Penguin crazy

Te Anau - Milford Sound - Catlins / Papatowai - Otago Peninsula

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Our car is stuck in between an enormous flock of sheep. Everywhere around us are sheep. Click here to enlargeDogs run from the end of the flock to the beginning, barking like crazy at straying sheep. To me it looks as if the whole flock is straying, the sheep stick to our road and are afraid to cross the small bridge over the brook leading to their new grazing grounds. Some 100 meters before us a tourist bus is stuck also. Tourist are spilling out, armed with photo and video cameraís, shouting enthusiastic over the heads of the sheep. The bus honks, but the driver is totally ignored: the sheep before him donít move and the tourist show even less signs of hearing him. Two shepherds come running, waving their sticks, shouting, and eventually a couple of sheep cross the small bridge, followed by the whole flock. At last the road before us is free, except for the tourist who are queuing to get into their bus again.

The road Click here to enlargefrom Queenstown to Te Anau follows a long lake in between mountains. Finally the road switches to the West and the landscape is more open. We have to drive at least 250 kilometer extra (one way) to reach Milford Sound from Queenstown, no other choice or you have to fly over the lake and the mountains or you can take a boat over the lake and walk the rest. We stopover in Te Anau on a very nice camping, totally Jac approved, maybe only a bit busy. By now we are used to have lots of space around our tent, preferable have our own picnic table, but here in Te Anau every tourist who wants to visit Milford Sound (that is everybody) camps. From here we have still 120 kilometer to drive to Milford Sound.

It rains when we drive to Milford Sound. Not unusual, we heard that it rains here 3 out of 4 days and Click here to enlargethe average amount of rain a year over here is 7 meter. The landscape is extremely beautiful in the rain, mysterious layers of mist hanging over enormous lakes hide far away mountains. I hope weíll have some dry spells in Milford Sound, but to be sure I explain to Jac there are some advantages to rain: the waterfalls are very impressive and the sandflies stay away. ĎSandflies?!í, Jac Ė who isnít as impressed as Iím by our surroundings - is suddenly awake. In Australia the flies annoyed him, but the sandflies here in New Zealand are even worse and they bite! Our ankles are covered with red splotches which itch terribly, especially at night when you try to sleep. I clarify to Jac that the sandflies here in Milford Sound and anyway in the whole Fjordland National Park, operate in enormous clouds. Jac answers that he understands now totally why nobody lives in the Fjordland. An enormous area, almost completely deserted, it either pours or you are eaten alive.

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But we are lucky and have a bit of sun during our boat trip in Milford Sound and Click here to enlargeon the water we have no problems with the sandflies. Milford Sound is one of the many fjords in this outstretched area. They are by mistake called ĎSoundsí, but a Sound is created by water filling a valley and a Fjord is made by ice. Dark, silent water in between towering walls, 700 meter high, making a sheer drop to 600 meter below water level. The higher tops of the mountains are even now, in Click here to enlargethe middle of the summer, covered with snow. Many waterfalls plunge the whole 700 meters down to the water, when it rains heavily some mountains change in enormous water walls. Sometimes a tree avalanche occurs, when one tree falls all the trees in an area of a hundred meters wide and 700 meter high are swept away and it can take up to 250 years till the trees grow again incredible high on the steep walls. Our boat runs in between the walls and then suddenly the fjord turns and we are out in the open sea. When we turn back the entrance has disappeared and only when we are quite close again we see the opening of the fjord. Cook missed it two times and later on it was discovered by accident, when a boat had to look for shelter in an enormous storm. That must have been a pleasant surprise!

Click here to enlargeTraveling back through the Milford Sound we see a rock full of seals, sleeping in the warm sun, one or two of them opening an eye to look at these boring tourist who pass them every hour and donít seem to lose their interest. The quiet beauty of Milford Sound is very impressing, the high walls mirroring themselves in the still water, I feel the place didnít really change in many centuries.

The next day we drive on to the South and get stuck on a very small unsealed road in between bulls. A flock of sheep is very interesting to watch, but to be right behind aboutClick here to enlarge thirty young bulls is a bit threatening. Of course we didnít forget about our 1000 Australian Dollar kangaroo accident and again in New Zealand we choose for 1000 dollar own risk, anyway, to pay for 35 days of extra insurance was already 850 dollars, so I found it useless to take total coverage. A sensible decision, but I am quite happy we are driving a harmless green much to small Ford in stead of a big red car! The bulls trample on, jumping nervously up and down, followed by the farmer driving in an old, small pickup Click here to enlargewith dogs leaping in and out at command. We are trapped behind them on the very small road for half an hour. Every time we hope they will enter the next field, we pass more than enough fields so that canít be the problem, but no. We hear a loud honk behind us and a woman passes us, driving like crazy. She almost bumps into a bull but honks and honks till the animals make a bit of room, she gives full throttle and squeezes her car through the small open space on the tiny road. Feeling slightly ridiculous and afraid we will be stuck here for the next hour we follow her quickly, nervously maneuvering as far away as possible from the aggressive horns. The bulls are foaming and the white in their large eyes gleams ferocious when they turn their heads to watch us.

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We end up in a very isolated place on the total South of the South island, Papatowai in ĎThe Catlinsí, Click here to enlargethe name of the nature area. Our camping has a small shop and a gas station, the only shop and gas station of the neighborhood, which is reflected by the high prices: unleaded fuel (the only choice you have) is 30% more expensive then in the small town 25 kilometers away. There are not many people on the camping, only a couple of familis, locals, who make an enormous amount of noise. They play music very loud, sing, drink to much and shout till late in the night. The next morning we pass there tents closely, whistling loudly in a pathetic attempt to take revenge. The owner of the camping explains to us that this afternoon and evening a big music festival will take place close by, the families are preparing themselves for this happening. From what we heard we are not especially interested in the festival and prefer to go to Nugget Point to visit the famous yellow eyed penguins, which prefer the quiet also.

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The road to Nugget Click here to enlargepoint is very small and partly unsealed. We drive uphill over the small red gravel road and have a beautiful view over the immense woods and the ocean. Downhill we visit a waterfall, the Catlins has a lot of interesting waterfalls, as indeed the whole of New Zealand. The last part of the road to Nugget point went strongly downhill and Jac Ė who warned me all the time not to drive so fast on the loose gravel Ė almost loses control of the car. Some scary moments we sway from the left of the road, where the road drips directly into the ocean, to the right where the rocks mark the end of the road, and back again. Just when I start to worry not only about our 1000 dollar but also about ourselves, Jac gets the car back under control and explains he didnít lose control for a moment. Since he is still driving I think it wiser not to comment and console myself with the thought that at least he wonít complain anymore about me driving to fast on gravel.

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It is extremely cold at Nugget Point. A strong wind blows directly from sea when we walk the couple Click here to enlargeof hundred meters to the shelter from where we can watch the penguins, who are supposed to come ashore here after a long day of fishing. No penguins to be seen at the moment and I canít blame them, it is much to cold. The coast is very rugged, many sharp cliffs and rocks everywhere, covered with thickly brushwood. The area is ideal for the yellow eyed penguin, who is in contrast to most penguins a real solitary animal and loves this isolated coast. These penguins live together with their mate, but have no contact with other pairs. There are only small numbers of the yellow eyed penguin left, possiblyClick here to enlarge because the quiet place and the special brushwood it needs for breeding are more and more difficult to find, even here in New Zealand. We wait and after half an hour we see the first penguin. At first we arenít sure if it is a penguin, something dark in the surf, but I saw already a lot of seals and whales which later revealed their real nature: rocks popping just out of the water. But then the dark spot suddenly rolls out of the surf, hops on its feet, totters to the beach, flutters it wings and starts to groom its feathers, cover them with fat, very important to make them waterproof again. Then it struggles over the rocks, surprisingly adroit with its clumsy feet, and disappears in the shrubs.

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More penguins arrive and with my 300 mm lens I make beautiful pictures of lonely penguins on isolated beaches. But we are far away and I would really like to see the penguins from closer by. We speak with other penguin watchers, a couple of tourist and a professional photographer and hear that you can see them from very close by on the Otago Peninsula to the west of Dunedin.

Click here to enlargeSo the next day we drive to the Otago Peninsula, a hundred kilometer to the North, where we camp in Portobello. We have very nice weather and the Peninsula offers wide views of mountains and sea, at least, when you arenít to worried by driving over the very small road directly next to the water, the only way to reach the peninsula and drive around it. Portobello is build directly next to the water on a rather steep hill. The camping is clean and has lots of space. We meet a lot of Dutch people, some of them we met before. The weather is good and we sit outside till late at night with a group of 8 people of mixed ages, some are traveling for a year, others for 3 months like we. We talk about very personal things, in the dark night it is suddenly very easy to say difficult things to people who feel familiar, but who you will never meet again.

We are very lucky to have good weather, since the last weeks a lot of the penguin tours took place in the pouring rain, as our guide of the penguin rescue center Click here to enlargeensures us, happy himself he doesnít need his rain clothes for once. The most beautiful beach of the Peninsula is confiscated by the penguins and the penguin center tries to grow the brushwood the yellow eyed penguins prefer to build their nests in. The (imported) rabbits appreciate these futile attempts and - although the volunteers of the penguin center think of the most ingenious ways to protect the plants: lots of wire netting and big tires stacked on each other around one tiny plant, the rabbits eat the young plants a lot quicker then the center grows them. A system of trenches enables the tourist to watchClick here to enlarge the penguins without disturbing them. We are warned not to make any noise and it is explained that the penguins arenít scared of us as they see only the part of us that is visible through the looking holes in the trenches, they think we are as small as these looking holes and therefore canít harm them. Because the penguins are solitary animals there are worries that the constant stream of tourist will scare them away from this place. The center doesnít get any state aid and is totally dependent on the money of the tourist, so they are in the middle of a large investigation to see if the stress level of the penguins is increased by the visitors to the center. To me it seems quite clear that they will be bothered by the visits of so many tourist coming so nearby. But I still really want to see them!

Click here to enlargeAnd we do see them! We watch an adult penguin feeding a young. The young is almost as big as the adult but has a bit fuzzy feathers. He or she is very hungry and goes on pushing against the throat of his parent, to get more food retched up. They are quite close, some 10 meters distance only, and Iím very enthusiastic. Iím afraid we make a lot of noise, whispering excited to each other, zooming lenses, a full picture roll is winding back and then the loud noise of the walky talky of the guide breaks loose. Click here to enlargeThe penguins ignore us totally. Then we see two young penguins who are resting against one of the trenches. They are much to close to make pictures with my 300mm lens which works only at at least 3 meters so I have to switch lenses very quick. When I stretch my arm I can touch one of the penguins, which is however not allowed. The penguin lays on the ground, one eye open with which he watches me and my photo camera, and there is probably quite a lot more of me sticking through the hole then there should be. But the penguin doesnít look afraid, just partly interested and partly sleepy. The professional photographer next to me has a problem with his camera, he and his lenses are much to big to stick through the hole.

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Later on we are informed one of the adult penguins is arriving from the sea and will probably pass the trench Click here to enlargewe are in quite close by on his walk to his nest. I see him tottering over the stones and make pictures when he comes closer, till he is so close by I again need another lens. Then I just watch and according Jac I was mumbling ĎGreatÖgreatÖgreatí. When we leave the trench I suddenly stand next to the penguin, he is standing on the other side of the trench at a distance of not more than two meters, watching me and the other people of the group (who are a little more discrete). He is clearly not bothered by us, even now he sees how big we really are Ė the penguins are probably not fooled by the story that we are as big as the looking holes. After half a minute he is not interested any more and starts grooming his feathers, waiting for us to disappear. It sure doesnít look as if his adrenaline level is increased by our visit, something which canít be said of my adrenaline level!

To be continued...

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