Five keas but no pear tree

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Mon 24 Dec 2018 23:48

Dear Santa ...

If you’d asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I would have answered “another close encounter with a kea”. Kea, the New Zealand mountain parrot was by now Franco’s favourite bird in the world. We were in the right place, heading up the hill from Mount Cook Village to the Ball Hut. 


Franco and Kath on the path to Ball Hut

We passed a young couple coming down. 

“How was it? Did you see any keas?” I asked.

“Not a thing, we had fog practically the whole time.” They replied, clearly disappointed. We hoped to fare better.

The path ran parallel to the Haupapa Tasman Glacier but we couldn’t see a thing as it was on the other side of a massive moraine. We stopped for lunch and scrambled up. Franco was first:

“Wow,” he gasped.

Elvin, our self-appointed photographer (he’d joined us on the track after taking a wrong turn and stuck to us) went up next.

“Wow,” he exclaimed.

I felt I was missing out, so I hurried up. 


Haupapa Tasman Glacier

The scene on the other side of the moraine was grand but more to the point it was surprising. We’d expected a dirty glacier, not a huge drop into a lake.

Elvin is Chinese Malay and has recently moved to Taiwan for work. He speaks English, Mandarin, Malay and Thai, is interested in everything, knowledgeable about the world and culturally astute. He was easy company. With the languages he speaks and his positive attitude, the world is his oyster. I couldn’t help musing about a book we read shortly before leaving the UK ‘Why the West Rules for Now’; young enterprising, socially skilled Asians vs the political deadlock in Britain, the mad man in the USA and the rise of right-wing lunatics in Europe - clearly not for much longer!


Franco and Elvin in front of Tasman Lake

Ball Hut is tiny. Just three people can squeeze in. Along with half a dozen others, we were camping nearby. Still, it was a lot quieter than the popular Muller Hut where over fifty people share germs and snoring every night.


Ball Hut and the privy 

The sun was setting over the glaciated valley, Franco and I strolled over to where the old road has now collapsed into the abyss. It was peaceful and we were chatting quietly. 


Franco on the old track that has disappeared into the abyss


View up the Tasman Glacier from Ball Hut

Suddenly, out of the sun, a piercing raucous screech made us leap out of our skins as a young kea dive bombed us, just for the hell of it!

Three can play that game! So we set to work building twig piles. The kea, unable to resist its curiosity, hopped closer. It had the yellow ring around the eyes, typical of juveniles. As it approached, it kept an escape route open into the abyss. It looked at our twig piles quizzically, “what were these silly humans doing? Twig piles? Surely not.” It came around to the other side, to take a look from a different perspective. Its clumsy (possibly younger) sibling looked on from a short distance away.

The two youngsters rejoined the adults further down the path and we headed back to camp. When level with them, Franco bent down to tie his laces. By doing so, his head disappeared behind the bank. This was too much for the curious keas and all five hopped over until they could see what he was up to. 

“He’s tying his laces,” said the adults and went back to hunting for worms. 

The bright eyed youngster that had dive-bombed us came right over and perched on a stone, less than a metre away. I talked and it listened, enthralled. It was swaying as if wanting to come closer (I suspect it was tempted to peck my nose). 


“Shall I peck her nose?”

The next day, Christmas Eve, we walked up the ridge, towards Ball Pass but snow, time and my still painful ankle conspired against us, so we ended our hike at the top of a pinnacle overlooking Caroline Hut.


View down the valley


Looking down on Caroline Hut


A rockhopper 


Most flowers at this altitude are white and yellow


Snow slowed our progress and made the terrain dangerous without the right gear


Franco on the way down

Back down at Ball Hut, the kea family were playing on the water fountain. Franco went to fill our bottles. As he bent down, he heard one of the birds walking across the tin roof. He looked up, the kea was peering over the edge inquisitively. He made sure he hid the tap when he turned it on, for fear that the mischievous animal might learn how to do it and drain the water tank, just for a laugh. Meanwhile the three youngsters were behaving like delinquent teenagers, jumping up and down on the wire tree shelters, as if they were trampolines.


Keas on the water fountain


Young keas vandalising tree shelters 

I sat on the ground and the youngster from the day before dashed over and stood watching me attentively from less than a metre away. After a while it got bored and returned to vandalising the tree shelters.


My kea (no zoom)


Stunning underwing colour


Keas play fighting - the stand-off


Keas in close combat

They were still Franco’s favourite birds but by the next morning his opinion had started to change. In the middle of the night, he awoke to the sound of a guitar, one of the youngsters was strumming our tent guy line. A couple of hours later, I got up for a pee and returned to the tent just as a kea was landing on it, no doubt sent by Father Christmas, with instructions to get down the chimney!


Mount Cook from our Christmas Day campsite