Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Sunday, 10 February, about Lunchtime, Otago Peninsula

We’re here at the top of the road on the Otago Peninsula, near Dunedin in New Zealand, and the weather looks like it’s just about lifting. The area is supposed to be beautiful, a big headland with a cove on one side and the ocean on the other, but we haven’t seen much of it so far. We drove here in complete fog, and we’ve been waiting for the last half hour or so for the weather to lift.
Although the forecast is for some rain today, I’m forever hopeful that the fog will lift. It was 7:30 last night when it finally did and we got a glimmer of sunshine over St Kilda’s beach, just beside our campsite.

Campsite? you ask (Véronique knows I hate camping!).

No, no, I’m not roughing it. We’re travelling in a Kea campervan, with our own shower and toilet, our own little stove, fridge, microwave, and even air-conditioning (for full details, click here)! New Zealand has got the best network of power sites where you can plug in your campervan and live in (relative) luxury. We’ve just had a cup of coffee (Brendan) and hot water (me) and 2 blueberry muffins, and Brendan is reading the Sunday paper.

It’s not all been rain and fog, mind you.

We travelled to New Zealand on the 6th of February, and we arrived in Christchurch to pure blue skies, sunshine, and a strong easterly breeze. We picked up our campervan at the airport, and drove North to Kaikoura, a small town on the east coast of the South Island. The road was pure heaven – gorgeous, dry, hilly country, and then beautiful views of the sea as we got close to Kaikoura, a small resort, whose main claim to fame is its sperm whales. There is a deep sea canyon (about 1 Km deep) close to the shore and young male sperm whales feed in its depths, all year round. They go down to the depths and come back up for air every hour or so. They’re only about 3 miles offshore, so it makes for an easy trip out to sea. Well, relatively easy – the easterly wind was quite strong and the sailings after ours were cancelled, as the sea was getting too rough. We survived our trip, despite the heavy swell – nobody got seasick, and we did get to see 1 whale and plenty of dusky dolphins. By the way, if you want tips to avoid seasickness, here they are: takes layers off to cool your body down, find a spot on land and fix your gaze on it (it will trick your mind into thinking you’re on steady ground), and pinch your ear lobes. It certainly worked for me (and I was feeling queasy on the bus on the way to the boat).

The trip was very well run (by Whale Watch Kaikoura, the only show in town, as far as we could see – we had booked it months in advance): a good boat, professional crew, with a whale spotter, a friendly guide, and even a health and safety officer, who constantly scanned the passengers to make sure we were not turning green. The whale was smaller than what I had expected (I guess I didn’t do much research on what sperm whales look like, though the sperm whales are the 4th largest whale in the world), but it was a great trip. The sun was shining, the sea was a beautiful turquoise blue (real South Pacific colour), if a bit on the rough side, and we got plenty of fresh air.
I’d recommend Kaikoura to anybody going to New Zealand – the scenery is fabulous (we saw it at its best, with pure blue skies), it’s a small enough town, but it has plenty of restaurants, and a good campsite (Kaikoura Top 10 Holiday Park).

And I forgot to mention the seals. There is a seal colony at the edge of town (a good hour’s walk) – they’re not very close to shore, so make sure to bring your binoculars.

It’s taking us a bit of effort to get the New Zealand accent – When the guide said “Wilcom to our vissil”, it took me a second or two to get it. And never mind the “uni-six toilets”!

After Kaikoura, we drove down to Oamaru (a long, 7-hour journey – the landscape south of Christchurch is flat and quite boring, unless you’re interesting in cattle and irrigation methods).

Oamaru’s claim to fame is its yellow-eyed penguins, one of the rarest in the world, apparently. (Oamaru also has blue penguins, but you have to pay to see those!) The yellow-eyed penguins come out of the sea in the late afternoon to feed their young, who are waiting for them in nests on the hills. We were wrecked after the journey, but we dragged ourselves to the beach outside the town. And it was well worth it. We spent 2 hours there. There wasn’t much happening for the first half hour, apart from a couple of penguins in a nest on the cliff in the distance. Then the first penguin came out of the sea, spent a bit of time drying herself on the beach, then another one 10 minutes later. Nothing much happened for another while – there were 2 or 3 penguins on the beach, standing there waiting. Then, a penguin appeared on the hill, hopping towards us. Now, these are fairly steep hills, with plenty of vegetation – I would not like to have to climb up from the beach, and I have 2 hands and fairly good feet. Imagine a penguin hopping its way up this hill – exhausting work I’d say, and that little penguin took a few breaks on the way, then hopped right past us into a bush, and came out again, this time with a slightly smaller penguin in tow (its young, I presume), took a look at us (and the other 20 people there), and went back into the bush. After another while, and a little further on, we saw a baby penguin, all fluffy and cute, hopping past us and into a bush. The best pickup cure after a long drive. We took plenty of pictures, needless to say.

And here we are, and the weather at the Otago peninsula still hasn’t lifted (it lifts for a bit, then comes down again), but my battery is nearly out, so no more writing until we get back to the campsite this evening, when I’ll tell you all about Sydney, the first leg of our journey.

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