Big Question Marks

Thursday, October 6, 2011

On A Penguin and Mountain High

Hello from gorgeous and cold New Zealand! It's been a crazy couple of days already, but since we scored some free wifi, we thought we'd take advantage and write a little update. 

We arrived in Christchurch to freezing cold weather and just an hour after an aftershock (damn!) on the 4th. Met up with our friends Stephane and Jenny and we're picking up where we left off in 2008 when we parted ways in Melbourne- they're perfect travel companions. Got our car and cruised around Christchurch as Disaster Papparazzi (hey, I call it photojournalism!) -- seeing all sorts of cracked, condemned, and empty houses, shops, and streets. The city centre is fenced off, crumbled, and deserted, and there are workmen about but that's all -- Adrian said it well when he remarked it felt like something out of a zombie movie!

From there, we drove inland on a dreary and cold afternoon after a big breakfast at Denny's (yes, the American chain!!) towards Mount Cook, watching the mountains in front of us get taller and taller, and oohing and aahing and stopping the car every time we saw a snow-capped peak peeking out from the clouds. And nearly every landscape belonged to us-- there's a certain feeling around the South Island that I've experienced only in the Aussie Outback: a huge sky, a massive landscape, and a peaceful and profound emptiness-- solitude, I guess. Very hard to describe! (Has anyone else felt this sort of thing? Help!)

It cleared up just as we hit Lake Tekapo, a beautiful blue glacial lake. We kept on until we hit Mount Cook Village in the evening, a contrived little ski chalet-feeling settlement  built in a flat valley beneath towering mountains with a posh hotel, 2 hostels, and a couple of houses for the Department of Conservation - Mt Cook is NZ's highest mountain at 3700m or so, though not that tall by Canadian or European standards- but still pretty amazing. We stayed and ate in this lovely "Backpacker Lodge" with a pub decorated with deer head hunting trophies and great beer called Tui on tap -- unfortunately the "grocery stores" were basically a few items of junk food and instant noodles behind the hostel reception desk. Ugh. So much for saving money by cooking! Every room had a view of the mountains that was almost too perfect-- it felt constantly like we were looking at a painting, not a real scene!

This morning we set off for a hike to Mt Cook lookout, a really cool trail running along the valley floor through grass and lots of spiky plants. We got close to the mountains and another turquoise lake at the lookout and heard a BOOM and a rumbling sounding something like a big truck going over a bridge on a highway... this happened a few more times, minutes apart, before we saw what it was: avalanches high up in the snowy mountains! Just crazy. We hiked another trail later on to Tasman Lake, in the same area, and this time found a huge blue lake with giant ice chunks floating in it-- that didn't look that big until we saw a teeny little yellow tour boat cruising between the icebergs.... and we realized how warped our sense of perspective is.

After our mountain hikes we headed back to the coast in our car, passing rolling hills, perfectly still lakes, and many, many sheep (with which we play our very favourite country-driving game... honking at sheep and making them hop and run this way ad that.... a forgotten pleasure from our drives around Tasmania, but somehow a game Stephane and Jenny also know! Maybe it's universal?) We made it to the coastal town of Oamaru about two hours before dusk, and checked out the Blue Penguin Centre to find out about seeing the little blue penguins the town, and this part of the coast, is known for. Turns out they've turned the place into sort of a Phillip Island (Australia) style circus-- $25 to sit in the grandstand and watch the penguins swim into shore from the ocean. 147 penguins counted last night, they kept telling us! We sort of wondered if we could just spot some on our own, and then one of the ladies at the centre let it slip in hushed tones that: "If you drive to this spot on the map right now, it'll take you only about 5 minutes to get there, and if you look hard and peer into the bushes alongside this beach, you might see a yellow-eyed penguin, as they come in from the ocean around this time to their nests in the bushes, where they live and hide along this inlet". Why not? We thought.... we could always come back to the penguin circus later.

We get to the viewing area and it seemed the word was out -- there were 5 or so other cars parked there, and it actually wasn't long at all before we saw funny little shapes in the bushes on the steep incline from the beach. Penguins! More emerged from the grasses and we were totally photo happy... and even video happy, as we watched them build nests, shake their cute flipper arms, and make the weirdest bird noises ever (we'll edit the clips together and post them on the blog in the future). It was insane! They totally stole the spotlight from the adorable little seal flopping around on the beach far below, but ah well, these were really cute penguins! 

Finally the sun set and we were so full of penguin-spotting joy that we just headed to a hostel and a grocery store.... and then what do we learn from the lovely hostel manager? Well, if we just walk to the town pier, there should be plenty of the little blue penguins nesting along the rocks at night. Sure enough.... well, none of us have ever seen so many penguins in one day, but there is something about spotting rare (?) wildlife in their natural habitats that just gives you this amazing feeling of satisfaction. Euphoria, really! And so far New Zealand has been a continuous shot of pure euphoria. We can't wait to find out what comes next!

1 comment:

Sean said...

great stories guys, now let's see some picks and get the full story on your most recent adventure off the mountain....