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Highland Ranger Service In Caithness

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Walks In Caithness 

THE ‘O’verseas ‘E’xperience – NEW ZEALAND!
Marina Finlayson
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Looking back now, it feels like such a long time ago, but it was only January when I returned from a wonderful trip overseas. With the intention of avoiding a good part of the notoriously bleak Caithness winter, I was fortunate enough to organise time off work. With spectacular scenery, clean/green environment, warm climate, exhilarating outdoor pursuits and unique wildlife, New Zealand was always a country I'd dreamed about visiting.

I booked an air ticket, organised a working visa and with modest funds, took off for land at the other side of the world where adventure awaited me.

My first impressions of Auckland, like any major city, was that I could be anywhere in the world and it didn't promote the unique New Zealand feel I was looking for. Instead I went from one extreme to another. Leaving a hussly bustly city with bright lights, designer shops, trendy night-clubs & bars, fine cuisine restaurants etc., I settled to live and work on a regional park somewhere on the East coast of the North Island and ultimately in the middle of nowhere.  I was in contact with the parks residential ranger, Maurice, via e-mail but had only spoken once on the phone before taking off into the unknown. He sounded friendly and helpful and told me that accommodation (tin shack, tent, house?) would be provided in exchange for ranger duties (which were what in NZ - picking rubbish, leading groups??) and that some food supplies would be required as there were no shops in the vicinity. I have no idea of what to expect but that was the whole point and added to the thrill.

It seemed to work out perfectly as he just happened to be in Auckland on a training course and picked me up from the backpackers hostel. I was relieved as my backpack was bursting at the seems and I wasn’t looking forward to struggling with it over long distances. My back had only just survived lugging it to the hostel.

I was picked up in a mini bus with several other rangers, many of whom were dropped of on route.  I learnt Tawharanui Regional Park was the most north of the Auckland Regional Council sites and I would have the furthest to travel. The journey didn’t take much more than 1½ hours but it really was in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town was tiny and a good few miles away along an unsealed road – good for rally driving especially in a mini bus!

I was invited in to Maurice’s house for dinner and to meet his family.  Coronation Street was on in the background but several weeks out of date.  I let a few story lines slip to Maurice’s wife, Sarah, and spoilt her excitement for the next few weeks!

It was pitch black by the time we left the house and I could not take in the breath taking views of the millions of bright stars lighting up the entire sky above me.  The 'Plough' was upside down and it took awhile to figure out some of the more common figurations. The silence was deafening and slightly eerie - not a sound, was there any life out there?

In hindsight, it was a silly question to ask and as the sun rose, so did the rest of the animal kingdom along with the ranger service. If the office was not attached to the voluntary accommodation, I would have missed most of the days work.

7.30am - bright eyed and bushy tailed and ready for work. After a 26 hour flight, I still had the excuse of jet lag so wasn't looking quite as fresh as the other rangers. Soon woke up when I was instructed about my first week of work. I would be working with Hereford cattle - tagging and drenching. Did I have his right, was I on a regional park and not a farm? Cattle, what did I know about cattle? Well, with fear of a squashed foot or ribs, I was quick to learn and was in among them at a drop of a hat.

Sorting, tagging, mothering-up, drenching - I survived the day and declared myself as a natural stock worker! The next morning I questioned my declaration. Calves were next on the agenda - cute calves with big brown eyes, I could handle this. These calves however, had been crossed with a Jersey bull to ease the heifers first calving. They looked more like deer calves with their long dangly legs. They fleed across the pens and unlike their docile, slow moving mothers, managed to plant a few well aimed kicks in my direction. My peely wally legs were now dotted with dark brown sploges which almost resembled a mottled tan - I'd have to work on this one.

Apart from the cattle shed, I had seen little of the regional park. The 'Vole Hole', voluntary accommodation, was a fully equipped house joined onto the ranger office. Sleeping 14, it slept 1 for most of the duration of my stay, with only the occasional student or parties of bird watchers. It was my home for 4 weeks. Its location was ideal, overlooking a sea lagoon and surrounded by farm and bush land. The birdlife was excellent. My first few nights I was exhausted after the stock work and so it wasn't until later on in the week I went exploring around the 588ha park.

Tawharanui was the biggest of the Auckland regions parks. Pastureland fell away to rugged reefs, shingled bays and pure white sand beaches. The beach was my first port of call and after my first glimpse was visited every day there after. A beautiful stretch of white sand, crystal clear waters and not one other soul except myself. The splendour, solitude, peacefulness, sounds of the rolling waves - it was beautiful. October was still regarded by the Kiwi's as spring and therefore waters generally too cold for swimming. For a Scot, used to the chilling waters of home, it was more than pleasant and relaxing to have a dip after work. The north shore of the main beach was free from litter and was strictly protected under an offshore marine protection area which meant nothing was removed. The rare New Zealand doterel could be watched every day along side the variable oyster catcher and various shag species.  On several occasions 'common' dolphins were feeding in the bay.  All this activity, beauty and me!

The sandy coast was only one of the many habitats on the park.  Each habitat possessed its own beauty and associated wildlife. The farmland and pasture were full of familiar sounds from bird species such as skylark, yellowhammer and green finch as well as new sights and sounds from the pukeco and spear plover. The birds, mammals and plants introduced to New Zealand complete for resources with the native species. Introductory species brought a share of difficulties especially with regard to ground nesting birds which were defenceless against predatory mammals (stoats, weasels, possums). The loss of eggs and chicks resulted with extinction of some species and danger levels of others.

Bats, seals and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoise) are the only natural mammals to New Zealand and others are not considered to have a place. Conservation in New Zealand actually promotes the control of many mammals which in this country are protected by law.

The regional park was situated on a peninsula. For this reason it was a suitable site for a ‘mainland island’ project. Many of the wildlife sanctuaries are located on islands for the reason that predatory species can be eradicated and kept out hence removing the risk of predation on threatened birds. At present, Tawharanui is undergoing extensive monitoring of native bird species in order to measure the success of the 'island' project once the park is fenced off. Possums not only eat eggs and chicks but affect suitable nesting habitats and food sources.

I was involved in several monitoring programmes during my stay. The first was bird monitoring which involved walking a transect through the bush, stopping at certain points and conducting 5 minute bird counts. Just my luck that the optimum time for monitoring was at sunrise.  I was struggling to get up at 7am, what would I be like at 5.45am?  Surprisingly I was wide awake and raring to go.  We were in place at our first station by 5.45am and the sounds throughout the bush was amazing.  I had learnt a few bird calls but still being my first week I was pretty clueless. I was fortunate enough to be paired with an expert in the field and after my first day monitoring, I could recognise and identify calls of several new species.  Tui, grey warbler, shinny cuckoo, rosella.  The bush was so alive with activity and was wild and untamed. Never have walked through bush country before I was not exactly prepared and certainly not appropriately dressed for the occasion.  Since arriving at the park, shorts, t-shirt and walking boots was my attire.  The vegetation did not make my walk leisurely. The vines seemed to jump out from no where and latch around my ankles, the sharp needles of kanuka and manuka trees scrapped my bare legs drawing blood on several occasions. Under foot, the ground was damp and difficult to grip with the dead leaf layer giving way to most foot steps.  Outwith such monitoring, the vegetation was seldom disturbed and neither was the extensive webs weaved by the many spiders. They were practicably invisible and difficult to avoid so ended up stuck across my face or through my hair. By the end of the monitoring period, I had literally been dragged through the bush backwards - covered in cuts, scrapes, mud and sticky web - what a sight! But it was worth it. I participated in several such monitoring projects thereafter and survived with fewer mishaps.  I learnt to stand at the base of the vine, swipe a stick through the webs and wear trousers were very good ideas!

Much of the monitoring on the park was conducted by volunteers and students.  The programmes ranged from radio tagging hedgehogs to baiting rodent traps and checking pitfall traps.  As a volunteer I spent time with other experienced volunteers who's efforts were particularly valued on the parks. In some instances, the volunteers actually organised other volunteers and managed entire projects. I wondered how this level of involvement could be provided in this country?

Another major project on the park was the restoration of bushland.  Due to the influx of people and family pressures, a great deal of bushland was destroyed in the past resulting in a loss of habitat for bird species.  Seed was collected locally and grown in the park nurseries, again much of the work carried out by volunteers.

One of the first things to strike me was the lack of litter and peoples attitude to dropping litter.  Many of the regional parks were litter free and did not provide bins for collection.  People were simply asked to take their litter home with them where it could be recycled.  This was viewed as the norm and was accepted as such.

Throughout the 4 weeks I took on a whole range of tasks and worked with many rangers – they were all very different but equally fantastic people.  From trapping magpies, assisting at a TV commercial shoot, rounding up sheep, monitoring walking trails to attending a local fair, eating smoked snapper- it was all new and great experiences.

I was sad to leave the regional park but with limited time, it was time to move on.  Over the past 4 weeks many of the rangers, volunteers and visitors to the parks had mentioned various other parks and sanctuaries, in particular, Tiri Tiri Matangi, a bird sanctuary island. It was difficult to get on the island as a volunteers so I decided to work on another Auckland Council park called Shakespear.

The park was situated at the tip of a peninsula and offered sheltered nays, pastureland, bush remnants and cliff tops.  On arrival I embarked on the heritage trail which took me to a lookout post which was nothing sort of spectacular. 360 viewing - Auckland city contrasting with idyllic vistas of the Huraki Gulf and outlying islands.

The volunteer accommodation was of an excellent standard. A small fully equipped bungalow on the edge of the park. Located just of a residential area my house was on a bus route - I could go shopping! Like the Tawharanui rangers the Shakespear rangers were friendly and helpful and I was never stuck for anything. From food shopping to bonfire nights - I was always included and made all the difference for the duration of my stay.

My duties were similar to those at Tawharanui but the park was smaller with fewer walking tracks and busier being closer to Auckland. After one week I had walked all the tracks, had seen al the wildlife and was itching to get over to Tiri Tiri.  Quite by chance I phoned the island for information on a Friday afternoon.  After a friendly telephone conversation I not only managed to organise a visit, but also voluntary work, accommodation for an entire week!

I left the next day. The 4km journey from the Whangaparaoa Peninsula took only 20 minutes by ferry. Ray and Barbara, the resident rangers, were at the pier to meet the boat and the hundred or so day visitors to the island. The island, owned by Department of Conservation, is run as an open sanctuary which means the public are allowed restricted access to insure there is minimum disturbance to wildlife. A limited number of visitors are allowed each day and strict rules (such as no dogs, fires, litter) must be followed.  The day visitors were split into groups and led away into the bush with a 'supporter of Tiri Tiri Matangi', voluntary community group guide. I met up with some researcher students and one other volunteer (Iain who happened to be Scottish and someone who I chatted to endlessly over the entire week) and walked to our bunkhouse.  A few tasks, which would become routine over the week, were explained and then the day was ours to explore the island.  The sun was belting down, there was no wind and the island looked fabulous.

I walked and walked and walked. The numerous tracks and trails tool me along the rugged coastline and through native bushland.  The scenery was absolutely stunning and in one afternoon I took over 40 shots of the breath taking views with my camera. Despite 100 other souls on the island, I came across very few. By 3pm, they had all boarded the ferry and the island was mine!  The birdlife was amazing and many species such as the saddleback, bellbird, takahe, stickbird fluttered around my head without a care in the world.  Many of these birds were re-introduced to the island and do particularly well due to unwanted predators been eradicated and the once pastoral island being replanted with native trees. This restored habitat provides a safe environment for these rare species such as the takahe and kokako and as a conservation project is considered one of the most successful in the world.

Over 280,000 trees were planted by volunteers to create sheltered habitats.  Now well established, the volunteer work has shifted to maintenance of facilities and conservation.

On my first day I completed the perimeter of the entire island but ran out of time to explore further before the sun set - it would have to wait for another day. I slept well that night and looked forward to the next day. Up at 7.30am my first task was to walk the 'wattle track', a track in the bush and refill the water troughs. This was the best place to see Tui, saddleback and bellbird, New Zealand Robin on the island - a wonderful place to wake up each morning.  My duties varied from day to day but were enjoyable tasks such as grass cutting (on a sit on mower), working in the tree nursery and bird monitoring.  My working day was over around 4pm and off I went to explore the island further. I often thought this must be one of the places in the world closest to paradise! Breathtaking coastal scenery, beautiful rare bird life, clear clean waters lapping along the golden beaches and me. Each evening I walked for hours, took a dip and headed back to the bunkhouse to socialise with the researchers over dinner. The bunkhouse folk were excellent company and a group that got on from the outset.

A couple of nights we tried our to find the spotted kiwi. Unsuccessful to catch a glimpse, we heard the calls on occasion. We also managed to rise early one morning for the dawn chorus. This was deafening - the medidous calls of the bellbirds and tui in harmony, the sad call of the kokako - unique experience and worth the effort to get up at 5am.

The week on the island was over in a flash. On my last evening one of the rangers (another Iain, ancestors from the Isle of Skye!) took me out on the mirror like bay in a small rowing boat. As a goodbye treat, he free dived for mussels and clams – they were woofed down at great speed, very delicious. In the morning I was not ready to go but leaving in such high spirits and with fond memories, there was nothing to spoil my illusion that I had actually found an earthly paradise!

My voluntary work was over. 6 weeks was a strain on the purse strings and I was forced into finding paid work. Auckland would be the easiest place to look but how would I cope with the city lifestyle after the fresh air and wilderness I had become accustomed to?

I was unsettled on arrival and after meeting a few travellers in the bar, decided to escape the city yet again and join them on a trip up North. We travelled in the ‘Mad Cow’ , not a new mode of transport – just a small van painted black and white!  We headed to the Bay of Islands and took a 24 hour cruise which included everything from fishing, snorkelling, shooting, climbing, island hopping and kayaking. The biggest sensation was watching the phospho fluoresces in the water at night under the stars.  The sparkling water was like magic dust and glittered all around the boat where the water was disturbed – an amazing sight.  Again, the trip up North was over in a flash and it was time to return to Auckland and more importantly find a job!

Within a few days I was into the swing of things and found a casual job in an outdoor store. I worked there for 3 weeks before embarking on my next adventure.  My boyfriend from home joined me and together we travelled round the north and south islands over the next 4 weeks.  The scenery of the south island reminded me of home but both islands were equally beautiful in their own way. The places we liked, we stayed, the places that didn't strike us, we passed through.

My adventure seemed to go by in a flash but I made the most of my time and squeezed as much as possible into the 16 weeks. I found the country to be well geared in wildlife promotion and catered for wildlife enthusiasts. From sperm whale boating trips from Kaikoura, Royal Albatross tours near Dunedin, yellow-eyed penguins near Invercargil & Hectors dolphins in Porpoise bay – I was in my element. Facilities were excellent and sufficient information to find places and wildlife with ease. From tramping through pristine National parks, visiting thermal areas of geysers and boiling mud, skydiving, white water rafting, viewing glaciers, cruising on remote fiordlands, sun bathing/swimming/snorkelling along golden beaches - for such a small country, the variety of the landscapes, recreational activities was astounding. To see and do the rest………well I’ll just have to go back!

Marina Finlayson
(Marina Finlayson is employed as ranger with the Highland Council Ranger Service and works in Caithness)