Monday, October 28, 2019

Kārearea Opportunities

“As I get older and remember all the people I’ve lost along the way…
maybe a career as a tour guide wasn’t for me” anonymous

Over the past year, I’ve been volunteering at Zealandia. I started as a weekend volunteer guide back in September last year, working most weekends over the summer. In the winter season, I also helped out during the week as well as weekends, as a number of the summer season volunteers only stay for a short while; many are students or visitors to New Zealand who aren’t planning a long-term stint. The volunteer guides' duties aren't onerous: we give one short talk (5-10 minutes) per shift, and spend the rest of the time roving – helping visitors see the wildlife, pointing out birds and animals, answering questions, giving directions and advice about the best way to see the sanctuary.

This year, the call went out for more trained tour guides for the summer season. This is due to the increasing numbers of cruise ships that will visit Wellington over the coming months. Zealandia doesn’t have enough permanent guides to cope with this influx, as our tour is one of the most popular shore excursions for cruise ship passengers. I answered that call.


In September, therefore, I attended an “interview” – actually more of an audition – where we were all invited to give a short talk to our fellow interviewees on the subject of one of the animals in Zealandia. We were given a choice of four, and I picked tuatara. So, of course, did many of the others, so there was a certain amount of repetition in the process. What they were looking for was how well you could present to a group of people, rather than specific esoteric knowledge. One of the better presentations was basically just the contents of the Wikipedia page on tuatara, but it was delivered well. We only had one “choker” who literally could not get their words out.

Those who passed that stage, and subsequent references and police check, were invited to a training session in October. As I would miss the first day of training as it started on the day we returned from Tonga, I decided to go for the second session of training starting from 15th October. I found myself in a room with nine other guide candidates, and one trainer, called AJ. Over the course of the next two weeks, we learned about giving a tour in Zealandia, with again the concentration on giving a good tour rather than filling people’s heads up with facts and figures. This included Te Reo pronunciation, learning the mihi, introducing the film that’s shown in the exhibition before we go out into the valley, health’n’safety, caring for our guests, and practising giving a tour. Despite the weather being a bit dodgy on some days, we were out in the valley every day at some point.

At the end of two weeks I booked a slot for my assessment. I’d originally planned to use this slot for a co-guiding session with an experienced guide, but decided to switch it so that I could get my “wings”. We took a group of 11 people from a cruise ship out on a tour. The experienced guide, Julia, was there to assess me but otherwise took no part in the actual tour. I had the “leisurely” group (tours are triaged so that the fitter guests can take the tour at a faster pace), so we didn’t get as far into the valley as some, before we had to turn back. But we made Rule Two of guiding – get the guests back before the bus leaves – so that was OK. (Rule One, I’m sure you know, is “always come back with the same number you started out with”. If they’re the same people, that’s a bonus.)

Afterwards I sat down with Julia and we went through the assessment form together with AJ. Long story short, I passed, and am now a tour guide at Zealandia. The next cruise ship is due in next week and I’m on the roster for taking a tour! As the season ramps up, I’ll be working more and more frequently, but to start with I have four tours scheduled for November. Woohoo!

p.s. Kārearea  is the New Zealand falcon. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Whale Watching

The best-laid plans of mice and men aft gang aglay…

One of the attractions of Tonga as a holiday destination is the annual migration of Southern Humpback whales. The females come to Tonga to give birth to, or conceive, the next generation of whales, and do so in the shallow waters of the greater lagoon which surrounds Tongatapu, the main island. Whale watching is organised from most of the holiday destinations. We thought we’d go along, so talked to the resort manager, who booked us in with Deep Blue Diving. “Oh, you’ve got your own rental car” she said, “just show up at the wharf at 8:30”. Later in the day, however, one of the other staff told us “No, don’t worry about that, they’ll send a taxi to collect you and take you there. Just be outside here at 7:50. There’s some other people going too so we’ll start breakfast early for you as well.”

Easy enough, so we set the alarm (who sets alarms on holiday? Bah! 😉) and had breakfast at 7:00. We were back at reception and waiting for our taxi. One turned up, and the other three piled in. “No worries, there’s another on it’s way for us” we told them as they sped off.

As I said, the best-laid plans…

The manager arrived at 8 o’clock, and was, unsurprisingly, surprised to see us still waiting. After a quick exchange of phone calls, we decided to drive ourselves in and make craven apologies for holding everyone up.

We needn’t have worried. By the time we got there, two things became apparent: the registration and payment procedures were still under way, and we were woefully ill-equipped. We paid for our trip, but then decided, on reflection, it would be better if we equipped ourselves properly. So we decided to go the next day.

On Saturday, then, we repeated the process, with rather better results. Turned up on time, met the crew, and set out for a day's whale-watching. Most of the participants were actually equipped for whale-swimming, which I had understood to be with scuba gear, from the look of all their promotional material, but turned out to be with snorkels. I was a little apprehensive as my previous experience of whale-watching, at Kaikoura, turned out mostly to be watching the bottom of a snack sack. But the water in the lagoon was much calmer, and before long we’d spotted a pod, and come up as close as allowed to them.

After some observation it turned out that the group was a mother and juvenile, and another male who was trying to get frisky with the female. She wasn’t having a bar of it, though, and so the group was moving around quite a bit. Although the snorkellers put out to sea a couple of times, it took a while for them to be satisfied with their sighting. We spent a bit more time searching for, and finding, solo whales, before a call came from another boat – mother and baby, in shallow water, not moving. Pretty much the rest of the afternoon was spent with this couple, as they were very obliging. Tonga, like New Zealand, has laws about minimum safe distances to be kept from whales, but apparently this message hadn’t got through to these two, as the baby in particular kept coming up to have a look at what these crazy humans were doing. The dive groups (there were five on our boat) went out for a second round, and then a third. Eventually, though, the whales tired of us and moved out to deeper water, and the skipper turned the boat around and headed back to dock.

All in all, we had a pretty productive day watching whales. When we met up with the group who’d gone out the day before, it turned out that we’d had much better sightings than they’d had, so delaying by a day was a win for us. One of the crew was a professional underwater photographer, so we decided that we’d buy his package of photos from the day for TOP 60 to augment my surface-view pics.

Friday, September 27, 2019


The following morning we rose with cock crow. If you’ve ever been to a tropical island, you’ll be familiar with this. The cockerels start up at first light, and don’t really let up. Without too much difficulty, we located the restaurant for breakfast. It was slightly busier than the night before, but not by much. Our saviours of the night before were there, so we thanked them again, then looked at what was on offer. There were traditional breakfast goods like cornflakes and weetbix, fresh fruit (papaya, melon and coconut) pancakes and syrup, eggs, toast and marmalade. We got stuck in.

After breakfast, and after pausing to admire the sizeable spider population that string their webs between every available tree and building, we went to the office to check in. The office manager told us that tonight there would be a buffet with traditional entertainment, and did we want to book that? Why the hell not, we thought, so signed up for it. They do this twice a week and it is unfailingly popular.

We had a good look around the rest of the resort, although there’s not much to see. It’s quite a small place, with only 15 beach huts, and not very occupied at the moment as it’s really only the beginning of the season; in fact I later heard it described as “winter” – hah!

We drove into town and succeeded in finding a parking space without any difficulty. There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of organised parking in Tonga, so just park where you find a space. There’s also not much in the way of traffic lights, just the occasional Stop sign, but junctions seem to work on the “be excellent to each other” principle – a bit of patience and a friendly wave seem to get everyone to where they want to be.

After getting our bearings we wandered around a bit, found the King’s palace, got some cash (credit card payments generally attract a 5% charge, so it’s wise to pay for everything the old-fashioned way), then, after a stop for a quick refreshment, decided to walk to the Tourist Information office. This was a little further than we’d anticipated, but, suitably armed with leaflets, we went in search of lunch. Again, this was a little further afield than I’d anticipated, but no matter, we’re getting our daily steps up. We arrived at Billfish in time for lunch, and had fish’n’chips and ota ika which, despite being on the starters menu, was too big for Nicola. We chose a different route back to  the car to take in a supermarket where we could get some supplies for the hut.

By this time we’d walked a little farther than we’d intended, so went back to the resort for a bit of a rest and to lollygag for the rest of the afternoon.

In the evening we went to the bar early and availed ourselves of cocktails, watched the sun go down, and admired the view. Then it was time for the evening’s entertainments to begin. A band, who had a lighted sign behind them which said “Band”, struck up, and played some island classic tunes. People got up and danced to this in traditional dances. Then, after a few quick announcements, and a blessing by a local reverend, the buffet was opened, everyone formed an orderly queue and collected their food. Mostly pork-based dishes (including a whole pig roast), with some veges and salads, and local starches such as farro and sweet potato. And jolly nice it was too.

Once everything was cleared away the traditional dancing began. There were a mixture of boys and girls dancing – some dances just for boys, some just for girls, some mixed. Our MC kept us informed about each dance, and there were some from Samoa and Fiji as well as Tonga. The final dance was the fire dance, with the boys doing twirly things with firesticks.

Whilst the dancers were performing, people would come up on stage and stick bank notes to them. The girls, in particular, were covered in a sticky oil which facilitated this. “That’s a bit weird”, we thought. People would either stick the notes to their arms, or tuck them into clothing for the boys (who didn’t, frankly, have many places where money could be tucked). The MC explained that this money helps pay for the girls’ ongoing education. Whether they pool it all at the end of the night and take equal shares, or keep what they’ve had stuck to them, we don’t know. What the boys do with theirs wasn’t explained – the owner made a joke about not needing to keep them on the payroll, but he may have been serious. They probably spend it on cigarettes and beer.

When the organised dancing was over, the MC announced some birthdays, people and cakes were brought onto the stage, whilst everyone sang happy birthday to them.

The evening concluded with the band playing and people getting up to dance. At this stage we decided that discretion was advisable, and went back through the dark to our hut.

Thursday, September 26, 2019


The Kingdom of Tonga is but a short 2 ½ hour flight from Auckland. It’s a Pacific Island nation, neighbouring Samoa, Fiji and the Cook Islands. It is known for never having been conquered by colonising powers. Like many Pacific nations, there is a large community based in Auckland.

Despite being within range of flights from Wellington, there are no direct flights – presumably as the majority of the demand is from Tongans going back and forth from Auckland. Because of this, it looked like we’d be spending most of the day travelling despite its proximity. We took off from Wellington at 1:45pm, and got to rainy Auckland for our connection. This was slightly delayed, so we were finally airborne again at 6:00pm. The flight was full, and we were at the back of the plane, so thought we’d be last off when it came to landing at Fua’amotu airport…but no! They brought stairs to both ends of the plane so we were able to get off straight away.

Not that this availed us much. We had a bit of wait for our luggage, presumably as it had been checked in at Wellington so was at the back of all the luggage and therefore last out. Nevertheless, by 10:00pm we’d got out, and found the local Avis rental office. They were expecting us there, and with the minimum of fuss, got us into our Toyota and away.

We took a look at the map, decided that Hala Lotu was the most direct way to our accommodation, and set out. The road was marked as paved, and seemed to be one of three such roads that stretched the breadth of the island. And at first, it was.

We arrived at a junction where most of the traffic was turning off to head to the capital, Nuku’alofa. But our resort was up at the far end of the island, so we continued on in a straight line. The road rapidly deteriorated. It was potholed all over. Fortunately, there was hardly any traffic, so we were able to swerve all over the road to try and avoid the worst ditches and crevasses. Still, it was heavy going, and when we finally joined up with a properly paved road, and a point we have since christened “Three Ways”, it was a relief. We were able to once again crank up the speed to the national limit of 50kmh and arrive at our resort. We missed the turn at first so had to turn around and go back, but no matter.

We pulled into the car park. The lights were on, but there was no-one home. No signs of life in the bar, restaurant, or office. In fact, no-one at all. There was a minibus parked, which had numbers on it. I called the land line: “your call is being diverted…” then the line hung up. Tried the mobile number, with the same result.

Bugger! What to do? We were a bit stuck. Another car came along, and into a parking space near one of the beach huts. We accosted the occupants, and explained our predicament. “No problem, I know the owner!” said the man, who was a Tongan American and regularly visited this resort. He rousted someone out who was at least able to get us into our room. We thanked our saviour profusely, and collapsed in a heap on the bed.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Mammalian Predators

At Zealandia, there is a predator-proof fence, designed to keep mammalian predators out. These include obvious targets like mustelids (weasels, stoats and ferrets), cats, rats and mice; and also less obvious introduced mammals such as hedgehogs, rabbits and hares, which may not be thought of as dangerous to native fauna, but may destroy eggs, or, crucially, out-compete natives for food resources.

But there is another class of mammalian predator which has been seen more and more frequently around Wellington…and this is one that we’re more than happy to welcome. They’re aquatic predators, and fall into two groups: cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and pinnipeds (seals and sealions).

Fur seal
In recent times we’ve had the visit by Matariki, the Wellington whale – a Southern Right whale who delighted us all in July last year. A pod of bottlenose dolphins was seen in Evans Bay in January. And this month, three orca, believed to be a mother, juvenile and baby came into the harbour near Eastbourne, then crossed over and were spotted very close to the shore at Karaka Bay and Scorching Bay.

Orca came in close to the shore

Orca have a distinctive dorsal fin

Whilst fur seals colonise the Red Rocks each year between May and October, some individuals have been spotted away from their colony. In particular, one individual has been sunning itself on the rocks of Karaka Bay and Breaker Bay since May this year. More recently, a leopard seal was seen in Oriental Bay, and a juvenile individual has been relaxing on the sands at Owhiro Bay for the last two days.  

Don't get too close to those teeth

Leopard seals are apex predators.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Pink Hammer

The Pink Hammer is Circa Theatre’s marquee production for September. We decided to book early, taking advantage of our Friends’ rates.

First, obviously, dinner. We half-concocted a plan to try Wellington’s latest high-end adventure in taste, but looking at their location and times of opening, it just wasn’t going to be possible to get to Atlas either before or after the show without being terribly rushed. Which you don’t want…so we’ll try that another time.

We’d driven in with plenty of time to spare, as there’s sometimes a bit of traffic around Evans Bay and Oriental Parade. But not on this occasion, so we had half an hour before they evening service started at increasingly-favourite Field and Green. We walked around the corner to Courtenay Place, and had a cocktail at CGR Merchant. Then we popped back to Field and Green for a main course. Time slipped away from us there as well, so we made a firm resolution to come back after the show for ice cream. Fortunately, it’s just a hop and a skip from Circa. We collected our tickets and settled in.

Four women turn up in a shed for a course for women to learn how to do woodwork. A fairly straightforward premise, you’d think. But where’s the teacher? They’ve all paid in advance, and they’re rightly miffed. Not as miffed as Woody, however, who’s shed it is, and who knows nothing about it. Turns out his wife has organised this without his knowledge, and her whereabouts are currently unknown.

So, the women decide, Woody must teach them woodwork. He is, after all, a carpenter, and they’ve paid for tuition. Woody doesn’t really like the idea, but is coerced to go along with it. First up, he asks what project they’d all like to do. Louise wanted to learn general skills so that she could do some repairs around the house; Annabel wants to make an old-style bookcase for her Dickens collection; Siobhan wants to make a dog kennel for her vet boss’s dog, with whom she plans to have an affair (the boss, not the dog); and Helen wants to build her own coffin.

Wait, what? Why do you want to make a coffin? We dig deeper into the lives of all the characters, and what appears on the surface is revealed to be covering up a can of worms, which is duly opened. Each character has something to reveal, and as they do so, like soup, the plot thickens.  

There are some very funny moments. Woody is portrayed at first as typical man in his man-cave, but is soon revealed to be as in thrall as the women. It all unfolds at the end with the completion of Helen’s coffin, on the day of the Melbourne Cup. The play reaches its emotional climax with a shocking scene.

Suitably stunned, we crossed back to Field and Green for ice cream. Honey and fig, and peanut chocolate and salted caramel, since you ask. Nicola had marmalade and plum with white chocolate.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Absolute Non-Sense

We haven’t really made inroads into the Cocktail Wellington part of Wellington On A Plate much, but I thought we’d go to CoCo At The Roxy and give their cocktail a try. The head barman there, Ray Letoa, is known for his extreme cocktail making. We tried his Miramar Fizzy Pop the first year of the competition, and came back last year to do a master class in cocktail making, where he showed us (and we drank) all his previous entries.

This year, though, he’s gone too far. The cocktail isn’t even a drink! Here’s its description: A rum sour in the form of a bird's nest, made of a dark chocolate nest, spiced kataifi twigs with a Rum lemon curd, accompanied by an illuminated deep blue sushi with cured watermelon, yuzu wasabi and citrus ocean fog. It looks like this:

Nicola, very sensibly, chose to have the Miramar Fizzy Pop instead.

As advised by our waiter, I first had the sushi, then finished with the egg. The sushi is underlit by an small electric candle which changes colour. The egg contains the alcoholic lemon curd, and was quite tasty, but you wouldn’t think you were drinking a cocktail in the accepted sense. We’ll see how it fares in the competition.