Seal spotting

David Whitley scopes out new prospective pets just off the coast of New Plymouth 
If there’s anything cuter than a seal pup shuffling along a rock platform, then I’d like to see it. The baby furballs are out en masse, easily outnumbering the seagulls on Lion Island.

Until recently, this was New Zealand’s most northerly seal colony (apparently a pioneering bunch has set up home in Kawhia further north in the last couple of years). But it’s the friendliness rather than the geography that’s remarkable.

The eared fur seals call the Sugar Loaf Islands home. If the name evokes Rio de Janeiro, then the islands probably will too – they’re the same shape as Sugarloaf Mountain. They’re strikingly beautiful, even if the ugly decommissioned power station on the shore tries to detract. Then again, part of what makes the islands so special is that they’re so close to the city. If anyone from New Plymouth wants to go and coo over the seals, they’re only a short paddle away.

The area around the islands is a Marine Reserve, and clearly has a reputation for good fishing. As we head out from the beach to the islands, a few locals can be seen skiving off work in their little boats, fishing rods in hand. But it’s hard to get close to the rocks – and therefore the seals – in a boat.

In a kayak, however, it’s possible to sidle up right alongside. Especially on a gorgeous summer day when the sea is whimperingly placid. Mini-swells attempt to kick up a bit of surf in the channels between the islands, but the half-hearted chop is easily navigated by paddler and creature alike.

While the pups tend to stick to the rocks, the adults seem happier in the water. They stick their tails out of the sea to cool down, and the occasional head pops up to have a good look at what’s happening. One ducks down to my right and swims underneath. He re-emerges on my left, so close that I could reach out and pat him. He keeps his head up as he swims to the back of my kayak, like a security guard walking round the building after hearing a noise.

They’re wonderfully graceful in the water, but once on land that elegance deserts them. Their clumsy shuffles along the rocks are part of what makes them so loveable. It’s like watching someone in a strait jacket trying to walk up a hill made of custard.

On the island itself, a fight is breaking out. Two of the big fellas are taking a pop at each other, teeth aiming for necks. It’s all warning shots and no blood drawn though. The subject of the fight comes into view shortly after a cease fire breaks out. It’s a little pup, its fur all ruffled and awkwardly matted. It lifts its left flipper, as if waving, and I’m gone. I burst into a loud “Awwww” and I don’t care how pathetic the rest of the group thinks I am. If I could get away with it, I’d grab the pup and take it home to live in the bath tub.

Disclosure: David went on a tour with Canoe and Kayak Taranaki. He was a guest of Venture Taranaki 
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Kiwi Film Favourites

Set jetting around New Zealand’s famous movie sites by David Whitley 
Visitors to New Zealand may be forgiven for thinking that, in terms of famous filming locations, the country is non-stop Lord of the Rings. However, while there are plenty of areas milking the Baggins buck, there are many other sites on the Kiwi movie map. Set-jetters can follow in the footsteps of Tom Cruise, great apes and noble lions, as well as check out the scenery from locally made hits.

King Kong
After the success of Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson returned to New Zealand for his next big project. Much of the 2005 hit was made in studio in Wellington, but other parts of the country had a starring role too.
Skull Island was a combination of Lyall Bay and Shelly Bay (both in Wellington). The wall that separated the giant gorilla from the rest of the island was created in a large set that took over Shelly, while establishing shots were filmed at Lyall.
Meanwhile, most of the on-ship scenes were shot in the Cook Strait between the North and South islands, and near Kapiti Island. The latter is a protected bird sanctuary, off the coast from Wellington. Meanwhile, to sail the Cook Strait yourself, the scenic ferry between Wellington and Picton can’t be beaten.
And the New York scenes? Well they were in New Zealand too. The depression-era Big Apple was recreated in Seaview, Lower Hutt, while Auckland’s Civic Theatre played the interior of the New York Theatre.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Peter Jackson isn’t the only Kiwi director to shamelessly showcase his home country to multiplex audiences across the world – Andrew Adamson has been at it too.
The Shrek director decided to come home when shooting the first of the Chronicles of Narnia series, and utilised locations across the country for the big budget epic.
The White Witch’s camp (boo! hiss!) can be found in the Woodhill Forest, north-west of Auckland. It’s an excellent spot for mountain biking as well as chilling out with Mother Nature.
Meanwhile Aslan’s Camp (hooray!) was on the South Island, and more specifically Elephant Rocks in the Waitaki Valley. Nearby is the Vanished World Centre at Duntroon, which explores the unique geology of the area, including the rather odd boulders where Aslan hung around looking regal.
As for the big battle scene, that takes place in the Southern Alps, about an hour and a half’s drive from Christchurch. The area is known as Flock Hill. It’s close to a few of the major ski resorts, so it’s a perfect distraction from the slopes for a few hours.

Whale Rider
One of the finest films to come out of New Zealand in recent years, Niki Caro’s movie made a star out of Keisha Castle-Hughes. The youngster received an Oscar nomination for her stunning performance, but the other star of the film was the North Island’s East Cape.
The Maori village where the story unfolds is Whangara, a small but gorgeous place just up the coast from Gisborne. It’s worth visiting to get the views, but to learn more about Maori customs and lifestyle spend a while in Gisborne, which hosts the Tairawhiti Museum. This offers an excellent exploration of East Coast Maori history, while the nerby Te Poh-o-Rawiri meeting house is one of the biggest in the country. Go see it for the carvings.
The Last Samurai
It may seem a little odd that there’s a self-styled Samurai village in the middle of rural New Zealand, but you can blame Tom Cruise for that. He was the star of The Last Samurai, a 2003 film that did iffily at the global box office but was huge locally.
Instead of actually filming in the country in which the film was set, they decided that various sites across Taranaki were a perfect substitute for 19th century Japan. Mount Fuji was later added on in the background using special effects.
At the hub of all the filming action was Uruti, which was transformed into a Japanese village. Most of the sets were pulled down after filming, but enterprising locals have recreated some of them.
Much of it was done on a remote sheep and cattle farm, and that’s now where you can do tours of the filming locations. And, if there’s a group of twenty or more, it’s possible to watch the Gumboot Gully Movie Stunt Horses and their riders performing stunts from the movie.
Now it’s not every day you can go to a farm and watch a Samurai battle, is it?
Way before Lord of the Rings put New Zealand on the sci-fi film map, there was Willow. The 1988 film, written by George Lucas and directed by Ron Howard, has become a cult classic - and was partly filmed on the South Island.
Major sequences (ie. just about anything with mountains or lakes in) were shot around Queenstown. Glenorchy was the main focus, and local farmers were dragged in as extras on horseback. It’s a tiny settlement today, but a starting point for all manner of adventure activities, including jet boating on the Dart River.

Other parts were shot in the Tongariro National Park in the North Island, which would later find fame as Mt Doom in – you guessed it – Lord of the Rings.

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