Thursday, January 06, 2011

Dead Arkansas Birds & Milford Sound

Here's the way my mind works...the recent bird kills in Arkansas and now Louisiana caused me to recall a fascinating bird event I saw in New Zealand some years back.  We had finished a long project in Australia and the airline offered a no-cost stop over in New Zealand on the way home.  We jumped at the opportunity.  It was after that trip that I decided there was no reason to visit countries that weren't predominately English speaking.  I was in Germany when the Russians invaded Afghanistan and had the eerie experience of knowing from TV news that something was going on, but couldn't understand a thing they were saying...then, they switched to playing Wagner

English speaking countries are generally safe, the food is fine to palatable, lodging is comfortable, you can understand what the heck is going on around you, and there are plenty of destinations that offer fine scenery and other reasons to leave a comfortable home for awhile.  That thought hit me as we were in an Air New Zealand DC-10 somewhere over the Tasman Sea bound for Aukland and had no reservations for the night, no rental car, and no worries about handling those matters after we landed. 

Knowing that jealous wags (both family and so-called friends) would be waiting back home to pick our trip apart in that snarky way they do, I suggested to wife that we include a jump down to the South Island in our itinerary.  Why?  Well anytime you hear or read of someone going to New Zealand, they always come home gushing about the South Island.  And when any of them had been to NZ, they always snarked about whether you had seen the damned South Island?  Why the South Island?  Well, that's where much of the spectacular scenery is, specifically Milford Sound, and that was our destination.  

Getting to the South Island is a matter of an hour flight from Aukland to Wellington, and on to Christchurch, about another hour or less.  From Christchurch it's about a day's drive to Queenstown, the jumping-off point for a visit to Milford Sound.  We were young enough to be beguiled by a long-practiced New Zealand travel offer that encourages you to rent a motor home and take your room with you wherever you go.  What a pile of crap.

Wife hated the whole motor home idea so much that she kept coming up with anything she could to delay our departure from Christchurch.  She insisted that we pick up a string of things for the trip as quickly as she could think of something else to increase the delay.  I was violent.  We were 4-5 hours late getting on our way and had to camp in that damned thing along the way that night...what a nightmare.  Not the camping...the wife!

I don't recall the mileage to Queenstown, but I recall it being a full day's drive in that dumb motor home under good conditions.  The motor home was one of those little Japanese truck jobs by a maker you see in Japan but not in the US and it was too small for my long knees kept hitting the steering column when I engaged the clutch or brakes.  However, along the way there was some lovely scenery...Mt. Cook, some bright turquoise lakes, and an amazing quantity of dead hawks on the road....(see, here's the tie-in...).

I was very puzzled about how so many hawks could have been hit along a mostly deserted highway.  Then I saw one...a live hawk was in the road ahead, feeding on some road kill.  As we drew closer and closer, the hawk did not fly was determined to hang onto that meal and it was too heavy for him to lift.  That was what was happening to the hawks.  

I didn't hit the bird, of course, but a lot of others did hit a lot of other birds.  Maybe the locals saw it as an opportunity to thin the numbers of a predator that troubled them in other ways.  I don't know.  This New Zealand video illustrates how the birds behave...the first minute or so tells the story well enough-they won't leave the meal.

So after seeing a lot of dead hawks and a lot of lovely scenery we get into Queenstown, dump the motor home for a station wagon with an automatic shift and the road worries ended at that point.  Milford Sound?

Well, from Queenstown, Milford Sound is about 15-minutes by local air taxi, but a lot of bad weather is coming in...all flights are canceled...high winds and low ceilings, just like the top picture.  O.K., lets drive, we've got a good car now.  There's a problem.  That 15-minute flight takes about 10-12 hours by car.  Why?  You have to go south down the length of Lake Waktipu around the mountains, then north along the was worsening.  There were reports of landslides and fatalities.  We decided to stay put in a neat lodge with a great view down the length of the lake.

I was still hoping for a break in the weather that would allow us to sneak over to the Sound, but no dice.  The Maori legends state that the giant Matau was burnt to death in his sleep after he abducted a chief's daughter, burning a massive hole in the ground and melting the ice and snow of the surrounding mountains, forming the lake. The lake is a large "S" shape, like a giant, curled up and sleeping on its side. Matau's head rested at Glenorchy, at the north of the lake, and his feet south in Kingston. Queenstown sits on Matau's knee. 

Late that afternoon into early evening an amazingly clear face formed in the clouds right over the lake...all of us saw it, clear as a picture.  It was a huge Maori mask...maybe it was Matau.  I don't know, but its appearance stayed there for a long time and abruptly ended any further ambition on my part to go see the Milford...several people died that night down the lake.  True story, so help me.  

See where my mind can go from a few thoughts about some dead birds in Arkansas?

P.S.  The first snark out of a back home wag's mouth...."did you go to the South Island?"  When they heard a one word affirmative, wilting was palpable.  


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