My next excursion took me to Tiri Tiri Matangi, a wonderful island which is a wildlife haven. A stroll along the beach found two little blue penguins in their nest boxes. They were adhering to the rule of 'if I can't see you, you can't be there' and hiding their heads in their burrows, so all I got was a marvellous view of two backs and tails
. Things seemed quiet as I headed up into the bush, and I began to wonder whether I would see anything more than a penguin's backside. Before too long I heard the beautiful song of a tui, a common and very musical visitor to gardens round Auckland. Then a huge New Zealand pigeon dropped in, followed by tiny whiteheads, stitchbirds, saddlebacks and bellbirds chirping away. I don't think I have ever been anywhere where I have been surrounded by so many different birdsongs at once. It became a poignant moment when our guide explained that once the whole of New Zealand would have sounded like this before the European settlers cleared the land. Moving on, swallows flitted round us on our way up to the lighthouse where we were to have lunch, where lumbering takahe (enormous purple moorhens with bright red beaks) tried to steal my sandwich. I foiled them with the cunning trick of standing up. In the afternoon we explored independently. I enjoyed the solitude, sitting by a feeding station, listening to bird song and watching North Island robins (who are black and not related to our British song bird) and red crested parakeets swoop in for food. I'm still amazed I live in a country where parakeets are an indiginous species and we get praying mantis in the bathroom as often as spiders! (These, for the record, are bright green and slightly malevolent in appearance, with a triangular head and cruelly barbed front legs. Slightly strangely, they don't scare me- 6 legs, green and slow is better than 8 legs, fast and hairy!).
Eventually it was time for the ferry to roll in to collect us, so I miandered back down to the beach via the duck pond, wishing I'd brought an extra jumper as a particularly frigid wind tried to blow through me.
Even in the middle of a large city, nature is not too far away. As I was typing this a couple of Eastern rosellas swooped past the window. Though somhow I still have not seen a live specimin of the scourge of New Zealand wildlife- the possum.
I set out to explore a little more of my new backyard. First stop was Rongitoto, the perfect cone rising from the sea east of Auckland, and perfectly visable from my staffroom window. Rather overprepared with our trekking poles and hiking boots, we strolled up beautifully maintained paths through the scoria to the cone of the volcano. It was only after we'd been walking a while that we realised that we were taking the road train route- extra smooth and easy. The views from the top were wonderful; we ate our sandwiches as we gazed at Sky City or out to the islands of the Hairaki Gulf, joined by the other tourists all wearing flip flops or trainers.