Otago Peninsula Report

Greetings from a Dunedin internet cafe. I just returned (by bus) from two days/night out on the Otago peninsula, which is an old-fashioned oasis of wildlife refuges and sheep farms, on a bony finger of green land that juts out into the ocean from downtown Dunedin. I stayed at “Bus Stop Backpackers” which included an old-fashioned cottage with several shared rooms, a private double bed in an old caravan (actually, a converted “cattle trailer” permanently parked out behind in a pleasant landscape of cottage gardens), or a private double in an old green bus, permanently perched on the hillside just meters up from the sheltered harbor shoreline. For $23 NZ, the place came with an indoor kitchen, garden seats for dining, an antique radio that picked up an eclectic mix of jazz, r-&-b, and blues, and a snuggly cat (Georgie).

Bus Stop Packpackers' Hostel

Obviously, I enjoyed it a great deal. Picturesque and peaceful. The hillside ran straight up, above the hostel, to a high pasture where sheep grazed and bleated softly throughout the mornings and evenings.

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As soon as I arrived, I hitched a ride out to the farthest tip of the peninsula, to the head where the Royal Albatross center protects and interprets the only mainland colony of albatross found anywhere in the world. These albatross, I was told, tend to their nests this time of year, but on of the pair will usually get active in late afternoon, and start fishing. Not a sight I wanted to miss! Adult Royal Albatross have wingspans of 8 meters, and are so aerodynamically efficient they rarely “flap” their wings at all — all they need to do is adjust the angle of the wing, or tilt a set of feathers this way or that, and they lift or lower or bank accordingly. At the head of the peninsula, tour-buses and cars pull up, and most don’t want to pay the entrance fee to view the colony up close — they just stand in the parking lot, looking hopefully up into the air. The air is full of gulls and shags and a hodge-podge of other sea-birds, and a lot of tourists point hopefully at this or that large bird, getting it wrong.

Royal Albatross Center

The albatross may not be in the air at all, for hours — but when they are, they are not mistaken for something else. They appear suddenly, soaring clockwise around the conical stone head of the peninsula, not moving their giant wings at all. The albatross look like hang-gliders, or ultra-light cargo planes, more than birds: one is awestruck as they glide overhead.

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A few minutes later, the same bird drifts by again, still moving clockwise. It merely hangs in the wind, effortlessly riding circularly in currents where the other seabirds struggle and pitch and whirl and flap and screech. After an hour or two looking through the interpretive center and watching the birds from the patio, with a cup of coffee, I bought a ticket for the last tour of the day, and went up with a few other tourists. The walking route is a steep zigzag with a tour guide, to reach the pinacle of the peninsula, which includes a “hide” shelter with mirrored glass, for viewing the birds on the other side. The closest bird was only a few meters beyond the hide! A huge bird, it was resting over a recently hatched chick. Several other nests were visible, but the albatross nests are well spaced. By contrast, the shag nesting area just below (on the steepest bare-rock-and-guano bank), resembled a condominium complex, with bird-by-bird-by-bird.

Albatross, after mating for life, fly off alone to circumnavigate the waters of the Southern Ocean, off Antarctica. Most, it is understood, fly all the way to the waters between Antarctica and South America. They are at sea for a year at a clip, resting only on the surface of the water. When they are about 8 years old, they fly back to the same colony where they were born, and reunite with their mate, and if their reunion is successful, produce one giant egg. After a very long incubation period, they (hopefully) produce one chick. After raising the chick, they fly off in different directions again, completely exhausted by parenting. They take a year off, and return the next year. Albatross live to be very old – perhaps 60 years old – but their reproduction rate is low, so they are specially protected. It was truly fantastic to view them – dozens of them in the air, and on nests.

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With one day of “exploration time” remaining, I woke early the next morning wishing vaguely that I had a car for one day. So much to explore! I set off walking with a map, a bottle of water, some dried fruit, a book, and my camera. One little by-road led to another — I walked the back side of the peninsula, on graveled roads that wound and curved in and out of bayside coves where the map showed them going straight around, and only straightened out to climb “straight” up and over more steep hills.

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Walking gravel roads...

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Finding a walking route (Nyhon Track) I followed it up into the steep hillside where flocks of sheep where grazing, oblivious to the incredible views beneath them. Emerging back onto Sandymount gravel road on the other side of the ridge, I walked around to Ridge Road, and down through more sheepfarm fields into sand dunes until I came at last to Sandfly Bay. It was blisteringly hot, and I cooled my feet in a freshwater stream where it flowed down to the sea. That wasn’t cold enough, so I went out to walk in the waves. Further down the beach, there was a “hide” constructed for viewing the elusive yellow-eyed penguin, which I spent several hours in (without luck). These penguins are very shy, and sneak out of their nests in the grass and dune scrub very early in the morning, and spend the day at sea, fishing. Sometimes (this time of year they have hungry chicks in the nest) they come back ashore during the day, but I was not lucky enough to see this phenomenon. Below, a great sea-lion basked in the sun. Having been chased off a beach by a sea-lion in the Catlins, I gave him plenty of room when I walked back down the beach. I sat in the sand, and finished speed-reading a short strange novel by D. Adams (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency) – author of Hitchhiker’s Guide… which included, among other things, time travel, some very early models of Macintosh computers (!), and the albatross of Ancient Mariner fame. Then I walked (by now, trudged) back up the steep sand dunes and sheep pastures to reach the “Highcliff Road” back down into Portobello.

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I tried my luck at hitching a ride, as I was getting weary (it was still very hot and I was down to a few sips of water) — but did not get a ride until I was about 2 kilometers from Portobello. A woman picked me up and said I could ride in the back of the car, with her son. I asked him what he’d done today, and he kept me entertained with a litany of all the various errands on which he’d accompanied her, the names of his pets, etc. She dropped me in Portobello, where I decided to celebrate my long day with a liter of ice-water and a small cold beer at the Portobello pub. I sat under the shade of an umbrella, and was soon joined by a couple from British Columbia. We got along quite well, and had a lovely conversation about our various impressions of New Zealand. They love it so much they are coming back in November to spend “5 MONTHS” — a notion which left me completely envious. They gave me a lift back up the harbor to my hostel, just to be nice.

Now I am heading to Christchurch on the Atomic Shuttle bus, for a final night’s stay at the Windsor Hotel, since they were so wonderful to me when I was heading to/from Antarctica. I leave for CONUS (Continental United States — an Antarctic program acronym) tomorrow afternoon (1-25-06). Sniff. Tomorrow afternoon I’ll pick up my Antarctic duffel from storage, and then — well — it feels like I should be getting my orange ECW bags and suiting up in my parka, and catching the next transport plane back down to the Ice!

At the risk of sounding greedy: I’m not really ready to stop traveling! At every hostel, I seem to meet 20-year-old girls who are heading off to see the world, with “working visas” to spend a year in New Zealand alone. I could keep going, letting each day unfold as it wishes. This time of travel has been so incredible — so good for my spirit — and so mind-expanding — in short, I have felt truly “alive” during the last several months.

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