Watching everything but whales

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Friday, March 11, 2011

From Glacier Land we continued our tour round South Island, crossing over through Wanaka and Cromwell to the east coast. In Cromwell we stopped off to visit an old gold mining site, look at the equipment used and the miners homes, and try our hand at gold panning. I was surprised to hear that many of the early miners were Chinese. Our guide made the point that few of the miners made any money as the large companies and business men of the time tied everything up so that miners had to pay them high rates for food, water, hire of equipment etc. and by the time they had paid all these charges and visited the bars they rarely had money left over. Gold mining, even panning, requires a lot of water.

The panning was good, so much so that I think Richard and I showed early symptoms of gold fever, but Beverley and Jim removed us from danger before we became addicted. Richard did manage to find a couple of specks of gold that were duly saved in a little bottle, (see pic).

Next stop was Oamaru on the east coast. It is a small town with some interesting stone buildings (unusual in the smaller NZ towns), which were all built towards the end of the Nineteenth Century when it enjoyed an economic boom. Now there is an effort to preserve their heritage resulting in some idiosyncratic stopping places, an old bookbinders where the staff are in period costume, a radio museum in a little room housing the local radio station, staffed when we looked in by two very elderly little white haired men as near to leprechauns as I have ever seen, and a second hand bookshop where the lady proprietor wears tweeds, enters every sale in a leather bound ledger using a fountain pen from her pen and ink stand.

We went to see the Oamaru little blue penguin colony around sunset when they return to their nests on land, after spending all day since sunrise at sea, travelling anything from 30 to 50 kilometres. To protect the colony it is necessary to enter the viewing area where a stand has been erected to allow the public to view without stressing the penguins. If they are stressed an adrenaline reaction is triggered which can cause a heart attack. They are very small weighing only about 2 kilos. Also, flash photography can damage their eyes so no photography at all is allowed because as it approaches sunset most cameras would use a flash. It is great that such measures are in place to ensure the survival of the colony but they have a cost. It is approximately 12.50 to visit although we benefited from the seniors' discount and paid only 10!

One day we drove out from the town into the surrounding area and just pottered around, almost at walking speed, in the car. We found a little hamlet called Duntroon which had an old gaol house, an old blacksmiths which is being restored with the original tools and equipment, a little church and a lovely cafe called The Flying Pig which had a pretty rose garden, delicious food and was painted a slightly bilious shade of purple-pink. The local tourist information has prepared a route called Vanishing world, taking in fossil sites and unusual rock formations. We visited a few of these and although we could not really identify the elephants at Elephant Rocks it made an unusual tour and took us to places that we would not have found on our own. At Earthquakes ( where it looks as if the land has risen as a result of an earthquake but it hasn't) I saw a Morepork (NZ owl) perched on a branch so it was worth going for that alone.

We travelled further south to Dunedin (which is the Scottish Gaelic word for Edinburgh), and immediately regretted it. Dunedin was fine but the weather had changed with daytime temperatures of 9 to 11 degrees Celsius. It was back to thermals and socks for bed, especially as we stayed in a standard cabin there at a holiday park. In reality the cabin could easily have been mistaken for a garden shed and had the same level of insulation. However, we survived and visited the area towards Invercargill, stopping off at the largest petrified forest in the world. It seems the forest was soaked in liquid silica and frozen quickly so that the wood turned to stone.

Dunedin itself had just a few jewels, the Cathedral, the Presbyterian Church, the Settlers Museum and the Victorian railway station. The station was a wonderful surprise with overly elaborate decoration everywhere that surprisingly produces a charming building.

After visiting the town centre in the morning we then went out onto the Otago Peninsular to the Royal Albatross colony where again it was expensive to view the birds but we decided it was a must. The birds are huge with a wing span up to 3 metres and they have a fascinating lifestyle. Apart from coming ashore to nest, which they do every other year when they are adults, they spend all their time alone at sea. When the young bird is fledged it takes off to sea alone and doesn't return for perhaps 3 or 4 years when it comes to find a mate (but if I remember correctly, they don't mate the first year they are together), then off they both go on their separate ways until the next year. They mate for life but only meet at breeding time every other year. Hmmmmm, no comment on the grounds that it might get me into trouble!

Then we really indulged ourselves by going to the Penguin Place next to see a colony of Yellow-eyed penguins. This is privately run as the land is owned by the proprietors, but it is licensed as they have a penguin hospital to help restore sick or injured birds back to the wild and they are protecting and restoring the indigenous habitat that the birds need. The Yellow-eyed penguins are an endangered species of penguin with only about 3,000 left, 2,000 of which nest on islands to the south of NZ. We saw them ashore, near their nests because they were moulting. Usually they are difficult to see because they fish alone and return to their nests individually any time between 3pm and darkness which can be 9pm or later in mid summer. They replace their feathers each year and during the moulting period they cannot go to sea. So they eat a huge amount just before they start to moult and that has to keep them going during the 3 to 4 weeks it takes for the new feathers to develop and become waterproof. Normally they weigh around 5 kilos, they go up above 7 kilos in preparation for moulting and then fall to around 4 before they are ready to start fishing again. They look so sorry for themselves when they are moulting but I suppose I would if I couldn't eat for 4 weeks!

So we were having a great day and it did not end there. We drove around the coast road on the peninsular from bay to bay seeing the usual sea birds, then suddenly we turned into a new bay and there were about 100 black swans in the water, around the next bay I spotted a NZ kingfisher and then realised there were 3 more perched close by. How often do you get to see 4 kingfishers at one time???? I was just saying to Jim what a great day we had had and only seeing a spoonbill could improve it further when we turned into the next bay and in front of us were 2 spoonbills. Wow, it could not get better than that!

I have almost finished the bird tales but have to add that the next day, after travelling to Kaikoura we saw a couple of Shining Cuckoos.

Kaikoura is the whale watching capital of NZ. It is very small but perfectly positioned between the sea and a range of snow topped mountains. After staying a couple of nights we headed back to the Interislander ferry from Picton to Wellington to make our way back to Hamilton.

So now we are preparing to fly to Brisbane, tomorrow, Saturday 12th March. We have had a great time in NZ – we love the cleanliness, (never see litter anywhere), and the pride that Kiwis take in their country and lifestyle, we soon became fans of savoury muffins (had some salmon ones at a salmon farm and they were so delicious we could have stayed there eating them for a week), we are constantly being stunned by the scenery, the walks, the wildlife, and we appreciated the efficiency and availability of good quality motels which provide kitchens in their units (studios, 1 or 2 bedrooms). On the other hand we could give the sand flies a miss, pesky little horrors that bite with glee. We made the mistake of opening the car doors in one spot and spent the next hour killing the tiny vampires. When you squash them some leave a smear of blood showing they have just bitten someone – gruesome.

We were lucky in being able to travel so far and see so much and this was mainly as a result of Richard and Beverley's (and their friends) generosity in sharing their home, and loaning us their car. Plus it was cheaper to travel as a foursome because we could share a 2 bedroom unit and other costs. So a big thank you to everyone for their hospitality.
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