Hiking Under Aoraki Mount Cook

Of the three January 2018 weeks we spent touring New Zealand on the American Horticultural Society’s “Gardens, Wine & Wilderness” tour, without a doubt my two favourite outings were our overnight voyage on Doubtful Sound in Fiordland and the day we hiked the Hooker Valley Track under the country’s tallest mountain, Aoraki Mount Cook.  That’s not to say I don’t love gardens, but for me there is simply no garden that compares with the one that nature conjures in places that we have not disturbed. So it was with great excitement, a few hours after lunching at Ann & Jim Jerram’s lovely Ostler Wine vineyard in the Waitaki Valley that we found ourselves standing beside Highway 80 on the shores of Lake Pukaki, staring in awe at the majestic mountain in the distance.  Every camera and cellphone came out.

You can see why the Māori of the South Island called their sacred mountain Aoraki, or “cloud piercer”.  (I’ll tell you more of their founding legend later.)

We continued driving Highway 80 (aka Mount Cook Road) along the shore of Lake Pukaki on our way into Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. As at Queenstown, we saw invasive “wilding conifers” along the shore – in this case, lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta), left, from western North America. Introduced into New Zealand in 1880, the trees were intended to “beautify” the lakeshore but have invaded throughout the Mackenzie Basin.

Like Lake Louise in Canada’s Banff National Park, Lake Pukaki appears turquoise because its waters consist of glacial melt from the mountains we’ll see over the next 36 hours. In the meltwater is superfine “rock flour” or “glacial milk” consisting of rock that has been pulverized into fine powder by the grinding action of ice as the glaciers melt and retreat.

Though I wouldn’t really understand the hydrology here until I came home and studied maps, we then drove over a small stream wending its way out into Lake Pukaki’s northern shore.  This, I would learn, is a channel of the Tasman River, which empties both the Hooker glacier and massive Tasman glaciers in adjacent mountain valleys in the park. Now at the height of New Zealand summer, it was not a big flow, but I imagine these braided channels roar in springtime when the gravel floodplain accepts the snowmelt.

Moments later, we arrived at the 164-room Hermitage Aoraki Mount Cook Hotel that would be our home for the next two nights. Built in 1958 and extended several times, this is the third incarnation of the mountainside hotel.  The original, built in 1884 by surveyor and Mount Cook ranger Frank Huddlestone, was sited further into the valley near the Mueller Glacier. It was taken over by the New Zealand government in 1895. As visitors started pouring into the region, the hotel could not keep up with the demand for rooms, and was also subject to seasonal flooding, which ultimately destroyed it. In 1914, a second hotel was erected; it would host four decades of guests, including a young Edmund Hillary and his climbing mates who bunked here during their 1948 ascent of Mount Cook. Five years later, he and Sherpa Tenzing Norguay would be the first to summit Mount Everest. After a 1957 fire destroyed the second Hermitage, the current one was built by the New Zealand government, under the aegis of its Tourist Hotel Corporation (THC) which also owned other tourist properties. In 1990 the THC was sold to a private corporation.  Our room was on the 5th floor of the rear wing and had a floor-to-ceiling view of Aoraki Mount Cook.

It had been a long Day 12 of our tour, starting in Dunedin with a morning stop in Oamaru before our wine lunch in the Waitaki. After a delicious dinner (appetizer below), shared with hundreds of other mountain tourists, we hit the sack. Tomorrow there would be a valley hike – and plants!

My Hooker Valley Track Hiking Journal

10:00 – The next morning, we left The Hermitage (roughly the red square), cheating a little by getting a lift in our tour bus (which cuts off the first few miles and at least a half-hour walk) to the campground, shown at the first yellow arrow, below. Our destination, Hooker Lake – the second yellow arrow – didn’t seem far on the map, but it’s a good hike, as you’ll see.

10:17 –  Armed with a lunch we’d scrounged from our breakfast buffet, off we went in the fine, mid-January summer weather on the Hooker Valley Track (Kiwi for “trail”).

10: 21 – Soon we were passing through matagouri shrubland. Dark and prickly, the other name for this riparian native is wild Irishman (Discaria toumatou).

10:26 – Through the thorny matagouri branches, the massive southeast flank of Mount Sefton appeared. Called Maukatua by the Māori, it’s the 13th tallest mountain in the Southern Alps at 3,151 metres (10,338 feet).

10:28 –  Look at all these amazing golden Spaniards! What? You don’t see any Spanish tourists? No, golden Spaniard or spear grass (Aciphylla aurea) is the name for the sharp-leaved plants stretching across this meadow. Now we could clearly see Mount Sefton and its neighbour to the right, The Footstool (2,764 metres – 9,068 feet).

10:30 – The meadows were spangled with snow totara (Podocarpus nivalis), also called mountain totara. A much-hybridized evergreen, its progeny appears in  temperate gardens throughout the world.

10: 32 – The track features three suspension bridges, two of which were rebuilt in 2015 to divert them from areas prone to flooding or avalanches. This was the first bridge. From here, you could just spot……

10:34 –  …..Mueller Lake as it spilled its own meltwater from the Mueller Glacier just beyond into Hooker River below the bridge.

I walked (bounced?) across the bridge behind my husband who was holding onto his Tilley hat in the fierce valley wind. I was very proud of him. He is not a gardener, and a 3-week garden-wilderness tour of New Zealand might not have been the first item on his bucket list when we contemplated this trip in 2017, but he was enjoying it very much – provided the wine flowed at dinnertime!

10:39 – Here was Griselinia littoralis, aka kapuka or New Zealand broadleaf, an evergreen that normally grows as a tree. Though its Latin name indicates a preference for the seashore (littoral), we are really not far from the Tasman Sea in this mountain valley. (And here I must offer my thanks to New Zealand plant wizard Steve Newall, who helped me identify many of these endemic treasures. Have a read about Steve in this piece by my Facebook friend Kate Bryant).

10:41 – That long berm at left, below, is the moraine wall of Mueller Glacier.

10:44 – We passed a few invasive plants in the first meadows, like foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), below.

10:50 – I passed my phone to my husband and asked for a portrait….of my best side. Like some 70,000 other New Zealand tourists, I wanted to have a record that I actually made this hike.

It was much warmer than I thought it would be, and I adopted my customary “I thought this was a glacier hike?” clothing modification, the same strategy used a few years ago in Greenland to hike the boardwalk through the alpine meadows to the UNESCO   Ilulissat Icefjord site.

11:01 – Okay, back to New Zealand. Forty minutes after we began our hike, we crossed the second suspension bridge, known as the Hooker Bluff bridge. The scenery here can only be described as spectacular.

11:02 – Now we saw the Hooker River spilling into Mueller Lake.

11:05 – After crossing the bridge, the river was on our right side. Though small, it was powerful, its crashing cascades seeming to echo off the nearby mountain walls.

11:06 – I was so transfixed, I stopped for a few minutes to make a recording.

11:07 – Along the path, one of the golden Spaniards (Aciphylla aurea) had toppled over under its own weight. You can see the umbellifer flowers and strange leaves against the stem

11:08 – A moment later, I saw one pointing towards Mount Sefton’s lofty glaciers.  

11:11 – And three minutes after that, I stopped to mourn that I had not been here a month earlier to see the flowering of the iconic Mount Cook lily, Ranunculus lyallii, the world’s largest buttercup, below. It was collected by and named for Scottish botanist David Lyall (1817-1895) who had travelled as ship surgeon around New Zealand and the Antarctic from 1839-41 on HMS Terror. (Terror was later lost with all hands, along with HMS Erebus, in Canada’s Arctic during Captain John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to find a shortcut from Europe to Asia.  After years of searching, both shipwrecks were found in 2014 and 2016.)  In assembling Flora Antarctica containing Lyall’s plant collections, his friend, English botanist Joseph Hooker (1817-1911), noted that the New Zealand shepherds called it the ‘water-lily’, an appropriate name since it is the only known ranunculus with peltate leaves.  (It was Joseph Hooker’s father, William Hooker, for whom this valley and glacier were named by Julius von Haast in his geological survey of the Southern Alps in 1863.)

But the Māori of the South Island – the ancient Waitaha, then the Ngāti Māmoe, then the present-day Ngāi Tahu – had known the flower for hundreds of years before David Lyall arrived to botanize. They called it “kōpukupuku”. It has even been featured on postage stamps.

11:13 – A few minutes later, I felt somewhat mollified to come upon a few pristine specimens of Gentianella divisa.

11-17 – Unlike a Canadian alpine meadow in, say, Alberta, there is little bright colour in these tussock meadows under Aoraki Mount Cook.  Many of the herbaceous plants tend to have white flowers, like Lobelia angulata, below.

11:19 – You can barely see the tiny white flowers of inaka (Dracophyllum longifolium), one of the common native shrubs in the Hooker Valley.

11:24 – So far, we’d been walking on crushed gravel. But now we set off across the meadow on a beautiful boardwalk. As it began, it pointed us at Mount Sefton and The Footstool, but a few minutes later, it….

11:26 –  …… veered to the right and gave us the full valley view of Aoraki Mount Cook.

11:30 – The shimmering meadow here was mostly mid-ribbed snow tussock (Chionochloa pallens).

11:32 – I was happy that I was able to identify mountain cottonwood (Ozothamnus vauvilliersii), which I had also seen in flower on Ben Lomond in Queenstown.

11:36 – Steve Newall helped me identify this lovely little community: the silver leaves of mountain daisy (Celmisia semicordata), its flowers already past, sitting in a bed of Gaultheria crassa to the left, with creeping wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris)  up against the rock. The tussock grass is mid-ribbed snow tussock (Chionochloa pallens).

11:37 – A minute later, we were crossing the third bridge, called the Upper Hooker Suspension Bridge. This one seemed to catch the wind and the vibrations, especially near the river banks, were very strong!

11:43 – I stopped on the path for a few minutes to absorb the sight of these wonderful meadows and shoot a short video. Here’s how they looked:

11:54 – As we approached the end of the track, I found a stand of creeping wire vine (Muehlenbackia axillaris) in flower…..

11:54 – and Raoulia glabra with its little pompom flowers.

11:55 – When I looked up from the tiny alpine plants nestled in these rocks, I couldn’t help but notice the massive boulders lying in the meadow. The one below looked like it had sheared clean off the mountain and tumbled down the scree slope. But of course it might have happened dozens or hundreds of years ago. Unless one was actually there…….

11:56 – A minute later, we arrived at our destination. Hooker Lake lay before us – a body of water that hadn’t been there at all before the late 1970s, when Hooker Glacier began its retreat. In geological terms, it’s referred to as a “proglacial” lake.   It had taken us an hour and 39 minutes. We celebrated by walking along the path to a little picnic area and eating our lunch.

12:12 – With our picnic finished, I headed down to join the tourists posing for photos on the lake’s shore.

12:19 – My arthritic knee was not going to keep me from kneeling on the glacial till to capture a souvenir image of this little iceberg – aka “bergy bit” – washed up on shore.  As I looked up from this little lake – melted from a glacier named for an English botanist by a German geologist – at a towering mountain – named for an English sea captain by another English sea captain – I was unaware of the sacred nature of this park.

Long before Captain John Lort Stokes decided in 1851, while surveying New Zealand, to honour his predecessor, Captain James Cook, by naming the country’s highest peak after him, the Māori of the South Island knew it as Aoraki, or “cloud piercer”. The Ngāi Tahu do not see the mountain merely as the result of millions of years of tectonic uplift as the Pacific and Indo-Australian Plates collide far beneath the surface along the island’s western coast  For them it is the core of their creation myth: the mountain possesses sacred mauri. They say that long before there was an island called Aotearoa (New Zealand), there was no sign of land in the great ocean. When the sky father Raki wed the earth mother Papa-tui-nuku, Raki’s four celestial sons came down to greet their father’s new wife. They were Ao-raki (Cloud in the Sky), Raki-ora (Long Raki), Raki-rua (Raki the Second) and Raraki-roa (Long Unbroken Line). They arrived in their waka (canoe) and sailed the sea, but could not find land. When they attempted to return to the heavens, their song of incantation failed and their waka fell into the sea and turned to stone as it listed, forming the south island. The brothers climbed onto the high side of their waka and were also turned to stone. They exist today as the four tallest peaks in the area: Aoraki is the highest (Mount Cook); the other brothers are Rakiora (Mount Dampier), Rakirua (Mount Teichelmann) and Rarakiroa (Mount Tasman).

When title to the park was vested to the Ngāi Tahu in 1998, the mountain’s name was formally changed to recognize Aoraki, and all management decisions are made in concert with them to respect the environment as their sacred place. This remarkable carving by the late Cliff Whiting hangs in the park’s Visitor Centre. It depicts a fierce Aoraki and the four brothers/mountains.

Moments after kneeling at the shore of Hooker Lake, I gazed up at the sky and saw a cloud. People who study clouds call this an orographic cloud – its shape distorted by air currents that must lift in response to tall mountain peaks. But when I looked later at the photo I’d made, all I could see was the face of a fierce ancient god gazing across the sky.

12:20 – Okay, back to earth now. I didn’t bring my ultra-zoom camera with me on the hike or I could have captured the front wall of Hooker Glacier.  As it is, I enlarged one of my images to show the glacier and its calving wall.  If you’re looking to see sparkly-white, gleaming glaciers, you’re in for a shock here. As my friend Andy Fyon, retired head of the Ontario Geological Survey, says: “Active alpine glaciers can be a bit like a child. They revel in the rough and tumble life and in getting dirty! That is not the same for continental glaciers, which enjoy staying clean.”

12:30 – Looking at the upper part of Aoraki Mount Cook, below, you can see the summit partly obscured by a cloud.  I’ve also drawn in the south ridge that was recently renamed the Hillary Ridge. The closest of the mountain’s three peaks, Low Peak (3599 metre – 11,808 ft) was first summited in 1948 via the southern ridge by a foursome that included Edmund Hillary, Mick Sullivan and Ruth Adams and their guide Harry Ayres, Three years later, Hillary, along with Tenzing Norgay, would become the first person to summit Mount Everest. But that 1948 ascent of Mount Cook came with attendant drama, for when the foursome went on to attempt the nearby peak La Perouse (out of my photo to the left or west), Ruth Adams’s rope broke and her 50-foot slide down the slope left her unconscious with several fractures.  Hillary would contribute the first chapter to the gripping account of that rescue.

In fact, some 248 climbers have died attempting to climb Aoraki Mount Cook. Summiting is a considerable achievement in the world of couloirs and cirques and belays. I enclose the following video to demonstrate the skill needed. I estimate that I screamed “Oh, my god” or words  to that effect a dozen times and averted my eyes at least 20 times. Put on your crampons and fasten your carabiner…..

12:38 – Heading back to the hotel now, we took a little side detour up to a few small tarns, which is alpine for glacial pond.

12:46 – The Upper Hooker Suspension Bridge was just as bouncy and windy on the return trip.

12:55 – We walked at the base of Mount Wakefield, which separates Hooker Valley from the Tasman Valley to the east.

12:59 – A small footbridge at the Stocking Stream Shelter took us over the Hooker River with its milky rock flour.

1:20 – Looking down a little later, I saw a drift of Parahebe lyallii.

1:35 – And creeping over a rock was one of the “bidibids”, Acaena saccaticupula.

1:53 – I saw my only Hooker Valley butterfly, the common copper, foraging on New Zealand harebell (Wahlenbergia albomarginata).

2:12 – Coming towards the end of the hike, I made a critical mistake. Weary now and gazing across the meadows at what looked to be a direct route back to the Hermitage, I said, “Why don’t we get off this winding path and go straight back across the meadow?”  My husband, trusting soul that he is, reluctantly agreed.  Neither of us knew that the only people who ventured this way were mountain bikers.  With our tired legs, the spongy soil and long grass of the meadows made the last stretch seem never-ending.

2:14 – In the meadows in front of the hotel were a few lupines. Despite now being on the noxious aliens list, these invaders are quite famous for their massive spring show in the park.

2:19 – Parts of the meadow turned into dried-up gravel stream beds that are clearly part of the seasonal drainage patterns of the rivers here.

2:21 – I found another famous New Zealand mat plant, scabweed (Raoulia australis), growing here.

2:37 – And finally, 4 hours and 20 minutes after we began our hike, we arrived back at the sign-post near the hotel.

3:00 – As we kicked off our hiking shoes and collapsed  onto our beds in the 5th floor room with the great view of the mountains, we cracked open a bottle of the Gëwurztraminer we’d bought at Ostler Vineyard the previous day. A glass of chilled wine never tasted so good.

9:30 – And later, after dinner, as the light dimmed in the sky, I looked out on Aoraki Mount Cook with something akin to affection. Like the Māori, I sensed its spirit infusing this spectacular landscape.

9:43 – And as the sun shed its last rays on its snowy peak, I gave thanks for the pilgrimage we had made to be close to it.


A Night on Doubtful Sound

Our 9th touring day on the American Horticultural Society’s ‘Gardens, Wine & Wilderness’ tour saw us leave Queenstown and drive south on Highway 6 along Lake Wakatipu.

Highway 6-Otago-Lake Wakatipu

We were heading to Fiordland National Park, 173 km (107 miles) and just over 2 hours away.

Queenstown to Fiordland-Google Map

A few bus window impressions of the countryside along the route included a colourful way to protect tree seedlings alongside matagouri or ‘wild Irishman’ shrubs (Discaria toumatou) …..

Matagouri and sapling protection-Otago-Highway 6-New Zealand

…… and native cabbage trees (Cordyline australis) along the shore of Wakatipu.

Cordyline australis-Lake Wakatipu-Highway 6

Crossing from Otago into Southland, there were farms with hay bales in ubiquitous plastic wrappers…..

Hay Bales-Southland-New Zealand

…. and lots and lots of sheep.

Sheep farm-Southland-New Zealand

We had a brief stop in little Mossburn, which bills itself as the “deer capital of New Zealand”. Not native deer, of course, since New Zealand doesn’t have any. They were Eurasian red deer (Cervus elaphus) imported originally by colonists in the 19th century, then escaped into the wild and now farmed or hunted for venison (as is wapiti or American elk). In fact, Fiordland National Park, where we were headed, encourages sport hunting of deer, wild pigs, elk and chamois since they compete with native birds for certain trees and plants.

Mossburn-Deer stag statue

We ate our picnic lunch at the Fiordland Cruise Dock on Lake Manapōuri, where I photographed this complicated explanation to the hydro-electric project at the west end of the lake that is considered to be the birthplace of New Zealand’s environmental awareness.  For it was in 1970 that 10-percent of New Zealanders signed the Save Manapōuri petition, drawn up to counter a plan conceived over the previous two decades to create a power plant that would require the flooding of both Lake Manapōuri and nearby Lake Te Anau by raising the water by up to 30 metres (100 feet), thus flooding the lake’s islands completely and drowning the beech shoreline. When the government resisted the protestors, owing to a pledge mandated in 1963 to develop an aluminum smelter with hydro-power from the plant, it was subsequently defeated in the 1972 election. The new Labour government formed the Guardians of Lake Manapōuri, Monowai and Te Anau to manage the lake levels sensitively, which they continue to do today. (Click on the photo below to see a larger version.)

Manapouri Hydro Scheme-hydrology

We were thrilled to be heading out on Manapōuri, the first leg of our overnight cruise on Fiordland’s Doubtful Sound. The captain of the small boat that conveys passengers to the dock at Manapōuri Power Station did a nice job of talking about the lake…..

Lake Manapouri-Boat Captain

….. which you could choose to listen to, or head out on deck where the wind was amazing.

Lake Manapouri-Boat to West Arm Jetty

Fifty minutes later, we arrived at the jetty beside the water intake of the huge Manapōuri Power Station, below, which generates enough power for 618,000 average homes. Although it’s not evident here, there is a 178-metre (584-foot) drop from Lake Manapōuri to Doubtful Sound; it’s this gradient difference that made the site so attractive for hydro power.  The massive machine hall, which was hollowed out of granite deep within the mountain is accessible via a 2 kilometre (1.2 mile) spiral tunnel that can be visited by tourists at certain times.  To learn more about this monumental project, have a look at this short YouTube film.

Lake Manipouri-West Arm-Power Station-Fiordland

A bus was waiting for us, and off we went on the 22 kilometre(13-mile) 40-minute journey across the Wilmot Pass on a gravel road that had been constructed between 1963 and 1965 to accommodate the trucks hauling large equipment from Doubtful Sound to the new power station.

Wilmot Pass between Manapouri and Doubtful Sound-map

Our bus driver was a bit of a stand-up (sit-down?) comic and we enjoyed his informative, witty commentary.  After climbing the pass for a while, we arrived at a lookout that gave us a beautiful view of Doubtful Sound. Established in 1952 Fiordland National Park is huge: 12,607 square kilometres (4,868 square miles).  Though there are other places to visit in the park, accepted wisdom is that a cruise here (given its isolation, only one tour company, Real Journeys does this overnight stay) is one of the best ways to experience this stunning part of the park.

Wilmot Pass-Doubtful Sound View-Fiordland

Though a brief stop, it gave some of us a chance to do some fast botanizing. There was mountain ribbonwood (Hoheria glabrata)……

Hoheria glabrata-Wilmot Pass-Doubtful Sound-Fiordland

…… and koromiko or willow-leaf hebe (Hebe salicifolia/Veronica salicifolia).

Hebe salicifolia-Koromiko-Wilmot Pass-Doubtful Sound-Fiordland

Back on the bus, we descended to the dock in Deep Cove where the Fiordland Navigator, our cruise boat and hotel for the night, was awaiting us. I had just enough time to peek through the shrubbery on shore at Helena Falls, one of many near-vertical waterfalls in the sound.

Helena Falls-Deep Cove-Doubtful Sound

….. before boarding the boat.

Boarding-Fiordland Navigator-Deep Cove-Doubtful Sound-Fiordland

Then we were off, sailing in a northwest direction into Doubtful Sound. Forty kilometres (25 miles) long and 421 metres (1381 feet) deep at its deepest point, it’s technically a “fiord” carved by successive glaciers (the last being 18,000-28,000 years ago), not a “sound”, which is a river valley that has been flooded by the sea.

Fiordland Navigator-Into Doubtful Sound

(Now, a small confession about the next images, in case anyone is knowledgeable about the specific order of the different parts of Doubtful Sound. It’s a good idea, when you bring 3 cameras and a cellphone with you, to make sure they’re ALL on local time. In my case, only my phone was hooked into real time in New Zealand.  Enough said.)

Soon we were passing the near shore of Elizabeth Island, site of the Taipari Roa Marine Reserve. It was thrilling to see this dense ecosystem of rainforest plants. In parts of Fiordland National Park, rainfall can exceed 6000 mm (236 inches-20 feet) but Doubtful Sound generally receives one-third that amount.

Elizabeth Island-shore-Doubtful Sound

The grass-like plant is Astelia (likely A. nervosa).

Elizabeth Island-Astelia-Doubtful Sound

Here is the sign for the Marine Reserve.  Covering 613 hectares (1514 acres), it features black and red corals and rare yellow sea sponges. A pod of bottlenose dolphins regularly visits, and as if on cue……..

Elizabeth Island-Taipari Ro Marine Preserve

….. we were alerted by an announcement from the Navigator’s captain that a mother and calf were swimming near the boat.

Bottlenose dolphins-Tursiops truncatus-mother and calf-Doubtful Sound

They were two of a community of around 56 dolphins (2008 figures), and their declining numbers have mandated Dolphin Protection Zones in Doubtful Sound. But chance encounters are fine. and our captain maintained his heading while the pair swam alongside. The next day, we saw a bigger pod of bottlenose dolphins in the sound, and I combined video of the mother and calf with that group in the following little film.

The natural history of Doubtful Sound was made exciting by Carol of Real Journeys, who told me she never tires of the spectacular sights here.

Carol-naturalist-Real Journeys-Fiordland-

Look at this amazing ‘gneiss’ basement rock, whose little steps and fissures become the birthplace of a vertical rainforest.

Gneiss-Doubtful Sound

I could photograph rock all day.

Shore rock formation-Doubtful Sound

Gazing back down the sound, I was captivated by the blue silhouettes of the mountains behind Deep Cove, including lofty Mount George.

Mount George-Elizabeth Island-Doubtful Sound

The wind picked up as we neared the mouth of Doubtful Sound and the Tasman Sea.  Here on the Nee Islets, we saw a colony of fur seals.

New-Zealand-Fur seals and gulls-Nee Islets-Doubtful Sound

The seals rest during the day and dive at night for fish, sometimes as deep as 160 metres (525 feet).  Here we see the rough Tasman Sea crashing into the rocks.

New Zealand fur Seal colony-kekeno-Doubtful Sound-Tasman Sea

The sea was named for Dutch seafarer and explorer Abel Tasman, who also gave his name to Tasmania. In 1642, he became the first European to sight what he called Staten Landt at the northwest corner of the South Island. It was later renamed Nieuw Zeeland (New Holland) by a cartographer with the Dutch East India Company.

Tasman Sea-Abel Tasman-1642

The next European to reach New Zealand’s shore was English sea captain and explorer James Cook. On March 14th, 1770 Captain Cook wrote the following in his log after considering, then rejecting, the idea of navigating into the body of water that he would call Doubtful Harbour.  “The land on each side the Entrance of this Harbour riseth almost perpendicular from the Sea to a very considerable Height; and this was the reason why I did not attempt to go in with the Ship, because I saw clearly that no winds could blow there but what was right in or right out, that is, Westerly or Easterly; and it certainly would have been highly imprudent in me to have put into a place where we could not have got out but with a wind that we have lately found to blow but one day in a Month. I mention this because there was some* on board that wanted me to harbour at any rate, without in the least Considering either the present or future Consequences.” (*The person to whom Cook was referring was the ship botanist Joseph Banks.)

Captain James Cook-Dusky Sound-Second voyage-Resoluton-March 1770

I am a great fan of Captain James Cook.  Why? A little personal aside that has to do with 18th century explorers. As a young child, I lived on Pembroke Street in Victoria, British Columbia.  HMS Pembroke was the name of the ship James Cook served on in 1758 during the British war against the French in Quebec. Victoria is on Vancouver Island, B.C., named for British sea captain and explorer George Vancouver, who charted the Pacific Northwest in 1791-92 aboard HMS Discovery (which had been under Cook’s command 12 years earlier). I caught my bus to school on Cook Street named for Captain Cook…..

Captain James Cook-by Nathaniel Dance-Holland-1776

…..who made three voyages to the southern hemisphere between 1768 and his murder in Hawaii in 1779 while captaining HMS Discovery. On that first voyage with Joseph Banks he did not linger long off the coast.  But on his second voyage (1772-75) on the Resolution – which included midshipman George Vancouver, above – he explored and charted Dusky Sound (36 miles south of Doubtful Sound) from March to May, 1773, while repairing his ship, botanizing and engaging peacefully with local Māori.  And my school was on Humboldt Street, named for yet another explorer, the great German botanist Alexander von Humboldt, 1769-1859.

We turned away from the Tasman Sea and made our way back down Doubtful Sound, sailing alongside immense mountain walls cloaked with trees, shrubs, ferns and mosses.

Rainforest mountainside-Doubtful Sound

Look at these fabulous southern rāta trees (Metrosideros umbellata) with their red flowers.

Metrosideros-umbellata-Southern rātā-Doubtful Sound

We saw more rātas dotting the slopes on the sound, which also feature tree ferns (Cyathea smithii).

Metrosideros umbellata-southern rata-Doubtful Sound

One of the fun features of the Real Journeys overnight cruise is the chance to get into a kayak or small tender to explore one of the quiet arms of Doubtful Sound.

Kayaking-Real Journeys-Doubtful Sound-Fiordland Navigator

I elected the tender…..

Kayaking-Doubtful-Sound-Fiordland Naviator

….. but you can see the massive scale of the setting compared to the kayaks.

Kayaks-Doubtful Sound-Fiordland

Up close, we could see the epiphytic moss hanging from trees……

Moss-epiphytic-Doubtful Sound

….. and the terrestrial mosses on the rock. Throughout the sound, it is mosses that give the rock faces a foothold for the ferns (like the crown ferns, Blechnum discolor, below) and seed plants that come later.

Moss-terrestrial-crown ferns-Blechnum discolor-Doubtful Sound

But even when the rocky mountainsides become fully covered in plants, the weight of that biomass at the steepest angles combined with heavy rainfall or snowload often results in “tree avalanches”  that cascade down the slopes, leaving the rock exposed once again.

Tree avalanche-Doubtful Sound

And of course the rock face itself often fissures and……

Rock Cracks-Doubtful Sound

…… giant rock falls to the fiord shore as well, where it will gradually erode.


With our little exploration finished, we reboarded the Fiordland Navigator where we enjoyed a lovely buffet dinner. (You can see images of the ship’s interior and staterooms in the previous link). With the ship at anchor in the arm, we turned in for the night and enjoyed the sound of rain when it began in early morning.

And what a morning! I felt like I’d awakened in a National Geographic magazine cover.

Cloud-Doubtful Sound

Cloud and mist shrouded the mountains and hanging valleys around us in the same primeval way it has bathed this temperate rainforest in moisture for thousands of years.


It felt magical, as if the towering rimu trees (Dacrydium cypressinum) and beeches had poked their crowns through the clouds to breathe….

Misty trees-Doubtful Sound-rainforest

…. After breakfast, I dressed in the raincoat I wore for the very first time in New Zealand……

Day2-Janet Davis-Fiordland Navigator-Doubtful Sound

…. so I could enjoy the weather.

Rainfall Doubtful Sound

I loved this thin waterfall splashing down behind the kātote (Cyathea smithii) tree ferns with their persistent frond stems.

Waterfall & tree ferns-katote-Cyathea smithii-Doubtful Sound

We were nearing the end of our cruise but there was one more magical moment to come.  The “Sound of Silence” has become something of an iconic experience aboard the Fiordland Navigator since “place of silence” is the English translation for the Māori word for Doubtful Sound, Patea.  It was a magical few minutes, floating, boat engines turned off, with just the odd clang from the kitchen or someone’s packing noise in a neaby cabin to intrude on the sound of water lapping and birds calling on shore.. But it gives you a little sensation of the wonder of this primeval place of beauty and silence.

Queenstown – Bungy-Jumping & Botanizing

As the crow (or Air New Zealand) flies, it’s approximately 1024 kilometres (636 miles) from Auckland on the North Island to Queenstown on the South Island, most of it over the Tasman Sea.  That was our route on our 7th touring day with the American Horticultural Society’s Gardens, Wine & Wilderness Tour in January 2018.

New Zealand-Auckland to Queenstown-Flight

Below on Google’s satellite view is the approximate route that AZ 615 takes inland from the Tasman Sea (which also separates Australia and New Zealand), bearing southeast over the Southern Alps towards Queenstown.


Gate to gate, the flight takes about 1 hour and 50 minutes (80 minutes or so of flying time) and the last 15 minutes of flying over the lake, through the valley in which Queenstown sits and up its Frankton Arm to the airport make it among the most beautiful air approaches on the planet. In fact in 2015 respondents named Queenstown as the “most scenic airport approach” in a survey of that category.

Lake Wakatipu-Frankton Arm-Queenstown-flight route

So….. given that we had perfect weather on the flight, that I had the almost perfect seat overlooking the left engine cowling, and that I was enjoying trying out my new Samsung S8 phone, indulge me for a few photos while we approach Queenstown together.  (If you make it to the end, there’s a little….’surprise’.) The route took us over  the Southern Alps, the South Island’s long backbone, which stretches for 500 kilometres from Fiordland in the southwest to Nelson Lake National Park in the northeast. Here we are looking north toward Mount Aspiring National Park. North of the park and not visible in the photo is mighty Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak at 3724 metres (12,218 ft), where we would be in a few days.

Southern Alps-Aerial View-near Queenstown

Within seconds, below, the northernmost arm of the dogleg-shaped (Z-shaped) Lake Wakatipu was visible, with Pig Island a notable landmark.  This beautiful finger lake is 80 kilometres (50 miles) long with a maximum depth of 380 metres (1280 feet).  Though the mountains look barren here, that greenish-yellow in the scree and fellfields on the slopes features snow tussock meadows with myriad high alpine species.

Southern Alps-Lake Wakatipu-Pig Island-Aerial View

In the photo below we are looking straight up Lake Wakatipu towards the town of Glenorchy at its head. The lake was carved out by glaciers more than 15,000 years ago, between mountains uplifted over millions of years by earthquakes along the Alpine Fault. (New Zealand is part of the seismically-active Ring of Fire in the Pacific Basin, as we know from recent devastating earthquakes in Christchurch and elsewhere). Here on the west side of the South Island, the mountains are made of greywacke, a sandstone-mudstone mix that rose tectonically with the mountains from sediment in a deep ocean trench on the boundary of the Gondwana supercontinent between 100-300 million years ago. (Before it broke off and floated away, New Zealand was on the edge of Gondwana, which also included South America, Africa, Australia, India, and Antarctic.) Because greywacke fractures and falls apart easily, mountain climbers in the Southern Alps nicknamed it ‘Weetbix’. On the east side of the South Island, the bedrock is mostly metamorphic schist.  For a more comprehensive exploration of New Zealand geology, have a look at this excellent website.

Lake Wakatipu-Aerial View-Auckland to Queenstown-Air New Zealand

Now we’re heading straight along the middle arm of the Z-shaped lake towards Queenstown.

Lake Wakatipu & Mount Crichton-Air New Zealand-Auckland to Queenstown

A little fun fact about Lake Wakatipu. Its dogleg shape causes it to produce a tide-like phenomenon called a seiche, or standing wave, derived from a Swiss-French word that means “swaying back and forth”. The lake’s surface rises and falls roughly 10 cm (4 inches) on a 25-minute cycle, best observed apparently at Bob’s Cove (below) on the way into Queenstown. In Māori legend, the rhythmic surging was caused by the monster Matau dozing away at the bottom of the lake.

Lake Wakatipu-Seiche-Bob's Cove-Matau-Aerial View

A few seconds later, we come to the fun part: Queenstown. Though it’s New Zealand’s winter sports centre with lots of mountain areas to ski,there is something for everyone in this alpine town 12 months a year. Here I’ve labelled a few of the things we did over the next few days. Yes, we visited the Queenstown Garden and then travelled up the gondola in order to botanize on the flank of Ben Lomond from which we saw those ‘ghost pines’ in the far left!

Queenstown-Air New Zealand Flight-Ben Lomond-Gardens-Aerial View

And this, a second or so later….Yes, my husband Doug played golf at the Queenstown Golf Course, below (thank goodness for extra-curricular activities for non-gardening spouses!)  Now we’re flying down the Frankton Arm of Lake Wakatipu towards the airport suburb of, yes, Frankton.

Queenstown-Air New Zealand Flight-Golf Course-Aerial View

You must be thinking we’re going to land any moment now, right? Well, that’s what we thought as we roared towards the runway………

Queenstown-Air New Zealand-landing-aerial view

…. but NO!  Captain didn’t like those tricky Queenstown winds. So up we went for a fly-around. Of course, no one would rather ‘take a chance’ on a landing, so thank you Captain AZ615 for keeping things safe. Now we see the Lower Shotover River behind the airport as we ascend again. Fun!

Aerial View-Aborted Landing-Queenstown-Lower Shotover River-Air New Zealand-

I’m not quite sure where we went…. Remarkables?  (There are so many mountains around Queenstown). Anyway, we rounded a craggy, brown peak……

Craggy peak-Queenstown fly-around-Air New Zealand

….. and flew over Lake Hayes, below.  (At this point, I should give a nod to Google Earth, which helped me identify many of the Queenstown area landmarks.)

Lake Hayes-aerial view-Queenstown

Finally, with that first small adventure under our belt, we landed at the airport in Queenstown – adventure capital of New Zealand!


Wine-Tasting Adventure!

Alan, our lovely bus driver from the North Island was at the airport to meet us and off we drove along the Kawauru River towards Cromwell.  This narrow gorge of the river is called Roaring Meg; it contains a dam and two small power stations that form the Roaring Meg Power Scheme, built in 1934. Hydro-electric power provides almost 60% of New Zealand’s electricity.

Kawarau Gorge

I couldn’t resist this bus window view of the local greywacke rock with its “Weetbix” composition.

Greywacke-Kawarau Gorge-Otago

Before long we arrived at Goldfields where we were scheduled to have a wine tasting and lunch. But the place is more than that; it offers tourists a chance to pan for gold like the prospectors who arrived by the thousands in the 1860s for the Central Otago Gold Rush.

Goldfields-Kawarau Gorge-Prospecting equipment

Or you could pay to sit in a jet boat and roar up the Kawauru Gorge.  (No thanks…)

Jet Boats-Goldfields-Kawarau Gorge

Instead we elected to head to our reserved table at Wild Earth Wines…….

Wild Earth-Goldfields

…. to enjoy a wine tasting……

Wild Earth winetasting-Goldfields-Otago

….. and have a lunch that reminded us all that New Zealand is home to vibrant sheep and cattle farming industries as well as a rich fishery!

Wild Earth-Otago-Wine Lunch

After lunch, we had a date with one of New Zealand’s iconic adventure tourism spots. Along the route, we passed a small vineyard and learned that this is the most southerly of New Zealand’s wine-growing regions.


NOT Bungy-Jumping Adventure!

Soon we arrived at the Kawarau Bridge Bungy Centre, which is the original site for New Zealand bungy-jumping.  It was here in 1989 that Kiwi pals A.J. Hackett and Henry Van Asch first launched their plans for a commercial bungy-jumping enterprise mimicking the “land jumpers” of Vanautu. Check out this video at 2:35 of their big p.r. stunt in Paris, bungy-jumping from the Eiffel Tower, followed by a quick arrest.   One of the serious medical risks of doing this is retinal detachment – and since I suffered one of those without even jumping off my kitchen table a few decades back, I restricted myself to photographing the lovely young woman below, who would have paid $205 ($175 NZ student) for the privilege of doing this……

Bungy-jumping-Kawarau Bridge-Otago

…… and videotaping a man doing a water dunk as he enjoyed his bungy-jump, with a little valley wind in the background. (My 4- and 2-year old grandkids LOVE this video.!)

We watched as river rafts waited for the jumpers to clear the platform.  A few in our group chose to do some rafting the next day – but we were planning to look for plants!

Rafts-under Kawarau Bridge Bungy Centre

Janet Blair Garden

Then we made our way towards Queenstown via the lovely garden of Janet Blair.

Janet Blair garden-Queenstown

Our American Horticultural Society guide Richard Lyon of Garden Adventures, Ltd. enjoyed his chat with our hostess, Janet. Richard, a Pennsylvania-based landscape architect has friendships with a long roster of creative gardeners who generously open their gardens to him on his annual winter tours to his home country.

Janet Blair & Richard Lyon-Queenstown

Look at this heart-shaped hedge window…..

Heart-shaped window in hedge-Janet Blair-Queenstown

….. and this beautiful arch into a garden room.

Arch in hedge-Janet Blair-Queenstown

New Zealand experienced record heat in our first week of touring, echoing the dry summer they had before our arrival. This shady dell offered welcome relief.

Shady table-Janet Blair-Queenstown

Pretty combinations abounded in Janet’s garden, like this lavatera with lavender that…..


….. mirrors the hues of the Remarkables mountain range in the background, below. It was now time to head to our hotel in Queenstown for the night.


Queenstown Public Garden Advenure!

A free day in Queenstown! Along with a few plant geeks in the group, I visited the Queenstown Garden where our AHS host Panayoti Kelaidis, outreach director at Denver Botanic Gardens…..

Panayoti Kelaidis-AHS Host-New Zealand Tour-Queenstown Public Garden

…..toured us through the collections, which came from all over the world.

Panayoti Kelaidis-Queenstown Public Garden2

Apart from native New Zealand plants like lacebark ( Hoheria populnea)……

Hoheria populnea-Lacebark

….. and wire netting bush (Corokia cotoneaster)….

Corokia cotoneaster-wire netting bush

……. I found some beautiful Romneya coulteri from California being visited by honey bees…..

Honey bee on Romneya coulteri-Matilija poppy

….. and giant California redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum) with massive trunks….

Giant Redwood-Sequoiadendron giganteum-Queenstown Public Garden

…..and towering Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii).  Seeing them here, clearly thriving after many decades, it would be shocking later that day to see the way they’ve invaded the mountains and valleys surrounding Queenstown – including those in the background of the photo – where the flanks are dark green with these Pacific Northwest natives.

Douglas firs-Pseudotsuga menziesii-Queenstown Public Garden

Botanizing on Ben Lomond Adventure!

Soon after lunch, a few of us convened at the hotel and shared a cab to the Skyline Gondola Station at the base of Ben Lomond or Te-taumata-oHakitekura. It was a popular place with mountain-bikers and everyday folks like us.

Skyline gondola-Ben Lomond-Queenstown-mountain bikes

Going up, the view of Queenstown Bay and Lake Wakatipu was spectacular. You can see right here the ‘wilding pines’ – a generic name for many non-native trees like these Douglas firs that were planted by European colonists in the late 1800s as a beautification project.  Subsequent plantings took place as Arbor Day activities.

Skyline Gondola-Queenstown view

After getting off at the top where the view is even more stunning…..

Skyline Gondola-Terminus-Queenstown

….. we began our ‘tramp’ (as the Kiwis call a hike) by walking up through a dark Douglas fir forest. Notice that there are no understory plants here.  Nada.

Wilding-Douglas Fir forest-Ben Lomond

Soon we were on a path curving gently up through the Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve.  We would be stopping well short of the upper saddle and summit (1748 m – 5735 ft), but it was still a good walk. And the botanizing was great!

Botanizing-Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve

I saw my very first mountain beech (Fuscospora cliffortioides).

Fuscospora cliffortioides-Mountain Beech-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

The view over the subalpine shrubland was stunning…..

Tussock meadow-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

…..if you discounted the sprayed ghost forest of Douglas firs across the valley and the young trees popping up in the tussock grasses.

Douglas firs-wilding control-Ben Lomond

They are taking ‘control’ of these invasive conifers very seriously, as evidence by the sign here. And coming down on the path as we were ascending was one of the wilding eradication volunteers, clippers stuffed in his backpack.

Wilding control sign-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

But the plants! We saw turf mat daisy (Raoulia subsericea)…

Raoulia subsericea-Turf mat daisy-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

….. and turpentine bush (Dracophyllum uniflorum), so called because of its eagerness to burn…..

Dracophyllum uniflorum-Turpentine bush-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

….. and mountain cottonwood (Ozothamnus vauvilliersii)…..

Ozothamnus vauvilliersii-Mountain cottonwood-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

….. and a very cool lycopod, Lycopodium fastigiatum.

Lycopodium fastigiatum-Alpine club moss-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

That’s snow totara (Podocarpus nivalis) with the red berries, below. Not sure about the prostrate plant.

Podocarpus nivalis-Snow totara-fruit-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

Panayoti had his reference book of New Zealand alpines with him, but he is a natural font of botanical knowledge and pointed out the tiniest plants to us as we trekked up the path. On the way we were passed by lots of young hikers heading up to the summit or coming down. From here, it was another 1-1/2 hours to the top. Ah to be young again, with fresh knees……

Botanizing-Panayoti Kelaidis-tussock meadow-Ben Lomond track-Queenstown

We had decided that the beech forest would be our turnaround point, and we finally got there.  What a day it had been. Sitting in the shade under the beech trees…..

Beech forest-Ben Lomond-Queenstown

…… we realized we were tired, hot and thirsty.  Time to start the hike down the mountain and back to the hotel — with a timely stop at a Queenstown pub en route. No gin-and-tonic ever tasted quite as delicious as the one I polished off with my fellow ‘trampers’.

Bay of Islands – Māoris, Kauris and Kia Ora

When we arrived in New Zealand in early January, my knowledge of the country extended to the Wikipedia entry I read on the flight from Los Angeles to Auckland, much of which was skewed to the back-and-forth of modern politics.  In other words, I didn’t know much at all – and in the post-Christmas rush to get away on a long trip, I thought that much research was fine. Fortunately, it would only be a matter of days before my understanding of the place began to expand.


For the Māori, who were the first humans to inhabit the country when their forebears arrived from eastern Polynesia around 1280, a date determined by archaeologists from a 1964 dig on the Coromandel Peninsula near present-day Auckland, which revealed the fishing lure, below, made of a tropical black-lipped pearl shell from East Polynesia and brought here in a waka (canoe) during settlement……..

Pearl fish-lure-Polynesian-auckland Museum-archaeological dig

…..”New Zealand” isn’t the name they gave the country. Instead, they called it Aotearoa, “land of the long white cloud”. It is the name that I first saw in the exhibit below, at the Auckland Museum, on our first day of touring.

Auckland Museum-Being Chinese in Aotearoa

Interestingly, that exhibit of the Chinese immigrants who came to seek their fortune in the country beginning in the late 19th century featured a display case, below, devoted to the kauri gum industry, built on the exudate of the giant kauri trees (Agathis australis) that once formed large tracts of forest in New Zealand. A visit to one of those forests was on our itinerary on this fourth day of the American Horticultural Society’s “Gardens, Wine & Wilderness Tour” – and you will find it further down in this blog!

Kauri Gum-display-Auckland Museum

We were now in the Bay of Islands region of the North Island in the seaside town of Paihia. On the map below, you can see it in the upper right. This part of New Zealand is arguably the warmest, being closest to the equator. Over the next few weeks, we would travel to Fiordland in the far southwest of the South Island, which is closest to the Antarctic and therefore has the coldest winters.

Map-Bay of Islands-Paihia

On our arrival the afternoon before, we’d walked along the beach…..


….where many small offshore islands give the region its name……

Island-Paihia Bay

….on our way to take a short ferry trip to the town of Russell across the bay for dinner. On the pier, we watched as fishermen brought in a giant blue marlin, estimated to be 375 pounds (170 kg).

Blue marlin catch-Paihia-Bay of Islands

It was only when we returned after dinner that we noticed the big marlin sculpture at the ferry dock dedicated to the American novelist Zane Grey (1872-1939), who’d put Paihia on the world travel map for its abundant game fishing when he built the Zane Grey Sporting Club on nearby Urupukapuka Island in the Bay of Islands. He also penned a book called Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado, about fishing in New Zealand.

Paihia-Zane Grey Marlin Sculpture

Hongi Hika and the Missionaries

Today’s tour day began with lovely birdsong outside our window in the lush courtyard garden of the Scenic Hotel.

After breakfast we set off with our special guide for the day, Kena Alexander, our Māori culture specialist. He taught us the traditional greeting, “Kia ora”, which means roughly “be well”.  He also told us about the Māori alphabet, which contains 15 letters:  10 consonants (including 2 two-letter diagraphs) and 5 vowels. They are a, e, h, i, k, m, n, ng, o, p, r, t, u, w, wh.

Soon we arrived at Kororipo Heritage Park, the site of important 19th century interaction between northern Māoris and early European visitors.

Kororipo Pa-sign-Bay of Islands

By the time Captain James Cook visited the Bay of Islands on voyages in 1770 and 1777, Māori had been in the region for almost four centuries. But it was Hongi Hika (below middle), the fierce rangatira (chief) of the Kororipo Pā (a pā is a fortified village) in the Kerikeri Inlet who arranged for the protection of the pākehā (Europeans) who wanted to establish a mission here.  In 1814, along with another chief, his brother-in-law Waikato, below left, he accompanied English missionary Thomas Kendall, below right, to Sydney Australia.  Here, while studying agricultural methods and inviting Samuel Marsden to establish a mission at Pa Kororipo,  he would also buy the muskets and ammunition that would trigger the Musket Wars of the next three decades and cement his reputation as the most fierce of the Māori rangatiras. Six years later, he would travel to England, where King George IV would present him with mail that he later wore into battle.

Hongi Hika-Thomas Kendall-1814-James Barry

Hongi Hika liked to say he was born in 1772 (though later research proved him wrong by a few years), the same year that French Explorer Marion Du Fresne was killed and cannibalized, along with 26 of his men, in Te Hue Bay in the eastern part of Bay of Islands.  The French sailors’ crime in the eyes of the Ngāpuhi iwi (tribe), who were their hosts, was their insistence, despite being warned, on using large nets to fish a beach on which the bodies of tribal ancestors had once washed up, a beach their descendants considered sacred.  Three decades later, Hongi Hika used muskets to wage war against competing tribes in the area, after which they would follow the custom of eating their slain enemies, thus absorbing their manu or prestige, while the missionaries under his protection could only look on in disapproval. The practice was not new to the pākehā. In 1769 Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks aboard the Endeavor had witnessed it and Cook waxed philosophical on the topic in his journal. As the New Zealand government’s website notes:He is credited with showing forbearance, restraint and a depth of understanding (he had a more moderate view of cannibalism, for example, than most of his crew) that put initial relations between Māori and Europeans on a sound footing, despite episodes of bloodshed on the first and second voyages”.

Hongi Hika-Goodwin

















In January 1826, Hongi Hika was shot in battle on the banks of the Hokianga River. His injury meant he could no longer lead his iwi. In 1827, he was visited by Augustus Earle, who was the draughtsman aboard the HMS Beagle. Along with the young naturalist Charles Darwin, Earle was visiting the Bay of Islands, making beautiful paintings of the scenes he found, such as Hongi Hika, below, bedecked in white feathers and sitting with members of his tribe as he received the pākehā visitors.   He would die in March 1828.

Hongi Hika- 1827-Augustus Earle

Today, the Kerikeri Mission Station consists of two buildings. The first, Kemp House (below), is New Zealand’s oldest building, erected in 1822.

Kemp House-1822-Kerikeri

A large jacaranda tree was in full bloom beside the house…..

Jacaranda tree-Kerikeri Mission

…and on the other side was its historic garden, where we chatted with the volunteer working there.

Kemp House-Kerikeri Mission-Garden

The Stone Store, the country’s oldest stone building, was built in 1835.  Interestingly, it was once a kauri-gum trading post…..

Stone House-1835-Kerikeri

….. and it was now time to leave Kerikeri and head inland to see the iconic trees from which that gum was harvested.

In the Kauri Forest

Half an hour later, we arrived at the protected Puketi Forest to do the short Manginangina Kauri Walk.  The 20,000-hectare (49,420 acre) Puketi-Omahuta forest is one of the best examples of the sub-tropical rainforest of the North Island.

Manginangina-sign-Puketi Forest

Our guide Kena remained outside. He shared with us that his own family tribe had not been defeated in the New Zealand Wars (see the Waitangi treaty later in this blog) and had not ceded sovereignty over the lands in which the forest resides. Since they continue to be engaged in a legal action with the government, he does not enter the disputed land.

Kena Alexander-Culture North-Bay of Islands

Boardwalks threaded their way under the towering trees in this sub-tropical forest…..

Manginangina Walk-Puketi-Boardwalk

….. where tree ferns and nīkau palms share the understory.

Manginangina Walk-Boardwalk-Puketi Forest-Northland

Look at these wonderful trees! In perfect conditions, their ghostly, pale trunks can achieve a massive girth. New Zealand’s largest tree is the kauri known as Tāne Mahuta in the Waipoua Forest, estimated to be 1,250-2,500 years old. Although its height 45.2 m (148 ft) is fairly modest, its 15.4 m (50 ft) girth and massive volume makes it the third largest conifer on the planet, after California’s sequoiadendrons and sequoias.


The kauri (Agathis australis) is endemic to the northern part of the North Island, i.e. north of 38°S.  A conifer, it is in the Araucacieae family and distantly related to the Norfolk pine and monkey puzzle tree. Its straight bole made it valuable to the early Europeans as ship spars and masts, and it’s estimated that logging beginning in 1820 had by 1900 reduced the kauri population, originally 12,000 square kilometres, by 90-percent. Today, only 3-percent of the original forests remain. The government finally banned commerical kauri logging in 1985. As New Zealanders became aware of the great losses that had been inflicted, protected forests like Waipoua (1952) and Puketi were set aside, resulting in spectacular scenes like the one below, which I captured on our short visit to Puketi.

Among the many epiphytic plants is “perching lily” or kowharawhara (Astelia solandri) – the sole member of the genus that has this aerial habit.

Astelia solandri-Perching lily on kauri-Kowharawhara-Puketi-Manginangina

In this forest, fallen kauris become part of the undergrowth……


…..however, there are kauri swamps in Northland where the anaerobic qualities of peat bogs and ancient salt marshes have preserved massive trunks that toppled eons ago – some carbon-dated to more than 50,000 years – often still bearing their attached green leaves.  Sometimes referred to as “sub-fossil” kauri, they generated a swamp-extraction kauri timber industry beginning in the 1980s, sometimes by unscrupulous players, that saw wood selling for up to $10,000 per cubic metre, mainly to China.  But these ancient kauris have also become a valuable aid to scientists, their annual growth rings a barcode of climate change over a vast number of years.

Apart from logging and swamp extraction, the kauri became most famous in colonial New Zealand for its gum, used and exported at the time for floor varnish and linoleum.  Though the kauri is evergreen, like all rainforest trees the leaves shed periodically, accumulating at the base of the tree and eventually forming some 2 metres (6 feet) of soil there. As the tree exudes sap, it crystallizes, slowly forms chunks, then falls to the ground, becoming buried in the soil.  As I mentioned at the top of this blog, gum harvesting generated a kind of boom that saw some 20,000 gum-diggers working the Northland forests and swamps by 1890: mostly Maori, Chinese, Malaysian and Yugoslav.  Climbing a kauri tree to cut it and cause the tree to exude the gum was a special skill.   And digging the swamps for fossilized gum was the worst kind of labour.

Kauri Gum-Diggers-Image from Alexander Turnbull Library

But it was lucrative: by 1918, the New Zealand kauri gum industry had exported product worth the staggering sum of £18,224,107.

Kauri Gum Industry-Gillespie & Sons-Auckland

In the Te Papa Museum in Wellington a few weeks later, I would see a spectacular sample of kauri gem embedded with insects. The oldest kauri gum, found in coal deposits, is some 50 million years old.

Kauri gum-with insect-Te Papa Museum-Wellington

Today, seeing sap dripping at the base of a kauri tree is often a sign of kauri dieback disease. Visitors to the protected forests are requested to stay on the walkways, since the villain is a soil-borne organism, an oomycete (Phytophthora agathidicida) that causes root rot, defoliation and death. There is no known control. I saw such a tree at Puketi, its lower trunk riddled with cankers dripping with sap.

Kauri dieback-Puketi Forest

Our short, lovely stop at Puketi over, we were soon back on the road with Kena to pay a visit  to his own tribe’s marae.

Visit to a  Māori Marae

As we drove, I noted out the bus window dairy cattle grazing where a native brown sedge (Carex sp.) had popped up in the green forage. It reminded me of what our horticulture tour guide Panayoti Kelaidis, outreach director at Denver Botanic Gardens, had said to us: “New Zealand’s hills should be brown, not green.”  Before cattle were imported for New Zealand’s thriving dairy industry, there were no green pastures; that changed with the concomitant use of green Eurasian grasses for animal forage.

Dairy cattle & carex-Northland-New Zealand

After arriving at Kena’s marae, a rectangular plot of cleared land that is traditionally a meeting place providing social or spiritual needs to the Māori, we were called inside the beautiful wharenui (communal house), below, to participate in a traditional greeting ceremony or pōwhiri.  We removed our shoes and entered, the women and men sitting in separate sections while we listened to the readings and to a speech from the elder. Photos were not permitted during the protocol, but it was a very moving ceremony, as we joined our Māori hosts in observing a silent remembrance of our own ancestors. At the culmination, Kena and his wife sang a song to us, and we in turn sang back to them (well, we had rehearsed  Home on the Range and sounded quite good, I thought.)

Wharenui-Bay of Islands

The official ceremony now over, Kena pointed out the features of the wharenui, which we were free to photograph. The building interior represents the bosom of a beloved ancestor or spiritual figure. The carved ceiling ridge-beam or tāhuhu represents the backbone, while the painted rafters or heke represent the ribs.

Tahuhu-ridge beam-Bay of Islands

The stunning designs on the heke, below, are traditional kōwhaiwhai. The symbolism is specific to each tribe’s environment, lineage and history, and might incorporate the koru (fern crozier), ngaru tai (ocean waves), fish or birds.


Carved wood figures called poutokomanawa appear on supporting posts.  With their flashing eyes made of puau shell from sea snails, they represent tribal ancestors.

Poutokomanawa-Bay of Islands

Kena happily answered our questions after the ceremony, then it was time to head back to our hotel to rest up before our next Māori cultural experience later that day.

Kena Alexanders Warenui-Bay of Islands

As we drove, Kena pointed out a hilltop pā adjacent to the highway, one of many that can still be seen in Northland. So interesting to see these landforms and imagine how they functioned as self-contained villages hundreds of years ago.

Maori Hilltop Pa-Northland

An Evening at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

On February 6, 1840, representatives of the British government and a group of northern Māori chieftains met at this lovely spot overlooking the Bay of Islands in Paihia…..

Bay of-Islands-from Waitangi Treaty Grounds

… to sign The Treaty of Waitangi. Copies of the treaty were then carried around New Zealand and ultimately signed by more than 500 chiefs, including 13 women.  The British wanted the opportunity to acquire land; the Māoris wanted protection from the French. As it says on Wikipedia:  “The text of the Treaty includes a preamble and three articles. It is bilingual, with the Māori text translated from the English. Article one of the English text cedes “all rights and powers of sovereignty” to the Crown. Article two establishes the continued ownership of the Māori over their lands, and establishes the exclusive right of pre-emption of the Crown. Article three gives Māori people full rights and protections as British subjects. However, the English text and the Māori text differ, particularly in relation to the meaning of having and ceding sovereignty. These discrepancies led to disagreements in the decades following the signing, eventually culminating in the New Zealand Wars.”

Reconstruction of the Treaty of Waitangi-Marcus King-Collections of Alexander Turnbull Library

Though the treaty was considered by many to be the founding document of New Zealand, it did not form part of the law until 1975, when the Treaty of Waitangi Act was signed, establishing a permanent Waitangi Tribunal to investigate breaches of the original treaty and make recommendations (without the power of enforcement) on claims brought by Māori.  In 1999, to speed up the process for negotiating settlements associated with breaches of the treaty, the government changed the process so claimants could go directly to the Office of Treaty Settlements without engaging in the tribunal process. (Wikipedia) Nonetheless, the treaty is still celebrated on February 6th which is the annual Waitangi Day holiday.

Since one of my long-time photographic projects has been creating a comprehensive collection of honey bee images, I was delighted to find a few manuka blossoms (Leptospermum scoparium) still hanging on at the treaty grounds. They turned out to be the only floweringn examples I found in all New Zealand of this famous shrub, which produces the most expensive honey in the world). And best of all, there were honey bees nectaring on the blooms.

Honey bee on manuka-Leptospsermum scoparium

There was also harakeke or New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), which has a starring role in Māori ethnobotany, its fibres having been used in traditional kākahu (cloaks), kete (containers) and whāriki (mats). Not to mention, of course, the popularity of its vibrant hybrids as colourful foliage plants in warmer parts of the world.

Haraheke-Phormium tenax-Waitangi

But we were at the Treaty Grounds to participate in an evening of traditional Maori activities: the enactment of a wero or warrior challenge as part of the pōwhiri welcome, then a musical concert by the performance group, followed by a traditional hangi dinner. We watched as our meal was prepared in the modern version of a pit oven, which would traditionally have been dug in the ground using heated stones to cook, instead of gas..

Hangi-pit oven-Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Under banana leaves, there were layered meats and fish, as well as kumara (sweet potatoes) and more.  But it still had some cooking to do while we continued with our program….

Hangi-basket-Waitangi Treaty Grounds

…taking a walk through Waitangi’s beautiful bush to observe our own traditional ‘chieftain for a day’, Denver Botanic Garden’s Panayoti Kelaidis, engage in a traditional wero, or warrior challenge.

Another of our guests, Ciril, engaged in a further challenge in front of the Waitangi Treaty House. Fortunately, both Panayoti and Ciril passed the challenge and were welcomed; they then offered speeches of thanks to our Māori hosts.  (And even the fact that you know the performers do this several times a week for hundreds of tourists doesn’t diminish the solemnity or the significance of the reenactments).


Although I didn’t visit the actual Treaty House, which was home from 1833-40 to James Busby, the first representative of the British Crown, we were welcomed into Te Whare Rūnanga (the House of Assembly), which was opened on February 6, 1940 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the treaty. Although similar in design to Kena Alexander’s wharenui, this building was intended to unite all Māori of Aotearoa and contains carvings and folklore from tribes throughout the country.

Te Whare Rūnanga-House of Assembly-Waitangi

Below is a photo of Sir Āpirana Ngata, a longtime Labour politician (then retired) and organizer of the 1940 centennial, leading a haka. (And if you are unfamiliar with the spine-tingling Māori haka, you must watch the New Zealand All Blacks performing a haka before their 2011 World Cup rugby final against the French national team.)

Sir Āpirana Ngata-Haka-1940 Treaty Centennial-Waitangi-Alexander Turnbull Library

Finally, it was time to enjoy a concert of traditional Māori music and dance, courtesy of the Te Pito Whenua performance group. What fun to have a front row seat to watch these talented artists with their beautiful tattoos….

Te Pito Whenua-Waitangi (1)

…..and wonderful routines….

Te Pito Whenua-Waitangi (2)

…. including the traditional Polynesian poi dance, featuring fancy acrobatic work with those poi balls.

Te Pito Whenua-Poi Dance-Waitangi

As we departed the concert to enjoy the hangi buffet, Doug and I posed for a fun moment with the performers. As ‘touristy’ as it was, it also made me feel that the entire day — from the shores of Kerikeri Inlet to the kauri forest to Kena’s marae to this light moment on these historic grounds — had immensely enriched my understanding of and affection for this beautiful country, Aotearoa. Kia ora.

Janet & Doug Davis-Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Hiking With Friends

I’m heading off the beaten path in this blog with a personal memoir, a little gift to good friends – but you can come along too, if you like. A few weeks ago, we hiked at a favourite location, the Torrance Barrens in the Lake Muskoka region. It’s a place I visit regularly and blog about, too – and indeed, it’s a spot my hiking gang has visited a few times before, using our cottage as lodging. What’s significant, for me, is that this year’s walk represented the 25th year my husband and I set aside a weekend in autumn to hike with the group. For it was October 1993 when we were invited “in” and posed, below, near the famous Bruce Trail in Beaver Valley, Ontario – a suitable christening for a pair of novice hikers (I’m in the hat, he’s in the yellow jacket) as we slogged through forest and field in cold, pouring rain.

1993-Beaver Valley-hikers

The Bruce Trail has been our favourite hiking venue, and we’ve slowly bitten off chunks of its 890 kilometre (553 mile) length,

Bruce Trail

… all the way from the spectacular Lion’s Head Provincial Park up on the Bruce Peninsula overlooking Georgian Bay way back in 1994….

1994-Lion's Head Provincial Park

….where we took turns posing on the rugged Amabel dolostone (limestone) cliffs high above the water – capstone that was the bottom of a shallow limestone sea some 420 million years ago…

1994-Lion's Head-limestone cliffs

…..and ate our picnic lunch, as was our custom, on the rocks overlooking the water……


…. to the Niagara Gorge at its south end, in 1995.

1995-The Niagara Gorge

In 1996, we ventured off the Bruce Trail and headed to Pelee Island for the weekend. Later, as Lake Erie waves crashed onto shore, we strolled the sand at Point Pelee, Canada’s most southerly point of land.

1996-Point Pelee-Hiking

1998 saw us head east to ‘the County’, i.e. Prince Edward County and Picton, Ontario – just emerging then as the choice destination it has become since then. There we found a particularly picturesque bed & breakfast called The Apple Basket Inn (sadly no longer there)….

1998-Apple Basket-Inn-Picton

…. and lovely scenery nearby, including actual apple baskets at Hughes’ Orchards!

1998-Hughes' Orchard-Picton

2004 was a special year, when we hiked the tropical hills of Mustique in the Caribbean, courtesy of John & Anne. This is the view of Britannia Bay….

2004-Mustique-Brittania Bay

….. and this is the view of Bryan Adam’s house!  (Honestly, we did hike….)

2004-Mustique-Bryan Adam's House

In 2006, we were back on the Bruce Trail over the forks of the Credit River in Caledon….

2006-Caledon-Forks of the Credit River

…. where the group posed for my camera.

2006-Hiking Group-Forks of Credit

The year 2007 saw us beginning our Saturday hike under a rainbow in Collingwood…..


….before hiking the Bruce Trail in the Owen Sound area.  It rained that year, as we slogged our way through a carpet of sugar maple leaves in Sydenham Forest.

2007-Sydenham Forest-hikers-Bruce Trail

The glacial potholes in the Sydenham forest were so fascinating, created from the action of glacial melt-water roughly 12,000 years ago, their damp walls home to maidenhair and provincially rare hart’s tongue ferns.

2007-Glacial Pothole-Sydenham forest-Bruce Trail

The most spectacular sight was Inglis Falls, which was the site of an 1840s grist mill.

2007-Inglis Falls-Bruce Trail

Looking back at our picnic lunch in the rain that day, I recall that we were not going to let the rigors of the hike derail our South Beach diet!


In 2008, we again hosted the hikers at Lake Muskoka where I’d asked Orillia naturalist and mycologist Bob Bowles (navy cap) to give us a walking seminar on mushrooms.

2008-Mushroom Lessons-Lake-Muskoka-Bob Bowles

Though the forest floor on our peninsula was laden with maple and beech leaves by that point in October, we were able to key 29 species of mushrooms.

2008-Lake Muskoka-Page's Point-Beech Bracket Fungus

We also hiked the Torrance Barrens that year, where the blueberry bushes were bright red and the paper birch skeletons shimmering white.

2008-Torrance Barrens-beaver pond

We eased into our 2009 hiking weekend in Prince Edward County with a wine-tasting personally conducted by Norman Hardie at his renowned vineyard.

2009-Norman Hardie-Wine-tasting

We all enjoyed a sip — best be prepared ahead of a hiking trip!

2009-Wine-Tasting-Norman Hardie Wines

The next day, when we hiked the soaring dunes of Sandbanks Provincial Park….

2009-Sandbanks Provincial Park

….. where some found time to wade in the waters of Lake Ontario…..

2009-Sandbanks Provincial Park-hikers

… I did a little botanizing, and  was thrilled to see fringed gentians (Gentianopsis crinita) in flower.

2009-Gentianopsis crinita-Fringed gentian-Sandbanks

In 2010, we headed back to Niagara, but this time we walked about 10 kilometres (6 miles) of the Niagara River Parkway…..

2010-Niagara River Parkway

….where the view of the river was spectacular…..

2010-Niagara River

….before getting into our cars (ah, the magic of the pre-parked cars!) and driving to Ravine Vineyard for lunch.

2010-Niagara Ravine Vineyard

In 2012, we hiked near Susan’s beautiful farm…..


….. where we sat for a group photo (again, of most of us, but not quite all).


As with many of our hikes, we enjoyed brilliant fall colour – here of Susan’s gorgeous paper birch…..

2012-Paper Birch-Betula papyrifera-fall colour

In 2014, we bunked in at Anne and Bob’s in Collingwood, and headed out on the Kolapore trail, which Bob helps maintain.

2014-Kolapore sign

Though it sometimes feels like a dark cathedral of trees as we hike amidst thousands of slender trunks of sugar maple, beech and birch….

2014-Kolapore hiking

…. it’s good to look up occasionally, and see fall-coloured leaves fluttering against the autumn sky.


The trail that year was muddy in places – there was the odd little spill…..


The vegetation was wonderful: here are hart’s tongue ferns (Asplenium scolapendrium), quite rare in the region.

2014-harts-tongue ferns-Asplenium scolopendrium

Though non-native, it’s always a treat to see watercress (Nasturtium officinale) in a clean, moving stream.


In 2015, eight of us decided to pack our bags and head to a different kind of forest for our autumn hike: a rain forest. In Costa Rica!

2015-Beach Trail sign-El Remanso Lodge-Osa Peninsula-Costa Rica

And do you know how mother nature makes a rain forest? That’s right…….

Let’s just say our hiking attire was a little lighter than normal, given the almost total humidity and warm temperatures.

2015-Felix-Long Hike-El Remanso

Five of us did the zip-line through the jungle. I chickened out but served as the documentary photographer.


(I wrote  a special blog about El Remanso Lodge on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, if you want to read a little more.)

In 2016, we hiked the Mad River Side Trail near Glen Huron, Ontario. The colours were spectacular.


Here’s a video I made of that lovely hike along the Mad River.

When we arrived at the base of the Devil’s Glen Ski Club to have lunch, I made a group shot, (well, most of us and one guest – a few had wandered away) and just managed to get myself back into the frame before the shutter clicked.

2016-Hiking Group-Devils Glen

Heading back to our lodging, we stopped at an apple stand and stocked up on Northern Spy apples, my favourite for pies and crisps.

2016-Spy Apples-Glen Huron

Which brings me to this year, the 25th edition of our hike, when we once again met in Muskoka and walked the beautiful Torrance Barrens.  We marvelled at the fluffy white clouds reflected in Highland Pond….

2017-Highland-Pond-Clouds-Torrance Barrens

…and noted the tamaracks (Larix laricina) at the water’s edge.

2017-Pine-Sumac-Tamarack-Torrance Barrens

Bob pointed out aspects of geology, as in ‘this is gneiss, not pure granite’.


We walked past my favourite paper birch….

2017-Paper birch-Torrance Barrens

…..and saw the fluffy cotton grass (Eriophorum vaginatum) flanking the bog.


The little bridge over the small pond is sinking in the middle and necessitated a ‘one-at-a-time’ rule.


It’s always fun to stop and look at the erratic boulder left behind when the ice retreated, and it appears that Alex Tilley, founder of Tilley Hats, agreed. This little interpretive sign was paid for by Tilley, whom I’ve seen hiking the Barrens.

2017-Erratic-Precambrian Shield-Torrance Barrens

With so much rain this summer and autumn, many parts of the path were waterlogged and Bob (the veteran trail groomer) pointed out drier spots to navigate.

2017-Water on trail-Torrance Barrensl

We crossed Southwood Road and finished our hike in the deeper soil of a forest….

2017-Hikers-in-oaks-Torrance Barrens

….featuring bracken ferns and beautiful red oaks.

2017-Red Oak-Torrance Barrens

A tiny red-bellied snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) was on the path (it’s only my lens that makes it look huge) – one of many reptiles I’ve photographed in the Barrens over the years.

2017-Red-bellied snake-Torrance Barrens

And at the end of the trail, we posed for our traditional photo (minus four who couldn’t be with us this year).  Over a quarter-century, we’ve seen our children grow up, marry, change jobs, and have their own kids. We’ve talked about books, theatre, food, health and travel to faraway places. We’ve lost spouses or partners, and felt the comfort of the friends who knew them well. And we’ve welcomed new partners to the group and made them feel welcome and loved. It is a simple thing to do, walking a trail, and it reminds us that we need nature – and the company of friends – to live full lives.

2017-Hiking Group-Torrance Barrens


In memory of Murray, Tim and Jim.