Day 5: Christmas Penguin!

Christmas Day was, for us, unlike any other before it: we were in a hostel room, no friends, family or even presents around (with one exception, the hostel had thoughtfully left us a box of fancy chocolates as a seasonal gift!). Still a bit worn out from the trials of our journeys so far, we weren’t keen on going anywhere. This may also have had something to do with the very filling bacon and egg breakfast we made, accompanied by an entire bottle’s worth of sparkling wine in mimosa form; a family tradition for M! Luckily, the TV was being cooperative and one channel was showing a marathon Doctor Who’s most recent season, so we were sorted! NZ TV was on a roll for our stay at Hogwartz: the night before we’d been after an Christmas movie and, to quote M ,”I’m sure there’ll something, best case scenario it’s Jingle all the Way.” Lo and behold, guess what’s on …

By mid-afternoon, we were just about ready to move again. New Zealand is one of the rare countries where you can, if you try, spend Christmas on a beach with a penguin, so our objective was exactly that! We’d been pointed towards Sandfly Bay, a remote beach on Dunedin’s eastern peninsula where yellow-eyed Penguins were known to nest.

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This bit was nice since there was at least some grass between us and the sea.

The road there was interesting, to say the least! We were hoping for a nice leisurely ride out to the beach but the road soon became stressful to drive. It started out as a two-lane road following the shoreline with absolutely nothing between the edge of the road and the water (not even a shoulder). However, after we turned inland to cross the peninsula, it got even worse. It lost a lane, became nothing but steep turns and the edge of the road was now not a two-foot drop into water but a hundred-foot drop into sheep fields. To be fair, the road had gained a fence at the edge, but not one that could stop a car. Actually, a lot of it looked like it couldn’t even contain a particularly determined sheep! In fact, we did have to slow down once to pass some errant sheep on the hill-side verge.

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Definitely not better than the coast road.

Once we reached the end, there was a small car park, unsurprisingly busy as this was one of the few attractions that wasn’t closed due to the holiday. The first obstacle was getting down a large sand dune; not too hard, but neither of us was looking forward to having to go up it.

The beach was nice, warm but not hot, breezy and no sign of the implied sandflies. As the trail from the car park led to one end of the beach, we began walking towards the far end, eyes peeled for penguins. There were many other people making this slow trek through the soft sand, but the beach was more than large enough to feel like we were almost alone. About halfway down the beach, we spotted our quarry: a yellow-eyed penguin waddling determinedly up the sand towards the dunes. Of course we fumbled with the camera in our excitement, and since the yellow-eyed penguin is the third-largest in the world (after the king and emperor penguins), it could waddle surprisingly fast. All this is to say we only got one, crappy picture of it:

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It’s in the center, heading behind the grass.

Though there were people ahead and behind us, we seemed to be the only ones excited by the penguin; maybe they hadn’t seen it? In any case, it was still early so we continued to the far end of the beach to wait. The Department of Conservation (DOC) had a hide nearby, but it was shut for some reason. We found a nice large log and leaned against it, scanning the beach with our binoculars. Most people reached this end of the beach and continued walking into the dunes, but we did have neighbors: a large male sea lion and his two females, snoozing on the beach.

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M was far braver than I to get so close to this giant.

Alas, though we watched the beach for about an hour, no more penguins came ashore. It was rapidly approaching dinnertime, so we said goodbye to the sea lions and started the long walk back along the beach. We found the tracks of the penguin, but none of his friends.

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Shuffling tracks up into the dunes.

Near the trail back up to the car park, we came across a family of variable oystercatchers. This family consisted of two adults and two chicks, and each chick was following one of its parents around the beach. As the mom or dad oystercatcher probed into the sand or under some kelp with its beak, the chick would watch and then copy the movement. It was adorable and the birds came quite close!

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Aww, it’s copying dad!

 

The climb up the dune was as painful as we anticipated, with each step up resulting in us sliding back down, shoes full of sand. Finally, we reached the top and enjoyed the view of our Christmas beach.

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Stunning beaches is the norm in NZ.

The drive back was a bit less scary since we knew what to expect, but we were quite happy to get back to our little studio. We cooked a delicious meal of steak, mashed potatoes and spinach, with red wine; it’s doubtful we would’ve done anything better even with access to our own kitchen! Full of good food and the excitement of seeing a penguin we drifted off to sleep, happy with one of the best Christmases we’ve had!

 

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