I had no idea what was in store for the next few days.
In order to escape constant rainy weather in the Otago region, Carolina and I decided to drive south until we hit ocean. Unfortunately, we ended up right in the middle of the storm anyway!
All was not lost. We got to witness amazing windswept coastal scenery and a show of rainbows against the storm as we set up camp.
The weather broke when we headed up the east coast and camped near the Moeraki boulders. From there, I executed a mission to see wild penguins for the first time.
Did I succeed in my mission? Read on to find out!
The windswept Macrocarpa trees
New Zealand has some pretty awesome tree-versity.
The mixture of native trees and those brought here by British settlers has made for an extremely interesting view from the road and trail. I have witnessed native tropical varieties sprouting alongside tall Northern pines and weeping willows. Environmental problems associated with introduced tree species aside, the variety of trees is quite remarkable.
But the most remarkable view of trees I saw was when Carolina and I were approaching the southern coast.
Invercargill, the southern-most city of New Zealand gets the most wind (except for Wellington) in the whole country. The result is seriously wind-blown Macrocarpa trees.
Macrocarpa trees (introduced in the 1860s) are resilient to strong weather yet still get sculpted by the crazy coastal winds. They create a barrier against wind and salt so they are the perfect solution for Southland region farmers trying to keep their shearing sheds and silage bales dry.
We were in awe of their dramatic windswept shape!
Onward to Monkey Island
Occasionally my nerdy side comes out in this blog. An example are my posts all about finding the Lord of the Rings film locations on the North Island and South Island. Another good example is my decision to go to Monkey Island off the south coast.
If you’re a PC-gamer like I was growing up (and still am!), you might remember a little gem of a game from 1990 called “The Secret of Monkey Island.”
This was a point-and-click game in which you guided the character Guybrush Threepwood by solving puzzles to achieve his goal of becoming a “mighty pirate.”
My brother and I have a special connection over the cleverness and silliness of this game from our childhood. We constantly joke and reminisce about it. To give you an idea of the depth of our connection, there was a time when the theme music to the game actually played on his phone whenever I called him.
Anyway, Carolina and I were driving along when I saw a sign up ahead:
Monkey Island. I couldn’t resist. “Carolina. We’re going.”
We discovered Monkey Island, a “rocky knob” which becomes a tiny island at high tide, has special native Maori significance (the legend of Takatimu waka) and has a history revealing the origin of its name.
The 1865 gold rush brought a small community to the nearby shores. Supplies had to be imported via boat because of the community’s isolation from the rest of the country. The island was the location of the “monkey winch” set up for pulling the supplies ashore. Supposedly the island was named after the winch.
The “Secret” of Monkey Island is that low tide unveils a secret pathway out to the island.
It was once used as a Maori lookout for whale watching and today there are wooden stairs leading to its peak.
When you're traveling, it's important to let people back home know when you're thinking of them. So I snapped a picture and promptly sent it to my brother. He responded with a midi of the game’s theme music. Success!
Monkey Island was a fun detour, but now we needed to get to our accommodation for the night.
We drove passed Invercargill to the campsite beside Moray Terrace. The sun was dipping to the edge of the horizon as the sky amassed with dark, heavy clouds.
With Frogger breaking the wind, we managed to get the tent up and secured. Near the public restroom there were cabbage trees made golden with sunlight and blowing feverishly in the wind.
When I emerged from the rest room I was astounded with the sudden change of view. A perfect double rainbow (whoooaa!) had stretched against dark clouds to the North.
“Carolina! Get out of the tent and look!”
After it disappeared we ate dinner and watched a beautiful, golden streaked southern sky fade to darkness.
The next day we packed up our tent in another storm and then headed east to a campsite near Dunedin. Moments into our drive we were back on track with good weather.
Blue skies and a bright sun greeted us as we drove through long stretches of farmland.
Soon, we approached the town of Waihola.
The only reason I mention Waihola is because Carolina and I got a huge kick out of the signage on the way into town. Otherwise, it was just one of many small Southland towns we passed through that day.
The signage was rather ominous.
“No doctor. No Hospital. One Cemetery.”
“Welcome to Waihola, Relax – Enjoy our lake.”
What a greeting! Do people really feel relaxed after that? Hahaha!
My mission to see a penguin
We were excited to get to the free campground at Warrington reserve. From here we would get to explore a bit of the east coast including the nearby penguin reserve at Katiki Point!
But the hour was late, so penguins would have to wait until the next day.
We set up camp and cooked dinner. A stray cat came around to see what we were cooking. We fed her some cheese which she enjoyed so much she came back for more in the morning!
We spent the next morning walking along the beach near the camp, then we left for Katiki Point.
A short trail led down a steep path along the reserve. Over the railing, we could see tons of seals and sea lions sprawled on the rocks below. They were fun to watch, but we were here for the penguins!
An enclosed structure allows for viewing penguins without disturbing them. They are a bit shy so staying hidden is key to keeping them from never coming back to the protected area.
No penguins were in sight. Apparently they like to come around at a specific time of day—between 3 and 6pm. So we waited.
As we waited for penguin hour to arrive, we went to a famous tourist attraction nearby: the Moeraki boulders.
Tons of people and tour buses were here to see the atypically large and spherical boulders dispersed across the sandy shore of Koekohe Beach.
These unusual boulders beg explanation. Apparently, they formed on the sea floor through cementation of mudstone during the Paleocene era—some 60 million years ago. Whoa!
Some of them look like Tortoise shells.
We hung out here playing around the boulders for a while. But then it was penguin time.
I was so hopeful that we would get to see penguins.
If we didn’t see penguins in the first few minutes of our time back at Katiki Point, we would not be seeing them that day. We had plans to get back to the Central Otago region before dark now that the weather was looking good again
We made our way to the hidden viewing spot down the steep path one last time.
I poked my head through the slats and there I saw it – A little yellow-eyed penguin preening after it had just jumped out of the water. I could just barely photograph it with the extra zoom on my camera.
I watched the penguin waddle up the beach until it was out of sight.
The wait was worth it—my mission to see a penguin was a success! I had never seen a wild penguin before aside from on TV. It was so neat getting to spy on its unique activities for a few minutes.
I didn’t get to see a whole group of penguins that day but I am certain the one I did get to see was the best penguin ever.