Birds of play in the Rakaia Gorge

People say the Rakaia Gorge is the windiest place in New Zealand. It functions like a vortex for the notorious old man nor’wester that roars down the gorge on billowing clouds that look like a stack of pancakes, picking up speed as they hit the Canterbury Plains and rumble east to the Pacific.

The visitor information staffer discouraged us when asked for information about the gorge walkway: “It’s very windy up there. You have no idea!” she said. After giving us the once-over, she added “And you’re not really dressed for it!”

I assumed she was just being protective—until she handed me a brochure for the fancy big-bucks Mount Hutt Lodge: “Their lounge is best way to see the gorge, out of the wind, and sipping a drink!” she laughed. “They have floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Believe me, it’s the best!”

Kenton listened politely, as usual. I bit my lip, hard. I was chomping at the bit to get moving. The weather was the best we’d had in several days, and it was already 2:30 pm. Ugh!

On a whim, we drove up to Methven early afternoon after Kenton’s interview with the Ashburton Guardian, hoping to squeeze juice out of our final day on the South Island.

The Rakaia Gorge was breezy, but nothing we couldn’t handle—though we watched a biker, faced into the wind, trying frantically to bike uphill from the bridge, going nowhere fast. Somewhere close is Fighting Hill, where the nor’westers and the southerlies reputedly meet head-to-head during legendary mountaintop blow-outs.

The gorge itself, hunkered into the shadowed crotch of Mount Hutt, was created during periods of advancing and receding glaciation. Ice and water scraped down the Southern Alps, cutting deep valleys and depositing heaps of gravel. Rivers flowing east to the ocean spread the gravel sideways and seaward, forming giant alluvial fans that are known today as the Canterbury Plains.

Like so many of New Zealand’s best-kept secrets, the walkway wasn’t marked. By accident, Kenton spotted a post that looked promising. We crossed our fingers and climbed up and down a forested trail that traversed the river’s north rim. We had spectacular overlooks of the canyon, the massive gravel beds and the river-carved terraces layered with pre-glacier volcanic rock.

Tucked into the trees, we walked in silence, until — “Cheet Cheet!” We had visitors. A whirling swirl of fantails! It was our first encounter with these feisty, friendly birds that we’d read about, but hadn’t seen yet. They fly around people walking through bush to catch insects that get stirred up.

There were a half dozen, flitting and fluttering, around us. They flew so close we thought they would land on our outstretched hands. Every other minute they put on a show, grabbing hold of a branch and spreading their long tail feathers into a fan.

Surprise, surprise: I’d been in such a rush to get here, only to find myself slowing down, way down, finally surrendering the remains of our day to play with these birds.

Birdwatching per say—that is, viewing tiny specks of birds through binoculars—doesn’t appeal, emphasizing as it does, observation and patience. Neither are my forte. What we had going with the fantails was participatory, a conversation between birds and birdpeople. A comic, indeed joyful, finale to our South Island adventures.

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