Friday, March 30, 2007

Top to Bottom

This morning I made it to the end of the world. Or at least it felt like it. I took a walk out to Slope Point, the southern most tip of the South Island. Which means that I have made it from the very top (Cape Reinga) to the very bottom.

At this point I have also driven the entire length of State Highway 1. Well, technically I took the scenic routes from Kawakawa to Kaitaia in the north and Balclutha to Invercargill in the South. And also I didn't do the driving from Kaitaia to Cape Reinga, but I'd still say I've done pretty well. I'm glad that my car has made it this far, and hopefully it will make it the rest of the way back up...

Thursday, March 29, 2007


Hoiho (yellow-eyed penguins) are one of the rarest penguin species in the world, with numbers at only around 4,000. I think they're found only in New Zealand. So when I got to see some in Oamaru, I was floored. But I did not realise that it was only the beginning.

During my day on the Otago Peninsula, I went out to an area called Allan's Beach because my guidebook told me it was one of the best places in the area to see sea lions. The beach itself was really amazing. To get there, I took a long dirt road that curved around an inlet, and the parking was next to a field of sheep. From there, I had to climb a fence (yes, that's what the sign told me), walk across the sheep paddock, and then through some sand dunes. I was promptly rewarded with a stunning stretch of sand, complete with giant waves. And I had it all to myself.

Well, not quite all to myself, as I soon discovered. I started to walk down the beach towards some rocks where I hoped to find some sea lions. A little ways down, I saw strange looking rock--it was white instead of brown like the rest. I kept walking and discovered that it was not a rock, but a hoiho. He was just standing there, preening himself.

The books and brochures all warn that hoiho are very frightened of movement and sound, so I kept very quiet and moved slowly. He didn't seem to notice me. There were some big rocks near him, about 20 or so feet away, so I made my way over there. I managed to position myself sitting against one of the rocks (I like to think that my dark jacket camouflaged me a bit), with the hoiho in plain sight. He looked at me once or twice, but mostly just preened. He and I hung out like that for a good half hour or more. Me (quietly) snapping pictures, him preening. The pictures and video will be posted soon. I was going to wait for him to leave first, but I eventually got so cold that I took off (quietly, and as far away from him as possible so as not to disturb).

I wandered down the still empty beach some more, trying to find the sea lions. But all of a sudden I noticed that the brown rocks were moving, and that there were some seals basking around. I realized that I was between the seals and the sea--which is when they're most likely to attack--so I quickly turned around.

I'm still kind of in shock that I was able to see the endangered hoiho in the wild, and that I had such a good view. He was so beautiful, and so stunning. The thought of seeing endangerged animals anywhere but a zoo never really occurred to me, but in New Zealand, it seems I encounter the impossible on a daily basis.


I almost didn't stop in Oamaru. I could have made it from Christchurch to Dunedin (about a 5 hour drive) with no problem. But by the time I left Christchurch, it was already after noon and I knew I'd want to stop at a couple of spots along the coast. I'd only learned about Oamaru when I was looking for places to see penguins. There is a little blue penguin colony there, but you can pretty much only see the penguins at dusk when they come up on shore, so it meant spending the night there or waiting to see the penguins other places.

When I got to Oamaru, I stopped in the visitors' centre to ask what time I should get to the penguin colony. Which colony? they asked. Apparently there is a lesser known colony a little further outside of town, this one of hoiho (yellow-eyed penguins). The timing was perfect because the hoiho come ashore in late afternoon, so I was just in time to see them right before I went to see the blue penguins. There were about 10 hoiho along the beach when I got there. They were kind of hard to see because you had to watch them from hides up on the cliffs, but it's still magical to see an endangered species in the wild. Mostly they just waddled up out of the water and stared at the cliffs. There was one trio that played in the water for a little while. Too cute.

At dusk, I went to the blue penguin colony, which has been created to help improve breeding numbers. Which also means that they have a viewing stand set up really close to their path. Each night the penguins, which are less than a foot tall (so they are super cute), waddle out of the water from their day out swimming and up into their nesting boxes. I'm not sure if it's because the penguins are so low to the ground or what, but a lot of them kept tripping as they ran along the paths. Adorable. Here is a fact I bet you didn't know about little blue penguins: they make a noise that sounds like a cross between a duck and a dying cat. Not as adorable, but definitely forgivable.

On my way out, I made sure to check under my car to see that there weren't any penguins hiding underneath, as apaprently they are prone to do.

Oamaru is a small town (about pop. 13,000), but I found that it has more to offer than just penguins. They are also well known for their fancy handmade cheeses. So obviously I had to stop for that. One of the downsides of travelling alone is that you have nobody to share a gigantic cheese platter with. But one of the upsides is that you have nobody to think you're a huge pig when you eat an entire cheese platter by yourself, and then love the cheese so much that you get some rhubarb mascarpone cheesecake for takeaway.

So Oamaru was definitely worth the stop, and I definitely could have spent more time there (probably at the cheese shop). But Dunedin beckoned. The fact that there's so much to do here is unquestionably a blessing and a curse.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hokitika State of Mind

Since I am on a picture posting spree (check out some of the old posts that are now labeled as "pictures"--and more are coming soon), I thought I'd add some more pictures from our weekend at the Wild Foods Festival. There's not much to say about Hokitika, except that it's georgeous. It's the only place I've ever been--and can even think of--where one can stand on the beach, turn around, and see snow capped mountains. The following pictures were all taken from the same spot--I'm just facing a different direction each time (they go south, west, north, east).

Here are some shots of our campsite (I slept in the orange tent) and the river we were overlooking. I still can't believe that's where we spent two nights. In the morning on Saturday, I got up early to take a shower but had to wait in line for about an hour and a half. Under normal circumstances, I would have been highly annoyed by the situation, but every time I started to get frustrated, I just looked out at the mountains and instantly calmed down. It's really hard to be mad about anything when you're standing in the middle of pristine beauty.

And then there were the sunsets...

We finished off Saturday night with some campfire and sparklers on the beach. Again, it's hard to be upset about anything when you're in the middle of something like that.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Moeraki, Mo Scenery

On SH1 between Oamaru and Dunedin is a little beach called Moeraki. The beach is littered with huge spherical boulders, like a group of giants left their marbles. According to my guidebooks, scientists aren't quite sure why the boulders are round or how they got there. But even if they did know, I probably would've forgotten the reason by now and wouldn't have understood in the first place.

Monday, March 12, 2007


Of course, five minutes after I post about how unbelieveable my life is, I'm reminded of how much I miss home. Congratulations to the Ann Arbor Academic Games teams who were so successful at the State Tournament last week. I miss you guys, and I'm so proud of you. I'm especially proud of the team that won presidents in the senior division--mostly because you have the awesomest team name ever.
(Scroll to the bottom of the page for the presidents results)

Ice Ice Baby

Sometimes I honestly can't believe my life. I'm afraid that I'll wake up and the past year will all have been a dream, that I didn't really do all the things I've done. A week ago I was full on camping while sunning myself on golden beaches, a few days later I was eating huhu grubs, and two days ago I went hiking on a glacier.

The Fox Glacier is one of a few glaciers in New Zealand. I had never seen a glacier before, so I didn't know what to expect. It's right in the Southern Alps, so even the drive there is incredible. At first view, it looks like a giant avalanche that's come down the mountain and settled.

It's dangerous to get close to it without a guide, so it's hard to tell just how massive it is from the lookout (or from any pictures I took). You can tell just a little from the picture below--those are people near the face of the glacier to give you some scale. Fortunately, we paid the big bucks for a guided tour, which was more than worth the money.

It takes a good hour to walk from the lookout to a spot where it's safe to step onto the glacier. The walk is pretty amazing, though, because it's actually through a temperate rainforest. I have been to rainforests before and I've seen ice before, but it was ridiculously surreal to be hiking through the rainforest, look to your right, and see a massive block of ice. The only other place in the world that has this combination is Patagonia, which has now been added to my list of places to visit.

I don't even know how to describe the glacier, but it's basically a winter wonderland of ice peaks. We had to don crampons and carry sharply pointed walking sticks just to make our way around. The topography is highly varied, and each day the tour company sends out staff to cut steps in the ice. Unfortunately, they only cut as far as the half-day walk goes, so since we were on the full-day walk, our guide carried a pick axe and carved our way around.

It's a little scary being out there, especially when our guide, Steve, told us to only follow in his footsteps because even walking a meter or so off the path to snap a picture could lead you to fall somewhere. The glacier is about 250 meters tall, and since it melts from the bottom up, you can't necessarily tell where is stable or not. Every once in awhile there's a loud crash, which is just ice falling. The crevices and holes are everywhere and even if you don't fall to your death, you can get stuck. Steve said that sometimes the only way to pull a person out is by tying a rope around their neck because all their other body parts get stuck. So I followed Steve very closely. (I should note that strangely, we did not have to fill out waivers before joining the hike. I love New Zealand.)

I guess you could say that I was walking on water the whole time, but there was one location where I got a good Jesus moment.

Despite the potential for seriously injury, it was stunning. Steve led us over peaks and valleys, and even into some crevices (that he assured us were safe). There is nothing like having a picnic lunch in the middle of a glacier. In front of you is endless blue ice, and to the sides are massive mountains with waterfalls running off the top, and behind is a stream of glacial water that's an icy gray color like nothing I've ever seen.

As Tal put it, "Being in New Zealand is like being in a postcard." There are so many views that that I'm sure must have been painted, because nothing real could be that beautiful. But somehow it is that beautiful, it is that breathtaking, and somehow I've been lucky enough to live it.

Guess I'll Go Eat Worms

As I think we all know, I have thing for eating strange animals. So when I heard about the Wild Foods Festival, long before I even got to New Zealand, I was determined to attend. With stalls featuring everything from possum to crickets, it was an obvious must-do.

The crown jewel of the Wild Foods Festival is the huhu grub, so sampling one was obviously how we kicked off our day. While Sarah and Tal chose (wisely, I'd say) to go for the BBQ'd ones, I figured that if you're gonna do it, you've gotta do it full on, and ate a live one. The huhu grub stall was actually just a a pile of decaying wood. The people running the stall hacked away with their axes and pulled out the fare.

I have to say, the whole experience was actually kind of horrifying. The grub was squishy, but the head was crunchy. I can't say there was much of a taste to it, but in any case, any taste was distracted from by the fact that I could feel it move inside my mouth. Sick.

Some of our Kiwi friends said they actively liked the BBQ'd ones, but Tal and Sarah reported differently.

The cricket was a little disappointing in that you couldn't actually taste it. It was served on a little savoury pancake, and the cricket itself was tiny, so there wasn't much to taste. On the other hand, given the huhu grub experience, maybe that's a good thing.

The ponga tree is the plant that grows the awesome koru, the uncurling fern fronds. The flesh of the plant looks kind of like a water chestnut, but is not as crunchy. I had one that was marinated in honey, and it was delicious.

I've had paua before (at a work party here in NZ), but wanted to try it again. Paua is actually just abalone, but when it's exported, it's bleached white. Some people do not like it (Tal was not a fan of the texture), but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The "Crouching Grasshopper" stall frightened me, but I was determined to try something there. The novelty of the grasshoppers and giant beetles could not outweigh how gross they looked.

So I settled for some ice cream topped with baby wasps. They kind of tasted like nuts that had gone a little soft. At first they weren't bad, but when I accidentally got a bite that was more wasp than ice cream, I had to wash it down with water. And some ice cream sans wasp.

The worm truffles were fantastic, probably because you couldn't even figure out where the worm was. And there are very few chocolate things that I dislike. Check out the worm sushi that was on offer too.

The possum pies were not bad, but not amazing. They tasted like chicken (of course). But overcooked chicken. It should be noted that possums here are not like the disgusting hairless-tailed opossums we have in the US. Instead of being dirty rodents that root through your trash and are most often seen as roadkill, they're dirty marsupials that root through your rubbish and are most often seen as roadkill.

The ostrich pies were much better. You'd think that they would taste like chicken too, but they actually tasted more like steak.

Shark was very delicious, although it just tasted pretty much like any good fish you'd get from a fish and chips shop. On the other hand, maybe the good taste came from the satisfaction that I was eating a shark rather than the other way around.

Nothing else I ate was really of too much note (donuts, green-lipped mussels, beer, gin). There was SO much good food there that I didn't sample because I was too full from eating weird stuff. I should note, however, that while I'm keen to try strange animals, strange animal parts are something I avoid altogether. I've had lamb, pork and beef, so I'll pass on the mountain oysters, pig eyes, and cow udders. There's a limit to my adventurousness.