Driving New Zealand’s East Coast

With our time in New Zealand coming to a close, we had a day to get from Te Anau back to Christchurch before our flight to Australia.  We could have opted for a slightly more direct route that would cut through the middle of the south island, but I had other ideas.  I had mapped out some stops along the east coast of the island where I hoped to see wildlife, so we added about an hour of driving to the trip and went up the coast.

Our first stop was at Sandfly Bay in Dunedin (Dun-ee-din).  Here, we were sure to see fur seals, and hopefully some penguins if we were lucky.  Once we were off the highway, the road became increasingly twisted and steep, winding through foggy farmland until we finally reached the trailhead for the Sandfly Bay Track.  We parked the car and bundled up since the weather was windy, drizzly, and overcast.  Then we leaned into the wind and crested a ridge that revealed a hazy view of the beach below us.  The descent to the sand did not take long from here, and soon we were trudging through dunes, and getting our first taste of how Sandfly Bay got its name.  The bay, situated between two tall hills, creates a bit of a wind tunnel, which blasts sand across the shore with each gust.

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Shore birds floated around overhead as we walked, and we soon came upon our first sea lion.  It was a gargantuan sleeping beast, and we made sure to stay a safe distance as we observed it.  I laughed as a seagull, dwarfed in comparison to the sea lion’s mass, carefully tried to extract bits of food from the giant’s whiskers without waking it.

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When we reached the far side of the bay, we came upon a rocky cliff, and were rewarded by the discovery of a pod of young looking New Zealand Fur Seals.  They blended in well with the rocky shore, to the point that each time we scoured the shoreline, we could find new seals that had hitherto remained unnoticed.

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While we gaped at the clumsy and lethargic seals, the weather began to clear up, and the gray sky became mottled with patches of blue.  The light made the water of the Pacific Ocean a brilliant turquoise, and when we turned to head back to the car, we saw sand streaking across the beach toward the sea, carried by the strong winds.

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So this was one stop down, and we had not seen a penguin.  We did however, get a brilliant view of the bay, unobstructed by clouds, on our way out.

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From here, it was back in the car, and we continued our journey north until we reached Moeraki.  I didn’t expect to see penguins here, instead we were stopping to check out an anomalous geological phenomenon, the Moeraki Boulders.  These perfectly spherical concretions are embedded in the sand along the coast, and revealed over time as the shore erodes.

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I’m going to be frank about the Moeraki Boulders.  Only go to see them if you happen to be in this area.  Don’t go out of your way to make this the thing you see while you’re in New Zealand.  They are bizarre and interesting, but they are positively swarming with tourists, in stark contrast to the rest of the South Island where it often felt like we were the only people in existence.  We poked around the boulders for a few minutes, until I became distracted looking at small, iridescent shells that had washed ashore.  Overall it was a pleasant excursion since we were already passing through Moeraki, but definitely not a highlight of the trip.

Back in the car, we had one last stop planned before Christchurch.  Our last ditch effort to see penguins would be at Bushy Beach in Omaru.  We arrived at the best time to see the elusive birds, around six pm, and hunkered down in a photography blind to wait.  Access to the beach itself was strictly prohibited to protect the penguins, so we watched from atop a tall cliff.

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We could see more fur seals below, and were delighted by their slothful antics.  We saw a seal make a valiant effort to get closer to the ocean, gracelessly heaving its weight a few feet towards the surf before inevitably conceding to exhaustion and collapsing in the sand.  After repeating this performance a few times, the seal was close enough to let the waves do the rest of the work of pulling it back into the water.  From there, it was like a completely new animal.  Unhampered by its cumbersome body, it rolled around in the water, seeming to delight in its own weightlessness.

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As we waited and watched, crowds of people showed up with binoculars and zoom lenses, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive yellow eyed penguin.  We enjoyed the peaceful sounds of the waves below us and the feeling of the sinking sun warming us as we chatted with a woman who worked for the reserve about the penguins.  By eight pm there was still no sign of a penguin, and the woman declared it too late.  If they weren’t back by now, they wouldn’t be returning that evening.  This wasn’t too disappointing since I had come with the knowledge that the penguins were getting rarer and more difficult to spot, so I already knew our odds of seeing one weren’t great.  We drove the rest of the way to Christchurch in the dark and crashed into bed around midnight.

The next morning, we had some time to kill before our flight, so we took one last trip to one of the local wetlands, the Styx Mill Conservation Area.  Here we enjoyed a peaceful walk through the wetland and forest, and saw many interesting birds including a white-faced heron, a coot, and a pair of black swans.  Introduced to New Zealand, these elegant birds are indigenous only to southern Australia.

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All too soon, it was time to say goodbye to New Zealand, but our trip wasn’t over yet.  By evening we would be in Australia with a whole new set of adventures ahead of us.

 

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