Somehow, I’ve very quickly gotten used to the fact that I’m not at quite as loose of ends as I was just a short time ago. Whereas a few weeks ago, I could decide to pick up and go hike a glacier or lie on the beach or go hang gliding, now I find myself having to cut short overnight trips so that I can be back in Arrowtown for coffee training on my day off.
In any event, it was in fact not so long ago that I was cruising around the southern half of this country with a shaky transmission and a couple of other girls. And I’m only now realizing that, in my zeal to catch everyone up on the oh-so-exciting life of being Arrowtown’s newest pie girl, I’ve neglected to write about the second half of my road trip. Which traced the following route:
After the Catlins, we headed straight around to Dunedin, a university town conceived back in the day as sort of a New Edinborough. Dunedin had a beautiful surfing beach, lots of great restaurants, and Jono, a kiwi friend of the very worldly Lily Motta, who was just starting medical school and had agreed to show us around. But let’s talk about the real reason I was so stoked to get to Dunedin: penguins.
I don’t know if this fact is well known by anyone outside of my immediate family, but I love penguins. Let me clarify this: I don’t actually know anything about penguins. I’ve never watched March of the Penguins. I’ve never seen a penguin in real life or even bothered to study up on them the way some of my friends (you know who you are) might investigate dolphins or other wildlife on Wikipedia. But when I was a very young little mullet-haired girl, I saw this cartoon and was instantly smitten. And then, of course, I saw this and was a total goner. Ever since, I’ve maintained a vague but intense love of penguins. And guess what region of NZ is famous for its penguins? The Otago Peninsula just outside of Dunedin. It’s home to not one but two kinds of penguin: yellow-eyed penguins (the world’s rarest penguin, according to the signs I read all over the peninsula while physically jumping up and down with excitement), and blue penguins (the world’s smallest penguins, which is obviously equivalent to the world’s cutest penguins).
Ask anyone in Dunedin or on the peninsula and they’ll tell you there are several beaches where the penguins nest, then they’ll give you wildly disparate estimates of when the little guys usually come in from a long day of fishing. The best guesses we gathered from locals put it at sometime between about 5:00 pm and nightfall.
And so, by 4 pm, we were out on the end of the peninsula. I’d wanted to make sure we were there early. Just in case, you know, some of the penguins got tired and came home early or had trouble telling time. We started off at the Royal Albatross Center, figuring we’d see if we could spot any of the giant-winged birds before heading down to Allan’s Beach for early-bird penguin-spotting at 4:30.
Standing at the top of a cliff and looking out over the ocean, we didn’t see any albatrosses. But Courtney did spot something black and white, bobbing on its stomach in the choppy little waves near the base of the rock face.
“Jess! Is that… yes! There’s your penguin!”
I yanked out my camera, zoomed in, and started snapping away. My first penguin! In the flesh! Clearly coming home early and proving correct my theory that these birds would sense our special bond and make a special appearance just for me. Here’s my first image of the penguin:
And here’s the last picture I took, about ten minutes later:
Do you notice anything odd about these two pictures? It’s almost as if the penguin hasn’t moved at all; almost as if he’s comatose. Almost as if… well, yes, in fact: the first penguin I saw was dead.
Needless to say, after that I was slightly traumatized and in need of a “win.” I hurried us back into the car and off to Allan’s Beach, suddenly positively convinced that at 5:00 pm on the button, the beach would be awash in penguins. I’d sit near their nests and they’d flock to me like bluebirds to Snow White. I’d take a few technically illegal but very surreptitious pictures (the penguins, you see, would totally play it cool when the flash went off because we’re buddies from way back), and we’d call it a day.
And so we sat on a grouping of boulders near a sign clearly reading “Penguin Nesting Area.” I tried to picture how the penguins would come in: would they surf in on their little feet? Would they slowly paddle up to shore on their little white bellies? Would they be riding unicorns and shooting off rainbows? I had a lot of anticipation riding on this.
A few hours in, we were getting cold and still hadn’t seen anything of note. It was getting dark. Surely the penguins were coming soon. Maybe they were just intimidated by these weirdos crouching in their nesting spot? We thought we’d make sure they knew we came in peace.
Then we thought the rainbow that came out after we endured a brief bout of rain, coupled with my uncanny penguin impersonation under said rainbow, might do it.
But believe it or not, none of it worked. We left, about five hours after arriving, cold and wet and without a single live penguin sighting.
Luckily, the next day, I convinced Courtney, Steph, and Hayley that we should make a big detour from our planned route, which was supposed to take us next to a little village called Arrowtown (“Arrowtown? Where’s that? Sounds like a nice place to kill a few hours at most.”). Instead, I reasoned, we should go four hours out of our way to a town called Oamaru, known for its limestone Victorian buildings, proximity to Peter-Jackson-approved landscapes, and – hey, what do you know? Penguin colonies!
Now, Oamaru (pronounced Ah-Maroo, if you one day want to avoid sounding like a fool when asking the guy at a roadside cheese shop how to get to “Oh-ah-mahhhh-roo) is a pretty great little town. The architecture is lovely and the shops are quaint and I’m going to shut up about it right now because dear God, if you’re still reading at this point I’m assuming you just want to know I finally saw some damn penguins.
Our only night in Oamaru, I didn’t want to take any chances. So Steph and I bought tickets for 8:00 pm entry to the actual area where blue penguins were guaranteed to come nest every night. We bundled up in preparation and left ourselves half an hour to walk there.
What we didn’t do was bother to find out where “there” was. By the time we got to the beach, it was 7:59 and there was not a tour group in sight. We saw lights down at the end of a dock seemingly miles away, and wondered if, that being the only sign of civilization around, we might need to make our way down there. And then it started to rain. Hard. And so we ran for it.
Now, I like to run. I do it in my spare time. I even, on occasion, push myself to run faster or longer than my body wants me to. But have you ever noticed that running for enjoyment or fitness, no matter how much you do it, never seems to make the slightest bit of difference in the infrequent event that you actually have to run to or from something as if your life or childhood dreams depended on it? Now picture me, running in the pouring rain, with only the light of the moon and the obscure hope of seeing some freakin’ penguins already guiding me.
When we finally reached the building at the end of the pier, I heaved “TOO LATE TO SEE THE PENGUINS” to the woman at the front desk, not even bothering to phrase it as a question.
“No, not at all, just go right through those doors and take a seat,” she told me, probably a little bewildered at my bedraggled appearance and the savage look in my eyes.
Steph and I stumbled through the double glass doors and onto a path that led us out to an amphitheater of sorts over looking a rocky beach. There were maybe 20 people sitting there, all quiet and staring at the small waves gently lapping the shoreline. And so we sat and waited.
Finally, the penguins started coming in, suddenly appearing just a few feet from the foamy white lines of the waves hitting the sand and bodysurfing in on their bellies. They hopped up the nearby boulders one by one, waiting for each other and checking to make sure the coast was clear. And then finally, after an hour or so, they all gathered up in their nesting area in a grassy knoll just above the beach, and all 71 of them started calling to each other.
What does a penguin call sound like? I’d wondered that ever since I used to watch the Care Bears as a kid. Every time the Care Bear cousins would get together and do the Care Bear stare, I’d try my hardest to pick out the individual sound of the penguin. Needless to say, I don’t think the sound technicians over at Mattel Cartoons or whoever did those movies put quite as much thought into it as my obsessive little five-year-old brain did, because it took me 29 years to find out what a penguin call sounds like. I probably could have You Tubed it but, what can I say? I apparently prefer to get my answers by just straight-up penguin stalking.
And now, the penguins finally seen and my childhood fantasies fulfilled, what do I have to show for it? Well, they wouldn’t let me take any pictures. So I guess, not a lot. Except for over 1500 words on my search for the perfect, live penguin.
I think they call that love.