Witnessing how Christchurch remembers its 2011 earthquake: the memorial of 185 white-painted chairs (a chair in memory of every victim) was poignant. We admired, too, the city’s surreal, cleverly constructed cardboard cathedral, a symbol of revival. While visiting the Bay of Islands, we even acted as witnesses at the wedding of a couple we met over breakfast at New Year in Akaroa!
In Australia, we cruised Sydney Harbour on Australia Day, watching fireworks over Darling Harbour, and drove along the Great Ocean Road. A quirkier highlight was a bushtucker tour. We sampled all kinds of vegetation traditionally used in aboriginal cooking, trusting our guide not to poison us…
In particular, I didn’t expect to be so struck by the wildlife in these countries. It wasn’t just the fact that we were seeing animals and birds mostly in their natural environments, rather than a zoo. I loved waking up to a new dawn chorus, a soundscape very different to the one I hear at home in the UK. Here, in no particular order, are some of our top wildlife moments.
Watching feeding albatrosses, Kaikoura, New Zealand
Kaikoura is famous for whale watching, but the owner of our B&B told us that seeing the local albatrosses would prove a little more interactive. I soon understood what she meant.
Our boat headed 10 to 15 km (6 to 9 miles) out to sea, and birds started following us immediately. Then the boat anchored, and our guide threw out food (fishy bits) in a metal cage. We watched as a storm of great albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters descended within arm’s length of us, feeding and fighting with each other.
Visiting Cape Kidnappers Gannet Reserve, New Zealand
Out on a headland in Hawke’s Bay, North Island, our minibus pulled up in front of a line of rope. Beyond it lay an enormous colony of nesting Australasian gannets. They filled the rocky peninsula as far as the eye could see.
We stayed there for what felt like hours, watching them flying in and out, feeding chicks, and preening each other. In fact, I was so entranced that I remained sitting there — mere feet away from them — long after everyone else in our small group had already got back onto the bus. Then I heard a polite cough, and knew it was time to go!
Penguin-spotting on the Otago Peninsula, New Zealand
At Penguin Place, a private reserve near Dunedin, where we were staying, we were in exactly the right place at the right time.
Standing in hides — which resemble camouflaged trenches, allowing you to watch birds without disturbing them — we spied a yellow-eyed penguin emerging from the sea. As it waddled up to a lakeside, it was joined, to our delight, by two fluffy, podgy youngsters, as well as its mate. One stayed and fed the chicks while the other wandered back out to sea: penguins sharing parenting duties.
Discovering the underwater world of Milford Sound
After cruising the sound, we saw a floating platform in the middle of this immense fjord-like inlet. It was an observatory. Curious, we descended into a goldfish bowl set 10 m (32 ft) underwater. It was built against the walls of the sound where all kinds of creatures like anemones and sponges lived.
It was the opposite of an aquarium — you felt rather like a goldfish looking out, while the fish were free to come and go. I was particularly intrigued by a species of rare, delicate, white-hued coral. (Confusingly, it’s called black coral). Creatures dwell in it, helping to clean it, but this coral is normally found at much lower depths.
Seeing dolphins in the Bay of Islands
On the ‘Cream Trip’ boat tour around the bay, our vessel was the only one that day able to pass through the famous ‘Hole in the Rock’ — a natural formation drenched in Maori folklore — before the swells became too powerful. It was fun, but what I really loved was watching pods of bottlenose dolphins playing and jumping in our boat’s bow waves.
Meeting koalas, quolls and more at Cape Otway, Australia
We stayed at the Great Ocean Ecolodge, a wonderful retreat heavily involved in wildlife conservation. One evening, I saw a movement in the grass by one of the lodge’s buildings. It turned out to be a koala, and it was heading straight toward us (by the way, they’re much faster than you’d expect). It scampered past, then disappeared up a tree.
On another day, I drew back the curtains to a crowd of 20 to 30 kangaroos hopping and boxing on the lawn outside our room. Later, we saw the lodge’s rare and vicious tiger quolls (we were advised to keep our fingers well away from them).
I developed a soft spot for the resident potoroo, another threatened animal I’d never heard of before I came to Australia. They look like large, energetic rats. Happily, I’ve since learned that the lodge has found him a mate.
And finally… a kookaburra in a gum tree, the Grampians, Australia
Emus stalked in the forest around Hall’s Gap, where we spent a few days exploring the bushland and Grampian mountains. They seemed quite fearsome, and I was wary of getting too close. But in other ways, it was a wonderful place when it came to the proximity of wildlife.
Kangaroos peeped through the windows of our cabin each morning, and I’d see them hopping along the road through the town. Then, happily, a morning walk rewarded us with a glimpse of one of Australia’s most iconic birds: the laughing kookaburra.
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