The Otago region of South Island New Zealand was supposed to be wildlife mecca and so we headed straight for it with the expectant excitement of a junkie sorting out his next fix. We drove through frankly horrendous weather, still nursing the slightly “off” feeling we both had from the Shark dive sailing and finally arrived, along with the sun, to Curio bay.
I stood in the information centre excitedly clutching all the leaflets festooned with photos of the local wildlife such as Penguins, Sea Lions and the rare Hectors Dolphin. We were assured they were all out there for our viewing pleasure and with glee we stepped out into the sunshine to explore.
After several hours we had seen…nothing! Well actually that’s not true as there is a slight possibility that I might have spotted the fin of a Hectors Dolphin very very far out to sea through binoculars. But aside from that there was nothing. Curio bay had been sold to us as *the* place to observe wildlife and we had drawn a blank. As much as I am hugely aware of the sheer amount of luck and good fortune that is often needed to accompany a good wildlife sighting I have to say I was a little disappointed. However there were more opportunities further along the coast line and so we headed towards Dunedin.
Now I hope I am not too harsh in saying that the whole of the southern section of the south Island seemed a little…quirky. Don’t get me wrong I love quirky, I AM quirky but this was sometimes in a different league. It reminded me of some of the more isolated parts of the UK that almost seem like their own country as nothing much moves in or out of it. However with this distinctive way of life comes some rather intriguing gems and inventions. We stumbled along a few during the trip.
One place had created an entire village out of scrap metal and discarded demolition waste. It was equal parts fascinating and creepy (in large part due to the many mannequins that called it home). Another place was full of tiny little inventions designed to bring out the child in you (not too difficult for Pete and I) and had me falling in love with an idea for a musical water fountain using nothing but a collection of New Zealand conch shells and a wooden handle. It was brilliant and a real treasure trove for some interesting bits of quirkyness. It had deemed to take that science museum principle of “hands on” but for adults who weren’t required to learn things alongside the play through osmosis. If nothing else it remained an almost indescribable and distracting jaunt.
Eventually we arrived in Dunedin which Peter couldn’t help but call “Dundelin” or another such variation of the name. We executed our usual plan of driving directly to the isite, realising there is no parking for longer than a five minute interval, hurriedly grabbing whatever information leaflets we could to add to the veritable mountain in the car, and then driving off again wondering where to go. Upon saying it aloud it does not seem like the most brilliant of plans by any stretch of the imagination but it seemed to work for us nonetheless.
Upon our hurried driven exploration throughout the city we had found a brain. As we drove through the main centre hub of Dunedin there was a giant model of a brain sitting on the grass as if it obviously belonged there. I was instantly curious as to why and looked forward to exploring the city on foot to find answers. Unfortunately we were unable to do this until the next day by which time the brain had gone. Disappeared with no explanation and almost as if I had imagined it we wondered about Dunedin devoid of answers as to the mysterious giant brain. A mystery we would have to leave unsolved.
However Dunedin was more famous for its street art which could be seen dotted around the city on the sides of various buildings. Some large, others colourful and still more which were political in their own rights. Some of them were fairly impressive too but several of them I just didn’t get no matter how long i squinted at them with a mild look of puzzlement on my face.
The other thing that fell a little flat with me was the apparent Scottish heritage. Dunedin is geographically the furthest city in the world from London and yet the early settlers had attempted to bring a touch of home with them and tried to make Dunedin into a type of Edinburgh version 2.0. In my mind it didn’t really work. Aside from a few Scottish street names and a mild appreciation for whiskey there wasn’t much that screamed Scotland at me. I actually wanted to find it as I missed the misty mountainous marvel of the north of the UK (for however long it decides to remain with us).
One thing Pete and I did love was the Otago Peninsula, attached to one side of the city but miles away in terms of rugged and wild landscapes and inaccessible farms. Again, hailed as a wildlife haven we went for another explore and sadly drew another blank on our sought after species. We discussed the option of paying for a wildlife tour but due to the price we were put off and remained determined to find our own animals to observe.
We wanted Penguins and we didn’t want to have to pay to see them. We had both worked with Penguins in the past, Pete even has scars from them but we just wanted a glimpse of a wild one waddling around and not expecting us to feed it.
And so, with dogged determination we returned to one of the hailed wildlife beaches as the sun began to set. But not before we realised the potential of the massive sand dunes coating the access path down to the beach itself. We grabbed our body board and for a glorious while we went sliding down the dunes every which way. Not only was it exhausting but it was very very sandy! I learned not to smile with glee because I would inevitably crunch down on a mouthful of sand. My shoes became more sand than fabric and weeks later we are still finding sand in coat pockets and camera bags. It was fun but we were here for another purpose.
As the sun sank even lower we headed over on to the beach only to meet with a DOC representative who I thought might yell at us for being such children on the dunes. Instead she told us of the Penguin that was already on the beach and we excitedly went in search, reassuring her that we would keep a respectful distance.
Peter was the one to locate him, half way up a dune keeping a watchful eye out for disturbance and predators. We settled ourselves a good way away and lovingly photographed him whilst he wiggled his tail and preened. He was a Yellow-Eyed Penguin, the rarest species in the world. We felt very privileged. A few more people had spotted us and our new flippered friend and had come to join us at our hiding spot to observe. Dusk was well and truly upon us now and through the descending gloom we also noticed a Sea Lion which, despite his size, had appeared as if from no where half way down the other side of the beach.
We were thrilled! Two of our desired species in one night! However upon seeing this big brown wrinkly leviathan we also spotted a couple walking decidedly towards him. I braced myself for what I knew was coming and yet watching it unfold did not make it any easier.
The human race is stupid, particularly around wildlife and that arrogant ignorance of being (unfortunately) the most powerful pest of a species on this doomed planet creates massive problems for all the species we share the earth with. This poor Sea Lion was no exception.
Despite many, and I mean MANY signs on the walk down to the beach explaining how to observe wildlife respectfully, keep your distance, don’t interact with the animals, etc etc some people just do not bother to even consider anything other than themselves and their own wants. I watched this couple through my binoculars getting closer and closer to this Sea Lion who was clearly getting uncomfortable but they just kept ploughing straight on towards him.
“Too close, TOO CLOSE!” I muttered into my binoculars praying that the madness would stop and calculating how long it would take either Pete or myself to get down there and tell them to stop.
By now the Sea Lion had had enough, raised himself and his considerable height and weight onto his pectoral flippers and delivered a warning. The couple stopped, laughed, took some photos and then carried on getting even closer. By this point our Sea Lion friend had clearly had enough of the idiocy of man kind and charged at them. Believe me when I say they can move fast and can cause real damage but the couple just skipped out of his way enough for him to lay back down again and proceeded to taunt him some more.
More selfies were taken, more charges by the Sea Lion, more taunting and laughing. By this point I had almost broken my binoculars in rage and Peter had decided that enough was enough. He started heading down to the bottom of the beach in order to stop it but before he could reach them the couple went even further.
They grabbed a handful of sand and flung it in the Sea Lions face.
There was absolutely no reason for this at all. It resulted in more chasing, more taunting and more charges from the now exhausted Sea Lion. They come on land to get some rest and he was certainly not able to do this.
I was beside myself with anger and watched as Peter finally reached them and told them to stop. The only way he could even convince them of that was to point out how dangerous it was FOR THEM.
They did not care about the Sea Lion, they only cared about what might happen to them if he actually attacked. And I ask you, what sad, pathetic excuse for human beings can be that selfish?!
Sadly we had seen this several times throughout New Zealand and countless times at the zoos we have worked at. Humans are drawn to animals, especially wild ones and yet we have no idea how to sit back and just observe. There aren’t enough DOC representatives so be able to babysit every wildlife site in New Zealand and they shouldn’t have to! But people seem to need a lot of babysitting around animals. Why we have to get a photo just that bit closer or elicit a response from our presence or even provoke an attack I will never know but apparently we do. It saddens and angers me and the rest of the evening was spent convincing ourselves to calm down and our heart rates to return to normal. I was raging.
The next day, after a fitful dream in which I was throwing sand in human faces and Peter had taken on the form of a Seal Lion that could talk we decided to head north. On the way was yet another quirky place known as Oamuru.
In passing we decided to stop for a quick 10 minute wonder round to stretch our legs before continuing on the journey. We ended up spending well over an hour. It was a delightful place full of glorious 2nd hand book shops, victorian clothes shops and steam punk memorabilia all around.
We enjoyed (yet another) delicious ice cream each whilst Peter clambered onto an old Penny Farthing bicycle and we even managed to see the steam punk steam train breathe fire and smoke. This place is famous for another type of Penguin (the littlest of the lot) but I could not face another night of observing the atrocities of the human race mixing with wildlife and so we moved on before that spectacle could occur.
It was such a shame as I would have loved to have seen the Penguins but from my sources I could easily glean that people were blinding the poor things with their camera flashes and preventing them from crossing the road to their nest sites. Yet again, no respect and I knew I would end up screaming at somebody if I had to watch it all over again.
The people you meet when you travel can make it but they can certainly break it too. We’ve met some amazing, incredible, hilarious, kind and wonderful people all over the world but we have also seen examples of extreme disrespect (both to wildlife and other human beings), downright rude-ness, selfish and arrogant behaviour and many other poor attributes besides.
I can just about accept that there are humans in the world like that and sadly many of them but when wildlife gets tangled up in our web of failures it is difficult not to see red. I doubt it will be the last time I will be enraged by such a display.