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Penguins of Oamaru, Whales of Kaikoura, and Marlborough Too

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Here we are at our last stop on the South Island! Since our last post we’ve had much less rain, and seen more mountains, penguins, seals, and whales. Although our swing through the South Island was quick, we’ve had a fantastic time. Here’s a recap of the past week:

On our last day in the Queenstown area we awoke to the same deluge that we experienced the previous day, so loading the Capella in the pouring rain wasn’t as much fun as you might picture it. Saying goodbye to our friends the Allores felt strange, as it signalled that the end of the New Zealand experience for both our families was relatively close at hand. With a hearty “See you in Canada”, we set off for Oamaru. Although it isn’t that big (but much moreso than we expected), it offered a few things that made us decide it would be the ideal next stop. One of those things is the proximity of Oamaru to the Moeraki Boulders, which was our first destination in the area. The Moeraki Boulders are rather unusual rocks – they are extraordinarily round and look like giant marbles on the Koekohe Beach. See if you can spot them overhead here. The boulders are called “concretions” which consist of mud, fine silt and clay, cemented by calcite. The core of these boulders is hollow, and they have cracks radiating outwards. While the explanation of how they formed is a bit over our heads (something about Palaeocene mud and bacteria causing calcification over 4 million years), the boulders were pretty amazing to see. What was particularly fascinating was that the various stages of breakdown were visible – new boulders were being exhumed from the hill at the edge of the beach by erosion, and other boulders were either cracked or had completely fallen apart. Here’s some photos:


Following the boulder viewing and a hot beverage at the café, we carried on to Oamaru itself. Soon after arriving at the Top Ten Holiday Park where we were staying, we put together an early supper and then headed back out to do some penguin watching. Our first penguin destination was Bushy Beach to see if we might spot a couple of yellow-eyed penguins – the rarest of all penguin species. These birds have a nesting spot on Bushy Beach, and a couple of distant viewing points have been set up on the ridge overlooking the beach. Signs mark the stairs heading down to the beach but warn that visitors should vacate the beach by 3 pm to respect the penguin habitat. These, like most penguins, spend the day in the sea hunting for food and come back ashore in the late afternoon/evening. There was a rather chilly and strong wind whipping across the ocean while we were there, and with the comparably unpredictable schedule of these penguins, no one was entirely sure when they would appear. Here’s a photo of the place:


After a while shivering there looking at two fur seals lying on the beach and wishing we had their blubber, we decided that we would move on. When we headed back up the trail to the carpark it became a bit clearer why the penguins might have decided to delay their return to their nest. A small clutch of people had ignored the signs and had gone down to the beach, probably to get a better vantage point. Alas, penguins aren’t stupid, and they would have been able to see these people, and consequently would not come out of the water. To add to this insult, a couple of these knobs were wearing jackets with “Canada” emblazoned across them. We muttered to other people on the trail that this would never happen back in the USA where we were from!

Still hungry for penguin meat, we aimed the Capella towards the Oamaru Blue Penguin colony. Blue penguins, as you no doubt recall from previous posts, are much more common in New Zealand and can be found in many places. What makes Oamaru special is that they have set up a breeding colony where visitors, and more importantly biologists, can observe the penguins up close. These penguins are much smaller than the elusive yellow-eyed, and much more numerous. At dusk, these penguins assemble in the water about 100 metres from shore into “rafts”. When they feel the time is right and they are not in danger, they swim up and walk out of the water, shake themselves a bit, and then waddle en masse across the trail where they squeeze through openings in the fence into the colony. They are incredibly cute animals, especially when they try to move quickly (they lean forward and use their flippers to help keep them from falling over). As it gets darker, they emerge from the dens that have been constructed for them (small wooden boxes built into berms) with their mates, and sometimes their chicks as well. We all enjoyed sitting there for a while watching various rafts come ashore and the whole rookery waddling around the colony. We were told that blue penguins actually nest in many places around the Oamaru waterfront, and that we need to be careful when driving. And here we thought this sign was just one of those cutsie tourist things:


The next day we checked out of the Top Ten, and started exploring the town itself. We spent the morning browsing in the pottery shops and other charming spots. We visited a used bookstore called “Slightly Foxed”, where Jack picked up a book and rather than place it in a bag, the store owner wrapped it in brown paper and string after entering the sale by hand in her ledger! Here’s a few shots of our morning:


After an average lunch at “The Roost”, we picked up some tasty treats at “Temptations Bakery” and hit the road bound for Christchurch and its associated earthquakes. After checking into the Top Ten where we were staying, Jack hit the pool. The following day was Thursday, and what better day to drive to Arthur’s Pass? We saddled up the Capella and set off in the morning, eventually stopping at the Castle Hill rocks, which you can see overhead here. These are some interesting looking rock formations, and apparently the spot is well-known in rock-climbing circles. We subsequently found a couple of different guide books entirely dedicated to climbing at Castle Hill. Not wanting to get our digits chalky, we simply walked around a bit. The sun was out and the day was clear – we were all quite happy. Here’s the scene:


We then eased on down, eased on down the road, passing through the town of Arthur’s Pass itself. After a brief stop at the information centre, we drove a bit further to the Temple Basin car park where we had lunch in the car as we contemplated our pending climb. You might be able to see us overhead here. In winter, Temple Basin serves as a backcountry ski area, but on Thursday there was little snow (other than small patches as you’ll see in the photos below. The surrounding mountains kept their stony gaze on us as we trudged our way upwards, walking the switchback trail over rocks of varying size. After an hour and a half slogging, we arrived at the top at an elevation of 1270 metres, and the view was spectacular. A bit further up the trail we could see the actual ski lodge, and wondered how skiers access the area, as we saw no road. We subsequently learned that other than a “Goods Lift” a bit further down from the car park which will transport luggage up to the top, if you want to ski there you must trudge your way up on foot using the trail we were climbing! From the ski lodge itself, there are three rope tows. Here’s what the trek looked like:


By the time we descended back to the car, we were all pretty tired, and thought we deserved dinner out for a change. We motored back into Christchurch and walked around for a bit past numerous restaurants forced to close because their buildings were damaged by a 5.3 magnitude aftershock on Boxing Day. In the end, we had some issues with dinner, and it ended up being a less than satisfying experience.

On Friday we drove to Barnett Park in Christchurch to do a hike to a lava cave. It was a warm morning, and after the previous day in Arthur’s Pass we could feel the kilometres adding up on our leg muscles. The walk was pleasant though, with the reward of a cool cave at the halfway point. Here’s a photo of that outing:


We were craving beach, so we drove down the road to Sumner, a suburb of Christchurch where we found a really nice beach area. We explored for a bit around “Cave Rock” at the mid-point of the beach, and then needed sustenance. Trying to make up for the previous night’s disaster with dinner, we decided that lunch out might be deserved. To “Tart” Café we went. It was really nice. After lunch we went into downtown Christchurch and strolled around, popping into various shops. You certainly don’t have to go far in Christchurch to see evidence of the September earthquake. There are many buildings visibly damaged, in a state of repair, or being demolished. This was one such sight as we rounded one corner:


We celebrated New Year’s Eve by watching “High School Musical 3” and going to bed prior to midnight. You’d think that being in one of the first countries on the planet to see 2011 we’d be itching to stay up, but being high-powered adventurers takes its toll and we needed our sleep. Before we reached sleep-land we felt a small shudder and then a bang. Not being entirely familiar with aftershocks, we weren’t sure if that’s what we had just felt until Jenn jumped on the internet and confirmed that we had just lived through a 3.2 magnitude aftershock. We huddled within the triangle of life for the rest of the night.

We’ve heard that nothing changes on New Year’s Day, but we’d had enough of Christchurch and decided to move on to our next destination – Kaikoura. Kaikoura is a beautiful little town with a rather nice mountain range serving as a backdrop. We had decided to do a nice little hike prior to checking in to our accommodation, so we drove to the Kaikoura Penninsula Seal Colony, and the start of the trail. If you’re interested, you could have a look at it overhead here. There were relatively few seals lying about, but we stripped off our footwear and waded across to the rocky shelf regardless. After gazing at one of the seals for a bit, we made our way back to the trail and began what ended up being an epic 11.7 km walk around the peninsula. Around a couple of corners we were atop a ridge and looked down to the beach where we discovered a seal party – dozens of the furry things. The smell wafted up to our vantage point and made our eyes water. Three hours after we set out, we arrived back at the car park and the seal party had moved there to welcome us back. Jenn walked fairly close to one medium-sized male seal before realising he was there. All in all it was a great walk, but we were pretty fatigued. Here are some photos and a video:


We checked in to the Top Ten (yes, another one!), and were quite pleased with the view near our cabin. Here it is:


The next morning we rose early-ish and walked across the railroad tracks to the Whaleway Station (not kidding, that’s what they call it), and joined a whale watching tour. This is what makes Kaikoura famous! Not far off shore from the town lies the Kaikoura Canyon, a branch of the deep Hikurangi Trough. In this area, deep oceanic waters are drawn in fairly close to the coast and this upwelling brings with it water that is teeming with phyto and zooplantkton. This in turn attracts other sea creatures that feed on this banquet and in turn act as appetisers for larger creatures such as whales, dolphins, and seals. It didn’t take long after we set out on the water to catch up with a sperm whale. He didn’t stick around very long though, and we only managed to catch a quick look before his tail went up as he dove back down. No worries, a short time later we drove over to another male that had just surfaced. It was amazing to watch this leviathan float on the surface blowing spray into the air. We thought that they would simply shoot up out of the water and then go back down but we’re sadly lacking in whale info. These mammals dive for around 45 minutes to depths of over 3000 metres, and when they rise to the surface, they stay there for around seven minutes and reoxygenate by breathing and blowing repeatedly. Then back down they go to hunt for squid and other tasty but slimy creatures. It was pretty cool being this close to a whale, and to see the tail come up as it sunk to the depths. Here are some meagre photos and a short video:


You will also have seen in that video some dolphins. Many, many dolphins! On the way back in after seeing the whales, we chased a pod of Dusky Dolpins – dozens of them. It was fantastic to see these things flip through the air and swim around the boat. When we returned to the Whaleway Station we all agreed that it was a fantastic tour – well worth the early rise.

Other activities on Saturday included a visit to “The Food Company” in Kaikoura where we picked up some fudge, followed by a hike to help melt away the fudge. The hike was a shorter one around Fyffe Palmer Reserve, and was very similar to dozens of other forest hikes we’ve done. We returned to the Top Ten where Jack resumed his fascination with the bouncing pillows and practiced his flips. Here’s a photo of the end of the hike, and the middle of Jack’s flip:


Monday arrived and we packed up and moved on. This day, we were continuing our swing northward and to our final South Island destination – the Marlborough Sounds. The drive from Kaikoura took us along the coast and we stopped briefly at the Ohau seal colony to look at more New Zealand fur seals. This time we saw many of the pups – very cute! After stopping a bit further down the road to look at a waterfall, we drove north along a highway flanked by vineyards. After a brief stop in Picton to plan our next day’s hike, we carried along a rather windy road littered with the remains of many slips caused by torrential rains the previous week. It illustrates how bad it must have been that a week later the cleanup was still not finished. In places the road was down to a single lane. Here, have a look:


Eventually we arrived at the bach that we rented on the edge of Mahau Sound. If you look closely you can see us waving from the deck overhead here. The bach is really comfie, and the views are amazing. In fact, this is the scene when looking up from the laptop as we type this blog entry:


Tuesday had us rising at a quite reasonable hour and driving to Picton to catch a water taxi to Resolution Bay, which you can see overhead here. Why were we headed way up there? Because of the Queen Charlotte Track, silly! This is another of those multi-day hikes that are so prevalent in New Zealand. We just wanted a couple of hours though, so we walked from Resolution Bay to Endeavour Inlet, and then waited for the water taxi to pick us up as we soaked our feet in the water. The hike was really nice, and we loved the conversations we had the entire way. The water taxi ride back to Picton seemed to take forever though, and we were pretty glad to be back at the Capella, despite seeing more dolphins along the way (bottle-nosed this time). We relaxed back at the bach and had a small UNO tournament, which Tim won handily. Here are some photos of the day, and a video too:


Wednesday morning we headed up the steep driveway and away from the bach. We decided to go by way of Havelock, another small town in the area. Of course, we made a couple of stops along the way - one to the Makana Chocolate Store, and the other to the Cullen Point Lookout to take a gander at this:


It was a strange feeling we experienced as we headed towards Picton to catch the ferry back to the North Island. Our trip is definitely getting some finality to it. Regardless, we had a fantastic time on the South Island over these last three weeks. We caught the ferry and had incredibly calm sailing across the Strait. We're back in Wellington now and will stay the night before driving seven hours north to our home in Tauranga. Wow - one more week left in our epic New Zealand adventure before we fly away home. We're gettin' all misty-eyed!

If you'd care to see more photos, you could look at them here.

Posted by tcrons 00:05 Archived in New Zealand

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That’s gotta be the coolest boxing week experience ever! Sure beats the lame experience of electronic store sales so prevalent across Canada during the same time period.

I like the fun picture of you guys ripping apart the rock... I love Tim’s facial expression!

Really though, what an incredible wrap-up to 2010!

by pdryden

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