After leaving Haast it was just a short (20 km or so) drive to the Moeraki Wilderness Lodge. The lodge is the only place for miles around where you can stay, it is the only hotel licensed to operate in the National Park. There are many organised activities including guided walks through the bush and canoeing on the lake. The staff are all very knowledgeable about the local environment and the wildlife. The reason everyone goes there is to experience the unique and largely pristine environment and the lodge is run just so that you can achieve this without causing any significant disturbance. The lodge is so remote that you have to take all your meals there (once we realised that the price included meals it didn't seem so expensive). The dining room is run so that all the guests are seated together around a few tables; the atmosphere in the evenings is one of a civilised dinner party. We were greeted by Eric and shown around the facilities before being sent down the Monro Beach Trail to see the Fiordland Crested Penguins. It was the very end of the season and they were all leaving to go out to sea so these were the last days in the year it was still possible to see them. The walk took around 35 minutes and we became fairly wet as it was raining all the time. On arrival at the beach we soon spotted the penguins. The first was in the water (seen by Pete) quickly followed by three more (spotted by Barb) hiding in the rocks at the back of the beach. In all we saw seven individuals during the hour or so we spent on the beach.
The penguin we saw initially in the water we later saw coming out and going back in several times. We realised that he may be trying to come ashore near where we were standing and we might be intimidating him so we moved away and then he did indeed start to come up the beach, but not until he had gone mountaineering over the rocks. He climbed a seemingly impossible rock face. The rock was wet and almost vertical, nevertheless the penguin just walked up and across without any apparent difficulty (and down again!). We later learned that the penguins nest a long way up the cliffs (some Fiordland Penguins will climb over a hundred metres to get to their nest sites).
Dinner proved to be an interesting event, we were seated with several other people, a honeymoon couple (young US lawyers), a British couple (he was in 'marketing of financial products') and Ruth, an American lady of a certain age who knew how to be bored with life and how to try to make everybody as miserable as she seemed to be. I can think of no reason why she was there - all she did was to complain, about the weather, about the insects, even about American football and cricket! I became involved in several good and interesting conversations with the two couples while Barbara was landed with the odd conversations with Ruth. The food was fine but not exceptional, but why should it be? We understand that only 200 people live South of here on the west side of New Zealand and this place is the largest employer (10 employees), so how can we expect to find a great chef?
Before dinner Eric, the host, introduced everybody. We were introduced as being penguin fanatics and Eric mentioned that we were going to Antarctica. This became a talking point throughout the meal. Later one of the other guests, who was not seated with us, made a beeline for us to enquire about the details etc. With the exception of Ruth, everyone seemed to be almost as excited as we are at the prospect of going south.
The following morning we had intended to go on an organised walk to see seals and possibly the penguins, but the walks are only run if at least four people want to go. Today we were the only takers. Instead we took ourselves back down to Monro Beach to see whether the penguins were still there; they usually leave by December 9 or 10. The walk down to the beach was completely different today. The weather was dry and we could see up into the trees and hear the water running in the valley, the crossings of the streams on the way were quite simple, unlike yesterday when there was considerable flooding. We shouldn't complain about the weather though - the annual rainfall here is 180 inches (although above 3000m it can be as high as 500 inches).
Once we arrived at the beach we immediately saw four penguins making for the sea. We then walked up to the point where the penguins were the previous day and saw two more climbing in the rocks. We took Eric's advice and moved away a little distance to see whether the penguins in the sea would come back up the beach. Instead, after a few minutes we were rewarded by the sight of five more penguins waddling down the beach. At the same time we could hear some more behind the rocks. In all we saw at least 13 penguins in three separate groups. There could have been more but, among all the comings and goings, we could not be certain.
We ate our packed lunch at Knights Point where there are some good views across the bay and then drove on down to Ship Creek where we took a walk to a dune lake and another in a swamp. It is quite amazing to see so many different ecosystems in such a short distance. Here in Westland National Park there are rain forests, swamps, beaches and glaciers all within a few kilometres of each other.
The vegetation is remarkable, apart from the ubiquitous ferns (there are over 2000 species) there are trees, grasses and flaxes that are quite unlike anything we have seen elsewhere. The swamp we visited was in many ways similar to the Everglades (but without the alligators) and with fern trees instead of mangroves. The fern trees can reach several metres high (I would estimate we saw some at more than 10m).
We returned to the lodge in time to take canoes out on the lake before taking a shower and getting ready for dinner. Amazingly, Barbara got a bit of suntan on her arms while we were out on the lake!
Eric told us two Japanese women who were also interested in penguins had arrived and he warned us he had seated us next to them for dinner since we had a common interest. We soon found that they are going to Antarctica with us on the Academik Shokalski! They were with a group of five Japanese from the 'Penguin Club'. The club was apparently founded by a man who had done some research on penguins in the Antarctic. They hold meetings to talk and learn about penguins, they also organise auctions of penguin gear to raise money to pay for penguin research.
The next day was lovely. The sky was clear all the time, when we woke there was about 50% cloud cover. The sun broke through during breakfast and kept on shining for the rest of the day.
Hidemi, and Hiroko (or Mame as we later came to know her) went to look for penguins at dawn and found two on Monro Beach. Later we went with them on the seal and penguin walk we missed out on the previous day. The walk was led by Eric, it started with a drive along the road towards Knights Point. We walked through the bush to the beach where we hoped to see some penguins. Along the way Eric pointed out a couple of Penguin nests which were used earlier in the year. The nests are really deep burrows under the trees. They are about 200m from the beach. When we arrived at the beach we found that a fisherman and his children were already there so Eric thought it was unlikely many penguins would venture ashore as they are very cautious in this area.
We discovered that the children had found some penguins who had taken shelter in a crack in the rocks. We could see one of the penguins at the back of the crack but they were obviously quite frightened by the attention the children had given them and would not come out for some time. We stayed quietly on the beach for a while and the fisherman walked away. One penguin did eventually venture ashore and we were able to see him waddle and hop his way across about 50m of beach into the undergrowth on his way into the bush.
Eric told us that the adult penguins who have successfully raised chicks seem to keep coming back to shore for a couple of weeks after the chicks have left and that these are the penguins we have seen over the last couple of days, but in previous years they would all have left by this time. They seem to have known we came specially to see them and stayed here.
We then walked along the beach towards the south walking underneath the lookout point at Knights Point where we had taken lunch the previous day. The view was rather better from the beach than up on top of the cliffs. At several places the water was coming right up to the cliffs and we had to wait for a short wave so that we could hop round without getting wet. In other places we had to climb right up on and over the rocks to make progress. Gradually as we moved further along we began to see more and more fur seals.
On the way Eric announced he had brought supplies of tea, juice and chocolate biscuits which were very welcome! We sat down on the beach for a break, then left our rucksacks there while we walked on to the main seal beach. Where else in the world could you safely leave a rucksack full of expensive camera equipment etc. and not have it stolen?
We walked slowly and quietly on to the end of the beach, the seals were quite tolerant of our presence and let us come to within a few yards of them before they became at all agitated. Of course we tried to keep a sufficient distance so as not to disturb them. The end of the beach where we were was mainly a bachelor pad so nearly all the seals were males who had yet to mate. There were, however, a couple of pregnant females mixed in with them. The females seemed much more wary of us.
After spending about half to three quarters of an hour observing the seals we made our way back to our rucksacks and packed everything away for the climb up the 120m high cliffs along a rough path cut out by the staff at the lodge. It was a fairly hard climb and I certainly would not want to do it every day as Eric does. Once we had reached the top we walked down the road past Knights Point and then we went back down into the bush at the top of the cliff to see another penguin nest. There were no penguins about but Eric showed us the place where there had been several nests. The nests were very close to the top of the cliff, a height of over 120m! One theory is that penguins began nesting there centuries ago when it was at sea level. Since then the motion of the tectonic plates has lifted the west coast of New Zealand up to its present height. Eric noted that the Australasian plate is moving under the Pacific plate here so that eventually Australia will pass under New Zealand.
After our walk we returned to the lodge where we ate our packed lunches outside before settling the bill and departing. We decided not to drive directly back to Wanaka but to make a detour to Jackson's Bay where more Fiordland Crested Penguins nest. We didn't see any penguins but we did take a picture of the road sign saying 'Caution Penguins Next 5 km'.
The drive back across the Haast Pass was a complete contrast to our journey on Friday. Now the weather was fine, the sun was shining and there was no rain. We found that all the spectacular waterfalls we had seen before were now dry. However, as the sky was so clear we could see the scenery in all its glory. The snow capped mountains form strong geometric shapes with all the summits being strongly angular. There are no rounded hills of the type we are accustomed to seeing. As we crossed from the west to the east there was a marked contrast in the vegetation. The lush tree and fern coverage typical of the western rain forests gave way to a sparse grassy coverage and to bare rock at higher altitudes. The divide in vegetation corresponds to a similar divide in the weather; with a temperate rain forest of ferns on the west giving way to beech forests and pampas grasses on the east.
We arrived back in Wanaka around 18:00 and had baths before taking dinner in the restaurant.