STOP! I think I can get this one! Jim slammed on the brakes as we rounded the bend, startled by my outburst. I leaped from the van, camera in hand, in what proved to be yet another failed attempt to photograph a sleeping baby lamb.
New Zealand is full of sheep. The commonly heard phrase “more sheep than people” is not exaggerated. And yet, in nearly 3 weeks of criss-crossing the country I had been unable to capture one of those elusive creatures on film in the pose I had envisioned in my head. We’d seen thousands, eaten several, and yet I had not yet captured the shot of my dreams.
Although we had loved our time traveling the North Island, we knew that the South Island would fully win our hearts. Camped in the small town of Blenheim, in the middle of the Marlborough wine country, we were in heaven. Gorgeous vineyards, abundant seafood, luscious local fare, and friendly locals, we could see ourselves living in a place like this.
We ate and drank to our hearts content, indulging in pasta at Rocco’s Italian restaurant, local fare at Whitehaven, and a favorite, Renaissance Brew Pub. Run by two guys from the US, Renaissance had wood oven pizza, a great pub menu, and some fantastic micro brews. Touring the wineries of the region was an education in Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and their various blends, and created many comparisons between the whites of New Zealand and those we had fallen in love with in South Africa. The beauty of the area is staggering. Set on the East Coast of the South Island we would stand on the beach gazing into the Pacific, swivel 180 degrees, and be awed by the Southern Alps, looming nearby.
Roaming south to Kaikoura, we drove slowly, taking in the spectacular scenery en-route. Hiking along the coastline trail, shadowed by the Alps, it was difficult to take in just how close everything was in this country. We are used to driving in the United States, where just our state of Oregon is larger than the entire country of New Zealand. Being able to drive from one amazing spot to the next in such a short amount of time was a treat. We finally drug ourselves from the coast to head into the mountains. We stayed just briefly at Hamner Springs, the only geo-thermal region of South Island, before hitting the west coast and heading down to Franz Josef. We had just one goal here, heli-hiking the glacier!
Perhaps my very favorite part of road tripping New Zealand was exploring the back roads. There are really no highways to speak of in most of the country and we meandered from one winding country road to the next. Stopping in quaint towns for supplies, enjoying scenic spots for lunch breaks, and taking time to meet the locals. Meadows of wild flowers, gorgeous farmland, and many, many scary one lane bridges, took us further south into Queenstown, picturesquely set on Lake Wakatipu. Billed as the “adventure capital of New Zealand”, Queenstown does, in fact, have it all. What would YOU like to do today: Hike? Bike? Sail? Ski? Shop? It’s your choice. At this point in our trip we were thinking of simply moving to New Zealand to live and wondering what was needed to get work! Why would anyone NOT want to live here? Excellent food, world class wines, endless activities, and PENGUINS!
We had seen penguins in South Africa but certainly not with the diversity of New Zealand. Despite the freezing temperature, Dunedin was a fun city stop as we moved from touring the Cadbury chocolate factory to the Speights brewery tour, but it was mainly a place to refuel on our way to Omaru, famous for several varieties of penguins
First, an attempt to see the elusive yellow-eyed penguin. We followed all the rules, staying on the paths, speaking in hushed tones and being generally un-disruptive. We were nearly ready to call it quits, cold and getting restless from scanning the hilly terrain in vain, when one of the other viewers laughed as he noted that the “elusive and shy” penguin had been, in fact, 5 feet from us all the entire time! Once spotted he put on quite a show, doing a rather amazing mating dance, much to the delight of all in attendance.
As exciting as our yellow-eyed penguin sighting was, the best was yet to come. Blue penguins are the smallest on earth and have an active colony just outside of the town of Omaru. Each day one partner stays home in the nest and the other goes out to fish. But what makes them special is that all of the partners who have left for the day come home as a group each evening to an exuberant welcome from the partner at home. We got our tickets and grabbed a seat on the cold, hard stadium seats. Sipping our hot chocolate, the magic began as the full moon rose over the ocean horizon. I was absolutely enchanted! Living on the West coast of the United States, we’re very familiar with the sun setting over the horizon but we had never before seen the moon rise over the ocean. Magic! It was enough to almost make me forget that my ass was, by now, frozen solid on the cold metal bench. Just as our hot chocolate ran out, what we were really waiting for appeared. As if by design, the moon rose slightly higher in the sky and dozens and dozens of tiny blue penguins began moving up the ramp from the ocean. Their pace increased as they got closer to home and then, amazingly, it was as though word spread throughout the colony and the home-bound partners all came out of their nests to great their returning partners. The noise they made was a peculiar chirping noise and when the two came together they did an enchanting happy dance. It was moving, one of the most romantic things I’ve ever witnessed. I could only think that if more humans greeted their spouse each day with even half of the enthusiasm of these miniature penguins, there would certainly be a lot less unhappiness in the world.
Sadly, time was racing by and we did not have nearly enough time to do all we wanted to do in this incredible country. Every morning we woke up excited about what the day might bring. We hiked Mt. Cook National Park and survived a vicious windstorm at Lake Wanaka. We continued to take random roads, mouths agape over each bend in the road showcasing new beauty. We opened our camper doors wide to take in the view from our hillside campground in Akaroa, and cheered ourselves hoarse over many an All-Black match.
We ended in Christchurch, turning in our beloved campervan for a hotel room near downtown. What many people who have not traveled long term don’t quite get is that many of the things you take for granted at home are just plain frustrating and time consuming on the road. Christchurch was our chance to mail a package home, get haircuts, do laundry. Basically, make ourselves presentable again before heading to our next country. We ate in lots of great restaurants, enjoyed the bar scene, and simply wandered, enjoying the British inspired architecture. I am thrilled to see that the fantastic brew pub, The Twisted Hop, is still open for business, but it saddens us to know how much of the area we stayed was leveled by the series of earthquakes that rocked the city in 2010 and 2011.
People often ask what our favorite country is and, as any traveler knows, it’s never that simple. What I do know is that New Zealand holds a special place in my heart and I certainly hope to make it my home someday. And I did finally get my lamb picture!