30 July 2011

Little men, home from work.

Some things just weren't meant to be-- things like New Coke, Ross Perot's Presidency, and our hike on the Kea Trail.

On our third day at Mount Cook, we woke to clear blue skies. We got ourselves packed, ready, and fed in record time, and headed out to the Hermitage's parking lot to load our stuff into the trunk.

The eye disregards shininess when everything is shiny. Steve discovered the ice covering the entire parking lot only when he slid the last few feet to the car. The trail had frozen completely too, and so we decided it was time to admit defeat and get an early start to Oamaru.

Oamaru is on the east coast, and is home to a colony of Little Blue Penguins. It's also about thirty minutes from the famous Moeracki Boulders. And now, a couple of tangents.

1. Pronunciation: New Zealand place names are either British or Maori. The Maori names look unpronounceable at times, but the key is to think British. That is to say, disregard how the natives might have said them, and say them the way a bloke would say them over a pint of beer and some fish and chips. Pukaki is poo-khaki. Moeraki is moe-racky.

2. Planning: like to be spontaneous? It doesn't work so well in New Zealand, where many of the sights are made or broken by when you arrive. We saw the Pancake Rocks at mid-tide, but it would have been more spectacular at high tide, and it would have been a big nothing at low tide. Want to see penguins? There's a brief window to see them in the morning, and another brief window near dusk. Get used to nature's timetable here.

Unaware of nature's timetable, we arrived in Moeraki at high tide. We had to run up the side of the hill a couple of times to keep our hiking boots out of the waves, and some of the smaller boulders were obscured by the ocean, but we got the gist of Moeraki.

It's a nice walk along the beach, but it was far less memorable than many of the things we've seen here.

Back in Oamaru, we followed the signs to the beach to learn more about the Little Blue Penguin colony.

The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony is a commercial operation. For $25 per person, no cameras allowed, they'll usher you into grandstand seating at dusk to watch Blue Penguins come out of the ocean. We weren't opposed to paying the fee, but somehow, it felt a bit too much like Sea World. We decided to check in to our B&B and ask the innkeeper for advice. If the commercial operation was our best shot to see penguins in Oamaru, we'd do it. We arrived at this beautiful, sprawling 1900 craftsman, and tucked our stuff away in a corner room upstairs.

The owner, Austen, suggested a drive to the Bushy Beach Scenic Reserve on a bluff over the ocean. The hillside is home to a colony of Yellow Eyed Penguins-- a species we expected to see a bit further south. Armed with Austen's map and binoculars, we drove to the reserve at about 3:15. A sign warned visitors to be off the beach itself by 3:00. If people are between the penguins and their nests when they arrive, they get scared and head back out to sea. Not good. We hurried up the trail to be sure we'd see the penguins as they emerged.

At the top of the trail, we met him: the Dian Fossey of Yellow Eyed Penguins. We didn't get his name, but we got everything else. He lives in Oamaru. He's at the reserve every morning to watch the Penguins enter the water, and every evening to watch them waddle home. He counts them. He knows which ones nest where. He records their conversations with his camera phone. Most importantly, he keeps track of when they arrive each afternoon, and told us not to expect them until 4:45. He was kind of crazy and talked a lot about socialism, beef, and Bill Clinton's nuclear-armed rockets, but if he hadn't been there, we probably would have given up and assumed we'd missed the penguins. They arrived exactly when he said they'd arrive.

They bodysurf to shore, and bob up and down in the waves until they catch a big one that drops them on to the sand. Then they stand up, shake the sand off their suits, and waddle across the beach looking like little, tired men headed home after a long, hard day at the office. We saw eight or ten of them come ashore. Through Austen's binoculars, we could see every detail of their beautiful blond heads and tuxedoed bodies. Through our eyes and our cameras, they looked more like this. Click a picture. Find the penguin!

He-- the Dian Fossey guy-- said we might see twenty more come up the hill if we stayed another half hour, but after two hours on the frigid, windy bluff, even in warm jackets, our fingers and toes were numb. We'd have stayed anyway, but tomorrow we're headed to the beach in Curio Bay. There, the Penguins are habituated to humans and will walk right past you instead of running back into the ocean.

We have our fingers crossed for a close-up.

Location:Oamaru, New Zealand

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