“Rooted in Discovery: Explore our space. Find our place.” That was the theme my master’s degree cohort took on and developed an environmental education program based from. To be stewards of the ecological communities in which we live, it was agreed, we need to ‘discover’ them based on experiences.
As a traveling naturalist, my ‘space’ is a transient one. For the first two months of this year, New Zealand is essentially home. My time here previously had been limited to the coastal ports visited by cruise ship, a sampling if you will of the diverse array of animals, plants, and people along the same stretch of latitude as Oregon and California combined ... enough to instill in me an understanding of New Zealand's unique and precious natural character, but as anyone from the Pacific Northwest knows, visiting Astoria, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego is just barely scratching the surface of a complete appreciation for the nature of both states. So approaching my work as Naturalist for the New Zealand sailing season of the Celebrity Solstice, I knew I needed to take my exploration further in order to more completely represent an understanding of this 'space.'
Arguably most important to my role onboard is guiding the sailing experience through Fiordland National Park by providing commentary from the bridge of the vessel, and I wanted to add to that by creating a resource that would enable guests to take the experience and the information I share home: a documentary film.
Fortunately my adventure buddy was also keen on establishing his own apprecation and creating a film to encompass it for others, so we decided to arrive before the ship set sail (at least when we were scheduled to be onboard) to allow time to explore on land. The goal was simple: fill in the gaps of what we'd filmed at sea last year with footage from land. And what we came away with were experiences we didn't even know we needed and those we were looking for, we found in unexpected places. For example, fern forests in Westland invited us to wander beneath their prehistoric canopies, allowing our imaginations to see the Gondwanian relics that once did the same throughout New Zealand.
What happened to the land before historic times? The changes have come in phases. Driving through Central Otago, it's easy to appreciate that the primitive forests could not coexist with the introduction of agriculture and pasture animals, features that overwhelmingly characterize the landscape today. To appreciate the impact of the more cryptic introduced mammals and the challenges of managing them, however, isn't quite so obvious. One of our last minute adventures of the trip was an overnight hike through the bush above Hokitika Gorge of the South Island's West coast. The track was full of surprises, including an excitingly exposed swing bridge that provided the only access to the camping hut. But the most significant one came as the day faded into the mist: an encounter with one of the biggest threats to New Zealand's forests. Australian brush possums consume an average of 70,000 tonnes of native vegetation every night in addition to a few documented invasions of native bird nests, and this individual (that would probably never reach this size in its native habitat) was just getting started.
The place was difficult to access, giving an appreciation for the amount of resources necessary to put toward controlling such introduced pressure on the native landscape. Without this consumption pressure, introduced plants are hard-pressed to compete with the native flora that have adapted over time to the unique and variable climate that persists in Westland, but also notably in Fiordland. A day of sailing through the fiords can give an appreciation for this character, but the drastic changes in weather over short periods of time can also be found inland.
This was something we did plan to capture on film, and we found the exemplary scene on the top of Mt. Burns, which offered a view of the mountains surrounding Lake Manapouri. What made the experience all the more dramatic was the contrasting setting we found just 20 kilometers further along Borland Road on the shore of the lake's South Arm. The wind, rain, clouds, and cold we'd just came from seemed as far away as we felt from civilization tucked away in our own pocket of Fiordland, with just the company of curious New Zealand Robins.
Along the more beaten track of Fiordland National Park, we were greeted by other wild birds that, adapted to a landscape without them, have maintained their lack of fear of mammals. Alongside the Homer Tunnel that allows vehicle traffic access to Milford Sound, the world's only mountain parrot is often found thoroughly exploring the objects that are brought with visitors. In evolutionary time, these things are new to them, and the kayak on top of our van seemed exceptionally interesting.
Speaking of our van, I should mention that to facilitate our inland exploration, we bought one. At home, we live and travel in a camper van, so it was only fitting that we find a surrogate. In a hurry, we settled on a seasoned Honda Odyssey. The purchase of a car should never be a hasty decision and is generally asking for some misadventure to ensue. The important thing is that it's still an adventure regardless. Needless to say, the van didn't make it to the end. On our last day, the CV joints that had been threatening from the time we made the deal, finally and completely broke. We were "bloody tourists stopped in the middle of the road."
Fortunately, people were to be a part of our experience too. We had just come from our overnight hike to Cedar Flat, where we had encountered the swing bridge and brush possum. But that evening, we also encountered a hungry hiker and his friendly dog. They were already cozy in the camp hut when we arrived. The young kiwi adventurers had been out in the bush since Christmas and were on their final night and very last of their food rations. We had brought an absurd amount of fresh food as usual, and were happy to offer some relief from the waning supply of dehydrated cuisine that had sustained our new friends for weeks. The next day, we hiked back through a torrential downpour to our van only to find a flat battery. Against amazing odds, another vehicle had ventured through the multi-gated farm road to the trailhead not long after our disappointing discovery and gave us a jumpstart. By this time the hiker and his mate had caught up to us and we gladly gave them a lift back to their car several kilometers away.
What was intended as a free act of kindness would turn out to be a favor that was returned ten-fold. Just minutes after parting ways with the pair, they came up behind us dead stopped in the road. Against even greater odds than our previous rescue, they were headed to Christchurch too! Although their timeline wasn't as demanding as our early morning flight, with the genuine kiwi smile that I've learned is commonplace here, he offered us (and all of our stuff) a lift that evening.
The three hour drive from Hokitika to Christchurch over Arthur's Pass was absolutely stunning. Cozy in the back seat with a dog in my lap, I smiled at the Jesus bobble bouncing in time to the road and the music of Led Zeppelin. I laughed at the irony staring at me, letting the noise and fleeting scenery drown the anxiety of the past few hours and the days ahead. It was a wild turn of events, but in the end was perfect.
Visting Mt. Cook at the beginning of (what I'm calling in honor of the van that was so integral to the collective experience) our 'New Zealand Odyssey', I participated in a survey about the day's visit there. But some of those questions now seem appropriate to apply to the whole trip. Sense of discovery? 10. Experience exceed expectations? N/A, we had no expectations. Challenging? 11. Would you come back? Duh. Recommend to other visitors? Absolutely.
And that leads to another question: What is ‘my place’ that I found here in New Zealand? It’s conveying this deeper understanding gained to other visitors who may not have the opportunity for the same experiences. Helping more people come away from the experiences they can have with an appreciation of the value in conserving the unique natural resources of this place, but also (and perhaps more importantly) to inspire a desire to continually seek an understanding of the value in their ‘space’ at home.
So we completed the film, and are now even more excited to share it!