Friday, 31 October 2008

P...p...p...pick up a penguin

I was thinking today that Scotland´s Autumn colours will be looking their best at the moment. I bet the Perthshire hills and lochs are just ablaze with gold, bronze, amber and red. Lots of things about New Zealand kept reminding us of home. In the north island of NZ there was lots of heather planted around the hills of the 3 active volcanoes of Mount Ruapehu, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe. The plants were all imported from Scotland years ago and they are apparently very popular for wedding photo backdrops when they are resplendent in their proud purple bloom.
The scenery of the south island is really like Scotland. Everything just seems a bit bigger than normal! But some of the native species of animals are very different. In Scotland, you won´t find any penguins or sea lions outside of Edinburgh zoo. We made it our mission to see a penguin in the wild and in NZ there are lots of opportunities for catching sight of them.
On the east coast of the south island we drove to the town of Oamaru, famous for its Whitestone cheese factory and blue penguins. I hadn´t realised how shy penguins are. They have built a grandstand for enthusiasts to watch the penguins come ashore at dusk but also to keep onlookers at a safe distance. Sadly, it was a bit expensive and we didn´t fancy the idea of watching penguins from a grandstand. That wasn´t how we envisaged our first experience of encountering penguins in the wild. David Attenborough doesn´t build grandstands, now, does he? So, we spent all our money at the cheese factory instead. Undoubtedly the best cheese we tasted in the whole of NZ. They also make a delicously tangy lemon cheesecake.
In Oamaru you can also buy genuine NZ whisky. A warehouse specializes in bottling from casks of the now defunct Wilson´s Distillery of Dunedin. Pretty good it was too with a sea saltiness not unlike Old Pultney. Penguins vs. cheese and whisky was always going to be a tough one. This time the penguins lost..

Journeying south down the east coast, the good weather and beautiful scenery trapped us in the Otago Peninsula. Once again I was reminded of home. The high cliffs, rolling green fields and golden sands transported me back to the north east coastline of Scotland.
At Sandiford Beach we went in search of the shy yellow penguins that can be spotted there. Instead, we found a colony of not-at-all shy sea lions and a fully naked batch of young lads running in and out of the cold waves. And the sea lions were by far the scariest of the two. As we walked along the beach, we got too close to one sea lion, who sneezed at us with contempt, reared up on its hind and then charged towards us with ungainly but frightening speed. I´m sure there is a whole list of sensible things that you should do when this happens but we just panicked and ran as fast as we could. Picture an angry Sumo wrestler plunging across a beach on their belly at what seems a physically impossible velocity and you have a fairly accurate idea. Scary. As hell. Maybe the naked men had some method to their madness? The group of girls situated on the hillside overlooking the beach, who made good use of our binoculaurs, certainly thought so! The penguins stayed well clear. With all that going on, who can blame them?

Our luck finally changed after a wee walk to the islolated Munro Beach on the west of the south island. A boulder marked the point where it was best to stop so as not to disturb the Fjordland penguins who were currently breeding. A few sets of footprints in the sand beyond this point was evidence of some foolish human visitors who obviously felt they knew better. Void of grandstands, the temptations of cheese or whisky, naked men or sea lions; we waited patiently with the binoculaurs. 15 mins past and I spotted a black shape bobbing and weaving in and out of the waves. Was it just a piece of drift wood? It seemed to be letting the tide do all the hard work of bringing it to shore. When the shape reached the sand, stood up on its feet and flapped its wings, I nearly screamed with excitement. No, not another naked man, a real live penguin. Our very own. It stopped to look our way for a few seconds and then waddled off to the safety of the rocks. Eat your heart out David Attenborough!

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