Having been isolated for so many years, New Zealand has developed a stunning array of indigenous fauna. Especially the avian kind.
They’ve got some wicked awesome birds here.
Kea are one such example. They are the only alpine parrot in the world and are found solely in the mountainous regions of New Zealand’s South Island. While not visually stunning outright, they boast olive green plumes with a flash of scarlet feathers on the underside of their wingspan. What is most fascinating about these highly inquisitive birds is their mischievous nature. Watch this video to see what happens when a Kea decides to help out a road crew.
J has been dying to encounter them since the moment he learned of their existence. Having read that Arthur’s Pass – a mountain pass through the Southern Alps and New Zealand’s first national park – is a good place to spot them, we decided to start the hunt – for photos, obviously.
The Arthur’s Pass information center is just short of a two hour drive from Christchurch, where we were currently staying. We opted to leave around mid-day and spend a night at a free campsite just outside the reserve.
One nice thing about slow travel is the ability to take in unexpected attractions. As this was J’s deal, I had not done any reading/research about this little jaunt into the central South Island. Bless him, J is not great at research. When asked what all he had planned, he mentioned that he mostly got sidetracked watching videos of Kea and hand’t really made a concrete plan of action.
None-the-less, on our way to our first campsite we passed by a stunning Department of Conservation, or DOC, site. Castle Hill was visually striking from the road, even though it rests a few hundred meters from the car park. After walking the distance to the base of the boulders, J pulled out the drone and I went exploring.
The large outcrop of stones makes for an incredible vista. Surrounded by farmland, I often found myself solitary exploring these towering fixtures. Legit, GoT should come film here.
The scale of the formation does not translate through still images, but I think the video below does the trick.
About twenty minutes past Castle Hill, we stopped at the best free campsite we’ve come across yet. Right on a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains and the changing foliage, we had a wonderful night’s rest. However, no Kea yet.
A day in Arthur’s Pass.
After a slow start in the morning, we stopped at the information center to get a few ideas as to where we might come across our bounty. Unfortunately, the volunteer said they may not come down from the peaks, as it was such a warm day. He did give us a couple of options to try.
First stop, the village restaurant. A quick jaunt down from the info center/tranzalpine train station is a little village. Apparently, Kea like to hang around the restaurant, begging for food scraps. We slowly crawled by in Philben, but didn’t see a single feathered patron.
On to the viaduct overlook.
A popular lookout point for tourists, the viaduct overlook is a truly stunning veiwpoint along the drive through Arthur’s Pass. It is a bit of an incline up from the main road, and Kea supposedly like to hang around there – targeting the many tourist vehicles with their shenanigans.
Struck out again.
Off we went in search of the third and final spot we were told to check out. A very steep climb up a little pathway off a lookout a little ways down the road. We pulled into the empty lookout and decided to try our luck elsewhere. The climb was rather steep, and with all the recent rain and J’s still healing knee injury (he had surgery in November), we opted to hold back.
At the base of the road we pulled off by a river to have a quick lunch – then continued on our way, neither of us really knowing where we were going. As the day grew shorter and the cell service more infrequent, I found a cheap DOC campsite where we could spend the night. Nearly on the other side of the island, by this point.
Not a Kea.
Shortly after we settled into our spot for the night, we had some feathered friends pop out of the bush. Not Kea, but something altogether fascinating on its own. It was clearly flightless, and reminded us of a chicken. But with chocolate brown feathers and red feet. It was inquisitive but also a bit shy. Coming in and out of the surrounding forest, soon we realized they surrounded us.
Even though we didn’t see the bird we had set out to, we were satiated with the fact that we’d seen one completely new to both of us. And as we would later discsover, the Weka is an indigenous bird to New Zealand and is in fact classified as a vulnerable species. So, it was kind of special that we got to share a campsite with them for a couple of nights.
Not wanting to waste having crossed the entire island, we decided to hike out to the Hokitika Gorge.
The Hokitika river is known for its absolutely surreal milky turquoise waters. The color is the result of ancient glaciers slowly moving through the the gorge, grinding the surrounding rock into flour. That rock flour then mixed with the melted ice from the glaciers, and the high mineral content within creates this magical opaque turquoise river. Gorgeous.
We ended up returning to our Weka campsite to spend another night before heading back towards Christchurch. While we didn’t see any Kea on our trip across the island, we did end up seeing some in Christchurch.
Check back soon (or subscribe!) to read about our experience at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.