March of the (wee Blue) Penguins

Trip Start Feb 26, 2010
Trip End Feb 26, 2011

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Where I stayed
Trotters Gorge Scenic Reserve

Flag of New Zealand  , Otago,
Thursday, November 4, 2010

It was raining when I opened my eyes at about 7.45am but somehow by the time I got out of the van to go and make breakfast in the camp kitchen something miraculous had happened and the sun was shining. I cooked up egg on toast and delivered it to the van where Andrew was publishing the blog for the last couple of days.  We left leaving the campsite until the death (10am) as we had paid for 24 hour internet access as it was the value option and we weren't sure if we would be staying at the same campsite tonight.  From driving through the city yesterday it seemed like a really lovely place full of busy pavement cafes and individual fashion boutiques. The famous 'Octagon’ in the centre of the town is set around a statue of Scotland’s favourite son poet Robbie Burns which underlines the cities Scottish heritage (settlers from Scotland including Robbie Burns’ nephew arrived in 1848).  In fact the elderly pastor that we met in Abel Tasman told me that Dunedin actually means New Edinburgh and the city actually has many of the same named suburbs in and around it’s midst.  The place even has its’ own tartan and locals are well known for ‘rolling their R’s’.

Anyhow, as lovely as it is the city didn’t really hold much interest for us as being on a budget we weren’t in the position to while away hours sat in cafes drinking coffee and sampling the fine food on offer (big shame).  Neither did Speight’s Brewery Tour of Cadbury’s World Tour so our first tourist attraction was Baldwin Street hailed as the steepest paved street in the world and acknowledged by the Guinness Book Of World Records.  It was quite close to our camp site in the North East Valley so didn’t take us long to get there and we could tell we were getting closer as the streets to our right kept getting steeper and steeper.  This place is the location for the annual Gutbuster challenge and the Cadbury’s Carnival each year where during the former locals race up and down the street and the latter chocolates are rolled down (I know which one I’d be attending).  We left the Gimp at the bottom of the main gradient (you know as responsible hire people) and began the steep ascent. 

There were great views from the top of the street and a thoughtful bench and water fountain for those in need which is a nice touch.  Having seen and walked Lombard Street in California, the windiest (as in twists and turns) street in the world we had to do this too.  We watched as jokers in their campervans sounded as if they were going to blow up their engines as they revved their way up the hill whilst the Gimp had a little rest at the bottom and waited patiently for us.  There were loads of tour buses pulling up at the bottom of the street to get a picture of the street sign but not venturing up to the lofty heights.  From here we had a lovely drive out to the Otago Peninsula – what we had really come here for.  Passing through lovely Portobello it was a world away from the city quaint little picture postcard bays with little fisherman’s huts on the water. Then we took the detour off the ‘main road’ up towards Larnach Castle, New Zealand’s only castle. To try to take a sneaky photograph without paying but we couldn’t see a thing and had to turn around in front of the pay kiosk with the attendant waving us through with a knowing nod.  It was worth the detour though for the stunning views of Dunedin Harbour and the Peninsula itself.

At the end of the peninsula we stopped at the Royal Albatross Centre, the only place in the world where these kings of the skies nest on the mainland.  The viewing centre was closed at this time of year, as we knew, so we tried to get a look from the car park – lots of Shags etc but no Albatross that we could see – we didn’t mind though as we had seen them in Kaikoura and our main reason for the drive was to check out Pilot’s Beach below the Albatross Centre, the home to a colony of Little Blue Penguins the smallest in the world at only 26cm tall.  We checked the DOC information board which said that the penguins had emerged from their days fishing last night at 8.20pm so we knew what time to return later in the day, this time without a bag of wine.

With a few hours to spare we parked up outside last nights camp site to get in range of the internet signal so we could use up the rest of our pre-paid WIFI.  This was great and enabled us to start planning our route around South America - not easy task – we are talking HUGE areas to cover.  By the time we were chucked off we had eaten our value Domino’s pizza (2.50) and headed back over to the peninsula to make a few detours on the way to Pilot’s Beach.  Our first stop was Port Chalmers the cutsey, bohemian village nestled along the Northern shore of the peninsula.  There was a huge cruise ship in the port full of passengers wandering around the deck when we arrived at the observation point and a wacky guy wearing a wizard’s cape and tooting from a fake pipe complete with cotton wool as fake!  We left with a smile on our faces, what an eccentric place.  Next we stopped off at Sandfly Bay a beautiful beach that was home to more Hooker’s Sea Lions basking in the sunshine.  We didn’t hang around for too long though as it was getting nearer and nearer to dusk and the time when the Little Blue Penguins would be coming ashore so we drove over to Pilot’s Beach again and took up our places behind the fence along the rocks.

It was a gorgeous night (Andrew Edit - The sunset was fantastic) and a few other couples started to join us as time crept on.  Shortly before 8.30pm a volunteer showed up from the DOC (just to make sure nobody was getting too close or using the flash on their camera) who gave us a brief talk on the little fellas, which he called ‘wee blues’ (Andrew Edit - Again a Scottish'ism) and how to behave around them – as we were sat slap bang in the middle of their habitat.  Even before the guy had finished the talk one ‘early bird’ was on the beach and waddling towards the rocks.  I was shocked at how small he actually was – absolutely tiny and the cutest thing since the Tarsier in the Philippines.  Over the next couple of hours we watched a beautiful sunset and more and more come ashore, in groups called ‘rafts’, to join the first one that had waited for his mates to come in with the sound of the chicks shrieking in the background.  As it went dark the DOC chap told us to sit on the rocks along the grass as the penguins might come close on their way back to their burrows.  Sure enough they did and one almost walked across my foot – the DOC guy had to keep a red torch light on them at this stage so we could see where they were, how they ever got back to their burrows I don’t know.

As the last few waddled passed us we headed back up the path to the car park and solved a mystery that had been plaguing the DOC for a while.  One little penguin had made it all the way up the path in front of us and was half way up a wire fence climbing through a small hole in the wire.  Apparently despite best efforts to keep them within the boundary two pairs were still nesting outside along the road leaving them open to predator attacks and passing cars.  We backed out of the car park WITH EXTREME CARE and had picked up a hitch hiker at the colony from Canada.  We dropped her off at Portobello and started our dark drive to Moeraki and a DOC campsite out of Dunedin.  It took a couple of hours to do the drive and at about midnight we got to the reserve where wild rabbits were everywhere running around the Gimp.  Andrew was straight off to sleep but I couldn’t resist looking back over the photographs of an amazing night. (Andrew Edit - Poor man has hardly had any sleep all week after driving miss daisy!).
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