Plenty of adventure in the Bay

New Zealand has a public holiday known as ANZAC Day, on which people remember those soldiers, sailors and pilots from Australia and New Zealand who died serving with the Allied Forces in the Second World War.

It was also a good opportunity for us to have a holiday without using up too much of Giles’s holiday time. This time we headed down to the Bay of Plenty, hoping that since Whakatane was the sunniest place in New Zealand in 2012, we might get less rain than we had down in Taranaki.

We were not disappointed! It threatened to rain a couple of times over the 4 days we were there, but the heavens never actually opened, and we had quite a lot of gorgeous sunshine as well as some clouds. We were also very lucky with the weather because it wasn’t too windy to get to White Island, the active volcanic island far out in the bay; many people who try to visit there never make it because trips frequently get cancelled due to overly strong winds. Admittedly, the ride there and back was very choppy (the wind was almost strong enough for them to cancel the trip, but not quite) and quite a lot of people were feeling very seasick during both 2-hr trips.

Upon arrival at the island, we were given hard hats (in case of rock falls) and gas masks (for optional use in case you couldn’t cope with the sulphuric fumes). We were warned not to stray off the path, and especially not to walk on any bits that were tinged with yellow, because those spots often indicate that under the top layer of rock are puddles of noxious material at more than 100 degrees Celsius.

The guides led us around the island, and stopped to show us a variety of sights, including the geological features, the remains of an abandoned sulphur-processing plant, and the physical layout. The island is quite small, with steep cliffs on three sides, though those are forested on the outer surfaces. Inside the arc of the hills, the slopes are very steep, and ragged with rocky scars, and in the centre of the island is the main volcanic crater, full of bubbling mud and spewing steam and blue smoke. Apparently the smoke comes out blue because of the high concentration of sulphur dioxide — a lot of us used our gas masks while standing near the rim of the crater. Below the crater are many scattered mounds of rock, formed after a major landslide, and many of the rocks are stained yellow or red, sometimes looking like very crude cave paintings.

The guides were very informative, giving us the history of the many attempts to mine the island, and explaining the geological features and the chemistry. We even got to taste the water in a couple of streams, which was safe, but odd-tasting: one stream tasted metallic due to the sulphur content, and the other tasted of lemon juice because of the hydrochloric acid. But we were warned not to touch another pool full of bubbling liquid, because it is acidic enough to melt hard hats… The guides seemed to be having fun showing us around; they said the island changes every month, so what they can show people is different each time they visit.

In the evening after our White Island trip we drove up to the Whakatane Observatory, home to the “Sky of Plenty” astronomy society, because they have open evenings on Tuesdays and Fridays. The weather had stayed fair all day, so there weren’t many clouds, but unfortunately much of our viewing was hindered by the extremely bright moon, just one day after full moon. But we saw Saturn very clearly, and the astronomers also showed us a bright cluster of stars located by one of the points of the Southern Cross, and they tried to show us a couple of very distant galaxies. And while one astronomer was preparing the telescope for each new sight, the other would answer questions and show us the constellations, and make jokes about the different stars visible in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. So it was an interesting evening, and very friendly.

The day after the White Island trip, we were due to go to Whale Island/Moutohora, another island off the coast, but it was too windy for the boat to get out there. So instead we took a tip from our hosts in Whakatane, and drove back towards Rotorua for a day of walking. That was a great trek — very few people around, beautiful spots to stop at and admire the view. And it was followed by a delicious dinner at Soulsa, a new restaurant in Whakatane, where we had bread & beautifully-textured dips to start, and venison steak/twice-cooked duck to follow.

Luckily, we still had time to fit in the Whale Island trip on our final day, before driving back to Auckland. Whale Island is a protected nature reserve, so only 24 people are allowed onto the island at any one time, and access is restricted and depends on a license. We were very lucky to get there, because the tour company only started running regular trips in January, and then hadn’t made trips for 2 months before we went, because of the increased risk of fire on the island due to the drought. We also had to have our bags checked for possible rodents, and we weren’t allowed to take any open bags or packets of food.

The reason people visit Whale Island is to see the wildlife. Saddlebacks, which are birds rarely seen on the mainland, were released there several years ago and have since bred prolifically. We saw a few of them, but we heard even more — they’re really noisy birds, and aren’t at all put off by hearing people walking around the island. We also saw the footprints of a few kiwis — about 20 or so were released onto the island last year, but the ones that have survived since then do not appear to have bred at all, possibly due to the large amount of competition for food etc. from the muttonbirds and other birds that nest in burrows on the island. We were advised not to step off the paths, lest we crash through the roof of a muttonbird burrow.

Muttonbirds are a kind of petrel, and they have a very odd landing style — instead of landing on the island and then wandering along the ground to their burrows, they locate their burrow from above and then fold up their wings and drop straight down into the burrow. Sadly, they occasionally miss, possibly because of strong winds, and end up impaled/throttled in the trees. We saw two dead ones on our root. It seems like a very odd evolutionary tactic — presumably the alternative was worse!

The absolute highlight of the Whale Island trip, though, was that there were 2 extra passengers on the boat with us: two juvenile little blue penguins, which the local bird society was re-releasing into the wild. They’d been found on the beaches of the Bay, underweight and unable to feed themselves, so the bird protection group kept and fed them until they put on enough weight, and then brought them to the island to encourage them to go out to sea and start feeding themselves again. Releasing them on the beaches of the Bay would be too close to where they were picked up, and they might be tempted to go up to people in hope of food. The representative from the bird society brought them on the boat in a wine box (yes, they are that small!) and let a couple of people hold them before letting them go on the beach. They immediately ran off into the sea, and although they bobbed up to the surface a few times, they soon disappeared from view. But it was great to see them up close before they departed!

So all in all, we had a wonderful 4-day trip, which was worth the long drive there and back, and the traffic on the way back into Auckland. And we might go back, but we might not get to go back to the same B&B, as our hosts are trying to sell the place and move over to a bigger farm on the East Cape. But I think we’ll be back in the Bay of Plenty before long!

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