When we left Curio Bay this evening, we paused at the top of the stairway that descends to the beach and took one last, lingering look at the place. A petrified seaside forest, a rocky arc of chilly shoreline that plays host to a resident colony of penguins who casually waddle past the handful of visitors (like us) who come to watch them. It's one of the most remarkable spots we've ever visited.
We were treated to mild, windless conditions tonight - a far cry from our first visit, when we were nearly hypothermic by the time we left. Tonight we arrived about 30 minutes before sunset and walked confidently down the rocky shoreline to the narrow inlet where - after two previous visits we were confident - the penguins would come ashore.
And sure enough, a few minutes after we settled ourselves among the rocks, the first penguins arrived. They clambered awkwardly from the waves and assumed their typical preening poses. Over the next half hour or so, another six birds emerged from the water and slowly made their way to nests in the nearby bush. We spent most of our time watching a nearby breeding pair preen and groom each other. Standing close together, their grooming ritual seems affectionate and tender - it's almost impossible not to anthropomorphize these charming creatures.
Our experience of nature at Curio Bay is that it's unspoiled, intimate, and desperately fragile. We feel privileged to witness the daily routine of a remaining handful of endangered penguins, and we're torn between affection for these ridiculously cute creatures and melancholy at the knowledge that we're seeing something that may not exist in another generation.
Is it right to want to experience something before it's too late, before it disappears or is degraded by its own popularity? We've certainly experienced this ambivalence before: Machu Picchu is magnificent but feels a bit like a theme park. Curio Bay is thrilling because it's so simple and real - but the petrified stumps are smaller than they once were, because too many people think it's okay to break off a chunk as a souvenir. And the penguins' nests are too frequently disturbed by thoughtless visitors - as we experienced just yesterday.
On two separate visits we've had the opportunity to spend three evenings with the penguins of Curio Bay, and they are among our most cherished travel experiences. It's a long trip from our home to the southern tip of New Zealand, and odds are pretty long against a third visit. So when we took our final look tonight, it was to frame that special place in our hearts and memories.