Archive for April, 2010

Sea Lions and Sheep and Penguins, Oh My!

Monday, April 26th, 2010

4 – 6 April 2010, New Zealand

On Easter Sunday, we headed out of Riverton and toward the Catlins on New Zealand’s south eastern coast.  Along the way, we passed through a couple of places that had a ghost town like feeling to them as nearly everything was closed for the holiday.  We were undeterred by the lack of available services as our focus for the next couple of days was wildlife viewing and coastal scenery.  By now everyone is probably tired of hearing about the weather but it must be said that, unlike our time on the west coast, our two day road trip through the Catlins took place under sunny blue skies!

A bit off the beaten track, the Catlins are known for rolling hills, rugged coastline and an abundance of animals such as penguins, seals and sea lions.  Filled with high expectations, we twisted and turned along the coastal scenic route that runs directly through the Catlins.  With every bend in the road, we were bombarded with amazing views.  Rolling hills covered in fluffy white sheep could often be seen on one side of the road while empty beaches stretched out on the other.  To top it all off, short walks leading to beautiful waterfalls and other scenic overlooks were plentiful.  Despite all of the beauty and the abundant wildlife, we ran into very few people.

One of our primary motivations for visiting the Catlins was the expectation that we might see a Hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin).  Hoiho’s are the world’s rarest penguins and can only be found in New Zealand.  The best time to catch a glimpse of them is during sunset and we managed to time our arrival at the viewing hut perfectly.  Within minutes of arriving, a penguin strolled out of the water and made its way across the sand.  Over the course of the next hour, several more penguins appeared.  One by one, they made their way across the sand until they were all congregating in a small circle.  Despite the monotony of their actions, we couldn’t take our eyes off of them.  As the sun went down, the temperature started to drop.  Simultaneously, four noisy tourists showed up, ruining the tranquility of the experience.  Interpreting that as our cue to move on, we reluctantly headed back to the car.

Unable to fit everything into our two day road trip through the Catlins, we never made it to the beach where  sea lions are often found basking in the sun.  A quick search through the guidebook reveled they are often seen in the Otago Peninsula, a couple of hours north of the Catlins and essentially on the way to Dunedin where we had booked a hostel for the night.  Motivated by the possibility of seeing these impressive looking creatures, we drove out of the Catlins early the next morning.  Time was at a premium as we only had two full days left in the country and there were plenty of things we still wanted to do.

Once we reached the Otago Peninsula, we headed straight for Sandfly Bay.  Strong winds greeted us as we stepped out of the car, eyes fixated on the beach below.  From our vantage point, no sea lions were visible but we decided to hike down to the beach anyway.  This was a good move on our part as we ended up seeing four sea lions!  The first one caught me a little off guard as it looked like a giant rock from a distance but its features become more defined as we approached.  Heeding the advice we had been given, we maintained a safe distance from the animals.  Despite their large size and the awkwardness of their movements, they are apparently quite fast and, when provoked, have been known to chase people up the sand dunes, teeth bared and not afraid to use them.  After being entertained by the sea lions for a couple of hours, we finally had our fill so we trekked back up the beach to our car.

Having realized just how much the Otago Peninsula has to offer, we felt torn between our desire to spend more time exploring the area and the multitude of activities in Dunedin.  It was a tough decision, but since we had spent the majority of our time in New Zealand exploring the outdoors, we chose to leave the Peninsula behind and head into the city.

The Riverton Races

Monday, April 26th, 2010

2 – 4 April 2010, New Zealand

New Zealand’s natural beauty more than exceeded our expectations but something was missing.  Throughout the course of our road trip, we had met many travelers but hadn’t spent a lot of time with  any Kiwis.  Fortunately, that was about to change.  A friend that I met while living in Japan is from New Zealand and she invited us to spend some time at her family’s crib (aka cabin) in Riverton, a town of about 2,000.  Riverton is located at the bottom of the south island New Zealand’s Southland region.   As fate would have it, our arrival coincided with the town’s most infamous event, the Riverton Races!  Held over Easter weekend each year, they are the largest horse races in Southland.

We arrived the day before the races and were thrilled to be greeted by my friend Gina as we pulled into town.  Most people who travel can relate to the joy of arriving in a new place to a familiar face and not having to scour through a guidebook looking for accommodation, bus routes, train timetables or maps.   After dropping our stuff off at the crib, we headed to a nearby restaurant for dinner with Gina’s family.  Most of the restaurants we had seen that day were closed for Good Friday but Riverton’s restaurants stayed open to accommodate people coming into town for the races.  Jason and I were surprised to discover that patrons were required to pay a 15% surcharge on all meals but I guess that’s the norm in New Zealand when restaurants remain open on holidays.  That night we got a peaceful night’s sleep in top-notch accommodation.  We would, once again, like to thank Gina and her husband, Shaun, for giving up their bed and making us feel right at home.

On race day, we woke to cold temperatures and rain.   By this point, we were starting to feel jinxed especially after being told that, prior to our arrival, it hadn’t rained for the last couple of months.  Refusing to let the adverse weather win, we donned our race day attire and set out for the track with Gina’s friends and family.  Gina had rented a tent for the races and managed to score the one closest to the finish line.  We spent most of the day in the tent but each time a race started, we would pop open an umbrella and run out to the fence for a better view of the jockeys and their horses as they came bounding down the straightaway towards the finish line.  Initially, Jason was excited at the prospect of potentially doubling our trip funds by betting on the right horse.  Thankfully, common sense prevailed and we only ended up placing one bet.  Our total loss for the day was NZ$3.

After the last race of the day, we headed to the local RSA for dinner, live music and dancing.  The RSA is similar to the VFW in the United States and our experience there was probably not that different from any night out in small town USA.  In other words, an evening at the RSA is probably something that very few foreigners have the opportunity to experience.  It was the perfect finale to our weekend of Kiwi culture in small town New Zealand.  The next morning, we took a look at the calendar and it really began to sink in that we only had four full days left in the country.  Wanting to make the best use of our limited time, we said good-bye to our gracious hosts and headed northeast.

Doubtful Sound

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

31 March - 1 April 2010, New Zealand

Cruises on Milford Sound, with its majestic fjords, are one of the most popular tourist activities in New Zealand. Recalling our experience with another of New Zealand’s most popular tourist activities, we elected for a more serene cruise on Doubtful Sound. Doubtful Sound has similar scenery to Milford Sound, but is significantly larger and more remote. We started the tour with a boat trip across Lake Manapouri to West Arm. We then travelled by bus along the Wilmot Pass road to Deep Cove and boarded the Fiordland Navigator for our overnight cruse.

The light rain that started to fall during the bus ride grew heavier as the boat departed the dock. The rain shrouded the peaks of the fiords but gave rise to hundreds of waterfalls, with most pouring into the dark water below but a few scattered into mist by the strong winds. After a couple of hours of cruising the fjord we sailed into a cove and were given the opportunity to explore the area in kayaks. We tentatively left the comfort of the Fiordland Navigator and set out into the unrelenting rain. Paddling the coastline, we sought closer views of the surrounding rainforest. After 45 mildly chilling minutes in the kayaks we returned to the boat for dinner.

To save money in New Zealand we bought groceries and cooked most of our meals. Lunches often consisted of bread, cheese, and some fruit, while we typically ate pasta or stir fry for dinner. Eating delicious food is one reason I particularly love to travel; in that regard the combination of our budget and my cooking skills were a real setback for New Zealand. Fortunately we forgot all about that for the 18 hours we were aboard the Fiordland Navigator. There was always an ample supply of coffee and tea, muffins were served shortly after boarding, and we had soup for a midafternoon snack. The buffet dinner was easily the best meal we ate in New Zealand, with a variety of salads and vegetables, prime rib, lamb, smoked salmon and an equally impressive dessert spread. With food like that we probably could have stayed moored at the dock and I still would have considered the tour worthwhile.

After dinner the ship’s nature guide presented some information about the history and ecology of Doubtful Sound. This optional activity was attended by us and the other science nerds. Captain James Cook explored the area in 1770 and, uncertain that it was navigable under sail, gave Doubtful Sound its name. The waters are home to varieties of marine life that normally grow in much deeper, darker depths. They  thrive in Doubtful Sound because rainfall filters through the surrounding vegetation and carries tannins to the water below.  This creates a dark surface layer of fresh water, reducing the amount of light that reaches the salt water.

The following morning, awaking to continuing showers, we ate breakfast and set sail for the return trip. Along the way we spotted several members of a small resident population of bottlenose dolphins. On arrival at Deep Cove we boarded the bus back to West Arm, and took a brief tour of the nearby hydroelectric power station. Manapouri  Power Station is unique among hydroelectric installations because it relies on the natural elevation difference between Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound, rather than a high dam to provide sufficient head for the turbines. Late in the afternoon we returned to our car and headed inland and further south, again in search of blue skies.

See more pictures from our Doubtful Sound cruise in the Gallery.