No more mountains for now. Instead, limestone cliffs, green hills and wild life. Just over there. Captain, lead the way.
A change of scenery
These roads are made for driving: the alpine of scenery of Mt Cook gave way to green hills dotted with sheep and cows, immense lakes and open skies. A few hours later, the rugged east coast of New Zealand’s South Island made its entrance, and it did not keep anything to itself.
First stop was the town of Oamaru. Museums like Steampunk HQ, with its post-apocalyptic version of the future, share the Victorian percent with art galleries and antique’s shops. And not far from this eclectic mix, a craft brewery serving excellent porters and pale ales. As it turned out, New Zealand makes great beers – more on this in future posts.
Down in the beach, blue penguins come back to shore each evening after a hard day fishing in the ocean. Although a bit far from the viewing platforms, watching these little fellas strolling along the sand makes for an awesome way to finish the day.
It may not be the mighty mountains, but the coast certainly had plenty to offer. And we wanted more.
Here comes the rain, again
Reluctantly, we left Oamaru feeling there was a lot more in that little town, and headed south towards Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula, stopping on the way to wander around the Moeraki Boulders. No matter how many times I read the scientific explanation of these spherical boulders, I still can’t quite get my head around it. Instead, I find the local Maori legend a much more attractive story:
The boulders are nothing but the remains of eel baskets, calabashes and kumara washed ashore from the wreck of Arai-tu-uru, a large sailing canoe. This legend tells of the rocky shoals that extend seaward as being the petrified hull of this wreck and a nearby rocky promontory as being the body of the canoe’s captain.
Unfortunately, following another sudden weather change, Dunedin welcomed us with a monumental downpour. Time for us to get educated in New Zealand history at The Settlers Museum – undoubtedly one of the best museums we have been to: interactive tale how the European settlers and the Maori people built the country that New Zealand is today.
Meeting the locals
So, our plan to escape the rain had not quite worked out. But then again, it would not be this green and gorgeous if it was dry, right? But something was about to change. At dawn, we looked to the sky and saw a familiar face. With the sun shining once again, we headed to the Otago Peninsula, home to a great variety of animals and beautiful landscapes.
Tunnel Beach lies in the outskirts of Dunedin. Whilst not precisely a secret, it is far enough from the town to be ignored by tour buses. And that, is a good thing. The limestone cliffs and empty ocean, reminded us of the Twelve Apostles, without the crowds.
Further inside the peninsula, a collection of bays and green scenery unfolds before the eyes. Tarmac gives way to gravel roads and steep hills that lead on to Sandfly Beach. Or rather, the car park. The actual beach is a few kilometres away down a very steep and sandy path.
Once in the beach, we found what we came looking for. A colony of sea lions basking in the sun unbothered by the four or five humans that had managed to get there. There were a few, friendly I think, greetings and introductions.
After a while though, things got a bit quieter. The sun was out and the rocks were inviting – I can’t blame them.
The first time of many
The Otago Peninsula hides plenty of secrets and some can only be unlocked by joining a tour. Keen to learn more about the animals that call this place home, we joined a few other travellers and set out to explore.
First up, a fur seal colony with loads of playful youngsters having a hell of a time in the water. In the middle of them, a blue penguin who was probably wondering what has gone wrong with his navigation skills. Not far from them, a female sea lion with her baby were cruising along the coast, apparently a rare sight judging by how excited our tour guide was.
Not bad for a start. Next bay please.
A bunch of adult male sea lions play “who’s got the biggest whiskers” in this private beach. They are not alone though, as yellow-eyed and blue penguins nest nearby amongst bushes and sheep. The whole scene was surreal and exciting – we could have spent hours there but sadly it was time to leave for the last stop.
The tip of the peninsula hides the only albatross nesting ground on firm land in the whole world. These animals spend most of their life in the open ocean, only coming ashore for a few months each year. With a wingspan of more than three metres, seeing them gliding above our heads was mesmerising and we promised never again to mistake them with a mere a sea gull.
Never before we had seen penguins, sea lions or albatross – hopefully it won’t be the last time 😉
After this much needed dose of wildlife, we head back inland, towards the mountains, where hiking turns into a more serious affair.