. Aaron, our host at the Okarito Beach House, had also sworn that Swade “practically knows all those herons by name. He’ll do you right.”

Our motor launch shoved off from the weather-beaten Okarito wharf bright and early, and within five minutes saw our first great white. Within a half hour we had seen so many herons that I lost count.

Which gave rise to a question: If there is a breeding population of only six, how can those half-dozen herons seemingly be in so many places at the same time?  I figured a guy who knows herons by name would have the answer, and he did.

heron-on-lakeMost of the herons we were seeing, explained Swade, were juveniles – offspring of the adult breeders who were less than a year old. Shortly, he continued, these birds would leave the nest and fly off to find their own territory. Seems great white herons are not terribly social and leave for new swamps almost as soon as they can fly.

Kind of like our own kids flying off to Brooklyn and Oakland. Except that Ben is back with Dad for a 10-day bike trip and Papa Heron’s sons will never return for anything.

By the time our cruise was done, we had also seen white-faced herons, variable and pied oyster catchers, Caspian and white-fronted terns, a paradise shelduck, and a few more species I can’t remember. Yes, Swade had done us right.

So, with our nonexistent lifetime bird lists impressively enlarged, Ben and I began the short, fairly easy bike ride to Fox Glacier.

Its highlight was Mapourika, one in a beautiful chain of Alpine lakes along our South Island route.

We stopped and took a walk out onto a narrow boat dock. I put down my water bottle, fished my phone out of my jersey pocket and snapped a photo of Ben.

Then we walked back to our bikes and continued on to our lunch stop, the bustling tourist town of Franz Josef.  We ate at The Landing, a bar and restaurant across the highway from the town’s busy heliport. The sound of choppers coming and going – all loaded with tourists on glacier runs – never ceased as we wolfed down chicken sandwiches.

When we returned to our bikes, one of my two water bottles was missing. It took me a minute, but I realized my absent bottle was sitting on the Lake Mapourika dock – about 12 miles behind us.     chris's-high-priced-water-bottles-ADJ

I wasn’t about to ride back, but neither was I going without a second bottle: Three steep, hot climbs were ahead, and I would need every drop.

So I went into a trendy-junky sports-gifts-and-souvenir shop (yes, there are a few in New Zealand), grabbed a plastic water bottle from the shelves and put it on the counter. “Thirty dollars,” the clerk said.

“Thirty dollars!” I gasped. “Are you serious?”

Yes, this particular bottle, branded “Ultimate Direction,” was a special edition made for runners. It has a fancy retractable nipple and some green webbing that might hold an energy bar. But really, bike bottles just as good cost a buck or two in the states.

The clerk gave me a look of sympathy, and I forgave her. She didn’t set the outrageous prices. But I was out of options and bought the “Ultimate Ripoff.”  A Waterford Crystal bike bottle would have been cheaper.

But the water it held got me through those three climbs and to our destination, Fox Glacier, in time to join the tourist throngs for a helicopter ride.  Yes, it cost a small fortune, but compared to that bike bottle it was a bargain.

What’s more, Fox Glacier is shrinking by the decade, and we’d best see it before it disappears.

Fox Glacier and yes, it's shrinking

With three Chinese tourists – Mom, Dad and a teen daughter – we took off and headed for the hills, which soon became mountains. Our pilot climbed, circling twice, cresting the divide between Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman, then landing on a long, blindingly white stretch of Fox Glacier itself.

Four choppers – among 15 hauling passengers back and forth on 40-minute runs from town – were already there. The helicopters looked like mosquitoes perched on the skin of some huge guy who doesn’t get out much.

As you might conclude after reading the paragraph above, my words don’t do the short but spectacular trip justice. Check out Ben’s photos in the slideshow above and at right, and you’ll have a far better notion.

After the chopper ride, we ate and retired. Our mid-trip diet of 50-kilometer rides ends tomorrow, when 120 K (about 75 miles) awaits.

kiwi-live-here-signKiwi Notes

What would Kiwi Notes be without a note about kiwi?

First a caveat: None of what you’ll read is based on firsthand experience. I was in New Zealand back in 1982 and, of course, here I am today. But not once have I seen a kiwi.

Near the little town of Arthur’s Pass, we came upon one of those yellow highway warning sign with the unmistakable black silhouette of a kiwi. “Next 14 km,” it read.

“Great!” I thought. “I’ll finally see the national bird. In fact, given that sign, I may be dodging them on my bike.”

A hostess at the Arthur’s Pass Visitors Center cleared that up: “You won’t see one,” she assured. “They’re nocturnal and live in the underbrush. Unless you’re out after dark in the bush, it’s not going to happen.”

I wasn’t, so I settled for reading about kiwi (yes, its singular is also plural).

Like most New Zealand birds, kiwi have lived on the island for millions of years. They are flightless, about the size of chickens – the largest are about 18 inches high and weigh a little more than seven pounds.  They eat seeds, grubs and insects.

They are – and this is rather bizarre – the smallest member of the ostrich family.

A key distinction: For its size, the kiwi lays the largest eggs (16 ounces) in the bird world. Which I guess is like a chickadee laying a hen egg – although this may be something of an exaggeration.

Kiwi are not doing well in their native country.  They have fallen prey to a variety of introduced mammals, and among their most dreaded enemies are dogs –which can sniff the birds out and kill them in an instant.

There are only 68,000 birds in country.

Just 5 percent of kiwi born in the wild survive to adulthood. If this were true of any human population (with the possible exception of journalists and politicians), there would be worldwide outrage.

The government of New Zealand has responded: Under Operation Nest Egg, kiwi chicks are taken from their parents, raised in a predator-free environment, then reintroduced into the wild as young adults. The survival rate among these birds is 65 percent.

The Okarito area, our lagoon guide, Swade, said, is home to some 400 kiwi – and home to almost as many “Kiwi Live Here – No Dogs Please” signs. New birds have been introduced, he said, and have thrived.

If we had stayed in Okarito another night, we might have seen one. Our Beach House neighbors from Michigan, Art and Marlene, signed up for a kiwi hunt the night we arrived.

Turns out the town has an old coot who almost knows the local kiwi by name. For a price, he takes groups of six tiptoeing into the brush at night in search of the elusive bird.

“But ours is full,” said Art, who returned the Beach House at 10:30 p.m. to announce the hunt was a success and that, yes, they had seen kiwi.

No such luck for Ben and me: We’ll have to settle for seeing New Zealand’s humans, who have not only adopted the kiwi as their national bird, but for generations have been proud to call themselves Kiwis as well.

And that’s good enough for us.

Read previous entries, and stayed tuned for upcoming entries, at Bateman’s Blog.

















Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman February 17, 2016 08:15
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