Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Kaikoura, The Seal Coast

Jan. 30, 2013

 From Picton we drove the short distance to Blenheim (pronounced BLEN-um), a pretty little town that isn't on the coast, but rather is in the midst of the vineyards and wineries.  There are a few museums, but we mostly relaxed and wandered around the quaint little town which has a lovely park, an interesting town center called "The Forum" with this gazebo (probably has a more la-di-da name like a pergola or something), and also boasts some of the best weather we've encountered in NZ.  Sun, warm sun, so welcome after all the rain we've gone through - summer was finally in Blenheim.

Then we headed back toward the Pacific (east) coast and made our way to the Kaikoura coast (pronounced KI (like eye) - KI-kour-a).  New Zealand is divided into districts, which often have the same name as the major town or city in that district - so the Kaikoura district and the Kaikoura range and the town of Kaikoura all have the same name - which mean "lobster food" or "food - lobster" in Maori.

Anyway, we drove through sunburned hills and green vineyards and a few mountainous peaks with snow still in the crevasses - and then arrived at the warm turquoise blue of the Pacific, so inviting, so much colder than it looks.  Well, the Pacific looks warm in the sunlight - the moment the sun goes behind a cloud, that water looks exactly as frigid as it feels!

We stopped at a picnic area 
for a stretch, and I wandered down to the beach to get a few photos of the water, the rocks, the weird kelp.  And nearly tripped over a sleeping seal - sound 
 asleep!  I made a little 
 squeal of excitement, and she woke up and turned her head to look at me - then turned back to her original position, ignored me, and went back to sleep.  OMG, it was so amazing to be about five feet from a big fur seal, who didn't seem to even care!!!  How exciting! 

 We drove a bit further down the coast and pulled over at the Ohau (OH-how) seal colony - we first stood by the road and watched the seals, then walked down to the platform just above the rocks, for an even better view.   Mama seals, baby seals, adolescent seals, babies following the adolescents, babies wrestling like little puppies, mamas taking turns keeping an eye on the babies as they splashed around in the tide pool of the huge boulders, older teenage seals frolicking in the ocean and doing their back flips and side flips and dolphin dives and waving their fins in the air as if to say, "Hey Mom, watch me do this!"
It was absolutely thrilling to watch the seals at play and at their daily routine -  with a few very large seals, most likely the males, off to one side on separate rocks, away from the babies.  We just stood their watching the seals playing and being their usual funny selves.

And then we headed into Kaikoura - the town.  Another pretty little town, with its own seal colony, who live at one end of the peninsula (of course named Kaikoura).  Anyway, the Kaikoura Peninsula has this very weird rock formation, kind of a shelf or a platform, that stretches out into the ocean for several hundred meters - it's only accessible at low tide, because it's underwater at high tide.

And this is where the seals hang out.  Well, and on the rock islands sticking up out of the ocean.  And around the corner where there are more rocks, more platform, more seals.  And around the other corner, where there are seals who just want to be alone.  

It's just sort of one big rocky wasteland that disappears at high tide, and is inhabited by fur seals and shore birds.  Backed by the dramatic Kaikoura Range, it really is a gorgeous spot.

I wandered around looking at the rocks and the seals, especially this big guy who climbed onto his own rock stage and put on quite a performance, rolling around and hanging his head down while all the visitors took his photo and ooohed and aaaahed over him.  

There was even one seal who was sound asleep in the bushes - people walked back and forth on the boardwalk, looking at him, and he just stayed there, sound asleep.

I had a nice walk back to our motel, which actually was more like a one-bedroom  cabin than the studio room we had booked - but no worries, that's what the owner gave us, that's what we enjoyed.

I encountered strange rocks that looked like the Pancake Rocks of the west coast, but tilted on their sides so the pancakes are almost vertical - strange, aren't they?

But I couldn't get over the scenery - that gorgeous ocean water, blue blue sky, and the mountains in between.  I know there are other parts of the world where the mountains nearly meet the ocean, but there aren't many of those places - and this is an exceptionally gorgeous spot to begin with, even before one starts thinking about the combination of geography.

There are whale watching trips, swim with the dolphins or swim with the seals events - we opted to wander around, enjoy the ambiance of the town, look at the animals who were willing to be seen, and relaxed.  

There are even a few brave penguins who live on the other side of the peninsula, in South Bay, and nest under the Coast Guard building.  I guess they figure they're protected there.  (Brave because seals have been known to eat baby penguins.  I have a hard time forgiving seals for doing that, but, well, we all have to eat something, right?)  I tried to participate in the Coast Guard's night viewing, but no one else signed up, so the trip was cancelled.

But the seals were more than enough to make this a very special place.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Rescued Penguin

Jan. 27, 2013

I went to the Picton Aquarium this morning and spent several hours among the tanks of fish, seahorses, sea stars, eels (ick!), lobsters, turtles, and such.  Very interesting place, with touch tanks and films and one of those giant squids in a huge box full of preservatives (or just formaldehyde?).

What's special about this about this particular aquarium is that they're a rescue center.  People bring pet turtles who need more UV rays (signs are broken bones or corroding shells), or injured sea creatures.  The center also is working on repopulating certain islands with the tuatera, a native lizard something like an iguana, which is endangered due to both climate change and imported predators.

But the special thing about this center (for me) is that they often have rescue penguins - baby penguins who have been orphaned or abandoned, or adults penguins who have been injured.

Today, they had a little three month old blue penguin, who was found when he was just a wee chick, and he's been raised pretty much at the aquarium.  He's grown up with the staff feeding him, playing with him, and now that he's grown his adult feathers (which are waterproof, the baby feathers aren't) they're teaching him to swim.  So every day, at about 11 AM and 2 PM, one of the staff members carries the little blue penguin from the penguin room to the fish tanks, and pops him in for a swim.  (There aren't any fish in there big enough to eat him, and all the fish are too big for Little Mr. Blue Penguin to eat, although he does eye them as he cruises around.)  Little Mr. Blue is very slowly getting used to swimming, though he currently refuses to put his face in the water.  This, of course, is a problem, because he needs to learn to dive to be able to catch his own fish.  So this is a big concern at the aquarium, and the staff are very careful to keep an eye on him as he swims around on top of the water.  When Little Mr. Blue has had enough, he hops out onto the rocks in the tank, and waits for someone to come pick him up - although he squawks and nips and pretends he wants to get back into the water.

But this was my chance to be less than a foot away from a little blue penguin, just a little guy but so full of personality.  He stood in his box while we asked questions, practically standing on his little webbed toes so that he could look out and see what was going on - just a curious and nosy little guy.  Too cute for words.  And to see him swimming around in the fish tank, and hopping across the seaweed in the tank - he's very agile - it was just amazing!  But until he learns to put that sweet little face into the water and dive, he's going to stay at the aquarium.  Once he can dive and catch his own food, he'll be released.

The aquarium has only had four rescue penguins this season, and this little guy's swim buddy was recently released - but the buddy penguin was a very playful and rowdy guy in the water, and that sort of scared Little Mr. Blue.  But the little blues mate and nest twice a year, and often when one nesting season brings few rescues the second season brings a lot, as if the parents do a good job with one set of chicks and get bored or something the second time around.  Or maybe the fact that this is the hotter and dryer part of the year affects how the penguins are at parenting.  At any rate, the aquarium has raised and released penguins for years, and the females are now returning to nest near the aquarium - just like sea turtles and salmon, they return to their home beach to lay their eggs and raise their young.  (The boy penguins just follow the girls, as the penguin handler told us.)  

While these aren't my photos (because the flash hurts their little penguin eyes, and my camera is uncooperative), these are what he looked like.  Barely a foot tall, weighing maybe two lbs max, just a little chubby bundle of cuteness and energy.

And yes, I'd love to have a little penguin for my pet!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Maitai River and The Queen’s Garden

Jan. 26, 2013


Much of New Zealand is all about untamed nature – seeing penguins swimming up to their nests among the rocks, boating in the fjords and watching the dolphins play, hiking up and down volcanoes or geothermal wonderlands – and we’ve done much of that.



But New Zealand is also part of the British Commonwealth, and nature in Britannia is somewhat more tamed, perhaps even deliberate and planned and manicured.  As in gardens.  And while Christchurch claims the title “City of Gardens,” I believe Nelson is running a close second.
The town of Nelson is on the central part of the north coast of the South Island, nestled between the Tasman Bay to the north and various foothills and mountain ranges on the other three sides.  The city has one of the most temperate climates in NZ, or so the residents claim – and the areas south and east of Nelson are known for the vineyards and wineries.  Gardening and farming are a big part of this area.

Nelson has the obligatory hanging flowers and various flowerbeds scattered around town.  But the real jewel is the Maitai River (yes, pronounced like the drink) which runs through and winds around the town, and is bordered by parks along the length, with bike and footpaths, picnic tables, and benches.  Even where private property runs down to the banks of the river, people have added flowers and rock gardens to beautify the banks of the river, for everyone to enjoy.

I had a delightful walk along the river, watching ducks mingle with sea birds, tourists wandering along, workers having a picnic lunch, students enjoying the last few days before school begins.  Everyone along the river was relaxing and enjoying the scenery and the sun.  It was beautiful and lush and green, with willows draping their arms into the stream of clear water, flax and reeds waving in the breeze, and flowers providing dots and dabs of bright color to the picture.

Eventually I came to the point where Queen’s Garden came closest to the riverwalk, so I headed over.  What a beautiful public garden!  There was a huge duck pond with a fountain, paths winding through tamed woods, a waterwheel, all kinds of exciting things.  A Chinese garden had been donated and was just lovely, with wrought iron gates and bridges and a little pagoda, as well as stones that came right out of Chinese scroll paintings.  There was a very manicured rose garden with hedgerows encircling a gold and white fountain, almost reminiscent of Versailles and all the French chateaus.  Impatiens mixed with native New Zealand trees and plants, and a Christmas cactus was in full bloom because, after all, this is just a month after Christmas.   

I just rambled and enjoyed the beauty of this place, a little tranquil bit of wildness and well-maintained Old Country Europe and transplanted China – sort of an oasis of nature in the middle of a small but busy metropolis.  I think I found every nook and cranny of that park, or garden.

And then I walked home, noticing how the house owners almost all had lovely gardens surrounding their homes, no matter how small the house.  It’s the height of summer, and flowers are blooming and the air is fragrant with the scents of lilies, lavender, roses, blossoming trees.  And butterflies – suddenly the huge orange monarch butterflies are here, and several circled me as they flew by in search of nectar.  I’m not sure if the monarchs who come through here eventually go back to Mexico – but that flash of orange fluttering by just adds to the beauty of the gardens here.

I also found a number of houses that look like hobbits or sprites or elves might live there – the usual small Victorian cottages or bungalows with gingerbread and spires – but then there was a Hansel and Gretel house with an upstairs door that led to nowhere.  One would need to be a magical being with wings to enter the house through that door.  Or the gate to a garden that had a large round opening in the gate, giving rise to the thought that one was entering a hobbit hole, or a rabbit burrow. 

And of course there was a signature manhole cover in this part of town, along the riverwalk and garden area, showcasing the fish in the river and the music and art of Nelson.  All rendered in the whimsical style of a child’s drawing.  I think manhole covers are a neglected, underrated, and often overlooked art form, and I really find a lot of them express a town’s view of itself and the importance of visual art in the community.

It was a wonderful few hours exploring the cultured and cultivated side of nature in Nelson, and it was a lovely break from exploring the wild side or the major cities.

Jan. 26, 2013
Our morning was spent at the Nelson Market – sort of a farmer’s market, arts and crafts fair, and taste of New Zealand, all in one huge parking lot.  It was fun looking at gorgeous produce, tasting bits of fudge or whatever, buying a few treats (chocolate cannoli!), looking at handmade jewelry and clothing and crafts.  We didn’t buy anything other than a few treats, because our luggage is full, but it was fun nevertheless.

We then drove from Nelson to Picton, through hills and valleys and passes, over rivers and streams and more mud flats, to Queen Charlotte Sound.  We wound through vineyards and wineries, and may stop at a few tomorrow – but today we only stopped at the Makana Chocolate Factory, because, well, this is a Phebe and Richard trip and we have our priorities.

Oh, and I have to add a photo of Sophie, the house cat from A Woodsy House in Nelson, because she is so beautiful.