As we leave Akaroa, the weather clears and we finally have unobstructed views of our surroundings. Hot damn, New Zealand. You purdy. We’re headed south toward Dunedin, but will be making a few pitstops along the way.
First up: Oamaru. We arrive an hour or so before sunset, allowing us enough light to clearly make out the signs for the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. Oh snap. Excitement levels in the campervan just got bumped up a notch. Nanner already got to see llamas on the side of the road on the drive down (the result of a prompt U-turn upon their discovery), now penguins!? I know. Enough to make Nanner’s little head explode.
She excitedly shouts directions as we pass more signs for the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. We pull off the main road and approach…could it be? A pier full of penguins!? Well, no. A close second though. Apparently pied shags frequent this pier in the evening, which makes for some good pictures. Just a bit further down the road, we find the real Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony where a colony of blue penguins has been coming to nest in this area for some time (Nanner would like to point out that these are the smallest penguins in the world and are quite rare). It appears this company came in and built a protected habitat for the penguins which now doubles as a tourist attraction. Tourists can pay to view the penguins come ashore just after sunset from the bleachers they’ve constructed around the nesting area. Tickets are about 50$ for the two of us, which seems kind of steep, but I don’t think we can risk missing what could be the only opportunity to see penguins (very untrue, come to find out)! So, we decide to buy some tickets, make some dinner, and wait for sundown.
After we down a few quesa dillers back at the van, it’s already time for penguins. We grab our seats and wait for the little buggers to arrive. Don’t get your hopes up. We don’t have pictures for this portion of the evening, as cameras are not allowed. Fine by me. A nice break from technology. Sure enough, the little guys come swimming into the shore and onto the rocks. Much less gracefully than anticipated, I might add. These guys are indeed pretty tiny (just about a foot tall). They wait in groups of five to ten, scoping out the situation, before waddling with a purpose towards the entrances to the nesting ground. This continues for about an hour and a half before we decide to head out. Since we purchased premium tickets, we were able to walk back along a wooden walkway that winds through the nesting ground. In typical creeper fashion, we sneak along the shadows waiting for the penguins to waddle back to the nests where their mates await them. It is at this point we discover how loud these little bastards are. Most of them seem to be calling for their little blue lovers, but others appear to be battling it out for places to sleep. So, naturally, we creep along here for about another hour as the remaining visitors exit past us and the silent stare of the employee seems to tell us it’s time to peace out. Back in the parking lot, we continue to hear a bunch of loud squawking, but a bit closer this time. A few of the penguins have waddled out into the parking lot to find us creepin’ on them, yet again. We hang out for a bit and snag some documentation of the birds before heading out to find our camp site.
Our amazing (and free) app, CamperMate, informs us that there is a car park right on the beach about 30 minutes away in Kakanui. All we have is the moonlight now, so we can’t be too picky. So, we follow the directions and pull up to what seems to be a pretty sweet camp site right on the cliff. There’s about seven other cars/vans there, so we’re confident it’s the right place. (They take a 5 NZD donation, but we weren’t sure where to put it…don’t tell!).
The next morning is awesome and horrible at the same time. Awesome because the site teeters on a beautiful and protected beach. Horrible because as I look out, there is a perfect, friendly swell coming in toward the shore and I have yet to score a surfboard. Womp wooomp! I know, life’s hard.
Onward! To Dunedin! …sike! We don’t drive 10 km before we stop again to see something epic and clearly labeled on a sign (something you quickly become accustomed to in NZ, especially in the south island). This time it’s the Moeraki boulders (and a llama). Pretty cool pit stop, considering its free (unless of course you use the amazing private walkway for 2 NZD). Let me take this opportunity to mention a nugget of advice: whenever there is a charge to see a natural attraction in NZ, walk like 100 feet (I apologize to my technical friends who cringe at my use of inconsistent unit systems) in either direction and you can probably see it for free. To Dunedin! Forreal this time!
We quickly take a liking to this Boulder-sized university town. Friendly people, good vibes, right on the beach, things to do, and minutes away from crazy terrain. We start off by attempting to be real tourists. Stop at the Cadbury factory. Discover tours are like 20 NZD. Promptly leave the Cadbury factory. We hear there are a few museums and art galleries in the area, so we decide to check out a free one nearby. We’re in and out in 10 minutes. Alright, let’s be real. We left our interest in museums and galleries in Europe. Let’s go see the good stuff.
First, I manage to delay us for about 2 hours in my search for a surfboard. After almost giving up and visiting about five shops, we enter Board Base. Me: “Excuse me. How much for this board?” Him: “Hmm, about 400 bucks, aye.” Me: (Clearly disappointed). Him: “…but I have an absolute piece of crap in the back I can sell for 100!” Me: “Sold.” The shop owner, Paul, hooks it up with the board, some wax, and loads of info about where to go in the region. Well worth the time spent in the search.
As per Paul’s advice, we head straight to the end of the Otago peninsula to see the royal albatross sanctuary. We didn’t pay to get in (another 20 bucks or so), but you have plenty of opportunities to see the huge birds flying overhead. The wind must have been 50 kmph up there, but these guys slice through it like butter.
Next on the to-do list, as per Surf-shop-Paul: Sandfly Bay. We wind our way back into another small nook, tucked away from sight in the nethermost region of the peninsula. This place. Is epic. (Side-note: Sandfly Bay would certainly become one of the main highlights of our NZ trip. And what do you hear about Sandfly Bay before coming to NZ? Nothing. Until now of course!) We park the van, fill ourselves a mug of wine, and head down the windy (as in, hurricane style wind) path. Victory at sea! The gail has churned the ocean into an frothy salt bath. Just offshore, the wind and water smash against a single rock cliff that protrudes stubbornly from the sea, awaiting its inevitable demise. We scramble down huge sand dunes and arrive at the beach below. A European couple (there are probably only half a dozen people here) shouts to us that they see some yellow-eyed penguins, high up on the hill! I bust out the telephoto to have a look. Yes! Penguins! We take turns looking into the camera and take a few pictures before moving on (semi-hilarious side-note: upon further inspection back in the lab [i.e. Tim Tam the Campervan], these penguins on the hill are wooden cutouts! Ha! What the hell! We spent like 20 minutes looking at those things!)
Just below the fake penguins, there are a few sea lions lying lazily on the sand near the cliffs. We would find quite a few of these blubbery beasts sprinkled throughout the bay, not really caring to move for anyone. As we move further down the beach, the sun begins to set and there begins a spurt of activity. Just as they did in Oamaru, penguins begin to waddle ashore to post up for the night; this time, larger yellow-eyed penguins. Nanner springs into action! Camera in hand, she sprints off toward the dune where some penguins just waddled behind. She snags some digital memories and we head back up the dunes to the van, fully satisfied with our experience.
We load up and head for the camp spot Paul suggested: Long Beach, just outside of Dunedin. We arrive to this small community after dark. They have a nicely manicured park a short walk away from the beach. We debate for quite a while where to park because there are no other vans and a sign at the main park entrance that says no camping. We were assured by the local surf shop owner himself, however, that this would be a good spot for us to camp due to the surf potential and sport routes bolted in the area. In the end, we find a little cut away in the vegetation off to the far left of the park and pull in for the night.
The next day, we have no tickets, but still feel as if we broke some rules. With no swell out front and the bolts looking a bit rusty for climbing, we opt to just explore the sea caves at the end of the beach (where apparently there are raves from time to time). Anna goes for a quick run on the beach and we’re out. Headed south to the Catlins.
Map of our route: