Saturday 12 March, Leslie, Anna, Sarah, Alyssa and I rented a car and headed out for the Catlins. The Catlins are an area in southeast New Zealand full of temperate rainforest and beautiful coastline. Most of the area is dedicated to National park land and forest.
We rented a car from Thrifty car rental in town and took turns learning how to drive on the wrong side of the road! Anna took the first shift and drove the Southern Scenic Route south out of Dunedin and through small towns until we reached the Catlins area. Our first stop was at Nugget Point. There we parked in the car park and walked out to the lighthouse at the end of the point. From there we could hear sea lions and seals down at the shore below. They were difficult to see until they started moving around. Then it became obvious that all the little brown blogs were actually alive. At the edge of Nugget Point we could look out and see large rock formations jutting out of the ocean.
Leslie took the reins from here and drove down the Southern Scenic Route to Cannibal Bay where we got out to explore. Cannibal Bay is named such because a surveyor found human remains here... not because of any ritualistic practices that have happened, don't worry! We walked out onto a large rock formation that had kelp surrounding it. It was covered in tiny mussels and barnacles, which were impossible to avoid when walking along the rocks. The waves came in through the rocks every once in a while so we had to walk carefully and avoid stepping in water. Because of the tsunami there was some concern that waves and currents would be larger than usual by the beach but we didn't encounter any problems.
Leslie drove us through Owaka to the Cathedral Caves. The day we were there the tide was low at 2.30 pm so we were allowed to hike down to the beach any time between 1 and 4 pm. We hiked the 15 min down to the beach and walked along the beach to the Cathedral Caves. While we were walking along the water we ran into our friend Andrew who was tramping in the area with a group of people. What a small world! The cave is a u-shaped formation carved into the cliff on the side of the beach. When the tide is high the water comes all the way into the caves and it's impossible to escape so it's important to be very careful while you're exploring.
We spent a lot of time in the cave, exploring and taking tons of pictures. It was amazing to take pictures from inside the cave with the sunny shining on the ocean as a backdrop. When we came out of the cave on the other side, I stood on some rocks to take more pictures of the vegetation and barnacles. The ocean took advantage of the fact that my back was turned to it and it soaked my tennis shoes and pants. How rude! We walked back up to the car park where they were telling people to hurry down to see the caves and return quickly. Apparently the tsunami from Japan had affected the tides here and was making them come in earlier than normal.
After changing from my squishy tennis shoes in jandals, I drove us from Cathedral Caves down to Porpoise Bay. Driving proved to be a bit easier than expected... at least we didn't crash! The hardest part was judging where the car was on the road. I tended to drift a little closely to the outside line but it got better over time. I also kept forgetting that the turn signal was on the right side and the windshield wipers were on the left. Any time we turned, the windshield wipers would go off.
At Porpoise Bay we stopped for ice cream (one of our favorite pastimes) and then walked down the water. Porpoise Bay is one of very few places where you have the chance to see Hector's Dolphins, one of the smallest dolphin species in the world. They're only found in New Zealand and are just 4.5 ft. long. These tiny dolphins are a treat to see because there are only about 7,000 of them left in the world and we saw them right away! We walked down to the water and started to search for the dolphins. Over the crashing waves we could see distant bobbing fins. Of course all five of us shrieked with joy and decided to climb out on the rocks to see them - an interesting feat in jandals =)
When we got out to the rocks we could see the waves crashing against them and spraying up into the air. Every once in a while when the wind was just right we'd get hit with the mist spraying up from the water. The waves were stunning. Once we got out there, we searched and searched for the little dolphins but didn't end up seeing them again. After spending some time just enjoying the sunshine and the water we walked along the beach a ways and searched for more dolphins. The waves crashing on the sand were beautiful and it felt great to get my feet wet. The water was chilly but not too bad. After a few minutes your feet just went numb and you were fine.
Down the beach there were a group of people standing in a half-circle so we went to check it out. On the other side of the circle was a large sea lion moving around on the beach. Some of the people went quite close to him but I chose to stay away. There are signs all over stating that you should stay at least 10 meters (~30 ft.) away and not to go between the sea lions and the ocean. They feel threatened and clumsy on land so they're more aggressive and likely to be violent towards humans. In the water they're playful and fun.
After an exciting time at Porpoise Bay we headed north toward Nugget Point again to see if we could find any Yellow-Eyed Penguins coming in from the see. The Yellow-Eyed Penguins are one of two penguin species in New Zealand. They are one of the most rare penguins and it's believed that there are only about 4,000 of them left in the wild. I drove us back to Nugget Point and we got out at a different viewing point than we had before. We walked down a little track toward a hut that overlooked the water. From the top of the track we could see one stark white penguin belly. He was quite far away but his bright belly stood out and made it easy for us to spot him. We walked down to the hut and there was a slit in the wall facing the ocean where you could look out to the beach below where the penguins nest. There were two or three little Yellow-Eyed Penguins standing down there, preening and waddling around. They were so exciting to watch even when they didn't do much. We watched them for a while and took hundreds of pictures. As we were debating whether or not we should head home, there was bobbing in the water. We looked closer and the bobbing turned into another little penguin being washed ashore! He righted himself and waddled up the shore just out of the water. There he stood and shook, preened, and cleaned himself off after what I'm sure was a tough day of fishing. This little guy was so adorable we couldn't stop watching him. We probably stood there for another 15 minutes taking pictures of him. We began to walk back up to the car after no new penguin sightings but saw another one stumble ashore when we got to the top of the trail. How lucky! I couldn't believe the amazing things we were seeing.
Anna drove us home safely that night and we returned the rental car the next morning... after filling it up with NZ$75 worth of gas - and that was only half a tank! No wonder people walk here... =)