Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On the Road to Arthur's Pass: Kiwis, Possums, and Keas

Thursday, May 12
South Island

Up early to pack in as much as we could on our way to the next pit stop in Arthur's Pass, we drove down the road from Fox Glacier to visit Lake Matheson. Having listened to what sounded like a monsoon outside all night long, we were thrilled to wake to a sky on the mend from such a violent night, with the promise of sunshine peaking out from behind the bruise-colored morning clouds and fog.

Before walking out to the actual lake we stopped at a cafe recommended by people in town for a hearty "backpacker's breakfast," which we learned usually means cheap and full of meat. That and a couple strong coffees got the morning started right, and the view from the glassed-in cafe wasn't bad, either.

Lake Matheson turned out to be different from what we'd anticipated. Surrounded by thick forest, it took a little while to reach its edges, though the walk was nice, itself. We could only see the actual lake through open pockets from the walking path that encircled it, and having limited time to visit the lake, we opted not to walk the entire loop. Nonetheless, we took in the landscape with grateful eyes and ready cameras.

Pretty as it was, we were anxious to get on the road. Arthur's Pass is not only the name of the very small township we were to sleep in that night, but also that of a particular stretch of road reaching across the belly of the South Island, from west to east, known for its magnificent views.

Not far from the lake we came across the West Coast Wildlife Centre, where there is a breeding and incubation program for two of the most endangered kinds of kiwi bird. We took a little time to look around this centre and learn all about the kiwi bird and her plight for survival. The coolest part of the experience was walking through the habitat they've created for their two resident kiwis, a darkened and musty stretch of forest created at the centre. It's important that visitors are quiet and don't freak the birds out with camera flashes, so all we could take from this place was our experience watching these little round-bodied birds scrounge through leaves and dirt to find food, and dash back and forth and around the trees inside. I don't know how to explain why we were in there so long, Chris and I, but watching these birds was fascinating and we even left the next part of the exhibit once to came back and watch a few minutes more.

Stuck between two walls of plastic ice
Hanging with my ice-climber friend.
After that were displays explaining the history and formation of the glaciers nearby, and we felt it necessary to get a few pictures with the plastic ice we couldn't quite get with the real stuff.

Comparing annual rainfall...Franz Josef wins!

The other large glacier in the area is called, and located by the township of, Franz Josef. We opted to visit just one of these glaciers on this trip, but it was still kind of cool to learn a little something about the one we didn't see. Yes, geeks to the core. According to the display pictured to the left here, it rains a lot in the rainforest. Who'da thought?

More gorgeous rainforest along the way.

When the beauty of the rain forest no longer waved at us from beyond the car windows, it was the town of Pukekura that next grabbed our attention. At first it was the giant, as in horse-sized, mosquito hanging out front of a humble looking, wooden building on the side of the road. Next, it was the sign beside it advertising crafts. Finally, the promise of Pete's Possum Pies pulled us into the parking lot, hungry for something a little unconventional. 

The Bushman's Centre in Pukeka, New Zealand is one place where you can still enjoy the savory goodness of a possum pie, along with other tasty treats common to the area. Eyeing us from behind chain-link fencing on two sides of the parking lot were a family of tahr goats, and a few young deer. Upon our arrival to the front porch of this establishment, we were treated to postings both humorous and educational. At first glace, this place almost resembled some sort of road kill cafe, but once we met the people who run it, it became clear that this place was less hick, and more hippie.

The funny menus, store policies, and bumper sticker wisdom went from the front porch in, guiding the road-worn traveler to admire (and buy) their locally crafted items, but not to make a mess. They had T-shirts and handmade hats, silky soft pelts of possum and novelty cards, jewelry and keychains. And then there was the actual cafe, filled with gorgeously carved wooden beams, tables and benches, with a

counter to order and an outdoor porch if you wanted some sun while you ate. This is where we learned about the story of the possum pie.

Some time ago, as the possum had become an increasingly annoying pest in New Zealand, their meat was processed just like the beef, venison, and lamb people raise all

over the country. As long as it went through a government-run plant like this, it was verified safe to eat, and was common in some places. When cost outweighed revenue, the possum plants shut down and people who were already hunting possum to eat it themselves, could no longer legally sell it. The Bushman's Centre was one such affected place, and whereas they were once known for their possum delights, now it's back to selling boring old cow meat pies and the like, just like everybody else. The woman who owns and runs the place was quick to explain all of this, giving us careful instructions on how to obtain one of their possum pies, which her husband, a life-long, expert hunter, hunts himself, and which they and their family eat without hesitation. We could not buy these yummy little treats because that is illegal. We could, however, make a donation to an organization that funds efforts to stop the dropping of the 1080 poison in the area, and in return, be gifted a couple of pies.

With a taste similar to that of roasted pork, the pies were delicious. Mixed with the typical meat pie filling of cream gravy and vegetables, the meat was even a little chicken-like in texture, as it broke into stringy pieces as we dug into those buttery pastry pies.

The 1080 poison, which is dropped by planes into the forest, is meant to kill off as many possums as possible, in an effort to save the local and endangered kiwi bird, as well as a whole lot of greenery. See the possum, originally introduced from Australia for the fur trade in New Zealand, soon became an enormous pest, not only killing too much local wildlife, but eating incredible amounts of foliage a day. This is one reason possum fur has been incorporated into wool for clothing and accessories, it's plentiful and everyone seems to prefer these critters dead. The possum down is also very soft and very light, a nice additive to the already popular merino wool. This poison is one of the government's solutions to this nation-wide problem, but many people are against it, claiming the poison seeps into the groundwater, threatening everyone's health. The people at the Bushman's Centre are of this mindset, and organize protests against the poison drops, and attempt to stop it however they can. And since they couldn't sell us possum pies, they gave them to us as a thanks for contributing to their cause.

Being the lovers of free speech that they are, the Centre's owners were all about posting not only information regarding the poison initiative and their own efforts to combat it, but letters and emails they've received over the years from past customers, some happy, some not. It seems their particular brand of humor sometimes offends, and we read some pretty ridiculous emails berating them for their insensitivity. We found them funny - them, the owners as well as them, the emails. When we asked why they had these emails out to be read, they replied that it's important that people are given the opportunity to see multiple sides of any issue, and since these people took the time to write in their complaints, they may as well share it all and let their customers make up their own minds. After all, the woman added, it is because of these angry emails and reviews posted online that many people seek out the Bushman's Centre.

Trying to entice Jack with actual food...
While looking around the Centre, we learned that we could buy feed for the animals on site, including an adorable little wallaby named Jack. When Chris saw the sign, he knew where I was headed. The people who got there ahead of me jaded poor Jack with their empty promises of food, but not before getting in some great petting action, so when I showed up, my hands overflowing with tasty tidbits for Jack, he could hardly be bothered to notice. Non-food-buying jerks.

After I was ready to take what little attention Jack would give me, we walked over to the tahr family for a feed and a visit. The big daddy tahr wasn't shy about accepting our offerings, so his poor family had to try and find unguarded spaces between him and us to get a bite. One of us would lure Big Daddy down the fence in order for the other to feed the smaller goats, though the littlest baby never could approach the fence before someone bigger butted in front. Big Daddy was not only greedy for food, he was greedy for some affection, too, so the giver I am...

The deer here were new, plucked from the deer farm nearby to be kept as pets, the young buck prized over how many points he already had on his antlers. Being the newbies on the block, this little family was wary of the strange people feeding the goats and the buck watched Chris, walking back and forth, but never coming too close. Chris said he got a little closer each time, but we accepted there'd be no deer-feeding that day and respected the buck's need to be careful of us. We didn't have to get any closer to admire how beautiful these animals were.

After a couple of hours, we realized we'd better get back to the drive, and said goodbye to our friends at the Centre. There was still much road to be covered and the sun was getting lower.

We pulled over to see Lake Mapourika, a mirror to the cloudy sky - until the group of kayakers jumped in.

As the road threatened to wind us away from the coast and into the mountains, we stopped one last time to enjoy the west coast beach and take in a beautiful sunset.

Once the sun was gone and we'd had our moment there, we continued on. We'd been eager to catch a glimpse of the notorious Kea birds closer to Arthur's Pass, but by the time we reached the small township, there was really just time for a late dinner and then time to get some sleep before the next day's drive. As we walked out to the car after a less than exciting meal of pumpkin soup (tomato soup) and something else I can't remember, we found two suspicious Kea birds poking around the car. Kea birds are known for their mischievous nature and crazy intelligence. The stories we were told on this trip alone had us wary of returning to a car with missing bits, like the rubber sealing along windows and sunroofs, so when we found these huge, green parrots hanging out by our car - the only car on the street - we were worried. A quick inspection showed no signs of vandalism and we suddenly felt like two people who'd wandered onto someone else's turf. Really, it was like if we didn't get moving there might be trouble, so we got in the car and left without trying to interact with the birds. It was after dark.

*Originally we hadn't planned to stop in Arthur's Pass the town, but only to take Arthur's Pass the route. About a week before we left for the trip, our hotel in Christchurch emailed to say the most recent aftershock had caused enough damage to make necessary their temporary shutdown, and so we opted to skip Christchurch, altogether, as the city struggles to find its legs after this year's terrible earthquake and countless aftershocks. Arthur's Pass was a nice in-between stop that wouldn't mess with all the other bookings we'd already made, and had we made it there earlier in the day, we would have been able to so on some cool hikes in the area. But we didn't, and such is the dilemma of driving across a country where everything is worth stopping to take a look at!


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