Central Otago and Otago Peninsula
Okay, so where we? Driving along the Southern Scenic Route, we wrapped up our drive in Dunedin only to find out that the Cadbury chocolate factory tour, with the chocolate waterfall, was not happening. How awful! We grabbed Japanese for lunch, stopped at a lolly shop and a Scottish gift store to mosey around. Before we could spend too much time meandering around town, we decided to find a place to stay for the night. Due to Dunedin being a rather large city it is a little more difficult to find inexpensive places to stay. We happened to call a fairly inexpensive lodge on Otago Peninsula, where we were headed, but we had to check in before they left for the evening, so we drove to and around the windy roads on the coast of the peninsula. We checked into the lodge, a handful of small rooms with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities, and enjoyed our continued success of finding unique and cozy places to stay. While Dunedin appeared to be a very pleasant small city with much to do, we were on a mission. We wanted to grab a bite to eat on the go and head over to a beach where my guidebook promised there’d be penguins.
We stopped at Ric’s Galley and had some of the best fish and chips we’ve had yet, and some yummy bluff oysters. We grabbed it to go, wrapped in newspaper, and headed towards Pilots Point. We got down to the beach where in the last year a viewing platform was built and ate dinner in the company of some fur seals. Cute little buggers. After our furry friend got bored showing off for us, he jumped in the water and proceeded to spin away. Yep, he didn’t swim, he lolled on his back, to his front, to his back and continued that way until he was out of sight! Strange. I know it was a he, because the area was a getaway for young males to find safe harbor during mating season when the older males assert their dominance over them. It was still light out when a kind lady from the Albatross Colony Center came by to kick us out! That’s right! This past year they built a viewing platform over the penguin colony, and then charged $20 a person to see the penguins and limited the number of people who could visit! I appreciate the conservation and I’m happy that they are stopping obnoxious tourists from using flash photography around the penguins and scaring them away… but we wanted to meet a penguin! After some polite conversation about the sad state of the situation, the woman finally offered that we head to Allans Beach to try out luck.
After a fifteen minute drive or so, during which it was starting to get dark, we found our way to a path, across private land, to the beach. A huge beach, we didn’t know where to look, but we walked along looking for a good place to keep an eye out for penguins. Before we settled on a spot, we saw something move from out of the waves and we froze. We were clumsily standing in the middle of the beach! It could surely see us! And I suppose it did. But we wouldn’t move again. Frozen still, we saw a little blue penguin waddle over. Pause. Consider the two new human-shaped, brightly-colored ‘rocks’, and waddle past around us. Awwww! And then, several yards away, just before dusk fell so that we could not see, three yellow eyed penguins, a tad bit larger than the blue penguin with just a hint of yellow across the face came ashore and found their homes for the evening. Who needs a zoo when you can live in New Zealand? The peninsula was filled with all sorts of birds and animals, including a large family of black swans. (As noted before, light, especially camera flashes scare penguins and they will not return and will abandon their homes. Because they come out at night, they would not appear in a photo, so alas, no photos.)
So where do you go from here? Andrew and I stopped for some yummy coffee and delicious treats at the Otago Farmers Market in Dunedin at the the Railway Station the next morning. We tried some falafel, porridge with raspberry and black currant, a $4.50 lamb kebab wrap and local honey. We also bought some raspberries and venison pepperoni for the road. Which road? A scenic one of course!
We popped south just long enough to catch a road headed north through the Rock and Pillar range. I didn’t know quite what that was, but it sounded cool. And it was! We later found out, though we also figured so when we saw it, it was where the Wargs chased the Dwarves, Hobbit and Wizard in a scene for The Hobbit movie. We also saw, you guessed it, lots of sheep. And about this time I realized that throughout our journeys, I had seen a LOT of pooping animals. I suppose the odds are high when you pass this many sheep, but seriously, in Otago, I’m pretty sure one out of twenty animals I saw was popping a squat. Yup. Pleasant. But I’m glad I got that off my chest. Seriously animals, have some decency!
Otago is a very pleasant part of the country where it is common to rent a bike and ride around the gold tinged mountains and lands. We drove north through the cool rocks scattered throughout the grassy farmland and the mountains got bigger and bigger as we went along. No matter where we went, there were so many sheep. Some hills looked diseased with all of the little white sheep dotted all over! We swung through the Central Otago region, known for their Pinot Noir in mid-evening, so we did give in and went for a late wine tasting at Mount Difficulty Winery. While the area might be known for good Pinot Noir, and I’m sure it is, I prefer the more drinkable wines of the Marlborough or Bay of Islands regions. What can I say? We passed through some spectacular mountain region and got into a camp site at Lake Tekapo before dark to set up our tent. It was supposed to be a chilly night, but we had our sleeping bags and thermals!
We went into town to grab dinner but none of the shops were lit up at all! It was so hard to tell what was even open! Lake Tekapo is in the Mackenzie Basin, an area Internationally designated as a gold Dark Sky Reserve. Like a national park is protected from development, New Zealand has agreed to ensure that this area maintains such a low level of artificial light that the sky is exceptionally starry and the area is naturally dark. And our luck? It was a super clear night and it was a New Moon! Yes folks, no moon means the stars were out in force! Talk about feeling small! I cannot help but wonder how anyone could look at the night sky, see all these stars and planets and satellites and whatever else is out there and not wonder, what, where, why, how? To really get a good look at the night sky, Andrew drove us about ten miles out of the small town center and at the base of a small hill upon which Mt John University Observatory sits. We knew it would be deserted, as the facility closed at dusk, and it was several hours after sun down. But, when we turned off the car, including all the lights, it wasn’t dark. The stars were too bright! And there were… so… many…. stars
The night sky! One of my highlights of our trip that I just simply cannot share with you, but it was magnificent! I hope you take a moment to look outside tonight, because even if it’s just a star or two, they are (or were) so far away it really puts your existence on this tiny planet, in this tiny solar system, in this tiny galaxy into perspective in such a way that tiny really doesn’t begin to describe it. Just a spec in the universe, given this one life to explore, wander and adventure. And here my family back home thought New Zealand was far! Did you know Dennis Tito is planning on sending a couple to do a flyby of Mars in 2018. Too bad the age requirement is over 50. Maybe I can brew me up a Harry Potter Universe Aging Potion. Can you imagine what the stars would look like from space?! Alright, I digress. Back to my adventures on this planet.
After a night of camping, in which both our sleeping bag and thermal limits were tested, brrrr, we settled down for some hot coffee and to plan our day ahead. But first, we finally found a coffee shop with free wi-fi, so I was able to check in and found out that my interview had been postponed! Our trip could be extended by three more days in the south island. This news changed everything! But should we keep going north and slow down, or speed like madmen back to Invercargill and the Bluff to hop a ferry to Stewart Island? We bet on the kiwi’s of Stewart Island and extended our stay in the Otago region, this time taking a bee-line course for the anchor of New Zealand.
We still enjoyed the drive, because how could you not in New Zealand? We passed a beautiful scenic stop with a stunning view of Mount Cook! (Sorry about the blotch from my camera on the photo again. Yes, my computer animator partner has offered to take the blemishes out, but I hate doctored photos, so alas, you get the idea.) Around mid-day, we stopped for a locally brewed beer and fresh fruit smoothie. (Okay, Andrew had the beer, I had the smoothie.) And after passing fruit stand after fruit stand after fruit stand in the fruit growing region that is Otago, we picked up a basket of peaches.
Our family friend in Invercargill graciously let us stay another night before we caught the ferry the next morning. We brought back the peaches to his place and made Spicy Thai Basil Chicken and a Peach Crumble which we enjoyed over a few of bottles of wine, entertaining stories and great company.