Sunday, November 15, 2009

Catlins to Arthur's Pass

Yesterday morning there were heavy rain showers moving through the area and very gusty icy cold winds. It was unusual that it would rain for about 15 minutes, then be nice and sunny for 15 minutes (although still windy) off and on for pretty much the whole day. I immediately wrote off surfing once I felt the outdoor temperatures which are common in the mornings before things have had a chance to warm up. Erich, however, thought it would be great to paddle out, about half a mile from the penguin nesting grounds I might add, for a little surf, alone. Even the local Kiwis camped at the site weren't out in the water. Sea lions loafed on the rocky coast, although the surf break was in front of a river mouth and a sandy beach. It didn't look too big, maybe head-high, but when he paddled out a big set rolled in and it was apparent just how big it really was out there. And barreling and heavy, too.

He managed to get a few short rides in the half hour or forty minutes he was out there, and when he came back in, his face and hands were beet red. He tried to claim it wasn't so cold, but we all know that is just not true.

After he thawed out with some hot cocoa in the camper, we headed out for a little hike to Puranukai Falls, which was terraced and in a quite mossy wood. We considered doing another hike along the river, but part of the road to get there was closed and we decided if we wanted to see Dunedin, we should get going. The drive was long and mostly farmfields, and we arrived at Dunedin late afternoon to drive out on the Otago Penninsula to the Royal Albatross Colony. These birds are said to have a 10ft wingspan and are very rare. Unfortunately, once we got out there, the center was closed and we did not see any out on the windy sea bluffs. A bit disappointed, but still enjoying the scenic drive, we passed by Larnach Castle (which was also closed for touring), the only castle in New Zealand built by an eccentric Scottsman.

On the drive north from Dunedin, we stopped off at the Moeraki Boulders, a short walk up the beach. I wasn't expecting much at this stop, just some round boulders that are a tourist attraction, but when we got out to them, they were really impressive. They are perfect spheres, but some were broken open. Inside you could see different rock, such as iron and quartz, but just a hollow center in the middle. They looked like some sort of alien pods, and some had veins and texture on the exterior. They are partly submerged by the ocean, and apparently, that's where they came from some 60 million years ago.

After stopping off to sleep at a roadside recreation reserve, we drove into the town of Ashburton on the way up to Arthur's Pass National Park. The town was very cute and we decided to stop and have breakfast at one of the little coffee shops. We also stopped at Ashton, a crafts village, where I FINALLY found some yarn. We've seen thousands and thousands of sheep, and at least a hundred alpaca, but there seems to be no yarn for sale anywhere! This store wasn't bad, but many of the wools were imported from Australia.

Continuing on through Darfield, we headed onto Arthur's Pass, which takes you to the opposite side of the island through Arthur's Pass National Park. We had decided to skip Christchurch as big cities and camper vans have not gone together all that well in the past. The van seems to increase in size once we get onto the narrow city streets with lots of other traffic, rotaries and pedestrians.

Once near Arthur's Pass, we happened to see Castle Hill, one of the premier bouldering areas in New Zealand. There were so many limestone boulders strewn across the grassy hillside, that we had to grab our climbing shoes and go check it out. We spent the sunny afternoon wandering around the conservation doing what problems we could. Since neither of us had climbed in at least a year, everything felt pretty hard, but we managed quite a few fun pocketed problems before becoming too tired to continue trying. There were endless boulders there but we only saw about a dozen climbers all day.

Further into the park, we found an empty mountain meadow to park the camper for the night. Mountains surround the van with the river off in the distance. It is cooler up at this altitude, and the peaks are still cover with snow. We couldn't ask for a better spot to camp out for the night.


Surfing with Penguins: Yes, I did choose to paddle out in what was probably the coldest, most off shore wind blown, fur seal (editors note--Fur Seals weigh upwards of 300 pounds or more where as San Diego seals are more like the Toy Poodle of the seal world weighing in the 100 pound range....fur seals have tusks), and the resident crested penguin colony, in a location farther South than any other continent in Australasia reaches. But come on mate, the locals were having a go at it and the A-frames at Sunset the night before were some of the best looking waves we have seen since living in Hawaii. Go figure the locals who were surfing until about 930pm the night before were sleeping in after our 40 knot pounding rain all night and had not hit the water by 10am still. Since the sun was poking its head in and out all morning I had to give it a go as we brought booties and how cold could it really be, even if the penguins call this their Northern home.

Sara obviously looked at me like I was insane, but it was not the cold water that concerned me, more of the toothy friends that swim these chillier waters and the 25 knot gusts of wind that were wrapping around the outside of the point giving us off shores in the valley, but creating a mess of soup style ocean just a quarter mile out to sea. You never know what kind of currents and rips those winds can develop and I really did not want to see the Kiwi rescue plan in action while Penguins and Fur Seals swam by me in the opposite direction as I was ripped out to Australia or Antarctica which was the direction the wind seemed to be going.

So in good old Kiwi "just have a go at it kayak hell fashion" I donned the wetsuit, jogged over the sheep turds (which were grazing by our camper in the AM outside their pens for some reason), past the shivering kiwis who even they thought it was still too cold, and into the penguin filled abyss.

As Sara stated, what seemed like head high A-frame barrels quickly turned into head and a half high sand bar meat grinders on the sets as I was duck diving the first few waves paddling for the horizon to prevent the ice cream headache repeated underwater head dips create. I dropped on a couple medium sized rights and found the wind was really whipping under the board preventing a clean speed line down the face and kicked out without much fan fare, of course, minus all kiwi camper/surfer eyes which were now eager to see if it was worth paddling out themselves. I finally realized the lefts had a steeper drop but quickly shoulder up into a soft lip so I took 2 or 3 or those and decided that the 40 minute mark was when my hands were now lobster claws and could no longer stay cupped to paddle. Luckily, no Antartica sightings, fur seal growling contests, penguin swatting, or big tooth sharky monsters appeared. The only reall scare was the burly sand bar that must have went from 15' to 3' instantly creating some HEAVY peaks. Of course the minute I hit the beach one of the kiwis decided to paddle out which would have been nice to have a friend in the water to make it a little less scary, but then again, we always complain about crowded surf so I guess to surf by ourselves we just have to endure the cold and penguins at the wave will be ours to enjoy.

Albatross/Penguin viewing:

New Zealand maps and guides have this funny need to tell you where and when you are about to pass some species of bird colony. Apparently since New Zealand "had" no mammals (Editors note: until the Europeans introduced the rabbit, possum, and stoat successively to kill the other once over populated) the bird population and variety easily evolved to be one of the greatest in the world. Due to this, many bird tourists and naturalist come to New Zealand for bird watching and it seems to be big business.

Now "big business" is the key here. 99.9% of things the Kiwis do is probably 1000 times better than we do as Americans, but this one thing with the birds, it gets really annoying. If you want to see someone get really annoyed, or down right mad, come on a trip to New Zealand with Sara after she has hiked an hour or drove miles out of her way to see one of these so called "bird sanctuaries."

What certain enterprising New Zealander's who happen to have land which has been gifted, purchased, inherited, or however they have obtained in which resident Albatross, penguin, egret, or other rare species decides to call home is charge a small fee for the viewing and protection of said birds. Now this is all fine and well since we know Euro Billy Bob and half of Tokyo would be stomping all over the nests of these birds so they could take their perfect home videos and these "sanctuaries" would protect the birds and the small fees that were collected would go towards scientific studies and further protection of the species.

This all sounds just great, good idea, very helpful to the world of birds, but the average charge to get see what is always quoted "as the only spot on Earth to see these birds" is usually $25-$30 U.S. dollars per person!

Sara's point of view, you don't own the birds so why the heck should I have to pay to go see them! Unfortunately these birds are calling the private landowners "land" home, so they figured out a way to seem helpful to the bird world and make a quick buck (or in my estimate by the buses piling in at each bird reserve $100s of thousands).

FYI.....the Albatross is not flying along the cliffs, you will have to pay $28/person to view them in the specially made boxes conveniently located on the opposite side of the hill from the car park viewing area.

Besides, just go surfing on the southern tip of the south island and you will see all the penguins you could ever dream of.


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