Tough as it was to leave Rachel and to say goodbye to Dylan and Bodie we knew we’d be seeming them again in a few weeks. That, and they were flying the next day to Australia for their vacation, so we really had no choice! We headed south, which at home means into warmer climes. Here it’s the other way around. Our first night in the tent was cold. The wind blew icy cold and I wondered what on earth possessed me to bring my lightweight sleeping bag. The kids, said, Wow, it’s really cold, then went straight to sleep. I spent most of the night adding dirty laundry to the bottom of my sleeping bag to insulate my feet and adjusting hats on heads. I’ll skip ahead two weeks, and, boy, have I improved our cold-weather tenting life. We’ve picked up three warm wool blankets at thrift shops (all queen sized, all less than $5 US, for anyone taking thrift shop comparison notes- ha), and I put one down on the bottom of the tent, like a rug, and that works wonders. The other two go on top of us, over our bags. We each get one of the silk sleep sacks to use. I use it like a bag liner; Rory and Nora shove it down in their bags as a cuddly insulator. I sleep in three layers of wool, and put my socked feet inside a fleece so that the waistband comes almost to my knees. Add a hat, and that’s been good enough even when it got down to 44 degrees F inside the tent. Twice I’ve woken up hot, and was that ever a good feeling.
Okay, back to our trip south. We stopped by the Moeraki boulders, described in our guidebook as giants’ toy marbles left lying around on the beach. Walking up to them, we jaded three asked what was so special. They’re just big rocks, right? Well, we could have stayed all day. They were captivating. The tide was out, but in the declivities around the bases of the rocks little tidal pools held tiny creatures and sea kelp. Nora was in her element. Rory used a trick he learned at the ninja house to climb onto the rocks. He braced a stick against the side of the rock then used the end of the stick as a step onto the rock. It took a few tries, but he got it in the end. He leapt from rock to rock to rock. I couldn’t watch, some were so far apart, but one guy, maybe in is 30’s or 40’s, was goaded by his wife to follow suit. He got onto a rock but never got up his nerve to jump. Rory made it look effortless. Scattered among the round boulders were ones that had cracked open and broken into pieces. Inside they looked like huge Gobstoppers, layered by time and pressure into different colors and textures. Some, made of softer rock, had eroded in patches, and looked like globes or terraced land. Most had fault lines, like God’s studio wen he was working out tectonic plates. And the not-whole ones- some where like a bowl, full of water and plants and creatures too small to see. Some looked like luscious caramels. I think that was my favorite part, the broken pieces.
We tore ourselves away from the boulders (okay, I tore the kids away from the boulders), lured by the charms of the Moeraki village and the promises of Fleur’s Place, an unassuming restaurant by the harbour that was reputed to be the best on the South Island if not all of New Zealand. Walking up to it I was reminded of the Sunbury Crab Company back in Georgia. Fleur’s had that same feeling, come as you are, enjoying our amazing view, except with a fabulous wine list. We were early, before noon, and got a great table by the window. Our waiter helped us find “our kind” of food and was delighted to see Rory demolish a steak two inches thick and bigger than his bread plate. I found myself not only eating but enjoying a whole fish, a local specialty called a brill. It was huge, and I ate every bite, except the head and some internal organs. Had to draw a line. Nora liked my brill better than her blue cod, but she was so taken with the salad and pototoes and veggies that I found myself thinking she may turn out to be a vegetarian after all. Fleur’s was great, the service was perfect, and if we ever head back this way with Brandon we’ll park ourselves on a patio table and settle in for the afternoon. I hate to go on, but I loved it.
Okay, going on, we made it to our destination for the night, a camping ground on the Otago Pennisula. Never heard of it? Well, you should have. Yellow-eyed penguins (maybe the rarest in the world), sea lions, seals and albatrosses all call it home. It’s both pastoral and wild, with a tall ridge running down the center of the pennisula, sloping down on each side to the water. Tiny harbors dot both shorelines, and we saw a viking ship afloat in one. In low tide you can almost walk across Portobello Harbour, where we stayed. The harbour floor was covered in low tide with what a local told us were krill. We could walk to a great playground and pick up wild things on the walk back. We met great folks in the shared kitchen at the campsite, and all in all had a fantastic couple of days.
Our first afternoon there we threw the tent up and headed on over to the local agricultural show a couple of fields away. We got there just in time for Rory and Nora to have a go on the inflatable climbing wall, then participate in a Gumshoe Toss, which turned out to be standing in line to see which kid could throw a rainboot the farthest. Turns out to take practice. Then they joined the local kids in a tug of war, boys vs. girls. Well, most of the girls were a good bit bigger, and they won two out of three, but the boys showed their true mettle in the “lolly scramble.” Now, this I love. Kids run behind a vehicle that is a cross between a golf cart and a four-wheeler, and a guy in the back of the thing throws out candy every once in a while. I bet those kids made five laps around the field. They were worn out, but each one came back with a couple handfuls of hard-won candy. Naturally, it wasn’t our kind, but they doled it out piece by piece in the kitchen that night and bought us loads of friends. Well done, Rory and Nora.
From a few of the beaches, in the right season, it’s possible to wait in D.O.C. (Department of Conservation) blinds as sunset comes on and see penguins come up on the beach. I talked with a couple who had done it, but they had gone two nights in a row and waited for 2 hours in silence in the biting wind. Silence? Wind? No thanks. We paid up and took a tour of a conservation area, and it was worth every cent. We saw so many penguins doing so many cool penguin tasks that the kids almost (only almost) got bored. Penguins chicks in the nest wiating for their parents; penguin parents walking back to the nest from the beach; penguin dad grooming penguin chick; two penguin parents grooming a chick; parents and chicks hanging out together; four penguins hanging out on the beach, then three heading home while one headed back out to sea (had he forgotten something? Who knows). We were there to see the Yellow-eyed Penguins, who share dubious distinction with the Fiordland Crested Penguin of being the rarest penguin in the world. They count these guys individually, that’s how few there are. Where we were, they’re numbers have dropped from eighty penguins ten years ago to twenty four now. That’s it. 24. Now, there are other nesting grounds, but not that many. There are so few adults in the area that two male penguins found themselves without a female. These penguns are fairly manogamous, but one had had his partner die and the other’s, well, they’re only fairly manogamous. So, here are these two guys, no extra chicks around, so they partner up. The humans who maintain the conservation site found themselves with an egg no one wanted (that old story of two teenage penguins in love, but not ready for the consequences… sigh…). The humans placed the egg in the Two Daddies nest, and, voila, magic. Now, keep in mind the two dads have both raised chicks before (“fledged” in penguin speak), so they’re old hats, and penguins are pretty egalitarian when it comes to raising their young, but I thought that was pretty darn interesting anyway.
Our guide took us all over the hills, showing us blue penguins (they are blue, and little, and cute) and seals. He told stories of the young males seals returning from battle, bloodied and defeated. Some die in their quest to establish a harem, and others take such a butt-kicking that they never try again. Others go out there, day after day, fight over and over, until they finally get themselves established as a Big Daddy Seal. I tell you, there’s way more to the social life of marine animals than I ever imagined.
One bad thing did happen on our two hour tour. My camera battery died. No problem, thought I, that’s why I have a spare. And even a spare for my spare. And, wouldn’t you know? All three dead. SInce then (and since missing a call from Brandon on the cell phone due to a dead battery) I am much more careful to keep the batteries charged, especially when we’re camping and access to plugs is limited. So, photos are limited but hopefully memories will not be.
One of the cool couples we met at the campsite, Nils and Michaela, arranged to meet us in a couple of days in the Catlins, on the southeast coast, at a DOC campground. We hung out a day in Dunedin, eating Thai food and trolling thrift shops for the afore-mentioned wool blankets and some replacement clothes for the kids (to come: article on clothes and packing- ugh!). We found a cafe that served a gluten free vegan buffet of yummy Indian food. AND they had three gluten free vegan desserts to choose from. Rory had a chocolate chip cookie; Nora went for something called an Afghan, which seemed to be a chocolate cookie iced in chocolate. Both were enormous, and the kids are happy to go back to Dunedin anytime in the future, ever, as am I. Who would have guessed? I couldn’t even pronounce it. Dunedin?
We met Nils and Michaela at the campsite the next day, and it was true love. With the campsite, of course. The fields leading to it were full of sheep and lambs, roaming free. The green hills opened onto a wide sandy bay, with steep white-streaked cliffs on one side. On the other side low rocks formed tidal pools, some deep enough to swim in. Sea lions came up onto the beach in the afternoon. It was delightful. And it cost $6 NZ a night. It’s a miracle we’re not stilll there. We stayed three nights in all, and each day brought new cool people to meet, and no one left, until in the end it was like a small neighborhood of friends from all over who thought that camping on an idyllic bay on the south coast of New Zealand seemed like a good idea. Two families showed up, and Rory played all day, really, the whole day, without once coming over to our tent, so that I had to carry his food and changes of clothes over to him. We met Louisa and Sean, a couple in their 20’s from Arizona who are living and working there way around NZ for year. I love them. Along with them and NIls and Michaela we shared meals, clean up, and even childcare! Nils and Sean did themselves proud wrestling and exploring and in general serving as a climbing structure for a few days. Rory and Nora had a blast.
Two events stand out. First, we all went for a 3 hour walk one afternoon. It wound through native bush (forest in the US), onto an empty beach, and back. The path devolved first into narrow logs over muddy, boggy stretches, then just into swamp. Rory and Nora led the way, seeming to float on the surface of the mud, while the grown-ups mostly sank down into it. It was like the opening scene of The Piano, only no hoop skirts, thank goodness.
Second, our last night there the families with kids ended up on the beach after dinner. The kids were running around, chasing each otehr and trying to get the dads to play rough. We had been watching four or five sea lions play, and one by one they headed off into the ocean for a bedtime snack. The kids dropped into the sand, flopping from side to side, imitating the awkward lumbering of the sea lions. Next thing we know they kids were splashing in the water, laughing and playing. They danced in the sand, full of innocence and wonder and pure joy.
By the time we got back to the tent my two were also full of sand. Now, one of the major drawbacks of the $6 a night campground is that the water comes striaght out of the river, untreated and certainly unheated. And did I mention that it was cold? Not just chilly, but cold? The wind that blew on that beach came straight from the Antarctic, with no land in between to slow it down or warm it up. The cold water bath Rory and Nora had that night made them slightly more ready to say good-bye to friends the next morning. We were all moving on, pushed out by increasing clouds and wind from the south (again, so warm and friendly at home, so cold and threatening here), lured out by the promise of a hot shower and a chance at a washing machine. We all made plans to see each other again, if not here in NZ then at home. Those few days were the trip that I think I came to New Zealand to have.
I had planned to spend a couple more nights in the Catlins, but what else was I hoping for? We headed on towards our eventual destination of Manapouri, from where we would catch a boat for an overnight tour of Doubtful Sound. En route the storm that threatened us in the Catlins caught us in Invercargill. We spent a night holed up in a Deluxe Standard Cabin at a campground (think 5 star KOA), and we soaked up every bit of luxury we could. Hot showers, washing machine and a dryer (first of the trip!), television and internet connections from the cabin. How could we move on so quickly? We stayed two nights.
In patchy rain we drove on to Manapouri, and true to my New Zealand average I got, well, turned around, and we ended up halfway to Gore before I found us on the map and got us straightened out. So, even though I packed the car the night before and the kids were great helpers and did everyhing right, we still were in mad dash to get to the boat before it left at 12:30pm. Phew. Made it, apologized to the kids for being nuts, then realized I had no idea what we were in for. We took one smaller boat across a lake, then a bus across a moutnain pass, then we boarded our boat for the night. We were in Fjordland National Park, a part of one the biggest national parks in New Zealand, a huge chunk of the South Island and not one road touches it. That’s nuts. I kept looking on the map and seeing little squiggles that I took to be rough roads, maybe, or gravel roads. Nope. They’re walking trails. A few of New Zealands Great Walks are in this park. Some are as long as nine to ten days. That’s one heck of a great long walk. I have dreams now to come back and walk them, maybe with the kids, maybe in twenty years just Brandon and me.
I don’t know what to say about the cruise. When I booked it with a company called Real Journeys I had Real Doubts. It was the cheapest tour with the largest number of passengers on the biggest boat that runs tours of Doubtful Sound. It was still a splurge for us, but I wanted it t e a good splurge. It was totally Splurge-Worthy. First of all we got bumped up from a four-berth share with a curtain for a door and shared toilets to the family room. We had four bunks in a cabin big enough for a portacrib, complete with our own bathroom and shower. That’s a big deal. I showered just because I could. It was lovely. Second of all the food turned out to b good and really, truly gluten and diary free. On the phone they had assured me they could feel us, no problem, but I never believe people when they say that and I brought a whole sack of food in case. We didn’t touch a thing. They had bread, rice milk, a huge buffet of which we could eat 75% (good for us). Even pavlova for dessert. Last but not least we met more amazingly cool people. Elaine was a great stand in for a grandmother for a couple of days. She and her husband were visiting there daughter Michelle who lives in Auckland from Wisconsin. Now I have even more wonderful folks to go see up there! Right off the bat we made friends with Melissa and Kevin, a couple from Oakland on their honeymoon- five weeks in New Zealand. Not too shabby.
The one thing I was lookig forward to the most ended up being stinky. Isn’t that just how it goes sometimes? The boat has kayaks on board, and two tenders, and at some point when they stop the boat and everyone can go out onto the sound in a smaller boat. The minimum age for the kayaks was ten, so I thought that was out for us. But Rory developed a fever to kayak, and Kevin very gamely offered to be his Big Buddy, but when I found out it was 2-3 kilometers of kayaking, and that most kids under 15 end up getting towed most of the way, I had to say no. SO, our trip in the tender started on a bad note anyway, with Rory hissing to me that he hated me and threatening to jump out of the boat and swim to the kayaks. A freak wave came up over the side and landed as squarely as it is possible for wave to land right on Nora. She didn’t complain, but within the first four minutes of an hour-long boat ride she was so wet water was running down her braids. Elaine helped me dry her off some, but we needn’t have bothered. While all of us (excpet Rory, who was muttering about celery and C-5 cargo planes and lousy mothers) were listening attentively and nodding politely to everything our guide said the clouds moved in and the rain poured down. At one point I almost went into hysterical giggles. Everyone was being so polite, so attentive, while sitting in an open boat in a steady downpour that made it hard to even hear. A few people without raincoats were huddled under towels they had brought from their cabins. And no one even piped up to suggest that maybe, since we couldn’t see anything or take out our cameras to take a photo (unless we’d had an underwater camera) and since it was maybe forty degrees, that just maybe we should call it a day and head back to the mothership. As the hour passed, to be fair, the sun did come back out for few minutes, but only a few, then the rain came back. My raincoat gave up the ghost and quit working, as did Rory’s. Nora’s no-frills hand-me-down did the job, although after the wave it hardly mattered. I could tell it was all in a day’s work for the crew; when we got back on board they had drying racks set up in the common areas between the cabins for wet things. Clearly, not the first wet day on the water.
The wildlife viewing from the boat was great. In the evening, after everyone had dried out, we braved the rough seas where the sound dumps into the Tasman Sea. This was when I was thrilled to be on the biggest boat on the sound. The scenery at the rugged spot was phenomenal and I wouldn’t have missed it. Even so, a good numbers of passengers had to go to their cabins due to sea sickness. Rory and Nora felt queasy, in part because they insisted on staying the the main salon and not out on deck, and also because they wanted to continue playing a board game (it was cool) that involved a lot of reading. I had Sea Bands along, which use accupressure to alleviate motion sickness, with Dramamine in my backpack as a last resort. They did fine, though, and the seas crashing over the rocks were worth every minute. The rocks were covered in seals. The stench was incredible, even over the water. We were hoping to see a few of the Fiordlad Cested Penguin, that Other rarest penguin in the world, even though their nesting season ended a week or two ago. The naturalist on board said that each year on December 7 with few exceptions they leave their nests and head back out to sea. Every year on the same day. Amazing. So, we were really hoping for a straggler, and we did see one. It popped up out of the water and shook itself dry.
We thought we were lucky with the one little guy, but in the morning we saw a whole group of them. Six penguins were having a conference on a rock, and we didn’t have to brave the Tasman Sea to see them. I knew it was a special sighting when the crew left their jobs to go get there cameras and stand around on deck with us oohhing and ahhing. Even the nature guide was taking pictures. Pretty neat.
I just looked back and realized I haven’t said one word about the scenery (see, Jill, I do try to edit!). Doubtful Sound isn’t as well known as Milford Sound, to the north, and that’s great by me, because we had it to ourselves. Hanging valleys feed into the fjords all around, while forest covers the sheer faces formed eons ago by glaciers. Between six and eight meters of rain falls a year (18 meters is the record), and when it’s raining they say the mountains are crying. Waterfalls pour down everywhere you look. Some fall thousands of feet into the sound, but few are permanent. We were fortunate to have rain broken up with sunshine. It was cold enough that it snowed the night we were on the boat, not all the way down to the water but not far from it. We got to see the mountains cry, then snowy, and we were graced with a rainbow that made a full arc over the water. It was that kind of magical day. It’s that kind of magical place.