Countryside blog


It has been a long winter, and it is not until the end of September that we feel that spring has arrived. The little black-billed gulls, usually here by August, finally turn up and begin to settle on the river flats. The view from the cottage is never more beautiful than when the dazzling white wings of the circling gulls flash against a backdrop of greening willow and hill and stormy sky.

Yesterday I went down to the river to see where they were nesting and found them on a spit about a kilometre from Mararoa Cottage. I sat on a bank of sun-warmed stones and watched but was too far away to make much sense of their comings and goings. I could see, however, that they weren't the only birds on the river. Chaffinches hopped past me like jaunty wind-up toys or fluttered above the water hunting for insects. White fronted terns flicked back and forward across shallow stretches of river, their beaks pointed characteristically down as they looked for small fish. Occasionally a huge native pigeon flew overhead, wings pumping as it headed for the shelter of the willows. High above us a hawk rested on the thermals, explaining the pigeon's haste. A pair of oyster catchers solemnly patrolled the opposite bank and two pairs of spur winged plovers mingled amiably with the dainty gulls.

The longer I sat, the more I saw, and guests with time to spare might consider doing the same. Pop our folding chairs in your car and drive to the river to listen to the song of the water and watch the river birds. (thank you Andre Richard Chalmers for the great photo)


From time to time we drive to the South Coast for a day of beach walks, whale spotting (in winter) and cafe visits. Last time we were there I remarked that it would be nice to ride a horse along the beach, and Paul was obviously listening because on our next visit, I got to do just that. He'd contacted Orepuki Horse Treks and organised a ride for me and fourteen year old Iona. The route took us along quiet country lanes with astonishing views over Te Waewae Bay. Skylarks sang overhead and sea mist created the illusion that the snow-capped mountains across the bay were floating. The fields were bright green with spring growth and dotted with fat lambs and the horses seemed as happy to be out on this beautiful day as we were. Down on the beach, huge waves drove shore-ward but the storm that had generated them overnight had blown through and the air was still and warm. The horses stepped out confidently on the firm sand of the long beach. Mine preferred to follow, rather than lead, and as each horse communicated with the others, and communication ran to and fro between each rider and horse, I realized how trekking added a dimension to a walk on the beach that went far beyond the 'hooves on the sand, wind in my hair' experience I had been expecting.

There are excellent horse riding opportunities right here in Te Anau, but if you want a beach ride, Orepuki is the place to go. It's a very beautiful hour and twenty minute drive from Mararoa Cottage (and there's a great cafe, a chance of whales in the winter and dolphins in the summer!).


Snow avalanches can be deadly, but they are also beautiful to watch, and there is one place you can reliably go to see them in complete safety. It's called Lake Marian and you get there from the Hollyford Road, around an hour and a half's drive from Te Anau. Last weekend we headed there for our annual avalanche picnic. It was a gorgeous day. There'd been rain and the sun shining through the canopy sparkled on wet leaves. Birds sang, the track was strewn with the fallen flowers of forest vines. Even with stops to dissect fallen flowers (there were kids in our party) the steep walk took little more than an hour and a half. we came out of the forest, seeing first the walls of the mountain cirque and then experiencing the jaw dropping reveal of the lake itself. It really does stop you in your tracks. Unless you're a child in which case you dash off over the boulders to paddle in the snowmelt. We adults sat in the sun and ate our sandwiches. As the day warmed the avalanches began. From where we sat they didn't appear large, but they were accompanied by enormous booms and roars that echoed 'round the cirque. It was an amazing show and we were reluctant to leave, but the temperature drops quickly in the mountains, even in November, and its best to head down before the chill sets in.


December is the time for alpine flowers and native mistletoe blooms. We didn't get into the mountains this month, but we did manage to visit our favourite mistletoe forest. New Zealand's showy scarlet mistletoe grows on beech trees and flowers in Fiordland in late December and into January. The best local mistletoe is on the Circle Track at Manapouri, just down the road from Mararoa Cottage. The track starts across the Waiau River and you can cross by row-boat or water taxi. The largest mistletoe plants are enormous, easily three metres in diametre. In a good year they blaze like balls of flame and carpet the forest floor with fallen blooms. We always save a foil-covered chocolate Santa from Christmas and take him into the forest where we sit on the red carpet of mistletoe flowers and eat him. Shades of paganism...


This month was terribly hot. Our fridge became confused and froze everything, including the cucumbers. I sliced one lengthways and put it out on the bird table, right beside the freshly washed, freshly filled bird-bath. A female blackbird came down and filled her beak with cucumber sorbet, then hopped into the bird-bath and just waded around. She seemed to be enjoying the sensation of cool at both ends. She kept doing it, scooping up the cucumber and wading in the water until I was sure it was for the sheer pleasure of being cool.

Also enjoying cool feet is the child in the photograph. She's paddling in the little Whitestone River one kilometre from the cottage

February Set your watch to geological time, and the glaciers that carved Fiordland's dramatic landscape vanished only minutes ago. It's been just 12,000 years since the ice-sheets melted and left the mountains scraped clean of soil, so it's not surprising that Fiordland has such a thin layer of the precious stuff laid on its rocky bones. As the dry weather became a drought, this lack of soil took its toll and in the national park trees began to die. On our property eight large gum trees perished. When it's dry enough to kill Aussies, it's time to get worried.

Rain will come of course, and in the meantime the weather is rather nice for visitors, and the lakes have many kilometres of temporary beaches which are fun to explore.


Patter of rain, twitter of sparrows. Everything is greening again after the long dry spell. Yesterday, returning from a job in Milford Sound, I took time for a walk. It was late, the sun already slanting low through the forest, back-lighting the trees and turning the feathering of wet moss on their trunks into a softly glowing green aura. The wind murmured in the tree tops, but where I stood the air was still and heavy with the scent of orchids. I seemed to have wandered into the archetypal enchanted forest. A fantail perched in a patch of sunlight, a frog chirruped in the shadow. Maybe I should have kissed him...


I love good coffee. Some of the larger tour boats here have barista-trained crew. The luxury of it! These big, slick boats have lots of space indoors and out, they have flush toilets, they're sparklingly clean. What's not to love? Nothing, they really are great. But recently I took a trip with a small bloke-and-boat operation and it was a great experience too. The launch left from the wharf at the bottom of Te Anau's main street and puttered across the bay for a half-day excursion on the lake. We passed forested islands and took a left into the staggeringly beautiful South Arm. The glacial action that formed the fiords also shaped the lake, so this landscape is every bit as dramatic as Doubtful Sound and a close second to Milford. We took a beautiful stroll through the bush to one of the Hidden Lakes and returned to the boat to find our skipper had the kettle on. There were mugs and muffins (warm!) and we sat snug and warm in the cabin as rain drew a curtain across the landscape. June

Stoats are a serious threat to Fiordland's endangered wildlife. They are small, long bodied predators belonging to the same family as ferrets and minks, and they were introduced to New Zealand to hunt rabbits (which had been introduced for food and sport and bred like, well, rabbits). In the forest on the Kepler track, close to Te Anau, the dawn chorus was fading as fewer and fewer birds were left to sing. However, this month I had an experience that convinces me that the birds are coming back. I went into the bush with a group of students to check the school's own rat and stoat trap line. Inquisitive robins came to check on our work, fantails flitted about our heads and kereru (pictured) flew heavily from tree to tree. We saw and heard more birds than I have ever experienced in the area. The single best thing about living where we do is seeing community action making such significant improvements to the forest environment.

July This month I visited Bluecliffs Beach at Te Waewae Bay, about an hour and a half's drive from here. On my last visit to this beach I got out of the car into the teeth of a southerly gale, got hailed on as I took a five minute walk, returned to the car and drove home. That was 18 years ago and I hadn't felt tempted to return since. What a mistake. After this month's visit it is now firmly on my calendar of winter trips (it was early summer last time I visited, which tells you a lot about the unpredictability of our weather). Southern Right whales calve on this coast in the winter and on this calm morning a mother and calf were lolling about in the bay. Close in, a dozen tiny Hector's dolphins were playing in the surf, so close we could see them in the breaking waves just a couple of metres from shore. We had two hours of their company before they moved off up the coast. Simply unforgettable..