David Rich 1200 Words
$1NZ=70 cents US
W i l d e r l i f e N Z S o u t h
Unbelievably, a couple I showed around New Zealand’s South Island decided they’d rather check out the wildlife than go adventuring on exciting neon-blue glaciers. With such an aberration loose on the planet I’m honor-bound to report on such as wing-spreading cormorants, waddling penguins, swimming with porpoises, wide-winged albatross, assorted seabirds, honky seals, brilliant keas which I actually like, and the biggest surprise of all when it comes to real get-down wild life, naturally left ‘til last.
Please humbly forgive my inability to appreciate the fascination with wildlife. You can’t even eat them, unless you’re Japanese and into whale blubber. However, I’ve included a photo of an erudite t-shirt suggesting otherwise.
Let’s begin with the Kea, which I like though they’re cheeky little beggars, snatching whatever they can wheedle or grab without bye-your-leave. They look rather like an ordinary green parrot until close up; the female exhibits bright yellow around the beak and both sport black and blue feathers in addition to the green, and when they fly they’re orange underneath, a brilliant combination. They frequent high altitude tourist haunts, such as the top of Avalanche Peak on Arthur’s Pass, where I shot Keas mutually grooming, haughtily perching, staring down hikers and in flight, headed for my lunch. Tuis are a similarly aggressive bird but the closest I got to one was a picture on many bottles of Tui Beer.
The wife of the wildlife-loving couple insisted on swimming with porpoises or dolphins; whatever the difference I haven’t a clue. I wouldn’t have considered immersing in that frigid water. But the Swim with Dolphins company in picturesque Akaroa, formerly French and tarted up as such for tourists, provided fancy French wetsuits and off she went.
Four hours later she arrived back, broken-hearted and sweaty in her clammy wetsuit; the dolphins had forgotten to show up. Unfrenchly, the Swim with Dolphins outfit refunded 90% of her money, well over $100. After I assured her that I, her patient though supremely bored tour guide would happily sit on my tush until the next day so she could try again, she whooped with gladsome Bonheur and promptly re-signed up.
Upon return the next day you’d have thought she’d been dead four hours and gone to heaven, tears of joy and shelling out big bucks for a hokey video of the little group treading water, befuddled as dolphins cavorted around them with disdain. But I didn’t say, Lady get over it; they’re just a bunch of fish. I remained a tour guide supreme.
We spent much of my precious tour-guiding time stalking non-existent penguins that tend to stay at sea until it’s too dark to see them swimming preciously to shore, precisely when everyone is too cold to care and when cameras have become utterly useless. But imagine the excitement, actual grown-up people, shrieking silently (one must avoid startling the little darlings) and pointing with berserk animation as a single yellow-eyed penguin waddles onto shore at Nugget Point in the Catlins on South Island. It must have been because they hadn’t shelled out actual money for admission to such as the Oamaru Penguin tourist trap.
We spent a singularly unproductive hour at the free hide in Oamaru, trying to spot little blue penguins. Apparently they’re too little to see; later we found out the hide is for spotting hulking yellow-eyed varmints. After this fruitless hour the wife broke down and shelled out $20 to enter the little blue penguin tourist trap. With hubby and me off to the whiskey-tasting emporium a loverly time was savored by all, though I don’t think she nibbled a single blue penguin.
Which brings us to cormorants, called shags (not the act) by Kiwis (not the bird), and habitually mistaken by tourists for penguins. When happily informed that the penguins they’ve spotted are actually shags tourists look as woebegone as Garrison Keilor. Fortunately after every dive cormorants must spread their oil-less wings to dry, as clearly distinguishing them from penguins as their plunging flights. Cormorants are apparently revered only in China where they act as surrogate fishermen; their scrawny necks are ringed to prevent ingestion of fish, eagerly fetching fish for pole-less Chinese who are not fishermen but instead simple cormorant-tenders.
Our little group headed for the tip of the Otago Peninsula to the haughtily-named Royal Albatross Center, but none of us cheapos, though two of three were wildlife nuts, would spring for the 30 bucks we’d each have to pay for a license to march up to a remote glass-walled hut to try spotting one. I know they’re nesting at a barely discernible distance because I later cadged a free pass, watching tourists frantically adjust their too short telephoto lenses or hastily switch to wide angle to try catching immense albatross swooping by on 3 meter (10 foot) wing-spreads.
The big news was an albatross gosling being raised by two females, shades of Ellen DeGeneres. But far more interesting was watching clunky albatross attempting a take off or landing, ricocheting along like a broken broom. Still, with their antics, chiseled features and incredible wingspans they’re nigh on as worrying as Keas.
A happy miscellany of the wildlife we spotted included the ubiquitous seal of various types on rocky islands and coast, but who cares which kind one sees of these potentially nasty varmints. Some years ago one bit the swim with porpoise wife and rabies shots are no fun. This lack of interest excludes the unique elephant seal that steadfastly avoids public sightings.
My aquatic favorite is the eel, which loves New Zealand’s many lakes and waterways. Tame ones provide a copious living for the residents of the Bencarri Farm near Takaka, far northwest South Island, which extorts $12 for the privilege of a gander. See www.bencarri.co.nz.
But the wildest life of all is found on the wine tours that abound on South Island, particularly in Otago (Dunedin) and Marlborough (Blenheim). Participants need a wholly weird vocabulary ranging from aromas of burnt rubber, leather and petrol (gasoline to Statesiders) to tastes of soupy or cheese, both deadly specific. Hoity-toity connoisseurs really get going on grape varieties, which I’ve always divided into red and white. Not these folk.
One Reisling was like revving up aeroplanes, Sauvignon Blanc similar to cat’s p*** (one of my favorites), a Semillon wine like candle wax, one Gamay akin to tar or iodine, Pinot Blanc heady with bracken, Chardonnay with angelica (what is that?), a merlot like pencil shavings, for those foot fetishists a Shiraz like a naked foot, Pinot Noir like gamey meat and on ad nauseum. The only grape that tasted like grapes was Muscat, far too sweet to stomach. Confer with such as http://www.wrathofgrapes.com/tasttips.html. It became abundantly clear that everyone on the wine tours were all p*****, justifying a toast to the wilder life on South Island.
When You Go Wilding: The best penguin experience is at the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Conservation Reserve where you get up close to a slew of the world’s rarest penguins for $35. See http://yellow-eyedpenguin.org.nz/. But forget the penguins, dolphins and such. The best wine tour is The Central Otago Wine Experience in Queenstown where one need not rub shoulders with either vintners or snooty connoisseurs. See www.wintastes.com. Instead one buys a card, inserts it into the preferred slot below any of some 200 random bottles, and Fly.