Dunedin - cont
Following on from the signpost theme we discovered in Bluff, we couldn't help but notice that directly outside its central rail station, Dunedin had a similar bright yellow effort. Upon closer inspection we were slightly confused when we read out the place names displayed on it. Edinburgh was 18500kms away (fair enough, good entry), Singapore was just over 10000kms away (major global city. Again, fair enough). Then we noticed that Portsmouth was 18000kms away. Portsmouth? Not even people from Portsmouth know where Portsmouth is so we curiously debated why the hell anyone from New Zealand would give a flying one, before abandoning the logic and heading back to the van.
Just to the west of Dunedin, the Otago Peninsula required our exploration. The primary reason being, was Vickies increasingly burning desire to see some Yellow Eyed Penguins. These little chaps are the rarest penguin in the world - only 3500-4000 exist nowadays - and can only be found along the south east coast of New Zealand. We resolutely made our way to an apparent viewpoint on the coast to sit and wait. The drive took us to a place worryingly entitled "Sandfly bay". This was not an encouraging sign as we were still itching from our last mugging at the hands of that mob in Fiordland. However, any fears were soon dispelled when we pulled up at a truly magnificant beach. The sweeping sand-dunes looked glorious and it has to be said that, other than the superlative Oarsmans Bay beach in Fiji, this was actually the nicest bay we'd encountered yet on our travels. Many sun soaked resorts around the globe would kill to have a setting such as this, and running from the car park down the steep sides of the dunes to the beachead kept us more than sufficiently entertained as we whooped and hollered our way across the bay like 4 year olds.
As we headed to the viewpoint, we noticed what appeared to be a large log washed up on the beach. Thinking this a little strange, we sauntered over for a closer look only to be slightly startled when the log juddered briefly, before letting out a huge puff of air and settling back into the sand. This was no log, but actually a large male hookers sea-lion. These vast blubbery masses of agression are the rarest sealion in the world, with less than 4000 known to exist. We had been strongly instructed to give them a wide berth by a DOC sign near the car park, as they are not afraid of humans, and will attack even if unprovoked. Fascinated by this massive wobbly beast, we sat and watched, willing it to do something more entertaining than just lie there casually twitching at the bothersome flies. Alas, it was clearly nap time, and the big fella really couldn't care less that we were holding out for some video footage to send to "When animals attack", as he staunchly ignored the tourists attempting to take close up photos of him.
We finally reached the penguin hide and settled in to wait. And wait. And wait. These notoriously shy birds were not playing ball this evening, and after an hour of shivering in a drafty wooden hut next to an intensly interested German couple, we gave up and began an energy sapping trudge back up the steep dunes to the car. We'd just like to briefly digress here for a moment and mention just how hard the walk back to the car was. Those dunes that seemed such a giggle when we raced down them, had now tripled in height (it seemed), and swallowed our feet each time we attempted to scale them. After several long minutes of "I can't do it" type comments, and crawling on our hands and knees, we sweatily arrived at the summit before heading back to the van on more than shaky legs.
Moeraki Boulders and Penguin Spotting
One free night later, during which we stayed at the side of a small road in the Otago Penninsula next to a large grafittied rock (apparently Jamie Baltham gets lots of "affection" from his mum.... go figure), and we continued our exploration of Dunedin. Stomachs began rumbling before too long, and the prospect of yet another cheese sandwich really didn't appeal, so we "Re-invested" our campsite money in a fish and chips lunch which lifted spirits and filled bellies before we carried on up the east coast. The small fishing town of Moeraki was our next stop, home as it is, to the apparently famous Moeraki boulders. As we approached the town, we began to speculate on just how the hell this town had managed to turn a bunch of rocks into a tourist attraction, but left our cynicisym firmly in the van whilst we made our way to beachfront to check said boulders out.
"Blimey, thats an interesting rock" was honestly a sentence that neither of us ever expected to utter at any point during our lives, but here we were, fascinated by what was actually an immensly intruiging natural phenomena. These 5ft tall, perfectly spherical rocks were just sat there in the surf. They hadn't been dropped from the sky or washed up on the beach, but were left there as a legacy to coastal erosion, having instead been embedded in the ancient sea cliff face. As if this wasn't odd enough, the cliff seemed to be "giving birth" to new rocks as the erosion continued and more and more began to be exposed. Even more unusual was the insides of rocks that had been broken over the thousands of years. Each one had an internal make up something akin to a Crunchie chocolate bar, being both similar in colour and texture to honeycomb. It was a surprisingly surreal sight to behold and we stayed for some time after the obligiatory "Here is Dunc sat on a rock" picture had been taken.
Suitably impressed by yet more of New Zealands freakishly interesting natural phenomena, we saddled up and arrowed towards the coastal port town of Omarau to hunt out our next photo opportunity - another chance to see the rarest penguin in the world. Omarau itself was a quiet and unassuming little place so we didn't linger long in the town centre before ambling through the public gardens back to where we'd parked the van in our campsite. On the way back, Vickie began to act slightly shifty as we approached a small corner shop. Dunc briefly enquired as to what was up - he hadn't noticed the "We sell ice cream" sign in the window of the shop - before Vickie pulled a big eyed look at the stores freezer compartment. "Less talk, more frozen sugary desserts" was clearly the signal, and who was Dunc to refuse such a fine suggestion?
As they were the bargin price of $1 each, we considered it rude not to take them up on their offer, and grinned our way up to the counter to see what was on offer. Vickie plumped for the chocolate, but Dunc was intruigued by a flavour called Hokey Pokey. Never having heard of this before, he politely enquired to the storekeeper as to what flavour this was. "Its Hokey Pokey flavour" she responded through a face that more than suggested that Dunc was clearly a bit of a dessert dunce. "I understand that, but what actually IS Hokey Pokey?", he persisted. This brought about something of a confused silence in the shop, before Vickie diplomatically offered that it looks a little like honeycomb. Sold.
Getting back to our original reason for being in this part of the world, we weren't leaving anything to chance in the penguin spotting stakes this time, and signed up to a small tour ran by a very softly spoken and sincere chap called Dennis, who guaranteed us some great chances to get much closer than would ordinarily be possible to these endearing little avians. Just before our tour began, we began to get the sinking feeling that our chances of moving quietly through the bush had been scuppered when we were introduced to a typically "in your face" aged couple from Nevada, US. As we shook hands and swiftly realised that these fellows would easily beat us in a talking loudly competition, we politely made international small talk. What followed freaked us out somewhat, when the Nevada chap proudly announced that he knew where we were staying. Evidently a slight amount of confused fear must have crossed our faces, as he swiftly explained that he'd seen our van, laughed at its name, and seen us walking across the campsite earlier that day. However, just as we were starting to feel a bit more relaxed, his grin widened and he announced that he'd seen us enjoying our ice creams and moreso, he knew what flavours we had eaten. "You had chocolate, of course" he proclaimed as he thrust a wrinkly finger in Vickies direction. "And you had something like vanilla i think" was aimed at Dunc. We giggled and erm'd for a couple of minutes before Dennis kindly stepped in and brought us back to the reason we were all there, Penguins.
Scary and overbearing Americans aside, we soon put this encounter to one side as we shuffled off into the bush overlooking the beach to search for our quarry. We had not taken more than a couple of steps when Dennis brought us to a halt and pointed us towards a small clearing in the trees, within which was a parent penguin and two chunky, fluffy little balls of cuteness which turned out to be its chicks. The only thing stopping Vickie from exploding in a barrage of "aahhhh"s was the overpowering stench of regurgitated old fish coming from the nest. Nontheless, cute they were indeed, and we managed to capture a couple of pics of these incredibly rare birds before spending a good 30 minutes gazing out over the beach at incoming pairs of juvenile penguins, larking around in the surf before drying off for the evening on the beach. As we returned to our van, Dennis added an extra note of poignancy to the proceedings by informing us that, 5 years ago, there were well over 5000 birds along this stretch of coastline, compared with a mere 1500 breeding pairs today. It seems these poor little creatures are doomed to be clinging onto survival for a while, so much so that if we ever return to New Zealand, there may be a real chance that they won't be there to greet us. A considerable shame, we both agreed.
Another side point now, if we may. We had appreciated that the run up to christmas in New Zealand and Australia would be more than a bit odd as we were heading into the peak of the summer season here as opposed to cold and long winter nights at home. True enough, as previous crimbo hits like "Feed the world" and "Last christmas" began to creep ominously onto radio stations playlists - despite the bright sunshine - we shared more than one confused look with each other. However, the oddity of it all reached a peak when we briefly paused our travels to stock up on some food at a local New World supermarket. Decorations were everywhere (as you'd expect) but what really took the biscuit was the genuinely sinister singing and gyrating life sized Santa Claus's that had cropped up in the entrance and indeed, all over the country. These demonic monstrosities were most unsettling as they belched out a crackly rendition of "Rockin' around the christmas tree" whilst gyrating their hips in a highly suggestive fashion. Frankly, if we'd had a small child with us, we'd have covered its eyes and hurried it to the car post-haste. We were half expecting mothers - hypnotised by the menacing tunes, fixed doll-like grin and swirling hips - dropping to their knees and offering their infants up as a festive season sacrifice to this otherworldy creation.
Anyway, we digress. Earlier in our trip, we'd been convinced to change our original route back to Christchurch to head inland and take in the sights of Aoraki/Mount cook - New Zealands highest peak - surrounded as it is by the craggy magnificance of the southern alps. Unfortunately, for the first time since we'd arrived in the country, the weather began to conspire against us and a heavy fog decended on Mount Cook village, precluding us from seeing more than a few feet of the base of the mountain. Feeling slightly disconsolate at this, we hold up in the village cafe for a drink and chose to hope against hope that the weather would shift. Alas it was not to be, and as the rain began to fall, we grumpily gave up and headed back out on to the main road. Due to this earlier stumbling block, coupled with the fact that we'd found another free campsite for the night, we elected to again "Re-invest" - we were becoming quite fond of the positivity of that term by now - our campsite fee in a chilly slab of Speights lager to sup contentedly throughout the remainder of the afternoon, and lift our spirits once more.
We were nearing Christchurch now, and money was getting thin on the ground, so we began a lengthy search along the Inland scenic route to find another free campsite for the following night. After and mildly heated search, we managed to find a suitable picnic area. It was shady, secluded and seemingly ideal. Or so we thought. About 10 minutes after we had set up, a German couple arrived with a pair of bikes, a small tent and one of the whingiest little children we'd had the misfortune to be around for some considerable time. This little bundle of clothes and tears seemed to perversly delight in being upset at just about everything in his brief life, and took particular enjoyment in letting everyone within earshot know of his displeasure. Even Vickies well practiced professional even-handed nature with small children was being tested after several hours of persistant wailing long into the night. Things were no different in the morning, and Dunc was seriously considering letting the guy ropes in their tent down as a little going away present before the dad, clearly registering our dissaproval, took the said tuetonic grizzly mess off to the other end of the field and out of earshot while we packed up the van.
Christchurch and Dolphin Swimming.
After an hour or so, we arrived in the biggest city on the south island, Christchurch. As a city, it was apparently heavily influenced by English redbrick university history, and true enough, it whiffed more than a little of Cambridge and Oxford. It actually quite fancied itself as quite the example of urban gentrification with its punting trips on the river, carefully aged architecture and copious amounts of cafes lining the city streets. It was a most agreeable place to spend some time. We began to feel quite relaxed and at home. At least, that is, until we were checking our e-mails and noticed with a start that it wasn't the 4th December, but the 5th. We were due to go swimming with dolphins the following day, and had been planning for the past month under the misconception that we had a couple more days before we needed to get to our destination. Slightly panicked by this mistake, we legged it back to our transport and swiftly skidaddled across the Banks Penninsula to the town of Akaroa where we would be due to take our trip.
Driving through the small port of Akaroa, we got a slight sinking feeling when we noticed that it was more than a little familiar to Tiburon in California, where we had singularly failed to spot a great white shark previously in our journey. The following morning, the slight feeling of foreboding wasn't helped by the light but persistant rain and choppy waters. Nontheless, we were in a positive frame of mind as the day wore on and we checked in, squeezed into some incredibly snug wetsuits and awaited our vessel. It wasn't long before the feeling of "This isn't going to be our day" returned when a group consisting of a very formidable woman and her even more robust daugther arrived shortly after us, and promptly spent nearly 30 minutes labouring - with the assistance of a couple of staff members we hasten to add - to squash their considerable frames into their wetsuits. Lots of huffing, swearing, a couple of tears and an XXXL wetsuit later, and we eventually headed out into the harbour, over 30 minutes late.
We were searching for the smallest and rarest dolphin in the world, the tiny Hectors dolphin. Only 4000 of these little marine mammels are left in the world, and they can only be found in this part of New Zealand. We were more than a little excited by the prospect of being able to jump into the water and frolic about with these little fellas, despite the biting cold and growing swells. Apparently, the trips have a success rate of 98% so we were sorted. You would think. Not a bit of it as it turns out, as the slippery little gits were being rather too coy with us on this occasion, and never stayed still long enough for us to justify stopping the boat and joining them in the water. 2 hours of a chilly cat and mouse chase ensued, and the atmosphere on the boat cooled to match the weather, as we realised that we were destined to fall into the unlucky 2% who don't get to swim with these beautiful and rare creatures. Marine mammals suck.
Feeling more than a little disconsolate at our rotten luck, we "politely" enquired about a refund which we were duly offered after a brief discussion with the check in staff, then headed back to Christchurch to prepare for our departure to Oz. A couple of days of pleasant meandering around Christchurch followed, and we checked out the trams buzzing around the city centre, looked at a few buildings and skillfully avoided having to do anything too culturally significant. All too soon, we had to draw a line under our time in this magical little country and sadly handed back our "Gonad", picked up our backpacks and headed to the airport to begin the next stage in our adventure.
We'd now reached something of a milestone, having got halfway through our global trip, and next up on the menu was 3 months drifting around the home of Vegemite, Boomerangs and miniscule pop starlets... we were off to the "Land down under", and couldn't wait!