January 26, 2013
After packing up, we ride into Dunedin, stopping quickly to top up my account at a telecom shop. After a long discussion we end up putting Christof’s credit, which didn’t work on his telephone, onto my iPad. During our last few days in New Zealand I’ll be able to upload posts and stay on top of my emails. Surprised that my credit disappeared so quickly, we learn that Skype chomps through megabytes as quickly as films do. We’ll Skype with wifi in the future.
Our new rental car, an old station wagon with 200,000 kilometers on it, is so small we have to dismount the bikes’ front wheels and pedals to squeeze them in, stopping only briefly at a bike shop for boxes and a new tire for Christof’s bike. The boxes are disappointingly inadequate, too small and narrow to protect our bikes on the flight to Asia. It is murderously hot as we load up the car. The shade disappears quickly as the sun moves across the sky, leaving us too hot and bothered to pack properly. We quickly stuff the bikes into the back of the car, resolving to find a better solution once we get to Christ Church.
The Moeraki Boulders are astonishing large round stones that look like organic sculptures arranged in an open air museum. According to Maori lore, they are the remains of eel baskets washed onto the beach from a sailing canoe that sunk off shore. Geologists have discovered similar concretions in Kansas and along the shores of Lake Huron.
Omaru, known for its penguin colony, is our next stop. We check into a YHA run by a grumpy old woman and run into our friend Evan. We met him while camping on Waihiki Island – Day 110 – and arrange to meet for a beer in town later this evening.
At 19:00 Evan races us up a long steep hill to a beach that is THE place to see yellow-eyed penguins, of which sadly only 4000 still exist. He is off his bicycle before we have even parked our car. A group of tourists, assembled on an observatory deck quite distant from the beach, ripples with excitement at the appearance of one tiny penguin scurrying across the sand in fits and jumps. Signs at the beach entrance ask visitors to respect the privacy of the penguins and refrain from using it after 15:00. From where we are standing, the penguin is scarcely larger than a speck of dust.
Our excitement turns to disappointment until we spot a young seal lumbering towards the water. Resting at regular intervals from the exertions of pulling his heavy body across the sands in clumsy hops, he becomes an agile acrobat the moment he hits the water. He’s a showoff, a natural entertainer, rolling sideways, diving gracefully, and turning nimble summersaults for his captivated audience. Entranced by his tricks, we glance over briefly and discover that the tiny yellow-eyed penguin has disappeared.
We chat with Evan at a bar while waiting for it to get dark. He and Vanessa parted company amiably only two weeks after starting their tour. She needed constant rests and although he waited for her without complaint, things quickly got complicated. Vanessa, a 30-year-old single completely unaccustomed to sharing her life with others, felt cramped sleeping in a tent with him. Because she needed her ‘space’, she insisted they separate during the day and meet up only at night. Since there wasn’t much point in waiting for someone he wasn’t even riding with, Evan went his own way. He enjoyed the freedom of traveling at his own pace, stepping into the pedals and seeing as much of the South Island as he could fit into the remaining time. He is now on his way home. Evan booked a night tour of the Blue Penguin colony that we were advised by the Germans we met at the cozy hostel in Surat Bay – Day 155 – to avoid. They recommended waiting quietly in the streets for the penguins to come out after dark.
During dinner all of the guests are invited to join some improvisational acting in another room. A young theater group involves the guests in simple everyday situations, taking whatever the audience does as their improvisational starting point. Everyone in the room joins the fun with refreshing openness, laughing hysterically at the absurd situations that occur. The absence of arrogant nitpicking, common amongst ‘discerning’ audiences, is the very element that makes the evening a success. The actors provide the frame, but it’s the audience that paints the picture. The director of the group says that only five of a group of twelve actors traveled to Omaru tonight. It’s the first time they’ve ever performed outside of Dunedin where they meet two or three times a week to practice situation comedy. The performance was such a success that they will return with the entire group next week.
It’s dusky when we step into the street behind the bar in the old section of town. No sooner has the light faded from the sky when two tiny dwarf penguins pop out of a hole hidden under an old stone building. They’re so adorable our hearts melt, and it’s hard not to squeal and reach out to touch them. One is timid and quickly hops back under the building for safely. The inquisitive one races around the street like a hyperactive toddler.
A local suggests we go down to the harbor where we see another five penguins and a horde of tourists running after the tiny birds like paparazzi hounding celebrities. The scene is so absurdly intrusive we feel ashamed of ourselves for being there and leave immediately without taking any shots.