One of our most enjoyable and memorable experiences Down Under to date was a trip the other day to see the largest mainland gannet colony in the world.
We're staying in Napier, a sweet little art-deco town half way down the West coast of North Island, and for the first time this holiday I haven't been able to do what I love most - go swimming. The waves are almost as high as doubledecker buses and are guaranteed to grab you, whirl you around and thrust down you down on the shore with a thud. Safe no, but fun to watch, yes. They whisk up a cappuccino-like froth better than the best italiano barister, spreading foam up the beach before being sucked up by the next great wave.
This is the backdrop as twenty of us jump onto a trailer and are pulled by a vintage 1940s US farm tractor to the bird colony at Cape Kidnappers. On the other side of the shore rise skyscraper-high cliffs, some over 4 million years old. Now and again Clive our driver stops to explain the geology, and at one point even gets off to chip away fossils engrained in the massive cliff face. At the start of the trip he jokes that he'll happily stop for anyone whose hat blows off. "Husbands, I'll even stop for your wife if she falls off. But only if you want, of course!" Now, however, he's spinning the tractor round and dragging us back already. Not to retrieve a hat or fallen persons but because he's seen a different type of fossil - half a motorbike sticking out of deep sand. "Poor rider got a bit stuck", he jokes, adding that the bike's been there about 10 years. Sometimes it's visible but mostly sand washes back over and submerges it.
After about an hour's ride over sand and stone - Clive calls it "rock 'n' roll" - we reach drop-off point for hiking uphill to the gannet colony. We can't hear or see anything of the birds till we round the final bend of the steep path, which exits at an enormous plateau - home to over 20 000 nesting gannets. These birds can live for up to 25 years, and they sure can make a noise too. We take loads of pictures of the birds, which are so tame they'll even let you stand right close and eyeball them.
For me the greatest, most wonderful and lasting impression is staying for a while after everyone else has left. I enjoy simply being on my own with all these beautiful creatures, watching them circle overhead, flying over so close that you can almost touch them, before stretching out their wings to come into landing - not easy when the "runway" is blocked by thousands of other feathered friends......
I enjoy it so much that I totally lose track of time. Racing back down the hill, I reach the tractor to find everyone waiting and wondering whether or not to report me lost. All told though, a telling off for lateness is a small price to pay for a private audience with these fascinating creatures at the other end of the world - a memory which will stay with me long after the holiday tan fades.
Top cliff, top sight and sound!